published in The Alaska Quarterly Review
Robert Greenman and the Mermaid
The shark was hard to see, even when he was moving. He blended so completely with the darkness of the deep sea that he could have been a shadow, a swell of dark water, a cloud of black sand sent up by a manta ray. The mermaid watched him from a distance, straining her eyes to catch the white flash of his belly whenever he twisted to change direction.
He was larger than any other shark she had seen, and cunning, a superb hunter. She loved to watch him eat. When he was hungry he dove deep into the water until he was invisible from above. As she waited for him to resurface, the mermaid felt a strange electric trill at the back of her neck. She became suddenly aware of the water against her skin, something she almost never noticed. The shark circled slowly until he had spotted his prey, and then he shot upward, mouth open. He clamped his jaws on his victim, sometimes bursting out above the surface of the ocean with the momentum of his attack.
To the mermaid the shark was a reminder of the deepest reaches of the sea, the place where the waters turned black, and she loved everything about him: his speed and his power and the way his tail moved, side to side, a gentle swaying. She let its wake caress her skin, split and trouble around her, wash away. She had been following the shark for months now, in the waters off Newfoundland, and every week she got a little closer.
A thousand miles away in Portsmouth, Maine there lived a fisherman named Robert Greenman. He was the latest in a long line of fishermen, thirty-five years old, quiet and ruggedly built, just as his father had been. He had a pretty wife, Carol, a nurse he’d met at Portsmouth General Hospital when a cut on his arm threatened to turn gangrenous. Sometimes when they lay in bed at night she liked to run her fingers along the scar that cut had made. They had been married a year and had no children, though not for lack of trying she liked to say sometimes, with a little laugh like wind chimes. Robert Greenman adored her, and although he was not a man who believed in flaunting affection this was apparent to everyone who knew them. People joked that Robert loved his wife more than he loved the sea, and whether or not this was strictly true it was a lot to be said of a fisherman. She was a lovely woman, cheerful and intelligent, with strawberry blonde hair that she kept cut just below her ears. For work she wore sneakers and scrubs but at home she favored dresses that showed her shoulders, and shoes with low heels that made a particular clicking sound that reminded her husband of women more than anything else in the world did. Robert was, above all else, a sensible and sober man, and after he had known Carol a few months he had decided that she would make a good wife. So far he felt that he had been correct.
Now Carol was standing at the end of the Portsmouth dock in her bright blue wool coat, waving at Robert as his ship headed out to sea. He didn’t wave back, he never did, but he knew that she didn’t expect him to and wanted to wave anyway.
He was on board the Ushuaia, a cod-fishing ship headed up toward Newfoundland. The trip would last five weeks, if it took that long to fill the hold, and it probably would. Over the past several years fishing around northern Maine had dwindled, the result of overfishing in previous decades, so that every season the captains had to push their crews out farther to make a profit. Robert had spent most of the year since his marriage at home with Carol, working odd jobs in town to supplement the money she made from nursing, but lately he had been going to sea again. He knew most of the crew on this trip. They had been fishing as long as he had, if not longer, and he liked the captain, Tomas, an Argentine who had moved to Maine as a young man. The only person on the boat he did not know was Carl Leslie, a man who was new to Portsmouth and, from the look of him, to fishing as well. Carl was pale, with limp, blonde hair and blue eyes too large for his face, like a child’s eyes. He was thirty years old but acted, Robert thought, much younger. As they moved out into the bay leaving Portsmouth, Carl leaned against the rail and stared down into the water, then turned and grinned at the other men on deck as though the mere sight of the ocean were something delightful.
The first night at sea was clear and warm. The fishermen sat on deck, talking and smoking. Carl pointed out the constellations, not just Orion and the Big Dipper and the ones they all knew, but others as well, the strange Greek names dripping easily off his tongue. When he finally stopped talking there was an awkward silence until Tomas told a joke. Jim Barner—the cook and a friend of Robert’s from high school—responded with a high, shrill giggle that made him sound like a tipsy cheerleader. The other men started telling jokes. Robert laughed along but he was watching Carl, who sat across from him on the other side of the circle of men. There was a thin line on a fishing ship between men who were useless and those whose incompetence was dangerous to their shipmates, and it was still unclear where Carl would fall.
It was a five-day journey northward to reach their target fishing ground, a swathe of ocean around the 55th parallel, just outside the bounds of Canadian fishing laws. As they traveled they worked, rechecking the nets, making sure that the ice machine in the hold was in working order. On the fifth day, an hour before sunset, the captain looked up from the sonar and said there were fish around, and they were stopping. He sent Robert and Carl to pay out the nets, and the motors of the net drums growled as they slowly unwoundtwenty miles worth of woven monofilament line that would drift through the water like a spider’s web, reaching hungrily for the gills of passing fish. They would let it drift with the tides and haul it in the following morning, and see what their fortune was for this trip.
