Fanjo Blake and the Mermaid, a short story by Zealey. Date added: 2011-04-10. Times viewed: 1130.
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- Intro: Fanjo Blake is the hardest Shipwrecker in the business, but everyone must atone for their past sooner or later...
Fanjo Blake and the Mermaid
It was the year of Our Lord seventeen hundred and fifty-two when Britain changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In order for the new calendar to work the King’s mathematicians and scientists had decided that eleven days needed to be lost in the transfer period. So, for those eleven days the country lived out of time, in a limbo. Many strange things were reported during those ‘lost’ days and here is one of them…
Millendreath Cove. Southern Cornwall. All Hallows Eve. 1752.
Under cover of night…
She looked so beautiful to him caught on the shoreline, on the dividing line between their two worlds. She was more beautiful than the northern lights, more hypnotic than running water, more necessary than salt, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her as she glided towards him from out of the boiling sea.
Fanjo Blake dropped his heavy bag of gold, which had hitherto been the most precious thing in his life, until now. For here was something infinitely more desirable and rewarding, perhaps almost sacred: a word Fanjo had heard many times before but never really understood. But now, as she floated towards him, eyes twinkling in this Hunter’s moon, he felt he finally knew what those priests had always been ranting about. Here was something perfect. Each word that slowly formed on her lips was given breath through the most incredible, beguiling voice. Angelic yet suggestive, promising dark pleasures amongst the brilliant light. She was all women yet more than any one woman could ever be. And oh that voice! That sweet voice drawing him in powerless, as inviting as a warm bed after a hard day’s ride. The song promised him a warm and watery velvet blanket to keep him snug, as she would cradle him in her arms whispering her soothing lullaby. A few more steps and he would cross the terminator into her world and how readily he embraced the change…
A few hours earlier…
The Menac Ale House. Hangman’s Copse, far above Millendreath Cove.
The rain had been coming down hard all night, sharp jagged drops that left a dent in the thatched roof of the old pub. So heavy was it that the smoke from the fire was being battered back down the chimney and into the room of the candle-lit tavern. Periodically a stray drop made it down the stack and hissed onto the crackling logs shooting violent sparks across the room. One such hot cinder landed on the boot of Fanjo Blake and he kicked it away before it could scar the leather. He returning his attention to his dinner on the large oak table, skewering a fatty piece of meat with his rope-cutting knife and chewing on the beef brisket like it was a prison sentence. He swallowed the gristle and felt it catch in his throat. He began to choke.
His three male companions took to slapping him on the back and laughing, but Fanjo being of a disposition to never be made a fool of, knocked over the plate and kicked back his chair. With his hand he reached deep into his throat and retrieved the trapped brisket. With a terrifying cough that silenced the entire room he pulled it out and threw the lump of congealed fat across the table where it skidded leaving a glistening slug trail in its wake. Able to speak once more he snarled in the direction of the landlord.
‘Barkeep, you’re food is trying to kill me, and god knows there’s enough that walk abroad this night trying to do that.’
The tallest of his companions joined in the culinary critique: ‘This chitterling isn’t fit for ship rats. If ye can’t trust your food, what’s a man got left?’
A short pudgy man hurriedly appeared from behind the bar carrying four flagons of scrumpy cider.
‘Here you go Misser Blake. On the house, so to speak. It’s the good stuff too, not what I give them regulars. I’m sorry about the fare. Cook hasn’t been worth a spit since the accident.’
Fanjo stared up at him from bloodshot eyes. This alone was enough for the barman to squirm and end the conversation.
‘Look, I don’t want any trouble, alright? I was just saying, that’s all.’
Fanjo grabbed one of the tankards from the quivering man, the frothy cider spilling over the brim like waves over a ship’s bow. The Innkeeper noticed Fanjo’s fingers like blackened tree stumps gripping the pewter tankard handle and imagined them around his own throat.
The four men huddled together, shutting the grateful Innkeeper out of the conversation and fell into a game of ‘knife-finger’. Fanjo put his own hand over that of his companion’s and took to stabbing the knife between their splayed fingers at ever greater speed and recklessness.
‘Keep your hand still, Red, the more ye squirm the more chance of a strike, and you’ll be needing all your fingers if you mean to please Rebecca later, eh?’
All four fell about their bench lost in laughter at this. Fanjo let the joke run its course before becoming conspiratorial and beckoned them in to a closed huddle once more.
‘Enough. We must talk of business, my men. The Grey Guinea is charted to sail past this very cove in the witching hour’.
At this the blood drained from all the faces of Fanjo’s companions. The man who had been under the knife felt compelled to break the painful silence that had descended, seemingly across the whole inn.
‘I ain’t going wrecking on All Hallows Eve. It ain’t right. Especially in these strange days of no date. God have mercy on their souls, no-one should have to die during this age.’
