Mermaids at St. Abbs Head

Gwendolyn Edward

It was overcast and the world had thrown a thick, sodden blanket over the Scottish village of St. Abbs, though by now, the fishing families there were used to the that type of weather. However, being accepting of their lot at St. Abbs didn’t mean that they had to want it. They all wanted something else, something more. At night children spoke in rabbit whispers to their mothers about the trains to Edinburgh and Glasgow and even London, where there were halls devoted to musicians and universities where people learned things other than fishing. In these places, the stink of fish didn’t permeate the skin. But the children’s dreams of cities became only hushed hopes, and were buried under blankets so fathers wouldn’t hear, or were blown away in the wind that carried the boats to sea. This was because the children of St. Abbs had learned never to speak of dreams, ever since Finlay had carried one in his mouth all through the village only to spit it out along the way to St. Abbs Head when his too thin body couldn’t contain the excitement anymore. “There’s mermaids!” he cried, breathless and red, wiping his hands mechanically on his pants the way all the children did, as if they could wipe away the smell of their futures. “There’s mermaids at St. Abbs Head!”

Finlay wasn’t known to lie. He was actually quite an unimaginative child, and so the others called him “Fish head.” “Fish head” because his head was too small for his body and his neck too thick. There were never any thoughts swimming between his ears, his eyes always seemed a tad glazed over, unseeing, and he followed the others with a silent, slightly gaping mouth that drooped at the corners. And he smelled like fish. They all did, but only Finlay was ridiculed for it. He never pointed that out. Maybe he didn’t notice that the others smelled just as bad as he did, or maybe he didn’t care. He took abuse well, and everyone knew his father was a drunk. Insults flew like a mallet at the fish head during the night when peat burned heavily in wood plank cottages, and Finlay covered his bruises with wool.

Finlay wasn’t anything worth noticing, and when other children played at marbles he always accepted that he would have to collect the glass balls at the end because he knew his station and didn’t dare to rally against it. He couldn’t have played anyway. He didn’t have any marbles and no one ever bothered to lend him some. When Oliver caught a fish with the patch-worked net he stole from his father, and the children played lord of the castle and feasted upon small bones over a hidden fire, Finlay served them as befitted his rank. When the others spoke of gold and swords, he took what little flesh was left and sat meekly, listening to their tales, inwardly making them his own.

When Finlay declared that there were mermaids at St. Abbs Head, the others believed him. Perhaps it was because Finlay couldn’t possibly imagine anything fantastic, and so the manner in which he heaved and squealed had an intuitive truth. Maybe it was because the boys needed something else other than clouds and rain and poverty.

“What do you mean, mermaids at St. Abbs Head,” Angus said cautiously, running a calloused hand through dark unkempt hair, as he too had squashed his dreams into a hard ball of lead that sat in his intestines, waiting to be expelled. “Everyone knows there’s no things as mermaids.” But his voice betrayed him.

Bean looked upwards through greasy red bangs at the oldest boy. If Angus thought there might be mermaids, then there really might be mermaids. He remembered nights when the wind howled and the water was fierce and his mother sat beside him, telling him about the mermaid wife. She had been beautiful and the fisherman had been smart enough to catch her. A lucky man. Like the other boys, even Bean had forgotten the end of the story, but what he did remember was that mermaids looked like sun and sun shone on their scales whether there was any sun or not. They lived under the sea in a place where sun streamed down and blessed altars where flowers grew and they sat on stools made of weathered stones and the king of them all sat, so old, that parts of him had turned to coral.

Bean ate these stories like oat cakes, and there was never enough of whimsy or food, so when Finlay waved his arms and demanded that the others follow him to see the mermaids Bean jumped up and ran and didn’t even notice the hard rocks poking through the thin soles of his shoes. Dirty hair in the wind. The sound of labored breathing. The dream held on the tongue and in the eyes. No one dared to say another word until they saw the mermaids. Five pairs of feet thudded along the downward sloping path towards the beach in an awkward rhythm, with Finlay in the lead, his own footfalls like a drum that the others followed for the first time.