By the time they finished laying the nets the rest of the men were asleep. Robert felt his way through the darkness of the bunk room, and heard Carl stumble behind him. They both got into their bunks, but as soon as Robert lay down he could tell that this was one of those nights when the insomnia that sometimes came over him at sea would be at work. He lay in bed for an hour anyway, listening to the other men’s breathing as they sunk into heavy sleep, then slipped on his boots and jacket and went up on deck.
The moon had come out, and the waves were black, edged with foam and shivering streaks of light. Robert leaned against the rail, eyes drifting aimlessly over the waves, getting lost in their pattern. Then he saw the mermaid.
At first he thought she was a large fish, breaching the surface. He saw only her tail, silver and glittering in the faint light from the moon, as it slipped back beneath the waves. But even the sight of the tail created a nervous sensation in the pit of his stomach. As he watched she surfaced again, and the nervousness hardened into a knot. Her skin was pearly white, and gave off the kind of glow he’d seen in certain jellyfish. She was perhaps forty feet away from the ship, submerged from the waist down, facing away from him and looking out across the open sea. A line of silver scales, identical to those on her tail, marked her spine and disappeared into her hair. She slipped in and out of the water. Her tail propelled her quickly, gracefully; its movement was delicate. She seemed to be looking for something, turning her head side to side, and every time she turned he hoped to catch a glimpse of her face, but never saw more than a thin crescent of her profile. As he watched her, an ache filled his bones. The light from her skin made everything around her look dull; the moon-capped waves, the stars, even the black water lost their gloss. Eventually she dove underneath the waves and didn’t reappear. Robert watched for her until the sun came up, and when the other men shuffled onto deck, yawning, he joined them.
When they pulled in the nets Roger scanned the deck nervously, afraid that he would spot a pair of white arms among the glittering scales, but he saw only fish. It was a fair catch, nothing to brag about but enough to put a little money in each of their pockets. Robert worked silently. He was not superstitious, as many fishermen were. His eyes and ears did not play tricks on him and he was not given to daydreaming under any circumstances, and certainly not while onboard a ship, where so many things could go wrong. He trusted himself completely. So the mermaid must be real; he only wondered where she had gone when she disappeared.
The mermaid had never seen another mermaid, or at least, not within her memory. After coming up out of the dark waters she had spent her early years on the slopes of an underwater mountain near the tiny islands of Tristan da Cunha, thirteen hundred miles from the next piece of dry land. Eventually she had followed a school of swordfish north, along the coast of South America, and then up to Newfoundland. The water, as she traveled, turned from sapphire blue to a cold and murky gray-green, and the fish grew larger but lost their bright colors. She did not find the northern seas as appealing as those she was used to, but she was a creature of endless curiosity. Still, she might have turned around and gone back to warmer waters were it not for the shark.
She had decided, through careful observation, that it was best to approach him when he had just eaten. Not that he had ever made any move to attack her; he preferred to surprise his prey, and the mermaid was watchful. But he was calmer after eating. He gorged himself and then swam in lazy circles while the blood still clouded the water. She began to swim in search of fish, finding the biggest ones in the surrounding water, corralling them towards him. She tried an experiment with a snapper, slashing a piece of sharpened shell against its side. The fish jerked away from her with a powerful flip of its tail, but a thin stream of blood trailed behind it in the water. She kept the snapper in sight, and waited.
The shark could smell blood miles away, could feel the telltale vibrations in the water that a wounded fish made. He charged up from below in an explosion of turbulence, bit the snapper in half and swallowed it in two bites. When he had finished eating, the mermaid swam cautiously toward him. His flat black eyes followed her, but he did not seem disturbed, and she edged closer and pressed her fingers against his side. His entire body was covered with teeth so small that they could not be seen, and his blood beneath it was not the cold blood of a fish; it was as warm as her own. The shark plunged deeper, the water changed from green to gray to nearly black, and eventually she left him and spiraled away on her own.
She swam to a place she especially liked, a large chunk of volcanic rock worn smooth by years of tides and sand that rested on the sea floor. The mermaid sank down into a hollow of it and began to sing. Her voice had a deep, liquid sound like a separate current within the water. The shark could hear it but it meant nothing to him, and he paid no attention to it. The fish heard it too, though, and they were charmed by it. The song was the sound of joy without depth, of clear waters and warm blood and sunlight piercing the tops of the waves. Fish were drawn from miles away. They orbited the mermaid in a slow swirl of fins and scales, and she could think only that the shark would be well fed, that she could be close to him more often.
