This story originally appeared in Mythic#2. I was not in a Hans Christian Anderson mood.
A PINCH OF SALT
By Richard Parks
No matter what stories you’ve been told or what you’d like to believe, the fact is that a mermaid can never forsake the sea, at least not for very long. Forget the gills and the tail–there are ways around those obstacles. Usually those ways are of the magical sort, with conditions and taboos and other rot, but even that is beside the point.
Just think of human beings, whose blood is only distant kin to the ocean waves, measured in a pinch of salt. Consider how we yearn for the sea, travel on the sea, live by the sea, swim and splash in the sea, even feed off the sea like pups at the teat. Consider this, and think of a mermaid’s bone and blood, solidified foam and the endless night of the abyss. Consider all of this, and you’ll understand why the mermaid Aserea, after seventeen years of a very loving marriage to Jal the Fisherman, simply walked down to the beach one bright summer day, regrew her gills and fine, iridescent tail, and disappeared forever.
You must understand that Jal didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t beat Aserea, or spy on her as she bathed, or any of the other conditions that had been placed on his happiness. He was kind and caring and Aserea loved him deeply. The problem was that Aserea was a mermaid, the sea called her back, and when she could no longer resist the summons, she obeyed. Leaving Jal to grieve and their sixteen year-old son, Makan, to rage.
“Why didn’t you tell me that Mother was a mermaid before now?”
“What business was it of yours before now?” his father asked calmly enough, mending his nets to try and take his mind off his loss. That didn’t help, of course. He’d been mending his nets on the very day he had first spied Aserea, washed up on shore and helpless after a storm. He’d saved her life and in her gratitude… well, that is old business and need not concern us here.
“What business? She was my mother!”
Jala worked his marlinespike deftly. “And you would have been born of a woman whether she was once a mermaid or not. Besides, your mother and I agreed that the fewer people in the village who knew of her origins, the better. She was here, and that was enough. Now that she isn’t, you’re entitled to know why.”
For several moments Makan could do nothing but stare at his father who, all the while, continued to mend nets with a sort of brooding intensity that might have made Makan hesitate to say what he said next, if he’d been of clearer mind.
“Don’t you feel anything? Don’t you care?”
The marlinspike hesitated on a bit of cord, then resumed its work. “‘Care,’ the fool says… You try to spend every moment with the woman you love, year after year, knowing to the core of your soul that each and every moment might very well be the last and all your tomorrows come to be drowned in those depths. Try that, Son. Try it for one sodding day.”
“Father — ”
The bung had been pulled and Jala wasn’t stopping now. “Pray, you who understand so much–what would you have done, knowing that your mother paid for every moment of your happiness with pain and longing? Would you ask her to stay? Would you tell her to go? Find the balance for me between one cruelty and the other, because your poor father never could. But you didn’t have to, did you? Oh, no. You swam in the ocean and climbed the trees and hills and learned to notice and chase after the village girls, and never once–once!– suspected that perhaps, just perhaps, the world did not revolve around you.”
“There must be something…” Makan began, but Jal stopped him.
“Nothing. Your mother is gone. Think of her as one dead if it helps. She’ll probably do the same for us.” He finished his repairs and tossed the heavy net to his son, almost knocking the young man into the sand. “I suspect that it’s time for the yellowheads to be running off Snakepit Island. Take that net out and see if you can catch any.”
“What are you going to do?” Makan asked, regarding the net with distaste.
“I’m going into town and I am going to get drunk. Feel free to do the same when you’re older. It won’t help, but you’re my son and you’ll probably do it anyway. If you mention your mother to me again in that tone you’d better be prepared to fight me.”
“I won’t, don’t worry,” Makan said, sullen.
His father sighed. “Don’t promise what you can’t fulfill,” he said, looking wistfully out to sea. “That’s why I didn’t ask you to promise. Neither am I going to ask you to swear to what I’m going to ask now.”
“What is it?”