Fanjo put his knife back in his leather jersey. ‘You don’t believe in all that do you, you old fuckfinger? Where’s your stones, does Miss Rebecca have them safe in her keeping already?’
‘And what if I should do? It’s All Hallows Eve you salty dog. Everyone knows that the souls of all them’s been lost at sea are given licence to walk amongst the living for the hours of darkness on this cursed night.’
A wind had got up and caused a loose shutter on their alcove window to slap against the glass. Fanjo shuddered involuntarily and then, fearing to look foolish in front of his drinking partners, he drained the rest of his ale and slammed the pewter tankard hard on the table.
‘The dead can reach out for the living. I’m reaching out for the easy gold.’
The nearest to him spoke up, nervously flicking the pewter tankard with his rotten thumbnail.
‘Then you go alone Fanjo. The devil plays a strange tune tonight and I’m not of the mood to dance to it.’
The men buried their faces in their thick coats. Fanjo stood to leave.
‘Hang you all. I’ll go alone then.’
The nearest tried again a final time.
‘Fanjo, be reasonable man, it’s madness.’
‘Aye I’m sure you’re right, but I’ll have riches to comfort me in that madness. You bottlers carry on eating this rancid chitterling if ye so feel inclined. I shall be feasting on plump goose come sunrise…without you.’
Before he could be hushed into silence one of the seated men spluttered out, ‘She won’t be there you fool.’
With reflexes that would have made a man twenty years younger proud, Fanjo spun on his leather shoes and pulled his knife. He rushed back to the table and turned the blade to the man’s throat where he let the Adam’s apple throb against the cold edge.
‘Say that again, fuckfinger, I dare ye’.
The man’s eyes turned a sickly yellow and his voice came in timid squeals:
‘Fanjo, it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known she was on that ship. None of us did, not even Straw Peter.’
Fanjo pressed the blade deeper into the soft neck , the steel making a cut into flesh.
‘Be it All Hallows Eve or not, I go the same. She’s lost to me, understand? I will take what’s coming to me at the appointed time.’
Fanjo pulled the knife away from the quivering man and thrust it back into his jersey.
‘Least said, soonest mended. I know you speak from the heart, but maybe it’s time ye learned to speak with your head. I want things I can hold in my hand. Gold. You can’t pay for a woman with memories.’
He moved to the door and unhooked his heavy sou’wester, throwing it on. He paused in the doorway to fill the bowl of his clay pipe and reaching into the fireplace he pulled out a glowing ember with his bare hands. His colleagues were impressed into silence as Fanjo lit the pipe, the ember glowing a fierce red causing his eyes to glint with a devilish intent. He unhooked a lantern and waved it at the barkeep before leaving.
‘Landlord. I shall be requiring this tonight.’
The barman offered up an obsequious grin, unable to look into those glowering eyes, and returned to cleaning his tankards.
Fanjo stepped out into the cold Cornish night air. The rain had stopped to be replaced by a low hanging cloud that was rolling in off the sea. He turned his collar to the wind and sucked on his pipe, fighting the hissing of the bowl against the damp. After a few steps Fanjo turned round and looked at the inn, so warm and inviting on this of all nights, the windows steamed-up with the condensation of laughter within. He fought against the urge to return and set his mind to the task ahead. As he turned he was sure he saw her face in the smoke from the inn’s chimney stack as it rose to mingle with the fog. He banished such thoughts and reached the cliff path where he knew the tools of his trade would be waiting in a hidden fissure in the rock. Candle, wick, fuel. All that was needed to trick the ship into crashing onto the jagged rocks below.
As he reached the head of the path, rough stone steps hewn out of rock, unseen and unknown to anyone who wasn’t right upon it, he looked up and saw a large fog bank heading in from the east. He reckoned it was the vanguard of a storm front moving in. A good omen for his work. His light would seem even more tempting to the ship out there in the oceanic night, and when he’d lured it to the rocks the salvage would be all his. Goose breast for breakfast.
As he walked carefully down the steps he reviewed his position, he was almost glad his partners had decided against coming, no-one else to split the profits with. But by hell it was a troublesome night. The fog had descended like a cobweb and he could barely see his boots strike the steps, each one taking him deeper into the mist. He reached the coastline and turned back on himself to a small alcove behind the stairway. He pulled away a large dried kelp to reveal the kerosene lantern and the flint and tinder box. There was enough wood left from the last wrecker’s fire to quickly get a blaze going. This was good.
The fog allowed sound to carry better than usual and he could hear the groaning of a large timber frame in the distance. The ship must be close. He must act now. Fanjo was suddenly troubled: would they see his fire in the fog and crash onto ‘Old Kernow’ a fearsome basalt rock that jutted out from the brine near the entrance to the cove, or would they miss it altogether and carry safely on with their journey down to Penzance unimpeded, his fire as invisible as charcoal?
