Vigil for a Dragon, pt 12

The whale sounds again, and there is a shout as all aboard realise that they are on target. The harpooner readies to throw when the whale next breaks the surface. But the whale does not come back when it should. The men at the oars mutter nervously to each other, while the tillerman calls for them to lay off their rowing and hold position.

The harpooner ignores them all. He watches for the tell-tale bubbles that will show him where the whale is. When he sees one, it is already too late, but he shouts a warning anyway. The whale has recognised its peril, and dealt with it directly. It rises directly under the long boat, lifting it easily on its back, until the timbers of the boat snap under the strain, and the men scatter everywhere. The harpooner makes his cast at the last possible instant as he tumbles, and strikes true, just above the whale’s left eye.

The whale immediately dives, pulling the harpooner and any other man unlucky enough to be entangled in the rope down with him. The men struggle to be free, and some make it, but three of them are too ensnared to get loose while their air lasts, and they drown. The harpooner is like neither of these.

A short, wiry man, he has come prepared. No ordinary man is this harpooner, but rather, a selkie. He speaks the words of enchantment and what had previously appeared to be a fur coat becomes a part of him. A man-shaped seal grips hard on the harpoon rope, and waits for the whale to tire.

It doesn’t take long. The whale surfaces, still thrashing and trying to rid itself of the harpoon, but the harpooner reaches up and pushes it in deeper, reaching the great beast’s brain. The whale twists away from him, to gaze at him with its one good eye, and names him traitor, outcast, betrayer and oath-breaker. It curses him with his secret name, known only to his own people before his exile. And as it expires, the words of the curse still on its lips, and the harpooner feels the magicks swirl around him, but knows not what they portend. He knows only that he is afraid.

The surviving men from the long boat are pulled aboard by their fellows in the other boats, and he is last of all to go aboard. While the men transform a dead whale into meat, blubbler, ambergris, baleen and myriad other useful substances, he stands apart, wondering what will become of him. Wondering what the nature of his curse will be, and swearing once more to kill the chieftain’s son should they ever meet again.

It is only later, when he attempts to shed the seal-skin, that Grigori realises what has been done to him. The skin will not come off, and although on land he can still breathe and walk like a man, he is covered all over in brown seal fur that merges into his shaggy hair and beard. His clothes itch to wear, but he must needs go covered for modesty’s sake. The men laugh to see him, thinking him a beast, and make jokes about dancing bears.

When he gets back to port, it is worse still. No woman will lie with him, for love or money; and no man will talk to him other than one he strongly suspects wants to stuff and mount him for display in a carnival freak show.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply