The Mermaid's Share

The Shadow was far from Hispaniola when Old Abe was in the last moments of his life. The old, beloved sailor had looked out for me like a dear old uncle ever since I snuck aboard the pirate ship and joined the gentlemen of fortune. And in his final hours I, Peter Benbow, watched over Abraham in the master surgeon’s quarters.

On a hammock, Abe writhed in pain. He hunched on his side and heaved until blood and vomit trickled from his mouth. Sunset cast gold rays through the porthole, dividing the cabin into light and shadow. 

The master surgeon stood over him. “This is it. This is how it started on Saint Dominique.” He wrapped cord around the patient’s wrists, then tied several knots.

“How what started?” I asked.

“The walking undead. First it was yellow jack, as has infected Abraham. The disease killed scores and then those who died came back to life. Zombi, the natives call it.” Major Petit, the doctor, wiped blackened sputum off the hammock, then tugged on the bindings; the man’s feet and hands were bound securely together.

I knelt down on my knees and I looked into his eyes. Since I first boarded the pirate ship, old Abe was good as family to me. Sunken into bruised sockets, they were shot through with red. “Abraham,” I said, blotting sweat from his forehead. 

“Peter,” the man said. “I can’t breathe.”

As I reached for Abe’s lashed-together hands, I said, “Cut these ropes, or he’ll die.”

“No,” the master surgeon said. He pulled up Abraham’s shirt and pointed along his ribs. Scab and open wound spotted a gash. “This is where the zombi attacked him. Regardless of what we do, he’ll die soon enough, but we must protect ourselves from what comes after.”

Petit took a gloved hand and wrapped it over Abraham’s lips, pinching Abe’s nostrils shut between his thumb and forefinger. Petit was suffocating Abe.

“Major, what are you doing?” I tried to interfere, but the surgeon held me back with his free arm. “Stop, please stop!”

“Nothing remains for this old pirate but suffering. Let’s end it,” Petit said. 

The seaman strained against the cords, contorting to fill more of his chest with breath. He gasped for air, then he stopped. The light in his eyes extinguished.

The room suddenly looked dim, and I sat on the floor. Clenching my teeth together, I willed away tears. “Damn you, Petit. Damn y—“

The body in the hammock lurched to life. Like a fish nearly clubbed to submission, he flopped limply, struggling against the knots.

“Abraham!” I exclaimed.

His eyes looked at me but didn’t focus. Blood in his eyes seeped along his lashes to form teardrops. Scowling, he snarled at me.

I jumped back.

“Abraham Foote,” the master surgeon said. “I pray God has mercy on your soul.” After drawing a knife from its scabbard, he plunged it deeply into a dark eye. The body in the hammock shook slightly, then it stopped.

Frozen in place, I couldn’t breathe.

The doctor withdrew the blade and cleaned it. “There was nothing that could be done but give him a swift, sure exit from this life,” he said. Candlelight reflected in the bristol buttons, copper cufflinks, and brass buckles that bound his uniform together. The blue of his eyes was cold and clear.

I cut the ties from Foote’s hands, and I pulled a blanket over his body.

When the sun melted into the horizon, our fortunes aboard the Shadow turned worse as a voice cried out, “Mermaid!”

The alarm bell rang. As footsteps pattered across the deck like a light rain, I ran to where men lined the starboard bulwark. Jacobites, Spanish renegadoes, New World natives, and former African slaves gathered together. The deck became crowded, so pirates clambered up the rigging to the mizzenmast crosstrees for a better view.

The captain held his spyglass to one eye. Tousled by wind, his hair’s light hue matched the white sleeves flowing from his leather vest. Silver outnumbered the black in the shag that grew down his chin.

“What do you make of it, Captain Warwick?” I asked.

Although it was just a speck holding fast on the ripples, the captain muttered, “That spells our certain doom, Peter.”

I looked at the dot of her skull, flickering in and out of view as waves brushed over her.

Hampton, the boatswain, approached us. Tipped in dried blood, his cat o’nine tails dragged across the planks. His bare chest was matted with hair and spotted with broken fever pustules. “What is it doing, bobbing like that?” 

“Watching us, I perceive.” When Captain Warwick turned around, he called out, “Who’s had experience with mermaids before?”

Raising his hand, Palgrave, the master sailor said, “They’re a frightful bunch, mer-folk.” He wore a wig and he kept his face powdered like a nobleman.

“Go on,” Hampton said, his voice sounding like stones tumbling down a slope.

He added, “Their lot have filmy eyes and skin as pale as a fish’s underbelly. Blood pumps through their veins, sure enough, but it is cold like hell.”

“Do they speak English?” I spoke up.

He shook his head with a hard swallow. “Nay, Peter. Nor Spanish or Port’gese or Dutch. No tongue o’ man. It be a language o’ squeals and screams that’ll put the fear of God into ye when ye hears it.” He pulled on his ear lobes. “And it goes into these little holes in their heads, as they got no ears.”

“Can you communicate with it?” the captain asked.

“Provided I keep a brace o’ pistols with me, I reckon I can, best as anyone here.”

We sent Palgrave in a jolly boat to the merwoman. The Shadow was silent except for the creak of wood and the splash of water against her hull. They were too far away to be heard, but we saw Palgrave keep double-shotted guns trained on the speck at all times.

Women of all sorts are borne from the sea—selkies and dryads and other folk rarely seen by man. None before had entered into my own life. Did they breathe air? Were they kind and gentle? Were they beautiful? Did they form relationships with humans?

As soon as the boat returned and was hoisted back up, we circled around the coxswain, straining to hear him talk to the captain. Palgrave’s face blanched under his powder. His hands shook as they patted down his cravat. 

The captain nodded and said, “Certain doom, sure enough.”

“The mer-creature is in the employ of His Majesty’s Navy,” Palgrave said. “A dreadnaught named the Steadfast is near and she will pay any sea folk one hundred guineas for directions to our ship.”

A deep groan wound through the swabs.

“The Steadfast is a ten-gun pirate hunter captained by Morris Wilcox,” the captain said. “So what does it wait for?” 

The master sailor said, “I begged her to belay, so we could provide a better offer.”

Our groans turned into wheezing sighs.

Warwick called out, “Gentlemen, let us gather together below deck at three bells and plan our next move.”

As the captain left the pissoir, I approached him. “Abraham Foote is dead.”

He stopped and stiffened. “Foote?”

I held back tears. Pointing to my eye, I said, “The doctor ran his blade through old Abe’s head. He came back to life, like the Frenchmen on Hispaniola, but it’s Major Petit’s fault. He killed Abe.”

The captain put a hand on my head and he sighed. “Abraham was the finest sailor we had. We must give him full burial.” Then he hunched down on his knees and opened his arms wide for an embrace.

I stood firm.

The captain shrugged and stood back up. “What would you have us do, Peter? Keelhaul Major Petit?”

“Can we?” I asked.

“We have greater concerns to attend,” he said, leading me to the ship’s hold.

The hold was full—men sat on sacks and crates, and crowded on the stairs. Swaying with the rocking of the ship, lanterns kept the area dimly lit. Ribs of timber spanned overhead. The smell of dried sweat filled the air.

I found Major Petit and sat with him, as there was no other room. 

When the captain appeared in the doorway, conversations sputtered out. He paced back and forth down the center of the hold. 

“Morris Wilcox will reward the fish woman, unless we can top his proposition. What shall our counter-offer be?”

“The only thing we have of value is our plunder,” Palgrave said. “Should we divide it amongst ourselves now, to provide another share for the mermaid?”

While a few heads nodded in agreement, nobody spoke.

“So our offer is one share of the treasure aboard?” Captain Warwick asked.

“How do we know the mermaid will keep the bargain?” Hampton said.

Shaking his head, the captain said, “We don’t, but if such occurs, we’re nigh where we are now. Do we know any magicks against merfolk?”

We were all quiet.

Captain Warwick went on. “It’s been two weeks since Saint Dominique, Abraham Foote is dead, and yet our refuge—New Providence—is still several days away. Mayhaps we best give up our ways, gentlemen? To anyone who renounces piracy, the governor of Jamaica offers a full pardon.”