When Robert arrived back at port, twenty-nine days after setting out, Carol was standing at the end of the dock, as though she had not moved during that entire month. In the parking lot she hugged him tightly, pressing her cheek against his chest. He kissed the top of her head, trying to find the scent of her hair beneath the smell of disinfectant and the sickly sweet air freshener they used at the hospital.
“Was it a good trip?” she said.
Robert thought about the mermaid and knew he wouldn’t tell Carol about her, although he couldn’t say precisely why.
“Not a bad catch. Nothing spectacular, though. It won’t be much money,” he said.
“Did you miss me?”
“Of course,” he said, but he realized that he hadn’t.
Usually, like all the fishermen, he enjoyed being back on land after a long trip, but now he felt restless. Sometimes he found himself, in the middle of one of Carol’s stories about the hospital, ignoring her words and thinking that her voice had a shrill edge to it. He wondered why he had not noticed it before. After a few days he began looking for projects to keep himself busy. He cleaned out the attic and the basement, repainted the tool shed.
His mood did not improve as the days passed. He began spending every night at the Lock and Dock, the local fisherman’s bar. It was a place he usually avoided, telling Carol he’d seen more than enough of his friends during their time at sea. Now he went and the talk was always about the same thing. No one was catching. Men on land leave drank all night, running up tabs they couldn’t pay, and fights were frequent. Some of these men had gone to sea every month for six months without ever being home for more than a few days at a time, trying desperately to find the catch that would give them money for their car payments, their mortgages, for the debts they had accumulated back when fish were plentiful and it wasn’t uncommon to burn through a thousand dollars of pay within twelve hours of returning to land. Robert realized that the crew of the Ushuaia hadn’t fared too badly with their mediocre catch; most trips weren’t even making back their expenses.
Robert often saw Carl Leslie at the bar, sitting in a corner booth alone. One night, against his better judgment, Robert joined him. Carl was reading a book, which he politely put down when Robert approached. They made small talk, until Carl said, “So, will you be going on the next trip?”
“Will you?” said Robert, surprised. They’d hit a train of small storms on the way back to Portsmouth, and Carl had spent most of the return trip throwing up over the side of the boat.
Carl nodded. “Tomas said he’d take me on as an apprentice if I was willing to work without pay for a few trips. He and my grandfather were friends, back when Tomas was just starting out. And I’ve always loved the sea, so…”
Tomas was the captain of the Ushuaia, an Argentine who had moved to Maine when he was a young man. Robert looked down at his beer so as not to frown directly at Carl. Taking on a man with no experience, whether he was free labor or not, was irresponsible. Carl had a romantic’s vision of the sea, which was nothing like the understanding of men who made a living by it. Carl had made a fool of himself, and of the other men, by asking ridiculous questions during the last journey: what was the best time of year to watch the sunset, what did native legends say about this part of the sea, were there any endangered species in the area? They did not know the answers, although many of them had been fishing around Portsmouth for fifteen years, or more. These things did not matter to them and, they were sure, did not really matter to Carl. Robert swallowed the rest of his beer and said his goodbyes.
The next afternoon, when Robert came back from the hardware store Carol said that Tomas had called, that he was planning to head for Newfoundland again in two weeks, that he’d asked if Robert would ship out with him. Robert nodded, and let out a slow sigh that belied the nervous quivering in his stomach. Carol, still wearing her scrubs, sat down beside him on the couch.
“You just got here,” she said.
“I’ll be back soon. Maybe with some real money this time.”
“I could just work an extra shift or two. We’re doing all right.”
Robert put one hand against the back of her neck. He wanted to see the mermaid again, and he did not. He rubbed the ends of Carol’s hair between his fingers.
“It won’t be too long,” he said.
There were high winds the day the Ushuaia left Portsmouth, but when at last it reached the spot that had provided its meager bounty the last time, the ocean was smooth and glassy. The crew unrolled the nets from their drums at the back of the ship, the motors making the deck vibrate beneath their feet.
