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AMONG THE MERMAIDS
Facts, Myths, and Enchantments from the Sirens of the Sea
By VARLA VENTURA
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2013 Weiser Books
All rights reserved.
THE EMERALD SEA
"And Wendy, there are mermaids."
"Mermaids! With tails?"
"Such long tails."
"Oh," cried Wendy, "to see a mermaid!"
—J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, 1904
It's fairly obvious by the title of this book that I have a fascination with mermaids. But what delighted me most about this Irish story by George A. Birmingham was its setting. Many years ago, I went on a soul-seeking journey to the remote Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway in Ireland. As in Birmingham's story, it is quite true (and especially if you visit in the off-season months) that everyone on the island lives there or has kin living there (and many of the Islanders are kin to each other).
When I read the first page of this story, I was transported right back to those craggy limestone cliffs and bitter winds. Like all of Ireland, the Aran Islands are a very magical place, and it is not at all hard to imagine a mermaid in those gray-green waters, her kelpy hair spreading out across the crest of a wave, her long arms waving in a friendly, come-hither gesture.
George Birmingham was the pen name of an Irish clergyman named James Owen Hannay. He wrote more than fifty novels and a number of plays, essays, and commentaries on rural Irish life as well as politics. To my knowledge, this is his only mermaid story. It is from a 1919 collection of stories he called 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 skepticism.
"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 skepticism 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."
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 knowledgeable 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 nighttime. 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 hour 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."
Excerpted from AMONG THE MERMAIDS by VARLA VENTURA. Copyright © 2013 Weiser Books. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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