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The Mermaid by James Owen Hannay

An Extract from - Our Casualty And Other Stories

We were on our way home from Inishmore, where we had spent two days; Peter O'Flaherty among his relatives—for everyone on the island was kin to him—I among friends who give me a warm welcome when I go to them. The island lies some seventeen miles from the coast We started on our homeward sail with a fresh westerly wind. Shortly after midday it backed round to the north and grew lighter. At five o'clock we were stealing along very gently through calm water with our mainsail boom out against the shroud. The jib and foresail were drooping in limp folds. An hour later the mainsheet was hanging in the water and the boat drifted with the tide. Peter, crouching in the fore part of the cockpit, hissed through his clenched teeth, which is the way in which he whistles for a wind. He glanced all round the horizon, searching for signs of a breeze. His eyes rested finally on the sun, which lay low among some light, fleecy clouds. He gave it as his opinion that when it reached the point of setting it “might draw a light air after it from the eastward.” For that it appeared we were to wait I shrank from toil with the heavy sweeps. So, I am sure did Peter, who is a good man in a boat but averse from unnecessary labour. And there was really no need to row. The tide was carrying us homeward, and our position was pleasant enough. Save for the occasional drag of a block against the horse we had achieved unbroken silence and almost perfect peace.

We drifted slowly past Carrigeen Glos, a low, sullen line of rocks. A group of cormorants, either gorged with mackerel fry or hopeless of an evening meal, perched together at one end of the reef, and stared at the setting sun. A few terns swept round and round overhead, soaring or sliding downwards with easy motion. A large seal lay basking on a bare rock just above the water's edge. I pointed it out to Peter, and he said it was a pity I had not got my rifle with me. I did not agree with him. If I had brought the rifle Peter would have insisted on my shooting at the seal. I should certainly not have hit it on purpose, for I am averse from injuring gentle creatures; but I might perhaps have killed or wounded it by accident, for my shooting is very uncertain. In any case I should have broken nature's peace, and made a horrible commotion. Perhaps the seal heard Peter's remark or divined his feeling of hostility. It flopped across the rock and slid gracefully into the sea. We saw it afterwards swimming near the boat, looking at us with its curiously human, tender eyes.

“A man might mistake it for a mermaid,” I said.

“He'd have to be a fool altogether that would do the like,” said Peter.

He was scornful; but the seal's eyes were human. They made me think of mermaids.

“Them ones,” said Peter, “is entirely different from seals. You might see a seal any day in fine weather. They're plenty. But the other ones—But sure you wouldn't care to be hearing about them.”

“I've heard plenty about them,” I said, “but it was all poetry and nonsense. You know well enough, Peter, that there's no such thing as a mermaid.”

Peter filled his pipe slowly and lit it I could see by the way he puffed at it that he was full of pity and contempt for my scepticism.

“Come now,” I said: “did you ever see a mermaid?”

“I did not,” said Peter, “but my mother was acquainted with one. That was in Inishmore, where I was born and reared.”

I waited. The chance of getting Peter to tell an interesting story is to wait patiently. Any attempt to goad him on by asking questions is like striking before a fish is hooked. The chance of getting either story or fish is spoiled.

“There was a young fellow in the island them times,” said Peter, “called Anthony O'Flaherty. A kind of uncle of my father's he was, and a very fine man. There wasn't his equal at running or lepping, and they say he was terrible daring on the sea. That was before my mother was born, but she heard tell of what he did. When she knew him he was like an old man, and the heart was gone out of him.”

At this point Peter stopped. His pipe had gone out. He relit it with immense deliberation. I made a mistake. By way of keeping the conversation going I asked a question.

“Did he see a mermaid?”

“He did,” said Peter, “and what's more he married one.”

There Peter stopped again abruptly, but with an air of finality. He had, so I gathered, told me all he was going to tell me about the mermaid. I had blundered badly in asking my question. I suppose that some note of unsympathetic scepticism in my tone suggested to Peter that I was inclined to laugh at him. I did my best to retrieve my position. I sat quite silent and stared at the peak of the mainsail. The block on the horse rattled occasionally. The sun's rim touched the horizon. At last Peter was reassured and began again.

“It was my mother told me about it, and she knew, for many's the time she did be playing with the young lads, her being no more than a little girleen at the time. Seven of them there was, and the second eldest was the one age with my mother. That was after herself left him.”

