This story was inspired by the song, Turn Loose the Mermaids, by Nightwish. I recommend it for reading music.
It was the kite that I saw first as I hurried along the dusky road in search of a place to camp for the night. It was a small square of dark blue that bobbed and swayed in the upper breezes, far above the hedgerows that bordered the road closely on both sides. I came to a gap and saw the world suddenly open in front of me.
I was standing on the top of a slope that descended several stone’s throws to the edge of a firth, an arm of the ocean that stretched inland to the mouth of a fast-flowing river. On the slope was a cemetery and in the twilight, each etched stone had its identical shadow that stretched back towards the east. On one of these stones, close to the water’s edge, I saw a hunched figure sitting and holding the string of the kite.
I went down to talk to the person and perhaps find a place to stay the night. When I got closer, I saw that the figure was an old man dressed in a tattered grey jacket. He was staring out towards the firth, but looked up at me when I approached.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said without preamble. “This is not the place for your sort.”
“And what sort is that?” I asked.
“The uncursed sort.”
This intrigued me immensely. “My name is Horus Vere,” I said. “I collect many things in my travels but mostly I love stories. Tell me, is this cursed ground?” I sat down on the gravestone of a Mr. Archibald Duggan (1550-1623) and waited for his reply.
“Why else would an old man be flying a kite alone in a graveyard at sunset, if he were not cursed?” he asked. I had no response to this feat of logic, so I waited patiently for him to continue.
“I used to come here every day when I young, to fly kites with my friends,” he said. “One day, we arranged to meet here in the afternoon, but the wind was strong that day and the others decided not to come. I launched my kite as I waited and it tugged fiercely on the string. A sudden gust snapped the string and it fell into the firth, about a score yards from shore.
“I should have left it—any sane person would have—but it was my favorite kite and I hated to lose it. So, I took off my jacket, tunic and trousers and waded into the frigid water. I was a fair swimmer, but the wind was blowing from the land and quickly pushed the kite further from me. When I finally reached it, I looked back to see that I was far from land and the wind was pushing me even further towards the middle of the firth.
“The swim back was a nightmare. I made very slow progress and I could not rest or I would be pushed out and lose what distance I had gained. My head slipped beneath the surface, but I pulled myself up. I went down again, and again I thrashed to the surface. But I was exhausted and I knew that I was about to drown.
“Finally I sank down into the darkness of the firth, too exhausted to struggle anymore. I breathed in a gulp of water and my consciousness was just starting to fade, when I felt something brush my arm. I thought it was a fish at first, but then it grasped me. Something pressed against my lips and air was forced into my lungs. I opened my eyes and saw a woman swimming in front of me, her skin a greenish tinge from the water.
“Several moments later, I pulled myself, coughing, onto the shore. The woman was beside me, and I could see now that even in the air, her skin had a greenish cast. She was naked and beautiful.”
“A mermaid?” I asked. I was beginning to think this man was either mad or toying with me.
“Do you believe in mermaids?” he asked.
“I have never had any reason to.”
“Neither did I,” the old man said. “She did not have a fish’s tail, as they do in the stories, but she was no ordinary woman.
“‘Thank you for saving me,’ I said to her and she nodded. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’ she asked. ‘Kiss me again,’ I said.
“I had not been meaning to say that and I was embarrassed, but she crawled carefully up to me, keeping one foot in the water, and kissed me again. Then she told me her name and slipped back into the water.”
“What was her name?” I asked.
“I cannot tell you.”
“You have forgotten it?”
“No,” he said. “It is a name I could never forget. As soon as I heard it, it crept into every corner of my mind and I could keep my mind on nothing else. I would not tell it to you, lest the same thing happen to you.
“For several years after that I would come here and meet with her. Sometimes I would summon her by flying the kite, but sometimes she would call to me with her singing. She had a high, whispering song that floated on the breeze and drew me irresistibly to her.
“When I was seventeen, the town found out that I was meeting with someone here most every day. I heard the word ‘monster’ and ‘succubus’ whispered about. They came to kill her, but I saw them coming up the road, my father leading the way. She begged me to go with her, but I was afraid.
“‘I will wait for you here,’ I said. ‘But I cannot return,’ she replied. I was still afraid and did not believe her fully. She gave me one last, long kiss and then dove into the water as the people reached the top of the hill.
“I was sent away to the southern counties by my father, but I returned and stayed here, tending the graves and flying my kite. I have waited years for my lost mermaid. I could not have stopped even if I wanted to. The memory of her last kiss still burns on my lips and her name is as fresh in my memory as always.”
The old man stopped. I wondered if he told this story to everyone who stopped by or if I were privileged somehow. The sun went down and the golden color drained out of the landscape. Soon the darkness would be complete.
“You may stay in the old cottage by the woods,” he said. “I will stay here.”
I would have argued with him, but the memorial stone of Mr. Archbald Duggan was none too comfortable and I gratefully moved to the cottage. It was shabby and dank, but when I got a fire going, it cheered up immensely.
I awoke in the middle of the night to hear the wind sighing in the branches outside. With a start, I thought I could catch words in it. I jumped up and looked out the window.
The moonlight was shining brightly on the cemetery and the black water of the firth. The old man was gone from his gravestone perch. I put my hand on the door latch, but something stopped me, perhaps my oft-unused common sense. I went back to my bedroll on the floor and lay listening to the melodic breeze playing through the trees.
The next day dawned sunny and clear. I packed up my things and went to see if the old man had returned. His seat was empty. I stood for a while, and was just about to leave when I noticed something buried in the grass by the gravestone. After digging in the tangled grass, I pulled out a rotted cross of wood with several scraps of dark-blue cloth still clinging to it. Nearby was a spool of twine that fell apart when I picked it up. It must have lain there for years.
I thought of taking a piece of the cloth to remember this place with, but I knew it was not for me. The wind was singing in the trees again as I left, but I dared not look back at the water for fear of what I might see and what I might do then.