When Finlay stopped abruptly at the base of St. Abbs Head, the rocky promontory with the white-washed lighthouse, Bean smashed into him, sending them both onto wet earth where grass gave way to grey stones. There were fishing boats on the water, their fathers’ boats, and they could hear their fathers yelling and screaming and the boys didn’t know what was happening. Bean helped Finlay to his feet and the boys raced to the edge of the water.

“The mermaids,” Finlay whispered, broken.

Even from where they were standing, boats inaccessible because of space and water, the boys could see.

One mermaid was strung up from Finlay’s father’s mast. Hung by a tail that was longer than any man’s legs, purple like heather decorated with wreaths of sea leaves, the mermaid spoke in some intelligible tongue and trashed like a fish in a net. But those gurgling words didn’t come from a mouth the shape of a heart, and there was no sun shining of scales.

It might have been a man or a woman, Bean couldn’t tell. But it didn’t matter because the mermaid was horrible. The heather scales didn’t give way to milk flesh and soft hair. Scales upon scales with no breasts to nuzzle and no neck to kiss. Scales on its entire body and head and pointed razor teeth that cut the dragon tongue so that its mouth was a bloody cave. It twisted and heaved and tore at where its tail was tied, desperately trying to free itself, but when its hands touched the hempen twine, Bean’s father, Eumann, lopped off one of its arms and sent it into the water, the mermaid howling and chocking on blood and air.

“You promised,” Mac, the youngest, cried at Finlay, hurling a clump of sod at him. “You promised there’d be mermaids!”

“It is a mermaid,” Finlay responded miserably, not even bothering to wipe the dirt from his face. It stained him, marked him as a liar. “There were seven of them and they were singing and splashing in the waves and one waved at me.” His voice broke when he said waved and he felt tears in his eyes. Beyond, the mermaid’s terror continued, and Bean couldn’t look.

“That’s not a mermaid,” another spat.

Angus nodded, shaking. “Mermaids are beautiful and…” Angus couldn’t describe what he thought he’d see anymore, and so he walked up to Finlay and pushed him to the ground. “You’re so stupid, Finlay.” Then, he began to walk off with the other two boys, all of them swallowing back cries so fiercely that their chests hurt.

“It’s an ugly mermaid anyway. Who cares if they kill it,” Angus said, even though none of the boys had mentioned the lynching.

Finlay stayed on the ground on his back where he had fallen, stunned. “They’re beautiful,” he said softly. “They were beautiful and smiling.”

Bean forced himself to look at the mermaid again. It wasn’t beautiful. It was grotesque and streamed in blood and was just a fish. It had stopped moving, and their fathers stood around it, arms loose and hanging like the mermaid.

“I wanted you to see,” Finlay began, but Mac cut him off.

“We saw. We saw alright. You’re worthless Finlay.” Mac trudged away and Finlay let him.

“Come on, Finlay,” Bean said, trying to get the other boy to sit up. “There’s nothing left to see.”

“I wish you could have seen them like I did,” Finlay whispered, making the first wish he had ever dared to.

Bean finally sat down beside him when Finlay still refused to move. Finlay looked at the sky, grey and expansive and Bean looked at the wretched, dying mermaid.

They stayed like that for far too long, even after the fishing boats sailed away with their catch and there was nothing left to look at.

Cold crept into Bean’s feet and he stomped them on the ground. “Getting dark soon,” he said to Finlay, who lay like a wounded fox curled on the grass.

“I don’t care,” he mumbled. “I can’t go back.”

“You want to freeze out here?” Bean asked.

“I don’t care.”

There was a long silence.

