Sitting in the cockpit of a small white-and-green sloop, I waited huddled in muted agony beneath a leaden blanket.
The sloop was tethered in an improvised way to a busy pier used by working vessels of all sizes and condition; sailors of a fishing boat gliding past shouted their annoyances and insults to persuade me to relocate the puny leisure vessel to allow real seamen to work.
I paid them little mind. Their words couldn’t touch me.
Around dusk the night prior, a sturdy passenger ship called The Maribel had gone down in a violent tempest with all hands except for me. Despite being strong swimmer, I had struggled to keep my head above water for hour after hour until, for the first time in my life, my limbs reached the edge of my endurance and begun to fail; even as the storm abated I was sure I would drown until this little sloop and her lone sailor careened artfully to my rescue through the first blush of daybreak.
Sitting there in the cockpit at port, my entire body ached; my mind felt full of mud; my stomach remained taut in a wretched knot. A tremor made my hands quiver no matter what I did. The midday sun blazed atop my unprotected head, like it was baking my brain inside my skull, making me drowsy in a numb and pleasant way.
My rescuer had gone ashore on my behalf some time ago; he reappeared presently weaving through the noisy crowds on the pier and vaulted easily aboard the sloop. He had straw brown hair and playful eyes above a clean shaven jaw and quick smile.
“Alright, mate.” Standing before me, he rested a hand on the boom by his head and looked down at me kindly. “There is no standing physician on this island, only a few common surgeons who travel with the larger ships, therefore to see a proper doctor you’ll need to go to Viewport. To get there promptly, I see you have two options. You could sail with The Lantern, if you like…” He nodded past me.
It hurt, but I glanced over my shoulder. A hulking galleon with decks a buzz with life loomed down line; below an intricate tangle of ropes that connected a forest of masts to her bulk, her crew resupplied as swiftly as demanded by her commander.
“They have a surgeon who could look after you, if you wanted,” he said. “The Lantern is headed straightaway to Viewport as soon as she’s resupplied but if it’s all the same to you, mate, I’d rather take you myself.”
I looked up at him.
Drumming fingers on the boom, he chewed his lip. “The captain’s a good man, as stern and true as any, but he’s sensible in a learned kind of way. He doesn’t pay enough mind to legends and myths of the sea…” He shrugged but there was anxiety in the gesture. “In these parts that’s dangerous.”
“Viewport…” My voice came out a rasping whisper.
He leaned in to hear me.
I wet my lips. “Viewport is only a couple of days from here… isn’t it?”
“No more than that, to be sure.” He squinted around at the nothing in particular. “And the weather’s fine for it…”
My eyes watered, begging to be closed, however the uneasiness in my savior’s tone prevented me from nodding off. “What is it?”
His expression was unreadable. “The seaman I spoke to said that the Captain found a mermaid’s purse, and kept it. That’s bad luck, mate. His finding it was a warning. His keeping it is a grave mistake. Mermaids always come back for their purses and they aren’t sweet and dainty like a woman — far from it. I fear if you go with them, I may have to pluck you out of the sea again.”
I really didn’t get it. As far as I knew, mermaid’s purses were simply the egg cases of sharks or skates or something of the like; moreover, I knew nothing of the local legends to have any inkling as to what he was getting at. The young sailor seemed sincere enough and had showed me no ill will from the moment of my rescue. I had no reason to doubt his intentions.
Fearing my legs wouldn’t support me off ship anyway, I agreed to let him ferry me to the next island port from where I could seeking proper medical attention and charter passage home. He flashed a white smile in his tanned face.
“Right then!” He cried. “Ah but first! Where has your cover gone? You’re roasting under the sun like a fish over a—there it is.” He snatched up a tattered cap from where it had fallen by my feet; it belonged to him, but he had lent it to. “Back on your head it goes. Let’s leave immediately then, shall we?”
Without a moment lost, we shoved off and set out for Viewport.
Lethargic, I sat curled on the bench in the aft-most aspect of the cockpit, blanket tight around me, cap pulled low over my brow, leaning a shoulder against the rail and gazing back at the makeshift coastal town as the young captain sat beside me at the tiller, adjusting the sails to take us back out the sea. As I began to doze, the town seemed like a moving abstract painting where vessels of every size and distinctly shaped glided here and there in a dazzle of colors. When one ship departed, another took her place, smoothly, as though it was choreographed. Pelicans soared low below ships’ bows. Seagulls fluttered like a swarms of bees in places, harassing successful fishermen for a taste of their prize.
Soon land slipped outside of my scope of view however I noticed that giant, The Lantern, had made sail and bore away slowly in the opposite direction, which my groggy mind found queer because we were headed to the same place. I gradually suspected it had something to do with operating a vessel of that magnitude. Maybe we coursed through waters too shallow for the the galleon. Maybe she was forced to strike out in that direction for the deeper waters before she could turn toward Viewport. That would be logical. Such a monstrous ship.
“Mermaids always come back for their purses,” I mumbled to myself. “Mermaids…”
The waters around our little sloop darkened all at once. I presumed we were sailing over a broad reef or ridge of rocks clothed in lichen, and yet the darkness moved away from us at a speed greater than we traveled. It was too big to be a whale but too dark to be a school. The mass turned very deliberately in the direction of the Lantern.
With his attention fixed ahead of us, my rescuer sang a plucky shanty at the top of his lungs.