“Herself” was vague enough; but I did not venture to ask another question. I took my eyes off the peak of the mainsail and fixed them inquiringly on Peter. It was as near as I dared go to asking a question.

“Herself,” said Peter, “was one of them ones.”

He nodded sideways over the gunwale of the boat. The sea, though still calm, was beginning to be moved by that queer restlessness which comes on it at sunset. The tide eddied in mysteriously oily swirls. The rocks to the eastward of us had grown dim. A gull flew by overhead uttering wailing cries. The graceful terns had disappeared. A cormorant, flying so low that its wing-tips broke the water, sped across our bows to some far resting-place. I fell into a mood of real sympathy with stories about mermaids. I think Peter felt the change which had come over me.

“Anthony O'Flaherty,” said Peter, “was a young man when he saw them first. It was in the little bay back west of the island, and my mother never rightly knew what he was doing there in the middle of the night; but there he was. It was the bottom of a low spring tide, and there's rocks off the end of the bay that's uncovered at the ebb of the springs. You've maybe seen them.”

I have seen them, and Peter knew it well I have seen more of them than I want to. There was an occasion when Peter and I lay at anchor in that bay, and a sudden shift of wind set us to beating out at three o'clock in the morning. The rocks were not uncovered then, but the waves were breaking fiercely over them. We had little room for tacking, and I am not likely to forget the time we went about a few yards to windward of them. The stretch of wild surf under our lee looked ghastly white in the dim twilight of the dawn. Peter knew what I was thinking.

“It was calm enough that night Anthony O'Flaherty was there,” he said, “and there was a moon shining, pretty near a full moon, so Anthony could see plain. Well, there was three of them in it, and they playing themselves.”

“Mermaids?”

This time my voice expressed full sympathy. The sea all round us was rising in queer round little waves, though there was no wind. The boom snatched at the blocks as the boat rocked The sail was ghostly white. The vision of a mermaid would not have surprised me greatly.

“The beautifulest ever was seen,” said Peter, “and neither shift nor shirt on them, only just themselves, and the long hair of them. Straight it was and black, only for a taste of green in it. You wouldn't be making a mistake between the like of them and seals, not if you'd seen them right the way Anthony O'Flaherty did.”

Peter made this reflection a little bitterly. I was afraid the recollection of my unfortunate remark about seals might have stopped him telling the story, but it did not.

“Once Anthony had seen them,” he said, “he couldn't rest content without he'd be going to see them again. Many a night he went and saw neither sight nor light of them, for it was only at spring tides that they'd be there, on account of the rocks not being uncovered any other time. But at the bottom of the low springs they were there right enough, and sometimes they'd be swimming in the sea and sometimes they'd be sitting on the rocks. It was wonderful the songs they'd sing—like the sound of the sea set to music was what my mother told me, and she was told by them that knew. The people did be wondering what had come over Anthony, for he was different like from what he had been, and nobody knew what took him out of his house in the middle of the night at the spring tides. There was a girl that they had laid down for him to marry, and Anthony had no objection to her before he seen them ones; but after he had seen them he wouldn't look at the girl. She had a middling good fortune too but sure he didn't care about that.”

I could understand Anthony's feelings. The air of wind which Peter had promised, drawn from its cave by the lure of the departing sun, was filling our head-sails. I hauled in the main-sheet gently hand over hand and belayed it The boat slipped quietly along close-hauled. The long line of islands which guards the entrance of our bay lay dim before use. Over the shoulder of one of them I could see the lighthouse, still a distinguishable patch of white against the looming grey of the land. The water rippled mournfully under our bows and a long pale wake stretched astern from our counter. “Fortune,” banked money, good heifers and even enduringly fruitful fields seemed very little matters to me then. They must have seemed still less, far less, to Anthony O'Flaherty after he had seen those white sea-maidens with their green-black hair.

“There was a woman on the island in those times,” said Peter, “a very aged woman, and she had a kind of plaster which she made which cured the cancer, drawing it out by the roots, and she could tell what was good for the chin cough, and the women did like to have her with them when their children was born, she being knowledgable in them matters. I'm told the priests didn't like her, for there was things she knew which it mightn't be right that anyone would know, things that's better left to the clergy. Whether she guessed what was the matter with Anthony, or whether he up and told her straight my mother never heard. It could be that he told her, for many a one used to go to her for a charm when the butter wouldn't come, or a cow, maybe, was pining; so it wouldn't surprise me if Anthony went to her.”

