Aye, thirty years ago it were, when I were just a lad in knee-breeches and not a whisker in sight. Oh, I bain't much to look at now, but I had yellow hair then and bonny blue eyes, and once I had a kiss from a mer-maid. If you don't believe me, why, I can't help that: but it happened, sure as anything it did, sure as I'm sitting here. I know it happened, for I was there.
It were high summer and there we were, two hundred miles nor'west of Aruba. The week before, off Punt Basora, we'd met with another "ship of ill repute" and picked up a cargo of gems and jewels and tiny golden balls: just as small as pistol balls they were, and beautiful shiny. I saw a few of them in the box as they were goin' into the hold. But the Captin didn't let us touch them -- just as well -- and out we sailed, into the middle of nowhere. I wondered about it, but I din't ask -- no one questioned the Captin, for he din't like questions -- and just as we were glidin' along a sea smooth as glass, why, the wind died and the Pearl's sails dropped like lead.
The Pearl? She were a bonny ship and she carried me well, both above decks and below. I loved that ship, and I never rode another without thinking of her. But this story is about her captain. His name was Jack Sparrow. He was a pirate.
Have you heard o'him? I don't doubt it, for he were a famous one. And I do believe all the stories, especially the one where he -- but let's leave that 'til the end, for it bears on our subject. Jack Sparrow was a fine-lookin' man, with his black hair blowin' in the wind, all them beads clackin' like birds' beaks. He had a funny way o' talkin', but he never cheated his men. We used to say he was the last honest pirate, and he would laugh and laugh.
I reckon you know all about the Pearl and the ship o' ghosts? Aye, I din't think I'd have to tell you. I wasn't there for that tale, being just a boy, but when I ran away from home and family, the Pearl was the first place I went. And Jack Sparrow, bein' who he was, took me on at once. I was on his ship for five years, but my tale happened on my second summer aboard the Pearl.
I'm ramblin' on, ain't I? But as I said, it were high, hot summer, and not a cloud in sight when the wind died and the Pearl lay in the water like she'd died. The crew began grumblin', because there weren't any land in sight or mind and they thought the Captin would set them to rowin'. But he din't -- he smiled and told jokes, let the men play in the water and splashed a bit himself. Oh, he were beautiful when he was streamin' with water and playin' in the sea like a dolphin. He let me swim too, but I din't do much of that, bein' feared of the very deep water. But Jack Sparrow weren't feared of anything that I ever saw.
The men caught a sea-turtle and had her for dinner, and afterward they drank rum out of the shell and danced the hornpipe till everyone were too tired to move. It were like magic to watch the men dance, those men who could beat you with one heavy hand and carve an ivory tusk with the other. One man I remember, his name were MacCloud, and he told stories of the fairies and the pixies. Oh, I loved that as a lad! I could sit for hours around a lantern and listen to that Blarney-tongued Irishman.
Late that night, Captin Jack got up and he sang the mer-maid song. It were a new song at the time, written by that English doctor's wife, I disremember her name. She were quite famous back then and many people sang the mer-maid song, but I never heard it the way Jack Sparrow sang it. His voice vibrated -- I can't explain it -- the song seemed to carry across the wave like a whale's song, low and warm.
The mer-maid's song went like this:
Now the dancing sunbeams play
On the green and glassy sea,
Come, and I will lead the way
Where the pearly treasures be.
Come with me, and we will go
Where the rocks of coral grow.
Follow, follow, follow me.
Come, behold what treasures lie
Far below the rolling waves,
Riches, hid from human eye,
Dimly shine in ocean's caves.
Ebbing tides bear no delay,
Stormy winds are far away.
Come with me, and we will go
Where the rocks of coral grow.
Follow, follow, follow me.
None o'you sing it anymore, for it went out of style to sing about mer-maids and such. But all the sailors were enchanted by it that night, and I sat like I was stunned, out of sight on an upended whiskey barrel. Young boys are dreamers, aye? More than anything, I wanted to follow that song down to the deeps and find treasure. I stared out into the moon's path and wondered what a mermaid would look like.
The men all went down to sleep, but I couldn't. I stayed by the rail and peered out over the water. I was small then, aye? And canny, and when I heard my captin's steps, soft as wind, I slid down behind the spare dinghy. I didn't want him to see me or break the spell: all I really wanted was for him to go away so I could dream some more. But he din't. He walked past me to the figurehead and stood there, silver as a minnow in the moonlight, waiting.
O'course, I didn't know he was waiting, then. I just thought he was makin' the rounds as he did sometimes. So there I huddled behind the dinghy and waited and watched him, it seemed for hours, though the moon never moved in her course. And my eyes began to get heavy, for the Captin spoke ne'er a word, and I was but a boy.
I woke again suddenly as something thumped on the deck, and I heard Captin Jack say softly, "It took you long enough." And then I heard an eerie voice say, "You try scaling a ship's hull with your bare hands."
I peered out from the shadows and there, right there, not five feet from me, was a mer-man. He was dripping wet and the moonlight lit him up all shiny and blue. He could not stand, for he had a fish's tail, but he held himself up on his hands. I cannot describe his voice to you, but it sounded like a wind through a cave.
Captin Jack said, "I would have thrown you a rope."
And the mer-man told him, "I don't trust your damned ropes."