The reaction was more silence and, despite the mass of men, we lingered in an emptiness of noise.

“Surrendering my ways be little better than giving up my life,” Hampton said. “Is our lot so dire?”

Before Warwick could respond, Indigo John, the master gunner called out, “Let’s shoot it out of the water!” Jonathan’s slops were luxuriant clothes dyed in matching color. Coat to breeches, he was twilight blue.

“Aye, and what if we miss?” Warwick said. 

“Perhaps if we all gathered on deck and fire our pistols together like infantry shoot their muskets?” Jonathan said. 

“But she’ll not wait for us to take steady aim. Unless you think you can strike her dead with one nine pounder?” the captain said, looking at the master gunner.

Indigo John shook his mutton chops.

“Then it’s a share of booty for the mer-woman. The question is, who should bring this to her?” Without waiting for an answer, he added, “I propose our good master surgeon, to make up for the passing of Abraham.”

Confusion soured the doctor’s face until he said, “Very well.”

As is the fashion of gentlemen of fortune, we took a vote. Afterward, the crew dispersed. I re-filled my tankard and returned to the deck. Along the bulwark, Indigo John and Palgrave leaned against the rail. Their toes pointed in the scuppers. The smell of waterproofing tar was strong in the Caribbean air. “What are you doing still awake?” Jonathan asked.

“I can’t sleep with this mermaid stir,” I said. 

“May the heavens damn that thing and damn the Frenchman Petit, too,” Indigo John said, gazing up at the black sky. “Foote, this life was more tolerable with you here. Why do angels allow such things?”

A path of moonlight reflected along the waves all the way to the horizon. A slight breeze fluttered the ship’s sails.

“Is she still out there?” he asked.

“Aye, she’s still out there, swimming beneath us,” Palgrave said. 

“Do they sleep, I wonder?” Indigo John asked.

“Before you showed up, we was debating whether it is a woman or not,” The master sailor said to me. He retrieved his pipe and matches from a leather fire bucket and smoked.

“Do they have names?” I asked. “Do they breathe air? Do they keep the company of men?”

“What do ye know about the company of women, powder monkey?” Palgrave asked, ruffling my hair.

“Just my mother,” I said.

Indigo John’s laugh roared from his chest. “’Just my mother!’”

I shrank.

He clapped a hand to my shoulder. “A mother’s a good thing, younker, but to lay with a woman is even gooder.”

After a swig of beer, Jonathan went on. “My first time, I was a minnow of a seaman, only my second voyage, and my mates took me to a brothel. I was so scared,” he said with a weary laugh. “The fear of women goes away, but the ignorance never does.”

Palgrave dismissed him with a wave of the hand. “Ye loves yer rum and ye loves yer women, and two weeks into port, all your booty’s gone and you’re begging for more of each.”

Indigo John snorted and rolled his eyes. “The Christianly thing is to marry a woman, as you have done. But I saw you eyeing the mer-lady.”

Tapping his fingers over his heart, he said, “A mermaid is a sight to behold true, yet my wife remains my pole star.”

I nodded without truly understanding. A woman was a mysterious thing to me, whether she is in the water with a fish tail or on land with two legs, and I wanted to take my chances with either.

We had an early breakfast of biscuits with the occasional weevil and hens’ cackleberries. The surgeon was in full dress: heavily brocaded blue topcoat with tails, waistcoat, three-cornered hat, and buckled shoes.

“About Foote,” the doctor began, but the captain patted his arm and said, “No hard feelings.”

“The fault was not mine,” he said.

“’Tis nobody’s blame. Death comes to us all, don’t it now?” The captain had traded his knitted cap for a lady’s straw hat. It fit under his chin with a silk band, and its wide brim shaded his face. “I’ll chaperone the surgeon.”

Hampton said, “You, captain?” Through his chest hair, his shirt’s laces strained against his girth.

“I’ll be safe, don’t worry. I want to see this ladyfish up close, with my own eyes.”

“Me, too,” I said, looking at Indigo John and Palgrave. I clambered into the jolly boat with the captain and the doctor and, when we touched water, I rowed. The water was calm, the air was cool. I oared the boat one hundred yards when the captain said, “That’s enough, Pete. Let’s drift the rest of the way … slowly.”

