Well, when I saw her hanging upside down, like reverse crucified, my heart stop and my blood run cold cold cold. So, they ketch her. My worse fear. I kept up with their boat for an hour or so, but left before they hook her good. They were heading far out. I turn back; I already had a bad feeling in my gut that my boat engine might lure her to them. So I turn back, but too late. My damn fault they pull her out of the sea, bring she back half-dead. I figure she was dead when I saw her hanging so, upside down, mouth and hands tie up, just like a crab ready for the market. I feel shame, man, to see her like that, and I figured quick quick how to cut her down. I was fraid something bad go happen otherwise. Men could get on bad in these parts with too much alcohol, with a thing like this. Miss Rain wouldn’t like it at all. I knew that. She was very particular about women and how they get treated.

I fetch a wheelbarrow from my neighbour’s yard and put it in the back of my pick-up truck and drive down quiet and slow. Ce-Ce’s parlour pack up with fellers liming and drinking and I drove past, recognising half of them. Was lucky that rain coming down.

It kept them inside. I drove to the end of the jetty and see her there, hanging next to the big marlin. I think about all the times I saw her in the sea by the rocks off Murder Bay, watching me. All the times we stare each other down. All them times I wonder how God made her and why. The amount of times I say, “Come, dou dou, Come, nuh.” I hurried fast down the jetty with the wheelbarrow and my cutlass.

Rain coming down even harder then. Her body look cold and dull under the jetty light. Her eyes were closed. But I see her chest rise and fall. I put the barrow under her and with two hard blows to the rope she fell down, half into the barrow. She slump heavy heavy, like a big snake. I knew I had only a few minutes to carry she away. I covered her with a tarp and wheel her to my truck. It was a struggle – taking all my strength to shoulder her fast into the tray.

When I reach home, I bring the hose inside the house and I empty the bathtub of what it have: old boat engine, boat parts, all kind of thing get pelt in there. At the time I would shower with a bucket out back. Same house I still live in now. I build it myself thirty years back, on land Miss Rain say I could buy from her over time. I build the place from wood and concrete that I beg and borrow – that kind of thing, bits and pieces left over from houses my cousins build. Back then, it already have two floors, and a place to cook on a small two-gas burner stove. It have one table, two chairs, one big bed upstairs. No electricity. I used hurricane lamps at night. The tub wasn’t even plumbed in. I found it in another person’s yard. I figure I could use it one day, and I was right. Of course, Rosamund came and blew most of the house away that year. Little by little, I build it back.

Only God knew what them Yankee men would do with her, sell her to a museum, or worse, Sea World. I wanted to put her back in the sea.”

I full the tub to the brim. I emptied one whole box of Saxo into it. Only then I start to panic. When I free the mermaid from the jetty she was still alive. I only had one thing on my mind: to keep her alive over night. Only God knew what them Yankee men would do with her, sell her to a museum, or worse, Sea World. I wanted to put her back in the sea. I knew I couldn’t get her into my boat that same night. I would need help. She was too heavy for me to carry alone from home and then to my boat. First things first. Cut her down. Then I planned to take her in my boat the next night, take her far far out and put her back; I would ask Nicer to help me. Carry she back to the sea, set her free again. I never figure she might stay. All of that was to come. When I first bring she back I ketch my ass just to get her from the tray of the truck into the tub. She was waking up too, in the rain, and I was frighten she go start to beat up.

I carry she like an old roll-up piece of carpet, over one shoulder, and put her in the tub. Then she startled and realise what going on. Her mouth was still taped up and her hands tied-up too, behind her back, but her eyes flew open wide and she start to make loud squawking noises. I put my hand to her mouth and say, “Hush, dou dou. Hush, nuh. Is me, is me, you safe. Safe. Hush.”

But she frighten real bad. It took me the rest of the night and half the next day to settle her down in that tub and I didn’t untie her hands or mouth till well into the next afternoon, and only when I hope she knew who I was, the rasta man with the guitar who tempted her up from the waves, the one who sang the hymns to the universe.

Eventually, I untied her mouth and she didn’t squawk.

“Remember me?” I say.

But she made no sign she know me at all. She just drink the water from the tub and lay down low as if she hiding sheself, even though her tail poke out.

She watched me the whole day. It was like we’d never met. I was unsure of myself, but I knew I’d have to get her back in the sea. The next day, I untied her hands and still she just lay there flat, flat in the tub, watching me, and I wonder what the hell she was thinking about. Already, I see she tail drying up and she was looking smaller. I poured some rum on a deep wound from the gaff hook near the top of her tail, hoping it would heal up.

When they found the mermaid wasn’t hanging there any more, one set of bacchanal erupted on the foreshore. Thomas Clayson, who was still half-drunk from all his celebrating, bawled Thief! and instantly raised a reward of fifty thousand US dollars to get her back. The local fishermen know what happened: jumbie fish already back in the sea, long time. No Black Conch man wanted the reward money; all of them fraid, even before she disappeared. Mermaid gone back into the ocean; she made her own way back. She gone and join the mermen. That was obvious. Only them white men in town was looking for thief. The Black Conch men knew none of them steal her, all of them was cousins and family. How anyone go thief a mermaid and none of them know about it? How any one of them go hide one damn big mudderass mermaid in a small village like St Constance? She was heavy like a mule. How any one man big enough to cut her down and carry her away? Where people could hide something like that? Nobody have no aquarium at home; nobody have anywhere to keep her. She went back to the sea, joined she breddren; either that, or she get thief by one of them big hotels who send one of their big boats to the jetty while everybody was drunk inside Ce-Ce’. They were already serving she up at Mount Earnest Bay Hotel – that was the talk. A big boat had come and taken her in the night.

All the same, her appearance and disappearance disturbed everyone. When they unlashed the two marlin and took them to the depot and sawed off the heads, something happened which made everybody uneasy. Arnold the crazyman behaved crazier than usual. He thiefed the head of one of the marlin and jammed it down it on his own head, as if he was playing ol’ mas. Then he cavorted around the village wearing the marlin head. He ran around scaring people, shouting and making as if he get ketch too. He kept saying that he was a merman of Black Conch, that he was half-man, half-fish, come to sex with the pretty young women.

Imagine that. A man with a long swordbill on his head. Blood from the marlin’s head dripped down his neck all over his shirt and he was running around all morning with his hands all bloody red, threatening to daub them on anyone who got too close. With the spike on his head he looked like a unicorn. Everyone felt bad. Everybody wished the damn mermaid had never been caught and taken to St Constance. By the time dawn came, a lot of men were suffering from hangover, and, for one reason or another, no one was feeling easy at all.

From The Mermaid of Black Conch (Peepal Tree Press, £9.99)

 

Monique Roffey is an award-winning Trinidad-born British writer of novels, essays, a memoir and literary journalism. Her novels have been translated into five languages and shortlisted for several major awards, winning the OCM BOCAS Award for Caribbean Literature in 2013 with Archipelago. Her essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Boundless magazine, the Independent, Wasafiri and Caribbean Quarterly. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. The Mermaid of Black Conch is published in paperback by Peepal Tree Press.
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Author portrait © Marlon James

Monique Roffey: A writer’s life

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