The merchant brigantine Elphantine struggled against the waves and the tides, dashed about by the remnants of a gale that originated halfway across the world. The ship was so close to shore that if they were not careful they would be dashed upon the rocks and the rich cargo would be lost. The master had done all he could, and the men reefed the sails and the helmsman steered into the gale. Now it was up to Him of the Sea Above, and the master was not in the habit of prayer. Still, he raised a defiant cry to the heavens: “Damn you, God! Damn you and curse you for your treachery!”
“Look!” cried the boy from the crow’s nest, a spindly lad on top of a spindly mast, almost invisible in the gale. The master wiped the seawater from his face and peered at a pinpoint of light, blinking steadily through the storm. A beacon hope, the light strengthened, pulling them in.
The master smiled. It was not a nice smile. The master raised his voice.
“Mr. Jockerby, two points sou-sou-west!”
“Aye sir, sou-sou-west!”
The Elphantine turned ponderously, wallowing for an anxious moment against a swelling wave, dipping so much that the mainmast hung at a steep angle over the sea, the boy clinging like a rag to the crow’s nest. The master squinted through the squall, knowing if he miscalculated, all would be lost. The investors would be displeased, and he would lose all hope of shares in the profits, if he didn’t die outright.
The Elphantine righted and made her turn, and the master brought her in, the beacon of light guiding them off the ship’s starboard side.
The rain and wind lashed Ned Mederos as he stood on the cliffs overlooking the sea, and watched his quarry turn away toward safety and the harbor. He doused his lantern. He was a tall, pale man, his watery blue eyes and reddish beard accentuated with a cruel mouth and impatient expression.
“Well,” said his companion, the rotund and genial Theo Balinchard. “That’s another one.”
Ned Mederos raised his eyes to the heavens. “Oh is it, Theo? Is it really? Do you think you could not chatter so much?”
“I’m just saying, Ned. The game has run its course. The merchants all know to steer to port when they see the light. Word at Aether’s is that the town is raising money for a lighthouse on Dolphin Head.”
Theo always had the news. That’s why Ned kept him around. But damned if it wasn’t hard to hear it at the absolutely worst time. Ned said repressively, “You didn’t think to tell me before we stood out here in a hurricane waiting to bring the ship in?”
“I thought you had a plan,” Theo said, guileless as always. Ned began trudging down the goat path toward town. He would build his house up here one day. He had scouted it out in daytime, the perfect site for a mansion that would say to all, House Mederos. He did not care for the merchants of Port Saint Frey and their lighthouse to keep him from his ambitions.
Theo kept on with his nattering, and finally Ned stopped. He couldn’t take much more of it.
“Go on,” he told the short man. “Find out all you can at Aether’s.”
“What? What about you?” Theo hunched in his coat. Ned despised him for his care. No matter how he treated Theo, Theo always acted as if — well, as if he liked Ned. He just knows which side his bread is buttered on, Ned thought. He knows he’d get nowhere without me.
“Go on. Get dry and get some rum in ye.”
Theo didn’t have to be told three times. He hurried down the path as fast as his rotund body could move, and Ned was alone on the hill.
The rain had stopped though the wind still cruelly whipped Ned through his coat. A pale moon lit up a distant cloud with a white glow. Where the clouds parted, a single star shone — Saturnus. Ned remembered his father teaching him the stars and planets. He had been a wee lad when his father died of drink. His mother had remarried soon thereafter, and Ned took himself onto the streets.
No point in thinking of the past. Ned set his sights on the future. He stood on the high cliff, looking out to sea. The clouds drifted away, and more stars appeared. The white path of the moon illuminated the dark sea, and Ned was caught for a moment by the grim and dangerous beauty.
It came to him that he was hearing a sweet air and had the impression that the wordless tune had been going on beneath his awareness for some time. Ned looked for the source of the music, and saw a form in the trail of moonlight.
Her face was in shadow, her hair streaming behind her. He could see her head, shoulders, and breasts above the water, and she bobbed in the surf.
