“The Mermaid’s Tail” by Jennifer Shelby

“The Mermaid’s Tail” by Jennifer Shelby

“I betrayed my humanity when I helped that mermaid, I suppose.” The grey-haired sailor’s false teeth clicked around his unlit pipe, air whistling as he exhaled through his nostrils.

I sighed. My client asked me to meet them in this pub. Their name was Mowoiraree, though male or female I couldn’t say. The trouble with emails is you don’t know how to pronounce complicated names.

Every pub has its regular customers, keen for a fresh audience to their tired stories. This sailor had me pegged as that audience the moment her overheard me order coffee and a meal instead of beer.

“Am I damned for that, you think?” he asked.

I shrugged, not sure what he meant.

“Huh. Not a religious woman?”

I chuckled. “That’s a loaded question for a stranger.”

He grinned, pulling his pipe to the side of his mouth and talking around it. “What do you do?”

“I’m a biomedical engineer.”

He blinked.

I tried another tactic. “I work in robotics.”

He raised his white, unruly eyebrows. “A scientist, then. I get it. You don’t believe anything you can’t see with your eyes.”

I’d had this conversation too many times to engage him. “I’m more into robotics than philosophy.”

“I like you, Miss—?”

“McLeod. Harmony McLeod.”

“I’ve known a few McLeods. Fine folk.” He reached over to shake my hand, his own thick with callouses. “My mother called me Cuthbert. Friends call me Cuss. Well, Miss McLeod, wasn’t right, what they did to that mermaid.”

I gave up and took the dangling bait. “What did they do?”

His eyes cleared, and he brightened, eager to tell his tale. “‘Twas the year of our Lord 1602 when it happened.”

I chuckled. “That makes you over four hundred years old.”

Cuss winked and carried on with his story. “Our ship got caught in the doldrums.” He tapped a bleached tattoo of a bearded man holding a trident on his forearm.

My grandpa sailed with the Navy in his youth. He had a similar tattoo he claimed meant he’d crossed the equator. I suppose the sailor considered it proof of his story.

“Dangerous place, the doldrums, not a breath of wind, sometimes for months. Our food stocks ran low, water too. Captain cut our rations back to nothing and called all hands on deck, fishing. Odd thing, we couldn’t catch any fish, either.” He pulled the pipe from his mouth and pointed at me with the stem. “Something frightened the fish away.”

I took a long drink of my coffee and stared at the glass floats decorating the dark wooden wall across from me, wondering where my client might be. The building was at least a hundred years old, plank flooring grooved with age and scuffed with memories. The beams lining the ceiling were rumored to be the masts of a ship which docked here centuries ago. A clock shaped like a ship’s wheel bound with rope boasted of the time. My client was late, but not late enough for concern. Mobility issues could appear without warning.

“Old Fritz swore he spotted a mermaid from the crow’s nest, swimming circles ‘round the ship. That’s when Byron, a new deckhand we’d hired on last port, came clean. You see, before he signed on with us he’d caught a mermaid in his fishing nets. Said the thing drowned before he reached her, but there, in the waves, another mermaid watched, cursing him.

“I didn’t know it then, but I do now. ‘Twas that watching mermaid’s sister what died tangled in his nets. In her version of the tale Byron wasn’t so innocent. He’d chased her sister down, launching harpoons and nets, shouting curses. Relentless, he hunted her for a full week. Caught her after she dragged his ship several fathoms by the harpoon he lodged in her flesh, her sister trying desperately to free her. If my brother died that way I’d have revenge in mind same as that mermaid.”

“How do you know this?” I asked him.

“Well, she told me, didn’t she?” Cuss raised an eyebrow, sucked on his pipe, and settled back into his story. “Byron meant to escape her by joining our crew and sailing to China. The fool should have stayed on land.

“Over the next fortnight we all thought we’d seen her one way or the other. When the food ran out, we blamed him for bringing his curse upon us. It’s said a mermaid can control the sea, did you know that? It was Fritz who got to thinking maybe the mermaid stalled our ship, holding us there, captive. Only one thing to do then.

“The crew waited until Bryon snored in a deep sleep before they stole him from his hammock and tossed him over, dangling from a rope.”

The bartender delivered my food in silence, a heaping plate of fish and chips. I reached for the vinegar, surprised to find myself interested in the sailor’s story. The little girl I used to be spun endless daydreams of mermaids.

“His shrieks echoed over the seven seas, and the mermaid, she took the bait all right.”

I picked up my fork. “This is the mermaid’s revenge, then?”

The sailor nodded. “Took six men to hoist the net and spill her onto the deck. She didn’t flop around like a fish might, but sat there, thinking, her brow all knitted up. Oh, she was a smart one, though we couldn’t know it then. Now they had her, the crew didn’t know what to do with her. Wait for the fish to return, I suppose. Byron, once he’d stopped sputtering and carrying on, pointed out the mermaid was half a fish, tempting them. Fresh fish to a starving man. Tsk. Tsk. They tucked into her before the day was out.”

Cuss shook his head, whiskers swaying back and forth. “Something unholy about the way she screamed. Curdled my belly.” He tapped the stummel of his pipe on the wooden table. “Didn’t have the stomach to partake. Seemed too much like eating a woman, and I told them so, but the rest of the crew had no qualms. Et up most of her tail that night.”

I pushed the breaded fish to the far side of my plate.

