Had anyone been awake at that ghostly hour, they would have seen, through the foggy darkness, an old, drooping man placing a tricorn hat on his head as he exited a one-room shanty by the seashore. Had anyone been there to watch, they would have observed the way he leaned heavily on his left leg and seemed to skip quickly on his right in a sad sort of limp. Over his shoulder he slung a net, which, in the darkness, gave him the appearance of a hunchback. This man was Isaac and there was no one to see him. No one, that is, except for the moon and stars. These heavenly bodies were the best friends he had in all the world, always up to wink and smile at him and shed their light on the cobblestone roads of the Netherlands so that he could find the dock.
The dock sighed and groaned in greeting as Isaac stepped onto it. His boat knocked up against the floating, wooden platform eagerly, as if it recognized the step of its master. Isaac lowered his net into this boat before lowering himself. His knobby fingers untied the little vessel from the dock and it was off. He rowed with the strength of a seasoned sailor, never pausing to rest his aged arms for a moment until he was two miles away from shore. "There, now, little fishies," Isaac whispered as he pulled his oars into the boat. "Come around, now. Come around." He lowered his net into the black waves and then sat back to wait. The reflection of the moon and stars danced across the water like candles, flickering with the salty breeze that nipped at Issac's face. This was the time that visions of Gretchen kept him company. He saw her face in the lunar reflections, heard her voice in the sea lapping at his boat, and felt the beating of her heart with every rise and fall on the waves.
The years had brought with them no comfort, save these silent moments in the early morning while Gretchen whispered and the fish gathered below to hear her. On occasion, a silver fin would slash above the glassy surface and Isaac's fingers would flex with the anticipation of a heavy haul.
Gretchen had been the most sweet-tempered woman Isaac had ever met. He could still recall with perfection the first day he'd seen her. He and his partner had gone to the market to sell their meager catch, when along came the Van Holden family cook with his daughter. She'd been a simple creature, with tawny hair pulled loosely back from a rosy face. There was no flirtation in her humble smile, no powders or cream to hide the freckles on her nose, no elegance to the nettle-wool fabrics she wore... yet her every movement had been with grace. Her warm brown eyes and soothing voice had pierced Isaac to the core as no blushing beauty could have done and six happy years of marriage were the result. Six years. Six blissful years of Gretchen. And then came the fever.
Isaac's boat rocked as something- something big- pulled at the ropes of his net. He gripped the sides of the boat to steady himself, and just in time, as a second pull threatened to knock him over. Whatever it was must have been caught in the net, he realized. A large fin broke the surface then, writhing and flapping and slapping against the water in a panic. Isaac's eyes widened at the sight. What a fish! It must have been the size of a shark, if not bigger. Licking his lips, he fumbled around for an oar and once he had it, raised it above his head and brought it down towards the mighty fish with a slap. If he could kill it now, he thought, he'd be able to keep it from jumping out the boat. He smacked at the beast again and again, trying fruitlessly to find its head, when, suddenly, his little boat began to rock very violently and the oar fell from Isaac's hands as he fought to steady himself. In the darkness his eyes searched for the source of the rocking and his heart constricted at the sight of two hands gripping the other side of the boat. At least, they looked like hands. They disappeared so quickly, it may have only been a trick of the moonlight. Still, the rocking of the dinghy ceased for the moment and soon thereafter, his magnificent fish disentangled itself from his net and was gone.
As a pink glow began to light the sky, Isaac rowed his way back to the dock. The commotion from the lost large fish had cost him a good morning's catch, as it had scared away the smaller morsels. Despite his attempts in other locations, the old fisherman caught very little that day. He shook his head while he rowed. "No dinner tonight," he said. It was a long trip back, along the beach line. The tide was going out now, and the long stretches of white sand reflected the pink light of the sun while the dune grasses waved a golden good morning. Isaac shook his head at the five fish flapping about in his bucket and talked to them as he rowed. "You're not much, but you'll have to do. Bad luck is what it is- rotten bad luck for all of us. You'll wind up in the belly of a dog and I'll get little more than a shilling for it." A flash of light onshore caught his eye. Isaac looked up at the white beach, and saw, as the tide pulled out, what appeared to be a pile of fish! He leaned forward, squinting. Was Gretchen giving him a second chance? The tide washed over the glinting pile and as it pulled back again, the scaled objects remained. Isaac sat back. Something dead, he thought. He was too honest a man to sell anything but fresh meat. But as he started to move on, the thought occurred to him that perhaps it was his lost large fish from earlier in the day. Perhaps he had managed to kill it with the oar and it had washed ashore. It was certainly worth checking, for such a catch. And so, gripping his oars firmly, Isaac changed his coarse and fought the tide to the beach. As he drew nearer to the sand, he squinted up every now and then at what he hoped was a very large fish. The closer her got, however, the clearer it became that there was not one, but two of the dead creatures. More perplexing still was when he saw what looked like human hair blowing in the breeze. His heart froze in his chest when he realized that the creatures he was approaching were not fish at all, but humans. He rowed faster and stumbled out of his dinghy as soon as his oars touched sand. It was two young women. Both very pale and wearing curious corsets that appeared to be made from the skins of fish with glittering scales. Apart from this they were naked. The sea lapped up against their bare legs, their long, wet hair rising and falling with the tide and haloing their heads with sea foam. Isaac hesitated to get too close. His eyes searched the beach for any sign of a shipwreck. Where had they come from? For a moment, the image of two hands grasping the side of his boat flashed in his memory and his spine went cold, but he forced the thought away with a shake of his head. Now was not the time for old sailor superstitions. Still, the site of black hair stretched across the sand like tentacles was enough to make Isaac grab one of his oars before approaching with caution. He poked at the dark-haired one gently with the handle of the oar and stumbled back a few steps when she stirred.
First, she scrunched her face. Then she turned it away from the sun. She was still for a moment before pushing herself up onto one elbow with her back to Isaac and her head hanging wearily. Isaac realized he was clutching his oar with both hands protectively and relaxed his grip. One of them, at least, was alive. She trembled. Her elbow sank in the sand. She slipped onto her shoulder and lay with her face in the sand. This commotion aroused the other young women, the one with golden hair, and she groaned.
Isaac watched them for a few moments more. He never had been wealthy, but he'd always considered himself to be a gentleman in deed, if not in title. He tried not to look at them directly, as exposed as they were, but struggled to know how to help them. When neither stirred for a few moments, he averted his eyes completely and called out to them, "H-hello there?"
When there was no response, he cleared his throat and raised his voice. "Hello there?"
Isaac searched behind him at the grassy dunes, but there was no one else around. No houses or fish shacks. He rummaged through his boat and, finding nothing but the net and buckets there, filled his arms with the net and carried it back to where the two girls lay. He pulled them each out of the water's reach and placed his overcoat over the black-haired maiden and his bundled net over the other. Both stirred and groaned, and the fair one coughed up water, but then both fell back into their weary slumber, never opening their eyes. Isaac rubbed the stubble on his chin. He couldn't bring himself to leave them there, but nor dared he touch them or speak to them. He couldn't take them into his house. What would Gretchen think? No, no, that wouldn't do. No woman had ever crossed that threshold since Gretchen. Not even Katrien, the little milkmaid who brought him bread, had ever gotten past the front gate. And then Isaac realized... Katrien! Who better to tend to shipwrecked souls? He couldn't be far from town now, he thought. And so, pushing his dinghy back out to sea, he continued on his way to the dock, taking careful note of where he left the girls.