Honest Work

© 2008 Elise McKenna



    Colin stepped into his hip-waders, tightened the suspender-straps, and pulled on his jumper.  Wood creaked under his boots as he ducked his head and walked outside onto the bare porch decking.  He looked out towards the sea, rubbing his left ring finger.  It felt naked.

    Yesterday, the sky had been moody when he'd decided to get rid of the last remnant of his former life.  For the past two years he'd kept the large gold ring he bought himself after his first successful prosecution.  It was his albatross, at first, a reminder of what he'd given up, but quickly came to represent the terrible wrong he believed he'd perpetrated.  He knew he'd been fooling himself by thinking of the gold as emergency money, in case this new life didn’t prove palatable.  This place would never really be home, if he kept it.  However, with the reluctance of a person who felt he deserved punishment, he'd thrown the gold ring into the North Sea.  He hadn't felt any better afterwards.

    The scanty shoreline tapered to the left behind the mountain.  Stars dotted the pre-dawn sky.  This would be a fish-full day, he hoped, breathing in the cool misty air.  From a flock of birds that swept past him, alternating thoughts of hunger filled Colin’s mind.  He was momentarily disoriented among the barrage of thoughts.  He was hungry, too.

    He gathered his net from its hooks and tied the line around his waist.  It was still wet from the day before, but Colin didn’t care.  He flipped the net over his right shoulder, grabbed the bucket with his empty hand, and headed down the sandy path as usual.  Colin’s home stood roughly three stories above on the cliff.  He could see his wooden shack dimly outlined, if he looked.  The shack hadn’t changed much in the two years he'd occupied it.  Small, dilapidated, facing the North Sea, the shanty slouched westward, towards civilisation.

    Colin had spent two months of strenuous days and long nights thatching, patching, sweeping, and painting.  A bird’s nest embedded in the old thatch roof had caused Colin some anxiety the first few days.  He’d waited for signs that it was still someone’s home.  Late on the second day, a seagull cried and swooped in, landing on the rickety porch railing where Colin fidgeted in his wooden rocker.  The white bird had a splotch of brown on its right wing that spread to its back. The birthmark looked as if someone had picked up a thick ball of mud and pelted the bird as it flew away.

    “Is it yours?” Colin had pointed to the straw nest.

    The bird regarded him, turning its head to get both eyes on Colin, but made no movement towards the nest.  Colin felt his face go red.  He had to fix the thatching soon for the weather would not hold.  Two days of back-breaking work, and for what?  To have a silly bird stare silently at me?  Why didn't I just sweep the nest away? he'd thought.

    “Is it or isn’t it?” Colin repeated.

    NOT, came the thought from the gull.  Relieved, Colin proceeded with his repairs.  This was not the first time Colin had understood the thoughts of animals.  It had proved much easier to hear their thoughts after he’d moved away from the noise of the city—barring any resistance from the animal, of course.

    Today the air did not smell of rain.  At least he wouldn’t catch cold.  Pale grey strengthened to blue as daylight approached.  Colin continued trudging across the mud flats to find fish.  He had to get past the flats to the embankment before he could cast out into the seawater.  He sloshed through the soft mud.  Each step left a hole that filled with water.

    The inlet below Colin’s shanty was known as The Pigman’s Cove.  It resembled a cave if viewed from the cliffs. The Pigman was a nasty creature that lived at the bottom of the sea.  Every mariner knew of the creature that would snatch the souls of drowned sailors and lock them in rusty cages in its secret cave below the sea.  Although the stories had frightened him as a child, Colin had managed to keep them out of his old city life.  He just planned on never sailing.

    He’d left London proper three years ago.  There was no honest work in a city—only people who tricked and exploited lived there, and Colin could no longer be one of those people.  He chose to live by the sea because he could not live in the city.  It was quiet here and simple.  He filled his belly proportionately to the fish he caught.  If he wanted something, he made it.  Colin liked the that.  It felt honest.

