There were whispers among the fishermen that something was wrong with the sea. They would know, if there was. Ma believed that I was one of the ocean’s children too, just like Pa. She had accepted it, as if my fate was a certainty. When I was much younger, the realisation that I belonged to this wild, unpredictable creature filled me with dread, but nowadays I found myself feeling the urge to be near the water more and more. Maybe Ma was right, after all. But then again, she usually was.
I listened intently as the fishermen spoke of sea omens, citing as proof the past inexplicable events that always, always had something to do with the sea. Shipwrecks, navigation failure, ghost shoals that tricked vessels into questionable waters. Fishing was a risky business, but none of us could ever be anything else, not after the sea had marked us as hers.
It was still dark, with a few hours still between us and sunrise. The gulls circled high above us, like a school of fish weaving through a black ocean that mirrored ours. I traced their intricate patterns with my eyes, taking in the V-shapes and whooping shoals. I had to tear my gaze away when someone whispered that one of the vessels, The Duchess, had still not come in to berth. Silence greeted this revelation. It had been many years—long before my time—that a boat had gone missing at sea. Dread flushed me with cold. The horror stories of the deep were best kept for the warm daylight when it was easy to laugh them off. We walked on, the only sound coming from the slap-slap-slap of our rubber boots on the road.
For a while we were the only souls at the harbour, working quickly and silently as we prepared for the day’s launches. The fate of The Duchess was heavy on my mind, but not even that was enough to slow our progress. There was work to be done, and succulent, fat fish waiting for us in the depths. I could see them in my mind, the thrashing silver bodies on the deck. Sometimes there would be crabs as big as cats and octopus too.
When the sky lightened enough to make out the red-and-white candy stripes of the lighthouse, more bodies began to arrive. More fishermen in their blue overalls with the long lines they cast off the harbour wall, and the milky-eyed Jupitus, holding the gutted snoek inside a newspaper that he fed to the harbour seals to make them do tricks for the tourists. They were like dogs, Jupitus’s seals. They would leap out the water and take the food right out his mouth. Their slick black bodies broke the surface like circling eels, waiting for the first morsel of the day. The seals didn’t do tricks for anyone else, only Jupitus. I think perhaps, that he was one of the ocean’s children too. His steps were slow and laboured, and when he stopped at the edge of the water, he stared out at it for a long time. Jupitus couldn’t see that well through his cataracts, but I imagined he could also feel that something was different. We all could. I shuddered, and not even the breaching of the sun could dispel the chill that had settled in my bones.
We always launched the boats at dawn. We had done so for as long as I could remember. But for reasons beyond any of our control, none of the boats lining the dock left their berths that morning. Some of the boats suffered unexplained electrical failure, others fuel leaks, while a deck hand of one poor vessel, God’s Will, discovered a hole in the hull that could have been catastrophic out at sea.
No one knew whether it was the fault of sabotage or the sea, but most suspected the latter. Fishermen stood staring at their boats, lost. Pa however, remained undeterred. Nothing could distract my father from a job that needed to be done. He was always the first man on deck and the last to disembark. There was captain’s blood in him. So while he worked on a dead engine, I rolled up the nets and watched my comrades lounging around the dock enviously.
The sea taunted us. She was a different colour every day. That morning she was a soft sea-foam green, a troublesome colour that spoke of churning waters and unpredictable waves. There was something else too, a difference in the briny air that whispered at the backs of our minds. It was a long forgotten memory on the tip of our tongues that disappeared the moment we tried to focus on it; a sea omen.
Dollar saw it first. His name wasn’t really Dollar, but it was what we called him because he always flashed his monthly wages in the air and kissed it, before hiding it in his shirt.
I was helping Pa load the fishing nets into the boat when the cry rang out.
“Jislaaik, what’s that in the bay? Come look, come look!”
Still holding the heavy nets, I looked at Pa, half expecting him to pretend he hadn’t heard anything. He was strict like that, my Pa.
He gazed to where Dollar stood on top of the harbour wall, his top half leaning dangerously over the edge. I bit my lip, tasting the dried sea spray on my skin, and hoped that curiosity would make my father break the rules for once.
I was in luck.
“Go, quickly,” he said, bending back to the task.
I dropped the nets and jumped the short distance from deck to dock, adjusting my beanie before the Southeaster blew it clean off.
I dashed past the brightly painted fishing boats bobbing in the water, and joined the small crowd that had gathered on the long finger of cement-grey wall, their heads bent towards the ocean.
I was excited. The year before a great white shark had somehow become trapped in the harbour, which was something you hardly ever got to see. It had happened during the time of the sardine run, when all sorts of interesting creatures had ventured too close to the coast. I had spotted a ruby-red cuttlefish gliding in the shallows, although Pa still maintains that I was lying. I wasn’t, though.
