Men Who Wish To Drown
From the author of the upcoming novel Monstrous Beauty comes this undersea tale “Men Who Wish To Drown,” set in the same history.
Cited as the only extant firsthand record of a mermaid encounter in New England waters, this deathbed letter from a great-grandfather to his great-grandson is more likely an instructive fiction—a parable of regret. Supposedly corroborating the mermaid story, a ship’s log (in the collection of the Provincetown Historical Museum) of the schooner Hannah, which plucked Mr. Stanton from South Weepecket in 1788, indicates that the crew saw two figures on the island prior to the rescue, but failed to locate a second victim. However, regarding accuracy and reliability, this is the same crew under Captain John Merriweather that reported sightings of a ghost ship and not one, but two sea monsters.
~~James S. Rucker, Archivist, Family Collections, Falmouth Historical Society, 1924
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Farrar, Strous & Giroux editor Joy Peskin.
A Letter dictated to Mr. James Billington
by Mr. Resolved Henry Stanton
Six July, Eighteen-Hundred-Seventy-Two
My dear great-grandson,
May I present Mr. Billington, my legal counsel and sometimes vexed friend, delivering to you my Last Will and Testament, an event which you may assume indicates, praise the Lord, that the bout of Lung Fever I acquired in the dead of night on the South Shore has finally released my soul. With this missive I hope to bequeath to you something more valuable than your portion of my estate: the wisdom to seize joy when it unexpectedly presents itself, and to hold it tight in the face of your own rationality. Had I only been warned when I was nineteen . . . Well, in truth, you would not have been born and I would have been much longer dead, but do not allow these inconveniences to detract from the moral.
I have grown fond of you this last year, dear Thomas—even in spite of seeing so much of myself in you. Yes, I was a young man once, though it is impossible to imagine it now, in my one-hundred-third summer. I was tall and slim and cut a reasonably handsome figure.
As long as you have known me, I have been Grandfather Henry. But when I met my wife, Martha, I was still Resolved, a name that since our wedding day I have only signed to legal documents. No man was permitted to call me Resolved, because none could accuse me of any such virtue. My mother, God rest her soul, would have done better to name me Weakness on her deathbed. Or Safety. No, I think perhaps Regret. Yes, Regret Henry Stanton. It suits me.
I have led a life that most men envy. I achieved health and wealth almost without effort. But as a young man the future was unknown and there were two paths before me. In my nineteenth year I tasted the nectar of truly living, and I might have leapt over the chasm of the ordinary into the ravishment of an ecstatic extraordinary, but I turned away from it.
As difficult as it is for you to imagine me as a young man, how much harder it must be to conjure the babe. I lost my mother to childbed fever, and I myself was ill and puny. My father, a man of only twenty, despairing at his loss, had little interest in a wrinkled rat pup that cared not enough for its own survival to breathe and eat. I was given to my aunt, the childless wife of a whaler here in Provincetown who, through her considerable Dutch persistence, managed to force upon me what I would not take of my own volition. She made the braver choice for me, willed me into being.
I will not recount my many instances of weakness except to say that at every turn I have chosen the safer, narrower path; I have planted potatoes instead of wild roses; I have drunk water instead of wine. I was a milksop foster son to my uncle, a failure at every chore he assigned me, and a too-brooding poet in the eyes of my aunt.
Mr. Billington must maintain a stout heart for the remainder of this letter, and bite his tongue. I recounted to him my secret once before in a moment of despondency, and he labored hard to convince me that it was not as I recall—that I was ill. But I assure you: I was of sound mind when I met her, and a fool to let her go.
In my nineteenth year my uncle took me aboard the sloop Leah Bonney to attempt to train me on what the whalers called a Plum-Pudding Voyage: a short, between-seasons adventure to the Nantucket Shoals to take Right Whales. It was a far less perilous voyage than a deep-sea expedition, and meant as a gentle introduction. As chance would have it, we encountered a Sperm Whale, an opportunity which the captain could not ignore. In those days there were no cannon-fired harpoons; the men threw them by hand, with drogues attached to the lines to exhaust the beast, which was brutally lanced when at long last it came within close range, until it bled out. It is a seemingly eternal death, and strangely intimate; there is no escape from the horror, for the hunter or the pursued. The whale regards you with its great eye as you shred its lungs with your weapons. This bull battled for two days.
