By Michael Jordan
(continued from last week)
After what had happened to Maxie, we knew we had to talk to somebody who knew of these things. We went to Old Skeets, who’d worked at sea a long time back. I guess he saw the fear in our eyes, and right away he took us to his living room and questioned us.
In the end, we knew that he believed us. He seemed far away for a while, and then he said: “”We got to go to the Blacka.”
I was terrified; I guess Maxie was, too, but Old Skeets said that it was something we had to do.
The sun was beginning to set when we started out for that dark place. Max and I wanted to carry something for protection—cutlasses or knives at least, but Old Skeets had said no. He carried a shoulder-bag with a sort of small spray-can inside. He would not tell us what it was for.
My dread increased as we moved closer towards the track leading to the dark waterway. But yet I felt a strange excitement at the thought that I might finally see this dream-girl, scarred and terrifying as she was, who, in some of my dreams, had whispered strange promises that made my mind spin.
At last we reached the path leading to the Lamaha Conservancy. Max stopped abruptly. He looked at Old Skeets. “We have to do this?”
Old Skeets nodded. “These things will not leave you boys alone until you make peace with them.”
But as we got closer to our destination, it seemed that somehow, Old Skeets had grown older, more stooped. I began to wonder if we had made a mistake in involving him in our troubles. But it was too late now.
Then we were at the spot where Max had caught the strange fish; the spot that we had revisited in our dreams. But the scar-faced, long-haired, green-eyed girl wasn’t there, neither was the man with the silver snake-shaped bangles. Nothing, but a heavy silence.
Old Skeets, perspiring heavily, turned to us. “This is the spot?”
He slipped his haversack from his shoulder and stood at the shore of the Blacka. We stood with him in the fading light, waiting, staring at the smooth black water; a tired old man and two terrified boys, who were ready to bolt at the slightest sound.
And about fifteen minutes into our waiting, I became slowly aware of a prickling sensation at the back of my neck, and of that overpowering, rank smell that had become familiar to me in my dreams. I turned, and there they were: the fish-man and his daughter.
They stood on the dam, about ten yards away from us. The man stood with arms folded, silver bracelets glinting, his lips pressed together.
Now, though, he had feet, and was wearing a tight pair of trousers that seemed to be made of some sort of skin.
The girl—his daughter—stood nearby. She was barefoot and topless, save for a bra made from the same skin-like material as her father’s trousers. Her multi-coloured skirt –so thin I could see through it—-almost brushed the ground.
Everything was as I had imagined; the black hair loose and long to her waist, the scar at the edge of her lips, those knowing green eyes.
I felt a pounding at my temples as I looked into those eyes that told of experience far exceeding mine. And though my pores had risen, I felt a terrible desire to rush to her, to let her wrap those smooth, fair arms around me. I seemed to hear her voice, like the soothing sound of the sea, making sweet promises that a shy, twelve-year-old boy like me had only imagined but never heard from a girl’s lips. And I knew that I would do anything for her, throw myself in the deepest part of the Blacka, and betray my best friend and this old man just to—
It was then that Old Skeets gripped my shoulder and I heard him mumble: “You boys stay here.”
At that moment it was as if something had slipped from my eyes and I was seeing her as she really was: a scarred, ageless creature with no soul and a hate-filled heart. I knew, somehow, that she had read my thoughts. I saw her eyes narrow. Her fingers curled inwards. Instinctively, I knew that those same hands had wrenched off the door from Maxie’s pen and wrung the heads off his two-week-old chickens.
Ignoring my stifled cry, Old Skeets started walking towards the girl and her father. Then he was standing almost within touching distance of them. He gave a slight bow, to the girl first, then to the tall, wiry man. We heard him mumble something, saw him gesture towards us.
The man stared at us for a moment, his gaze pulling the strength from me, and I knew I could not run even if I wanted to. Then, to my relief, his gaze returned to Old Skeets. Our old neighbour began to speak to the man again, bowing every now and then and gesturing in our direction occasionally. He spoke in a pleading tone, and I thought I heard the words, “very, very sorry,” repeated every now and then. But whatever he was saying only seemed to agitate the man, who kept shaking his head.
Old Skeets sighed, and then we heard him clearly: “The boys didn’t mean any harm. Will you accept a token of their sincerity?”
