In October, I shall have been Governor of this island for forty years. I came here as a young man, to command the garrison and dispense justice in the assizes. I arrived full of hopes and vaunting ambition, trusting to my connections in the distant Imperial Court to secure me rapid promotion to more lucrative and influential positions. My hopes were vain, my ambitions lost and my connections as enduring as morning dew. Nevertheless, I have learned contentment in this little bounded land. True, the winter days are short and the winter nights are long and bitter: for weeks together, the gales can blow loud enough to deafen, and strong enough to deposit small fish on the cliff-tops. But the peasants, farmer-fishermen for the most part, are determined, even heroic – very different from the servile drudges one encounters in the capital and the countryside round about it. I have come to respect and emulate the islanders’ quiet virtues. To watch them fishing is an education – two boats working in careful concert. And then to watch the sharing out of the catch, with one fifth part reserved for widows and the sick. Yet now it seems all my hard-won lessons on peasant virtues may be cast over.
It was a stormy day of early March when the ‘Finnman’ was captured. I remember because when my sergeant brought me the confused news, I was staring absorbed from my chamber window at the waves breaking wildly on the rocks at the harbour entrance. The wind was catching up the spume from the waves and the low sun was creating hundreds of small, truncated rainbows as it shone through the spume.
Tales of the mysterious Finnmen are common currency among the islanders, but I have paid them no more heed than stories of dwarfs living in the mounds along the shore, or of the ‘selkies’ that are said to inhabit the western skerries. The Finnmen travel in skin canoes at great speed; they are fierce, cruel and emit screeching cries; they are said to drive away the herring shoals.
The Sergeant said that a group of fishermen from the west end of the island had found the Finnman collapsed among the dunes: first of all, they had spotted the skin canoe, beached on the shore, and they had then followed his tracks into the dunes. I told the Sergeant bring the Finnman at once to the chamber, along with his captors.
A couple of minutes later, the corporal of the guard (a hulk of a man), dragged in a bundle of skins that proved to be the insensible Finnman. He was accompanied by the sergeant and four fishermen. I knelt to make an examination. The Finnman was breathing rapidly and shallowly; he smelt strongly of stale urine and rancid fat. I felt in his mouth and found the tongue swollen and distended:
‘The Finnman needs water – Corporal, fetch me a pitcher of water. After that, go to the cellarman for a bottle of brandy.’ I turned to the fishermen: ‘How did he come by these cuts and bruises?’
‘Excellency, he was unconscious when we found him, but we thought it best to bind him. He then came to and he started to struggle, so Gruta hit him. But Gruta only hit him once. By the time we arrived here at the fort, a crowd was following us. As we waited for admittance, some of the crowd started to throw stones. And a woman ran forward and hit him with a stick.’
The sergeant confirmed that this was the case and that the woman in question was Sella, the widow of Odd. The corporal then returned with the pitcher of water. I wet the Finnman’s lips but he did not revive. The corporal had already departed again for the brandy, so I sent the Sergeant to bring Oolla, the midwife, as the hospitaller is an ignorant drunk whom I would not trust to treat hiccups. I sent the fishermen to recover the skin canoe, and the Finnman’s weapon, a short dart, that one of the fishermen (an intelligent lad) had said lay beside the canoe.
Left alone with the Finnman, I observed him carefully. Of normal stature, with a yellow-ish skin (redder about the face) and dark, lustrous, coarse hair. A flattish face, the nose being small. The eyes were brown and curiously obliquely set. The teeth were much worn. From his musculature, I would have judged him younger than myself; from his wrinkled skin, I would have judged him older.
In recent years, I have devoted some of my leisure hours to an illustrated description of the many monuments that the Ancient Ones have left on the island. I have fancied my account might ensure that some posthumous celebrity might attach to my name, and that the island itself – this isolated and obscure outpost of Empire – might also gain a degree of fame. Now, I was seeing things differently: surely the mysterious arrival of the Finnman would make the island famous throughout the Empire? The four fishermen’s names would be as famous as the past Emperors who had first sent out ships to explore these remote waters.
