Image: The Mermaid, 1910 Howard Pyle (1853-1911) Oil on canvas, 57 7/8 x 40 1/8 inches Delaware Art Museum, Gift of the children of Howard Pyle in memory of their mother, Anne Poole Pyle, 1940
A classic tale about a mermaid and a shipwrecked sailor.
Sister. Join us. They come.
Drifting lazily at the sandy bottom, SwiftStream flicked her head up at her sisters’ call, their voices whispering in her mind. Dropping the bones and seashells she was collecting, she kicked her muscular tail and soared towards the ocean’s surface. She was far below, darkness all around her, alone. Few fish dared to keep the sirens company down in the deepest trenches.
She wasn’t named SwiftStream for nothing. Strong and fast, she pulled away from the darkness. Colourful fish darted away from her. Kelp tangled in her hair and around her outstretched arms. Her green hair streamed behind her. She narrowed her eyes against the growing light, her white skin almost glowing against the brightness.
One, last strong kick, and she broke head and shoulders through the surface. The cool air slapped against her face, her skin puckered into goosebumps. She gasped at the air, then gasped again as pain seared through her lungs. Her gills snapped shut. It was always a shock to leave the embrace of the sea.
SwiftStream thrust herself forward with a kick and skated along the surface. She dipped under again and with a flap of her tail, propelled herself across the gleaming water. She could hear her sisters singing already, their voices carrying on the wind. She plunged back into the water, kicked, then soared again, heart thundering with excitement, in urgency. They needed her. She was the highest note. Without her, they risked failure.
She glimpsed the horizon. It was a cloudless day, the sun bright, the wind gusting. Good. The Sea Gods were on their side. She could see their target. It looked like nothing—a black dot in the distance. But SwiftStream knew better. The humans’ ships were usually enormous, often containing fifty or more men. Still, they were no match for Titan. A stab of jagged rock located close to an island, it made a graveyard of their mighty ships.
I’m here, she returned.
She breached the surface and grabbed onto the nearest handhold, salty spray hissing in the air as the water slammed and smashed behind her. She pulled herself over Titan’s rocky platform and slithered on top, dragging her tail heavily behind her. She sat for a moment to catch her breath. Her sisters’ song vibrated through the air, calling the humans over, calling them to their deaths.
Come to us, we await thee,
Hear our sweet voices,
Taste our salty lips,
Stroke our flowing hair,
Come to us, we await thee.
SwiftStream caught her breath and joined in, her voice lifting alongside her sisters, the song now in perfect harmony.
Waves crashed all around Titan. White frothy water whirled and seethed upon the concealed rocks just below the surface. So many humans had made it their watery grave, and there would be more yet today.
The ship steadily took form amidst the spray, lifting and dropping over the swell at full speed, all sails unfurled. The sirens lifted their song to a higher pitch and a faster pace. Their fins writhed in excitement, and their long, dripping hair tangled around their arms as they urgently gestured the humans over.
Above their song and the crashing waves, SwiftStream could hear the humans shouting, the ominous creaking of the timber as the ship rocked and swayed in the rough sea. White water smashed against the prow, seethed around the keel. As the ship approached closer, it spilt a cool, dark shadow across Titan and her sisters.
SwiftStream could see the men now as they rushed across the deck. They had finally seen Titan and were desperately trying to turn the ship around. There came an almighty groan, then a bang, followed by screams and shouting. The sirens ceased their singing, watching as the ship slowly turned around in a circle, the timber creaking and groaning. There was a great rip in its side, and it was filling with water. Masts fell, sails ripped, the keel rocked. Men climbed onto the edge and jumped into the water.
SwiftStream could feel her sisters’ excitement as they leapt in after them. SwiftStream joined them, slicing through the surface. Her gills opened in a stream of bubbles as the air left her lungs. She kicked her tail hard, catching up with her sisters. It was hard to see, the turbulence turning the water frothy.
Close enough now, she breached the surface in an explosion of noise. Men screamed and wailed at the sight of them, hands slapped through the water, legs kicked fruitlessly, as they tried to get away. SwiftStream grinned. Launching after the nearest one, she seized his ankle and pulled him under.
It was so quiet beneath the surface. So peaceful. The human didn’t think so as he squirmed and kicked and thrashed in her grip. She dragged him deeper, his dark hair lifting against the push of the water, bubbles streaming from his mouth. His clothes billowed and puffed outward. His eyes were wide and terrified and such an astonishing blue that SwiftStream stopped her descent.
They were the colour of the sky.
She had never seen it in a human before. Not even in a siren. Humans usually had dull brown eyes turned black when they drowned.
She released his ankle. He kicked towards the surface, but she seized him around the middle before he could get too far.
It’s not safe, SwiftStream said in her mind. My sisters will drown you and wear your bones.
She spoke in her mind automatically. She knew he couldn’t hear her. And yet, he stopped struggling. She smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back. His eyelids drooped, his head lolled, a thick stream of bubbles poured between his lips.
In a panic, she tightened her grip around his middle and hauled him to the surface. The moment his lips touched the air, he opened his mouth, his eyes, and took an enormous gasp, then choked and coughed and spluttered. Fear lit up his wondrous blue gaze when he saw her, and he thrust himself away.
‘Wait!’ she cried in her real voice, striking out for his ankle. ‘They will kill you.’
They didn’t speak the same language, but he heard the fear in her voice, heard her sisters screaming their bloodlust from all around, the shouts of the other men, and understood. He went back to her, and she took his hand and guided him away.
Hurry, she called to him uselessly in her mind. He was so lumbering and heavy and slow.
She pulled him away from Titan, from the sinking ship, from the screaming men, from the floating bodies, riding the swell to the island.
They crested a wave and were dumped into the shallows. The man crawled out of her arms, coughing and spluttering and moaning, wobbling on his knees, clothes and hair torn and sopping wet. SwiftStream wanted to help, but she feared to leave the water. He collapsed onto the beach with a sigh.
Officer John Jones, First Mate on the Nightingale, woke up sprawled on the sand beneath the burning sun. He blinked, confused for a moment, then sat up with a gasp. Shipwrecked. His men. He leapt to his feet, staggered, tripped and collapsed to his knees. The ship was gone, buried beneath the water. Debris collected along the shore around him: driftwood, luggage, a bloated body. He looked away with a grimace.
‘Mermaids,’ he spat in disbelief.
Only his grandfather had believed in such nonsense. He rubbed the salt from his eyes. He was confused, disorientated, his dreams mixed with reality. Too much salt water. That’s what it was. But what about that singing? And where did that giant rock come from? It seemed to have come out of nowhere. It was a bright, cloudless day. How could they have not seen it?
Something odd was afoot.
He scanned the shoreline, then further out, towards the jagged piece of rock that took his ship. A word rang in his brain from somewhere he couldn’t fathom—Titan.
He shook his head, looked around. He was stranded on an island somewhere in the Ariantic Sea. No other survivors. No inhabitants. It wasn’t even along their route. Why they had even come this way, he couldn’t understand.
He looked towards the water with a start. There was a splash amid the waves, pale green hair that looked like seaweed. That was seaweed, he told himself. He shook his head again. Then a white face appeared, dark eyes watching, and it all came tumbling back.
He leapt back to his feet, staggered backwards, fell again. He coughed, spluttered, vomited. He wiped his mouth.
‘Mermaid,’ he whispered.
His grandfather was right. The legends were true. He looked towards Titan. How many other ships had been taken before his? He looked back to the shore. Another splash, and the mermaid was gone.
He stayed still, afraid to move. Big, burly and brave First Mate John Jones, frightened of a mere water maiden. He shrieked as she reappeared again close to the shore. He clapped his hand to his mouth, appalled and embarrassed. It was no way for a man to act, particularly an officer. He reached for the knife at his belt, but his belt had been swept away, along with his gun.
She drifted in the shallows, green hair streaming over her shoulders, dark eyes staring, a long pale arm outstretched. He looked at her breasts, pearly and perfect with pink nipples that begged for his touch.
She might have been faery, but she was still part woman—and beautiful.
‘Hello,’ he said.
She cocked her head and smiled as the water rippled around her. The push and pull of the waves massaged her back, leaving a shine on her skin. A droplet clung to her left nipple and stayed there.
He swallowed, took a breath and pointed a thumb to his chest. ‘First Mate John Jones.’
She didn’t answer. Instead, she broke out into a grin, revealing pointed teeth. He reeled back, then steeled himself, forcing a smile in return.
‘Errr—perhaps Shelley will do.’
It was a terrible name. Shells? He could have slapped himself in the head. But he was being foolish. What did she care? She lifted a long, white finger and curled it towards him, gesturing him over.
‘Uh—I’m not a good swimmer,’ he lied.
Her smile broadened, revealing those pointed white teeth again. But Jones barely noticed, his eyes gravitating to that droplet of water on her nipple. How had it not washed away? She gestured him over again, and this time he got to his feet.
He waded into the water thigh-deep. Shelley curled around him. Her fishtail was a silhouette beneath the water, large and muscular like a dolphin’s, with green, translucent fins floating on the water’s surface. She tugged playfully at his pants.
