An excerpt from the novel The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey
Published April 2020 by Peepal Tree Press
David Baptiste’s dreads are grey and his body wizened to twigs of hard black coral, but there are still a few people around St Constance who remember him as a young man and his part in the events of 1976, when those white men from Florida came to fish for marlin and instead pulled a mermaid out of the sea. It happened in April, after the leatherbacks had started to migrate. Some said she arrived with them. Others said they’d seen her before, those who’d fished far out. But most people agreed that she would never have been caught at all if the two of them hadn’t been carrying on some kind of flirty-flirty behaviour.
Black Conch waters nice first thing in the morning. David Baptiste often went out as early as possible, trying to beat the other fishermen to a good catch of king fish or red snapper. He would head to the jagged rocks one mile or so off Murder Bay, taking with him his usual accoutrements to keep him company while he put his lines out – a stick of the finest local ganja and his guitar, which he didn’t play too well, an old beat-up thing his cousin, Nicer Country, had given him. He would drop anchor near those rocks, lash the rudder, light his spliff and strum to himself while the white, neon disc of the sun appeared on the horizon, pushing itself up, rising slow slow, omnipotent into the silver-blue sky.
David was strumming his guitar and singing to himself when she first raised her barnacled, seaweed-clotted head from the flat, grey sea, its stark hues of turquoise not yet stirred. Plain so, the mermaid popped up and watched him for some time before he glanced around and caught sight of her.
“Holy Mother of Holy God on earth,” he exclaimed. She ducked back under the sea. Quick quick, he put down his guitar and peered hard. It wasn’t full daylight yet. He rubbed his eyes, as if to make them see better.
“Ayyy,” he called across the water. “Dou dou. Come. Mami wata! Come. Come, nuh.”
He put one hand on his heart because it was leaping around inside his chest. His stomach trembled with desire and fear and wonder because he knew what he’d seen. A woman. Right there, in the water. A red-skinned woman, not black, not African. Not yellow, not a Chinee woman, or a woman with golden hair from Amsterdam. Not a blue woman, either, blue like a damn fish. Red. She was a red woman, like an Amerindian. Or anyway, her top half was red. He had seen her shoulders, her head, her breasts, and her long black hair like ropes, all sea mossy and jook up with anemone and conch shell. A merwoman. He stared at the spot of her appearance for some time. He took a good look at his spliff; was it something real strong he smoke that morning? He shook himself and gazed hard at the sea, waiting for her to pop back up.
“Come back,” he shouted into the deep greyness. The mermaid had held her head up high above the waves, and he’d seen a certain expression on her face, like she’d been studying him.
But nothing happened. Not that day. He sat down in his pirogue and, for some reason, tears fell for his mother, just like that. For Lavinia Baptiste, his good mother, the bread baker of the village, dead not two years. Later, when he racked his brain, he thought of all those stories he’d heard since childhood, tales of half and half sea creatures, except those stories were of mermen. Black Conch legend told of mermen who lived deep in the sea and came onto land now and then to mate with river maidens – old time stories, from the colonial era. The older fishermen liked to talk in Ce-Ce’s parlour on the foreshore, sometimes late into the night, after many rums and too much marijuana. The mermen of Black Conch were just that: stories.
It was April, time of the leatherback migration south to Black Conch waters, time of dry season, of pouis trees exploding in the hills, yellow and pink, like bombs of sulphur, the time when the whoreish flamboyant begins to bloom. From that moment, when that red-skinned woman rose and disappeared as if to tease him, David ached to see her again. He felt a bittersweet melancholy, a soft caress to his spirit. Nothing to do with what he’d been smoking. That day, a part of him lit up, a part he’d no idea was there to light. He had felt a sharp stabbing sensation, right there in the flat part between his ribs, in his solar plexus.
“Come back, nuh,” he said, soft soft and gentlemanlike after his mother-tears had dried and his face was tight with the salt. Something had happened. She had risen from the waves, chosen him, a humble fisherman.
