This is a tale told in washed-up limpet shells and bladderwrack, in sea-tangle and soft corals . . .

The day the Pilgrim told this tale, her listeners came inside with skin salted by sea air and hair ruffled. The noise of the surf followed them inside.

‘Any requests?’ she asked. No reply. She handed out drinks, then started brushing the windblown beach back out of the old chapel door. A young girl, fond of dancing among the dunes, held the door steady for her.

‘Anybody?’ the pilgrim asked softly.

The little dancer raised a shy brown hand. She pushed her wavy tresses away from her face. A shell glinted in her grasp.

‘I’d like a sea story, please – with girls in it.’

The Pilgrim thought for a moment, eyes on the  ribbed oval shell.

‘That’s a limpet you have there – rare in these parts but common beside the North Sea where this story comes from. They call them flithers there. Girls – or lasses – often used to pick them off the rocks for bait.’

This is the tale she told:

The four lasses knew what they had to do. It didn’t mean they liked the idea: Leah and Edith, Millie and Ruth.

That day, gulls skriked louder than the bairns wi buckets and spades further along by the cliffs. Day trippers milled over the smooth bay like sandhoppers. None of them looked their way.

Like musketeers , where one lass went so did the lot of them. Even into the cold shadow of the tallest cliff. Even across the shell-barked scaurs, those flat beds of harsh rock that led far out to sea on a low tide. Even deep inside the gob of the deepest cave.

Leah was the first to shudder. The change from sun to shade half-blinded her. Edith squeezed her hand.

‘It’ll be reet, she said, then tugged Millie to her side. Millie gazed up at the dripping innards of the cave, then lowered her head. If she didn’t look, she wouldn’t feel frit.

Ruth  splashed through a rockpool and came to a standstilloutside the cave, hands on narrow hips. ‘So we’ve to get through afore the tide turns, then?’

‘If we’re to be proper Bay lasses, we have.’ Edith spoke with certainty of being the eldest by two months.

‘Right then,’ Ruth said and stomped off into the darkness.  The others caught up and they moved together, arms linked, legs in unison. The two outer lasses felt their way along the narrowing walls, the two inner peered into the salt and rot scented gloom.

Millie squeaked. Everybody flinched ‘Nowt but a drop o water from the roof,’ she said then started off the round of laughter.

Leah found starfish and anemones glowing with the last touches of light. Her lips bloomed with gladness. A bend turned their path aside and Edith guided them round a large sump of still, reflecting water.

Millie taught them a tune of her own making that echoed back from seaweed-draggled walls. Ruth checked behind for a tide that never seemed to come.

The Pilgrim sighed and stood still before she went on:

Those who  believed in the old tales left food out every low tide for a full turn of the moon. Some that remembered left their back doors unlocked for a year and a day. And those who loved that lassies said nothing when books and dolls vanished from rooms unchanged for decades, never let on about wet footprints on certain nights and the singing that echoed from deep caves.

Header image by Julie, adapted by K. M. Lockwood.

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