Ned plunged down the hillside, grabbing onto stunted pine trees and digging his hobnailed boots into the rocks and dirt to slow his descent. He hung the dark lantern on a tree branch — stopped and thought a minute, and lit the lantern again as a precaution. The little light would be his beacon of safety, and he knew that for the irony it was.
When he made it to the shore, he stopped, panting. He stood in a natural cove, high tide spilling almost up to the edge of the cliff, leaving a bare crescent of pale sand in the moonlight. Off to one side was a cleft in the rocks, and Ned noted it with interest, filing the thought away while he focused on the girl in the water. She had stopped singing.
He could see her better now, though her face was still in shadow. Her hand was wet and stringy, and there was seaweed wrapped around her head and shoulders like a shroud.
“Hello love,” he said, his voice thick. Ned Mederos was no stranger to lusts and appetites, but he also knew better than to follow his lust into the water, no matter how much it drove him. “Come here, my darling, and let me see you.”
For answer, she swam backward into deeper water. He almost followed. Almost. Instead, he took off his great coat and tossed it onto the rocks behind him. Hopping on one foot, he drew off first one boot and then the other. Ned stood in his trousers and shirt and suspenders, bare feet cold and pale on the wet sand.
“Oh, no need to be like that, sweetheart. Ned here is a good ‘un. I won’t hurt you, not one bit.”
She made a sound — it was low, amused? He couldn’t tell. It sent a thrill of fear down his spine at the same time it electrified him further. He fished into his pocket, and pulled out the pocket watch that belonged to his dad. The watch was silver and brass, and it was the only thing he owned that he had never pawned. He held it up on the chain, and he could see the way she alerted to attention that he had her.
“That’s right,” he said, his voice rough, a smile in it. “You like that? You want that? Come to me, darling, and you can have it all you want. I’ll give you anything.”
The glow of the moon intensified, and the sea-girl stood up. Yes, stood. For Ned had thought that he was dealing with a mermaid, but she was a girl with legs and all. The moon shone silver on her legs, and he could see mottling like scales, but she was a girl all right. Ned grinned again, and he came a few steps into the sea.
Ned woke in full daylight, cold air and bright sun shining down on him. He opened his eyes and looked up, confused. He lay on wet sand, the sea lapping at his bare feet and bare legs. With a curse, he scrambled up out of the water, shivering with cold. He still had his shirt, but no trousers. His legs were white and goose-pimpled under thin reddish hair. He staggered a little and looked out to sea, shading his eyes against the sun. It was one of those days, filled with glory, a blue sea, white clouds, and a blue sky, the ocean fooling all but the canniest with its calm and peaceful demeanor.
The sea girl was nowhere to be found, and neither was his pocket watch.
His trousers had disappeared as well, but there were his boots where he left them, tossed upon the rocks at the foot of the cliff. They were soaked through, but he shook out a hermit crab from one and poured water out of both, and forced them onto his bony white feet. His great coat was wet through but he shrugged into it to hide his embarrassment. He looked out to sea one more time, before clambering back up the cliff.
His lantern still flickered where he left it, the pale flame brave against the sunlight. He blew it out and looked back again at the now distant sea.
“Just you wait, missy,” he said. “I’ll have you. And you’ll regret the day you ever met Red Ned.”
When Ned walked up to the docks in the morning sun, hoping to cadge a rum and a cigar, he had a dawning awareness that people were laughing at him. His first thought was that his coat had opened but a hasty glance down showed him he was decent. He gave the crowd a glare, but the muffled laughter started up again behind his back.
Ned grew large with rage. If they knew what was good for ’em, they wouldn’t laugh, no they would not. He walked up the docks, head high, and plotted revenge.
At the door to Aether’s, Theo caught up with him. “Ned, man! Let’s go down to the shore.” Theo took him by the arm, a bit of audacity that made Ned snarl. Theo recoiled but stood firm. “Ned,” he stammered.
“Ned Mederos,” came an unfamiliar voice. “I’ve been waiting for you, you son of a bitch.”
