A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc

-or-

A Lullaby

By Helen Keeble

Part 1 of 2


Monday, 27 Maius, 1831 AA

By Divine providence, we captured the mermaid with neither loss of life nor injury to any seaman, nor any harm done to the specimen. So easily we might have passed her by without even noticing her; but the sharp young eyes of Small Jack espied her as she lay all in sleep at the surface of the sea. The good Captain gave the orders to turn, and to adopt a stealthy approach, and never have my scholarly eyes seen such a display of unison and harmony as the work done by the seamen, all in silence so that only the humming of the wind in the rigging gave any hint of our approach. Stealthy as her namesake, our loyal ship Ocelot crept through the waves; and so we came across the maid all unawares, dreaming in the midst of her green nets, with her hair spread like sunbeams. Quick as a cat with a goldfish, we snapped her up with the catch-nets, and though she thrashed like a net-full of herring, the brave seamen managed to wrestle her under my direction down to the hold and into the waiting specimen jar.

I must commend the excellent craftsmanship of Messrs Jameson & Wright; though the glass shivers in its frames under the mermaid's powerful tail and the iron bars across its mouth shake in her grasping hands, the jar remains adamant. Never before can any man have beheld a mermaid so clearly—and how much more dynamic, vibrant and thrilling is the living specimen compared to those sad stuffed and dried skins back at Oxford! What appears at first glance to be a perverse mixture of fish and primate reveals itself under scientific scrutiny to be as well-designed as any pocket-watch, surely demonstrating beyond all doubt that the mermaid is one of God's own beloved creations, and not (as Prof. Greene speculated) the degenerate descendants of those who failed to find refuge on Noah's Ark. She is somewhat larger than I had anticipated, perhaps some twelve feet in total; although fortunately most of that is tailfin, which age and moths must have eaten away from the preserved cadavers in the University archives. I now see that those dead specimens were greatly distorted by the preserving process, for whereas they had twisted limbs and simian features, my specimen—my specimen! How it thrills me to be able to write those words at last!—possesses slender shoulders as well-proportioned as any maiden's, and the elegant curve of her brow bespeaks an admirable cranial capacity. The initial indications are excellent indeed.

I confess that through our long voyage I have sometimes found myself losing faith in my own hypothesis—who am I to pit my feeble thoughts against all the weight of orthodoxy?—but as I gaze now upon the specimen I am filled with renewed vigour. I cannot wait to begin.


Hush my babes, hush; sleep soundly in your shells. Do not open your eyes, not yet. Sleep softly, dreaming of blood.

If you feel a swaying, surely it is but the gentle tumble of the waves. If you feel a current, surely it is but the ripple of my fins around you. If you see a shadow, surely it is but a passing darkness. I am here, sweet spawnlings, little eggs. I am here, your father, wrapping you in the soft tides of my song. I am here, Sunlight-Reaching-Deep is here, warming you like my namesake. I promise you, when you awaken, you will see the sun. You will see the sun, and laugh.

But not yet, not yet. Curl tightly; fold your fins over your eyes. It is not time to wake. Sleep, o my small loves, sleep fearlessly, and let my voice rock you in your dreams. Surely no harm will come to you while your father sings.

(O my sisters, o my aunts: Hasten.)


Tuesday, 28 Maius, 1831 AA

Eggs! A treasure trove of eggs!

In an attempt to allow my specimen to settle herself and become reconciled to her new surroundings before beginning my experimentations, I today turned my attention towards the curious mass of seaweeds within which we found her reclining. On closer examination it became apparent that they were not naturally formed, but deliberately-woven nets of cunning design. This of course explains how a creature so delicate in appearance, and weighed down with such a vast sweep of ornamental fins, can possibly feed herself; she must use these nets to catch the little fishes and creatures of the sea. From the numerous small bones and scales I found caught within the weave, I hope to deduce her typical diet and so continue to supply her with that which will keep her in good health.

Intriguingly, tied into the net I also found more curious items—glimmering gold coins of uncertain provenance, turtleshell amulets such as those worn by the Southern Savages of these waters, crocodile teeth as long as my forearm, to name but a few of the bright hoard. I believe that these must have scavenged from the sea-bed, for I do not see how she could otherwise have attained them. I will catalogue them carefully later in order to see if there is some pattern to the collection.