When everyone else was asleep Robert stole up onto deck and unlashed the lifeboat that was tied to the edge of the ship. Climbing inside, he lowered it into the water with the ropes and pulleys that were attached to it for that purpose. He took the oars from the side of the boat and rowed until he was about five hundred feet from the Ushuaia. With every pull of the oars he felt increasingly uneasy. Even when seen this close, the waves were still impenetrably black, and the sound and the smell of them were inescapable. For all his years at sea he had spent precious little time this near the water, and that there was good reason for it. The ocean here went down for a mile or more. If they were to move a few knots further east they would be over the edge of continental shelf, and the water would reach down forever into bottomless black trenches. He feared whatever creatures might be in the water far less than the ocean itself. He tried to put it out of his mind as he brought the oars in and looked over the edge of the boat. He thought about calling out, but realized that it would be useless. If the mermaid were on the surface and near enough to hear him he would see her, with that glowing white skin, and if she wasn’t she wouldn’t hear him through the waves. He dragged his fingers slowly through the water, imagining for a moment that he could feel the plankton in it, all the thousands of invisible creatures that float on the surface of the sea. The rocking of the rowboat, the sound of the waves breaking and reforming, was hypnotic, but he had the feeling that if he were to allow it to lull him to sleep he would wake up somewhere else, somewhere he did not belong, or perhaps not all. He shook his head, as if idle thoughts could be jarred loose by motion, and peered into the waves again, searching, but the mermaid did not come.
Every night he lowered the rowboat and looked for her. Sometimes he slept in the evening, while the other men ate their supper, or during the early part of the night, but for the most part he embraced his insomnia and kept watch. When the mermaid finally appeared again she caught him unawares. He was looking in the other direction, trying to pierce the waves with his gaze, and she slipped to the surface almost silently, hooking her long, pale fingers over the edge of the boat. She placed one hand against the exposed skin of his ankle, and even before he turned around he knew it was her.
Now that the mermaid was close enough to touch, Robert still could not say if she was beautiful. She had wide-set eyes, dark green in color and large. Her lashless eyelids were translucent. He would have said that her hair was tangled except that it did not look as though it should be otherwise; he felt that combing it out would be like trying to comb a person’s limbs. Each indigo strand was as thick as a pencil, and had the moist look of an anemone. All her veins were clearly visible beneath her skin. Her breasts were small, and he realized that this would be necessary, that her whole body should be streamlined for moving through the ocean. She had a wide mouth, with lips the color of seawater. He could not see, through the tangle of hair, whether she had ears. Her nose was thin and small. Her fingers were webbed with the same translucent tissue that made up her eyelids, flesh that looked delicate but which must, he decided, be incredibly strong.
He reached out, slowly, and touched her arm. She flinched slightly but did not move away. Her skin was cool and moist. He felt as though the tips of his fingers where he touched her were dissolving.
Robert stripped off his clothes and lowered himself into the water while she watched. The chill cut through his skin instantly. He hadn’t actually been in the ocean in years, although he was used to being drenched in spray or rain while he was on the ship. He was a strong swimmer, he had been swimming since he was five years old, but the cold was debilitating. He forced himself to let go of the edge of the lifeboat and reached out for the mermaid. She stayed afloat easily, flicking her tail back and forth beneath the surface of the ocean to tread water, and did not move away when he placed his hands on her shoulders. He ran his fingertips tentatively over her collarbone, her face, through her hair, and below the water her tail fins stroked his legs, feeling out his feet and toes as nimbly as fingers would. The feeling the mermaid inspired in Robert was not lust, or love, or curiosity; it was a feeling he did not recall having before, a sense of wonder that seemed to invade his blood and fill every part of his body. While he was touching her the rest of the world faded, and it was only when she ducked beneath the water that he saw that the lifeboat had drifted a hundred feet away. He thought to himself that if his muscles cramped, which seemed increasingly likely in the frigid water, he would never make it back. He could see the mermaid below the water and lunged for her, but she dodged him. When he surfaced again he turned reluctantly away and swam to the lifeboat.
As he pulled himself up over the side his leg muscles began to spasm, and he fell into the bottom of the boat. He grabbed his T-shirt and used it to dry himself as well as he could, then struggled into his sweater and pants. Rowing back to the Ushuaia, he pulled hard and fast, feeling his arm muscles begin to seize up. By the time he managed to climb on board and pull the lifeboat up, he was shivering uncontrollably, and the sky was beginning to lighten.
When everyone had had their breakfast and assembled on deck with the hooks they used to move the fish, they began to draw in the nets. The captain was sitting in the wheel house, trying to act as though he was prepared to take whatever happened to come up. The net rose, foot by foot, and Jim Barner closed his eyes and listened to the sound of the motors and whispered something under his breath. A moment later the first fish came into view.
There were more fish than Robert had seen in years. The net was heavy with them, the monofilament lines fairly creaking with the weight. The men all stood blinking for a moment, and then they grinned at one another. Jim Barner whooped like a cowboy and moved swiftly to the controls that would bring the fish on board.
