Lenny Dolan never asked for a Salted life. No one smart ever did.
But unlike those poor wretches stolen from the surface and dragged into the depths, Lenny didn’t have anything with which to compare his Salt existence. Born in the realm beneath the waves, he knew of no other life until his owner raised him up and gave him a profession.
None of Lenny’s fellow catchers bothered to stir when he woke screaming from a night terror, two hours past. Each recognized the cries associated with guilt’s icy stabs, and the shaded memories of those they hauled back into lives of Salt slavery.
Lenny shivered in his hammock crafted of worn trawler nets. Fear is for runnas, not catchas. Don’t run from it. Become it.
He tossed the molded blanket aside, and swung his stunted legs free of the bedding. Lenny winced at the cold onslaught when his bare feet grazed the cavern floor. He did not pull away. Once his feet numbed, he slunk through the maze of sleeping bodies.
Lenny had grown quite good at slinking over the years, admittedly not hard for one of his stature. He tested the hinges of the rotted driftwood door. It threatened to fall off, but held. He thanked the Ancients for their mercy, and slipped out of the shack.
Morn had not yet graced Crayfish Cavern. Some might have risked a torch to ward off the near absolute dark and light their way to the docks.
Lenny did not. Doing so would only attract unwanted attention from whichever taskmaster had drawn the early watch. Not to mention the accompanying ten lashes for being outside of quarters without leave.
Instead, he used the glittering stalactites, high in the stony ceiling, to guide him. Like countless glittering stars, they winked at him as if to warn they kept watch where taskmasters’ eyes could not follow. Declan Dolan had taught his son the use of them as a pup. They had yet to fail him.
Lenny caught a dank smell in the air, rife with the blended stench of body odor, vomit, and excrement. He recognized it for a fresh slave crop, come down the hawsehole. Not for the first time, he wondered why the taskmasters didn’t have the newest catches cleaned upon their arrival. Soon enough the lucky amongst them would earn a Selkie suit. The others…
He snorted the scent away and continued on. Even now, with no one to see, he avoided the boardwalk. Bad habits led to accidents and Lenny sought no more of those. He waddled alongside the boardwalk, trading the slave stink for that of seaweed hung to dry from the tops of six-foot racks.
Barrels lined the dock, each of them brimming with fresh ocean crops—Atlantic cod and haddock, littleneck clams, mussels, and oysters. All awaited surface delivery for the Boston fish markets.
Lenny’s stomach grumbled at the sights and smells of the fresh and untouched food. He hurried past, lest temptation overpower his sensibilities, not stopping until he reached the oldest dock. Its wooden beams remained in drastic need of a repair that would never come. He hopscotched over the barren spaces toward the dock edge, leaned over the side to look down.
The cavern ceiling gave the ocean waters an eerie, greenish glow. Three-foot waves struck the thick, barnacle-encrusted pillars. Lenny felt a giddy rush as they shook the rickety wooden pier. The receding tide beckoned him come hunt, then another series of waves rushed to shake the pier anew.
Even a sated hunter could not resist their call.
Lenny reached behind his shoulders for the soft and fuzzy hood draped down his backside. Smoky grey and adorned with white circles of varying sizes, it hung from what Drybacks would say resembled a one-piece wetsuit. Donning the hood, he pictured the Salted form given to him—a tiny Ringed Seal.
Lenny’s transformation began.
He felt the hood elongate, covering his face, blinding him. His sleeves and leggings tickled past his bare feet and hands, warming them. The sealskin grew further, cocooning his legs into a single tail. He knelt and lay prostrate before his upper body weight toppled him. He felt his feet splay sideways, toes curling to form two hind flippers.
His already pudgy stomach bulged and grew into a fat seal belly. The white circles of his former hood scattered across his back like a light touch meant to tickle. They shifted in size—some grew to the size of dish plates, others shrank to the size of coins.
He felt his sleeves cover and tighten against his human hands like mittens. They morphed into fore flippers and sprouted inch-long nails from tiny digits at the end. His nose and mouth grew into a cat-like muzzle. Two-inch long whiskers burst from his cheeks. His ears retracted to leave two holes the size of quarters on either side of his seal head.
Lenny opened his eyes as the transformation from human to seal completed. He dove into the near freezing North Atlantic water headfirst. The water should feel frigid, he knew, but his seal body’s blubbery layer kept the cold at bay.
A school of cod drifted nearby. Lenny gave chase. One he nipped in his mouth before the doomed fish recognized him for a threat. The others he swam down, hooking them with claws sharp enough to hack through glacier ice.
The school unnaturally changed direction.
Lenny halted mid-swim. With a shift of his head, he spun to face whatever predator stalked him now. He saw a chimney of bubbles churn below frothy white circles near the surface where he entered not moments ago. Looks like I’m not the only hunta this mornin’.