I pushed my way right to the front, and squeezed myself in next to Dollar and Jupitus. Dollar was only a year or two older than me, but his knowledge of the sea far outstripped mine.
“What it is? “ I asked.
He pointed and I followed his finger to the water.
At first I thought that she was a mast from an old sailing vessel shipwrecked along the coast, her peeling wood varnish hair covered with kelp. But when I craned my body out as far as I could without risking tumbling head first into the sea, I could see I was wrong.
Her eyes were alive.
They moved back and forth as if she didn’t recognise where she was. I thought that maybe it was just a trick of the light, because what I was seeing couldn’t be real. I could easily have accepted that had the people around me not seen her too. She was as real as me, her slender arms dangling under the water, moving in synch with the tide.
It was a girl, but I knew that she wasn’t just any girl.
Dollar scratched a dry spot on his nose and squinted into the morning sun, his sea-browned face crinkling in concentration.
“Maybe she’s a swimmer that got caught in a rip tide and ended up here.”
I turned back to the apparition in the water. She wasn’t a swimmer. Just below the frothing surface I could make out the slow swish of a long fish tail. I would have fallen into the water had Dollar not grabbed me by the belt.
She was a mermaid. The idea was impossible, but there she was, as real as we were.
Some of the crowd was shouting, trying to get her attention. She balanced on the surface like buoy, completely oblivious to the crowd craning to get a better look at her. The churn of the waves didn’t seem to affect her at all. She rose and fell with the water, completely at ease.
It was as if we existed in different worlds. I couldn’t tell what colour her eyes were from so far away, but I wanted to believe that they were sea green, the colour of the ocean. Her hair was as black as kelp, and just as wild. It was strange to see such a beautiful creature, with her scales glinting like gold in the sun’s reflection, in the same harbour where we skinned and gutted hundreds upon hundreds of fish every day.
I looked over my shoulder to where a couple of women were sorting the fish to order, a cluster of seagulls, squawking and fighting for the leftovers. Kids walked hand in hand with their parents, eating ice cream or hot chips drowned in tomato sauce. It was so normal and anchored, yet at the same time it felt a hundred kilometres away. I turned back to the swirling ocean. The activities happening on land were unimportant. All that mattered was the mermaid. She was so small and fragile, yet she seemed to take up the whole world. One of the fishermen cast out his line to get her attention, but it snapped mid air. She didn’t notice. She looked around at the bustling harbour, only mildly curious.
I resisted the urge to dive into the water, but I couldn’t even if I wanted to, because Dollar still had a grip on my belt, as if he was afraid I would fall again.
My head jerked in the direction of a loud tooting. The crew of the My Fair Lady were closing in. They were using makeshift oars to steer the boat. I recognised Sylvester in the front, holding a fishing net with heavily tattooed arms. I shouted at him to get away, but I was only a small voice in the crowd, and it was lost on the wind long before it reached him. But My Fair Lady never reached the mermaid. A rogue wave curled up beneath the hull and toppled her over with ease. Sylvester and the other fishermen swam back to shore amid the laughter of the audience. A water taxi tried its luck, but even its progress was foiled by a spluttering engine that refused to start. I risked a look back and saw my father shaking his head at the green hull of our own boat, still motionless. In fact, none of the other ships had managed to launch either. Some old sea magic had stopped them.
The crowd swelled further with the crew of the stalled ships and harbour staff coming to see the woman in the sea. Limbs dug into my back, but I wasn’t going to relinquish my position at the front, no matter how uncomfortable it became.
As I watched, the mermaid sniffed the air with her delicate nose, as if looking for something. I felt the thump thump of my heart in my chest. I wished I could shout out to her, ask her what I could do to help. But I needn’t have worried. Within seconds she seemed to have identified whatever it was she was looking for. Her look of confusion disappeared and was replaced with eager anticipation. She turned languidly to where we all stood gaping at her from the harbour wall. We all took a collective step back as she started to approach.
I momentarily forgot how to breathe. Dollar gripped my shoulders, his fingers digging into my skin.
Years seemed to pass in the short time it took her to swim up to us, her pale arms as translucent and incandescent as the inside of a seashell.
I was hypnotised by this creature of the sea, and as strange at it seems, I felt a kinship to her. I was also a child of the sea. My childhood was shaped by her tides; my skin weathered by long journeys in search of fish; and my hair thick with her salt. I knew her moods by her colours, knew the time of day by the feel of the swell beneath the hull of our boat. She was part of me and I was part of her. The mermaid was how I saw myself.
She hovered expectantly, gazing up at us with eyes as shiny as pearls. They were sea green, just as I had predicted.
No one said anything. No one even breathed. The silence lasted a lifetime.
