Mermaid Purses

I SAT HUDDLED beneath a blanket in the cockpit of a sloop. The sloop, a sailboat with a single mast, was tethered to a bustling pier used primarily by large working vessels on a puny stopover port of an island. 

Around dusk the night prior, a sturdy passenger ship called The Maribel had sunk in a violent storm with all hands except for me. I managed to keep my head above water for hour after hour until, for the first time in my life, I neared the end of my endurance. I would’ve drowned if it hadn’t been for a nimble little sloop that had 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 and my stomach knotted. My hands quivered. The midday sun blazed upon my head as if baking my brain inside my skull, making me drowsy in a numb and pleasant way. 

My rescuer, a young sailor named Fran, had gone ashore a while ago on my behalf. He reappeared presently, weaving through the noisy crowds on the pier and vaulted aboard the sloop. 

Fran had straw brown hair and playful eyes above a clean shaven jaw and quick smile. 

“Alright, mate.” He rested a hand on the boom by his head and looked down at me kindly. “There’s no standing physician on this island, only a few common surgeons who travel with the larger ships. To see a proper doctor you’ll need to go to Viewport and, to get there, you have two options. Your first option would be to sail with The Lantern…” He nodded past me.

It hurt, but I glanced over my shoulder. 

A hulking galleon buzzed with life at the farthest pier. An intricate tangle of ropes connected a forest of masts to her impressive bulk. 

“They have a surgeon who could look after you, if you wanted,” said Fran. “The Lantern is headed to Viewport as soon as she’s resupplied but if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather you go with option number two and let me take you myself.”

I looked up at him.

Drumming fingers on the boom, Fran chewed his lip. “See, the captain of The Lantern is a good man… as stern and true as any… But he’s sensible in a learned kind of way. He doesn’t pay enough attention 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, right?”

“No more than that, to be sure.” Fran squinted around at nothing in particular. “And the weather’s fine for it…”

My eyes watered, begging to close, however the uneasiness in my savior’s tone prevented me from nodding off. “What is it?”

Fran’s expression was unreadable. “The seaman I spoke to said that the captain found a mermaid’s purse this morning, and kept it. That’s bad luck, mate. His finding it was a warning. His keeping it is dangerous. Mermaids always come back for their purses and they aren’t sweet and dainty like women. I fear if you go with them, I may have to pluck you out of the sea again.”

I didn’t understand. 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 shown 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 the sloop anyway, I agreed to let him ferry me to the next island port from where I could seek proper medical attention and charter passage home.

Fran 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 on 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 me earlier to protect me from the sun. “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 coastal town as Fran 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 shape drifted here and there in a dazzle of colors. When one ship departed, another smoothly took her place, as though it was choreographed. Pelicans soared low below ships’ bows. Seagulls fluttered like swarms of bees, harassing successful fishermen for a taste of their prize.

Soon land slipped outside of my scope of view however I noticed that the giant ship, The Lantern, had made sail and was bearing 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 galleon. Maybe she was forced to strike out in that direction for deeper waters before she could turn toward Viewport. That made sense. 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 reef or rocks, and yet the darkness moved away from us at a speed greater than the speed 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.

3 thoughts on “Mermaid Purses

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s