Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle is a weekly prompt where you’re given a word and a genre, then have to write a story. The stories must be posted on the Tuesday of the week in question, and then you can vote on your favourites.
This week’s prompt was Resolved, and the genre was Tall Tales. For some reason I thought it was supposed to be 1500 words, but apparently it’s only 1000, so unfortunately I think my story might be a bit long. But I still like it so I thought I’d share it anyway. And if you want to add a story of your own, there’s still time – head on over to Blog Battle and check out the prompts!
The Shimmering Shoal
‘Did I ever tell you how I got this scar, the one under my eye?’
Sara shook her head. ‘No, I don’t think I’ve heard that one.’
‘Well,’ he said, his voice a wispy quaver, ‘It’s a rather good one.’
‘Your stories do tend to be,’ she said, wiping a cloth across the small wooden table next to his bed. His gnarled hands were dark gold against the white sheets, his bald head spotted with age.
‘You see how it’s shaped like a star?’
‘Yes.’ She had noticed it, but had thought it a remnant of some youthful folly, like a faded blue tattoo almost lost in the folds of skin under his eye.
‘That’s because it’s from a kiss. A mermaid’s kiss.’
‘Oh now, come on,’ she said, moving over to the shelving unit. She started lifting each small ornament, wiping it carefully before putting it back. ‘There’s no such thing as mermaids, surely.’
‘There are,’ he said, ‘and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.’ He started coughing, deep rasp in his chest. Putting down her cloth she went to the trolley by the bed and poured him a glass of water from the jug, handing it to him.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘You’re getting yourself all worked up. And you know what the doctor said-‘
His hand gripped her wrist, hard, shocking her into momentary silence. His eyes met hers, and for a moment they seemed filled with stars falling, with endless seas, and she caught a glimpse of the handsome young man he had once been. ‘Let me tell you,’ he whispered. ‘It’s the last one, I promise.’
She nodded, and he let go of her wrist. ‘I wore a younger man’s skin in those days,’ he began. ‘Everything where it should be, my hair dark as a raven’s wing.’ He huffed out a laugh. ‘And I loved the sea. Every day I would take the fishing boat out with the rest of the crew, every day. Catching a thousand fish, ten thousand fish, a hundred thousand fish or more, so the deck was awash with scales and the bow so low in the water it was a wonder we made it back to shore.’
This was more like it. He told her a story every week, each one more fantastical than the last. ‘That many fish?’
‘Indeed. The sea was alive with them, shimmering in the waves, so thick in parts we could walk on water if we were fast enough.’ He laughed again. ‘That’s what I was trying to do, the day I met her.’
‘Walk on water?’ She liked playing along with his ridiculous stories. ‘You must be joking.’
‘I swear it, on my sainted mother’s grave,’ he said. ‘So there I was, lowering myself over the side of the boat, the fish churning and splashing like a great rippling silver carpet. I had my net in hand and my sturdiest boots on, and I stood on the back of the great shoal and felt the power of their mass rolling through the soles of my feet. I dipped my net once, throwing the fish on board, then again, then a third time. But the net grew so heavy I couldn’t lift it, dragging me down through the shoal and into the deep blue waters below.’ He coughed again as though reliving the moment, taking a sip of water before continuing.
‘Why didn’t you let go?’ She’d finished the ornaments and was wiping along the slats of the blind, each one rattling faintly against the glass.
‘Oh no, I couldn’t let go. That net had been woven by seven maids from their own hair, each one more fine and delicate than the last, yet together stronger than steel. It was a great treasure, it was.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Down I went, my lungs feeling as though they were about to pop. Then I saw her.’
He paused, and Sara realised he was waiting for her response. ‘Who?’
‘The mermaid. First her face, pale ivory in the gloom. I thought it a mask at first, a dead man’s caul, some witchery come to take me. She smiled, and her teeth gleamed like pearls. She had the net in her hands, smooth slender fingers curved through the knots. It was she who had pulled me down. “Let it go” I said, but she shook her head, laughing all the while, hair greenish brown around her.’
‘Could I speak? I used the last of my air, words forming in bubbles above my head before fading away. We floated there together, staring at each other. Then she put her hand on my arm and, all at once, I could breathe. I could hear her in my mind. “I like your net,’’ she said. ‘’And I wish to keep it.’’ ‘’But it’s mine,’’ I said. At this she frowned. ‘’Every day you take what is mine. So why should I not get something in return?”
Sara raised her eyebrows. Sliding the cloth along the last of the slats, she pulled the blind up, letting in pale sunshine. ‘What did she mean?’
‘Well, it was the fish, of course. Turns out she was some sort of sea shepherdess, the shoal of fish her flock. Each day she’d bring them to our part of the ocean, and we’d come with our boat and take part of it away. Of course we hadn’t realised what we were doing.’ He huffed out another laugh, the bed creaking as he moved. Sara went over to help him, plumping up the pillows behind him.
‘So how did you escape? And why did she kiss you?’
‘Well…’ His voice trailed off and he winked at Sara. ‘Why do you think?’
‘Oh, don’t tell me you charmed your way out of it.’
‘I was a charming fellow in those days. You don’t get a net made from the hair of seven maids for nothing, you know.’
‘So, what did you do?’
‘I pulled the net closer, meaning to trap her in it, but she was too fast for me. With a flick of her green tail she had me trussed up like a caterpillar, then she towed me away, the shoal around us all slithering scales, like a great cloud. I could see the hull of our boat getting smaller and smaller, and I thought I was done for, truly I did.’
Sara shook her head. ‘Well I never.’
‘She took me to a little island, a rocky outcrop way out in the sea. We all steered clear of it on account of the rocks below the surface like sharks teeth, ready to tear the hull of your boat. She pulled me onto a little bit of sand, towering rocks all around us, the murmur of the sea in our ears. Then she unwrapped me.’
‘Completely, if you get my drift.’
‘Ooh, you be careful!’ Sara laughed, moving over to one of the pictures on the wall and wiping the glass.
‘Oh, there was nothing careful about it. She was about to have her wicked way with me when there was a shout from the ocean, and there I saw the head and shoulders of a noble looking fellow, all silvery hair and beard, holding some sort of trident, bobbing in the waves. When she heard the shout she flinched, pulling back. Our eyes met, and she leaned in and kissed me. I think she meant to get my mouth but I turned my head and she got me just below the eye. Turns out mermaids are venomous, y’see.’
‘Oh, now I know you’re having me on.’ Sara realised she’d been cleaning the same picture frame for far too long and went on to the next one.
‘I swear on my blessed father’s grave I’m not,’ he said, a twinkle in his eye. ‘Before she slipped between the waves, leaving me half-unconscious, she put a shell in my hand to remember her by. Blue and pearl it was, green as the sea. And I resolved that I’d see her again, one day, and finish what we started, but I never did.’
‘Oh, you and your tall tales,’ said Sara. ‘Right, I’d better get on, I’ve plenty of other rooms to clean. See you tomorrow.’
The next morning Sara knocked on his door. But when it opened the room was empty, the bed made up. Someone came up behind her and she turned to see one of the night nurses. ‘Where’s he gone?’
‘Died in the night, he did. Funny, though.’
‘What was funny?’
‘Well, when I went in to check on him, there was a smell everywhere, like the sea, you know? And he gave me this, said it was for you. The next thing we knew he’d gone.’
She dug in the breast pocket of her tunic and pulled something out. ‘Here.’
Stunned, Sara held out her hand. The nurse dropped something in it.
It was a shell, blue and pearl, green as the sea.