Holly was always afraid of storms, especially at Granny Mor’s. Her cottage was so old that the wooden beams inside it had twisted, just like the bones in her hands, and it was covered all over in grey slate tiles. In winters it felt frail, and in summers, set among the smart whitewashed cottages sold to Londoners, it looked odd. There was no choice, however. Holly’s mother was having a new baby, so Holly had to stay with her grandmother. Outside, the sea flexed great muscles of black water, and roared. She lay quaking under heaps of heavy blankets and felt that she would never be safe or warm again.
“What if the sea comes in, and sweeps us away?”
“No, that won’t happen, my lovely. Least not to us.”
“How can you be sure?”
Granny Mor put her arms around Holly, and Holly shivered into her. “Listen, and I’ll tell you.”
“When I was a girl, my Da died in the War. Mamm and I lived in this cottage, and it was always cold and damp, for there’s nothing like Cornish sea air for getting into everything. With Mamm sick too, it was up to me to row Da’s boat out into the bay and try my luck with the nets. I was strong enough to bring up a small catch on my own; only the seas were all churned up by storms, and all the fish were hiding. Twice, I threw the nets into the waves and twice they came back empty but the third time the net was heavy. Full of hope, I pulled and heaved but instead of mackerel, I found the body of a boy half-wrapped in an old ragged coat. He was so grey that at first I thought he must be dead.”
“Was he?” Holly said, shivering again.
“No. When I rubbed him, he coughed and opened his eyes.
“What eyes they were! I’d never seen anybody’s so large, and darker than Dozmary Pool, and his hair was as black as bladderwrack. His forehead was welling red from a great gash.
“He didn’t understand anything I said, and I worried that if I told anyone about him, they’d come and put him in prison, because I could see he was a foreigner. So I took him back home, and nursed him back to health, and said he was my cousin from Brittany. We called him Enys, and from then on whenever I took the boat out the nets filled with fish; we could buy what we needed.
“We all became fond of him. He kept a scar from the gash on his forehead, and people in St Piran thought he was touched because of it. At first, he could speak no English, but he smiled, and worked hard. I’ve never seen anyone swim like he did, so fast and graceful. In the evenings he chipped thin slabs of slate from the beach, drilling a small hole in each one. Can you guess why?”
“No”, said Holly. She was shivering less, because Granny Mor felt so very warm and strong.
“It was for a nail, so that the whole cottage could be hung with overlapping slates – not just the roof, but the walls as well. That’s how this cottage came to look as if it is covered in fish scales.”
The wind shrieked at the windows, and Holly burrowed closer.
“Why did he do that?”
“He said that it was so that the sea could recognise its own, and leave us be. And do you know, our home became dry inside for the first time, and Mamm’s asthma stopped.
“In time, he learnt enough English to tell me where he came from. It was called Ys, and was a wonderful city all made of marble and gold where people flew in the air like birds. He couldn’t remember it very well, but he missed his family and home. I thought it was a fishy tale, to make up for having lost his wits, but we understood enough to know that we loved one another.”
“How did you know?”
“It’s like when the sun shines. Everything is the same, but better,” said Granny Mor. She sighed. “My mother didn’t like me being with a foreigner, but to her that meant somebody English. To me, all that mattered was that he was beautiful, and kind. We wanted to marry as soon as we turned sixteen.”
“No. One day, we went out together in the boat. It was a fine summer morning, with the white gulls wheeling and the gorse bright yellow on the cliffs, and every now and again a seal’s round head popping up out of the sparkling waves as if to watch us.
“Before long, he began to get sunburn. His skin could never tan, like ours, so I hunted in the hold of the boat for something to protect him. There was nothing but the ragged old coat he’d been in when I dragged him up in my net. I put it over him.
“He reached out to me and said, “Oh Mor –”
“That was all. The grey coat spread faster than an oil slick all over him from head to toe, and the next instant he had gone overboard into the sea. I screamed, and jumped after him but when my head went underwater I could see a shape far below, speeding down the turquoise and navy shadows and away to the deep ocean where I couldn’t follow.”
Holly was silent. “You mean… he wasn’t a boy?”
Mor said, “There are stories of seals who can become human for a while, if they lose their skins, but the sea is what they long for, always. I think he tried to tell me. There was a part of Cornwall that sank beneath the waves centuries ago, and when a storm is dangerous you can hear its bells ringing. Can you hear any bells ringing?”
Holly had to admit she could not.
“So you see, we are quite safe.”
She asked, sleepily,
“Did you ever see him again, Granny?”
“No”, said Mor. “I was broken-hearted, but I couldn’t look at every seal and wonder whether he was my lost love. I married another kind, good man who became your grandfather. In time, the town grew, but my home, but the house Erys covered in scales, is still here. And it never leaks or lets the sea in.”
The following winter, the waves rose higher and the town was flooded all along the fore street, so that people had to wear waders to get around, and shopping was delivered by boat. Holly and her parents and her new little sister were safe on the hill, but they worried about Granny Mor down by the harbour.
“That little old cottage is a flood risk,” said Holly’s Mum. “Better to sell it to an emmet, and move into with us.”
But this was something Granny Mor refused to do, and in any case her cottage didn’t have a single leak. Other cottages did, but as they weren’t lived in for ten months of the year nobody minded.
“I heard the bells of Lyonesse ringing, and I closed everything up tight, my lovely,” Mor told Holly. “Its people came swimming up my street, tapping on doors with their webbed hands but I wouldn’t go with them.”
“Oh Granny, please don’t,” Holly said, alarmed.
“Erys wasn’t there,”, she answered; “so I won’t.”
When the waters went down, her cottage was as dry as ever – but Granny Mor shrank. Her hair grew as white as thistledown.
“If Erys could see me now, he’d never know me,” she said, sadly.
“You mightn’t know him,” Holly said, “Grown-up seals look like fat, bald, whiskery old men.”
“I’d know him by his eyes, and by the scar on his head,” Mor answered.
Holly started school, and after a while she wondered whether Granny really believed this. It had been comforting when she was little, but now she knew it was just a story.
The next winter after this, the tide rose higher than it had ever gone before. Cows and cars were swept away, the rail-track smashed at Dawlish, and Cornwall was cut off by floods. In among the crashing waves, people thought they heard bells, though there were none in St Piran.
This time, Granny Mor’s house did not stay dry, and when the waters went down it was found with the front door open. Nobody saw her again.
Holly’s family mourned her, for she was greatly loved and missed. But whenever Holly walked along the sea shore afterwards, she would see two seals swimming close by, rolling and tumbling together in the sparkling waves; and one had a scar on its head.
First published in Saga Magazine in July 2020.
Author’s Note: Readers may recognise two of the characters in this, from an earlier stage of life than when they appear in The Golden Rule, where Holly, as child in this story, is the mother of Hannah, its heroine. Her cousin, Mor is of course named after their great-grandmother Morwenna.