Illustration by S. M. Fletcher
Cochrane laughed all of a sudden and it sounded more like a dog barking than an old man. He threw his cards down on the table and grabbed at the pile of cash. Enoch stopped him.
“Let me see, let me see.” Enoch squinted at the cards with his good eye, moving them around with his fingers.
Neville ran his fingers through what was left of his thin hair and then picked up the cold stub of a cigar he’d dropped on the table.
“I don’t see it,” he said.
“That, my friends, is a straight flush.”
“See, the deuce is wild so the seven stretches to the jack.” Cochrane chuckled as he counted the pot.
“Damn! That’s it for me, boys,” Neville said, taking a deep breath of the smoky air, “I’m tired of playing three handed tuna. We should change the name to Waiting for Dorsey.”
Neville opened the door to the Franklin stove and poked at the embers. He threw in a billet of wet wood and slammed the door shut. He held his hands out to the small cast iron stove to warm them, but the heat could not cut through the damp night air.
“He’s out in this weather this late at night,” Cochrane said, counting his winnings, “and he’s probably off running in circles. The full moon lights up the fog like a solid wall.”
The distant foghorn sounded, answered by the screech of an air horn. The old men all turned their heads towards the lobster shack’s door, listening to the harbor sounds.
“That could be Dorsey, now,” said Enoch, “That sounded like he just turned in at the breaker.”
“It could be anyone,” Enoch said, “Dorsey ain’t the only one stupid enough to be out in this soup.”
“The report said that this would clear up in the afternoon.” Neville lit his cigar, continuing his contribution to the thick smoke of the room.
“Naw,” answered Enoch, “When it comes in thick like that in the morning, it never clears up - at least not this late in October.”
There was another hoot from the air horn and the men nodded to each other. It might be Dorsey coming back up the coast. It sounded like he had rounded the seawall and he would tie up in a minute or two. They heard the putt-putt of his old lobster boat and then the thud as it hit the dock.
“That’s him, said Cochrane.
“And drunk, from the sound of it,” said Neville, “He hit pretty hard.”
The staggered heavy thump of boots against the rotting planks of the old dock sounded through the thin walls of the shack. The yellow light from the kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling cut through the smoky air when the door opened. Dorsey’s silhouette stretched back into the fog behind him lost in the creamy moonlit mists. He was leaning forward under the weight of a burlap bag on his shoulders.
“Boys,” roared the big man, “I’ve got a surprise for you. Who’s got a drink?”
Enoch wiped the remains of a cigarette butt from a dirty glass and poured some bourbon into it.
Dorsey grabbed the glass and drained it in one gulp.
“Wait until your bastards see this,” he said.
He leaned forward and dropped the burlap bag unto the table with a thud. Cards, ashtrays and empty glasses went flying. The bag held something big and the tail fins of what looked like a marlin stuck out the opening.
“What did you catch this time?” asked Cochrane.
“A marlin?” asked Enoch.
“A monster mackerel?” asked Neville.
The three old men leaned over the bag, inspecting the tail.
“You can’t tell by the tail,” said Dorsey, “this ain’t like no fish I’ve ever seen.”
He pulled up the bag from the fishy thing. He did it deliberately slow for dramatic effect. About half way up the pale blue scales changed to a smooth blue gray skin. Slowly Dorsey revealed the top half of the thing. It was like a human female.
“A goddamned mermaid!” gasped Enoch.
“Teats and all,” said Dorsey, “I fetched it up in my nets off of the east shore of Thacher Island not more than two hours ago.”
“She dead?” asked Neville.
“Damn near, I had to club her to keep her from struggling. She moaned a little on the way in, but she hasn’t moved lately.”
“I don’t see her breathing,” Said Neville.
“Them’s is gills,” said Enoch pointing to the blue lace at the mermaid’s neck, “maybe she doesn’t breathe.”
“Naw, she breathes. She was cursing at me in some fishy language. I could tell it was blasphemy, even if I didn’t know the words. I had to club her.”
Cochrane reached over and pinched one of her blue nipples, hard. There was no reaction.
“She’s dead, I guess.”
“She could just be out from the knock on the head,” said Enoch, “Try giving her some liquor and see if she comes around.”
“You don’t want to do that,” answered Dorsey, “She’s hell on wheels when she has her wits. She’s better off dead. Look at those claws.”
He lifted up her hands, but the men could see that they were more like fins with webbing between the fingers. Instead of nails, the fingers ended in sharp barbs.
