Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge | 5 words: envelope, storm, ethereal, dolphin, undertaker | (Warning for strangeness and a deceased dolphin.)
It turned out that the sound I’d heard was a child’s usual light tread, made clumsy, from rain which clung to her cloak and her oversized robes. The storm was malevolent, but Enril had not been defeated. A child her size was easy prey for such torrential winds. She had made it up the dangerous incline and into the sheltered safety of the lighthouse’s spiral stairway, bringing the urgent pattering of damp footsteps all the way to my door. A pale upturned face peeped out from under a hood, haunted by the glow of the lantern clutched in one bony hand. “Da found a dolphin, Tas’ir,” she murmured. “He found it by the pier. A live one.”
But not any more. Dead. Or he would not have sent his daughter to me in such blatantly disagreeable weather. The warmth of my room beckoned, and the child darted in without invitation. “Sit,” I instructed. She flopped onto the floor, shrugging the muddy cloak off by way of child-like flailing of limbs. The fire needed no cues from my impatient hands; beckoning Enril to come closer with a sooty, maternal laugh. I began to pack my gear, noting that the child would be fine left on her own. She seemed not to fear the elemental, scooting towards it on the heels of her palms and her feet. She seemed not to fear the storm. Children who’d respect for the old magicks were a rarity in those days. “I’ll be borrowing your lantern,” I said to the girl, hefting my oilskin gearbag onto my back. “Don’t go running off before I return, or it might be you I put in the ground next.”
She inclined her head slightly in my direction and shrugged against the weight of her dripping robes. “I unnerstand.”
My steps retraced the ghosts of hers. I began to make my way down the narrow, rocky passage, belly almost parallel to the gravel path, the lantern swinging precariously from my belt. I would have taken the elemental, but Enril deserved her company, having already survived the harrowing journey once. The roars and split-cracks of thunder tried to pull the sky down upon my head. Lightning flashed in accompaniment, desperately brief bids to outshine the native phosphorescence. The tiny bioluminescent creatures parted to let me through—a sentient, glowing cloud. Footholds became handholds as I crawled vertically towards even ground. At the bottom, I found that the grassy plain had turned to thick soup. I sank deep into the slurry of rain and mud, burdened as I was by the gear I was carrying. Before too long, I found reasonably solid earth beneath my feet and broke into a slow jog. My movements caused the handle of my shovel to deliver blow after blow to the back of my skull. Perhaps I ought to have devoted more care to fastening the knots securely. The hood of my cloak and the strap of my rain-goggles did not provide adequate cushioning.
Just then, a flock of flounders approached from the east, and I halted in my tracks to let them pass. They are among the least threatening things on this end of the island, but I’ve always enjoyed watching them roam the land, ever since I was young. I see them every other day, and still find them an ethereal sight. They glided through the waves of phosphorescence, hindered by nothing, oblivious to the pale halo cast by my lantern’s light. The rain lashed against the fish, droplets futile against their armour-like scales. Their passage was serene, while I was buffeted about by a series of sudden squalls. Fish are made of the sea, or so the old tales say. As a child, I often wished to be one of them. I wished for scales to grow upon my skin. I wished to be made of the sea, too. Ma crushed that fancy as soon as she got wind of it. Fish are the vermin of our world. Pestilential creatures.
The flounder continued on their way, and so did I. The storm was my excuse for the leisurely pace I adopted after that, though in truth, I did not wish to arrive at the pier with a concussion from an ill-fastened shovel. Though the dead do not wait, I felt sorry for Da Etis, who’d kept vigil by the body. He hadn’t a cloak with him. No protection from the rain, not even a full crop of hair.
“Tas’ir,” he greeted me with his booming voice and a deep bow. I acknowledged him when he straightened, freezing hands coming together to form the traditional salute of my guild.
“Thank you for sending Enril,” I yelled over the violent tumult. “I’ll send her back when it’s safe.”
I felt about in one of my larger pockets for the waterproofed case I had taken with me. Inside was a single envelope containing exactly fifteen tokens. This, I handed to Da Etis, who took it and clamped it under his arm. Before turning to leave, he twitched his moustache at me. Under it, he had worn a grim smile. Undertakers receive generous payment, unless the body’s a dolphin. When it’s a dolphin, we pay three times the amount one would normally pay us for a loved one to be prepared for burial and subsequently buried. We pay the one who heard the dolphin’s last psionic call, saw it breathe its last. No one lies about them. No one makes false claims. No one wants to suffer the consequence, it being a plague of marlins. Superstitions. They play their role in society, as do people like myself.
The dolphin’s body was limp and covered in deep gashes that had long ceased to bleed. What had it been fighting? The rain had washed away all traces of blood. Nature had cleansed its own. I placed my hands upon its beak and said the old words, calling up the image of the flounders’ peaceful flight to calm my mind.