Facing the Shadow with my back to the rowboat’s prow, I set the oars and turned around. We crept along the surface of the water toward the creature. 

The mermaid’s hair was long. It fell around her shoulders with a few loose strands clinging to her face.

As the captain drew his pistol, metal rubbed against leather.

Her skin was so fair, it was almost translucent. Blue lines of blood vessels twisted under its surface.

“Beautiful,” the surgeon remarked.

Her eyes were like a cat’s—large, catching the light and reflecting it. Lids blinked over each pupil. She rose higher in the water. Her breasts were round and full, but the nipples were concealed by her hair.

“Now, captain?” I asked, moving toward the collected plunder.

Her tail thrashed furiously under her, holding her above the waves.

The captain nodded.

The sack of coins was heavy, but the surgeon and I managed to throw it overboard. It sank fast. The mermaid plunged underwater for a moment. When she rose again, she clutched it in her arms.

Leaping from her throat, a high-pitched whine blended with a guttural squeak. 

The doctor glanced between the mermaid and Warwick. “She wants more, captain.”

“Aye, sawbones. She wants her breakfast.”

“But what does she eat?”

“The flesh of man,” he said, then he jerked the doctor out of his seat, thrusting him into the water and pushing him overboard.

Nearly capsizing, the boat rocked violently back and forth. I grabbed the gunwale, steadying the jolly boat.

As the mermaid held out her hands, she opened her mouth wide. Her gaping mouth split her face to her ear-holes and several rows of overlapping teeth shone. The doctor floundered in the water. She drew to him. When his mouth filled with seawater, his screams broke and ended quickly.

The fork of her tail flicked above the water then slipped out of view. Under the boat, a dark cloud of blood billowed. The air was silent.

The captain looked me in the eye and he said, “Take us back to the ship, Peter.”

Muscles twitching, my hands shook as they gripped the oars. For several minutes, I couldn’t move except to shake. 
Warwick sat and waited quietly.

Eventually, I started to row back to the ship. “I don’t understand.”

“Flesh is as dear to fish folk as treasure, all sailors know. Some crews will cut a limb off someone’s body. Should we have fed an arm to it instead?”

I was silent.

“And how do we decide who loses the limb? Do I pick? Do we draw straws, Master Peter?”

Watching me with his one eye, he waited for me to answer. But I had none. He sighed. “This was indeed the wrong way to handle this, except for all other ways.”

When we reached the ship, ropes were lowered and we fixed them to the jolly boat.

My voice broke but finished firm. “But why the doctor?”

“Heave-to, Peter. Why not him? We are all sad that Foote died. And we are still sad. But now, we can say that we did something about it.”

“But he didn’t know—“

“’Didn’t know’? Didn’t know what? That mer-folk eat people? Better that we brought him here willingly, isn’t it? Or would you prefer I ordered it, like a king?”

“That wasn’t part of our vote,” I said.

“The risk of danger, Peter, is all around. When he stepped into the rowboat, he was free and willing.”

“Freedom don’t mean much of nothing if you don’t rightly know anything, I reckon.”

“Mayhaps we gave her Foote’s dead body instead? No, I gave her the master surgeon who was not liked by you, and none will hold it against me for long. Even if you and he did not, most knew it meant likely death for the doctor.”

Before the lifting boat made it to the Shadow’s deck, I said, “Meaning no disrespect, captain, but sometimes I don’t know if you’re the shepherd or the butcher.”

“Sometimes I have to be both.”

We stepped safely on deck and for the rest of the day, the crew worked faster and more easily. None looked me in the eye until the sun set below the water. At night, I strung up my hammock in Foote’s empty cabin.

The sound of laughter at my admission that the only woman I knew was my mother mixed with the sudden screams of the doctor. I thought of my dead father. He came home from the sea with a peg leg; thinking about what the captain said, I wondered how he’d lost it. My fists wanted to kill someone, but I didn’t know who, whether it was the crew, the doctor, the captain, or myself.

I never saw another mermaid in my life. Nor did we ever spy the Steadfast.