A young man lived in a stone house beside the shore with his father, mother and three brothers. Though he came from a long line of fisherfolk and sailors, though his mother had been a herring girl who could gut a fish in two strokes of a knife and his father a sailor who had slain pirates, and though his three brothers were seal killers who made his family rich with their pelts, the young man had no fire for death. He couldn’t bring himself to harm a living thing.
In the early hours of the morning, he would sneak from the house and pick up the snails that had crawled onto the bricks of the promenade. He would deliver them onto the rocks beside the shore, saving them from the crushing footfalls of the townspeople and their horses. He would not kill a spider, even if it crawled into his bed.
All of this would have been tolerable had he been able to fish. But even the thought of watching a fish suffocate in the air, body thrashing, eyes wide, made his heart hurt. His family thought him useless. He had no trade. Instead, he spent his days gathering driftwood on the shore. At night, he’d sit on the seawall and carve by moonlight. The driftwood would transform between his fingers into little wooden flutes, each with a different tune. Windsingers, he called them, and that’s what his brothers called him.
“Windsinger,” they’d shout on their way to the shore, knives flashing in their fingers. “Playing your songs for the fish tonight?”
The young man wasn’t sure if his brothers knew the truth.
That he did exactly that.
When the moon was full and the tide was so high the sea sprayed against his legs as he dangled them over the wall, he would take out his newest windsinger and he would play. He imagined the fish enjoyed the sound, and he would play a song to make them dance. Sometimes, he thought he caught a flash of silver scales darting among the crests.
One night, when the moon hung full and the song from his windsinger filled the air, a curve of white broke the water. It glittered and then was gone. He continued to play, but he felt now as if someone were beside him. He glanced over his shoulder. He was alone, but when he looked again at the sea, he saw the fish.
It was not like the fish his mother would gut and slice and fry. It was not grey or speckled. It was silver-white and so large it would have bent him double had he taken it into his arms.
He played for the fish, and it danced through the water. He played until the wind swept clouds across the moon, until the beach was awash with darkness, until the fish was only a stroke of white in a black sea. As if to say its thanks, the fish lifted its face from the water, revealing its jet-black eyes.
In the time between the full moons, the young man learned what it meant to yearn. He thought only of the fish. He composed melodies in his mind. He searched for the perfect wood to carve the perfect windsinger for his new friend. He didn’t care how his father chided him or his mother sighed or his brothers laughed. He watched the moon grow thin and then fat until finally the night arrived.
When the moon was full, the young man settled himself on the seawall. He took out his flute and he began to play. He poured into the song all his yearning, wishing and imagining and dreaming. At first, it seemed as if the fish would not come, but suddenly, it appeared. A stroke of white. A silver dance. He played and played until the night grew long and the sea began to pull away with the tide. As if to say thank you, the fish darted between his feet, and its scales brushed his skin. That night, the young man settled into his bed with a full heart. He did not care what his family thought of him. He was happy.
For many moons, the young man played for the fish. Sometimes, his song became singing and sometimes his singing became talk, and he found himself confiding in the fish, telling it his worries and fears. That his family did not love him. That he would never make anything of himself. That he’d been born broken, something within him missing. The fish never spoke, of course, but it listened.
Then one day, a day before the full moon, the young man’s father died. It was sudden, an accident, and the whole family was submerged in grief. His mother sat and gutted fish after fish, slicing her heartache into their soft skin. His brothers went out and killed more seals than they had ever before. They came back with bloody hands. The young man went out to collect driftwood, but his grief made him restless. His hands shook, and his bones were heavy. The wood felt light, useless, insubstantial in the face of his emotion. He returned home empty handed.
“You need to kill something,” his brothers said, and for once they didn’t mock him. He looked at his family with their red hands and fierce eyes, and for the first time in his life a desire rose within him. To snuff out a life. To cut it short. To control at least one thing in this world that controlled him.
