The Question

Fairy Tale / A fishing pier / Confetti / 945w

Flash Fiction Challenge 2017 Round 3 Entry

On the day after her fifteenth birthday, in keeping with the tradition, an islander girl named Hildr walked down to the harbor to catch a fish, cut open its belly, and read her fortune in its entrails. For as many generations as anyone could remember, every person on the island, man or woman, had done the same upon becoming an adult. Much had changed there over the hundreds of years, but that custom had not.

So, Hildr went. Truthfully, she was troubled by a question, and although even her parents were now skeptical of the old omens, she half-hoped to find an answer.

While the summer sun shone overhead, she sat at the end of the pier, facing the sea, and cast her line. It was peak season, and it wasn’t long before she caught a fat, gleaming herring. With her knife, she severed its spine and sliced it open from forefin to tail. Slick pink intestines filled her hands.

Apart from a few foreign objects – a bottle cap, some flecks of foil confetti – she saw nothing remarkable there. Although she tried not to be, she was disappointed.

“You are wondering whether or not to leave home,” came a voice.

Hildr was startled, and looked all around, but there wasn’t anyone in sight. Then, finally, she looked down and saw a pilot whale, rolled halfway onto its side in the water, regarding her with a small black eye. Its dorsal fin was crumpled, indicating age and wisdom.

“Isn’t that right?” it asked.

Her shame welled upward. “Yes,” she whispered, so quietly that the wind stole the word away, carrying it out to sea. But the whale heard, and it understood.

“You think there isn’t anything here for you,” it said. It rolled again so one of its pectoral fins lifted from the water and indicated the island, rising up behind her with its enormous black cliffs and velvet green hills. It sheltered every single person she had ever known.

“Yes,” Hildr said again. That was the root of her question. She didn’t want to work for the fisheries. She didn’t want to handle trade paperwork, or return home every night to a house next to the one she was born in. The thought of a future like that filled her with dread. And yet…

“What makes you think there is a place out there for a girl like you?” the whale demanded. “Who has stood knee-deep in whale blood? Who has wedding-danced for twelve hours without stopping? Who shares a language with just a thousand others in the entire world? Who would abandon her home?”

At that, Hildr hung her head. It was true. She was afraid, and full of guilt. In the sagas, although some people left to seek their fortunes, there were always enough who remained to carry on with life as it had always been and maintain the traditions. She didn’t know what she might find if she left the island behind, but she knew she was not the only young person who was thinking of better prospects. Her brothers had already left. But Hildr’s mother held out hope for her.

Hildr looked again at the fish’s guts in her hands, hoping to see something meaningful there, but there was nothing. No answer to her question. She flung the guts into the sea, where the whale immediately snapped them up.

 

Several years passed, and the islander girl Hildr went about her daily life, which did gradually become more like that of an adult. In the community there were a few more weddings, a few more births, and a few more goodbyes. She spent summers gathering seabird eggs with her cousins, and tidying the homesteads of the elderly. But Hildr’s question continued to trouble her, and soon she would have to make a choice.

One day, she walked down to the harbor again. It was the day after her eighteenth birthday. She cast her line off the pier and waited until she caught a fish, a mackerel. When she cut it open and gathered its entrails into her hands, she only looked for a moment before throwing them back into the sea.

Soon, the pilot whale with the crumpled fin surfaced to eat. Again it turned to stare at Hildr with its small black eye.

For a time there was only the gusting of the wind and the flicking of the waves against the pier. From Hildr’s perspective, facing the horizon, it was as if very little had changed since the eras when the sagas were first sung.

Eventually, the pilot whale spoke. “You are going to leave,” it said.

Hildr said, “Yes.”

“You did not see your fortune?”

“No.”

“Then what makes you think there will be a place for you?” the whale asked. “For a girl who, at five years old, held a seal’s heart in her hands? Who has no skills but fishing and washing and – ”

“We were never all meant to stay,” Hildr said. “Don’t you know that?”

“Without a fortune – ”

But Hildr had had enough doubts. To honor tradition, the islanders dutifully cut the fish and looked for fortunes, but that was not the tradition that had brought her forebears to the island. To do that, they had honored a different tradition. They had left an even older home.

The pilot whale, recognizing in her what it had seen many times before, dipped its tail into the sea and swam away, far from the pier, into the distance.

That is how an islander girl named Hildr, who had stood knee-deep in blood-pink water, and who spoke a language only a few could understand, answered her question.

 

Writer’s Note

I really enjoy the opportunity that fairy tales afford to work with elements of magical realism and a distant third person. It feels surprisingly comfortable to me, although I didn’t arrive at that with this piece until a few rounds of revision. I struggled the most with the anachronistic nature of the confetti, which takes you out of the “settingless” feel of a fairy tale.

I had a lot of fun tabs open on my browser while writing this: an article about the Faroese fishing industry, a diagram of fish anatomy, and a the Faroese “Faereyinga Saga,” in an attempt to get into its feel. One quote in particular that I liked from reading it:

“it seems to me that our destiny will be unremarkable if we do not want to find out about other people.” – a young man named Sigmundr, on wanting to leave his foster father’s homestead

Although the setting and some of the elements, like the pilot whale, are based on the Faroe Islands (a culture that really interests me), I made up this fairy tale and tradition.

Feedback welcome! Let’s see if I can make the cut for round 4 this time!

Photo by Mike Kosiakov on Unsplash

 

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