Lawrence R. Dagstine
Mermaids are mythical, perhaps, but correctly described if not.
art by Larry Etn
When the first instant of paralysis had passed and he found that he could function, he had dropped the man-overboard flag, tied by a twenty-foot line to a life buoy and a floating strobe light. He had acted instinctively, but perhaps prematurely. There was no reason to think that she was anywhere near.
He had found himself whimpering in fear, but capable of elementary calculations. He had reversed course instantly and set the wind vane to steer the new heading. By force of will, he had plotted his estimated position. And he had searched for her logbook, hoping her last entry would help pinpoint the time she had gone. He could not find the book. He had tried to call Gerritson Radio. There was no reply.
He climbed to the spreader, halfway up the mast, and clung to the ratlines there for two hours, scanning by starlight the path they had sailed. The lopsided moon sinking to the west was useless. It was not darkness, anyway, that would hide her; it was the unceasing swells. Even from twenty-five feet up the mast, the blinking strobe light had been lost astern within minutes, among mountainous seas.
He faced a day of simmering heat and squalls. Eyes wind-dried and stinging, he clung to the shrouds as the sun rose. His hands and feet were already raw from the teak ratline runs.
He hung on past sunrise as the wind vane steered him back over the track along which they had come. Just after dawn the breeze fell off so sharply that the boat began to wander, groping for the wind. So he swung down, released the steering vane, and took the wheel. At deck level he was too low to see well, but he had no choice.
To fend off despair, he considered a hope that had helped him through the hours aloft. If she had been wearing her flotation jacket, there was a police whistle tied to the zipper just for this, very loud and shrill. He moved toward the hatch, intending to check the foul-weather locker. Hand on the hatch-top, he stopped. He was afraid to face her bright orange jacket hanging there. It was better to assume she was in it.
He glanced back at the rising sun shafting through a squall line. She could be watching it too. “Now look,” he muttered to no one, “I haven’t asked for a goddamn thing until now….”
He found his eyes filling with tears. Astonished, he massaged them with his fingers until his vision cleared. Then, to raise his eye level, he grabbed a shroud near the wheel, balanced with one bare foot on the cockpit coaming, and steered with the other. He glanced at a squall line to windward and saw one of her cloud people, a perfect matador wearing a scarlet-fringed hat. He almost called her topside to see it, realized that she was gone, pulled back just in time from the edge of tears that would blind him. He regarded instead the threat of a storm.
The usual morning revival of trade winds would bring the squall sweeping down on him. She could be hidden under it if rain moved across his path. Meanwhile, without the trades, the boat was simply marking time, while she struggled somewhere ahead.
He was impelled to move faster. He started the engine and jammed it full ahead, but its sound frightened him. His main chance was to hear her, not to see her. When he was down in the troughs, all he could see were dark blue hills heaving around him. With the engine drumming, he could miss her if she were fifty yards away. But her chance of spotting him was very much greater. The mainmast towered above the wave peaks forty feet. It would be she who discovered him. He had better be ready to hear her when she did.
He cut the engine. Now, in the silence, the boat’s crawling pace chilled him. He envisioned for the first time her body somewhere ahead, trailing strands of burnished bronze, spiraling downward into water turning midnight blue. The vision overcame his fear of the unanswered question of her jacket. He took a final sweep of the horizon, stumbled down the companionway ladder, and opened the locker. Her jacket was gone. He sagged with relief. Incredibly, he found himself on his knees, head bowed in thanks. Feeling suddenly foolish, he got up and went topside.
The breeze freshened, speeding the squall. From below he heard the ship’s clock strike three bells: 6:00 a.m. His euphoria trickled away. Now he became convinced that he had passed her soon after his panicky turn, in the black hours before dawn. Everything suddenly pulled at him to reverse course. The steering cable behind him began to squeal, behind, behind, behind! The mainsail stuttered, back-back-back-back!
He fought the impulse to play the hunch. She could just as well be bobbing in the next five miles as in the last ten.
# # #
She was swept to the crest of a swell. It broke in her face. Her eyes stung with the foam. She squeezed them shut, lying back in her flotation jacket, clinging to the plastic jug she had torn from the trailing line.
The morning sun was hot on her forehead. She felt feverish and let her head sink to cool it. If he didn’t find her soon, she’d boil like a lobster.
Her guaranteed waterproof watch had stopped at dawn, but she guessed that it was six or seven in the morning. The mermaid had been in the water for three or four hours, but she had forgotten her innate abilities to swim.