His mind made up, that night he returned to the seawall with not just a windsinger but also the little silver knife he used to carve them. He played and soon the fish came. He played while the fish danced, until the wind swept clouds across the moon and the sea was black, and then when the fish rose from the water to say its thanks, he reached his hand into the sea. The fish brushed its scales against his fingers. With his other hand, he took his knife and he thrust it deep into the fish’s side.
The moment the blade pierced the fish’s skin, he understood what it meant to kill, why it came so easily to his family. It meant power and control, hurting something that trusted you. He had never felt this way in his life. In the moment that the blade pierced the fish’s skin, he felt something like a fire-burst of happiness, but it was gone as quickly as it came. It was nothing like the happiness he had felt when he played his windsinger beneath the moon.
The fish, strong and big as it was, twisted and thrashed. The blade’s handle slipped from his fingers, as the fish tore away from him and darted into the waves. He watched it go, the blade still stuck deep into its flesh. He felt heavy then, as if the sky weighed on his shoulders. He was empty and tired. He threw his windsinger into the sea, and then, too exhausted to return home, he settled onto the edge of the seawall and slept.
Was it a dream when a figure rose from the water? She was dressed in all green, save for a white jewel that hung from her neck.
“Are you the Windsinger?” the woman asked.
The young man sat up. “I am.”
“You must come with me.” She extended her hand, and he took it because what did it matter now? His father was dead and his fish, too. He’d killed a living creature and he was no better for it.
The woman led the young man into the sea. They walked until the water reached their necks, and then they kept walking, right into the waves, until they were no longer walking but falling, down and down to the bottom of the seafloor. A large rock loomed above them, and in its side was a door. The woman walked through and the young man followed. They entered into a hall filled with strange, weeping people, but they did not linger. The woman led him through the hall into a room, where on a bed lay a man— a prince, judging by the coronet on his head.
His eyes were shut tight. Around his head splayed white-silver hair. In his side flashed a silver carving knife.
“This is our prince, and he is dying,” the woman said. “Is that your knife?”
The young man nodded. He could not speak for the knot in his throat.
“Then you are the only one who can save him. Remove the knife and kiss the wound.”
The young man did as she asked. As soon as his lips met the prince’s skin, the wound closed, and the prince was healed. The prince awoke and looked into the young man’s eyes, but before they could speak, the woman took the young man’s elbow and led him away. She ushered him through the hall, which was now filled with strange, dancing people.
Before she let him go out into the sea, she said, “Promise me one thing. Never kill a creature of the sea. Protect them like family.”
“I promise, I will never kill again,” the young man said.
She nodded and handed him something wrapped in cloth. “Do not open this until you return home.” And with that she released him, and the water’s currents swept him away, up and up until he broke the surface and he felt the sand beneath his feet again. He walked onto the shore and settled himself on the seawall.
He unwrapped the object she had given him. It was his own windsinger, the same one he had thrown into the sea.
The young man returned home. He woke at dawn to pluck the snails from the promenade. He ushered spiders through open windows. Each morning, he warned the seals of where his brothers intended to hunt, and they soon lost their trade. His mother’s fingers became clumsy, and she could no longer gut fish. But it did not matter because despite all this, somehow they always had enough.
And whenever the full moon rose bright and proud in the sky, the Windsinger went to the shore to play for his prince. They danced until the wind swept clouds across the moon and the sea was black, until they were nothing more than shadows on the sand, and the singing of the flute became the song of the sea.
Windsinger is inspired by ‘The Seal Killer’ a Scottish folktale retold by Bob Peg in The Anthology of Scottish Folk Tales.
Angie Spoto is an American fiction writer and poet living in Edinburgh. She is editor of the collection Disclosures: Rewriting the Narrative About HIV published by Edinburgh-based press Stewed Rhubarb. Her poetry, essays and surrealist and horror stories have appeared in numerous publications around the world.
photo by Kyaw Tun and Casey Horner (via unsplash)