Part wish fulfillment and part Weird Tales, a party led by a ship's captain explores the strange island they landed on, only to find one of their number turning into a sheep-maid. General.
Today, the island took the first of our crew. I would say it is the fifteenth of September, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-six, but I am no longer sure. Since we put in to land five days ago, not once has the fog which shrouds the shores lifted.
In that time, no two parties sent into the interior of the island could agree on what they had found or where. One claimed it was a ring of land around a wide lagoon, another an impassable jungle thick with vines. Irritated by this, Captain Clarke this morning formed a party of the 'most sensible and scientifically-minded' men among the crew, the least given to flights of fancy or tall tales. They were the captain himself, the ship's cook and navigator Sloan, myself as naturalist and unofficial doctor, and a sailor named Simon who was the oldest and most seasoned of the ships's men. We would determine at last the nature of this strange place.
We set out from our encampment in the shadow of our ship, climbing up the seaward slopes of the hills. The fog descended over us until the tents along the sand had vanished and we could hear nothing but our own footsteps and breathing. Sloan and the captain walked ahead together, leaving me to keep my company with the sailor.
Simon did not speak much. The lines dug into the corners of his eyes made it seem as though he was always peering at some far-off memory, and the flecks of white in his black beard could almost have been sea-salt. I knew little about him save that he was from Connaught and that the captain regarded him highly.
At the time, my interest was more in the wild lantanas and white burrobrush growing on the hills among us—Pacific species, while we had made land here not more than two weeks out from Nassau. I spent so long pondering how they had arrived here that I did not realize we had climbed out of the fog until the sun shone down over us and a fresh breeze brushed our cheeks.
The island now laid itself before us, its low green hills rising in the north toward a small peak swaddled in grass and moss, and easing off to the south into forested lowlands. Above us, the sky was magnificent blue. The air was sweet with the scent of wild grass.
Clarke scoffed, “Palm trees and thick jungle, indeed.” He then ordered me to help Sloan in drawing up a map. With his compass I took the headings, which he sketched out in his journal; he then picked another hill about a mile distant as our second point of reference, and with him counting out his paces, our party set off again.
No longer worried about losing the others in the fog, I allowed myself to lag behind Clarke and Sloan. Again I was distracted by what I saw growing at my feet. In among the meadow grass were clusters of small purple and yellow flowers I could name without a second thought: vervain, cowslip, sweet clover—all Old World plants. And while the soil along the shores was dry and sandy, here it was rich and black.
The sound of Simon coming up behind me roused me from my attempts to reason out the ecology of the island. It seemed he had slowed his pace as well. I stood and dusted my hands on my trousers, then fell in beside him, making some stray remark on the island's beauty.
Simon nodded and said, “Feels like back home.” It was as much as he had spoken to me yet, and I admit the softness in his voice made me want more. “Oh?” I said. He continued: “Ye think it won't be long at all, just a couple years, then twenty-five go by...” His voice creaked, and then he was silent again. A look of longing deeper than any I have known lingered in his eyes. I moved ahead of him, to give him some privacy, but where I had been pondering the island's mysteries, Simon's had taken their place.
What loves might he have held, what hopes might he have felt, what lives had he traded for that of a man at sea? In that moment, if I could have willed him home, if I could have taken his years off his shoulders and onto mine, I would have. Perhaps that is why the island took him. Or perhaps it had already made its choice and I was drawn along, carried in his wake.
By the time Simon and I reached the others on top of the hill, Sloan had his journal in hand, ready to take the second set of headings. I sighted each landmark along the compass once more, calling out each number to him one by one.
Sloan scowled down at his journal once I had finished. “Are you sure you read them right?” he asked me. “These numbers are all off.” I assured him I had but he insisted, “Then you must have read the first set wrong.” He showed me and the captain his sketch; peaks and hills and streams were scattered across the page without any logic.
From the other side of the hill, Simon called, “Lads!”
We were too lost in our argument to hear him. Clarke questioned whether Sloan had taken down the headings properly, which offended him. I insisted that both sets of numbers I had given him were accurate at the time I had taken them; Sloan asked if I meant to imply the island had moved around in the span of an hour. Before I could suggest an alternative theory, Simon arrived among us from the far side of the hill, red-faced from jogging.
“Lads,” he said, flinging an arm behind him to point down the hill. “There's a pub down there.”
Though the captain looked ready to have a fit, Simon coaxed us into following him. As we moved over the crest of the hill, the wild grass beneath our feet gave way to a well-worn dirt road, as if it had faded into being. The road passed gently down the hill, until it led to the front door of what was undeniably a public house, as if lifted out of County Galway and planted in this strange island's soft soil. On the breeze up from below came faint music and the sound of voices. Following the road further down, the open meadows gave way to pastures, to old rock walls, and to fields sown with wheat and barley ready for the harvest. It would have been a mirage, if we four had not seen it all at once.
While the rest of us stood caught in confusion, Simon set out down the road as if he hadn't given us a second thought. Clarke called after him. He looked up at us, a smile creasing the corners of his eyes, and called out, “What are ye waiting for?”
I began to jog down the road after him, followed at a distance by Sloan and the captain. By the time I made it to the front of the house, I was half out of breath, and myself the youngest of all of us. Yet I stepped inside to find Simon already standing at the bar, lifting a glass of dark beer from the bartender's hands. He turned to glance over his shoulder at me, then with a nod said to the man, “Their drinks are on me.”
The air in the pub was light and jovial and for all the strangeness of its location, it hummed with activity, or at least it seemed to. Save for the four of us, Clarke and Sloan arriving shortly behind me, all who were there lacked what I can only call a certain definition. They were the possibility of patrons, the potential of a bartender—while they were real enough that I did not doubt that they were there, or that they were people, they remained just unreal enough that I could make out neither features nor dress on any of them.