Ned turned. At the other end of the dock stood a strange man in a merchant master’s coat. He had a black beard and thick hands, and his coat was an oiled canvas slicker that would stay dry in the fiercest blow. When he saw he had Ned’s attention, he grinned and held up a pair of trousers.
Ned howled with rage. Theo tried to hold him back, but the little man slid as Ned pulled forward like a snorting drayhorse. The merchant master reached into his pocket and pulled forth a pistol, drew back the hammer and aimed it at Ned. Ned stopped short.
“This is for trying to sink my ship!” The man snarled. “Ye scurvy devil! Trying your tricks with your tricksy lantern! Trickery! Trickery!”
“What are ye blathering on about!” Ned yelled back. “You’re alive, ain’tcha? Your ship’s safely docked, ain’t she? Tweren’t for me, you’d have been dashed on the rocks!” The merchant master stopped short at Ned’s logic. Ned pushed. “Ye should be thanking me, ye damned git!”
He knew he went too far as soon as he said it. The Elphantine master planted his feet. “Yer a damned rogue, Red Ned Mederos, and it’s high time someone put a stop to your crimes!”
“Ned–” Theo said, low in his ear. Ned ignored him, thrusting his arm back to shake him off. The giggles rose up again, but Ned ignored that too.
“You want to come at me, man? Come on, then! I’ll give ye the thrashing ye deserve!”
The merchant master smirked.
Ned felt a breeze where no breeze ought to be felt. He took a second to look down.
“I pride myself on not fighting an unarmed man,” the Elphantine master said with a grin. The crowd roared at his wit and he raised his arms, encouraging them on. Then he uncocked his pistol and thrust it back into his coat, and with great ceremony threw Ned’s trousers into the drink. They swelled and filled with air and wafted on top of the water before sinking into the harbor.
“Come on boys!” the merchant master called. His sailors fell in behind them and they all sauntered down the docks toward the sailor’s hells.
Ned watched him go. Theo let go of Ned and knelt at the dock’s edge, fishing for the trousers with a stave, grunting with effort. “Got ’em!” he crowed. He held up the trousers, cascading with water. Theo dumped them on the dock, looking expectantly at Ned like a retriever with a duck. Ned roused. He picked up the trousers, wrung them out, and got into them, boots and all. They hung wet, cold, and heavy on his hips, and his member shrank in alarm, but he felt a better man for having all his clothes just the same.
“I’m going to get that son of a bitch,” Ned told Theo.
Later that day, Ned stood on the rocks at the end of the small cove. It was sunset, and the sun laid down a golden track to his left, around the corner of the jutting outcropping. That way lay the harbor, and the current flowed in that direction. That’s how his trousers ended up on the docks. He looked the other way, toward the east. His one big mistake was setting up his lantern too far to the west. He’d have to go farther round the headland to Dead Man’s Drop. Break the ship there and the current would bring the cargo right to the cove.
There was just a matter of storing his prizes from prying eyes. Ned looked at the cleft in the outcropping that jutted into the waves. He sloshed over to it in water up to his knees and ducked through the cleft. Immediately he was plunged into darkness. Water lapped at stone, and the air was cold and smelled of brine and dead fish. Ned waited for his eyes to adjust and his surroundings come into view. What he saw made him smile.
The cleft was a cave as he had hoped. There was a sandy shelf high enough to stay dry even in high tide. He could stack the cargo, lashing casks together until he could deliver them to buyers. At the back of the cave, just visible in the dim light, he could see where an opening led into into the cliff. Ned waded over to it.
A half-hour later, he birthed himself from the cave halfway up the cliff, covered in muck and pushing rocks and debris out of the way. Panting, cursing, livid and scratched up, Ned stood, sucking a cut on his knuckle and looking around. Oh yes, he thought. This will do nicely.
Two months later, on the night of the new moon, a flickering light shone through the darkness. The merchant master of the Elphantine looked through his spyglass at the signal light, and grinned. Ned Mederos. The bastard would never learn, would he.
“Two points sou-sou west, Mr Jockerby,” he told his helmsman.
Jockerby hesitated, as if to say something, but then swung the spokes. The Elphantine turned west, her sails billowing with a freshening wind, driving her toward the shore.