But later, later that painstaking work, for there are matters of greater import. I must once more marvel at this unhoped-for success. Eggs! I found them nestled in the very heart of the vegetative mass, most carefully wrapped in an intricate web of material. The pearlescent spheres are approximately the size of a man's head, and when held up to the light the embryos are clearly visible. To my delight, all appear well-developed and healthy. There are sixteen in total; a much smaller quantity than would be found in the spawnings of a common fish, and yet a much larger number of offspring than we might reasonably expect from any furred or feathered beast. In this, as in appearance, the mermaid seems to hover somewhere betwixt the sea and the air.

For the time being I have placed the entire nest within the second of my great specimen-jars, and it is my opinion that the mermaid's gaze has remained fixed upon them ever since. Her agitation has not subsided, though she barely has room to turn in the confines of the jar; ceaselessly she beats upon the glass and tests the bars above, so that Small Jack, whom I have employed to keep her water fresh, has been too apprehensive to approach with pump and bucket.

Dare I hope that her agitation is in some way explained by her separation from her eggs? Could it be a hint of maternal devotion that might suggest that she is not wholly insensible to higher virtues? I have staked so much upon this gamble—my reputation, my bodily health, even my very tenure—that there can be no hesitation over one further risk. Though I shall keep some eggs aside for study, I shall return the rest to the specimen, and observe her reaction. I pray with all my faith that God may grant me success.


I have no silken leaves to weave a blanket to cover you; let me string my fingers with my own hair, and wrap you close in those golden threads. Your cradle must be small, my small loves; you must snug close together against the shells of your siblings. I will hold you in my hands and hair, so that you can hear my heart beating, and know that I am here.

O my children still beyond my grasp, let me hold you in my voice. For you too I am here, you too are safe. Listen, close your eyes, fold your fins.

Listen. I will sing the world into a story for you, to help you sleep.

Once upon a time there was a halfmaid born with a water-heart heavy in her chest. Now, halfpeople are not like real people; they cannot swim, with their rigid, jointed split-tails, and their bodies are filled with air. But this halfmaid had a water-heart, and it tipped and sloshed as she staggered about. So she set out over the ocean to look for a way to pour out her heart, and finally be at peace.

She saw the people hunting beneath the waves, and her water-heart rose as if pulled by the moon. "O!" she cried out to them. "Surely you are my people!"

This is a story, you see. Anything can talk, in a story.

But the people saw that it was a halfperson, and they did not hear the tides of her water-heart. They swam away, and so she sailed on, her water-heart heavy in her chest.

She came across a man sleeping on the surface of the water, with his children all around him, and an idea crept sideways, like a crab, into her water-heart. Quietly, she scooped up the man and his nets, in such a way that he did not wake. Some of his children she hid, until there was enough space in the nest for her bony halfperson body and she could wriggle in to curl up at the man's side. The touch of her hot halfperson skin and the smell of her foreign blood woke him. He looked around, and cried out: "O, where are my children? What has happened to them?"

"Here we are, father," said his remaining children, and, "Here I am, father," said the halfmaid, with them.

The man was not a warrior, of course, and he was very frightened to find this strange creature curled up next to him, claiming to be his own child. But his real children were there around him, so he knew he must be brave. He shook out his fins and made his hair swirl and showed his teeth, all to display his ferocity, and he roared, "O wicked halfmaid, what have you done with my children?"

"I am your child, father," insisted the halfmaid. "Look, can you not see that I have a water-heart?"

The man looked closely, and saw that she did indeed have a water-heart filling her chest. He had never seen such a thing in a halfperson. Now, if he had been his sisters, it would not have gone well for the halfmaid; but he was a man, a proper man: courteous, and cunning. So, "O little water-heart," he said, "what have you done with your cousins?"

"O my father," she said, "I put them into the ocean, for there was not room for me in the nest. But I will take their place and be your daughter, and you shall teach me to be a person, as a father should."

"I will teach you, then," said the man, courteous and cunning. "Here is your first lesson: A proper person does not push her siblings out of the nest when they cannot even swim yet; that shows no strength. So you must show me where you put them into the ocean."

"If that is what it is to be a proper person, then I shall." And she paddled her boat back to where she had put the children into the ocean, where fortunately they were still bobbing about all confused on the surface, no crocodile or serpent having yet found them. The man hastily slid into the ocean with them, gathering all his children in his fins and counting them once, twice, thrice.

"Now, o my father," said the little water-heart. "Tell me, what is my next lesson?"