It was the first time I had seen the practice, and I was already two weeks at sea—green, unsteady on my feet, my gut roiling. Being nauseated for a fortnight, eyeballs spinning without relent, would make a less miserable man wish for death, and as I heaved yellow bile into the waves, the ocean called to me. It would be the simplest thing to slip in during the commotion, with the crew so distracted, I thought. I was already leaning over the rail. The ship was listing. I was on the low end, and the commotion, the whale, was on the high end. But through the sapphire of the sea, swirled thick with the bull’s crimson blood, through the salty foam and loose forests of kelp, through the pool of self-hatred in my eyes, I saw a woman—only a little more than a flash of pale skin and white hair, and she was gone. It was a brainsick reverie, I knew. I longed to allow myself to tumble in, but I hesitated, as I always did, lacking purpose even to die. The whale made the decision for me, crashing his massive tail into the boat, pitching me forward. My head struck the water as if it were shattering cold sheet glass.
It was a magnificent death. The impact rendered me nearly insensible, the icy chill dulled residual pain, water began to rush into my lungs. A man could suffer with his death, and I daresay most do, but mine had no agony. Have you wondered what dying is like? I shall tell you the end of it, the release, which must be the same for all men: Darkness folds around you, just as soft water closes around a stone tossed into a pond, claiming it.
And then a hand plucked the stone from the pond, which is not meant to happen. I was distantly aware first of lips pressed on mine, like a forgotten dream, and then of my own mouth opening. I had never kissed a woman, but I knew if I had I would not have felt such skin—smooth and slick and cool, firm to the point of unyielding. The kiss pulled me from the blackness just enough to make me feel the stab of strong fingers against my upper arms, and then I was aware of nothing.
Of course you know of the Elizabeth Islands, a little chain stretching southwest from Falmouth, and a stone’s throw across the Sound to Martha’s Vineyard. Every young man, including you, no doubt, has spent a day free from cares on Cuttyhunk, fishing for striped bass, drinking from a hip flask pinched from his father’s gun cabinet. North of the longest chain island, Naushon, are three forsaken knuckles of rock, the Weepecket Islands. South Weepecket is where I awakened, with its view of Buzzards Bay to the north, and beyond that the harbor of New Bedford.
I lay overnight, chilled and shaking, in and out of a delirium, taking no pains to look for the lamps of rescue ships. The next morning was warm, with abundant sun and a clear robin’s egg sky. My clothes had dried stiff on my body. Lying on my side, I saw black rocks in front of me, and the winking sea; I felt the scrub of dune against my back. My lips had cracked and split. My eyes had flakes of salt on the lashes. I was as far from death as I had been close to it the evening before.
I lay motionless for hours, disappointed that I lived. The sun became hot. My skin began to burn. Sand flies nipped my exposed face and neck, driven to survive, finding advantage in my lack of drive. From where I lay, my head still spinning as if I were on the ship, I could see I was on the craggy shore of the western beach, very near the high-tide line. And in time, I saw that the girl from the water was there with me, nearly concealed from view in a cluster of sunken boulders, her skin reflecting the morning light, and staring at me with wary, green eyes. They were a kind of eyes I had never seen before: large, round, heavy lidded, the pupils slit like a cat’s but oriented with the horizon. If that sounds monstrous, I have failed to impart how deeply expressive they were, how without artifice, how vulnerable. We regarded each other in silence, I know not how long. She did not duck, did not slip away. I was not frightened, even when her tail—muscular as a porpoise’s but darkly armored like an alligator’s—twitched out of the water, in full view. She was precisely as the drunk whalers in the Stephens Arms had described her. After a time I attempted to swallow, but my throat caught, parched.
“Rise,” she said at last. But though it was the imperative, it was not a command. She was, instead, willing me to my feet. I should have been astonished to see such a creature, to hear it speak.
I stared for too long, unsure of how to reply. You see, upon awaking I had at first decided, in order to finish the botched job of my drowning, that my course of action should be inaction, until lack of food and water killed me. Yet I did not want her to think I had not heard her, or that I was ill-mannered, and so I shook my head slowly. I was weaker than I thought. Minutes later she spoke again. “A ship is coming. It is large.” I watched her lips move. They were full, and as fair as her cheeks, nearly like chalk, except for the smoothness, the glisten, the translucence. “A small ship leads it past the reefs,” she continued, looking through me to the middle distance. It seemed she was sensing the movement of the boats—by hearing? Through the pressure of the waves? She trained her eyes on mine again. “Stand so they might see you.” This time her voice was firm, urgent.
I shook my head, which caused a shadow of bewilderment on her face, and then nothing. She studied me. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, she was gone.