The crew spent the rest of the day putting fish into the hold and cleaning the deck. In addition to cod they had caught a few tuna, some snapper. Those that were still alive thrashed around the deck, trying to make their way back to the water, their slick scales slowly turning dull in the sun. There was a dolphin, too, and Carl Leslie was distraught when he saw it, dropping his hook and running over to it and throwing his arms around the animal as though it were his sister. Robert had always considered that dolphins, though different from fish, were not much different from cows or lambs or most other mammals, but seeing Carl nearly in tears made him uncomfortable.
“Just look at it,” Carl said, “It’s practically human. Look at the eyes.” He struggled with the dolphin until Robert came to help him and they heaved the animal, all three hundred pounds of it, back over the rail into the water. Carl stood and watched it swim away with a look somewhere between awe and grief, and Robert had the feeling that Carl would have called a goodbye to it, if he hadn’t known that the other men would ridicule him for it.
That night Jim Barner cooked a feast in the galley, grilling the frozen steaks they’d brought with them and setting Carl to work mashing potatoes while everyone else got a head start on the drinking. Robert sat among them, grinning along with everyone else, but he could feel the emptiness of his grin. He was light-headed with exhaustion and yet, when the other men finally finished toasting their good luck and went to bed, he found that again he could not sleep. The world shifted around him in patches of darkness, every sound in the bunk room was magnified, and a dull buzz vibrated through his skull. Eventually he went back to the deck. He watched until sun-up, but did not see the mermaid.
The shark moved quietly through the waters, selecting his prey, launching toward them from below, tearing them in half. He glutted himself, and after every feeding the mermaid circled around him, bursting with song. As the weeks passed her melody gained a deeper resonance, reverberated along the great ridge that marks the spine of the Atlantic and spread further. She called fish from the deep sea, swordfish and bass, whole schools of mackerel. And others, fish who had never before ventured north: angelfish, clownfish, spotted eels. A school of orange and pink parrotfish followed the sound of her voice from the balmy waters off Florida up toward the north seas, their body temperatures plummeting as they went, until they died suddenly, as a group, and rose to the surface of the ocean in a multicolored cloud. The fish that followed the song ignored migratory patterns and potential prey and the baited lines of the trawling boats; they thought of nothing but moving north toward the mermaid.
On the Ushuaia the catches were good every day, ridiculously good, so good that the fishermen began to feel uncomfortable about it. This kind of abundance hadn’t been seen since most of them were children, if ever. The nets threatened to break with the weight of the fish. One day Robert walked to the bow and found the captain staring into the water.
“I can see them,” he said, “I swear I can.”
Robert looked, and through the glow of the sun on the waves he thought he, too, saw shifting layers of movement just below the surface, as though the ocean were so full of fish it was preparing to overflow.
It took them two weeks to fill the hold, and in that time Robert slept a total of thirty hours. For the most part everyone else was too busy hauling fish and getting drunk to notice, but he thought Carl Leslie looked at him strangely sometimes as they passed in the hall between the galley and bunks.
Robert saw the mermaid every night. He had found a wetsuit in the storage area, among the tools and half-filled crates of dehydrated emergency rations. It did not cover his arms or legs, but it helped slow the effects of the cold. Instead of using the life boat he lowered himself from the prow of the ship with a long rope, which he then tied around his waist. He wanted to be as close to her as he could. The chill of the water faded when her moist, searching fingers were trailing along his calves. She was fascinated by his legs, spent long minutes wrapping her arms around them, every touch sending a painful throb like a pulse of electricity through his body. He stayed beside her until he could feel hypothermia edging in and, against the pull of his desire, forced himself to leave the water.
Robert could not say that he enjoyed being with the mermaid, only that she was the one thing that seemed to be real. The phosphorescence of her skin, the silver reflections of her tail were more tangible than the ocean or the ship or the food he ate every day. The sparks of energy that went through his hands or face when she touched them were the only sensations that fully pierced the veil of exhaustion and lethargy that had settled over the rest of his life. When he slept now, which was seldom—he got so little sleep that he sometimes thought it should have killed him—he dreamed of nothing but a soft white light.
When the hold was full they went home again. They were weeks ahead of schedule but Carol had heard, somehow, and was there waiting on the dock as usual. She took his face in her hands and kissed him. Her body seemed to have very little weight or scent and she looked paler than usual, or, if it was possible, duller, as though she had been bleached by the sun.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asked.
“Of course. I’m feeling wonderful,” she said, leading him back to the car.