“Aside from your thick skull you’re basically a decent young man, and that being the case, sooner or later you’re going to fall in love. It can’t be helped. I only ask that you try not to fall in love with a mermaid. For both your sakes.”
Jal had been right about the yellowhead. They were schooling in large numbers and the surface of the water was nearly boiling with them. Makan was just about to cast his nets when he was startled by the sound of a woman singing. At least, he thought it was a woman. The voice sounded at once female and like nothing he had ever heard. The sound was enticing–it wanted something from him. Makan wasn’t sure what that might be, but he wasn’t really thinking about it.
“If the song is coming from Snakepit Island, then some poor woman has been stranded there and needs help. I had best look into it.”
Makan reluctantly put his father’s newly-mended net aside and steered his small craft closer. Snakepit Island wasn’t a lot more than the tip of some submerged mountain. Its shores were steep and craggy and there were very few places to make landfall. Not that there was much reason to do so–there was little vegetation and what meager fresh water there was came in runoff down the central peak and varied considerably from year to year. The island was fit only as a rookery for seabirds and the colony of adders that had given the island its name. They had established themselves there somehow or other in the distant past, feeding mainly on the smaller birds and the occasional egg.
While the island itself was of little use, the waters around it were a favorite spawning ground and news of the yellowheads’ presence would not be a secret for long. Makan knew he needed to make his catch and head home before the fishing grounds became too crowded to work easily. Still, he had to check on the singer first.
As he got closer to shore he finally saw her, perched up on the edge of one of the lower island cliffs, perhaps no more than ten feet above the crashing waves. The poor thing had apparently lost her clothes in the wreck and she was, so far as Makan could see, completely naked.
He lost sight of her for a while then which, he thought, was probably for the best. The approach to shore was difficult, even for one who knew the way, and Makan concentrated on keeping his skiff off the rocks as he steered it through a crevice in the side of the island and into a very small, sheltered bay. Makan tied up his boat carefully and climbed up through a crack in the rock that was the only exit out of the landing.
The woman was perched on the low cliff where he’d seen her last, her legs tucked beneath her as she sang. Her back was to him and Makan realized he had never seen so much bare female flesh in his life, including that of his mother and even the more adventurous village girls. For a moment all he could do was stare. Such was his preoccupation with the curve of her hip and the play of the light across her back that it was several seconds before he realized that she didn’t have legs tucked beneath her. She had a tail.
“Mermaid!” he shouted.
The creature jumped almost a foot into the air and landed a bit awkwardly. She tried to scrabble back toward the edge of the cliff but in a moment Makan had taken two long steps forward and grabbed her wrists.
“Let me go, you oaf!” She tried to bite his hands but Makan pulled her wrists apart and held her at bay, her arms outstretched. It was difficult, though; she was much stronger than she looked.
Now that she was facing him Jakan noticed what he hadn’t before–besides the obvious–that she was young. Probably, at least by appearances, no older than he was. And that she was very beautiful. Her hair was black and very long, and her eyes were a shade of green he was certain he had never seen before. It was hard not to stare at her, but he made the effort.
“I don’t mean you any harm. I’ll let you go after I’ve asked you a question. I just want to know if you’ve seen my mother.”
The question seemed to startled the mermaid nearly as much as his sudden appearance did. She stopped struggling and looked at him more closely. “Your… mother?”
Makan nodded. “She’s a mermaid, too.”
“Oh. I guess that explains it.”
She sighed. “Why you’re not dead, of course. When I saw you coming I expected you to steer your craft onto the rocks off shore trying to reach me, and drown.”
Now Makan frowned. “I admit you’re very pretty, but why would I do something so foolish?”
She shrugged then. “Human men do it all the time. We’re flattered, of course, but the drowning part seems rather self-defeating.”
“It’s your song. Mermaid songs drive fishermen and sailors to their doom. Everyone knows that. Since my mother was a mermaid, maybe it doesn’t work on me.” He hastened to add, when he saw just a little fire in her eyes, “I mean it was a very beautiful song. I just didn’t feel inclined to kill myself over it.”
