He heard the cry in the midst of the free fall of imminent sleep, the jerk back to consciousness unpleasant vertigo.
Another seal? He sat up.
It came again, and clammy sweat broke out on his tightening skin.
It was human.
He stamped into his boots, not stopping to fasten them, and yanked his coat on over his pajamas. Though the storm had slackened, the rain had not, and a deluge of oversize drops slammed into him, soaking his pajamas where he hadn’t buttoned his coat and plastering his fair hair to his head. The ground was an inch deep in silty, standing water, which drove rivulets through the grass on its way to the cliffs. It made for treacherous footing, but Barnabas’s boots had been bought for just such a purpose, and he splashed onward.
The cliff was wet, but because he was unburdened by his artistic miscellany, the descent was easy. The adrenaline pumping through his system meant it passed quickly, and he only knew he was at the bottom and that the owner of the cries was nearby.
The tide was mostly out; no longer driven by the storm, it left bare a small amount of the cove. The storm had stripped it of sand, and in the dying lightning, Barnabas could see the continuation of the cliff, brown and gray and orange bands, smooth as silk and rippled like the seabed. A part of his mind he barely noticed registered this as a scene he ought to revisit. He staggered on, splashing through pools of seawater and rain, toward the faint noises.
The strata in the rock converged on a hollow. Lying in a pool of black, rain-pocked water was a pale curl of a person. A long, low keening sound echoed around the cliffs -- the last exhausted remnant of the screams that had brought Barnabas running. As he approached, the white comma of flesh resolved itself into the fetal curve of a young man, naked but for a few patches of leathery clothing. Barnabas stopped by the hollow and crouched near the young man’s head. He whimpered, one trembling hand groping toward Barnabas’s booted feet. Barnabas pulled off his coat and covered the stranger, who peered up at him through the darkness. He was silent now, shivering hard, his pallid skin allover goose bumps.
Seals gathered on the rocks around the bay, barking frantically. Barnabas supposed they must be trying to shelter from the worst of the storm, but couldn’t recall seeing them here before during weather as bad as this. Was their barking a territorial matter? He worried for them; he worried about them. The idea that they might attack added another layer of danger to the dark, wet night. It was hard to tell the bulbous figures from the rocks they lay on, making it almost impossible to pinpoint if there were any bulls nearby.
“Can you walk?” Barnabas asked. “Can you get up the cliff?”
The stranger looked at him, uncomprehending.
“What’s your name? Do you speak English?”
Still blank. The seals barked more loudly. A particularly large one hauled itself out of the sea and started waddling toward them. Shit. The dominant bull. The young man stared at it and put a hand on Barnabas’s arm, fingers coiling around the crook of Barnabas’s elbow. Barnabas reached up with his other arm to hold the hand tightly. The bull brayed, and the young man clutched at the scraps of his clothing and held them up defensively.
Barnabas stroked his bare shoulder reassuringly and pulled up the coat to cover him. Refugee, he thought. Illegal immigrant. So much suffering, only to wash up like this. He’d probably have ended up another cockle picker like those who had drowned a few years back.
Barnabas rocked back on his heels and eyed the cliff. There were no steps or path here, keeping the tourists out, but it was usually an easy enough climb on his own. Carrying someone was going to be very difficult. He’d need his hands free, but he wasn’t sure how the stranger would cope with a fireman’s lift. He had no clue how badly injured the man might be and even less of an idea of how to convey what he wanted to do.
Barnabas got the young man’s attention, which had remained on the seals, and pointed up the cliff. The top was a gray blur against a smudged sky in the rain, the clouds almost low enough to obscure it entirely. If it weren’t for the incoming tide, Barnabas might have waited at the base of the cliff until morning. His previous doubts seeped back in, reminding him that he wasn’t really any better prepared to carry a human than a seal.
The stranger propped himself up on his arms, but his feet slid on the smooth rock, and the muscles in his legs quivered with fruitless effort. He had no hope of standing, let alone climbing. Still, he was better angled for what Barnabas wanted to do. After fastening the top button of his coat around the stranger’s neck, Barnabas got his shoulder under the stranger’s stomach and heaved. The young man folded with a startled squeak and clutched at Barnabas’s sodden pajamas. Barnabas struggled to the bottom of the cliff before putting the young man down again. They looked at each other.
“I will because I have to,” Barnabas said. “Don’t worry.” The young man shivered on the cold ground and leaned against Barnabas’s chest. Barnabas put an arm around him for a moment before heaving a sigh and preparing himself for the ascent. The stranger wasn’t surprised by the fireman’s lift this time.
