The Girl from the Sea – Chapter Five
The sea had calmed but was churning, still disgorging wreckage, rocks and debris. The remains of the high tide littered the shore – it looked like the sea had been frantically searching for things in the dark. A rock flung here; a piece of salty driftwood there. The sand dunes had even been lifted and moved. Seaweed lay clinging to the rocks like strands of windswept hair and barnacles peered like eyes into the moonlight.
She lay half dead among the rocks, with her hair clinging to her face like the seaweed clung to the rocks. She breathed with the tide: in and out, backwards and forwards. She curled around the rocks like a baby huddled for comfort in a foetal position where the sea had thrown her. Her skin was tinged blue and her lips a violent purple. The clothes she wore clung to her like a second skin. Layers and layers of cloth and woollen cloak embraced her against a watery death. The next wave lifted her body up and she caught a blurry glimpse of a light shining above her. It flickered and died, like a candle being snuffed out. “Just like me,” she thought and closed her eyes.
Joseph was up early so he raced over the wet cobbles towards the beach – there was always a sight to see after a storm. The beach wasn’t itself and you never knew what treasure the sea had thrown up in its’ restless night – old boots, anchors, even parts of ships. The crooked path led from the old watch tower, straight down the cliff face to the sand below. To the right the dunes, to the left rocks and endless sea and straight ahead the cliffs rose again. The coastline went on like that for miles: sandy bays, rocky inlets and towering cliffs. Joe was fleet footed down the cliff face – slipping and sliding down the crumbling path.
He stood and surveyed the landscape before him and what a feast of prizes greeted him: yards of rope, empty shells from which the sea gulls had already taken their fill and enough driftwood to make a raft or so his young eyes thought. All good pickings to add to his treasure trove! His trove was safe from the sea out on a ledge on the cliff and was safe from prying eyes being big enough for him alone to squeeze through the entrance. He started making piles of treasure on the beach and as he worked the sea gently sparkled as it rolled away from the beach.
He saw the old Captain standing by the shoreline close to the rock pools. He was hunkered down staring intently at something. “Must be looking for treasure too,” thought Joe and left him to it. There was enough for everyone.
The Captain had long since given up his sailing days but from the stories he told he had lived through every adventure that the boys of the village could imagine. He was a great hulk of a man, with a shock of white beard and a blue canvas cap and he liked nothing more than telling a good yarn to assembled listeners. Normally the boys of the village were gathered around his feet while he sat on an upturned bucket gutting the morning’s catch. The seagulls hovered around trying to get their beaks on the fish but settling for the guts and the cast-offs. A pipe was normally hanging out of his white beard and as he told his stories the plume of smoke increased around him giving him an ethereal and other worldly appearance.
He had likewise been up early to check the situation on the beach – it was his duty. He checked the beach and checked the paths. What had caught his eye this morning had worried him – it wasn’t normal. He had only seen something similar once before and he chose not to remember that horrible day. He had caught sight of it on his way down the cliff path and at first had thought that it was just the seaweed clumped in a rock pool. How wrong could he be?
On closer inspection the seaweed appeared to be moving with the tide but what’s more it appeared to be breathing. He gasped as the memories overtook him – a young boy lying in exactly the same way, only he hadn’t been breathing. He couldn’t do this again. He steeled himself and told himself to get a grip. This poor child still had a chance.
He looked round to check that nobody else was on the beach, before he bent over the seaweed covered body. It was misshapen and horribly discoloured – the skin was black and blue and what wasn’t bruised was like the translucent film of a jelly fish. Only by the straggled hair could the Captain discern that it was a girl not more than nine or ten and she was barely breathing. He crouched down to stare at her and think.
Joe’s treasure piles were growing nicely. With each wave the sea brought something different with it. The rocks which were normally covered by the sea were reappearing as the tide washed out. He looked over to where the Captain was still squatting. There must be something good to keep him there so long. “Ahoy Captain!” yelled Joseph, “Any decent treasure over there?”
The Captain jumped up out of shock – he hadn’t been aware of young Joe’s presence so lost in thought that he was. “No, no young Joe, nothing here. Nothing for your eyes anyhow.”
Well that was too much for Joe’s curiosity. It must be gold at the very least or maybe a whole treasure chest! He raced over and clambered over the rocks. The Captain held him back in a vice-like grip. “No, no,” he repeated. He couldn’t seem to find the words and just kept repeating them over and over.
Holding a young boy still was like trying to wrestle with a slippery eel though and as Joe twisted and turned he caught a glimpse of what was lying in the rock pool and suddenly all the motion stopped. “A mermaid!” he breathed… “A real mermaid.” All thoughts of treasure had flown from his head. This was more than he could take. The Captain let him go and he crawled as close as he dared to the strange creature. He couldn’t even hear what the Captain was saying from the rushing noise going through his head. No one he knew had ever seen a real life mermaid but they all talked about them! Magical, mythical creatures, who lured men to their deaths with their beautiful voices – beautiful but deadly.
The Captain perched on a nearby rock and took his pipe out of his waistcoat pocket, the tobacco and matches from his jacket and went through the soothing ritual of preparing to smoke. It gave him time to think as he drew on his pipe. And more importantly it gave Joe a chance to examine the catch. He took the Captain’s place by the rock pool.
The figure before him was as pale as a ghost but with vivid blue and purple markings standing out against the pale skin – the shimmering colours of the sea. Her tail clung to her in shades of green and black. Her hair was like the beautiful strands of seaweed which Joe collected. He flew away into his imagination to picture her when she was swimming through the water majestically with her hair and tail flowing. What a sight she must be and how sad to see her in this huddled, bent shape. The sea must have thrown her onto the rocks in the storm – casting her out of her natural habitat.
“We have to help her Captain,” whispered Joe, for fear of waking the sleeping mermaid. “She doesn’t look so good to me – should she be that colour? All blue and black?”
“What…? Oh yes…I mean no Joe. She should look like you or I. I think the sea has played a mean trick on this young lady last night.” And not just the sea, he thought to himself, his brain racing. How had she got there? Why was she so bruised? They had to get her off this beach. He needed to make enquiries – discreet ones. He didn’t recognise her, but someone must be missing her.
Outwardly composed, and moving in his slow, habitual way, he knocked the remaining tobacco out of his pipe against a rock and stored it safely away in his pocket and gestured at Joe to move out of the way. He gathered the limp and lifeless body up as best he could, wrapping the heavy, wet cloak around her so that she was completely hidden.
“We’d best get her home then. Come on young Joe.” And he set off with her as if she weighed no more than a mermaid’s purse. In fact she felt heavier than a sodden fishing net which needed hauling in. As they made their way across the beach, the Captain paused by Joe’s collection of treasure. “Why don’t you bring those bits and baubles with us Joe, and show the missus what you’ve found? She’s a right one for treasure!”
“Aye aye Captain!” Joe didn’t need asking twice. Normally the grown-ups yelled at him for bringing rubbish into the house. Hence the need for a secret storage place. He gathered up as much as he could carry while the Captain stood waiting patiently with his bundle of cloth. Now, thought the Captain, they would just look like a couple of regular beach combers. Hopefully the bundle in his arms might go un-noticed. “Why don’t you pop a couple of them bits o’ driftwood on top here and we’ll add them to the fire at home?”
Joe willingly obliged and carefully placed the wood on top of the bundle of cloth. The Captain peered through the layers of cloth at the girl’s pale face. Still breathing, just scarcely. Still unconscious. They made their way up the beach path to the Captain’s home.
Catch up on previous chapters here: