In the Mermaid Tavern: The Sea Witch

Scene: The Mermaid Tavern. (No, not that one.)

Characters: Innkeeper, the owner of the tavern, and an old sailor. He is elderly, hunch-shouldered, with straggly grey hair and a bony, humorous face. She’s a handsome woman settling comfortably into middle age. They are alone at the bar.

Sailor: Sure, I’ve seen ’em, fairgrounds and places. Top half of a grinning little ape, some kind, sown onto a fish-tail and pickled in vinegar. I’m not saying they don’t exist, mind you. There’s stranger things in the sea than mermaids.

Innkeeper (after a pause, and then slowly): No, ours was a real one. Beautiful, she was. Saw her with my own eyes, when I was a little girl. She was alive, what’s more.

Sailor: Tell me.

Innkeeper: She said not to, but then she said one day . . . Well, this’d better be it . . . I wasn’t born when she come to us, but my nan told me about it. There was this weird old woman come in one day, asked for a double brandy. Grandad poured it and told her the price.

“I don’t deal in money,” she says. “But you pour me a free double brandy every day and I’ll give you anything you ask me.”

“I’ll have a beautiful mermaid in a glass case to put over the bar,” says Grandad, just hoping to get rid of her, but that being something he’d always wanted, even if it was only like what you said, top half of a monkey and a fish-tail stitched on with a bit of seaweed covering the join. He never expected to see the old woman again, but he let her finish up her brandy and totter off, and he thought that’d be the last of it.

But blow me if she doesn’t show up next morning with a fellow pushing a handcart with a crate on it. Took four men to carry it in, it was that heavy. And when they opened it up, there she was, lying in a sort of glass box like a coffin, only it was full of water.

And she was beautiful all right – pearly-blue skin she had, stark naked, with only her long dark green hair making her decent, and then this gleaming great tail. She was lying with her hands crossed over on her chest under her hair, but you could see her elbows and a bit of the lacy little fins running up the back of her arms. She might’ve been sleeping, she looked that peaceful.

Grandad built a shelf for her up there, back of the bar, so silly idiots couldn’t come crowding round and daring each other to climb into her box with her. That’s where she was when my dad got drownded and my mum married the baker and I come to live here with my nan. She brought the customers in all right. Paid for the old woman’s brandy ten times over.

Sunday morning I used to come down early and help my nan clear up after the mess of Saturday night. That’s when I took it into my head to dust the top of the mermaid’s box. Fetched the bar stool over but made a mess of climbing up on it and grabbed onto the box to stop myself falling. I felt it shift, so when I’d got myself steady I looked to see what damage I done. Water was still slopping around in the box, making that gorgeous green hair waver back and forth like seaweed under a ripple. And there was something glimmering under it as it came and went.

“Hey, Nan,” I called out. “She’s wearing a ring!”

“Let’s have a look,” says my nan, and she comes over and climbs up on the stool and peers in.

“Well, well, well,” she says. “I reckon she won’t be needing that no longer,” and she eases up the lid and reaches in, and next thing I know she’s tumbling down atop of me.

Lucky for me she’s a skinny little thing and I wasn’t hurt. I’m just scrambling out from under her when a ruddy great dollop of water hits me slap in the back of my head. I looks up to see what done it, and blow me if it isn’t our mermaid who’s flipped her tail out of her box and started scrabbling the rest of her out behind it!

She’s not much bigger than what I was then, barring her tail, so I grab hold of her and help her down to stop her falling on my nan. She doesn’t say thank you or nothing, just rolls over onto her belly and flops her way out of the bar while I go back to my nan.

She’s lying there with her eyes shut, breathing deep and easy, like she was asleep, only she’s got her right hand bunched up grabbing hold of something. I know what it’s got to be, acourse, and what it’s done to her and how quick it’s done it, so I loosen her fingers and fetch a tankard and a cloth off of the bar and use the cloth to pop the ring in the tankard.

I just put it at the back of the shelf when I hear a mewling from over by the door, and there’s the mermaid trying to scrabble herself up to reach the latch, which she can’t, so I nip over and open the door for her. Out she goes, flop, flop, flop over the edge into the harbour, and that’s the last I seen of her.

