by Cate Gardner
Charlie McKendrick scribbled a rule down in Sid’s notebook: No. 142: Never believe anything a stranger tells you in a pub, especially if he is wearing an eye patch. If the pirate who called himself Captain Crow had made his fortune capturing mermaids, Charlie would eat Sid’s fake parrot for supper.
Charlie climbed aboard the rotting timbers of The Hunted Tail. He suspected Crow had stolen the vessel from a wrecker’s yard, the evidence for the prosecution provided by the teeth marks of a crushing machine embedded in its side and a “Condemned” sticker flapping from its flagpole. Charlie wanted to return to the Wayward Inn and plant his fist between Captain Crow’s eyes. Only Sid’s enthusiasm stopped him.
“It could do with a lick of paint,” Sid said. “And I’d like to rename her. Any suggestions, old chum?”
Sid brushed his fringe out of his eyes, saying, “This time we make our fortune, Charlie.”
“Perhaps we do, Sid.”
As he unrolled the map Captain Crow had given to Sid, Charlie expected to find a price sticker on the reverse. The paper was crisp white and the ink smudged. He suspected the Captain had drawn it a minute before he approached them.
The world swayed, knocking Charlie from one side of the tiny cabin to the other. They had put down anchor off the coast of some mean looking cliffs. According to the illustration on the map, in these waters they would find a mermaid.
Charlie sighed. He and Sid were lousy pirates; they didn’t even have the trademark bottle of rum.
Charlie looked out of the porthole window. Ink black rocks jutted out of the sea like teeth, in front of dark caves that resembled eyes, and gold grass that cascaded down the side of the cliffs. As the boat lurched to the right, his head hit the rough wall and inspiration struck:
The island was the mermaid, and she was butt ugly.
Sid was on deck tying knots in the fishing net to repair the larger holes, whistling with excitement because he’d discovered long blonde hairs and fingernails embedded in the rope.
As Charlie stumbled out into the sunlight, Sid’s reaction to his revelation was, “Then where’s her tail?”
Sid had a point, which was unusual. Determined to find a fishtail curve of rocks, Charlie clung to the side of the boat, peering across the glittering sea. Spray washed his face.
“Perhaps if we steer the boat around the island, we’ll find it,” he said.
“Charlie, sometimes you have to believe in the impossible and stop looking for a rational explanation. Now, do you know how to work a harpoon?”
The waves objected to Sid and Charlie’s island-bound route, knocking them from one side of the boat to the other. Feeling like a human pinball, Charlie grasped at the flagpole, his feet sliding against the wet boards. The sea urged them back. Foolhardy, they continued forward.
Rising above the sound of the crashing waves and the creaking of their fragile vessel a lullaby drifted close by, circling the boat. Sid jabbed his elbow in Charlie’s side, his wide-eyed expression and open mouth screaming I told you so.
Sid bundled the net up in his arms and threw it over the side. Sliding to his left, then to his right, he shouted, “It might be a good time to say I can’t swim.”
Charlie let go of the flagpole. He hadn’t been in the water since the 1984 Swimathon at Warren High, and even then, he’d finished last.
In the cabin, he found the lifejackets ripped and spattered with blood.
“Did Captain Crow tell you what happened to his crew?” Charlie asked, swallowing spray.
“Something about a vendetta. I think that’s why he was selling both his boat and his luck. Two for the price of one, he said. He told me that’s why he named the boat The Hunted Tail, though as far as I could tell he didn’t have one.”
Sid stole a lifejacket from Charlie’s fingers, placed it over his head and affixed it to his waist. He didn’t seem to note that it was useless.
The mermaid’s song drew closer. They stepped out onto the deck. Something was tugging at the net.
Both men rushed to haul it back up onto the boat, their puny muscles straining with the weight of their catch. It felt full to the brim with fish. It wasn’t. With their backs flat to the deck and their boots pressed against the side of the boat for leverage, they offered it all their strength and gave a coordinated pull. An empty net slapped down on top of them.
Sid broke first. Charlie swallowed a mouthful of net and hiccupped seawater. They lay there, unable to catch their breath, laughing until pain tore through their sides. Their snorts were so loud they didn’t notice the closeness of the mermaid’s song.
Something heavy fell beside Charlie. It killed his humour, and he realised the net wasn’t empty because they hadn’t caught anything; it was empty because whatever they had captured had slithered out.
Charlie struggled against the weight of the net. A mermaid pressed her tail down on it. She ceased her song. With her head tipped to the left, she considered them. Reaching out, she scratched her finger down Charlie’s jawbone and released a strange high-pitched noise that sounded almost like, “Hello.” Her laugh required no translation. It was cruel and derisive and set Sid wailing.
The mermaid dug her fingernails into Charlie’s scalp, grabbing a fistful of hair before dragging him towards the edge of the boat. Sid grabbed hold of his ankles, but proved no match for the mermaid’s strength. As she pulled Charlie overboard, his final glimpse was of Sid holding his empty shoes. Seawater soaked his socks.
The sea was colder than he had expected. Keeping a tight grip on his scalp, the mermaid dragged him further and further away from Sid and the boat. His clothes ballooned. The roar of the sea drowned out her song, and for that, he was thankful.
In the journey towards the island, for that had to be her destination, his head dipped under the water several times. He almost wished to drown. His only hope, he figured, was that once they were on dry land and he caught his breath, he’d gain the upper hand.
He was wrong.
The mermaid didn’t need to pause or regroup. Sand scratched against his left cheek and grit left him blind in one eye. Ahead of them, and getting ever closer with the swish of her tail, the rocks looked more a monster than they did a girl. Its angry forehead cut off the sunlight leaving Charlie and his captor in shadow. Water poured from its nostrils to form a pool at the base of the cliffs. Using thick gold twine, the mermaid handcuffed Charlie to the rocks.