She shrugged her small shoulders. “I’m not especially inclined to harm anyone. But I’m not going to stop singing.”
“Even if people die?”
“Now and then our folk get tangled in your nets. Are you going to stop fishing?” she said.
“Fishing is how we live!”
“And singing is how we live. It’s a peculiarity of our kind that we can’t sing under water like the whales do, though our singing does carry under the waves; it’s how we bedazzle the fish so that we can catch them. They’re faster than we are. Or did you think we ate human flesh?”
“There were rumors,” Makan said frankly. “But Mother never seemed inclined.” He had to admit that the mermaid had a point about the singing, if what she said was true, and he rather believed it was.
“Please let me go. I’ve been out of the water a long time and I’ve used almost all of my breath singing.”
“You still haven’t answered my question–have you seen my mother? Do you know of her? Her name is Aserea.”
The mermaid frowned. “It’s a very large ocean and my people are very scattered. I’m sorry.”
Makan sighed and released the mermaid’s wrists. “Forgive me. I just miss her, that’s all. I wanted to know that she’s all right.”
The mermaid looked suspicious. “You’re actually letting me go?”
“I said I would.”
She actually blushed slightly. “I know, but…”
Makan just shrugged. “I’m sorry if I frightened you and I certainly don’t blame you for doubting me. If our roles had been reversed I’d probably still be trying to bite you.”
The mermaid smiled then. “If our roles had been reversed that would have been wise, but then when you looked into my eyes you would not see in me what I see in you. Farewell.”
Makan thought of asking her to explain what she’d just said, but didn’t wish to delay her longer. “May I ask your name before you go?”
“May I ask yours?” she returned.
“Makan. Mind my nets, as I’ll be using them here later.”
“Gaena. Warning taken.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Makan said, but Gaena had already dived into the sea, the splash of her leaving lost in the crash of waves against the island.
That evening Goblec the tavern keeper sent for Makan to come fetch his father, and Makan walked straight into the village and came back stooped over, the burden of his drunken father heavy on his back. He propped Jal against the wall of his room long enough to get the older man’s boots off, then put him to bed.
Jal opened an eye. “What’re you doin’ at the tavern?”
“We’re not at the tavern. We’re home now. Go to sleep.”
“I don’t ‘member walking home.”
“You didn’t. I carried you.”
A faint smile from his father. “There’s a good son.”
“No more,” Makan said. “You’re done now. All right?”
Jal just yawned. “How was the fishing off Snakepit?”
“Good. I got a late start, but still managed to fill the boat. I was the first, so it fetched a good price.”
“Why were you late?”
Makan thought about not telling his father, but didn’t see much point. “There was a mermaid at Snakepit Island…” Jal was struggling to sit up, but Makan pressed him down gently. “It wasn’t Mother. And I didn’t fall in love with her, don’t worry.”
Jal looked relieved. “At least she didn’t sing. Could have lost you, boy.”
“She was singing. It didn’t bother me. I mean, it was pleasant enough, but it didn’t bother me.”
“Then you’re the first.”
Makan shrugged. “I’ve got mer-blood in me, remember? We figure that’s why.”
“We? You talked to her?!” This time Jal did sit up, despite Makan’s best efforts.
“Of course. I wanted to know about Mother. Gaena didn’t know anything, though.”
“Gaena. Heavens above…” Jal’s manic energy seemed to desert him and his head fell back on the pillow. “You’re either the bravest man I know or the stupidest.”
Man. It was the first time his father had called him that. Not “young man,” just “man.” Makan wasn’t entirely sure his father had meant that as a compliment.
“If you want to grieve for Mother still,” Makan said. “Find a way other than Master Goblec’s wares. We can’t afford it and I’m not going to carry you home every night. You’re heavy.”
“Whatever you say, Son,” Jal said, and drifted off to sleep.