“I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of these. Let her sleep, or let her die if she’s not yet dead.”
“You should have thrown her back,” said Cochrane.
“You should get her stuffed and mounted,” said Neville.
“You should sell her to a circus,” said Enoch.
The four men stared down at the creature, deciding her fate.
“Well, if she’s dead I might get her mounted,” said Dorsey.
“You can’t stuff a person, and she’s like half a girl, at least.”
“Yeah,” answered Cochrane, “some bleeding heart will start talking about equal rights all mixed up with endangered species and then confuse it with some kind of Department of Fish and Game regulation you forgot about.”
“There has to be about 30 pounds of good meat in the tail,” said Neville, “If she’s dead, you can sell that as part of your catch, although I don’t know what kind of fish you’ll call it.”
“The tail’s fixed on kind of like a porpoise, only with pointy ends to the fins,” said Enoch, “it looks more like a marlin than anything else with fins out the sides instead of up and down.”
“You could cut the tail fins off and use ‘em for bait.”
“You guys are crazy,” said Dorsey, “She’s worth a fortune as a freak. What would I get? Maybe $20 for a marlin tail?”
“If she’s dead,” pointed out Neville, “somebody’s going to say you killed her.”
“I could say she died in the nets–drowned or hit her head when I hauled the net in.”
“You’ll always be the guy who killed the great wonder of the world.”
“You know,” said Cochrane, “There has to be more of these out there. She’s not a sport. She had to have had a Dad and Mom who are half fish, too.”
“Maybe some lonely fisherman screwed a dolphin,” said Neville, “I hear they are horny.”
“Who, dolphins or fishermen?”
“No,” said Cochrane, “My Dad and my Grand Dad fished these waters going years back, and they say that there were always mermaids off of Thacher’s lee. It's bad luck to catch them up in the nets, and if you did, you have to throw them back.”
“Why, what can they do?” asked Dorsey.
“Nobody ever said much. Just that you don’t want to rile up the sea people.”
“I’ve got to think about this.”
“You could still sell her to a circus,” said Enoch.
“Ed’s Lobster Pound has a 34 pound lobster on display in a big tank,” offered Neville, “Ed might buy her off you and put her in the tank. It’s big enough to hold her. She’s just a slip of a girl and not that much of her is tail.”
“People would come around just to see her blue teats.”
“If she’s alive.”
There was silence for a moment as they pondered the mermaid.
“Call a doctor,” said Cochrane, “She might be dying.”
“Throw her back,” said Enoch, “She needs to be back in the sea.”
“Not in the harbor, she’ll strangle on the sewage. We have to take her back to Thacher Island.”
“No,” said Dorsey, “I have to think about this.”
A loud plopping splash sound came through the open door of the shack, and the men turned.
“A sea bass?” asked Neville.
“Sea bass don’t break water like that,” answered Enoch.
“They do when they are running from a shark.”
“Sea bass are bottom feeders, they don’t rise up if they don’t have to.”
“It was bigger than a sea bass,” Cochrane pointed out.
“Nothing that big comes past the sea wall,” said Dorsey, “the water is too shallow and it stinks of sewer and diesel.”
There was another splash.
“That’s a lot bigger than a sea bass.”
There was another splash and then silence. The water in the harbor was still and quiet. There were groans as the ships moved against their moorings from the gentle tides. They could see about thirty feet of the dock and after that it was a wall of fog lit by the moon and the yellow of the kerosene lamp.
The air coming through the shack’s open door was suddenly cold. Enoch stepped forward to close it.
There was thud as though something large had dropped on the dock’s rotting timbers.
“What was that?”
There was another thud, and then another.
Behind them, the mermaid moaned, but they didn’t turn to look at her.
“Do you see that?” asked Neville. There was a dark shape, like a shadow in the fog.
“What is it?” There was another heavy thud–a footfall, perhaps, of a very large man. There was another heavy step, a pause and then another one. It was the gait of a creature not used to walking on land.
“What the hell?” swore Neville, and he threw his cold cigar on the ground. He stepped forward to close the door. Enoch got there first and slammed it, lowering the bar.
“Did you see it?” asked Cochrane.
“It was something big.”
“That t’weren’t no man.”
“It was as big as a bear.”
“Did you see its eyes?”
“Big as saucers, but dead like a fish–cold like a mackerel.”
There was a thud as something struck the door.