He unzipped the haversack and withdrew something that looked like a large, folded handkerchief. What he took from it glinted in the twilight. Even from where I stood, I saw that it was a beautiful gold chain with some sort of pendant. Old Skeets handed it to the man, along with the folded handkerchief. The man held the chain up in the fading light, then passed it to the girl. She grabbed at it greedily, then strung it around her neck.
Old Skeets bowed to them. “Is this okay?”
She stared at Old Skeets for a moment, then she turned her face to the left and pushed the hair back from her face, exposing fully the long, ragged wound that Maxie’s knife had inflicted on her. She tugged hard on the chain. It snapped, and she hurled it to the ground.
Now the man opened Old Skeets’ kerchief and shook it out contemptuously. Several rings and another gold chain fell on the grassy dam.
Old Skeets took a hasty step backwards, almost tumbling over in the process. He steadied himself and stared at the girl, then at the man. “So what do you want?” he said sharply.
Without answering, they stared past Old Skeets and pointed to what they wanted; and what they wanted, was me…
THEY WANTED ME…not the gold chain and other stuff that Old Skeets had taken from his wife’s jewellery box; not my best friend Maxie, who had slashed the girl when she was a fish in a moment of jealous fury. They wanted me, the person who had pleaded with Max to throw the fish back.
It didn’t make sense; and yet it did. I saw it in the sad, scared, knowing look in Old Skeets’ eyes as he turned to me. I suddenly understood the meaning behind my strange luck at fishing; my fear and obsession with waterways.
A memory leaped at me: Five years old and visiting my grandmother in Bartica; straying to the riverside despite granny’s warnings; until something that wasn’t there touched me lightly, playfully, causing me to sprint in fear all the way back to grandmother’s house on First Avenue.
As I stood before the dark waters with the fish-man and his daughter staring at me, I somehow knew that this meeting would have happened, even if Maxie hadn’t done what he did.
These water beings had constantly been around me, drawing me to the waterside, blessing and cursing me with this strange luck at fishing. But although I felt this connection, even though this yearning was singing in my veins, I was afraid.
The legend said that the ‘water people’ would lavish the ones they loved with gifts; that they were affectionate, protective, passionate—and jealous. I also remembered it being said that, in the end, things never seemed to end well for the humans they befriended.
And this green-eyed, scar-faced girl? She would soon tire of me, or she would look at herself and remember what Max had done and they would find me broken and bloated in the water with my eyes eaten out by the fish.
Old Skeets was looking at me and shaking his head. Then he turned back to the girl and the man. “He’s just a child,” he said pleadingly. “Let him go back to his parents.”
But they didn’t appear to be looking or listening to Old Skeets any longer. The eyes of the girl were on me, in me, the sound of the sea and an image of a water-swept, silent beach with only me and her, were in my head. As if from a distance, I heard Old Skeets sigh. “You sure there is nothing we could give you? I have something else here—”
He was fumbling in his bag and talking at the same time, but when his hand emerged, he was clutching the old spray-can thing that we had seen before, but he was still speaking in that soft, apologetic tone as he stepped forward, so no one—not me, not Max, not the merman and his daughter—was prepared for what happened next.
Old Skeets squeezed the little lever on the can. A jet of some clear liquid hit the merman in the face. He blinked, like someone suddenly awakening. Old Skeets squeezed the spray-can again. The merman growled deep in his throat and pounced. Old Skeets was trying to scramble out of reach, but the merman caught him a glancing blow that sent the old man flying back towards us. He tumbled to the dam, the spray-can knocked from his hands.
The merman stared down contemptuously at Old Skeets, who was struggling to his knees and shaking his head like a dazed boxer.
But then the merman’s face took on a puzzled expression. His eyes shifted from Old Skeets. I realised that he was staring down at himself, and I saw that he was changing. There was a strange, ripping sound and the brown, animal-skin tights split at the sides. Before my eyes, I watched his legs begin to fuse together. The merman stumbled towards Old Skeets, tottered, and then crashed face-down to the ground, arms flailing. He stared at Old Skeets and now I saw fear in his muddy-yellow eyes.
Old Skeets staggered to his feet. His trembling right hand fumbled at his trouser pocket. It came out clutching a long, gleaming knife.
