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Mermaid
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)

Page 1

By morning, the great storm had blown itself out, so Pedro went down to the sea.

He always did this after storms, striding along the beach while the still agitated waves sucked at the gravel, looking for what the ocean had thrown up. Many times he had found things useful, things saleable, and sometimes things of wonder.

He was short and thin with the stunted growth of one whose parents had never been able to afford to feed a large number of children enough. Although nudging middle age, he was still determinedly unmarried, and his single state had become something of a scandal among his relatives and the neighbours. It had even got the priest talking to him once or twice.

Once a woman had decided that she was the one for him. She was no raving flighty beauty either, not someone with education, but one of his own people – a plump widow of his own age, illiterate as he was illiterate, and not barren either, for all that she had buried the six children the Lord had brought to her when she had buried her husband. The Lord’s purpose in sending epidemics to try poor people was difficult to fathom for a woman, and the priest had had to explain things to her. She had not been easy to convince.

When she had decided to marry him, and told him so, he had had a moment of weakness. He had almost succumbed. Living in a small hut alone had its share of bleak loneliness, and the idea of companionship was attractive. But then he had a sudden mental image, keen as steel, of ten siblings sharing out one middle sized fish between them, and chewing small scraps of days-old bread to stuff the empty spaces of their craving for food. That memory had decided him. He had not even needed to recall the snuffling of a baby waking in the small hours out of hunger to decline.

It was that refusal that had brought the priest to talk to him. The priest was angry then, but had hidden it well, and had merely asked him why he wasn’t doing his duty by God. He had mumbled something, wishing the old man would let him go away; and eventually the old man had. That was the old priest, who had been bad enough, and who was dead now. The new one terrified Pedro. He kept out of his way as far as possible.

But even if his neighbours disapproved, even if the priest might say he was neglecting his duty, even if his dreary little hut could have done with warmth and a woman’s touch, Pedro was happy as he was. Last night he had wrapped himself up in his blanket and lain listening to the roaring of the wind and to the lashing of rain on the wooden window of his tiny, two-room hut and he had decided that he was probably happier than he had ever been.

Now, he thought of it again as he went down to the shore. He could, free as he was of responsibilities, afford to spend the morning like this, as he wanted, beachcombing. Nobody to tell him that the hut was empty of food and that he had to find some, or that the old rotten tree branch that had fallen on the roof had to be removed, or anything else. He could do as he wished.

He leaned upon a staff made of a straight, moderately thick branch stripped of leaves. He used it to maintain his footing among the rocks and sliding gravel, and used it, as well, to poke and prod things he was not quite sure about, lumps of seaweed and dead jellyfish or other things the sea had brought it. He wore an old blue jacket, tattered and threadbare at collar and cuffs, black trousers patched at the knee with leather, a flat cap and a pair of old sea boots a sailor had given him. His eyes were black and keen, his unshaven face grizzled and brown with the outdoors.

It was a raw morning, with the wind still a stiff breeze, whipping the waves, the sky still patched with clouds. The sun came out sometimes and hid again, throwing around splashes of gold that melted away to grey and back. The sea was still far from pacified, and the waves still came in with a force that could, if they caught him, snap his bones like twigs. He stayed far enough from the edge so the farthest reach of the water did not quite get to him. Frustrated, it sucked at the shingle and retreated to gather force once more.

It was a rocky shore, paved with shingle and gravel. There were none of the golden sands he had heard of, the golden sands and the waving palm trees that the sailors spoke of. He did not know if they existed. He did not know, for that matter, if the mountains he had been told of existed, with snow piled on top through the year. He had never been further than a day’s journey from this town.

[ Continue to page 2 ]

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Genre:General Horror
Type:Short story
Rating:7.36 / 10
Rated By:25 users
Comments: 3 users
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