The four men scrambled back into the room behind the poker table. The mermaid moaned again and tried to lift herself up. Dorsey grabbed a hammer from a pile of tools and lifted it over his head. Enoch got hold of a mop and held it in front of him. Neville and Cochrane squirmed against the wall trying to put Enoch and Dorsey between them and the thing at the door.
The door burst open.
It stepped into the light of the kerosene lamp.
“My God,” gasped Cochrane as his legs slid out from under him and he fell seated on the floor.
Enoch made pushing motions with the mop and Dorsey uttered a high pitch cry.
The thing, standing over seven feet high, looked at them with large flat fish eyes. His mouth was wide without lips, like a fish, and from the neck under his chinless face roiled a beard of green-blue writhing tentacles. From his each shoulder sprang several curling tentacles with suckers like an octopus. From the waist up, he was covered with silvery scales, and from the waist down, he had the legs and the body of a man. His feet were huge and webbed. Instead of toenails he had talons.
The mermaid pushed herself up on one arm and reached out to the creature with the other.
The merman or man-mer stepped forward. Neville fainted and fell sideways.
“You stand back now,” said Enoch, shaking his mop as though to say “I have a mop and I’m not afraid to use it.”
Dorsey made small tentative motions with the hammer.
The thing reached forward with its tentacle arms and picked up the mermaid. It glared at the men with its fishy eyes as though contemplating what to do with them. He turned and with slow deliberate steps walked out the door and into the fog. A moment later, there was a splash.
Enoch slammed the door closed and wedged it with the mop handle.
They finished the bourbon and opened another bottle that Enoch had hidden in the corner. At first, they didn’t say anything, and then they just said “God Damn” to each other. There was a long period of silence when Neville tried to get the stove to throw off some heat, but the bourbon warmed them more than the damp smoking wood.
“There’s one thing, though,” said Dorsey, “There’s one thing that I can’t figure out.”
“I can’t figure none of it,” said Cochrane.
“No, of all the things that don’t make sense, this is the big one.”
“You mean, how he found us?” asked Enoch.
“Naw, I figure he had some kind of fishy sense of smell or something that led him to the boat, and then he just fell in on us.”
“Why didn’t he kill us, then?”
“Naw, he came for the girl, and there were four against one. He might not have wanted to tangle with us.”
The old men nodded as though this made sense.
“What I found odd is that from the waist down he was a man.”
“That’s no stranger than being a girl from the waist up.”
“Well, that’s where the problem is. He was a man, a BIG man, if you know what I mean.”
Enoch nodded his head. “He were a big one, he was.”
“With all the manly parts, the same as us,” Neville said, “Only bigger.”
Dorsey frowned at Neville, “Yeah, but it makes no sense.”
“What do you mean?” asked Neville.
“What’s it good for if the girl is a fish from the waist down?”
The men thought about it in silence.
“Maybe it was there but we didn’t see it. Maybe she had a place where, you know.”
“Nope,” said Dorsey, “I looked.”
Cochrane grinned, “I bet that was the first thing you checked.”
“No, I was just curious, you know, her being a fish and all, how she managed it, if at all, without legs to spread.”
“There must have been,” said Neville, “since he had the plumbing for it. She must have a woman’s plumbing.”
“Maybe she would grow into it,” offered Enoch, “and when she grows up she’ll be a fish on top and woman on the bottom.”
“I still think you missed something, did you feel around everywhere?”
Dorsey, not wanting to discuss this, said, “I didn’t do a detailed inspection of every square inch. I’m just saying that there was nothing obvious.”
Cochrane poured another drink for himself, and after a long pause said, “Well, this is a dilemma.”
The men drank more bourbon, played a little cards. They were still discussing it when the moon set and the sky started to turn pink. They then gave up for the moment and headed out, each on their separate ways.
The problem was not settled that year or the next, and probably would never be settled.
Cochrane concluded that it was a spiritual sign of things beyond the knowledge of men. Neville denied that it ever happened. Enoch went into town and bought himself a small pistol, and kept it in a bag that he carried with him. He decided that he would be prepared if he ever encountered the fish-man again.
From time to time, Dorsey would take the long way in from the catch and spend an extra hour or two with his nets in the water on the lee side of Thacher Island. The fishing there was notoriously bad. He never caught anything, and often the nets came back with rips and tears as though they had caught on sharp rocks or something. When the fog was especially thick, he sometimes thought he heard the sound of voices coming from the shoals. He couldn’t make out the words, but he knew blasphemy when he heard it.