    Colin nibbled at the dirt under his index finger.  The salty dirt tasted of last night’s fish.  Soiled clothing and dirty fingers were the consequences of honest work, and those with clean fingers, like the man who’d sold Colin the hovel he lived in, were not honest.  And those who were not honest would never understand why a man who was a successful barrister would shun society for hermitage and the seaport of Great Yarmouth.  But he worried less about that and more about the coming winter.  His routine for harvest was to stock for winter.  A small vegetable patch near the shanty gave the basic neaps: carrots, potatoes, and parsnips.  The inlet would allow the needed protein of fish, eel, and mussels.  Dried, the meat would keep for the duration.  He’d found the first year that the icy waters of November divulged few fish.

    Today his catch would need to be plentiful if he were to smoke and dry some for stock.  Colin made it to the embankment in front of the between, the place where the mud flats ended and the seawater began.  He paid close attention to the between—the water had a soft muddy bottom, which could pull him down.

    Stopping at the embankment, he put the bucket down and gathered the net into both hands.  He breathed in the cool sea air, niffy with fish, and something else, something like wet dog hair.  Puzzled, but not deterred, he twisted to the left and flung the net forward toward the dark water.  It sailed gracefully.  The arcing stone weights pulled the knots taut, forming a nearly perfect circle.  The grey web hissed and sank.  Colin untied the line from his waist, allowing the water to keep the tension, and as he felt the weights hit bottom, he pulled.  Under the water, the net closed up like a drawstring purse, ensnaring his dinner.

    The weight of the net quadrupled.  Hand over hand, Colin pulled the saturated web and its contents to the surface.  The net, or more likely something caught in the net, resisted, but Colin had the advantage of strong forearms and determination.  Once caught, no fish would escape his net.  With a final heave, net and contents were pulled out of the water and onto the dark rich embankment.

    Colin pawed over his catch to see what had caused the resistance.  Two whiting, a few mussels, and a large rubber boot—none of these were what he’d expected.  Something bigger or stronger had fought him.  Pulling the net open, he extracted each fish in turn.  Careful not to get finned, he plopped them into his waiting bucket.  He could hear their fear and confusion, but blocked it out.  Fishes were for eating.

    “You gonna eat that or marry it, boy?” his grandda had teased him when they used to fish an area similar to the Pigman's Cove.  Colin chose Great Yarmouth because the town reminded him of his humbler beginnings, and because he felt closer to his grandda.

    The mussels were a rare treat.  Usually he had to spend a full day climbing the jagged rocks, balancing in a squatted position, and prying the shells from their beds.  Last night’s storm must have loosened them from their rocks.  He opened one with his knife.  The inside shimmered, blue and yellow green.  He scraped the meaty parts into the bucket.  Good for stew, he thought.

    After scraping each, he tossed the shells into the water and reached over to disentangle the final catch—a black heavy boot.  This was the prize?  Colin hoped it contained a fish or an eel, for if it did, it must be a good size.  He would have food for several days.  The creature must have been scared by the underwater commotion and, unable to break free, sought the safety of the boot.  Colin grasped the foot of the boot and shook it upside down, spilling the contents.

    Two tiny webbed hands slapped the mud, followed by a head with a thick curly mane and a torso that ended in a fish tail.  Colin shivered as a stupid childhood memory fought to the surface.  The Pigman waits until the seas grow wild and the boat turns over.  When sailors are in the water, he strikes, his icy little claws stripping the soul from its body, his grandda had said.

    It was the strangest creature Colin had ever pulled from the sea.  The body was no longer than a foot in length.  The creature’s upper torso was vaguely human and very brown, but its fish-like tail was iridescent green and scaly.  The creature lay still for a moment on the embankment and Colin didn’t know what exactly to do with it.  Then, twisting its head, it looked at him.  Colin thought it must be shocked, from the look it gave him.

    “Where in the world did you come from?” Colin asked, staring back at the little mer-creature.

    It gibbered at him and pounded its tiny fists on the mud, making silly slapping noises.

    “You must be pretty mad.”  Colin stifled a smile.  “Eh, little pigman?”  The creature stopped and turned to Colin.

    PIGMAN?  PIGMAN!  SEA.  CAVE.  The thoughts screamed through Colin’s mind, causing him take a step back off the embankment and into the Between.  His left foot sank into the muddy bottom and Colin frantically scrambled, grabbing at the muddy embankment in an effort to pull himself out of the Between.  Water threatened to pour into his waders.  The creature seemed to take great delight in his predicament, chittering in a high-pitched voice.