The next day Jal drydocked the new boat he and Makan had spent so much time building together and began repairs on his former work boat, which he re-christened “Aserea.” Considering the condition of the old hulk, Makan thought it rather an insult to his mother’s memory even as he offered his help. This offer was cheerfully refused.
“You’ve got your own fishing to do. Since you’re to inherit the Windhorse I don’t want to add any more wear and tear to it; this old boat will be quite good enough for me in my declining years.”
Makan sighed. “If you’re in decline, then I’m a halibut. And I like the boat I’m using now. Stop this nonsense and take out the Windhorse.”
Which was true enough. Makan had built his work boat himself, and while not as stable in rough seas as a larger craft, it was more than large enough for one person and all the fish he could manage. Jal insisted, however, and nothing else was said on the subject of mermaids or boats or, to be accurate, much of anything for the next several days as Jal made the old boat seaworthy.
The yellowhead were still schooling off the shores of Snakepit Island and both Makan and the once again sober Jal cast their nets alongside most of the rest of the fisherfolk of the village as long as the catch was good. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the fish vanished and the impromptu fishing fleet dispersed to wherever gossip or instinct took them. Some went east to the Turtle Isles. Others turned south to work the coast.
Makan lingered for a little while off Snakepit as he pondered what to do. He had just decided to sail north when he noticed a sinuous figure ride high up the cliffside on the ocean swell and then pull itself out of the water and climb up onto the ledge as nimbly as a snake. It was only when the figure turned and beckoned to him that he realized it was Gaena. He waved back and made his way to the island where the mermaid waited for him on the cliff.
“There are elders of our folk who have met nearly everyone, at one time or another. One knew your mother.”
“You asked for me? That was very kind of you.”
Gaena blushed slightly. “Well, it was no great difficulty. And it seemed important to you. I didn’t learn very much, I’m afraid. Only that she had disappeared from our ken for some years; those who knew her suspected she’d died. Then she returned recently, only to vanish again.”
“Vanish?” Makan felt a faint welling of hope. “You mean she might be returning?”
Gaena shook her head. “I mean she left this part of the ocean. She told her friend that she was going but not where. I gather that she said she never planned to return. I’m sorry.”
Makan sighed and released the last of his stubborn hope like a butterfly that didn’t wish to be free. “It’s all right. I’m done being angry at her. She was wise to leave as long as there was the chance, even very slight, that she would meet my father again.”
“Would that have been so terrible?”
“I don’t know what it would have done to her,” Makan said. “As for Father, I think it would have destroyed him.”
Gaena seemed to consider this. “Sit down,” she said, finally. “My neck’s getting sore looking up at you.”
“Oh, sorry.” Makan found a flat place on the cliff’s edge beside her and sat down. Gaena gave him an odd look.
“You actually did it. That’s very trusting. It’s not wise to be so trusting. You hardly know me.”
Makan looked down at the sea, and the rocks, and conceded that, if Gaena wished him harm, this was the perfect spot to arrange it. “No, but I knew my mother.”
“I’m not your mother,” Gaena said primly.
“No, and I never saw my Mother in her true mermaid form, but I have to think she would have looked a lot like you. It’s not just the tail, and not just the face, though she was beautiful, too.”
Gaena rested her chin on her arms. “You shouldn’t throw those words around so casually,” she said. “Words have power. I hear that this word, spoken often enough, will make a human woman fall in love with you.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever made someone fall in love with me,” Makan said. “And certainly not on purpose. Odd thing, though, but I think it is the women who don’t really believe that they are beautiful are the ones who like to hear it the most. I wonder why, if they consider it a lie?”
“Very few women really believe that they’re beautiful, deep down. Even the ones who know better,” Gaena said. “So it’s a nice sort of lie. No matter. Your flattery does not move me.”
“It wasn’t flattery,” Makan said, frowning. “It was the truth.”
She shrugged. “You believe in your own lie. All the more effective.”
Makan scowled at Gaena for several long moments before it finally sank in that she was teasing him. He blushed.
“That was unkind,” he said.
