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Fiction

Saving the mermaid

By the Sea: Part II, Chapter 7

Henry Gee 2 September 2007

www.lablit.com/article/296

The radiance of her eyes had within it a taint of madness, enough to confirm suspicions to which no one at the house had yet dared give voice

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Henry Gee, By The Sea. Set in present-day Norfolk, Gee blends science, murder, sex and Victorian secrets into a dark, gothic thriller.

Chapter 15

It was a warm night of summer when I chanced on Rebecca walking on the beach below the house. She was dressed all in deep purple as was her wont, as indeed was her habit to walk along the foreshore at evening, looking westwards towards the sunset.

Many times had she marvelled volubly in my presence at the reflection of the golden light on the rock pools, the effect the waning light had on enriching the blues of the wave, picking out the whiteness of the foam. On one occasion when I had caught up with her, I remarked that she had the instincts of an artist. After that she had for some reason spurned all my attempts at conversation, which puzzled me – such is usually read as a compliment.

On this occasion, however, I felt that nothing was to be lost by further hesitation. Giving chace, I wondered which of my many verbal darts I should first unloose, but she forestalled me. Turning, she looked at me with a most alarming hardness, hands clenched into two fists at her side. Then I felt like the poor Actaeon who had spied the Huntress, chiding myself – happily, before I voiced the remark – that Diana had at that point been unclothed, which had been the essence of the story, and unsuited quite to the present encounter.

“Do not talk to me of Art, Mr Willoughby,” came her stern imprecation, loud against the water. I saw that she stood on the very edge of the surf, the hem of her gown soaked and taken up like weed by the flowing margin of the waves.

“I shall not if that is your wish, Miss Lowdley-Purring – but I should advise you to step out of the waves!”

At that she looked down, and far from an expression of concern, her face told of an emotion I shall not here try to describe, and she moved from out the waves with languid unconcern, to take my arm. “Walk with me?”

And so we walked towards the west. We talked not, but as we walked I was conscious of the grip of her arm on my left elbow (I had taken the seaward side), the rhythm of her breathing. She seemed preoccupied, as if not so much at a loss for something to say but in contrast, in possession of so many topics for discussion yet unequal to the task of chusing between any one and any other. All at once she stopped, drew apart and looked at me, her eyes like brilliants, causing me to flush from my neck to the roots of my hair.

“Miss Lowdley-Purring...”

“Do you believe in mermaids, Mr Willoughby?” There were hot tears in her eyes, making them sparkle in the sunset.

“Do I...what?” I was now aware that had I not watched my temper with the greatest circumspection I might indeed suffer the fate of that unfortunate huntsman. For although I knew of the predilections of Rebecca’s father, Sir Frideric, to favour the unusual, I was not entirely sure the degree to which his likes and dislikes were communicated to the rest of his family.

“You heard me, Mr Willoughby. Mermaids. For that, I believe, is what you and my father hold in highest regard as Art. Not the play of sunshine on water, Mr Willoughby, but the rough severance of natural life and its conjoining in...in...”

“Miss?” I held my hand out towards hers. She did not take it at once but, after looking at it for a moment like it might have been some snake set to strike her, she placed her arm once again in mine and we continued our walk. I gave no explanation in answer to her outburst. She had known for years – must have known – that Sir Frideric was acclaimed as an artist of the flesh. But something had of late stirred her into some hitherto unbroached emotion. A few paces on, she sighed.

“I am sorry, Mr Willoughby – it’s just...well, it is Mother. My father and I had thought that the sea air would revive her spirits, and so it did when we moved here. But lately, well, you have seen, surely.”

I nodded. Lady Felicity had lately grown morose and silent, spending her days and increasingly her nights staring wordlessly at the waves from an upstairs window. But I did no more than nod for, as I have noted, I was in possession of some of Sir Frideric’s methods of working and procuring artistic materials, which I did not feel sure I could discuss with Rebecca. Though I fancied that Lady Felicity had divined what some of these methods might have been, which could account for her present state. Methods which had required, of late, many deliveries in the early hours of the morning, with coin given in exchange for silence.

