He was the third generation in his family to follow the sea and young to captain his own ship. The Rebekah Lee was a three-masted barque made of two kinds of oak and two kinds of pine, eighty-seven feet long, and twenty-six feet wide. She wasn’t a large ship as whale-ships went, but she was as sturdy and reliable as her namesake.
When he left New Bedford on the maiden voyage of the Rebekah Lee, Nathaniel Goode had every expectation that he would return in three years with a hold full of whale oil and riches enough to build Rebekah a fine house in the best neighborhood in the city where they had both been born.
Rebekah had told him all she wanted was for him to return home safely, but he’d seen her wistful looks at the mansions whale wealth had built, had seen her lingering glances at the rich clothes the captains’ ladies wore.
Nathanial sailed for South America, leaving behind a father who was proud of him and a woman who loved him and a land-lubber business partner who envied him.
He sailed with a crew of whale-men recruited up and down New England’s coast, plucking them from harbors and taverns and seaman’s halls. He knew most of them, or their families, even the Portuguese who’d come down from the Azores, looking for a berth. They were good men and well-seasoned, and Nathaniel was pleased to see how smoothly they worked together.
The Rebekah Lee found fair winds and fair weather for the first months out and even Nathaniel’s first mate, a dour Dutchman named Van Rijn, began to hope for an uneventful voyage.
Nathaniel was not a superstitious man but he did believe in luck. Luck had kept him from sailing with Captain George Pollard aboard the Essex, saved him from the ordeal that followed.
Some captains avoided the waters where Pollard had come to grief, but Nathaniel had no time for such fears and plotted a course straight toward Chile, even though it meant braving the uncertain weather and angry waters of the Straits of Magellan.
His luck held the first day of the passage and then his luck ran out.
The first one to see the mermaids was a young lookout, Jaco Airosa, whose brother was the ship’s cook.
Nathaniel was in his cabin, looking over charts with Van Rijn when the excited cabin boy came to fetch them.
“It’s mermaids captain,” the boy said and Nathaniel scoffed.
Nathaniel had heard the stories about the fish-tailed beauties lying in wait for sailors, singing songs that lured them to their deaths.
He’d dismissed these stories as the foolishness of drunkards, or the fantasies of men too long at sea in the company of other men.
He’d seen the sea-cows off the coast of Florida, sitting up on rocks like humans, waving their flippers like excited children. He’d never heard of sea-cows in South American waters but he was more ready to believe they ranged that far south than he was to believe in mermaids.
And yet, there before his eyes were women sunning on the rocks, fair women with fish-tails, singing their seductive songs.
He stepped foot on deck just as the first notes drifted across the rough water. The notes were high and sweet and evoked longing so strong it was a physical ache. Van Rijn’s face took on a look of wonder as he gazed across the gray water toward the singers, and he took a step forward almost involuntarily.
“Van Rijn,” Nathaniel said sharply, thinking to break the spell, but the Dutchman was already climbing over the railing. He jumped straight down into the water and did not come up again.
The wordless melody wove itself into Nathaniel’s being, calling to him, urging him to abandon his ship to play among the waves.
The call so was so compelling Nathaniel knew he could not stand against it, so with the last remnants of his sanity, he tied himself to a cleat in the deck and covered his ears with this hands.
He watched as the pilot deserted his post and despaired as no one took his place at the wheel.
He watched as his men swam out to meet their doom, opening their arms to the women, who embraced them, then dove into the sea with them, taking them down to their deaths.
The woman whose song was the sweetest was also the most beautiful of the creatures and she sat alone on her rock, surveying all.
The other mermaids had hair of gold or silver or pure white, but hers was green and wild as seaweed.
Even without the magic of her song, Nathaniel could see that she was beautiful, so beautiful it broke his heart.
He watched her through a gap in the railings and when she turned her gaze to him and stared with silver eyes, he understood that she was waiting for him. He understood that she was his fate.
But Nathaniel was a man of Christian fortitude, and so he called upon his God to save him.
His prayer was answered, after a fashion.