A shrieking thing with tangled hair leapt onto Old Skeets’ back. He went down hard on his knees and emitted a grunt of pain as the girl’s fingers raked his face.
The merman began to crawl towards the old man. Old Skeets swiveled towards us. “The can!” he shouted.
Max, sobbing and screaming, hurled himself at the girl. He was trying to wrench her from Old Skeets’ back, but her legs were locked around the old man’s waist. I picked up the spray can filled with sea-water—Old Skeets’ secret weapon to make the merman and his daughter revert to their natural form and become helpless on land.
I aimed at the girl—and with trembling hands I squeezed. The first stream missed completely; the second caught her flush in the face. I kept my hand on the lever, soaking her completely. She emitted a scream that made my eardrums ring. I smelt her rank yet alluring scent. I felt my skin crawl as I saw her scar up-close. For a moment, she glared at me, and I felt a stab of guilt as if I had betrayed her. Then she wriggled away from Max. She began to scrabble towards the water, but before she reached the edge of the dam her legs began to change to the rainbow colour of Max’s strange fish.
Besides me, Old Skeets emitted a cry of warning. Something grabbed my legs, hauling me to the ground. The merman’s bony hand gripped my neck from behind. I thought I felt something snap in my throat as the merman’s grip tightened. If you won’t live in sea, then die on land, a voice whispered in my head.
Suddenly the merman emitted a strange, gurgling sound and the grip on my throat slackened, and as I scrambled away I saw why. Old Skeets had straddled the merman’s sinewy back. One of his hands gripped a clump of greying hair. The other hand held his knife, with which he was slitting the creature’s throat. The merman stared at me with rage and terror as a gout of blood gushed from his throat. His arms drummed futilely on the ground, like the wings of a slaughtered duck in its death-throes. The ugly, grey-black tail rose up once like a huge fan, then dropped slowly and was still.
And still Old Skeets straddled the slain creature. He was shaking his head as tears streamed down his face. He wasn’t the only one crying, though. Eventually, he looked up at us and said, “We had to do this. You understand?”
We helped Old Skeets to his feet.
He wiped at his eyes, then looked around. “The girl?”
“She gone,” Max muttered through his tears.
We threw the merman’s body into the water. Old Skeets made us keep the merman’s silver bangles. “Once you have something for water people,” Old Skeets said, “They can’t harm you…”
We checked and checked the papers and listened to the radio for news that someone had found a dead merman in the Blacka; but there was never a report on anything out of the ordinary anywhere.
Old Skeets died a year after that evening. We never returned to the Blacka; we never fished again after that day. Until now, I have never told anyone about that day.
So why am I telling you now?
It’s those silver bracelets. We still wore them. They were, however, like albatrosses around our necks. Just when we were forgetting what happened at the Blacka, someone would ask us about those bracelets and bring it all back. Who knows? Maybe that was why Max turned to drugs, and then we lost touch.
A month ago, he turned up at my workplace. He had a look on his face that I remembered from that time when he’d done that dreadful thing. Instinctively, I looked at his left wrist and saw that the bracelet was gone. Told me he’d pawned it…said he couldn’t remember where.
A week later they found his body by the Blacka, his face frozen into a grin of terror. I had thought that only happened in books and movies. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone the truth; not even a weeping Ralphie, who flew in from Texas for the funeral.
How did I cope? The way I had been coping since I reached eighteen: Women. That was my drug. It helped, for a time, to erase the dread and the memory of the fish-girl’s face and what we did to her and her father. But the parade of lovers didn’t help. In the end, there remained an unexplained emptiness in me. It took me some time to realize that the women I picked up were all of a similar type—including the one I picked after the funeral and took to a hotel. We got together and afterwards, she left. I stayed the night.
Sometime before dawn, between sleep and wakefulness, I felt a cool, damp hand gently tugging at my left wrist. I awoke, or thought I did—to see a girl with black hair loose and lustrous, standing over me. I let out a cry, but then the strange girl was gone, and so was my bracelet.
And the room was filled with her rank perfume, and my head was filled with the voice of a scarred, green-eyed girl, calling me to waters dark.
Michael Jordan is the author of the supernatural novel KAMARANG, which is on sale at Austin’s Book Store and also on AMAZON (Kindle version)
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