The man looked again at the halfmaid, and saw her hopeful face. His own water-heart was to the halfmaid's as the ocean is to a raindrop—and there is room enough for pity, in the ocean.

"Lean close, little water-heart," he said, very gently, "and I shall whisper it in your ear."

The little water-heart leaned low out of her boat, but rather than whispering in her ear the man put his mouth to hers. And he drank her little water-heart down to the dregs.

The halfmaid's new heart was light and empty as air, and she sailed away with eyes as empty as air, back to the halfpeople where she belonged. The man let her go, unharmed, for after all she had meant no harm, not really.

She had meant no harm, and so they all lived happily ever after. As shall you all, my dearest loves. Sleep.


Sunday 2 Iunius, 1831 AA

The crew have universally dubbed the mermaid with the ungraceful name of "Goldy," a soubriquet I feel more suited to a common barmaid. I myself have decided to christen her more formally as Oceana, which is at least a name that I could utter in scholarly company without perishing of mortification.

I do not believe I have seen daylight for this past week, so rapt have I been in study of my glorious Oceana. Every time I gaze upon her, I discover new details to record in my sketch-book. I have not felt such joy in Science since I was a boy no older than Small Jack, armed with my first microscope and all agog at the wonders of the world!

She seems a great deal more settled in my presence now. Rather than pounding on the glass, she now circles the boundaries of her domain quietly, her fins sweeping behind her like a bridal train. When I enter the room, she invariably hangs quite still in the water for some moments, watching me from the corners of her eyes; then, most charmingly, she spreads the vast golden arcs of her trailing fins, like a debutante making her reverence before Her Majesty. Occasionally she also shakes out her trailing hair so that it stands out like a dandelion all around her face, and even smiles broadly. Her pearl-white teeth are as pretty as any maid's, for all that they are somewhat sharper-edged.

Her eggs have settled her composure most wondrously; she spends her days cradling and cosseting them in a maternal manner greatly touching to behold. Small Jack has quite lost his fear of her, and cheerfully goes about cleaning out her jar and making sure all is suited to her comfort, under my direction. The lad is a far better assistant than my usual surly postgraduates, I must admit—though yesterday he asked me a question of such startling vulgarity that I cannot record it here for fear of causing the paper to blush beneath my pen. When I had quite recovered the ability to speak, I informed him that as the mermaid evidently lays eggs, she does not belong to the mammal group and thus lacks a human female's . . . attributes.

But she is so close in form in the shape of her skull and hands to Mankind! It seems that every hour I record some new anatomical similarity. Surely, surely she possesses greater mental facilities than any common fish—or even ape. But yet, but yet. . . .

She ignores all of my attempts to communicate by gesture and simple words. I have attempted tapping on the glass and even dangling my hands into the water, but to no avail. Recalling the items tangled in the nets in which we discovered her, I have tried wooing her with various shiny items, but though these caused her to evidence a small amount of interest, it was brief and fleeting. Her gaze avoids mine, intent on her eggs.

I know that she must be able to see me; why will she not respond? Can orthodox thought be correct—is the mermaid truly no more than some parody of human form, with no more thought than a beast? Must Man forever be alone in his divine task of stewardship over the earth, lacking the comfort of companionship? Can my radical hypothesis be . . . mistaken?

It is terribly hard to see those lips, so admirably shaped for speech, remain silent; to see that face which resembles so closely that of humanity stay still as graven stone.

No. I have come this far; I must not lose hope. I will drink in the sight of Oceana and thus fortify myself for further investigation. I must await the hatching of the eggs; surely it is the way that we cherish and chastise our offspring, as Our Lord cherishes and chastises us, that most clearly indicates that presence of the divine spark in our nature. Onwards!


Sleep softly, my small loves, rocked by the rocking of this boat. It is not time for you to emerge yet. Sleep, sleep within your shells.

Sleep, and I will whisper you a story in your dreams.

Once upon a time there was a halfmaid who fell in love with the sun. Every day she sat and watched him swim overhead through the ocean of the sky, and she dreamed of being wrapped in his great burning fins. Every day she woke before the dawn, so that she might see him leap into the sky, and every evening she sat up watching as he sank wearily back into the sea.

It came into the halfmaid's mad mind that she would seek out the place where the sun went to sleep, and there win his heart. She gathered together all the things that the sun loves best—silver fish scales, bright discs of gold, the eyes of crocodiles—and built a great boat to carry the shining hoard. Then she set out across the sea to find the nets of the sun.

