Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
 
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Homeward Bound

by John E. DeLaughter




On her third day out from Port Louis, Mary heard the merman singing. At first, she thought it was just the wind humming in the Nereid’s rigging. After ten months at sea, she knew how little things could trick her senses thanks to the long watches and short sleep that came with being a solo long-distance sailor; she’d been playing the Beatles non-stop since leaving Mauritius in order to keep alert. But when she heard an Irish tenor harmonizing with Lennon on “All You Need Is Love”, she knew something was wrong.

“Mary, old salt, you’ve gone crazy!” she muttered as she turned off the power to the Nereid’s stereo system. “Maybe if I heave to and take a half-day’s rest things will clear up.”

She headed up on deck to reef the sails and throw out the sea anchor. Her time was her own; she wasn’t in a race and had plenty of supplies for the three-week passage. A few hours spent sleeping now might prevent a bigger problem later. Watching the main sail furled into the mast, she took a deep breath and turned to look at the golden path painted by the rising sun on the ocean swells. As she did every morning, Mary opened the brass urn etched with dolphins that she kept in the binnacle and took a pinch of dark ashes out of it. She tossed the gritty soot into the air, watching the wind blow it over the foam and pausing a moment to reflect before reaching for the sea anchor. Heaving it into the water, she heard a deep voice cry out “Hey! I’m swimming here!”

Startled, she looked behind the boat where a man was bobbing in the water and rubbing his head.

“Who are you? How did you get there?” Mary asked as she grabbed the orange-and-white striped life preserver and threw it to him.

“Why are you throwing stuff at me?” the man exclaimed. “Do I go to your house and throw things at you?”

“Your ... house?”

“What? You think it’s my boat?” the man asked. As he made a shallow dive and swam closer to the Nereid, Mary saw that where the man’s legs should be was a long fish tail shimmering with scales. “I’m Nekke. Who are you?”

“Um, I’m Mary. Mary Reade,” she blurted, nonplussed by Nekke’s casual manner. “You’re a merman? A real merman?”

“No, I’m a talking dolphin,” Nekke replied sarcastically. “Of course I’m a merman.”

“Were you singing along with...” she began to ask.

“The Beatles? Yeah. The last sailor through here taught me their songs,” Nekke explained. “They are fun to sing. But he never did explain why they called themselves that.”

Mary thought about trying to explain the pun then decided to focus on the important things, like the fact that there was a merman swimming next to her boat.

“Where did you come from? Can I take a photo? Why are you here?” Mary babbled as she frantically searched for the camera that she knew she’d used just the other day to take pictures of spinner dolphins playing in the boat’s wake.

“I’m from the ocean, obviously. If I had a photo, whatever that is, I’d give it to you. And I want to get some songs from you. Got any?” asked Nekke, shyly twirling his long golden hair around one hand.

“Songs? Like tra-la-la songs?”

Nekke shook his head. “Not the tra-la-la one; I got that years ago. Got anything new?”

“Why do you want songs?” Mary asked as she gave up the search for the camera and sat on the taffrail. “What about gold or wine or, well, me?”

“I’ve got all the gold I need. Wine is just spoiled water and there’s plenty of that down here, thank you very much. As for you, you’d drown and a dead human isn’t much fun to play with. No,” Nekke assured her seriously. “I want songs.”

“But why?” Mary insisted. “I don’t understand. Why songs?”

“That’s how my people do things,” Nekke explained. “If Stromkarl has a lobster and I’d like to have some, I trade him a song for a couple of bites. If I’ve found an octopus to play with, he gives me a song and I tell him where old eight arms is.”

“But then you’ve both got the song,” Mary objected. “How is that fair?”

“It is the best kind of trade,” Nekke replied. “We both gain from it. Why? Don’t you do things like that on your boats?”

“No. If I want a lobster, I have to give the other person money for it. Then he has the money and I have the lobster.”

“Sounds pretty strange to me. How do things ever grow that way? If you share a song, it gets bigger because now two people are singing it instead of just one.”

“It’s just the way we do things,” Mary admitted.

“Oh. So why are you here?” Nekke asked. “Are you looking for songs, too?”

No. I’m here because I kind of promised my dad,” Mary said. Something in Nekke’s face impelled her to explain everything. “When I was just a kid, my dad taught me how to sail. We had so much fun that we bought a boat. Actually, I picked it out and he paid for it, but he always said that we’d both bought it and someday we’d sail around the world together. We had the most fun on that boat. I was the captain and he was the navigator and we went sailing every chance we got until I went to college. But then I let school and work get in the way and I told myself that it was no big deal; we could always go sailing later. That’s what I kept telling myself. Then last year Dad came down with a glioblastoma. In just six months, he went from this huge, towering man to someone who had to wear diapers to keep from soiling himself. And then ... he died. So I quit work and bought this boat and I’m sailing around the world with my Dad.”

“Where is he?”

Mary didn’t say anything; she just put a hand on the brass urn.

“Oh,” Nekke swam quietly beside the boat for a moment. Playing with the small fish hiding in the Nereid’s shadow, he looked up to ask “Did he teach you any songs?”

“Yes,” Mary answered, smiling a little at the memory. “He always said that ‘sailing isn’t sailing unless you’re singing’. His favorite was ‘Blow The Man Down’.”

“I know that one!” Nekke exclaimed. Drawing himself up to his full eight-foot length, his voice rang out “Come all ye young fellows that follows the sea; To me, way hey, blow the man down! Now please pay attention and listen to me,”

“Give me some time to blow the man down!” Almost against her will, Mary chimed in. Before she knew it, she was singing with all her heart. They sang Roll The Ole Chariot and Haul Away Joe and South Coast. Nekke taught her Zombie Jamboree and kept her laughing with the faces he made during the song; in return, she introduced him to Johnny Jump Up and Liverpool Lou. The sun was setting and both of them were breathless from laughing and singing before either of them called a halt.

“There’s one more I want to sing,” Mary said wistfully. “It was one of my dad’s favorites; he used to sing it to me as a lullaby.”

She stood up and faced the sunset, letting the last of the day’s warmth fill her bones the way her father’s hugs used to. As the sky turned from green and blue to red and gold, she took the brass urn in her arms and sang.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high,” she began.

“And the dreams that you dreamed of, once in a lullaby,” Nekke joined in. Together, they finished the song while tears ran down their faces.

“Thank you,” Mary said, wiping her face with her sleeves. “Now I know what you mean about both of us gaining when we share.”

“That was a good trade,” Nekke agreed. “But I’ve got to go now. Thank you!”

Mary watched silently as the merman swam down into the cobalt blue water; the last she saw of him was a flash of the silvery scales on his tail winking back at her from the depths. Then she pulled up the sea anchor and unfurled the sails. Flapping, the Nereid’s white wings suddenly caught the wind and pushed the boat on into the night.

“Time to go back home,” she said, half to herself, half to the father she had loved. “You navigate, Dad; I’ve got the helm.”


THE END


2022 John E. DeLaughter

Bio: John E. DeLaughter is a retired planetologist who lives on a sailboat with Missy the cat. He says he is a terrible singer.

E-mail: John E. DeLaughter

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