‘Why did you save me?’ he asked.
She smiled, then dipped her lips beneath the water and looked up at him with hungry eyes, and he understood. He broke out into a sweat. He shouldn’t be doing this. He shouldn’t be in the water with her. Her kind had sunk his ship, killed his men. But he couldn’t stop gazing at her. He had been four months on the Nightingale without a woman, and he could feel every day of it like a twist in his balls.
‘God help me,’ he said and sat in the water.
She drifted around him, tail curved around his body, watching him with those beautiful eyes crinkled up, her smile hidden beneath the surface. His breath caught in his throat as he felt her drag her fingers along his back. He swung an arm around her waist and pulled her against him. She curled into his lap, one slender arm looped around his neck, and gazed into his eyes. He felt around her waist. The smoothness of her skin merged with the slipperiness of her scales. Her tail looked as heavy as any great fish’s tail, but it was light and free in the water. He glided his hand over it. It was one of the most wonderful things he had ever felt, maybe even more wonderful than the supple breast of a woman. Maybe. Shelley threw her head back and laughed as he cupped her left one. Maybe not. Jones laughed too.
She stopped laughing and looked back into his eyes. Her hair was wet and lank, fringe dripping into her face, but he could imagine it bright and beautiful in the water as the sun caught in its lengths. He grabbed the back of her neck and kissed her. She tasted of salt and fish and mystery. Everything he loved so much about the sea. Her lips were surprisingly warm, just like the rest of her. Even her tail. She was no fish. He kissed her harder, his tongue sliding along her pointed teeth. She was a gentle kisser, with soft sweet lips, just like a woman.
She pulled back, smiled, then pushed her hand under his shirt. The waves crashing further out were like distant thunder in his ears. Shelley’s hair moved back and forth in time with the rippling water. At every passing wave or swell, her breasts sank beneath the surface before revealing themselves again when the water pulled back, soft and supple and shining wetly. He touched them again, then bent his head low and took a salty nipple into his mouth. Shelley tightened her arm around his neck and pressed herself against him so he could take her in deeper. Then she turned to his crotch. She fumbled, having trouble with the buttons.
‘Here, let me,’ he gasped, heart thundering, his penis pressing painfully against the front of his pants.
He yanked them open, popping off several buttons. She looked into his lap. It was underneath the water, dark hair floating, rigid length so stiff it stood immovable against the waves. She touched it, stroked it with the side of her finger. Jones swallowed. He was about to fuck a mermaid. Nobody would believe him.
‘How—’ he swallowed again—‘how are we supposed to do this?’
She grinned, curled her hand around his hardness, then seized him in a crushing grip. He yelped and grasped at her wrist but didn’t push her away. Their eyes met, and she eased her hold.
She opened her mouth and made a sound, shrill and piercing and incomprehensible.
‘What?’ he winced.
She pulled out of his lap and gestured him to stand. He obeyed. She drifted away from him with a careless flick of her fins, closer to the crashing waves, deeper into the water. She curled a finger and bade him follow. He hesitated but only for a moment. He followed until he was hip deep. The crashing waves were dangerously close now, so close that salty spray hit him in his face. The strong white water almost swept his feet from under him. Shelley barely noticed, her eyes trained on his penis, her face directly at its level. Then he realised. She had taken him out deeper so she could—
He gasped, seized onto the back of her head, his fingers tangling in her green hair, as she took him in her mouth.
He gasped again, tightened his hold and flung his head back as she enveloped his entire length. She sucked and teased, then pulled her mouth back, until her lips sat softly against his foreskin. She licked his hole before taking him in again, his tip brushing against the back of her throat. She wrapped her arms around his hips fiercely as she suckled, her tail curving around him, green fins slapping the surface of the water. He thrust into her mouth with a cry. A large wave of white water slammed into them, but he stepped back and braced himself, and it only drove them more tightly together. He thrust more quickly, desperately, his pleasure almost equal to his pain as months of pent-up sexual energy threatened to explode out of him. An immense wave crashed, throwing spray high into the air and sending a wall of white water hurtling their way. He thrust into her hard, mashing his pelvis against her face, and erupted into her mouth.
The wave hit, and Jones lost his feet. He tumbled beneath the water, over and over, fingers scrabbling against the sand. Pain ripped through him as his shoulder jarred against a rock. Clawing his way through the froth and sand, he breached the surface with a gasp. He shot to his feet, looked around, caught sight of Shelley much further out, her head and breasts above the water. Calling her name, he yanked up his pants and rushed towards her, his injured arm dangling at his side.