With his left eye open wide, afraid to blink and further scratch the retina, Charlie looked out towards the distant ocean and prayed for a steamer to pull up anchor.
The mermaid’s high-pitched orders scratched, and worse, behind him, Charlie heard a swell of screams and singing. As he turned to look to his left, in the direction of the cacophony, she slapped him and her garbled tongue seemed to say, “Best not.”
The sight of her slithering back along the beach, towards the water, renewed his chill. He prayed Sid had fired up the engine and headed home. Despite her supposed warning, he turned his head as far as it would go and, pulling at his restraints, he managed a few steps. What he saw broke his heart and sent him hurtling back against the wall. His breath tore against his throat. Their song intensified.
There were too many of them. If he couldn’t fight one girl, how was he to escape a tank of deranged mermen? He screamed until his throat ached, and then he passed out.
Charlie awoke to Sid’s screams. The mermaid was tying his friend to the cliff and Sid was too busy emptying his lungs to fight. The mermen had ceased their vicious song, but she continued hers. Charlie doubted she had ever beguiled a sailor with her caterwaul.
Once the mermaid had secured Sid, she called into the cave. A similar cry echoed in reply.
Deep within the cavern, water sloshed and shrill voices slithered closer and closer. Charlie pressed his back to the cliff wall. He remembered the things he’d seen swimming in the tank. Most of all, he recalled the blood red water.
“Please, if you have any honour untie us, let us go.”
Her hiss an unmistakeable “Shut up.”
Shielding their eyes against the harsh sun, five mermaids crawled out of the cave. With their golden hair, rosebud lips and eyes bluer than the clearest ocean, they should have beguiled him. If he gained nothing else from this trip, death aside, he at least now understood why men paid fortunes to lock mermaids beneath the Perspex ceilings of their swimming pools.
A mermaid pressed her chest to his. Skin scaly, breath smelling of tuna. He squirmed beneath her caress.
The original mermaid pulled the newcomer away from Charlie, dragging her by the hair and throwing her back into the pool formed from the island’s dripping nostrils. The mermaids offered a collective hiss as they encircled the girl. They grabbed her wrists and tied them together with the same gold twine that bound Charlie’s. Her shriek broke through Sid’s stupor and renewed his screech.
The mermaids turned their attention to Sid. They ripped him from the rock. Water splashed with the weight of Sid’s body falling face first into the pool. Clouds scuttled across the sky leaving the beach and the cliff even deeper in shadow. A hand grabbed hold of Charlie’s restraints. His turn.
Instead of allowing them to walk to their fate, the mermaids grabbed their hair and pulled them along. Rocks tore into his shin and knees, staining the water red.
Ahead of them, the mermen were waking up. The scent of Sid and Charlie’s blood caused the mermen to slam against the glass wall dividing them. Decaying fists beat against the tank. These were true beasts. Their scales dulled, their hair sparse, their skin peeled back to reveal bone, and several of them were missing arms and noses. In quick succession their teeth snapped.
The traitor mermaid shouted something that sounded like, “They’re hungry.”
Sid’s mumble translated as, “We’re sleeping with the fishes.”
Showing no pity, their captors slid the bound mermaid into the tank first. A tail sliced her throat open, and a cloud of blood obscured Charlie’s view. The smack-tear-lick sounds that pushed through the feeding tube caused Charlie to shudder.
“Cannibals,” Sid shouted.
Fingers prodded into Charlie’s back, pushing him in the direction of the tube. A merman poked his arm through the pipe eager for first taste. All about him, the mermaids’ song played high-pitched and nervous.
“Would it help,” cried Charlie to the mermaids, “if I could tell you where to find Captain Crow?”
The lead mermaid nodded. Her tail slapped out, knocking him away from the tube and her screech cried, “Show us and we won’t eat you.”
“Do you have a plan?” Sid asked, as they were marched out of the cave.
“Not becoming a fish supper.”
The Wayward Inn stood perched on the edge of an unstable jetty. Charlie licked his lips and drew in the scent of rum. No man had ever needed a drink more.
He and Sid found Captain Crow seated beside a roaring fire regaling drunks with the story of how he’d sold his boat to two nitwits. The idea of mermaids and leaking boats caused several listeners to spray their beer across the inn. Charlie offered them a theatrical cough. Noting their entrance, Captain Crow adjusted his eye patch, moving it from his left to his right eye.
Charlie sat down next to the Captain and wrapped his arm around the man’s shoulders. The deeds to the boat and the map poked out of his jacket pocket.
“We found them, sir. Let us buy you a bottle of rum because we have, this day, made our fortune.”
The Captain flinched and drew Charlie aside. A tide of drunks swayed with them.
“I didn’t expect you back,” Crow paused, “so soon.”
Charlie offered the man a hearty slap on the back.
“We have a boat full of dead fish-women and a contract to sell them to several posh eateries in London.”
“Is that the contract poking out of your pocket?” Captain Crow’s fingers pinched the air.
“Among other things,” Charlie said.
Captain Crow grabbed the papers and ran. Charlie sat down at the bar.
“A bottle of your finest rum, bartender.”
“Aren’t you going to chase after the thieving fellow?” the bartender asked.
A screech an octave too low to belong to a mermaid echoed across the harbour.
“I don’t think so, no.”
CATE GARDNER’s stories have appeared, or are due to appear, in Fantasy Magazine, Necrotic Tissue, Postscripts and Space & Time.