That night the crew of the Ushuaia, all of them but Robert, made their way to the Lock and Dock to celebrate their success. They were bursting with money and magnanimous good will when they entered the bar, but their exuberance faded under the bitter stares of the other fishermen. While the Ushuaia had been hauling in thousands of dollars a day, no one else’s luck had changed. The faces around the bar were grim. The crew gathered at a corner table and quietly toasted their luck, until they had drunk enough that they forgot to be quiet, and then they started singing, endless choruses of misremembered lyrics. When Tomas heard about it the next day he called every one of them and told them that if they wanted to have another good haul and another payout in a few weeks, they had better keep quiet and keep their money low.
Robert Greenman found himself finally ready to sleep. Over the course of the next week he slept twelve, fourteen, eighteen hours a day. When he was awake the world was drab. The drone of insomnia in the back of his head had disappeared, but Carol’s voice slipped into its place, so that she always seemed to be speaking to him from far away. He found that if he concentrated, everything she said made sense, that her voice was the same pleasant, soothing voice she had always had. But it was an effort to perceive her this way, and when he didn’t bother she seemed strange, her movements awkward, her features too sharp, her eyes small and dim.
All he could think about was getting back to sea, but Carol did her best to divert him. She began planning trips for them on her days off, to the movies, and to new restaurants that they had to drive three towns over to get to.
One Sunday morning Robert woke to find her dressed in a pair of old jeans, rubber boots and a greased-wool sweater, a parody of a fisherman from fifty years back. She was holding a fishing rod he had never seen before, a flimsy model like they sold in department stores.
They drove to a site she had picked out, a small lake about two hours west, one she said the man at the store had recommended. It can’t be any good if it’s recommended, Robert wanted to tell her. No one will tell you the best spots. But there was such a crispness about her actions, the way she wrapped her fingers around the steering wheel and held her head, that they didn’t seem to brook any disagreement. It reminded him of how she had acted when he was her patient, firm and capable, radiating assurance.
It was a chilly day; the dock was deserted when they got there, but Carol strode out onto the pier and settled herself at the end of it as if she knew what she was doing, the rod in one hand and a tackle box in the other. She looked fragile against the gray of the pier, a single stroke of white at the edge of the water, the kind of thing that a gust of wind might blow away without any trouble. When Robert sat down next to her she had a jar of salmon eggs in one hand, a jumble of rubber worm lures in the other.
“I don’t know what to use,” she said, shaking the worms and staring at them.
“The salmon eggs will work better,” said Robert. “There won’t be anything much in a lake like this, anyway. Maybe some sunfish, a few small bass.”
“The man said trout,” she said. She plucked a bright red salmon egg from the jar and speared it on the hook, then reared back with the fishing rod as though she were preparing to club something with it. Robert grabbed her wrist. “Like this,” he said, guiding her arm. She hit the release too late and the line fell straight down into the water, but on her next try the hook sailed out about fifteen feet.
“That’s good,” he said.
“Now what do I do?” said Carol.
They sat in silence for several minutes. The wind skimmed their faces, playing with Carol’s hair, making Robert’s eyes water, so that it took him a few minutes to realize that she was crying.
“Are you sorry you married me?” she said.
“Why would you say that?”
“Everyone told me I’d better get used to spending time alone, that you would be away a lot for work, but I didn’t think it would be like this. You don’t even talk to me when you’re home.”
“I talk to you,” he said, “I’m talking to you right now.”
“It’s like you can’t stand to look at me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and he was, but also surprised. He hadn’t thought his distraction was so obvious. He wondered, not for the first time, whether something was wrong with him. It was not just Carol who displeased him lately; foods smelled odd and were tasteless; his bed sheets seemed to scratch his skin when he pulled them up at night. The entire town seemed to have come down with some sort disease that robbed the color from people’s faces and made them speak in dead, whispering tones.
Carol was crying in earnest now, her whole face flushed and her nose running. Robert took the fishing rod from her hand and put an arm around her, and she pressed herself against his chest, sobbing. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“I’m worried about you. I want you to talk to one of the doctors at the hospital.”
“All right, all right, I will. Don’t cry anymore,” he said, but she kept on. He felt a tug on the fishing rod, looked up and saw the bobber ducking up and down in the water, the line jerking side to side, and his attention went with it, away from Carol and her warm, wet face, into the coolness of the water, the fish that was thrashing back and forth to free itself. He patted her head and kept his eye on the bobber until it stopped moving, the fish having gotten away with the bait. Carol squeezed his hands.
“You promise?” she said.
Promise? he thought. Had he promised to do something? But he nodded and said, “Of course.”