And there were other things I felt I could hardly discuss with Rebecca with any propriety, such as the frequency of the screams of a woman in the fastnesses of night – screams which to my ears seemed too much like Rebecca herself, in extremis. The radiance of her eyes had within it a taint of madness, enough to confirm suspicions to which no one at the house had yet dared give voice.

Yes, these two things together gave me much pause before speaking. It was, I reasoned, more than my life was worth – here, in this remote region – to reveal too much of the sacrifices Sir Frideric had made for his art. The young Actaeon, on stumbling on divine secrets, had paid with his life: Diana’s hounds had torn him limb from limb.

**********

Alex had not intended this – subsequently, she felt it perhaps a consequence of her own shrinking and changing state. That she would often find herself on a bench in front of Pickled Lily and not be able to remember how she got there. It would seem as though she’d wake with a jolt and, disoriented, be conscious of a smoothly but rapidly fading dream in which she’d received information from the mermaid, not just the self-pitying self-advertisement she’d expected (how had she expected this? On what basis?) but deep and detailed knowledge. What Alex could only describe as instructions. Protocols. A part of her, small as yet but shrill, tells her that she must leave this place. The Institute. Morrison. None of this was doing her any good at all. But Alex, like most people, sets the consequences of a shot in the dark against the pursuit of one’s present course which, while wretched, is at least known.

But more than that – she is fascinated by what Lily has to say, and how she – Alex – has come to learn it. That same small and shrill part (which now sounded increasingly like her mother) warns her of voices in the head, that such a reaction only proved the case for putting as many miles as she could between her and the Institute, as soon as possible. In any case, there is a rational explanation. Alex isn’t hearing voices, because everything that Lily says is right there, on the label, in plain sight. Alex must have read the label a hundred times, but only now does it seem to make sense. Lily is telling her about Obed Marsh, a whaler of Massachusetts, and of a terrible, terrible crime. A crime she must now solve. She can no longer save Pickled Lily, she reasons – but she can do her best to save herself, and the course she must choose is not flight, but confrontation.

**********

The Institute Library would satisfy any curator of the more austere species of nightmare. A small door just off the main hall at the opposite end of the building from the main entrance – a door one might easily miss – gives on to what must have been a substantial space, with a ceiling as high as that of the common room and with wide windows which, in times past, revealed dramatic cliff-top scenery to the eastward. This space has always been a library, but the press of books, periodicals and papers accumulated over a century and more have led to an unplanned efflorescence of shelves which over many decades have divided and subdivided the room both horizontally and vertically into a labyrinth of narrow, ill-lit corridors, chambers, staircases and carrels such that the original lines of the room might no longer be made out. When Alex first ventured inside, she imagined that the boundaries of the space circumscribed by the library might be far more extensive than that of the room in which it had been created, and had been initially fearful of going too far in.

At first, this was in case she became lost. This concern subsided after her first few visits there, after she had established landmarks as she’d done with the rest of the building, though there were sometimes moments of panic when she looked up and could not recognize her surroundings. More recently she had become afraid that she might turn some corner and come across Morrison, and have to endure another encounter. Lately, however, she surprises herself that she has, without really trying, managed to sublimate that fear into an image of discovering Morrison in some dusty, yellowed corner, engaged in some procedure – or rite – the details of which she cannot not quite make out, but when he turns to look at her, his dead-eyed face is stained with blood running from his jaws. The image is horrible, but the Morrison it contains is neither triumphant nor controlling, but an abject thing, a husk of humanity. Alex has never been one for analyzing such things too deeply, and she does not do so now. But she does wonder at the change in herself, and derives solace from it. As a result, she now sees the Library as her haven, her friend, a place more welcoming than anywhere else in the Institute with the exception of her own laboratory. No, more, even than that, for in the lab she is too much on show, where others can find you too easily; the mazy interstices of Library are in that sense more private, a tangible extension of her own thoughts, a place in which one neither easily be discovered, nor violated. Over the past few months, she has came to know every tiny passageway, every lintel under which she has had to stoop, every incomplete run of every obscure leather-bound journal crammed into its dark-wood shelves.