“Perhaps a little,” she agreed. “I’m still mad at you about the song.”
“Because I didn’t die?”
“I said I didn’t want to harm anyone and I meant it, and our songs are for the purpose I stated and no other. That doesn’t mean that we’re not a little pleased when human men risk death to reach us; I said as much before. Who wouldn’t be?” She must have noticed the shocked look Makan gave her and she continued, defiant. “You seem to appreciate the truth, so I’m telling it. While the mirror and the comb legend is overblown, that doesn’t mean we’re without vanity.”
Makan thought of many things to say, and thought better of each one until he was finally left with the one thing he did say: “We can meet here every three days and I can tell you how beautiful you are and how well you sing. Would that make up for it?”
“I don’t know,” Gaena said, looking thoughtful. “Perhaps we should try it for a while and see.”
Several weeks later, instead of setting out at his usual early time, Makan’s father was waiting for him at the docks. “You’re going out today,” Jal said.
Makan shrugged. “Aren’t you? The weather is good.”
“I mean you’re going to Snakepit Island. Oh, yes. I know about that. Lokan passes there on his way west and he’s seen you three times or more.”
Makan shrugged again. “So? What business is that of his?”
“Or of yours?” Jal asked pointedly. “The fishing is poor there now and will be at least until fall. Or have you developed a sudden fondness for snakes?”
“I’m going to meet Gaena,” Makan said. “I assume that’s what you weren’t asking me.” He hadn’t realized he was going to say it before he did, but he didn’t regret the words once spoken.
“You’re a fool,” Jal said.
“Perhaps,” Makan agreed.
“Perhaps? You know how this will end!”
Makan shook his head. “That’s the thing, Father — I don’t know how this will end. I don’t know what this is, yet. I’m sorry, Father. I know you mean well and have my interests at heart, but whatever happens between myself and Gaena is something we’re going to have to sort out for ourselves.”
Makan braced himself for a fight, but there wasn’t one. His father had simply sighed, called him a fool again, and mentioned that it wasn’t Makan’s fault, really, since the condition seemed to run in the family. He did ask that Makan pick up a length of rope that the chandler had set aside for him. Then Jal untied the Aserea from her moorings and sailed out of the small bay. After he’d run his father’s errand, Makan followed.
It was a beautiful, clear day, with nothing but blue sky and a few wispy clouds visible. Makan steered toward Snakepit on a favorable wind. As he approached the island he saw another craft on the same course.
It was the Aserea.
“What is he…”
Gaena was singing. Her voice carried clearly over the water and, frankly, Makan didn’t think she’d ever sounded better.
Makan’s boat practically skipped across the water, but the Aserea was too far ahead. He’d never reach it in time. He shouted at his father to change course, but of course he didn’t. He shouted at Gaena to stop singing, not certain if she would hear him or heed if she did. Jal was not half-mer; he was simply human, and Gaena’s song would be irresistible.
Father’s going to die. And there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.
The realization left him numb for a moment but quickly led to painic. He thought of trying to steer in front of his father’s boat, but the Aserea was too far ahead. Perhaps he could get close enough to catch his father’s boat from behind with a grapple… and then what? Have the Aserea pull him onto the rocks too?
If I drop my anchor as soon as the grapple hits…
Makan didn’t really think it would work, but he had to try. He got the grapple ready. He was closing on the Aserea. Just a little more…
In the rush he almost didn’t notice that Gaena had stopped singing. Now Makan could see his father clearly in the stern, his hand firm on the tiller. “Father! Turn starboard!” he shouted, almost giddy with relief. Without Gaena’s song, there was still time —
The Aserea did not change course, and Makan never did get close enough to use the grapple. He threw it anyway, but missed the stern of his father’s boat by several yards. In another few moments the Aserea broke its back on the rocks. Makan would have followed, but his grapple snagged on something and his own boat shuddered to a halt so quickly that Makan was thrown overboard just a few feet from the rocks. When he broke the surface again he saw the Aserea slipping beneath the waves and no sign of his father. The only other thing he saw was Gaena’s lithe form, diving from the cliff into the sea before the waves pushed him against a rock and the world went dark.