Peter crept aft He took a pull on the jib-sheet and belayed it again; but I do not believe that he really cared much about the set of the sail. That was his excuse. He wanted to be nearer to me. There is something in stories like this, told in dim twilight, with dark waters sighing near at hand, which makes men feel the need of close human companionship. Peter seated himself on the floorboards at my feet, and I felt a certain comfort in the touch of his arm on my leg.

“Well,” he went on, “according to the old hag—and what she said was true enough, however she learnt it—them ones doesn't go naked all the time, but only when they're playing themselves on the rocks at low tide, the way Anthony seen them. Mostly they have a kind of cloak that they wear, and they take the same cloaks off of them when they're up above the water and they lay them down on the rocks. If so be that a man could pat his hand on e'er a cloak, the one that owned it would have to follow him whether she wanted to or not. If it was to the end of the world she'd have to follow him, or to Spain, or to America, or wherever he might go. And what's more, she'd have to do what he bid her, be the same good or bad, and be with him if he wanted her, so long as he kept the cloak from her. That's what the old woman told Anthony, and she was a skilful woman, well knowing the nature of beasts and men, and of them that's neither beasts nor men. You'll believe me now that Anthony wasn't altogether the same as other men when I tell you that he laid his mind down to get his hand down on one of the cloaks. He was a good swimmer, so he was, which is what few men on the island can do, and he knew that he'd be able to fetch out to the rock where them ones played themselves.”

I was quite prepared to believe that Anthony was inspired by a passion far out of the common. I know nothing more terrifying than the chill embrace of the sea at night-time. To strike out through the slimy weeds which lie close along the surface at the ebb point of a spring tide, to clamber on low rocks, half awash for an hoar or two at midnight, these are things which I would not willingly do.

“The first time he went for to try it,” said Peter, “he felt a bit queer in himself and he thought it would do him no harm if he was to bless himself. So he did, just as he was stepping off the shore into the water. Well, it might as well have been a shot he fired, for the minute he did it they were off and their cloaks along with them; and Anthony was left there. It was the sign of the cross had them frightened, for that same is what they can't stand, not having souls that religion would be any use to. It was the old woman told Anthony that after, and you'd think it would have been a warning to him not to make or meddle with the like of them any more. But it only made him the more determined. He went about without speaking to man or woman, and if anybody spoke to him he'd curse terrible, till the time of the next spring tide. Then he was off to the bay again, and sure enough them ones was there. The water was middling rough that night, but it didn't daunt Anthony. It pleased him, for he thought he'd have a better chance of getting to the rocks without them taking notice of him if there was some noise loud enough to drown the noise he'd be making himself. So he crept out to the point of the cliff on the south side of the bay, which is as near as he could get to the rocks. You remember that?”

I did. On the night when we beat out of the bay against a rising westerly wind we went about once under the shadow of the cliff, and, almost before we had full way on the boat, stayed her again beside the rocks. Anthony's swim, though terrifying, was short.

“That time he neither blessed himself nor said a prayer, but slipped into the water, and off with him, swimming with all his strength. They didn't see him, for they were too busy with their playing to take much notice, and of course they couldn't be expecting a man to be there. Without Anthony had shouted they wouldn't have heard him, for the sea was loud on the rocks and their own singing was louder. So Anthony got there and he crept up on the rock behind them, and the first thing his hand touched was one of the cloaks. He didn't know which of them it belonged to, and he didn't care. It wasn't any one of the three in particular he wanted, for they were all much about the same to look at, only finer than any woman ever was seen. So he rolled the cloak round his neck, the way he'd have his arms free for swimming, and back with him into the water, heading for shore as fast as he was able.”

“And she followed him?” I asked.

“She did so. From that day till the day she left him she followed him, and she did what she was bid, only for one thing. She wouldn't go to mass, and when the chapel bell rang she'd hide herself. The sound of it was what she couldn't bear. The people thought that queer, and there was a deal of talk about it in the bland, some saying she must be a Protestant, and more thinking that she might be something worse. But nobody had a word to say against her any other way. She was a good enough housekeeper, washing and making and mending for Anthony, and minding the children. Seven of them there was, and all boys.”

