Edition 25: What the Sea Wants by Deborah Sheldon
The Mary Jane sails away from the storm that almost took her, and it looks like plain sailing hereon out to Joseph. However, the sea is a fickle mistress, hiding all manner of plans behind her deceptively gentle waves. SY
The gale passes with the dawn. The Mary Jane barely lifts on the swell, her mainsail fortified with the bonnet and drabbler to better catch the breeze, her square-sail full on the mast. The North Sea lies as green and calm as an English meadow. Joseph puts on his cap but the cold still bites at his ears. The wintry air, like a ghost, moves through anything it pleases, stinging his fingers and toes, slicing without resistance into his belly, his marrow. It’s a familiar discomfort.
Joseph leans on the gunwale to better enjoy this rare moment of rest.
The sky shines pale and clear, a sign of good fishing. Once thrown, the nets will be full of cod and herring within a few hours. Joseph longs for something to eat other than fish. Mostly, he craves bacon and potato pie. His wife, Amelia, is a good cook. He sighs. The Mary Jane has been at sea for weeks. It’s best not to think about one’s wife and the various pleasures that she can offer.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Young Thomas approach. The boy tugs the elbow of Joseph’s woollen gansey to get his attention. He turns. Young Thomas looks haggard and ill; his first full storm at sea left him puking all night. Joseph, a grown man of nineteen years who has worked on doggers since he was ten, claps a reassuring hand on the shoulder of poor Young Thomas.
‘Rough storm,’ he says. ‘Don’t worry, lad. You’ll find your sea legs.’
‘Does the weather get much worse?’
Joseph considers. Yesterday, after a red sky, the shifting wind began to whip the North Sea into chop and foam. The heavens disappeared behind a veil of mist. Each breath drew salt into the lungs. Without waiting for orders from Skipper, the experienced hands abandoned the gutting of the catch and started to batten down, telling the deckie-learners—including Young Thomas—to do the same.
Soon after, the wind swung around, and blew from ahead.
Skipper ordered the crew to shorten sail. The men scrambled to obey. Water flung aboard the vessel in sheets. Skipper tacked as close to the wind as he could. The ever-increasing swell drove the boat leeward, back towards England and away from the Dogger Bank, despite the dropping of every anchor.
How many storms at sea had Joseph endured? Five hundred? One thousand? He felt keyed up, but not afraid. The dogger is a sturdy craft, fifteen feet at the beam with a draught of five feet; rugged and high-sided, substantial enough to resist the vagaries of the North Sea. Heart pounding, his frozen and wet hands wrestling to knot the weather-cloth over the hatches, he risked a glance behind him.
The sea heaved and pulsed, the foam a series of broken and jagged streaks lacing the rollers. Then a surge loomed. Climbing, it rose more than twenty-five feet, a wall of dirty green water. Its white cap tipped in a long unbroken line over the crest, and barrelled at the dogger as solid as a felled log. Joseph knew that when it hit the side of the boat, this giant wave might capsize the Mary Jane.
‘Brace yourselves,’ he yelled, his voice thrown away by the wind.
Whether they heard him or not, it didn’t matter; the old hands instinctively knew what was coming by the pitch of the dogger, and immediately clutched at grab rails, ropes, and anything else pinned down. The deckie-learners, terrified, were already holding on fast. The wave crashed into the ship with the power of God’s fist, sending a flood of water over the gunwale. The soapy foam snatched Richard, a deckie-learner. Joseph saw the lad wash over the side as the Mary Jane almost flipped to starboard. One moment, the lad was there; the next moment, no more. Joseph’s heart squeezed down into a tight clutch. Almost immediately, he determined to forget about it. Plenty of men had perished during the years of Joseph’s tenure. What the sea wants, the sea will have. Nevertheless, he hoped that Young Thomas was all right.
The waves dumped on the Mary Jane one after another, slopping and frothing across the deck, freezing Joseph and smothering his breath. As fast as the sea gushed out through the scuppers, a fresh deluge would come onboard. When the Mary Jane ascended each crest, Joseph became weightless and lifted from the deck, his feet scarcely touching the planks. When the dogger ploughed her bow into a trough, his body transformed into a ton of bone-cracking weight, crushing down through his spine.
The storm intensified as night fell. The watery blue mist of the sky became black. Joseph didn’t pray. As a fisherman for some ten years, he understood the futility of the exercise. On and on went the storm. The ferocity left it during the false dawn. Minutes later, the true dawn heralded a change in weather. The storm died. The waves dropped at once, as if God Himself had lost interest.
Now, Joseph and Young Thomas are leaning on the gunwale together, surveying the North Sea, which lies as harmless as a drawn bath.
‘Does the weather get much worse?’ Young Thomas says again.
‘We’ve had the lowest of it,’ Joseph says, which is a lie.
Actually, the gale was nothing unusual. The North Sea is a contrary and capricious bitch, yet it would not help to inform the lad of this fact.