“Come, nuh, dou dou,” he pleaded, this time softer still, as if to lure her. But the water had settled back flat.
Next morning, David went to the exact same spot by those jagged rocks off Murder Bay and waited for several hours and saw nothing. He smoked nothing. Day after, the same thing. Four days he went out to those rocks in his pirogue. He cut the engine, threw out the anchor, and waited. He told no one what he had seen. He avoided Ce-Ce’s parlour, the property of his kind- hearted, bigmouth aunt. He avoided his cousins, his pardners in St Constance. He went home to his small house on the hill, the house he’d built himself, surrounded by banana trees, where he lived with Harvey, his pot hound. He felt on edge. He went to bed early so as to rise early. He needed to see the mermaid again, to be sure that his eyes had seen correctly. He needed to cool what had become an inflammation in his heart, to pacify the buzz that had started up in his nervous system. He had never had this type of feeling, certainly not for no mortal woman.
Then, day five, around six o’clock, he was strumming his guitar, humming a hymn, when the mermaid showed herself again.
This time she splashed the water with one hand and made a sound like a bird squeak. When he looked up he didn’t frighten so bad, even though his belly clenched tight and every fibre in his body froze. He stayed still and watched her good. She was floating port side of his boat, cool cool, like a regular woman on a raft, except there was no raft. The mermaid, with long black hair and big, shining eyes, was taking a long suspicious look at him. She cocked her head, and it was only then David realised she was watching his guitar. Slow slow, so as not to make her disappear again, he picked it up and began to strum and hum a tune, quietly. She stayed there, floating, watching him, stroking the water, slowly, with her arms and her massive tail.
The music brought her to him, not the engine sound, though she knew that too. It was the magic that music makes, the song that lives within every creature on earth, including mermaids. She hadn’t heard music for a long time, maybe a thousand years, and she was irresistibly drawn up to the surface, real slow and real interested.
That morning David played her soft hymns he’d learnt as a boy, praising God. He sang holy songs for her, songs which brought tears to his eyes, and there they stayed, on this second meeting, a small patch of sea apart, watching each other – a young, wet-eyed Black Conch fisherman with an old guitar, and a mermaid who’d arrived on the currents from Cuban waters, where once they talked of her by the name of Aycayia.
I disappear one night, in a big storm
long long ago
Island once where Taino people live
and the people before Taino
North in this pattern of islands and west too
The island I remember
was shaped like a lizard
I have seen the sea
I have seen its glory
I have seen its power
the power of its kingdom
I have swum its angers
I have swum its misery
I have swum its velvet floor
the cities underneath
I have swum under islands
I have swum close to shore in shallow waves
and seen children playing
I have swum with slow steel canoa
I have swum everywhere in this archipelago
I have swum with large POD of dolphins
I have swum with SHOAL of fish
big like the size of one whole human being
I have dived into walls of ocean
I would have died very soon as a woman
Forty cycles? Children, husband
life of land and life of birth and death
Instead I lived for more than a thousand cycles
inside the sea
I was not alone at the time of my cursing
an old woman was also cursed
and she disappeared too same night
long long ago so long I don’t know the time
only that they called up a huracan
to take me far away
seal up my legs inside a tail
David Baptiste’s Journal, March 2015
Whenever I see the first leatherbacks arrive, I always feel happy. I know she, my mermaid, will soon appear, happy too, to greet me. I used to look out for she every evening from April onwards. She always knew where to find me, by the same jagged rocks where we first ketch sight of each other, one mile off Murder Bay. Still a private place, even now, since all the damn fish in the sea get fished out. I look out for Aycayia more than half mih damn life. I have plenty women since those days long past, all kinda woman – friend, babymother, lover – but nothing ever again like she.
She was something else.
I am an ol’ man now, and sick sick so I cyan move much, sick so I cyan work, go out to sea, and so I go write my story. I go sit down and drink a rum or two to drown my sorrow, drown my damn fuckin heart in this bottle. After Hurricane Rosamund, everything changed, man, every last damn thing blow away and then, one year on from the time we meet, yeah, she come back!