And so it is that on a shelf in an upper-floor corridor so narrow that one can only shuffle along it crabwise, she finds what she considers to be more than a book, but a key to her salvation. Generations of even fairly diligent scourers of the library might have missed it, for although it is catalogued, it had at some point been re-shelved wrongly and had been listed as ‘lost’ some time in the 1960s. Alex counts herself blessed that she has found it, by chance, wedged between two much larger volumes of some near-forgotten marine biology periodical. Alex pulls the little thing from the shelf, along with a small puff of dust and mould. In a shaft of sunlight narrowed by the grime of a skylight just three feet above her head, she opens the thick, blackened boards to a pocket-sized book. Its bindings have decayed so much that even the act of opening it shatters the spine into a choking explosion of dust, so that in the end she holds no more than a thick sheaf of roughly cut paper kept together solely by the pressure of her hands. With great care she takes it to a small table at the end of the row, equipped with a creaking office chair and an old anglepoise lamp. There she sits, and reads, and when she looks up, she finds that hers is the only pool of light in the labyrinth, for deep night has fallen. But now, she knows secrets which she is sure Morrison has never known – or if he has, he has dismissed as ridiculous impossibilities. But she knows differently now, and no amount of darkness can change that.

It takes Alex a little while to become accustomed to the rough and uneven type of ‘An Account of the Voyages, Adventures and Opinions of Captain Obed Marsh, Innsmouth Whaler, With Divers Observations and Remarks of the Secrets of the Sea, As Reported to Mr Urth, Gentleman, of Arkham, Mass.’ But the pages are small, the print is large and crude, and she finishes the entire book at one sitting. As the title suggests, it is less a book than a kind of diary or annal, taken down secondhand by this Mr Urth from a source who seems to have made up in robust vigor what he evidently lacked in literary style. The text is rambling but racy, the events reported intermittent and selected more on the basis of lurid content than any testable veracity or unbiased observation of nature. Life onboard is a series of floggings, keel-haulings, disease, starvation and mutilation, all of it directed with gusto by Captain Marsh; life ashore is an uninterrupted bacchanale of drinking, battle with variously exotic and brutal indigenes, whoring and more drinking in which Captain Marsh plays the leading role, whether as drunkard or fighter or lover, and all described with a degree of attention to explicit detail which (Alex thinks) might even have shocked a Regency cartoonist. The promised Secrets of the Sea are little more than a medieval freak-parade of witch-whales, orcs, rocs, sea-serpents, kraken, mermaids, cyclopes, basilisks, maelstroms, anthropophagi and sirens, some of which are rip-offs from mythology, obvious even to one as relatively unlearned in such things as is Dr Alex Beach. Clearly, sex, violence and the great unknown were as potent as ingredients of cheap literature at the dawn of the nineteenth century as they are now, or at any other time. And, as everyone has known since stories were first invented, the old ones are the best.

Central to the account, though – and presented in far greater detail – is the graphic description of the capture of one mermaid in particular, described as a ‘she-witch’, with ‘weedy hair’, who ambushed sailors attempting to land their small skiff on an unnamed Pacific Island, killing one of them by drowning – after which the boatmen gave chase, finally ensnaring the mermaid after a breakneck pursuit lasting several exciting pages. When finally netted,

The she-demon was hauled aboard, a-thrashing with her fishy tail as powerful as a tunny, a-squirming and a-biting with her sharp teeth, but the Men shewed her ther boots and ther oars and ther boat hooks, and she a-took to a-mewling like a puss-cat and became obedient to their whims on a sudden, smiling with her sharp teeth and parting her long weedy hair. The Men who had long been at sea pawed and prodded at her comely shape and she did not protest but seem’d to encourage it by bringing the Men to her close in turn, one after another, and this merriment was continued once the mermaid was taken on board ship.