I dozed, perhaps only for minutes. When I awoke, she was back, still crouched behind the boulders. And now there was a dead flounder on a flat rock between us, its dappled skin sheared open, as with a knife, and the abalone flesh exposed. Next to it, a handful of mussels, and a barnacle-encrusted porter bottle with the cork intact.
“Eat,” she said. She had brought me sustenance. She thought I was unable to rise, not unwilling. I felt a stirring in my chest. Her compassion was simple, uncalculated, unadorned. My thirst was more distracting than I had anticipated after such a short stranding, and my belly twisted on itself for lack of food. Still, I could not conceive of eating uncooked fish, and I had no corkscrew for the ale.
“I can’t.” My voice was like gravel rolling against itself.
She stared for a long while, thinking about my declaration. “Ah,” she said at last. She pulled herself on her arms to the stone, her wariness of me trumped by her practicality, and jabbed a strong finger against the cork until it was free inside the bottle, the release of the ale’s creamy froth surprising her. She laughed, setting it down again. She began prying open the mussels.
“Wait,” I said, not wanting to put her to trouble for no reason. I hoisted myself to a sitting position, steadied myself with my hands. “I . . . I have no way of cooking it.”
I assure you it did not escape me that I was discussing culinary equipage with an alleged mythical being; yet I in no way imagined I was delusional.
“Cooking . . .” She was searching her memory for the word.
“Fire,” I offered, to help her understand. “Heat or smoke, to prepare the fish.”
“It needs no fire,” she said with assurance.
“Only oysters are eaten raw,” I replied—an idiot, speaking for my entire race.
She thought again, in that deliberate way that was becoming delightful. She was unhurried, as if she marked time differently than men do. She slipped away into the water, and I found myself sorry to see her go. I eyed the porter bottle. If the shipwrecked ale killed me, I would be lucky. But more likely it would slake my thirst, no more, and keep me alive. I drank it down, ever the coward. Night came, my second on the island, and I fell asleep.
I awakened just before dawn, when the dim light makes the world look of one color. I could see objects on the flat rock. I rested until the sun rose and the amorphous shadows coalesced into separate oysters, looking like stones with rough facets hewn by a prehistoric man, and another bottle of porter resurrected from the sea floor. She was watching me—I do not know how I did not see her until that moment. She pulled herself forward again, leaned a strong hand on each oyster, and wedged open the shells with a somewhat alarming wrist fin, deftly severing the muscle of each with a sharp fingernail. She pushed the cork of the bottle in, gave me a proud little smile with closed lips, and disappeared back into the sea. I ate the oysters gratefully. Later, I rose on unsteady feet to find a place to relieve myself, and discovered among wildflowers and rushes some edible sweet peas and ripe bayberries, which I collected and brought back to the rocky beach. As I savored the peas and berries, I entertained the thought that I might disappear and live there forever under her care, eating oysters and drinking porter, until I recalled autumn and winter in New England.
Days went by, and when she wasn’t with me I found myself staring at the ocean, waiting for her, time taking on the pace of the girl herself—languid, but with an undercurrent of passion. I learned to be still and patient but wholly alert. Whenever a ship passed near enough to spy me, I lay flat among the tall grasses. If she was with me, she would urge, “Rise,” and I would refuse, but now it was for a different reason.
When we were together we spoke of everything, and sometimes of nothing, comfortable in silence. Her speech was antiquated, but excellent, peppered with words of the Wampanoag when English escaped her. She had a thirst to learn; I developed a hunger to teach.
“My name is Resolved,” I told her on the third morning. “Resolved Stanton.” She smiled, lips closed, but said nothing. “It is customary to reply with your own name,” I instructed, smiling back.
“I have no such custom.” Her manner was easy, even playful.
“Please,” I pleaded. “What shall I call you?”
“You needn’t call me, because I am here,” she said, bemused. And now she was more circumspect. “In these waters, it is safer for you not to speak or think my name.”
The next day I brought her sweet peas and bayberries. And in return she brought me a pearl, impossibly large, a perfect sphere, seemingly green in color until the sunlight revealed the iridescent shades of a peacock feather. I kept it close, in the breast pocket of my shirt. I began to forget that our time together could not be permanent.
On the fifth night, to remind me of impermanence, there was a hurricane. She was not with me. The wind threatened to blow me out to sea. I wedged myself between sunken boulders in the chilled water, the spray stinging my skin like thousands of lancets, praying to God to preserve the life I had tried to discard just days before.