“Mermaids can control the sea, all right, but it takes a few hours to brew up a storm, even for a mermaid. Not fast enough to save her tail, but swift enough for vengeance. She summoned a wave taller than the ship out of a sea of glass. The crew were sleeping on the bow where it was cooler, you see. Every last lad swept overboard, except for myself and that mermaid. Said she spared me for not partaking of her flesh. Once the crew was good and drowned, she called up a current that pushed us to Jamaica.

“In the meantime, she had orders for me. Take two strips of meat from her butchered tail, lay them aside, and cauterize her wound. Nasty business. When we reached port in Jamaica, she forced one strip down my throat and she et the other herself. Said it would make us live forever if we didn’t find ourselves drowned or otherwise unnaturally killed. I carried her to shore where she told me to leave her. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I’d found myself in the strangest nightmare I wanted no part of anymore.

“I didn’t go back to the sea after that. Smell of it made me nauseous for years. That mermaid was right about eating her flesh, though, I never did get around to dying. When I got word a tidal wave wrecked Port Royal, I knew she was still alive.”

“Wait. Are you saying the mermaid did that?” I asked. My grandpa loved telling stories about the Port Royal tsunami and the quicksand which swallowed the pirate city forever. I’d been fascinated with the horror of it.

The sailor shrugged, chomping down on his pipe. “Can’t say one way or another, but I have my suspicions. Wouldn’t put it past her. I’d already seen what she was capable of with a grudge to bear.”

I chewed a softened fry, sharp with vinegar, and wondered. I knew better than to believe a tall tale told in a bar, but a part of me wanted to suspend my disbelief, just for a moment.

“Finally went back to Jamaica, to see if I could find her.”

“Did you?” I asked.

Cuss nodded. “Sure, she’d opened a brothel in Kingston, become a Madam. Not your regular type of brothel, either. Nope, she catered to the stranger fetishes. Made herself a wealthy woman, too. She had a wheelchair commissioned for herself and a series of ropes, like the ones on a ship, to haul herself where her chair wouldn’t go.”

“A lot of my clients face accessibility challenges. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to live with such an amputation in the 1600s.” I surprised myself. Surely I didn’t believe his ridiculous tale.

The sailor gave me a slow grin and nodded. “Like living in a freakish, dry, dystopian world, she tells me. But she was far more capable than I, for all my legs were whole. Wore a top to show off what remained of her scales. Drove the men and women wild.”

I poked at my soggy fries, the fish still untouched. There had been engineers who made replacement fins for dolphins. Similar, but also different from the work I do for humans with missing limbs. I’d followed their progress with interest. A mermaid’s tail would make for an interesting challenge. I worked out the details in the back of my mind.

“She gave me a job, said she trusted me. I think maybe it was the loneliness of outliving everyone. Nice to have a friend who doesn’t die on you. She was getting bored with harlotry and hankering after the sea. Nothing to do but buy a ship of her own. She left me in charge of the brothel while she terrorized the Caribbean. The worst pirate there could be, able to call a storm with a few hours’ notice, but you never heard of her. She sent every witness to the bottom of the sea, even her own crew. Vicious woman when it suited her, but no one gets into piracy to nurture their captives.” He snorted with laughter and lit his pipe.

I tried to smile, expecting someone to arrive and tell him to put it out or move outside to smoke. I’d hate to the miss the end of his tale. “What happened to her?”

“Oh, she’s a fine businesswoman, that one. Does well whatever she chooses. Changes on a whim, as it suits her fancy.” He waved his pipe around the room, exhaling a cloud of rum-scented smoke. “Pub suits me, but she’ll be hankering after a change again soon. Another five years or so, I reckon, and she’ll be on to the next adventure.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“You’re the lady who makes robotic limbs and whatnot for those who need them, right?” Cuss asked me.

I nodded, my eyes narrowing. If he’d called me out here on a whim or fantasy, I’d be furious. There were other clients who needed my help.

“You reckon there’s a way for those robotics of yours to work in salt water, without getting all gummed up?” He bit down on his pipe and waited for my answer.

“Sure. Consider the tools divers and deep sea researchers use. There are several methods to protect sensitive parts from pressure and moisture.”

“What could you do for someone wishing they could swim?”

“If this person is real, I’d interview them first. Compare the mobility they want with what is technologically possible and what they can afford. Unfortunately, these technologies are expensive to make. There are charities I can put you in touch with if you like.”

Cuss waved his pipe. “No worry about money. I told you, she’s an excellent businesswoman, and a better pirate. It’s the swimming she’s got a mighty longing for.”

I hoped he wasn’t suffering from delusions.

“You’ll be wanting your bill, then?” He gestured to my plate, two slabs of fish still uneaten.

I nodded and bit down on my lip, wondering if he needed psychological help and hating that I felt responsible for it.

He whistled, four clear strong notes that pierced through my thoughts. It sounded like “mow-wow-ra-ree,” something a dolphin or whale would sing. Mowoiraree, I realized. My client’s name.

The swinging door to the inner sanctum of the pub swung open, and a beautiful, dark woman with long black dreadlocks rode out in a wheelchair. She wore a jean skirt tucked under her bottom, her legs nonexistent.

Her shirt pulled up as she reached out to shake my hand, revealing a flash of dark skin and turquoise sea of scales descending into her waistband.

(she/her) hunts for stories in the beetled undergrowth of fairy-infested forests. She fishes for them in the dark space between the stars. As part of her ongoing catch-and-release program, her debut novella Slipstreamers: Plague of the Dreamless is now available from Engen Books. You can find Jennifer on twitter @jenniferdshelby and at jennifershelby.blog.