There followed a passage in which violence, licence and general fantasy are combined in a thoroughly phantasmagorical stew. The mermaid, it seems, was kept in a large water-filled barrel on deck, and the Men were invited to ‘seek certain pleasures’ from her at prescribed times, tasks which she evidently discharged to general satisfaction, the details of which are set out with such pornographic frankness that Alex feels herself sweat and squirm while reading them, and is grateful that there is nobody around who might peer over her shoulder. During this extended exegesis of seven (or possibly eight) adventures in which the sexual appetite of mermaids in general, and this mermaid in particular, is more than fully explored, Alex learns that the star of this particular live barrel show is called ‘Lily’ or just ‘Lil’. No reason for the appellation is given.

A few pages on, however, and the horror, ever lurking as background to this bestial revelry, comes to the fore: there is an account, as ever luridly detailed, of a sailor enjoying the company of Lily in her barrel, but this time things seem to have gone too far. Screams are heard, and crewmen rushing on deck find the sailor yelling for his life amid a boiling stew of what looks like blood, trying to avoid being pulled under. His struggles are unsuccessful, and when his fellows haul his corpse from the barrel they find that

his breeches were gone and with them his manhood, there remaining a hole whence gush’d forth a torrent of blood like the water from the barren rock struck with Aaron’s rod.

With or without the consent of Captain Marsh, the revenge of the crew is terrible. A mob surges on deck armed with boat hooks, ropes, chains and anything else handy, thronging around the red-filled barrel, thrashing at the water, probing it and prodding it until, eventually – inevitably – the mermaid is dragged to the surface by the hair. Her screams of anger and dread are horrifying to hear – many sailors retreat, dropping their weapons and covering their ears. But a doughty few avoid the nails, the pointed teeth, and – standing over the slithering, muscular form on the deck – restrain her, pinning her, cruciform, to the planks. Captain Marsh is called for and he dispenses summary justice with a sharp blow of a boathook to the creature’s head. And so she ends.

Had the book been true to form, this event would have been swiftly submerged by a flood of further adventure, as if the entire mermaid episode had never been. Instead, Alex finds the text taking a more pensive tone, detached even, as if the writer is trying to hold the events at arm’s length even while he is telling them.

The remainder of the story is swiftly told. Captain Marsh orders Lily to be immersed in a barrel of rum, so that she might be preserved and sold or traded in Valparaiso with

a gentleman there who acted as an agent for an English Lord much famed for his interest in the secrets of the sea which few others vouchsafe to themselves even had they known them.

The voyage continues, but the previous mood of riot and rumpus is replaced by one of static, reflective lassitude. The only other events are these – a worry about the diminution in rum supplies, now that most of the rations have been used to store the mermaid; and an epidemic of deaths among the sailors, whose bodies are found, eyes wide and blood-rimmed with the same infinite stare with which Alex is now only too familiar. Marsh’s voice now forces its way through the measured tones of Urth as the text reaches the last page.

We earnestly hoped that there would be men still aboard in sufficient numbers and in a condition still hale to steer the boat into Valparaiso: men who had avoided falling to the Curse of the Mermaid.

And with that, the text reaches its abrupt close. Alex knows better than to expect any measured account (or any account at all) of the epidemiology of this ‘curse’. But she has become used to reading between the lines. The sailors, otherwise deprived of rum, had been drinking from the same barrel in which the mermaid had been stored. If science has any victories, if it has any spur, it is the satisfaction of connections forged, even ahead of the evidence, between previously disparate areas of enquiry. Alex, alone in a pool of yellow light in the library attic, feels that addictive thrill now, the same which first turned her into a scientist as a teenager. There is a link between carnostomids and mermaids; between Obed Marsh and Banneman Houghton. That connection is Pickled Lily, the specimen left in a tableau of writhen agony three floors below. With growing shock – and supreme fascination – Alex now knows what carnostomids grow up to become.