Once upon a time, not very long ago and not very far away, beyond the Purple Mountains but before the Great Whirlpool, in the place known to ancient sailors as the Holy Sea, there lived a seal called Spaedo.
Spaedo was a seal with very great powers and men came to him from far and wide because Spaedo had a very special magic gift.
Now, as it happened, the Holy Sea had all manner of strange creature living in it. The octopus, the heptopus, the dekapus, the hexapus and the tetrapus. The limpet, the lamprey, the lungfish, the ling, the loosejaw and the lumpsucker. The bass, the bishop-fish, the barbel, the barracuda and the bitterling. The monkfish, the mackerel, the mako, the midshipman, the minnow, the Moorish idol and the moon-eye. The hagfish. The haddock. The hake. The hammerhead.
And of course, Spaedo’s favourite. The red herring.
There was nothing Spaedo liked better than to swallow ten or twenty or fifty or a thousand red herrings as he frolicked and gambolled in the heaving swell of the Holy Sea.
But what was the magic gift that made Spaedo such a special seal?
Patience, for you shall soon discover the secret.
One day, an old, old man sailed out to the middle of the Holy Sea. An old, old, old, old, old old, old man, so old and bent that the tip of his nose was touching the point of his knee.
I wish to ask a boon of you, said the old, old, old, old, old old, old man.
Ask, said Spaedo, and I shall grant your wish.
I have here — and the old man produced an ancient, polished, sandalwood box inlaid with lapis lazuli filigree — I have a secret and I wish you to know it.
Spaedo smiled. And why might you wish such a thing, O fearful Gerontion?
For it bears down upon me, replied the ancient, and I greatly fear that it may impede my ascent to the afterlife when that fateful day comes, as it surely will, and soon now. Sooner than I might wish.
Let me see your secret, said Spaedo as he playfully tossed a red herring in the salt air and caught it with a flourish.
The bent old man cowered and held out the opened box with a tentative smile. It is a very bad secret.
Spaedo laughed. You are worried about such a paltry thing? I have known the secrets of great men and small men. Of saints, of emperors and of kings. You fear that I might baulk at such a small crime? Begone old man. Your secret is no more. Look forward to your heaven in peace.
The wizened old man began to weep but Spaedo waved him off. ‘Tis but a small thing. I have eaten far greater secrets than this mere nibble. Foir after all, I am known to one and all as the Seal of the Confessional. I eat all secrets, good and ill, so that none may ever know of them again.
This is my nature and my destiny, said Spaedo. For I am the Seal of the Confessional.