When the Rebekah Lee was driven on the rocks and smashed to pieces, Nathaniel was spared. Tied to the deck, he fell with it into the ocean, where it dipped under the surface, then floated past the rocks.
He locked eyes with the green-haired mermaid.
I will see you again, Nathaniel vowed fiercely.
I will be waiting, she replied in his mind.
Nathaniel washed ashore on a rocky island where he lived for three weeks until a whale-boat from Provincetown took him aboard and conveyed him to the nearest port. The captain of the Piscean Promise had offered him a berth, but Nathaniel had declined. He was through with whaling, he told the captain. He would hunt other prey from now on.
The captain thought him addled, but wished him well and continued his journey.
Nathaniel could have gone home to New Bedford, but instead he chose to stay on in Tierra del Fuego, finding work as an able-bodied seaman on a fishing boat run by a captain with hard hands and a short temper. When not aboard ship, he slept rough and saved his money.
At last he had enough to buy a boat.
It was a small boat and leaky, but then, he was looking for a small fish and he wasn’t sailing far.
He encountered fair winds and good weather and was soon within sight of the rocks where his ship and crew had met their doom.
It was easy to find the fatal cluster of rocks. There were three of them, rising out of the ocean like a man’s head and shoulders rising from a bath.
And it was easy to find the mermaids again.
He’d stopped his ears against their song and he was ready with his harpoons and nets to take his revenge.
He’d thought long and hard about how that might be accomplished. Finally, he’d come to a stunning conclusion.
You can’t drown a mermaid, but you can starve it to death. And so he made a plan.
Nathaniel had been handling boats his whole life, and so it was easy work for him to get close to the rocks.
It was easy enough for him to cast his weighted net over the green-haired mermaid with the silver eyes.
He had hauled her up on deck before she quite knew what was happening.
She fought the net, her shimmering scales dulling to a dead metallic gray without the colors that flashed there when her skin was wet.
No, no she cried in his mind and he answered her with a joyous…
When he bound her to the anchor, she thrashed, snapping at him with her tail, desperately struggling against him.
Why? Why? she asked.
You know why, he replied.
She nearly slipped from his grasp as he applied the final knot, but he hit her on the head with a gaffing hook, knocking her unconscious long enough to accomplish his task.
Meanwhile, her sisters spy-hopped in the waters near the boat, crying out with piteous sounds for him to release her.
He used the harpoons on them, leaving them dead and dying in the water.
Those that were lucky enough to escape his harpoon swam away and did not look back.
He dragged the green-haired mermaid to the edge of the deck and kicked the heavy anchor overboard.
It slid from the deck much too quickly for him to savor.
And too quickly for him to react when the chain looped tight around his foot and dragged him into the water with her.
Nathaniel had a wicked-sharp flensing knife tucked into his belt and he knew what he had to do..
Steeling himself against the pain, he cut off his foot to free it from the tangle.
It was a sharp knife and required only three blows to sever the meat and the bone, but the pain was ungodly and Nathaniel very nearly passed out as his life’s blood poured from him in a thick scarlet ribbon.
Sharks, their appetites already piqued by the bleeding bodies of the dying mer, came to feast at the banquet prepared before them.
Nathaniel slashed one of the big fish across its snout as it charged him, but the next shark that passed by ripped away half his torso with a single bite.
The green-haired mermaid watched him die but there was no satisfaction in her gaze.
Nathaniel’s body sank to the sea floor almost peacefully.
The sharks ate his flesh and they ate his bones and the lobsters and crabs had the rest.
In time, the mermaid starved to death and sea scavengers soon made a meal of her.
The sea wastes nothing.
Two years later, the Piscean Promise returned to Provincetown with a hold full of whale oil and riches for her crew.
In New Bedford, Rebekah Goode took in washing and rented out a room in her small house to seamen on shore leave. Sometimes they took their pleasure with her for money, and she took their money with gratitude.
There had been a baby in her belly when Nathaniel sailed away on the maiden voyage of the Rebekah Lee. She had not told him she was with child because she feared even family could not keep him from the siren song of the sea and she did not want to make him choose.