When the winds calmed and the sun rose, I was cut and bruised and shaking with tremors. I reached first for my pocket, relieved to feel the pearl through the cloth. She came to my side, her eyes shadowed, and through the strength of her words, without touching me, coaxed me until I dragged my body nearly on the shore, where I lay quaking with a blossoming fever. She leaned down then and kissed my lips.
It has forever haunted me that I was too ill to inscribe her eyes, her mouth, that gentle pressure to my memory. Hundreds of thousands of times, in the privacy of my mind, I stared at that kiss through frosted glass, and wished I could see more.
But always I remembered what she said after she kissed me. “There is a ship not far away. I beg you to rise and signal your presence.”
For the first time in my life, due no doubt to the fever, I answered boldly, howbeit with a weak voice. “I will not leave you.”
She was silent then, for so long that I closed my eyes and I may have lost my senses. Finally, through the fog of my mind, I heard her say, “If you stay, Noo’kas will see to it that you die here. Leave, and when you are well again, return by boat. I vow I will come to this spot each day for the next year to look for you.” She whispered this in my ear before she left: “Save yourself, please, so that we may meet again.”
Without her by my side, willing me to my feet through the force of her spirit, I could do nothing more than sit, with my head spinning as it did on that first morning. I saw the ship approach: a schooner with its rigging slack—so cumbrous it required two pilot boats to navigate the Bay, leaving ample time for the crew to see a gesticulating man. For the first time since arriving on the island I intended to rise, if only I could manage it.
But before I could lift myself, a grotesque appeared before me—a rotted, ancient version of the girl, so hideous I cannot describe her without my stomach rising. I recoiled as she pulled herself toward me on her arms.
“Fair warning, from her queen,” she said, her voice like the sharp crack that comes before the boom of thunder. “Make no mistake: She will kill you.” I stared, struck dumb by the sight and sound of her, my mouth gaping, useless. She said, “Every man dies who is foolish enough to love Syrenka. You will be no different.”
It was the first time I had heard the name of the girl. It was the first time I understood that I loved her.
“Think on it.” The hag’s voice sliced through me. “The land is forbidden her, and you will be tempted into the water. That is how your death will happen. If instead you leave now and never look back, you will live—a long life.”
I closed my eyes against her pitted nostrils, her sparse hair hanging limp on her shoulders, her exposed, sagging flesh. The smell of decayed fish wafted on the breeze between us. She spoke again, describing my drowning in detail. I felt the saltwater flood my lungs and burn my nostrils, Syrenka’s fierce hands clawing me down, crushing my limbs. My chest burst with the pain. The blackness did not envelop me like soft pond water this time, it clubbed me. But more vivid even than that was the alternative path the queen set before me: the life I would lead after my rescue. I saw it, dear Thomas, as surely as if I were living it. I broke warm bread, felt and heard family and friends. There was an honest wife, tumbling children, a home, the thriving business of flensing blubber from whales hauled ashore, the captains boiling their blubber in the Stanton Tryworks, the Stanton Chandlery Shop in town, with rigging lofts on the upper floors, a counting room, and a small, loyal staff of men who raised their families on the work I gave them. I knew them all from the painting her words created. At the end of it I was an old man—very old, as I am now. I saw that I had lived what other men call a good life.
“A vision of the future,” the hag said, “and you have only to choose the right path. Which will it be? Certain death, or a long, contented life?”
I heard something land at my feet and I opened my eyes, stunned by the real world in front of me, by the sun and ocean and sand, by my young hands and arms, shocked to see the schooner that was now within shouting distance. A sack made of fine fish netting, filled with heavy gold coins, lay beside me, something from a sunken galleon. And the hag was gone. I took the bag and staggered to my feet. I flagged the schooner. I told myself, swallowing doubt, that I would return to Syrenka when I had made my fortune.
The sailors rowed out to me, clapped me on the back when they heard my name, told me all of Provincetown had given up hope, and asked me to lead them to the other castaway.
“There is no other,” I said.
“We saw two of you near the shore,” one of them said.
“I was alone.”
Days passed into weeks, and then months. Always the prophecy hung over me—my private sword of Damocles. The vision of my death by drowning horrified me, hypocrite that I was, and during that next year I found many excuses not to return to South Weepecket. The consummate reason arrived in the form of Martha: excessively plain, mild, deceptively persistent with cakes and pies and kind words in church. She was the sort of girl who would work hard in a partnership, who would keep a good home. I found myself pledged to her, the wedding plans set in motion by her energetic mother, and my panicked thoughts of Syrenka were too late. I had laid the foundation of my prison walls. I thought every day of Syrenka surfacing near Weepecket, not seeing me, sinking back into the deep, alone. Years later, when I knew she could no longer be waiting for me, daydreams of her crippled me.