Joseph adds, ‘Now hurry up and eat breakfast.’
The wind is behind. Skipper asks for full sails. The crew complies. The Mary Jane skips over the North Sea towards Dogger Bank where the fishing is best. Half the crew finishes gutting, decapitating and salting yesterday’s catch, and packing the fish with extra salt into the hold.
The rest of the men, including Joseph and Young Thomas, check and repair the trawling nets. No one mentions the lad, Richard, washed overboard during the storm; to do so would be bad luck.
The nets are voluminous, wet and heavy. The salt water stings the various cuts and welts that crisscross Joseph’s leathery hands. He notices that Young Thomas’ palms are bleeding. To his credit, the lad doesn’t complain. They dole out the nets to starboard. The sea takes the clotted mess of twine and effortlessly plumps it out into the narrow-necked shape of a sack, pluming it in the wake of the Mary Jane. Crew on the port-side do the same. Sweating, Joseph takes off his woollen cap, wrings the sweat and brine from it, and tucks it into the back of his trousers. Solemnly, Young Thomas imitates him.
It’s time to adjust the trim of the boat. Most of the hands either move or jettison the boulders and sand in the hull to counterbalance the salted fish in the hold. The work done, the Mary Jane bobs higher, jaunty; the North Sea once again kisses at her painted waterline. The crew has a brief rest, each man climbing into his individual berth in the cuddy. Joseph falls asleep at once. He dreams of his wife, Amelia, of her plump arms and warm lips, the moist and welcoming softness between her thighs.
Skipper rings the bell.
The crew turns out. On deck, however, Joseph notices that the sun is too low in the sky. It is not yet noon. The trawling nets will be half-empty. Confused, troubled by the break in routine, he decides to question the Skipper, and turns to find him. The old man, however, is already at Joseph’s side. They have fished many times together over the years, and have grown to trust each other’s judgement.
‘What’s the matter?’ Joseph says. ‘The nets aren’t ready.’
Skipper is a stoic man, never prone to joking around, yet his rheumy eyes are wide and haunted. Uneasy, Joseph crosses his arms.
Young Thomas is suddenly by Joseph’s elbow, clutching the gansey that Amelia had painstakingly knitted, pulling at the sleeve hard enough to finally rip and unravel the wool. Angered, Joseph raises a hand. Young Thomas cowers. Skipper doesn’t react at all, as if blinded, and this—and nothing else—is what stays Joseph, stops him from slapping the lad.
Joseph says, ‘Skipper. What is it?’
‘Christ almighty,’ Skipper whispers. ‘Can’t you hear that?’
Not at first.
And then Joseph hears it, lying way out on the edge of his perception.
But it’s not a sound to be discerned by the ears; rather, it is a long, high and tremulous note that sings instead through the soft tissues. He experiences the lusciousness of the tune as it runs up his muscles and warms his blood, surging into his cock, stiffening him. The sound flows through his brain and flushes it out.
The catch can go to hell.
Where is the music coming from? He spins around. The crew is doing the same; even Skipper, who is now smiling.
The melody forms part of the air itself, coming from nowhere in particular but from everywhere at once. It is the sweetest sound that Joseph has heard in his life, a sound that brings to mind the surfeit of all physical comforts a man could have if he could have them all at once.
He is overwhelmed, dazzled; glutted.
When he returns to his senses and looks about, he notices that some of the men are gathered at the sides of the Mary Jane, looking down at the sea. At once, Joseph is compelled to do the same. Running across deck to the gunwale, he gazes into the water, and sees his wife.
She must be lying submerged on her back, as just her face peeps above the surface. Her skin reflects the green tint of the North Sea. Amelia stares up at him with her large, heavily-lashed eyes. As soon as Joseph thinks to call out to her, he realises that he is hallucinating. Amelia could not be floating in the North Sea. No, she would be at home, looking after their baby, tending to the fowls and the vegetable garden. This woman is a stranger.
He gathers together his fractured thoughts.
Without immediate help, the woman will drown. It’s a miracle that she is alive at all. The temperature of the water is a few degrees above freezing. He turns, tries to shout, but the crew is distracted, every man contemplating the sea below. Clearly, there must be other people in the water. Another fishing vessel must have capsized during last night’s storm. The captain of that doomed boat is to blame. Joseph feels a flash of temper. What kind of fool tempts fate by allowing a woman on board?
Nevertheless, Joseph must save her.
Like everyone else on the Mary Jane, he can’t swim. He would have to throw down a line, and hope that the woman has enough strength to hold on while he drags her aboard. Loops of rope lie amidships. However, his feet won’t move. The music somehow pins his boots to the deck.
The woman smiles up at him.
Arching her back, she lifts her naked breasts clear of the water. Never before has a woman so brazenly exposed herself to Joseph. Her nipples are very large and very dark. Despite himself, despite his love for Amelia and their daughter, despite his solemn vow of fidelity, Joseph imagines taking those nipples into his mouth, one at a time and back again, to warm them with his tongue, over and over.