    Colin managed to pull himself out of the Between on hands and knees and was at eye level with the Pigman.  The creature flapped and squirmed, but Colin was faster and grabbed its tail, holding it out and away from himself.  The Pigman gibbered at him angrily and beat its fists in the air as Colin placed it in the bucket with the two fish and mussel-meat.

    Stocking food for winter was his main concern.  He would think about what to do with the Pigman later.  Wet, muddy and a tad annoyed, Colin picked up his bucket and net and headed further down the embankment.  This Pigman was supposedly an evil thing, but it seemed pretty helpless to Colin.  It was ugly, to be sure, but nothing to fear.  His grandda had claimed it was bigger than a man. Colin chuckled at the exaggeration.

    Casting his net out again, he pulled it in.  The sea yielded nothing this time.  Colin was sure he could get in a few fruitful tosses before he had to head home.  He moved further down the shore and tried again unsuccessfully.  Several more times Colin cast his net out into the inlet’s waters yet failed to catch a single thing.  Did the Pigman scare off the fish?  Maybe that was why the net wouldn’t catch anything.  It was late summer and he knew the fish would be leaving for warmer waters soon.  He peered into the bucket and a felt the wet smack of a mussel.  He peeled the slimy meat off his face, further annoyed.  He waited, listening.  He heard nothing from the bucket.  No chittering, no movement.  He peered in a little more cautiously this time and was rewarded with a punch to his chin.

    Fool me once, shame on you—fool me twice, shame on me, echoed his grandda’s words.  Hadn’t Colin said the same thing to John Putnam, the cockney thief he’d prosecuted after the second arrest for pinching a bag of crisps from the Boots at Whitmore Street?  The memory subdued his annoyance somewhat.

    He cast out, pulled in the net, and caught nothing again.  This was not funny; this meant he would not eat.  Maybe he should just wait and try again tomorrow.  He would have little to eat tonight, but little was better than nothing.

    “I’ve nothing, sir.  Never ‘ave missed it, would they?”  Putnam had pleaded.  At the time, Colin had self-righteously spurned the man.  How could someone consider taking something that was rightfully paid for?  It wasn't honest.

    He gathered his net, still heavy from the excess water, and reached out for the bucket containing the Pigman.  He resolved not to look directly into the bucket.

    “I don’t know what kind of fool you take me for, Mr. Putnam,” Colin had said three years ago.  Putnam was sent to gaol and while there had caught pneumonia.  He died less than six weeks later.  The death was something that Colin could not handle.  His righteousness had robbed Putnam of life.  Food was a basic need; stale legalities did not digest well.

    The heat of summer faded from the land as slowly as the sunset.  Colin reached his shanty and put the bucket down next to his stool and chopping block.  He took his net over to the water trough and soaked it.  He glanced at the smokehouse he’d built.  Won’t need it today, he thought.  Instead, he started a fire in the pit to the left of the trough.  He returned to his bucket and took a seat.  Orange light stretched across the blue sky and slowly faded to grey.

    Colin turned his head away and blindly reached into the bucket.  He yelped as something pierced the soft meaty skin between his thumb and index finger.  The Pigman had attached itself to his hand in a vicious grip.  The cold webbed hands were surprisingly strong and held on fiercely while the thing’s mouth bit Colin over and over in quick nips, breaking the skin.  Colin tried to pull it off by grabbing its torso, but the pigman’s skin was slick and Colin opted for the bristling hair of its head, pulling the tiny mouth away from his hand.  The mer-creature’s thin arms gave way and it lost its grip.  Colin stared at the hissing, gibbering thing.

    LET ME GO.  It flipped its tail back and forth in anger, eel-like, trying to escape.

    Colin set it down on the block.  The Pigman lifted itself up and grinned at Colin, showing two rows of jagged teeth.

    NO HARM.

    “You’ve killed my husband!” Putnam’s wife had screamed. “What are we to do? Who will keep us?”  Putnam’s wife and two children had come to his office the day of Putnam’s death.