Until daybreak she had been freezing; it had never been like this before. She still shivered, but now she could not tell if she suffered more from heat or cold. Maybe by noon she could be warm. But of course he would find her before then.
The jacket that was saving her life was the worst of her discomforts. It kept slithering up her body and chafing her armpits. The nylon safety belt was rubbing her belly raw too. She kept it on anyway. It might help drag her aboard. Besides, it was proof that she had somehow followed the rules, even if she had obviously not clipped it to a lifeline topside.
She gripped the plastic container firmly. She valued it for its buoyancy, afraid that her jacket might eventually turn soggy. And it was a link with the boat. When water would trickle in through its broken handle, she would drain it and plug it for a while with her finger. Then she would forget and it would fill again. The whole nightmare was past belief. Safe below at 2:30 a.m., she had been engrossed in a paperback. Fifteen minutes later she was thrashing idiotically in the boat’s wake.
She let her mind drift back, looking for some excuse. How could something like this even happen to her? She had been snug in the forward cabin. The kitchen timer had croaked from its niche, telling her that it was time for the half-hour survey of the horizon. She spilled James Patterson from her belly, snapped off her tank light, and slithered for the varnished cabin flooring.
The cabin sole, when the boat was beating into the wind, sloped thirty degrees. She swung herself aft, making no move without a hold on something, feeling alternately light and heavy as the boat pitched wildly in its battle with the seas.
She sidled past the trunk of the mast, feeling a trickle of water down its face. The canvas mast boot was leaking, as usual, and Mark kept forgetting to tape it down. That was her current complaint. That and the squeaking of the steering cable. Tomorrow she would get him to squirt it with oil.
In the main cabin, by the moon glow through the skylight, she could make out Mark’s form on the leeward bunk. His massive shoulders and the line of his body, after more than ten years, were still sexy to her. What a wonderful and accepting relationship they had had all these years.
She groped for her jacket in the foul-weather locker and put it on. She picked up her safety belt and cinched it on too. There was a time where she wouldn’t have needed either. Then she took the logbook and the flashlight from their niches above the chart table and slid on up to the cockpit.
The night was warm, but the wind whipped her long hair. She snapped her safety belt to a fitting on the mizzenmast, with slack enough to slide around the cockpit but not much farther. Clinging to a shroud for balance and carefully keeping her eyes just above the dark horizon, she scanned the whole 360 degrees, stopping to see to starboard under the drumming sail. She checked the port and starboard running lights; both okay. The stern light had been out since Bora Bora, another job for Mark.
She shone her flashlight on the dial by the wheel and logged the speed and the mileage. She checked the compass course. She checked her watch. She logged that too, at 0300, then shone her light on the steering vane. It was working tirelessly, but she noticed that the mizzen sheet was fouled on the stern light.
She was supposed to awaken Mark if she had to leave the cockpit for any reason, but for so trivial a problem it seemed silly. She tried first to reach the line with her hand, straining at the length of her tether. She could not touch it, so she stuffed the logbook under the cockpit seat to protect it from spray and unclipped her safety-belt hook.
She was balanced on her tail, clinging to a shroud and reaching out her fins for the line, when a wave smacked the port bow. The boat lurched under the impact, throwing her off-balance. She lost her grip on the shroud and pirouetted wildly, grabbing at another shroud. She only tipped the wire cable with a webbed hand. Her bottom hit the stern rail and for an instant she balanced there, flailing for a handhold. She screamed his name, once.
Then she was in the rushing sea, fighting instantly to find the safety line they trailed behind the boat. She grabbed the slimy rope and lost it. At the last moment she glimpsed the crazy plastic jug bounding at its tail. She caught the jug, but it snapped off in her hands. The rope whipped away, streaming phosphorescence. She opened her gills and found her breath and shrieked as the dark hull pulled away. She remembered her whistle, that human instrument which could mean the difference between life and death, jammed it into her mouth, and began wetly to shrill.
She continued to blow long after the boat was lost in the swells. The moon, tipping precariously, was blotted out by a wave no worse than the one that had spilled her fishlike form overboard, but monstrous from her angle. She rode up its face like a cork, glimpsed the top of the mainsail. She whistled again, and listened.
Nothing. She screamed his name once more.
Then she lay whimpering, while the enormity of it all soaked in. Once she thought she saw a flash. If he had dropped the strobe light, he had heard her go and was looking for her.