Then Bean saw the arm in the water, lapping, almost to the shore. He got up and brushed his hands on his pants and waded into the water, freezing water like ice picks pricking his feet. He picked up the mermaid limb and felt it almost weightless in his hand. The scales were soft, not hard like the fish his father caught. And the purple sheen shifted to blues and greens at the edges of the tiny circles. Bean noticed a pattern and saw that the colors formed a picture of a lobster crawling on sand. The nails were long, and thick, not uniform like his but thicker in some places than others making staggered ridges, pearlescent like the inside of an oyster. He carried it back to Finlay.

“Look,” he said, standing above the broken boy. “It’s the arm my father cut off.”

Finlay looked and sat up. Wordlessly, he reached for it, and Bean gave it to him.

Finlay sat there for a long time looking at it. Bean waited, shaking, even though his feet were frozen.

“It’s beautiful,” Finlay said, looking hopefully to Bean.

Bean nodded.

“The others won’t see it,” Finlay said.

“They won’t,” Bean agreed.

Finlay tried to wrench the nails from the fingers.

“What are you doing?” Bean asked.

“Taking them with me,” Finlay said, set at his task. He picked up a flat rock and began to hack the flesh from the hand.

Bean helped him, and they put the hand on the grass between them and with make-shift knives they carved the mermaid hand open and detached the mother-of-pearl nails. Afterwards, with pockets that smelled like blood and dead fish, they threw the meat into the sea and watched it sink.

The mermaid was hung at St. Abbs Head, near the lighthouse. The people came to look at it, though by then the gulls had been at it and crabs crawled in its mouth and sea worms had eaten its eyes. Everyone agreed that the fisherman did the right thing by killing it. Finlay’s father sang about the beast around the fire when he was heavy with beer and the song spread like whispered children’s dreams until everyone had heard it, but Finlay and Bean never sang the song, though they knew it by heart.

Months later Bean found Finlay in the spot where they had seen the mermaid. All the boys went there at one time or another, but they never talked about it and never went together.

“Are you looking for them?” Bean asked, knowing the answer.

“No,” Finlay said, pulling the shell nails from his pocket.

Bean knew he was lying.

Finlay threw them into the water, but they only floated on the surface.

A fish snagged one curiously, and for a second it disappeared into darkness, but then it bobbed back up to the top and wavered in the water.

“Why did you do that?” Bean asked, thinking about the five nails he kept hidden between his mattress and bed frame.

“They were never mine to keep,” Finlay responded, walking off.

Bean watched them float around and thought that Finlay was stupid for throwing them away.

And Finlay might have been stupid, because he forgot about the mermaid. When the corpse was rotted and only fish bones were left and the village threw it into the ocean, it rained for four days, so badly that the boats couldn’t sail out to fish. After that, no one spoke of the mermaid and the song they all sung about it died in the mouth before a word was uttered. Finlay’s father still sang it, but Finlay never heard it. He let the song be carried away before it ever reached his ears, before he could hope anymore for something else. Everything he ever buried was dug up and tossed into the ocean like the shell nails, and when Bean tried to show him the mermaid treasure he kept hidden, Finlay only asked what they were.

GWENDOLYN EDWARD is a Master’s candidate in creative writing at the University of North Texas as well as a reader and blog editor for American Literary Review and a reader for North Texas Review. She enjoys the dark and absurd, as well as literary fiction, historically researched non-fiction, poetry, sci-fi and fantasy. She has a neurotic cockatoo and never goes anywhere without a book in her purse.

3 thoughts on “Mermaids at St. Abbs Head

  1. This story has captured me, and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because of the familiar themes of childhood–the hopes and the desire for acceptance. Maybe the parts I loved most were the elements of fantasy and realism merged. The writing eloquently captures the grotesque enveloped in the vulnerable brutality that makes up humanity. Thank you, Gwendolyn, for giving us this tale of forlorn whimsy.

  2. I wonder if the mermaid was really a mermaid or perhaps some sea creature that Finlay interpreted as a mermaid. I say it was a real mermaid. I wonder if the mermaid changed from beautiful into a grotesque creature upon distress (based on the arm becoming lovely once it was free of pain). The best stories make you want to talk about them.

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