    “No harm,” Colin repeated.  He shook his head, “What in the world can I do with a Pigman?”

    SEA? came the hopeful thought.

    Well, it was a thought.  He could put it back into the sea, but what if it was the Pigman who’d caused his scarce catch today.  If he put it back, wouldn’t the fish stay away?  Maybe if Colin waited, keeping the Pigman in the trough, he could test his theory.  If there were fish tomorrow, he could assume that it was the Pigman who’d scared them off early—in which case, he just gained an unwanted dependant.

    The Pigman repeated, SEA.

    “Tomorrow, little pigman.”  But Colin was not happy about it.  He picked the creature up and put it back into the bucket.   He took the net out of the trough and stretched it over the hooks on the porch.  When he returned to his seat and peered into the bucket, the Pigman just lay there limply.  He took a moment to examine it as he walked over to the trough.  The place where the torso ended and the fish tail began was a subtle blending from brown to green.  He looked at the Pigman’s wrinkled brown face. Was it sleeping?  Its eyes were squeezed tight and its lips were pursed, which further distorted its already grotesque features.  Colin felt sorry for it.  It had probably come to the inlet to get away from something.  He carefully poured it into the trough.  The sea creature swam over to a corner, and curled its tail around its tiny body.

    What could he do with the Pigman?  He felt as helpless as he had that day with Putnam’s widow.  He could've afforded dependants then, especially with his wages.  Colin looked for the two fish and mussel meat.  They were gone.  The Pigman must have eaten them.  Well, tonight Colin would have to eat vegetables.  He opened the shanty’s door and headed inside.  He removed his dirty jumper, took off hip-waders, and hung them on a hook near the door.

    He lit some fat wood in the modest fireplace and crawled into his bed.  Flame faeries cast dancing shadows on the walls.  Just as Colin drifted into sleep, he heard a terrified screeching.  He jumped out of bed and headed outside to locate the source.  It was coming from the trough.  Colin shivered in the night air, his half-nude body raising goose pimples.  Moonlight danced off the water in the trough and Colin saw the glistening creature undulating in the water.  Its sinewy body broke the water as it turned, swimming back and forth.

    “Pigman,” Colin shouted.

    All of a sudden the screeching stopped.  Water continued to slosh back and forth and a grinning Pigman held on to the edge of the trough, ripping into what appeared to be a fish.

    FOOD.

    Colin scratched his head.  Where on earth did he get that fish?  He must not have noticed it when the Pigman went into the trough.  The thought of food made Colin’s stomach growl.  He needed some sleep, but the screeching had stirred his adrenaline, and he was sure he wouldn’t sleep tonight.  The Pigman emitted gleeful munching sounds.

    Colin walked back into the shanty and stoked the fire.  He really must decide what to do with the Pigman.  He might just have to take it into town.  There was that museum on Quay Street in town, The Odditorium.  Maybe they would be able to take care of the Pigman.  He might get some money for his trouble and then he could purchase his winter stock from town.  If there were enough left over, he might even be able to get a new net.

    But that might not be the end of it.  What if the proprietors thought there were more of these mer-creatures swimming around in The Pigman’s Cove?  What if everyone wanted to see where he caught the very first mer-thing?  Soon, they would invade his privacy.  They would build up the area and hundreds of people would come in and out daily.  He would be forced to show them the area, wear a suit.  And shave.  He rubbed his face.  He didn't have a mirror.  They might even make him enhance the story of the catching….

    When the case went to trial, his superiors wanted Colin to treat Putnam as a non-rehabilitatable criminal.  At the time, Colin agreed.  Putnam had had a prior arrest.  “My lord, this man must be taught a lesson or else be the burden of society with his petty thievery,” Colin had argued.  The court sided with Colin and sentenced Putnam to five years.

    Colin smacked his lips.  There must be another way.  Maybe he could take the Pigman down a ways from the Cove.  But then it might just swim back.  He couldn’t keep the Pigman caged forever in the trough.  That would not be fair.  He would have to go back with the pigman to the cove.