Day upon day she sailed, creeping along as the sun arced joyously overhead, following the glittering trail he left on the sea. By night she hid from the glare of the moon, fearful of being seen by her rival. Day after day, night after night, she searched for the nets of the sun.

Now, all the world is the sun's nets, and he circles them endlessly, ever trailed by his mate, the hungry moon, who grows and shrinks as she devours the stars. All people know this. But the halfmaid was not a person, and knew nothing; her head and heart were full of air. So all in ignorance she sailed on, searching.

One evening, just as the sun vanished below the horizon, she came across a man, lying sleeping on the surface of the sea with his children cradled around him. Bright he was, golden, and his fins were gold, glimmering beneath the mirrored water.

The halfmaid gazed down, and it seemed to her that surely here were the nets of the sun, with the sun sleeping in their midst. At once she began to take her treasures from her boat, to weave them into the nets. Her belly was hot with lust, and her hands were quick.

The clink and clack of scale against metal and the chiming of beads woke the man—he truly was but a man—though at first he thought he must still be dreaming. For only in a dream would a maid come courting a man whose nets were already heavy with eggs.

He left his eggs safe in their woven cradle, and went to inspect the edge of his nets, already starting to droop under the weight of glittering things. He put his head up out of the water, and saw the halfmaid, and at once understood. Everyone knows that halfpeople are mad, crammed as they are into their tiny territories.

"O halfmaid," said the man, ever courteous as a man should be, "why do you weave things into my nets? Can you not see I am already claimed, with my eggs lying cradled in the web?"

But the halfmaid, having nothing but air in her throat, could only bark like a seal, flat and without understanding. Her distorted, above-water vision could perceive no difference between the beauty of the man and the splendour of the sun, and thus still she imagined that here was her long-sought love. Still she wove her courting-gifts into the nets, and still her boat was heaped high with treasures.

"O halfmaid," the man tried again, "your gifts are fair and please the eye, but my eggs are treasure enough for me now. Look, I refuse your tribute—go home." And he backfinned away, casting his gaze away from the halfmaid—but still she wove her gifts into the nets. Now they had so much gold and gems hanging from them that they sagged low in the water, dragged downwards by the weight of the halfmaid's mad love. The nets started to list, and the cradle tilted.

"O halfmaid!" the man cried out, trying to swim to his children—but the halfmaid splashed into the water next to him, and her arms and deformed split-tail wrapped round him in lovelorn embrace, and he could not disentangle himself from her. The cradle tilted, and the eggs, the eggs—

No.

Before the eggs could spill, the man turned on the halfmaid, and—

No.

The cradle tilted, and the eggs spilled out—

No. The story will not end like that, it will not.

The eggs, the eggs—started to fall, but—but—but at that moment, when all seemed lost, the man felt the halfmaid's clinging hands torn away. Straight away he dived, not looking back. He dived like a maid, as if he had no trailing fins to drag in the water, he dived like an eel—and his hands cupped close around his children, holding them safe, before they could tumble into the depths.

The man's maid, the mother of his children, had chanced to be hunting nearby, and her eye had been caught by the glint of gold. Dark grey she was, as the moon in cloud, and her name was She Hungers, and all things in the sea knew to flee before her.

But the halfmaid was not of the sea, and was dazzled by the sun, and did not see the moon coming up behind her in the dark.

When the sun rose again the next morning, the halfmaid was no longer there to greet him. But he did not notice.


Thursday 6 Iunius, 1831 AA

My Oceana is intelligent; I know she must be, she must.

Science commands us to come to no conclusions without evidence; to make no judgement unless we have first keenly observed with an eye as impartial as that of God Himself. I am a scientist, and let it never be said that I cling to erroneous conclusion out of emotion. My conviction of the mermaid's intellect is firmly based in facts.

I have already related Oceana's net-weaving, her acute gaze, her cunning hands, and her maternal devotion, all as pieces of evidence pointing to the fact of her undisputed intelligence (though bear in mind that when I say "intelligence" I mean it in the strictest sense of the word; thus we may say that the savages are intelligent, without by any means implying that one should forthwith take up a chair at Oxford). Yet in the other hand we must weigh her continued silence, despite her mouth so obviously well-shaped for the rigours of speech, and her persistent way of ignoring my own words, gestures, glass-tappings and drawings. How can a creature be said to be intelligent, if it does not communicate that intelligence?