When dawn came and she saw no sail, she was shaken and scared, as much for him as herself, for she had not been in the ocean for more than a decade. There was a time where she knew she was okay; he knew nothing.
# # #
The sun edged higher. Mark clutched the wheel, unable to shake the compulsion to retrace his track. His guilt was enormous. Adele… My sea woman. My beloved sea woman. He had brought her here all that time ago and never really told her why. In that time she had forgotten where she came from. Her roots. Her skills. He loved her. He didn’t care what she was or how she looked.
Two weeks ago they had sailed into Bora Bora, isolating themselves in a lagoon away from the village. They were exhausted, recovering from a hurricane. There were other things to recover from too.
“When we spotted the boat,” he said too quickly.
“You’re not leveling,” she said. “And we promised.”
Daily life had become almost impossible, and Mark anesthetized himself with the fiction of Melville, Conrad, and Jack London. Rationally, he knew that the islands he was adventuring were dead or would be isolated, but he saw himself among them anyway, skippering a trading schooner, with an ungodly oceanic mistress.
He was suddenly in the shade. He had drifted ten degrees off course. He spun the wheel quickly, still impelled to turn around. But he simply could not unless he knew when she had gone, and the only documentary evidence, the logbook, seemed nowhere in sight.
His eyes went blind again with tears. “Oh, God,” he mumbled, half strangled. He had to quit sniveling if he was going to see at all. He tried to focus his mind on the facts that would help find her, to estimate her drift and his, but his brain refused to compute unless it knew when it had happened.
He searched for a clue in his memory, a scream or a whistle half heard in his sleep. He had come awake suddenly, an hour and a half before dawn, and had glimpsed the Southern Cross racing across the skylight. The compass at the foot of his bunk cast a glow on varnished cabin beams and tinted the clock and barometer to a brassy rose. All very shippy, and once one of the delights of awakening at sea.
The starboard steering cable was squeaking in the lazaret, their aft storage space. He had intended to have it replaced, but there was no use doing it now. He knew he couldn’t go back to sleep, so he decided to go topside. He rolled from the bunk, handed himself along grab rails in the overhead like a commuter on a lurching subway, and climbed the companionway ladder. He ignored a tug of guilt as he brushed past his safety belt. He had made her promise him, and had promised her, always to wear one topside at night. He was troubled vaguely by something wrong. He inspected the self-steering vane aft. It was steering with its customary precision. Mark was still uneasy. Aft of it, a mizzen sheet was fouled on the stern light. Hanging tightly to a mizzen shroud, he kicked it loose. For a moment he gazed astern at the green wake they laid.
The thick yellow safety line writhed in their track. Tonight it was strangely passive. It should have been dragging an empty plastic jug as a buoy astern. But he could not see the jug.
He began to haul the line in. When its end was twenty feet astern, he could see that the plastic jug was gone. He hauled the rest quickly aboard. The loop he had spliced to the handle of the missing jug was still intact. The cap must have loosened. The jug must have filled with water and become so heavy that its handle had broken off. Turning, he noticed that Adele’s safety belt was not swinging on its hook next to his. That was strange. All this time at sea, and her forgetting her ability to swim, had taught them to keep safety gear in place.
He was apprehensive now, inexplicably nervous. He ducked down the companionway steps and brushed aside the curtain to the forward compartment. Her tank light was not on. Shaken and frightened, he groped for the light, missed, almost fell in the tank itself. “Adele?” Tight with terror, he found the light at last and flicked it on.
The tank was empty.
“Adele?” he shouted. “Adele!”
A bolt of panic tore through him, paralyzing him. He began to tremble uncontrollably.
When he could move again, he moved swiftly. Sometimes, when it was stuffy below, she slept topside on the dinghy’s plywood sea top, her writhing feelers clipped to a line. He scrambled topside.
He could see by moonlight that the dinghy was bare. He went aft, where the strobe light, horseshoe buoy, its sea anchor, and the man-overboard pole were all connected by a line, ready for action. He hurled the lot into the wake. He found himself sobbing quietly, not sure why he was dropping it all here when she could be hours away.
He still could not believe she was gone. He flicked on the spreader lights, illuminating everything on deck and halfway up the mast. She was nowhere topside.
Now, still not knowing when she had gone, he forced his attention back to the skies. Eyes taut with fatigue, he tried to estimate how much time he had before the first squall hit him.