The corporal returned with the brandy, which I ordered him to administer, but it was not a success. The Finnman choked, vomited and lapsed back into unconsciousness. He still had not spoken a word in my presence. I was later to learn that, when struggling with his rescuers, the Finnman had only made a few hoarse noises.
When the midwife entered the chamber she at first recoiled from the sprawled Finnman and would have fled if the sergeant had not restrained her. But her kind instincts soon got the better of her. She suggested that the Finnman would take some time to recover and that it would be best if he were carried to her hut outside the fort gates. There she would wash and bind his wounds and, once he was conscious, keep him on a diet of gruel and herbs of her own choosing. I agreed, gave her a purse, and bade the sergeant and corporal carry him away on a hurdle, adding only that the hurdle should be left in the hut and that the Finnman be bound to it, to prevent ignorant flight. I was remiss in omitting to require the posting of a guard outside the hut.
The early evening I remember as being one of pleasant excitement as, by candlelight, I began an examination and description of the canoe and of the weapon that the fishermen had brought in, just before dark. The canoe, wondrously light, was secured from swamping by skins and draw-strings designed to fit around the seated Finnman, like a leather shoe around a foot. The body of the canoe was constructed of greased skins, stretched over a taunt frame made partly of wood and partly of bone. The wood appeared to be that of a kind of pine tree, but not one I recognised. The canoe was evidently propelled by a single oar, shaped into paddles at both ends. The weapon was more ingenious still: the short dart, tipped with sharpened bone, was made more effective by a separate wooden throwing arm. I was of the opinion that the dart-plus-arm would have been just as murderous as a full-length javelin, but much more readily handled in the confines of the canoe.
I had just finished a sketch of how I presumed the throwing arm would operate, when the sergeant once more rushed to my chamber – this time with news of a riot outside the fort. I was stunned: it was more than twenty years since there had been any civil disturbances on the island. The sergeant had already called out the guard. I issued pikes and armed both the sergeant and the corporal with an arquebus. We then all immediately ran out of the fort towards the shore, where the crowd had gathered. Two barrels of pitch had been set alight. It was plain to see that the figure stretched on top of the barrels was the Finnman, still attached to his hurdle. He looked more an effigy than a man.
The crowd quickly dispersed. The midwife, who had taken a blow to the head, claimed not to have recognised the young men who burst into her hut and seized the Finnman. Sella, the woman who had previously hit the Finnman with a stick, turned out to be a simpleton. The corporal of the guard, a native islander, told me that the islanders believed that Finnman had to be killed, lest he spirit away the herring shoals. He could not say, or would not say, who had instigated the riot. At the assize, I called the fishermen who had found the Finnman to give evidence, but they had returned to their homes at the western shore on the evening of the burning and knew nothing of the riot. Surprisingly, the young fisherman who had mentioned to me the Finnman’s weapon gave evidence that he had indeed heard the story that Finnmen could charm the herring away from the island, but for himself, he believed that herring shoals shifted for many reasons – that they were not at the beck and call of the Finnmen.
These peasants whom I had come to respect, living in such successful harmony with each other, clearly had no respect for an outsider. The greater the bond between islanders, the less the fellow-feeling for the stranger, the intruder. There is no wisdom to be found here, no matter how beautiful the sunsets.
I have arranged for the Finnman’s burial and I shall dispatch the canoe and its accoutrements to the Imperial Chancery, the lawful recipient of all shipwreck spoils. And then I shall ask to be relieved of my post on account of an infirmity, an incurable island melancholia.
Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has discovered the exhilarations of short fiction. Recent publications include The Cabinet of Heed, Ink Sweat & Tears, Litro Online, The Copperfield Review, Scribble, Dodging the Rain, Everyday Fiction, Firewords, The Drabble, Idle Ink and Spelk.
Image via Pickryl