The Society of Dorset Men issues the DYB annually. This year Emily King and I are in it with my story ‘Sea Foal’ and her illustration of same. In case you don’t fettle a copy, here is our contribution:
I often walk along the Esplanade at night. I enjoy the sparkling necklace of lights around Weymouth Bay, and the way the streetlights on Portland isle dither in the constant wind. Out on the island’s harbour arms lonely little warning lights wink on and off, red and white. All is peace.
This one evening in early April the most tremendous gale had just blown itself out after rattling the windows for 36 hours. The tide was high and on the turn. The moon was full but small and far away, casting long, pale shadows. Little foam-edged waves washed to and fro in the shallows.
Further out I could hear splashing. Probably a Bay-swimmer or paddle-boarder returning late, I thought. But then I could hear something else. It was loud, the sort of noise that if you heard it in a dark house you’d be convinced the house was haunted and leave it pronto.
The keening continued. It sounded quite desperate to my ears. Perhaps something was in trouble down by the water, or in it? I hurried down the last few yards of the footpath, onto the beach, and tried to work out where the noise was coming from.
I pulled out my mobile phone and switched it on as I stumbled across the shingle. I’d have light in a minute, when it’d booted up. That should help. I stopped and listened. The phone chirped that it was ready, and I fumbled the flashlight on, shining it up and down the beach and in the shallows.
Right up against the groyne, near the high water mark, was a tangle of something which seemed to be moving. Could this be it?
The tangle was netting and buoys, snagged on the rocks. It must have been lost from a fishing boat in the gale. In the middle of the muddle a big dark eye looked up at me. I caught my breath – it was so unexpected, that eye. The awful moaning stopped.
I took a step back and played the flashlight over the tangle of net and rope to try and work out what I was looking at. Where was the body to go with the eye? Deep within the tangle it was writhing desperately; was this its body or legs or … a tail? … I couldn’t see.
I had another look at the head of whatever-it-was. It winced when I shone the light in its eye. I apologised softly for blinding and frightening it. I saw it had a long snout. For a second I thought it was a dog. But then I realised whatever-it-was had no ears.
The creature gaped and gave that dreadful cry of distress again. The mouth was full of needle-sharp teeth. I was pretty sure it was something from the sea. An air breather? A seal? Did they have teeth like that? Or perhaps it was an eel? If it was an eel I needed to get it back into the sea as quickly as possible.
I sat down beside it and rummaged in my shoulder bag for the Swiss army knife I always carry. I chose the saw blade and started cutting. The creature was still now, watching me with its big dark eye.
When I’d freed a few of the more painful-looking strands of net, a flipper slithered out of the mare’s nest. A seal then. Or a seal pup perhaps. It was still difficult to tell what size the animal inside the ball of net was. I kept on sawing at the harsh nylon strands.
I managed to free its tail; at once the creature started writhing like an eel. And it started making that desperate noise again.
I stopped what I was doing and gingerly laid a hand on the little head. It was warm – too warm, I feared. There was no fur there. It felt more like … a slow-worm, perhaps. Sort of dry and slightly scaly. It didn’t shake my hand off or try to bite me. It stopped writhing, but the keening continued. I started talking to it.
‘Just lie still for a moment,’ I said soothingly. ‘Then I can cut you free without hurting you. The more you wriggle the worse tangle you get into. Hush now. Hush.’
It seemed to calm down. I got on with cutting the tough nylon as quickly as I could. I cut myself several times, but I don’t believe I cut the little …
Suddenly I knew what it was.
The chap who takes people out on The Fleet in his glass-bottomed boat had spoken of it, and pointed out a sculpture of it outside the Ferrybridge Inn. The sculpture, about five feet tall, is of a mythical sea beast, the Veasta, which supposedly lives in the Fleet.
I’d thought it a tall tale for tourists – and certainly the sculpture, of an upright creature very like a seahorse, couldn’t possibly exist in the Fleet. It wouldn’t have sufficiently powerful fins to swim against the strong currents that wash in and out of the Fleet and Portland harbour. And the Fleet is far too shallow for any vertical swimmer of that size to be viable. What I was looking at had a head that was definitely horse-like and, now that I could see more of it, a sinuous body ending in a powerful tail. It was definitely a horizontal swimmer.
I was looking at something out of legend.
It must’ve been swept out of the Fleet in the gale, fallen foul of this tangle of fishing gear and been unable to return to its home with the tide.
It fixed me with its big, dark eye and gave a little whimper. It looked exhausted. I began to be afraid it would die before I could free it and redoubled my efforts. Soon my left hand was a mass of cuts and my right was cramped with sawing endless strands of tough nylon. But finally I could see pretty much the whole animal.
It was about the size of a collie dog. It had a pair of powerful front flippers much like a seal, and a muscular tail which still looked more like an eel than anything else. The neck was long, as was the head: the whole creature was a streamlined marvel. And obviously a strong swimmer.
Delicately, I picked it out of the remains of its cocoon. It lay limp in my arms.
I carried it down to the sea and laid it at the edge. I didn’t want to put it in the sea in case it was so far gone it drowned. Its body rocked back and forth in the shallows as the wavelets broke around it, but it made no movements of its own.
Suddenly, about three yards out in the Bay, another Veasta rose out of the water – a bigger one – and began humping itself through the shallows towards me on its flippers and tail like a seal. It hissed as it came. It was coming to help its baby.
The little one began to make a weak version of the alarming noise that first alerted me that something was wrong on the beach. The mother – for surely it was she – began to make crooning noises.
Mother Veasta, standing up on her flippers as she was now, was as tall as me. I remembered the array of teeth in the baby’s mouth and retreated up the beach a little way. Her teeth would be much bigger and she had no reason to think kindly of me.
Mama hauled herself right out of the sea and began to nudge the little one, rolling it gently into deeper water. I was sure it was dying. But when a wavelet broke over it, it seemed to revive a little. She continued to push it gently out into the Bay.
At that point there was a great commotion off the end of the groyne. A third Veasta reared up out of the water and flopped back down with an almighty crash, like a whale breaching. Presumably this was how the family’s guardian male let predators know to leave them alone. I shuffled further back up the beach, picking up my phone and knife as I went and stuffing them into my (now soaked) shoulder bag.
It was quite difficult, backing up the beach while keeping an eye on the family of Veastas, stallion, mare and foal. The stallion breached several more times and, finally charged the beach. I stumbled through the shingle away from him and up onto the footpath.
The mare continued to coax the foal into deeper water, keeping it afloat on her neck when it flagged.
I watched from the footpath above the beach until the little family had swum completely out of sight.
It wasn’t until I got home that I realised I hadn’t taken a photograph of what I’d seen. That’s why I’m writing it down for you now. But I don’t suppose for a moment that you’ll believe me.
Illustration © Emily King