The doctor she sent him to prescribed an antidepressant, and told Carol to keep him off the boats for a while. So the Ushuaia sailed without him, and he sat on the dock and watched it go. The antidepressants gave the world a different sort of unreality, where everything was excessively bright and sharp, the muted grays and blues of the harbor shifting into an unnatural rainbow palette.
For the next three weeks he spent most of his waking hours at the Lock and Dock and returned home every night exhausted. Carol pulled him into bed, made love to him desperately, and as soon as they were finished he was asleep. He dreamed of monsters from the deep, crushing tentacles, serrated teeth and wide-open jaws. He moved through ranges of underwater mountains covered in waving seaweed while the shadows of large fish passed over him. This world was alluring in its darkness, and its images spilled over into his waking hours. When the Ushuaia came back into port with another full hold he told Carol that he was going on the next trip no matter what.
She came to the dock to say goodbye and didn’t try to stop him, although she did cry. This filled her face with sudden color, turned her eyes and nose pink. Robert was so close to being back at sea by now that he was nearly twitching with anticipation, but he forced himself to stand with her until the last possible moment, to hold her; he remembered to wipe the tears off her face and tell her that he loved her, that he would be back soon. As they pulled out of the harbor he waved to her, and she stood in her blue coat with her head bowed.
There was heavy rain when they got to the fishing ground in Newfoundland, and the possibility of a storm, so they didn’t let the nets out right away. The crew spent their time huddled in the cabins smoking, but their spirits were high. They were certain that another hold full of fish awaited them as soon as the weather abated. Robert sat on his bunk in the midst of the chatter and curling smoke and tried not to fidget. Eventually he put on his rain slicker and went on deck, and felt much calmer. A moment later, though, Carl Leslie was standing beside him, holding tight to the rail and looking as though he might throw up.
“Get back below,” Robert said. “You’ll get soaked.”
“I saw her,” said Carl.
Robert wondered whether his shock registered in his face.
“On the last trip,” Carl said. “I heard you come in to bed in the middle of the night, lots of nights, and finally I decided to see what you were up to. I went out when you were asleep, and was looking around the deck, and then almost right away I saw her. She was swimming with that shark.”
“What shark?” said Robert.
Carl laughed giddily. “The biggest shark I’ve ever seen. Twenty feet long, maybe longer. It was swimming along the side of the ship, and she was right behind it.”
“Hunting it?” said Robert.
“No. She couldn’t. This thing, it could bite her in half in a second. It’s monstrous. I don’t think it knew she was there. And you…Jesus, you weren’t going to tell anyone, were you?” said Carl, reverentially. “I mean of course you weren’t. Who would even believe us?”
Robert shook his head. He didn’t care for Carl’s moist-eyed hysteria. It made the whole situation somehow terrifying and fragile at the same time. He turned to leave, but Carl grabbed his arm.
“Tell me what she’s like,” Carl said. “You must have learned something, you’ve known about her for months. Does she talk to you?” Robert stared back at him, tight-lipped, wordless, wondering what would happen next if he simply punched Carl in the mouth, but Carl held tight. “I want to touch her,” he said.
Robert avoided Carl after that, as much as it was possible to avoid someone within the confines of the ship. The thought of the shark troubled Robert, but it bothered him at least as much to think that Carl might know something about the mermaid that he, Robert, did not. Robert spent every night pacing the deck. Mercifully, Carl did not have Robert’s capacity for sleep deprivation, and after working a sixteen hour day was often too tired to last the night, whatever his intentions might have been. When Robert finally saw the mermaid and the shark, he was alone.
The shark was cutting through the very top of the water. It was, as Carl had said, enormous, the color of a brewing storm, and it cleaved the waves as though they were no thicker than air. A nauseating, primeval fear touched Robert as the shark’s dorsal fin glided by him, but almost immediately his attention shifted to the mermaid. She held on to the fin, and pressed her body against the shark’s. Robert watched her, and then, irrationally, he began to scream at her, waving his arms frantically to gain her attention. She did not respond; he had decided she couldn’t hear sounds that were airborne, but that didn’t stop him from yelling. Finally she glanced up, by chance, and saw him, but as quickly as her eyes registered him she looked away again. He watched her and the shark trace the edge of the ship again, and he could see the mermaid’s face. Her expression was one of pure delight. It made her face beautiful, and it was nothing like the look of searching curiosity that he saw when she stroked his legs. He stood at the rail, watching them, until the shark dove underwater again, and the mermaid followed.