A caudal fin breaks the water.
The music falters.
Joseph knows every fish that swims the North Sea, but he doesn’t recognise that fin. A tremor of fear runs through him. The woman allows the whole length of her body to breach. Instead of legs, she has the lower half of a silver-scaled fish.
He grips the gunwhale to keep from staggering.
Every sailor knows the folklore of mermaids. Unlucky omens, they foretell maritime disaster. But hadn’t the Mary Jane already survived the storm? The sea is flat, the sky is blue.
The music intensifies. Now the melody has a form to it; voices, lovely angelic voices, gentle, beguiling, otherworldly. Some of the crew members are climbing the gunwhale and dropping out of sight. The occasional splash sounds as each man hits the water. Joseph should ring the bell; call the remaining crew to order.
The mermaid runs both hands over her breasts, along her stomach, across the scales, finally stopping at a little slit that she holds open. She dips a finger, two fingers, inside herself. Joseph’s cock is the hardest it’s ever been; swollen enough, surely, to tear its own skin. The mermaid raises her arms to him.
He clambers over the side.
The icy water encloses and shocks him. He remembers that he can’t swim. A flood of panic makes him thrash. The mermaid rises up beneath him like an island. Now, lying face-down upon her, he is safe.
She feels as cold as the sea. The choir of countless female voices reverberates throughout Joseph’s body and smooths away every trace of concern.
His mermaid’s hair floats in coils as thick as kelp. She isn’t green from the reflection of the water; in fact, her flesh itself is green, a light tint, reminding him of the first flush of grass in spring. The mermaid is beautiful.
Her hand reaches between their bodies to unbutton his trousers. Quickly, she guides him inside her. He gasps. Unlike Amelia, the mermaid is ice-cold. The surprise of it frightens him. This moment of clarity—what in God’s name is he doing?—shrivels his cock, but the mermaid has muscles that clamp down and ripple in powerful undulations, so that he soon becomes hard again.
He clutches the mermaid’s breasts. They are dense, frigid. She lifts her caudal fin between his legs and presses against his buttocks. The realisation that she must want him deeper inside her body speeds Joseph’s need to come. He tries to kiss her.
She has no teeth.
The mermaid’s upper lip protrudes over her lower lip, which has a barbule. Her eyes are perfectly round and unblinking, the eyes of a fish. Where her ears should be are gills, opening and closing, sucking and expelling. A creeping horror races along Joseph’s spine, but it’s too late to stop, the muscular actions of the mermaid’s innards have brought him to the brink of climax. She wraps her icy arms about him, presses her caudal fin harder against his buttocks, and takes him under.
The music stops.
Water closes over his head. He can’t breathe. Traitorously, his cock ejaculates anyway. He struggles but the mermaid is too strong.
He opens his eyes. Through the olive green of the water, he sees the sturdy hull of the Mary Jane overhead, and all around, the crew members, each man cinched in the arms of a mermaid, sinking—like Joseph—towards the shallow bottom of the Dogger Bank.
There is Skipper, motionless, as if already dead. Nearby is Young Thomas. Joseph feels a pang of terrible guilt. The lad is not yet thirteen. As an apprentice, Young Thomas relied on Joseph for protection and guidance.
The need to breathe is overwhelming. Joseph fights wildly against the mermaid. Her grip intensifies. Beneath the Mary Jane, other mermaids armed with knives are sawing at the trawl nets, freeing the captured fish. Joseph thinks of Amelia, and then the baby, not yet one year old. He tries again to free himself for their sakes.
The mermaid’s grasp tightens.
As his vision fades, he realises that the Mary Jane will drift without a single crew member onboard. She will be found at last, perhaps weeks or even months later, derelict, a ghost ship with no signs of battle or theft; food and drink still on the tables, rotting fish in the hold. The manifest will be inspected, to no avail. The fate of the Mary Jane will be a mystery that no one alive can ever solve.
Joseph’s lungs won’t be denied. He takes in a breath of water. It feels cold, heavy. With a cough, he draws in again.
The mermaid gapes sightlessly at him as he pulls the North Sea in and out of his lungs. Her lidless eyes are open and staring, her gills fluttering. She won’t let go. Locked together, Joseph and the mermaid continue to sink. The soft, sandy bed of the Dogger Bank lies a few feet below them.
Far above, the Mary Jane starts to move away on the current.
Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in many well-regarded magazines such as Quadrant, Island, Aurealis, Midnight Echo, and Tincture Journal, as well as in various anthologies. Her latest releases are the crime-noir novella, Dark Waters (Cohesion Press 2014), and the collection, Mayhem: selected stories (Satalyte Publishing 2015). She has two novels due for publication in 2016: the bio-horror, Devil Dragon, and the crime-thriller Garland Cove Heist. Other writing credits include television scripts such as ‘Neighbours’, stage plays, magazine articles, award-winning medical writing, and non-fiction books for Reed Books and Random House. Visit Deb at http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com