She looked up, smiled, then spat into her hand, catching his seed in a white sheen. She cupped it, then dunked her hand beneath the surface. She did something with it, but he couldn’t see what.
With a slap of her tail, she thrust towards him, gliding beneath the water. When she reached him, she burst through the surface and wrapped her arms around his waist. He sank to his knees, holding her back. Smiling, she caressed his face with her slippery fingers.
‘Oh, Shelley.’ He kissed her nose.
She froze, then cocked her glorious head, as though listening. She looked at him, frowned, then pulled out of his embrace.
‘Shelley,’ he said, grabbing at her arm.
But she slipped out of his grasp and dove back towards the deep, disappearing beneath a rushing wave.
She breached the water one more time, then dove again, slender arms outstretched, and she was gone.
‘How’s the shoulder?’
‘Healed, thank you, sir,’ Officer Jones said, instinctively rotating it.
It was almost four months later, and he was standing in Admiral Jenkin’s chambers, nervous as the Admiral considered him from behind his polished oak desk. The Admiral was ageing, bags under his eyes, balding, walrus moustache white, but his mind was as quick as ever, and his hands still looked strong enough to crush a boy’s skull. He wore his naval uniform, similar to Jones’s: black and red tailcoat, silver buttons down the front, white gloves. The only difference was a purple sash pinned to one shoulder, denoting him as Admiral. Clasped in the Admiral’s big left hand was Jones’s report on the Nightingale’s ill-fated voyage.
The Admiral put it on the desk and smoothed out the top page. ‘It’s a shame what happened.’
‘Yes,’ Jones said.
‘You say a freak squall blew you off course.’
‘Fifty leagues distance?’
Jones didn’t answer.
‘If your report is to be believed, you smashed into Ravenhoe Island, the ship sank, and somehow out of a crew of forty-five men, you alone survived.’
The Admiral leant back into his chair, his foot tapping the floor. ‘A little fantastic, don’t you think?’
Not so fantastic as the truth, Jones thought to himself.
‘What are you saying, Admiral?’ he dared.
‘I’m saying nothing, Officer Jones, nothing.’ He sat up straight in his chair and steepled his fingers together, elbows resting against the papers. ‘The Council appreciates the timeliness of your report. You have shown much bravery and fortitude.’ He pulled out a drawer and removed a black cloth. ‘With Captain Dwyer’s death, it seems we are now short on leaders with experience such as his.’ The cloth was folded around something, and he opened it, revealing a golden badge. ‘How do you feel about commanding the Reprisal?’
Jones’s eyes widened. He lifted his chin. ‘It would be an honour, sir.’
The Admiral stood up, rounded his desk and pinned the badge to Jones’s coat. The Admiral saluted and Jones saluted back.
‘Congratulations, Captain Jones.’
Captain John Jones left the Admiral’s chambers in a daze. He smoothed his fingers over his captain’s badge, straightened his uniform. He had never expected the promotion. In fact, he had never expected to be believed at all. Of course, he had to lie. Not only to avoid demotion and the madhouse but to protect Shelley. Word would get out, and there were plenty of seafaring men who still believed in the old myths.
As he walked the three blocks to the harbour, the coastal city of Farrington Hill steadily opened out. At the smell of salt on the air, he quickened his pace. Replacing the buildings were ships: brigs, cargo ships, cogs and caravels, their white sails now tied fast to the masts. A gusting wind blew, the rippling water sending some of the smaller boats rocking. He paused in front of the Reprisal, the Navy’s newest warship: large and gleaming, white masts furled high above, carronades polished and ready for battle. As its captain, he would have the honour of commanding it on its maiden voyage.
He continued walking through the harbour until he passed the last ship, giving him a clear view of the ocean. It was beautiful, the blazing sun sparkling against the surface. Much like it had the day he had met Shelley.
He sighed. Shelley. He leant against the balustrade, gazing across the gleaming water. Where was she now? What was she doing? Was she thinking of him too?
Jones had been stuck three months on that godforsaken island before he was finally found and extracted. He had only been three weeks home and already his memory of that time was fading. He barely recalled the pain in his shoulder, his hunger, his thirst, the biting insects, the weary days that seemed to go on forever. All he could clearly remember was sitting in the sand and scanning the waves, but not seeing Shelley again.
It was a long journey to the Ariantic Sea and fraught with danger: rough seas, krakens, pirates. He needed a big ship and lots of men. Never would he have thought he’d have a chance to go back and find her. He looked towards the Reprisal standing tall and mighty amongst the other ships.
He had a chance now.
© Morgan Tonkin 2018