Miss Rain teach she words in that time she came by me, after they pull she out of the sea that fateful day. She know language of her own, and some of these words came out in our sexing. But it was a long-ago language and her memory of it wasn’t strong. She hadn’t spoken it for so very long. While we lived together, we learn the name of every fish, she and me, from the same encyclopedia that belong to Miss Rain. I would take it out in my boat. Aycayia like to learn and she wanted to know the name of every fish in the whole damn ocean, everything in the sea and along the shore. I learn half those names myself – and every fish have a Latin name too. So all now she is a mermaid who know the names of every damn fish in the sea in two languages, an’ some she can call in she own tongue.
The mermaid scare me like hell when I first see her. Her top half pop up from the sea. She was red, like an Amerindian woman, and all scaly and glittery too, like she polish sheself up good. Up she came from nowhere, man. I heard a splash and then woosh.
Up she rise. She appreciate them hymns I was singing that day. Turned out she like the sound of my voice, how it carry over the water. Later I came to understand she arrived at our shores from Cuban waters. Only much later did she tell me her strange story and her name. She travel down from there on the currents with an old woman, Guanayoa. I remember how she was curious about the encyclopedia. What name I have, she ask. How come I don’t have a picture in there?
Over the next few weeks, I saw her maybe every day. She got to know the sound of the motor on my boat. Like she was waiting. I was careful about pissing in the water. I brought an old jerry can for that. I decided to be patient and so I sat and wait for she, long hours. Next thing, I see one big tail fin, big like a pilot whale. My heart felt warm. She opened my heart, one time, that mermaid, Lawd. She made my heart swell up in my chest, just like that. She open my mind, too, to other animals and fish we don’t know about. She use to swim the sea sad sad, or so she say, before we met. I ent know how she survive all those years in that big ocean, all alone. She had to be brave for that, though she was fraid of me, when we met, of what I might do if I ketch her good. She and I lock eyes many times, in wonder at each other, before them Americans catch her.
One time, when we first meet, she swam close to my boat. I saw her real good then. Her head was smooth smooth, delicate, small eyes, small face. She looking like a woman from long ago, like old- time Taino people I saw in a history book at school. She face was young and not pretty at all, and I recognise something ancient there too. I saw the face of a human woman who once lived centuries past, shining at me. I saw she breasts, under the fine scaly suit. I saw webbed fingers and how they dripped with sargassum seaweed. Her hair was full of seaweed too, black black and long and alive with stinging creatures – like she carry a crown on her head of electricity wires. Every time she raise up her head I watch her hair fly up, like she ketch fire-coral inside it.
Then, there was her tail. Oh Laa-aad-o. The things a man could see, especially if he connect with nature, and live close to the sea.
I saw that part of this creature from my boat. Yards and yards of musty silver. It gave she a look of power, like she grow out of the tail itself. I think, then, that this fish-woman must be heavy as a mule. She must weigh four or five hundred pounds, easy. When I see her first, I reckon she come from some half-space in God’s great order, like she was from a time when all creatures were getting designed. She was from when fish was leaving the sea behind, growing legs, turning into reptiles. She was a creature that never make it to land. Is what I was thinking before I hear she own story. I figure she and she kind get interrupted somewhere in the middle of God’s act of creation.
I was a young fella back then. I never stop to think I could make trouble for she. Man already make her miserable, women curse her good: that’s how she end up a mermaid in the sea, condemn to loneliness and her sex seal up inside a big tail. That was what them women had in mind, to keep her away from their men. After I rescue her, I never imagine she could get hurt again, by man or by me. Many times I sing and play my guitar to her off them rocks in Murder Bay. I never bother dropping my lines after seeing her the second time, ’cause I fraid of hooking her. Was my fault, though, they ketch her, them Yankee men. My fault. She thought she heard the engine sound of my pirogue, Simplicity. I was there with them, and so she follow their boat by accident.