The captain was the first to find his voice in this tavern of shades. “What are you doing, man? Come away from there.”
Simon leaned against the bar and raised his glass. “I'm having a pint, what do ye think?” he asked. Lifting the mug to his lips, he knocked back his head and took several slow gulps. His shoulders relaxed and he gradually lowered his head, then set the glass back on top of the bar and licked his lips.
In just that little time, his entire demeanor had changed. The hard and weary lines of his face had softened, his leathery tan given way to sun-kissed cheeks. Though he was no taller, he stood straight, and his broad chest was no longer overshadowed by a round gut. No more flecks of gray in his beard, no more the distant look in his eyes. His smile was sharp and rakish. For all the world he could have been a young deckhand, only several years at sea.
Unsure of my own eyes I looked away, only to find that I could now see the smiles and gestures of the other patrons, and could hear a few words of conversation here and there, rising above the indistinct murmur of voices. It was all warm chatter, gossip of little importance, but it made me realize the whole scene was becoming more real in front of me.
Clarke took a step forward and said, “As your captain, I order you to put down that drink and return to your ship.” He meant to be a voice of authority, but his trembling fists betrayed him.
Simon acted as though he had not heard him. Instead he downed another draught of beer, and once more the pub swelled with life. Laughter and conversation filled the air while the sun came in through the windows as rich and sweet as butter. More patrons had packed in; aside from a haziness about the feet and hands they looked just as real as I.
One of them struck up a cheery tune on a concertina. Simon raised his head, eagerness shimmering in his eyes, and declared, “Ah, I love this one!” Without a moment of hesitation, he turned to face the hall and began to sing along:
Girls and hounds and Navy rum,
They have me broke, they have me numb.
A broken sailor I become
Whenever I'm on the shore.
All turned to watch and a few cheers rang out as Simon climbed up onto a table to continue his bawdy song. All hint of long days at sea had fled from his face, leaving his skin as fair and smooth as milk. His shirt hung loose across his slender chest and shoulders. His smile was beautiful. I want to say I fell in love, perhaps not with him so much as with his happiness.
A clap rose up from around the room and he set to dancing atop the table, not on his feet but on black cloven hooves that clopped against the wood with every step. His fingers too were tipped with black, while his hair and dwindling beard were now shot through with white. At once he was both more feminine and less human—more like a sheep. I could see it in the curl of his darkening lips, in the spreading shape of his nose, and in the fine white wool spreading over him.
He sang on in a bright counter-tenor, the words shifting on his tongue:
We lasses are their heart's delight,
But they can't woo us every night,
And don't they look a sorry sight
When begging for our leave?
Simon turned and bent at the waist. A white tuft of a tail flashed above his back for a moment, greeted by a hurrah from the room. As he pulled up the hem of his trousers they unfurled into a long dress, which twirled out into the air as he spun back around. His hair tumbled over his shoulder in white woolen braids. What had been the collar of his shirt was now the neckline of his dress, laced tight across the thick fleece of his chest.
I had so lost myself in her performance—yes, hers. It felt wrong to think of her any other way, to call her by that cast-off name any longer, and it still does now. But I had so lost myself in her performance that I had not realized she was not the only animal there. The men and women who now filled the pub were themselves cats and dogs, horses and cattle, all clapping along and cheering for the sheep-maid up on the table, and all entirely real. I thought that if I lingered any longer, I might soon have found myself sprouting whiskers of my own. I thought that, perhaps, that would not be so bad.
Captain Clarke would not have agreed. He pushed me aside, sending me stumbling into, and then copiously apologizing to, a good-natured collie who wagged his tail and said it was no trouble at all. I blushed and smiled and wished I had a tail to wag at him in return.
Unfortunately, my attention was drawn away by the commotion the captain had made. He had caught the sheep-girl by the wrist and was trying to pull her down off the table; another patron had jumped in to help her. As I pushed my way towards them, I heard her say to him, “I'm not gettin' back on your damned boat,” before wrenching her arm free from his grip.
I would not let him ruin all this. Before Clarke could reach for her again, I clasped by arms about his chest and dragged him back toward the door. As the sheep-maid who had once been a sailor rose back onto her hooves, she met my gaze and gave me a parting smile that said, ‘Thank you for understanding.’
I stumbled out of the pub with Clarke in my arms, followed closely by Sloan, who could not decide whose side he was on and so fluttered anxiously at our sides. I heard the first few notes as the song picked up again, and then was gone. Once again, we were surrounded by fog. I let go; the captain fell into the gray sandy dirt, then staggered back up to his feet. I feared a fight, but the fury in him had subsided.
In the soil beneath us, we could see the footprints we had made hours earlier, climbing up this very same hill.
Clarke looked from me to Sloan, shaking his finger wordlessly for several seconds before he spoke. “You talk about this to no one. We go back to the camp, and we wait for the fog to clear.” He turned his eyes on me again, as if scolding me. “Simon fell from a ledge and broke his neck. Understood?”
I may not agree, but I do understand. A captain has an entire crew to look after; I can only imagine the chaos if they knew what this island can do. I, on the other hand, am only responsible for myself.
As I lie here writing this, I cannot help but wonder what would come if I climbed alone up through the fog and let the island do what it will. Would I sprout whiskers and a tail? Would I be beautiful? Would I meet again a handsome collie? Would I still be a man, once it grants the deepest desires of my heart? I cannot be sure, and so the island calls to me.
What I am sure of is that, in some green corner of this strange island, a sheep-maid lies fast in her bed, knowing that she has come to the life she always wanted, and will never have to leave.