    Colin was anxious to get on with it.  He spread the fire to die down, and he dressed.  Outside, the moon shone clear and bright.  Colin, fully dressed for fishing, took his bucket over to the trough.  The Pigman squirmed and tried to bite Colin, but Colin grabbed for it and into the bucket it went.  He gathered his net and headed out to the cove.  The moon lit the way.

    Colin had never gone to the cove at night.  He could see the light glinting off the waves in the cool clear evening, hear the sounds of seabirds, taste the salt air.  The Pigman must’ve sensed the nearness of the water as well for it thrashed around in the bucket howling, HOME! HOME!  Water splashed everywhere, and fully half of it ended up on Colin.  As the chittering of the pigman grew more intense, Colin realised that he heard nothing else.  No birds.  No wind.  It was as if nature herself had been frightened away by the insufferable yammering of the little mer-beastie.

    “Perhaps I had better walk you down the coast a bit.  If I put you where I found you I’m liable to go hungry!” Colin said, more to himself than the creature in the bucket.  From the bucket came a deafening screech, a banshee howl.  Colin nearly dropped the bucket.

    NO! CAVE! HERE! demanded the Pigman.  THERE DIE!  A terrible silence took hold, and then a sound Colin had never expected to hear.  From the bucket came the sounds of soft sobbing.  This was more than Colin’s heart could bear.  He wasn’t the hard man his grandda had praised after Putnam’s sentence; he could not bear the sound of a creature mourning its life.

    But he really couldn’t understand why it had to be this cove, and why the little mer-thing thought it would die elsewhere.  There was too much about this Pigman he didn’t understand.

    “Why?  Why must it be here?”

    The Pigman continued its weeping.  Colin had to decide its fate without all the evidence.  He couldn’t condemn it, though it might mean a lean winter.

    “All right, little Pigman.  It’s home you go, though it’s sure to cost me.” And with that, the weeping stopped and the gibbering began.

    HOME! HOME! The little mer-creature splashed around excitedly.  Colin reached into the bucket, and for the final time, pulled out his hand with the Pigman’s teeth clamped over his index finger.  The pain was somehow reassuring.  He ran into the surf as far as he dared and flung the beastie into the waves.

    The moment the Pigman hit the water, the sounds of nature returned.  The first light of dawn was peeking from below the horizon as the gulls made their morning rounds.  Colin nursed his finger as he waded back to the beach to fetch his net.  As exhausted as he was, Colin was not the sort to forgo his morning work.  The rumbling in his stomach was a powerful incentive.  He took the net and waded back into the surf, which seemed somehow calmer now.

    He hoped that he’d done the right thing this time.  With the pigman so recently chucked back into the cove, he had his doubts.  He gave the net a half-hearted heave and it fell only yards from his feet.  Colin was pulling it in, to have another go at it, when the net fairly lurched out of his hands.

    “Oh no, not again.” he said.

    Leaning back with his full weight, he pulled in the net.  It began to thrash and strain against him.  Colin pulled harder, and as the net broke the surface Colin saw the largest pike he’d ever laid eyes on, pulling against him.

    Then the fish went down, pulling Colin forward.  He heaved, but the rope was slipping from him.  The fish broke the water again, and as soon as it did, Colin strained and pulled with everything he had.  He dragged the great fish to the water’s edge.

    Colin pulled one final time, and the pike flipped out of the water and onto his chest, the force of it knocking him over.  He reached the beach and collapsed, exhausted.  But he knew he’d have a wonderful dinner tonight.  As he disentangled the great fish from the net, Colin noticed something shiny in its maw.  He reached down.  With great curiosity and no small amount of wariness, he plucked a gold ring from its mouth.  Colin looked first at the fish, then at the ring.  It was his ring, the one he’d tossed into the cove only two days ago.  Colin looked out to the breaking waves.

    “Thank you, Pigman,” Colin said.  “Now I can take care of unfinished business.”

    He felt better than he had in two years.  He'd send the ring to Putnam's widow.  She’d be able to fetch a good price for it in London.  Maybe it would help her and her children.  He put the ring on his finger and began the long trek home with his morning’s catch. 


 

Back to Tilkal, Issue 3, eJournal of Tol Harndor