Everything the hag predicted came true, but in gray tones, not in vibrant colors. Martha bore babies, my company bore profits, my children—freed of a life of labor—went away to school and never returned, I lived too long. It was a life without Syrenka’s inquiring eyes, without her free heart. One day when I was quite alone, I fileted a fresh, raw flounder and ate it.
This is the juncture in my tale beyond which Mr. Billington has no advantage over you. A fortnight ago I waited in my carriage outside of the bank as he retrieved from my safe deposit the leather pouch you now hold in your hands. Buried in blankets, I might have seemed asleep. A sometime customer of mine named Olaf Ontstaan stood nearby with a lobster fisherman and discussed in hushed tones a young Plymothian named Ezra Doyle—recently bereft of his father—seen by the men of a trawler leaning over a rowboat, enthralled with a pale mermaid, who sensed they were being watched and slipped into the depths. The lobster fisherman offered his own gossip in exchange: Mr. Doyle had been seen loitering on the tip of the rocky outcropping south of Plymouth Wharf by the light of a full moon, on his hands and knees, muttering into the water like a madman. At last I understood why the sea witch had preserved my life beyond reason: first to cause the acid ache of eighty-four years without Syrenka, and now the knife wound of knowing the man who had taken my place.
I hired a stagecoach with four horses and a boy to take me to Mr. Doyle’s home in Plymouth—an arduous eleven-hour ride that pummeled my buttocks until I was bruised. I had known his father, a shipbuilder of integrity and some local renown, and I used that connection to gain entry with his housekeeper, Mrs. Banks. Mr. Doyle greeted me with warmth. We spoke of this and that, none of it important, none of it my true mission. My vision was clouded, but not enough to avoid his beauty. I saw what I had when I was young—unkempt hair, a lithe, lean body, the heart of a poet—and so much more: the conviction of a lover.
I leaned in close before we parted, his bewildered expression the only indication that he was humoring a senseless visit. I said, in the raspy, toothless voice of an old man, “When you give your heart to the ocean, you either drown, or spend your life wishing you had drowned.” He smiled kindly and shook my hand good-bye.
It was evening when I left him and the moon was out, glorious and waxing gibbous. A sudden thought caused me to stop the coach on Water Street and have the boy escort me to the rocky outcropping, over shifting sand, leaning heavily on him until we reached the moistened, packed shore, after which I dismissed him with a coin. Scaling the slick rocks of the outcropping as Mr. Doyle had done was out of the question, and so I rested my frail frame against it, the icy tide licking my feet numb, waiting until dark. Within the hour, the weather changed, the temperature dropped, yet I hardly noticed the chill or my trembling, which would burgeon when I returned home into the illness that consumes me now. I tossed stones feebly into the water—a calling card of sorts, I prayed. Eventually, a miracle: I spied her luminescence, swirling like liquid smoke, and I was carried back in time. It was as if eight decades had not happened, yet I was inexplicably ancient. She surfaced only to her eyes, assessed me from a distance in the moonlight, and then, I saw, recognized me, I know not how. She approached, and we regarded each other in silence, our old habit. But I was there to speak; I had not the luxury of time.
“I came to say . . .” The words choked me. She was as beautiful as the day I left her. I was a bag of loose flesh and bones. I could not stop the tears as I finished. “ . . . to say . . . I’m sorry.”
She thought about this carefully, and in that small silence I missed her more than I ever had. Finally she said a low “Thank you.”
I should have left it there, the better ending. But I could not accept the blame for my own mistake.
“Your queen showed me a prophecy the day the ship came, a vision of the future. I had no choice.”
She cocked her head. I thought I saw a wistful smile, but if I did it was gone too quickly, replaced with pleasant indifference. Her heart belonged to another.
“The sea witch has much magic,” she said at last. “But she has never had the power of prophecy.”
And now, patient Thomas, you may open the leather pouch, which contains my dearest treasure, Syrenka’s pearl. Find a woman who makes you long to give it to her. Choose wisely when your time comes. Live—or die—without regret. And remember me as ever, your affectionate great-grandfather,
Resolved Henry Stanton
“Men Who Wish To Drown” copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Fama
Art copyright © 2012 by Anna & Elena Balbusso