The casks came up first, and Ned Mederos and Theo raked them in, pulling them onto the sandy cove and towing them to the cave. They worked hard, reaping the heavy cargo. The foundering ship wallowed on the rocks, and the lifeboats headed farther round the coast to the harbor, the hapless sailors rowing with the current. In the dim starlight, Ned could just see a standing figure in the prow of one of the boats. The Elphantine master, no doubt sore about being bested by Red Ned Mederos.
When the cargo was stowed in the cave, Ned and Theo rested. Ned took a prybar and opened up one of the casks, pulled up the protective canvas cover, and peered at the silks and cotton material. It would fetch a pretty penny on the Mile, where all the dressmakers had their shops. He put the lid back on, and opened another — ah, here was rare treasure indeed — gold and silver wire and stones for lapidary. He could find a buyer for all of these. He opened a velvet sachet, and inside was a heavy silver necklace, a pearl and sapphire pendant hanging from it. He put that in his pocket.
The revenuers out of Port Saint Frey would ask for provenance and look askance on Ned Mederos’s new-found wealth, but there were plenty of men who would do business with a wink and a nod. Port Saint Frey was all business now, and Ned wanted but a chance to make his mark on it.
The moon was new so only the stars shone down on the ocean, the sky a swirl of stars and blackness. Ned was restless. He had a feeling. He turned to Theo, handing him some of the gold wire and gemstones.
“Go to Aether’s, on the double now, Theo. Tell Aether himself that Ned’s in business, and we can make a deal.”
Theo grinned. “You’re a good smart man, Ned Mederos. We’ll make our place for sure, you’ll see. House Mederos and House Balinchard too.”
Ned watched him go, and then sloshed back out to the sea. The cargo was safe for now. He’d got it stowed and secured, and not a man would take it from him. Ned would see to that.
He stood in surf up to his knees, the quiet rolling of the sea like breathing. He waited, gently shaking the necklace, and at last he heard the wordless tune.
She was there, head and shoulders in the water, her face in shadow. There was no moon to light her by, but the gleam of starlight was answered in the gleam of her eyes and her teeth, more pointed and brighter by far than a human woman’s teeth.
Ned smiled. “Hello, darling. My little thief.” He held up the silver and sapphire pendant. She stiffened and came closer, and now he could see that she had his pocket watch in her fist. It would be rusted and the works frozen after its dunk in the seawater, but no matter. The watchmaker on Barrell Street would repair it for him.
He held up his shining pretty, and she held up his pocket watch. They came toward one another, and he could see her mottled, scaled flesh, her long seal-brown hair, and her deep black eyes. Her eyes were spaced too far apart, and her mouth was too wide, but he shivered as he remembered their last carnal encounter.
When she reached out for the necklace, he caught her hand, and when she went to throw the pocket watch into the sea, he caught that hand too.
“Now now,” he said. “None o’ that.”
She watched him, unafraid, and he knew she could tear him apart with those sharp canines if she so desired. Ned Mederos spoke fast.
“You can have all the beads and pretty ye want, darling, and ye can go back to the sea anytime ye want. All I ask is ye give me my watch and share my bed, and when Ned Mederos builds his house –” He turned and pointed at the darkness at the top of the cliff, and her black eyes followed — “ye visit me there. But ye don’t have to stay, for I know ye can’t be caged or kept. And if we have children, they can’t live in the sea, so I’ll keep them for ye, darling, for I know ye prefer treasures of another kind.”
He waited, holding his breath. And then she nodded, and she gave him a wicked, pointed tooth smile, like that of a shark, and handed him his pocket watch. Ned strung the necklace over her head and around her mottled neck, her skin cold, the faint fishy odor arising from her. It was like blood, like the sea.
As they embraced in the ocean, Ned murmured against her cold skin, “We’re two of a kind, sweetheart. You and me. House Mederos.” The sea girl pressed her teeth against his neck and nipped him. He figured that was agreement.
“Darling,” he told her, “You have no idea of the pretty, pretty things I will bring you.”
© 2019 Patrice Sarath.