Barnabas couldn’t bring himself to raise his head farther than he had to, but he knew when the cliff became drier and less slippery that he was approaching the overhang. He dragged himself sideways, not wanting to navigate it with his center of balance thrown off, but as he pulled himself over the lesser ridge, he realized that his usual route to the top of the cliff was out of his reach. Not worth retracing his steps now. Might as well risk a little more unfamiliarity on an already strange night. He continued up, clutching at the tough grasses with sore, cramped fingers, feet slipping on the wet cliff. He hauled himself up slowly, scrambling through the overhanging gorse and up, onto the cliff top. The stranger was unceremoniously dumped into the mud, and Barnabas lay trembling with fatigue.
When he forced himself onto his hands and knees, he saw that the young man was almost blue from cold and breathing shallowly. Barnabas hadn’t even noticed when the stranger passed out. He looked down at his own shaking limbs and squinted through the wet darkness in the direction of his cottage. Stumbling to his feet, so slippery with rain and mud that he almost stepped out of his boots, he left the stranger in the rain and staggered toward home.
He lit the candles and had the presence of mind to put the kettle on before pulling his wheelbarrow from under a pile of garden rubbish. He dragged it behind him as he ran back to the cliff edge.
It took some frantic searching to find the dark-coated mound of cold flesh. Barnabas heaved the stranger into the barrow and made his way back to the cottage and its comforting glow with slightly more care.
He set the wheelbarrow next to the bed, a line of mud showing its route through the cottage. He arranged the stranger on the thin mattress and covered him with blankets. He was still cold to the touch, but his breathing had deepened and his pulse steadied. Barnabas sat and rubbed the stranger’s hands with some idea of increasing circulation, but his mind was wandering as he did so: He’d saved a life. Hopefully.
He’d saved a life. It was like looking in the window earlier and seeing that reflection, that stranger staring back when he was too far gone to stop and wonder about it. Something he’d never expected to change about the way he saw himself was doing so, but he didn’t know how to work out what it was.
The stranger warmed quickly under Barnabas’s touch and stirred beneath the blankets. The dreamy sweep of his arm tugged the blankets across his body, revealing a pale hip; Barnabas stared at it. The first time anyone but him had been in this bed. His thoughts, surely, were purely altruistic, but some subconscious level of association swelled his cock, and he looked away abruptly. Barnabas’s own breath turned shallow, and he berated himself firmly.
The kettle whistled, making Barnabas jump. He made them both some tea, the prosaic activity resettling his libido, and his mind became occupied with the question of how to get the hot drink into the stranger. While it cooled and he pondered, he fed the woodstove with the remains of an old chair, keeping the door between the two rooms open so he could chastely watch over the stranger.
Barnabas drank his own tea and balanced the second mug next to the stove to keep it warm. Both teas were milky and heavily sugared, just what the tired and hungry needed. To keep himself busy, Barnabas made a round of tuna sandwiches, then cut one plateful up into bite-size chunks. The smell pervaded the tiny cottage, and Barnabas heard a faint murmuring as his guest woke up.
Barnabas spoon-fed him tea and let him lick the tuna from the sandwiches -- not the plan, but he trusted his guest to know himself better than Barnabas did -- and awkwardly adjusted the blankets for him. The guest still clutched his rags and eyed the stove suspiciously through the door. Barnabas eventually persuaded him to put them on the chair by the bed. The stranger seemed to have some idea of what he was saying, but stayed so stubbornly silent, Barnabas was forced to resort to miming to reassure himself his message was getting through. The idea of burning the wet leather -- the smoke and the ensuing stench -- was so ludicrous Barnabas only vaguely realized there was something weirder than that about the exchange. He was too tired to ponder it, other priorities still at the fore of his mind.
Now that the stranger was awake, Barnabas felt a little less intrusive in examining his guest’s wounds, though he wished for something brighter than candlelight. The power still hadn’t returned, and from experience, Barnabas didn’t expect it to until the next day at the earliest.
He pulled back the blankets slowly and folded them around the stranger’s waist, exposing a long, slender torso covered in cuts and bruises. The lowest sheet, stained red, stuck to his stomach, and Barnabas peeled it away as carefully as he could. The stranger hissed softly, head rolling on the pillow, but made no objection.
A graze spread across his abdomen, deepening to a cut over the navel. Thick blood seeped from it like congealing gravy, but fortunately it was stopping. Barnabas dug out his first-aid kit from under the bed and tried to remember a long-ago first-aid class. Fortunately the pack of bandages came with instructions. He wiped the wound clean and applied a tube of yellow ointment so old he couldn’t read the label anymore. He had just enough padding to cover the graze, but he found himself at a loss as to how wrap the bandages around his guest without hurting him.
When his guest arched his stomach toward him, exhaustion blanked Barnabas’s mind, and he could only stare and wonder. The young man reached out with a shaking arm for the roll of bandages and stiffly passed it under his back. Barnabas’s brain kicked back into gear, and he called himself seven kinds of lecherous idiot. He bandaged the stranger briskly, eyes on his task, no higher, no lower.
The sun was coming up, sending fingers between the still-black clouds as Barnabas tucked in the bandages and lay down next to the stranger. He drifted off to sleep still dressed in his pajamas.