“What does she want?” someone asked behind me, breaking the spell.
All of a sudden everyone started speaking at once.
“Where did she come from?”
“Can she talk?”
“Do you think she’s dangerous?”
“Maybe it’s a prank.” The oily black shape of a seal streaked past and I knew why she had come.
I leaned across Dollar’s chest and pried a piece of fish from the snoek carcass in Jupitus’s hands. I hesitated only for a moment, before tossing the flesh into the water.
As if she had been waiting for it, the mermaid disappeared in to the water, her fish tail flicking excitedly above the surface. A hundred indrawn breaths sounded around me. She surfaced a second later, the pink flesh disappearing into her mouth.
“She’s just hungry. She must have followed the seals here,” I explained, as if this made perfect sense.
I tossed more fish into the water and this time she caught it with her delicate webbed fingers, gulping the fish down in one swallow. She looked up and our eyes met. It felt like the harbour wall had disappeared from under me, and I was tumbling down towards the green water. They were sea-green, just as I thought.
The crowd swelled behind me. A few people were even trying to take photographs, but complained that they couldn’t get a good picture because of the position of the sun. I hardly noticed them. The busy harbour had disappeared behind me. It was just me and my mermaid. No one else existed, not even Dollar, who kept asking me if he could have a turn, like it was a game. I ignored him. Just like Jupitus and his seals, this relationship belonged to me. I knew she wouldn’t take fish from anyone else. It was a bond formed by sea magic.
Jupitus passed me what was left of his fish. I tore off large chunks, the juices streaming between my fingers onto my overalls. She caught every piece, which caused eruptions of applause behind me. Jupitus’s seals lolled lazily on a loading deck, watching with black glass-bead eyes. They didn’t seem to mind the intrusion.
When the mermaid had eaten her fill, she dove down into the water, staying beneath the surface for a long time.
We all bent forward to see where she would surface, but all that emerged was a trail of bubbles and a smattering of tiny snoek scales, shimmering like glitter on top of the water. I held a chunk of fish in my fingers, ready to throw it the second she re-appeared.
But she didn’t.
The afternoon lengthened. The sun sank lower in the sky and the tide rose higher, eager to swallow it up. Most of the boat crews had gone home grumbling, cursing the sea for wasting their time. I remained where I was, my fingers greasy with oil, and red from dried blood. Jupitus lurched off, his bones stiff and creaking. Even his seals had returned to the water.
After a while the crowd disappeared around me too. There was nothing left to see.
I remained until dark, knowing that sooner or later Ma was going to come find me, her arms crossed and her lips pursed in anger. Pa would also be furious at me for neglecting to return to the boat when there was still work to be done for the next morning’s trip out to sea. He never stopped, that man, even when he was grounded. Still, I didn’t care. This was important. This was more important that anything.
But when the stars came out and she still hadn’t returned, I knew it was time for me to leave. The seagulls returned to the sky, circling high above my head for their nightly swim above the clouds.
I walked back down the deserted harbour wall, the waves crashing against the barnacle-encrusted black tyres that protected the boats at berth.
The further I distanced myself from the sea, the sleepier I became. The details of what had happened were starting to disappear in the fog of sleep. I tried to remember everything I could about her, to hold on to them tightly, but the memory was becoming hazier and hazier. I could no longer remember the colour of her eyes, or the length of her hair. A seagull laughed at me from the sky. I looked up, and had a moment of uncertainty about why I was still at the harbour. It was that same feeling of a memory hanging on the tip of my tongue. I shook my head, knowing it was unimportant. I had to get home before my mother killed me.
By the time I reached our front door, my mermaid was just a dream, her inexplicable presence nothing but a feeling of familiarity in the salty air. When I closed my eyes to sleep, she was gone.
The next morning The Duchess returned, her belly full of fish. Pa and I were there before sun-up, getting ready to head out ourselves. The water was still dark with night-time. The silvery sheen would come later.
“What did I miss?” asked our neighbour, Benji, as he jumped down on to the dock.
I shrugged. “Nothing exciting ever happens in Kalk Bay.”
He laughed. “Maybe today’s the day, hey? Smell that air and tell me you can’t feel it?”
“That’s the smell of fish.”
He tapped his nose. “Just you wait, my friend. The sea never lies.”
When Benji returned to the task of unloading fish, I took a minute to stand on the harbour wall and survey the ocean. Really look it. The sun was just starting to rise above the horizon, lighting up the water with an electric jolt of gold. In that moment I got a whiff of what he was talking about. A hint of that old sea magic.
Something wonderful was coming.
Up She Rises by S.A. Partridge is one of the stories in The Sea, an anthology edited by Nerine Dorman and published by Dark Continents Publishing.