He caught the scent of his owner’s seahorses on the current. The thought occurred to him one might have escaped, but their stable door beneath the docks remained tightly latched.
His seal instincts suggested he surface and head for shore. Lenny dove deeper.
The noise came from the surface; a sea otter, floating on its back, used its tail like a paddle to propel it forward.
Endrees. Lenny realized his mistake too late.
A grey shadow with light rings across its back sped up from the depths. Its skull collided with his stomach stealing his breath away.
Lenny swiped at the other Ringed Seal.
His opponent batted away the weak attempt. It weaved behind, collared him by the nape with its pincer-like jaws.
Felt like an early mornin’ swim, huh? a man’s hard voice growled in Lenny’s mind like one of his own thoughts. Against the rules and five lashes for a first offense. How many times ya done this now? Eight?
Ya’ve only caught me eight, Lenny directed his thoughts to the other seal.
Eight times too many.
The sea otter dove to their depth, and swam circles around the two seals.
Get away from me, Endrees, said Lenny to the otter.
It replied with a series of trills. Then it flipped to its back and swam alongside him, just out of reach.
Endrees, Lenny’s captor spoke. Go to shore.
The otter stuck out its tongue, but obeyed the command and swam away.
Good riddance, Lenny said. Ya oughta drown that sea rat.
The other seal bit down harder. With a quick tug, it dragged Lenny inland. A catcha watches…Waits in the shadows to make sure the goin’s safe. Otherwise he’s the one bein’ caught. Ya supposed to have at least two ways of escape. Ya forget that?
I was in the water, Lenny argued. There’s a thousand different directions I coulda’ swum.
If ya got no plan of where to go it don’t matta. Ya never gonna be big Len, so ya gotta be fasta--
--or smarta’ if ya wanna live, Lenny interrupted. I haven’t forgot.
The other seal said nothing more as they neared the shoreline shallows.
Lenny poked his head out of the water to learn who his captor had wrangled to release them both. A pair of sausage-sized fingers grabbed his upper seal lip before he could see anything. The fingers yanked up, and then swept the entire seal head backward like removing a costumed mask. The seal head changed to an average hood again before draping down Lenny’s backside.
He felt his seal claws retract into fingers as the flippers melted back into sleeves. His tail split in two, the remains of it shrinking up and against his ankles. Lenny shivered, now without the seal’s blubber to shield him. He glanced up to see who had released him.
Paulo Varela, a bred-and-born product of slave owner selection. The crayfish tattoo on his neck marked him as belonging to August Collins. Its claws seemed to reach for his jaws as he yawned. His normally dark-gold Selkie coat glistened black, now soaked by ocean water. Paulo wiped the last bits of sleep from his eyes. “Heya, Len. Did you have to get up so early?”
Lenny ignored him, just as he ignored Endrees hissing at him from atop a nearby boulder. He waded up the stony shore as Paulo went deeper to release the other Selkie.
"Don’t walk away from me, son,” the captor’s voice transitioned from thought to spoken word.
Lenny turned around.
A grizzled, middle-aged dwarf had replaced his seal opponent. The little man stood no taller than Paulo’s waistline and, like Lenny, wore the smoke-grey suit with embroidered white circles marking him as a Ringed Seal. His hardened, lumpy face appeared marred by a drunken chiseler who had left the numerous scars for sport, and the corners of his hazel eyes wrinkled into crow’s feet the longer he stared at Lenny.
Declan Dolan pointed at his son. “How many times ya gotta see others whipped before ya smarten up, boy?”
“Pop,” Lenny said. “We’re catchas—”
“That don’t make you no better than those bound for the Block,” Declan said. “Ya still a slave! Master Collins can do with ya what he wants. That includes sellin’ ya.”
Paulo snorted. “August would never do that. Lenny’s the only thing that keeps you from running.”
“Oh, yeah?” Declan said. “So what if Master Collins decides the lash isn’t keepin’ his catchas on the straight and narrow? Maybe he takes one of Lenny’s ears to remind him how important it is for slaves to listen. Better yet, Paulie, what if he takes one of yours or mine to make sure we keep Lenny followin’ the rules? How’d that be?”
Paulo instinctively reached for his ears and massaged the crystal-studded earrings.
“Sorry, Pop,” Lenny said. “It won’t happen again.”
“Mistakes and apologies don’t keep ya safe in the Salt, boys. No more than they will on land,” Declan said. “Now come on, the both of ya. Ya been called up.”
Lenny straightened. “Did someone run off in the night?”
Both young catchers looked to Declan for confirmation. Neither received an answer. The elder Dolan limped his way alongside the boardwalk with his pet otter close on his heels.
Lenny noticed Paulo’s earrings twinkle just before the thought transmission came through. We’re going out.
Pop didn’t say that, Lenny directed his thoughts back.
Paulo grinned. He didn’t say anything. We’re being sent out, Len. I can feel it.
Author. Actor. Rascal.