Back in the bar there’s my nan sitting up wondering what happened to her. I tell her I don’t know, ’cos of having been out to the privy. She doesn’t remember nothing about the ring and I’m not telling. Don’t know why. It just seems right. Grandad, he’s no end put out, finding he’s lost his mermaid, but there’s the wet trail she left, flopping herself out and across the quay. By the time the bar fills up with folk coming to look at the mermaid as isn’t there no longer, they’ve decided that either she just woke up and fell atop my nan and knocked her cold so she lost her memory, or she did a magic on her when she tried to stop her running off. Either way she’s gone and she’s not coming back.

In the middle of all this I see the old woman sitting in her usual place in the ingle, so I pour her brandy and carry it over to her along of the tankard as got the ring in it. She pulls on a glove and picks the ring out and drops it into her pocket. Then she stares into my eyes so I can’t look away.

“The mermaid was banished out of the sea for a wrong she had done,” she whispers. “I brought her here, knowing your grandfather would keep her safe. Now she has served her time and gone back to her element. Tell no one till one of ’em says to you there’s stranger things in the sea than mermaids.”

And I never have, not till now, when you go and say just that. Hope nothing bad comes of it.

Sailor: Can’t tell, with the Sea Witch. That’s who your old woman must’ve been. Tricky temper she’s got. But if that’s what she told you she’ll stick with it. I’ve had dealings with her myself.

I won’t tell you the whole of it. Hours and hours it takes, and to be honest with you I’m sick of hearing my own voice telling it. But it finished up with me shooting this albatross with this cross-bow I’d brought along to fight off pirates, life after life, life after life. . .

Innkeeper: You only get one life, my nan told me. You only get one life, so you’d best enjoy it.

Sailor: No disrespect to the old lady, but she was wrong. You get born, and live, and die, and then you get born again. Why waste a perfectly good soul, snuffing it out? But you don’t get to remember what you’ve been last time. Not unless you’re me.

I’d die out of one life and get born again—always somewhere by the sea it’s been. I wouldn’t remember anything that had come before, not until I was a grown lad and signed on for a sailor. I’d be out on deck, middle of a new moon night, doing my trick on the watch, and there she’d be, standing beside me, whispering “Remember. Tell.” And I’d get no rest, body or soul, till I’d done it.

Innkeeper: New moon to-night. You might as well tell me now, seeing I’m listening.

Sailor: Don’t have to, not any longer. Met this writer fellow, down Porlock way it was, and told him. Blind me if he didn’t go and turn it into a poem. Put in a lot of fancy stuff, top of what I told him, being a poet, but now the poem’s famous, so there’s no need for me to go on telling it since he’s doing it for me.

Only thing is, we’ve all got a sort of barrier stops us knowing about our lives before. Remembering about that bloody albatross over and over must’ve opened some kind of a gap in mine that never closed up, and now I’d got rid of the albatross all sorts of other stuff came flooding through.

Stuff going way and way back. Jonah, for instance. Story’s in the Bible, but they left out the bit I saw. I was a pilot then, working for Atlantis Sealines. Got diverted to take one of our whales and pick this VIP up from a ship in the Red Sea during the father and mother of a storm and deliver him round to Nineveh to do a bit of cursing. Way up the Tigris that was. You ever tried to take a whale up the Tigris? Then don’t. Specially not with a bloody prophet aboard. The whole way round the guy was practising his cursing. Anything and everything, he’d curse it. Glad I wasn’t living at Nineveh by the time we spat him out by the Rivergate.

Innkeeper: Sounds fascinating. All those people you’ve been, things you’ve seen, to remember back over. I wish the Sea Witch . . .

Sailor: Watch it! You’d better not . . .

Innkeeper: What’s the . . . Ooh . . .! What have . . . ? Help!

Sailor: Easy, now. Easy. Started remembering, have you? Maybe I should’ve warned you. Comes of talking about wishes and the Sea Witch in the same breath. All that stuff rushing in on you. What you got to do now is grab hold of something there and hang onto it while you sort it out in your mind, and then tell it to me like you did about your mermaid. That’ll push the rest of it back where it came from. Come on, give it a go. Anything will do.

Innkeeper: All right. Here goes. My name that time was Pitiable Nasmith . . .

(And then the story which followed began “Her name was Pitiable Nasmith.”)

Story originally written for “Water: Tales of the Elemental Spirits” but not used
Copyright © Peter Dickinson 2013