“A Rock of Auks” by Tom Houslay on Flickr
Gillian never put much stock in the old sayings her grandfather spouted like one of the blowholes on the rocks at high tide. Though she’d not given them much thought for a turn of seasons she realized as she hauled up the last of her catch onto her boat, the wood protesting at the weight. There was barely a half foot between the top of her boat and the skin of the water now.
“Never count your chickens before they’ve hatched” he’d say and she’d shake her head. Of course you couldn’t count chickens before they’ve hatched; they aren’t chickens yet.
“Never put off for tomorrow what can be done today.” That was a way to starve out here on the outer islands, where the sun seemed to feel like it was coddling them if it shone more than once a week and where putting off work could mean going hungry that night.
“A raft of auks will save ya.” That was the one he’d said the most and that she’d despised the most by his end. She crossed herself as she thought of him, gone now three years. Her father hadn’t come out of mourning yet, though he’d never admit it.
Gillian pulled at the line she’d threaded into the well-worn bolt in the cliffside and looped over the prow of her boat. It was the way the islanders found their way home, even in the fog that was had overtaken the island and was fast making its way across the seat towards her.
Hand over hand she pulled, gliding through the water like she had every day, for what seemed as many days as there were stars in the sky. It was endless and soothing. The few waves were small and the water brushed gently against the side of her boat when something off the starboard side caught her eye, a blowhole spouting it looked like, no, four.
“No!” Gillian cried as she realized they were whales, they were early, and they were coming straight towards her.
She pulled at the line and it bit into her fingers like a startled beast. “No, no, no.”
The first whale missed the boat, but the wake shook it so Gillian grabbed the side, dropping the line. The other three passed and she breathed out. Close, but—
Then the last whale’s tale caught the side of the boat, toppling Gillian and her catch into the water. Breaking the surface, she saw the end of the tail disappear and treading, she looked for her boat only to see pieces of it floating away from her. The catch was long gone to the bottom of the sea and there was no sign of the line back to the island. There was only damp, grey fog that licked at her face and seeped down into her bones.
Her teeth began clicking as she picked a direction and began swimming, not thinking about anything other than the next stroke. Fog made it impossible to tell how far she had come and how long had passed. As she continued to swim, her fingers started to go numb and she sighed as she began to hear calls, like barking and cooing in the fog.
“That’s it, the end.”
Then a dark shape materialized out of the fog and she closed her eyes, shaking her head, treading in place. “Not possible.” But she opened her eyes, and it was still there.
A raft of auks materialized on the surface of the water. A dozen birds popping up like kelp bladders out of the water. They linked and bobbed together, looking at her expectantly.
“Well,” said the first in the front of the raft. “What are you waiting for? Hang on would you. We’d like to get back before bedtime.”
“Of course,” Gillian said as she carefully placed her hands around two of the auks’ body. “Sorry.”
“Be nice to her, dear,” said another auk as they began swimming. “She’s never taken to us like her grandad.”
“Not every day you see a raft of us,” another said with a laugh.
Gillian began laughing, choking a bit on the saltwater, as the auks tugged her home. Finding a star visible through the fog, she smiled. “Of course, you’re right, you daft man.” And the star winked.