Makan regained consciousness to find Gaena leaning over him. “Not drowned?” she asked.
“No. Al–almost,” he said. He spat out seawater and coughed. Gaena pounded his back until the fit passed.
“Oh, no. Father…!”
“He’s right here,” the mermaid said. “I don’t think he’s drowned, either. I pulled you both up but he hit his head too and he’s not awake yet.”
They lay side by side on top of the low cliff. All Makan could think at first was that Gaena was indeed much stronger than she looked. He turned to his father and confirmed that, yes, Jal was breathing. Makan slapped the older man’s wrist until he opened his eyes.
“I’m here, Father.”
The older man coughed a few times and tried to sit up. “You saw… Your mermaid almost killed me!”
“I did see. She’s not ‘my’ mermaid and she saved both our lives, you liar. You owe her an apology. We both owe her thanks.”
“Liar? How dare you speak to your father that way!”
“How? Easily, when I consider what you just tried to do!”
Jal looked away. “I meant to try one more time to talk some sense into you, and then I got pulled in when she started singing, that’s all.”
Makan turned to Gaena. “Is that true?”
“I suppose,” the mermaid said. “Once he set sail for my island, he must have heard me then.”
Makan nodded. “Meaning he was too far away to hear your song until he deliberately steered toward the island. Father, you had plenty of time to reach the island before I did. You were waiting on me!”
Jal turned beet red, but Makan already knew it was the truth. Jal growled, “And what if I did? I had to show you what she is!”
“I know what she is, Father. So do you.”
Gaena looked from one human male to the other, the frown on her face deepening by the moment. “It’s rude to talk about someone in front of them, you know,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Gaena. I think Father meant to kill himself and use your song as an excuse to do it.”
“I meant to go look for your Mother,” Makan said. “Even though I knew it was useless. Then I found out about you and this… person, and thought of a better way of throwing my life away. I figured at least this way maybe my death would bring you to your senses.”
Makan shook his head. “You’re no martyr, Father. This is about your pain, not mine.”
“I didn’t want you to make the same mistake.” There were tears in the older man’s eyes.
“Mistake? Father, look at me and tell the truth. If you had it to do all over again, when you found Mother helpless on the beach. Knowing now what you didn’t know then? What would you do?”
“I — ”
“What would you do?” Makan repeated, relentless.
Jal closed his eyes. “I’d have done the exact same thing. Heaven help me, but I am a fool.”
“Why? Because you refuse to give up the happiest time of your life? If that’s a fool I’ll take a dozen. Why would you deny me a chance at what you had, even if, yes, it was only for a while?”
Jal looked like someone had punched him in the face. He finally put his face down in his hands. “I never meant….”
“Can you forgive me?”
“I’ll think about it.” Makan then turned to Gaena. “Gaena, do you love me?”
The mermaid blinked. “Love you? Just how hard did you bump your head? I’m not even sure I like you at the moment,” she said. “Between you and this crazy old man I may never get any fish.”
“I’ll be sure to bring some next time,” Makan said.
“What ‘next time’? Don’t presume,” Gaena said. “Maybe I’m tired of silly humans. Even handsome ones.”
He smiled. “You think I’m handsome?”
“I was talking about your father,” Gaena said primly.
It took a moment, but Makan was certain that Gaena was teasing him again. Well, almost certain. Which was, he realized, more than close enough.
“She does remind me of your Mother,” Jal said finally.
“I’m no one’s mother!” Gaena shouted.
“I know,” said Makan, doing some teasing of his own, “but we can discuss that later.”
The fisherman’s son and the mermaid continued to meet on Snakepit Island for some time before, for a while, Gaena agreed to live with Makan in his village. They had two boys and a girl together, and a very happy marriage for just as long as it lasted.
They named the girl “Aserea.”
©2006 by Richard Parks. All rights reserved.