In the morning the crew of the Ushuaia hauled up the nets, and the net drums creaked in a way they had all become familiar with. The men stood around, grinning, shifting on their feet with anticipation, thinking that by the end of the day they would have moved several thousand dollars worth of fish into the hold. But when the nets were up, and the fish spilled onto the deck, they stood still and quiet. There were no cod, or mackerel, or sword fish. The fish they had caught were lemon yellow, magenta, electric blue. They were striped and spotted, fish the crew had never seen before outside of photographs, fish that had no business being in the northern Atlantic. They covered the deck like a brightly colored quilt, and the sound of their bodies slapping against the deck filled the men’s silence. Too many fish was something they could rejoice in. They could ignore the fact that it made no sense, could believe that God had created a special fountain of fish off the coast of Newfoundland just for them. But this was unnatural. The rainbow fish were shocking and aberrant beneath the gray sky, against the backdrop of the murky green water. Jim Barner nudged one with his foot, a two-foot-long yellow fish that had a blue crest and a blue ring around its eye and little puckered lips that made it look like it wanted a kiss. The fish’s gills flared half-heartedly, and Jim grabbed it, and flung it back over the rail.
“What did we do?” said Tomas.
“Help me,” said Jim, and he picked up another fish, and threw it back.
They worked at it all day. Most of the fish were dead by the time they got back in the water; they littered the sea around the Ushuaia like confetti. Robert worked along with the rest of the crew, although less frantically. He kept thinking about the mermaid and the shark. He wondered if he would see her again. He thought for a moment that he would not dare to go back into the water with her, knowing that the shark might be close behind, but he knew before the thought was even fully formed that he would go anyway, that he would brave the shark the same way he had braved the water, and all for a creature who found him nothing more than a curious diversion. She was still as real, and as entrancing, as she had been all these months, even if he was neither of these things to her.
Every night they sent the nets out, and every morning they brought in another net full of strange fish. They did not bring them on board anymore; the captain simply lowered the net again, dumping them back into the ocean. The men began to tell Tomas that the place had become cursed, that they should turn back, but the captain could not settle with the idea of returning to Portsmouth empty handed. So they kept at it, and two weeks passed without a single fish being put into the hold.
Robert watched for the mermaid by night, but he did not see her. She had brought the tropical fish, somehow, although he couldn’t say how. He wondered where she was, whether she was ever coming back. He watched for her for the next six days, and on the night of the seventh day he finally slept.
When he woke the bunk room was empty. He dressed and headed for the deck, buttoning his shirt as he went. The sky at the top of the hold was a square of pale blue, cloudless, that grew as he approached it. He heard the other men laughing and talking, and realized that this was a sound he had not heard for days; grim silence had become the usual state of the ship.
Up on deck the men were gathered around Carl Leslie, slapping him on the back, all of them drinking beers while Carl grinned idiotically. Robert stepped further out onto the deck and saw the shark. It was hanging by its tail, jaws open, two-inch teeth displayed in rows. Carl had been wrong, it was not twenty feet long, it was twenty-three, as Robert would later find out. Even out of the water it was slick black, even dead it was terrifying. Robert walked up to it, past Carl and the men, and Carl sobered as soon as he saw Robert and turned to watch him. Robert reached out to touch the shark and some of the men yelled at him to step back—sharks sometimes bit even after they were dead, some evil trick of the fish nervous system that kept their reflexes alive hours after their bodies. Robert ignored them. He reached into the shark’s mouth, thinking that his entire torso would fit into that maw, and touched one of the teeth, pressing downward until the tip of it punctured his fingertip. A drop of bright blood appeared, and it seemed to glow with color that the rest of the world lacked. Carl was standing behind him now, nervous and wheedling, all his drunken bravado gone.
“It would have killed her,” Carl said. “I had to get rid of it. I threw some bait in the water and I got it with the harpoon gun. You should have seen it fight. I got it right through the skull and it still kept going. I thought it was never going to die. It was terrifying, even from up here.”
Robert nodded. He turned to the rail and looked down at the water. He couldn’t see the mermaid, but he knew she was there. He listened to the waves as they smacked against the side of the boat and thought he could feel their vibration in his hands, and with them another sound. He leaned closer to listen, and leaned further, and then he was pitching himself over the rail.
He was surrounded by the green of the seawater, and the water was full of sound. It was a sound that made him feel as though he could start crying and never stop, as though his blood were turning to brine, as though the world were nothing but shades of gray. The mermaid was singing, and he knew from the song that she had seen the shark’s body, and that she would not come back. She was going, but for the moment the ocean, the salt that filled his mouth, the rush and swell of the current, all of it was real, all of it was as vibrant and as painful as anything he had known in his life. The song twisted through him, and whatever small part of himself he had held back in his encounters with the mermaid was laid open, filled to overflowing. Then there was a splash beside him, and a thick arm around his waist, and he was pulled from the water again.