Gunnar sat in the middle of the boat, staring at the woman. She stared right back at him from under the matted mess of her hair. Her face was caked in blood. Her clothes had been torn to rags. She had not been allowed to clean herself for days.
The boat rocked gently. There had been no wind for two weeks.
It was just the two of them left now. There had been twenty.
She was grinning at him through a mouthful of broken teeth.
They hadn’t known she was a woman when they had let her on board. The old man who had paid for their passage had told them that she was his son. She had kept her face hidden under a hood. The old man said that his son was deformed. The captain had said that they would be allowed on board provided it was not contagious and had taken their money.
There had been nothing unusual about their departure. The wind had come as soon as they reached open water. They had gone about their business.
But it was Gunnar who had gone below decks and found the woman cleaning herself. And it was obvious that she was not who she claimed to be. He had told the others. It was not long before they had cornered her. She had screamed for help. The old man had come running and was held back by the youngest member of the crew who was eager to prove himself. The priest, a recent and unpopular addition to the crew, had discovered them and gone running to the captain. The captain had joined in.
In a rare display of generosity, the captain had patted Gunnar on the shoulder and told the assembled men that “Gunnar will go first.” Gunnar had been absurdly touched, and then had gone about his business. When he had finished, he went above to get some fresh air. It was dark by the time he heard the old man wailing, and saw him carry the girl on his back to their cabin.
The men had drunk hard that night. There was some laughter early but it quickly gave way to silence. No one wanted to speak to anyone else.
Gunnar had woken to the bell ringing the next day. Ulrich and Bjarne were missing. They searched the boat from top to bottom before realising that they couldn’t possibly be on board. When they had called off the search, Thomas had pointed out that the wind had dropped.
The wind did not return. And men did not stop disappearing. When they were fifteen they had decided to stay in the same room and take turns keeping watch. After two nights of the men being left on watch disappearing, they had decided that the blame must lie with the old man. They had tied the woman up and left her on deck. They had gutted the old man and threw him, still flailing, overboard, attached to a rope. Bait. The food was going rotten. They had caught nothing.
When they were ten, fog descended. They could barely see the hands in front of the faces.
Ulrich had told them they had upset the gods. Quickly convinced, they had crucified the priest on the main sail to placate whatever it was they had provoked.
When five were left they had debated killing the woman. Ulrich had advised against it. So they had stayed awake, sat in a circle on deck. The fog had grown thicker, colder. The only noise had been the water gently lapping against the hull. Gunnar had started making small cuts on his arm to stay awake. Then Thomas was gone. Then Bjarne.
He had thought he heard Ulrich scream and ran towards the sound. He had tripped and fallen over the woman, who sat calmly in the middle of the deck. He had asked her where Ulrich had gone. She had nodded her head towards the side of the boat and smiled. Gunnar had sat down heavily in front of her and stared.
“What are you?” he asked. She did not answer. The water lapped against the hull and the boat rocked gently. She laughed, her voice cracked and harsh.
Gunnar felt ice shoot down his spine. He gasped and tipped forwards, his head hitting the damp wood with a thud. Darkness.
Gunnar opens his eyes. He’s still on the boat. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong. He does not feel right, something has changed. He can hear laughter. He blinks and things become clearer. Ulrich is staring at him. Ulrich, and Bjarne, and the captain. Everyone is here. And he is there too. Somehow Gunnar is standing in front of him, grinning. He knows the grin. It is not his.
“Gunnar will go first.”
So, this is the new short story. The title comes from my colleague, collaborator, and survivor of our second year student house Martin Parsons (find him on Twitter @martang66). I hope he likes it.
I toyed with different time periods. I thought about setting it in a circus but then I realised that I was ripping off Geek Love, which I have just started reading and have instantly fallen in love with. So I went with a more literal mermaid thing.
I haven't written anything unpleasant in a while. If it hadn't been from Gunnar's perspective it would have been more graphic. Gunnar's situation and his nature kind of inform the way the story's written. I wanted to keep it clipped. There are bits that aren't, of course. Also, I'd be amiss if I didn't mention the influence of Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum's excellent film The Woman. Not a direct influence on the story, but certainly indirect (can you be certain about an indirect influence?)
It's generally nastier than the last couple of stories but I hope you enjoyed this horror short story. Here's a song: