excerpt from

Robert Greenman and the Mermaid

 

          In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 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 Regional Hospital  when a cut on his arm had 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, so far, had no children, though certainly not for lack of trying, she liked to say, with a little laugh like wind chimes. Robert was, above all else, a sensible and sober man, and he adored Carol as only such a man could, with a love built on a list of reasons and proofs of her goodness. She was a charming woman, cheerful and intelligent, with strawberry-blond hair that she kept cut short, 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 noise that had become, in Robert’s mind, the signature sound of women.

          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 mind and wanted to wave anyway.

          He was onboard the Ushuaia, a cod-fishing ship headed up toward Newfoundland. The captain, known in Portsmouth simply as Tomás because his last name was considered unpronounceable, was an Argentine who had moved to New Hampshire when he was a young man. Robert had worked for Tomás before and liked him. 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 along the New England coast 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. The only person he did not know was Mark Leslie, who was new to town and, from the look of him, to fishing as well. Mark was pale, with limp blond hair and brown eyes that seemed too large for his face, like a child’s. He was thirty years old but acted much younger. As the ship moved out into the bay, leaving Portsmouth, Mark 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. Mark 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 sliding easily off his tongue. When he finally stopped talking there was an awkward silence until the captain told a joke, and Jim Barner—the cook, and a friend of Robert’s from high school—started laughing his high, shrill laugh that made him sound like a teenage girl. The other men began laughing and telling jokes as well. Robert chuckled and nodded along but he was watching Mark, 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 endangered their shipmates; it was still unclear where Mark would fall.

          Their target fishing ground was five days northward, a swath 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 to preserve the fish they would catch. On the fifth day, an hour before sunset, the captain looked up from the sonar and said there were fish around. He sent Robert and Mark to pay out the nets, and the motors of the net drums growled as they slowly unwound twenty miles’ worth of woven monofilament line that would float through the water like a spider’s web, reaching hungrily for the passing fish. They would let it drift with the tides and haul it in the following morning, to see what their fortune would be for this trip.

          By the time they finished with the nets, the rest of the men were asleep. Robert felt his way through the dim bunkroom, and heard Mark stumble in behind him. They both got into their bunks, but as soon as Robert lay down he could tell this was one of those nights when he’d struggle with the insomnia that sometimes came over him at sea. He stayed in bed for an hour anyway, listening to the other men’s breathing as they sank into heavy sleep. Then he donned 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 as it slid beneath the waves, silver and glittering in the faint light from the moon. But even the sight of the tail tugged at his nerves. 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 from the ship, and she floated at the surface of the water with her tail submerged, facing away from him. A line of silver scales marked her spine and disappeared into her hair. She slipped in and out of the water, her tail propelling her quickly, gracefully, its movement 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 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.

          They pulled in the nets and Robert scanned the deck, afraid that he would spot a pair of white arms among the lines, 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 loaded fish into the hold. 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; certainly not while onboard a ship, where so many things could go wrong. He trusted himself completely. So the mermaid must be real. He wondered only where she had gone when she disappeared.

 

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