The sun had broken from behind mushroom clouds and turned the water to windward into a lane of hammered brass. It was impossible to search it with the naked eye. He dashed below for his binoculars. When he could not find them, he tore into his drawer and flung clothes, handkerchiefs, and socks around the cabin. He discovered them finally where he always kept them, in a net above his bunk. He barged back topside.
The squall hit in a blinding sheet of rain and spray. For five minutes he could not see upwind at all, and to leeward not more than a hundred feet. Somewhere the boat slogged through it. When the squall passed and the trades began again, he placed the vane in charge. He slung the binoculars over his neck and climbed the ratlines to the spreader. He pulled himself to a sitting position on its flat upper surface, clinging to the mast for balance. He tried to study the water up-sun. He let the binoculars swing from his neck. He stared at the area of ocean around him and winced.
# # #
From the spreader, he watched the next squall approach. His bare right foot, braced against the yardarm, slipped. He almost pitched from the mast. He glanced downward. Twenty feet below, the boat knifed heedlessly through the swells. She took a special roll and almost flung him off again. Her mainsail chuckled softly.
He heard nothing, saw nothing, in the glare beyond the crest of the swell.
“Adele!” he screamed. He slid down the shrouds, letting go to drop the last ten feet. He lowered the jib, loosened the mizzen, and grabbed the wheel, yanking the boat out of command. He started the engine and spun the wheel into the plummeting sun. He thought he saw something in the glare but lost the visual. He spotted it again, and then the buoy, and her face turned skyward. The spill of burnished hair on the buoy.
He brought the bow into the wind and let the boat go dead. Adele was twenty feet away. He cut the engine so that she could hear him, for she showed no sign of knowing that he was here. He tossed her the orange life ring, attached to the boat with a long floating line. It dropped within five feet of her. “Adele!” he shouted. “Grab it!”
She raised her head. She seemed dazed. He yelled again. She seemed to see the ring. She slipped from the buoy and tried for it. It was not three feet away from her when she reached out, floundered, and went under.
He dove. The coolness shocked him. He surfaced. He saw her face, contorted with effort, on the face of the swell. He reached her, slid his hip under her tail and across her breasts, and plowed for the orange ring. It was drifting downwind fast. He barely reached it. He jammed an arm through it, rested for a moment, holding her high. Her eyes were closed.
“Adele,” he begged. “You’ve gotta swim. Adele?”
She opened her eyes. “I fell—” she murmured. “Mark—”
The life ring yanked at his crooked elbow, almost pulling free. He grabbed convulsively, got his arm back through it, and found that he was forcing her head beneath the waves. The ring tugged again. He glanced at the boat, which was now hobby-horsing. His heart almost stopped. The jib had eased from its furlings and was filling with wind at each crest. As the sail bellied, it began to climb magically up the head stay. The life ring jerked again, almost pulling his arm from its socket as it began to tow them both. His back, supporting Adele, went out with a shock of agony.
The boat was gathering speed. A tiny bow wave formed at her stem, like a smile. His arm slipped again. The boat heaved forward, towing them faster. He hung on, a link between Adele, the life ring, and the boat.
The ketch began to draw a wake, half drowning him. Water was shoving against his face, tearing Adele from his grip. He tried to shift her weight. She planed under and slithered from his grasp. He was suddenly light in the water. If he pulled himself aboard and came back…
He would find her dead, if he found her at all. He twisted to look back. She was already fifteen feet away, limp on her back in a cresting swell. He glimpsed her cheeks, bronze in the late sunlight. Her eyes were closed, but her gills were open and her teeth gleamed whitely.
He let go and stroked for her. “Adele!” he called.
Her eyes opened once. She saw him. A crusting wave hung over her head. She seemed to try to speak, and then she was gone.
He filled his lungs, porpoised high, and dove. He sliced downward. He saw nothing but shards of brassy sunlight lancing the depths. He heard a low-pitched throb and cleared his ears; the beat remained, and he recognized the drum of distant screws. He curved deeper. The agony of airlessness was brief; he was already through the level of no return. He recognized the edge of narcosis; for a while he was happy, soaring in a cobalt void, and then he glimpsed a pale form drifting below him.
Languidly, he spiraled down. Her body was blurred and ghostly until he reached for it. He brushed her arm and she seemed to come alive. Her skin was soft and pliant; he felt her hair sweep across his cheek. He clasped her around the waist and let her guide him down. Suddenly the depths exploded in a chaos of sapphire and gold.
Then he finally saw it all: his own body writhing in agony, hers at ease and quite content. He saw it from outside himself, with her.