His train of thought was interrupted by a higher pitched noise. At first he thought it was a whale, but there was a definite human lilt to it. Hiding the lantern under his arm he turned towards the crashing waves and began stumbling across wet black rocks, fearing the unknown slimy creatures in the large rock pools winking at him by the light of his candle. The noise was comforting like a lullaby he’d heard once as a child. His mother had sung a sweet song to him years ago when they were nearly shipwrecked on his father’s fishing boat in a storm, on a night much the same as this one. He’d heard his mother singing and he knew not to be afeared, he had total faith in her to keep him safe. That was how the song sounded to him now, enveloping, wrapping his mind in a drowsy blanket. He followed the voice. It was only when the water reached up to his knees that Fanjo realised he’d walked out to sea. He knew this shoreline well, a few more steps and the shelf dropped away to bottomless ocean.
The harsh sound of seagulls squawking pulled him back to land. In the blackness with only the moon shining off the water they looked like great bats swooping. Tars, Cormorants, they circled above him like vultures expecting food. It must be cold out there tonight, Fanjo thought to himself, with the birds being so close to land.
He stepped out of the crashing waves and returned inland to light the Wreckers Fire. In the glow of that false fire he saw his shadow stretch out across the fog and out into the deep water. He looked at the silhouette of his wide brimmed hat and out of that centre she rose, the water falling off her like autumn leaves.
He knew the face.
Fanjo walked to the shoreline and called out across the cove.
She smiled and continued singing.
Fanjo was dumbfounded, ‘You were the most beautiful on land, of course the sea must honour you as a mermaid.’
He felt the water lap against his knees, soaking the course fabric but still he waded out towards her. She swam closer, almost open him now. Only the tips of his boots could scrape the rocky sea-bed and the occasional strand of seaweed caught in his beard. She brushed it away and touched his shoulder, gently pulled him towards her. He could feel the cold droplets of brine on her warm face and smelt ozone as he moved his face through her matted hair. His mouth was about to find hers when she suddenly pulled back, shaking her head.
‘Just a little further, Fanjo my love. Come…’
Her palm moved to the nape of his neck and gently pulled him towards her, cold droplets of water ran down his collar, making him tingle. He allowed her to lead him further out, unaware that he was now having to tread water. His voice came in breathless spurts as he struggled to keep his mouth above the tidal water line.
‘I’m so sorry my darling. I didn’t know you were on that ship. How could I? Your letters said the next month.’
With her other arm she reached out to him, placing her finger to his lips.
‘Just a little further Fanjo my love…Come…’
With the last of his strength he brushed the finger aside.
‘You must hear me. Living by the permission of another is no life. I’d rather live one day free than a life as a slave. That’s how I came to be a wrecker. You knew that when we met. So many things I’ve wrecked. Ships and people both. Forgive me.’
He looked up towards the fog bank and saw it spread from Jamaica Point all along the coastline to Highwayman Cove. The green algae that always hugged the rugged shore had become fluorescent green in the fog. He turned his head back out to sea and back out to her. Her breasts rose and fell with the wave crests and on each descend the water sank low enough to reveal two perfect nipples protruding out against the cold. Fanjo reached out for her and grabbed her left breast. He closed his eyes and relinquished the last of his fading willpower to her completely.
Even through his leather glove the breast felt strange. It was hard and splintered. Cold. Not the warm heart he remembered. Fanjo opened his eyes to find her changed. Her whole countenance had become frozen and glazed, almost wooden and as surely lifeless as the drift wood from his last wreck. He dived underwater forcing his eyes to stay open against the salt water sting and was horrified by what he saw. What mermaid was this? She had no tail, she had no anything. There was nothing to her beneath the waterline. She bobbed around like a fisherman’s buoy before beginning to sink as if her wooden skin had finally become too waterlogged. She was too heavy for him to hold and her breast slipped from his hand as she descended beneath him into the green darkness to become once more only a memory.
With a crippling fear Fanjo realised how far out to sea he had allowed himself to be dragged. He boiled in the water, foam and bubbles all around him like a black cauldron. He splashed back towards shore, but something made him turn round. Her face was breaking back through the fog, but this time something followed her. He heard a creaking, a great mass of ancient wood moaning against the storm. She was attached to something high up and clear of the water. A large pole pierced the fog like a needle, and as the mist parted he saw her fully revealed. She was wooden and painted, the paint cracked on the maidenhead. Behind her, the huge hull followed and was upon him. Fanjo braced for impact, fearing diving down into the water and trying to get under the ship more than facing what was coming to him. The impact was brutal and decisive as the hull of the Grey Guinea slammed into him following his fire.
The first breath of the cold water felt ecstatic, filling his lungs with thousands of sparkling jewels which descended to form bars of ice-cold gold in his stomach. Fanjo finally had such riches inside him as they weighed him down below the surface, whilst all the while that enchanting song echoed beneath him, calling him deeper and deeper to give an account of himself and the things he’d done.
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