The easterly breeze freshened as the night fell I could see the great eye of the lighthouse blinking at me on the weather side of the boat. It became necessary to go about, but I gave the order to Peter very reluctantly. He handled the head-sheets, and then, instead of settling down in his old place, leaned his elbows on the coaming and stared into the sea. We were steadily approaching the lighthouse. I felt that I must run the risk of asking him a question.

“What happened in the end?” I asked.

“The end, is it? Well, in the latter end she left him. But there was things happened before that. Whether it was the way the priests talked to him about her—there was a priest in it them times that was too fond of interfering, and that's what some of them are—or whether there was goings-on within in the inside of the house that nobody knew anything about—and there might have been, for you couldn't tell what one of them ones might do or mightn't Whatever way it was, Anthony took to drinking more than he ought. There was poteen made on the island then, and whisky was easy come by if a man wanted it, and Anthony took too much of it.”

Peter paused and then passed judgment, charitably, on Anthony's conduct “I wouldn't be too hard on a man for taking a drop an odd time.”

I was glad to hear Peter say that I myself had found it necessary from time to time, for the sake of an old friendship, not to be too hard on Peter.

“Nobody would have blamed him,” Peter went on, “if he had behaved himself when he had a drop taken; but that's what he didn't seem able to do. He bet her. Sore and heavy he bet her, and that's what no woman, whether she was a natural woman or one of the other kind, could be expected to put up with. Not that she said a word. She didn't. Nor nobody would have known that he bet her if he hadn't token to beating the young lads along with her. It was them told what was going on. But there wasn't one on the island would interfere. The people did be wondering that she didn't put the fear of God into Anthony; but of course that's what she couldn't do on account of his having the cloak hid away from her. So long as he had that she was bound to put up with whatever he did. But it wasn't for ever.

“The house was going to rack and ruin with the way Anthony wouldn't mind it on account of his being three-parts drunk most of the time. At last the rain was coming in through the roof. When Anthony saw that he came to himself a bit and sent for my grandfather and settled with him to put a few patches of new thatch on the worst places. My grandfather was the best man at thatching that there was in the island in them days, and he took the job though he misdoubted whether he'd ever be paid for it. Anthony never came next or nigh him when he was working, which shows that he hadn't got his senses rightly. If he had he'd have kept an eye on what my grandfather was doing, knowing what he knew, though of course my grandfather didn't know. Well, one day my grandfather was dragging off the old thatch near the chimney. It was middling late in the evening, as it might be six or seven o'clock, and he was thinking of stopping his work when all of a sudden he came on what he thought might be an old petticoat bundled away in the thatch. It was red, he said, but when he put his hand on it he knew it wasn't flannel, nor it wasn't cloth, nor it wasn't like anything he'd ever felt before in all his life. There was a hole in the roof where my grandfather had the thatch stripped, and he could see down into the kitchen. Anthony's wife was there with the youngest of the boys in her arms. My grandfather was as much in dread of her as every other one, but he thought it would be no more than civil to tell her what he'd found.

“'Begging your pardon, ma'am,' he said, 'but I'm after finding what maybe belongs to you hid away in the thatch.'

“With that he threw down the red cloak, for it was a red cloak he had in his hand. She didn't speak a word, but she laid down the baby out of her arms and she walked out of the house. That was the last my father seen of her. And that was the last anyone on the island seen of her, unless maybe Anthony. Nobody knows what he saw. He stopped off the drink from that day; but it wasn't much use his stopping it. He used to go round at spring tides to the bay where he had seen her first He did that five times, or maybe six. After that he took to his bed and died. It could be that his heart was broke.”

We slipped past the point of the pier. Peter crept forward and crouched on the deck in front of the mast I peered into the gloom to catch sight of our mooring-buoy.

“Let her away a bit yet,” said Peter. “Now luff her, luff her all you can.”

The boat edged up into the wind. Peter, flat on his stomach, grasped the buoy and hauled it on board. The fore-sheets beat their tattoo on the deck. The boom swung sharply across the boat.

Ten minutes later we were leaning together across the boom gathering in the mainsail.

“What became of the boys?” I asked.

“Is it Anthony O'Flaherty's boys? The last of them went to America twenty years ago. But sure that was before you came to these parts.”