I started again and drew back as another mer- person dropped down from the rail. This was a woman, blue as the man but with breasts, o'course, and a lovely pointed face like a fox's. She smiled at Captin Jack and said, sweet-like, "Let's get along for the sake of business. Have you the gold?"
Says the Captin, "Of course I do. Have you the bones?"
At this, the woman slithered to the rail and whistled shrilly over it. It seemed like the loudest whistle in the world, but no one stirred except down below in the water.
"Now throw down a rope," says the mer-man, and the Captin did. Up he hauled, and a bag came thumping over the side. Captin Jack took one look in there and smiles. I reckon I never seen as evil a smile as that, or as sad.
"He was chained to the cannon?"
"Did you want the cannon too?" asked the woman. "It would cost more."
"No," says the Captin. "I want to know, was he chained to the cannon?"
"Of course he was," said the man. "Our people would swim miles and miles to talk to him, the only one of you who could breathe underwater and talk too. And in the moonlight, he would turn to bones. But one day we went to see him and he was dead, drowned. So we left him beneath the cannon. Until you came with your strange request. And we honored it. So let's have the gold please."
"But you never let him go," the Captin muses. "Why not?"
"It was more fun to watch him plead," said the mer-man, and his face was colder than the time I took a dive in the Atlantic, chasin' a whale that wouldn't die. "We have no obligation to you."
"That you don't," agreed Jack Sparrow, and he reached around behind him in the shadows and got the box of gold balls and jewels. "Take them and welcome."
The man took the jewels and flipped himself over the side without so much as a by-your-leave, and the mer-woman seemed like she was going to follow, but she suddenly stopped and looked around. Then she smiled a gentle smile and pointed right to my hiding place.
"What about him?" she says. "Can't I take him too?"
As soon as she looked at me and pointed, I felt like I must get up and go over to her. None o'you have ever felt such a pull, save a pale imitation when a pretty lass crooks her finger, but this was a command from my bones, that they must move. I stood and I walked over to her.
"My lady," began the Captin, but she paid him no mind and looked at me. Her eyes were a dark color and their pupils were slit like a cat's. I felt as if I must love her, because she was all things good and sweet. She let me come to her as she sat against the rail, and she took my hands in her blue ones and she kissed me.
She tasted like salt water, sharp and wet, and I opened my mouth as her tongue slipped against mine. It were a kiss, my lads, as you dream about, and I ain't forgot it. No, not even after these many years and many kisses, I never forgot that taste.
I din't know what to do next, and she lifted her head away from mine and looked over my shoulder at the Captin. "Mayn't I take him away? He would be so happy down with me, never thirsting, living longer."
"Dying slower," said the Captin, and I felt his hand on my shoulder, drawing me away. I wanted to cry or beg her to take me down, but I din't. I wanted to stay -- I wanted to dive -- I din't know what to do. The Captin set me by his side and I felt his warm arm go 'round my shoulders. He was the opposite of her -- heat instead of chill, surface instead of deep.
Her face crumpled a little as if she were very sad, and then she said, "As you like," and she were over the rail in a minute. Far below, where the waterline was, I could hear her splash into the sea. Follow, follow, follow.
And that is nearing the end o'my tale, young lads, for after that I went to sleep. But before I did, I had a short conversation with Captin Jack Sparrow, and it went like this:
He asked me, were I mad at him for not letting me go?
And I said, no sir, for you are my captin, and you commands me.
Her spell were fading, and more and more I were glad that the Captin kept me with him. I remembered how feared I were of the ocean, the places where no one went except the dead.
And he said, did I like that kiss that she gave me?
And I said, I did, sir, for I had never been kissed before, except by my mum. It tasted like salt water, sir, I said.
And he said, she was puttin' a spell on you, so that you could breathe underwater and be with her always.
And I said, I want to be with you, sir.
And he bent down and looked me in the eye, and he said, here's a land-safe spell, then, and he kissed me too. It were quick and gentle, hot on the mouth, and then he sent me back to my bunk.
And that is the end of my tale, for I never saw a mer-man or woman again. But you're looking at me like you know something. What is it?
Aye, the ending of Jack Sparrow's tale. That were -- what, fifteen years gone? And the Captin getting to be an old man, and me up in Nantucket as second mate on a whaler? They do say, don't they, that one night on St Lucia, a couple were sportin' in the sand, and they saw a woman come out of the water. Blue, they said she were, with a fish's tail. And she met a man on the beach with beads in his hair, wearin' nothin' but a ring on his finger and a leather hat.
And as they watched, she gave him a long blue kiss, and then the two of them walked into the water together. And from that day to this, none has ever seen Jack Sparrow alive.
Aye, it fair sticks in a man's mind, doesn't it? That he may be down there somewhere, swimmin' just like in the song, findin' treasure that would satisfy even his pirate's heart? I like to believe he is. Rather that than he be dead and swayin' in Davy Jones's locker like all me other mateys.
But that's my story and I'm getting old and soft, and I need another pint and then to bed, my lads. If you don't believe me, why, that's fine. Buy me a drink and set me on my way. But it happened, and I know, for I was there.
Notes: "The Mermaid's Song" was written in 1790 by Anne Hunter. She was known as "Haydn's muse," for he set many of her poems to music. She was married to a prominent English surgeon and was a bluestocking :). See also: her bio
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