But now I am convinced; she does communicate, she does. Though I cannot fathom how.

The evidence of this lurks in the sea around us. But I am getting ahead of myself; let me marshal my thoughts, and relate the events in order.

Several nights ago I heard a mysterious scraping and tapping under my feet, as I sat working on my sketches of Oceana's dorsal fins. Now, I must confess that I had embarrassed myself somewhat at the start of the voyage by constantly interrupting our good Captain with my concerns, only to be patiently informed that the boom of the main sail or the creaking of the hull was, in fact, quite normal, and not a sign that our ship was in imminent danger of descending to a watery grave. I therefore, after a momentary jolt of alarm, dismissed the sounds as doubtless yet another of those worrying yet ordinary noises that must accompany a ship of this size under full sail.

However, my attention was drawn a moment later to Oceana, who had gone quite still within her jar. Leaving her eggs aside for a moment, she pressed her hands to the bottom of the glass, placing her head against it in the attitude of one listening intently. The scraping noise came again, practically under my desk, and proceeded up the length of the hull, with Oceana remaining motionless and attentive. She stayed that way for sometime after the noise had ceased, and then, rather than returning to her vigilant circling of her egg-nest, she swirled herself in her fins and appeared to sit in deep contemplation, from which she did not stir while I watched, until I was forced to put out the light and seek my hammock, leaving her to whatever train of thought so fully engaged her mind.

From the agitation of the sailors the next day, it quickly became apparent that my odd noise was not, in fact, an expected event. Captain Humby dispatched his men hither and thither over the ship, inspecting it from stem to stern (or whatever the correct terminology may be). Meanwhilst the cook was in great lamentations, for the little net which he hangs behind us as we go, to catch our breakfast and luncheon fresh each day, had most mysteriously vanished. He displayed the trailing lines to me, and I had to admit to being at a loss, for while a crocodile or sea-serpent might have been willing to plunder our larder, they would not have left behind such neatly-cut ropes.

Captain Humby ordered a double watch to be set, and I myself peered about most assiduously through my spy-glass. But nothing more we saw all that day, though Small Jack cried out several times that there was something following us, hiding in the wake of the ship. Since no-one else could espy anything, we concluded it was but a small boy's imagination.

Yet next night the knockings were back in full force, and in the morning the cook's second-best net had likewise vanished into the sea.

The Captain sought me out, to give my opinion as an educated man. But whilst we were engrossed in conversation, the sailors were likewise in less erudite conclave, and their conclusions were swifter. While the Captain and I still pondered together, several sailors went stealthily to our larder, and lifted from its perch one of the good white chickens which had so faithfully provided that Captain and me with eggs for our breakfast. The thieves then hastened to the rail, and flung the poor bird out onto the waves as a makeshift sacrifice.

The Captain and I were alerted to these events by a sudden great outbreak of shouting and crying out of oaths; when we hastened to the deck, we discovered many sailors peering over the rail and crossing themselves, whilst on the waters naught could be seen but a few sad and sodden feathers. The sailors swore to us that no sooner had the bird touched the waves than some great grey-green thing had surged up from below and dragged the fowl down.

Of course I pointed out, rather snippily (for I am fond of a good boiled egg), that if one throws food upon the ocean, of a certainty some creature will swallow it. We doubtless have a multitude of scavengers living under our hull. Yet the sailors insisted that what they had seen was not the gaping maw of crocodile or eel nor any known fish, but something which had grabbed the bird.

At which point there was of course nothing to do but to replicate the experiment, though the Captain firmly refused to sacrifice another of his fowl. A fat trout, full four feet long, was retrieved from the galley, and, at my suggestion, fastened securely to a stout rope; and then we cast the fish over the side.

For a second it lay there quite limp; and then, in an eyeblink, it was gone, and the rope thrummed with tension, all but dragging the three stout seamen who gripped it off the deck and into the water themselves. Immediately many hands rushed to haul at the rope, and a moment of epic struggle ensued, in which it became clear that whatever was on the other end was prodigious strong; and then, bump! Every man-jack of them fell over backwards, and the end of the rope arced high out of the water to fall back on the deck, the end of it most neatly cut through.

Even before they had had time to curse and stir, Small Jack cried out from the crows-nest, gesticulating and pointing. I turned my spyglass in the indicated direction, and beheld—a grey-green head and scaled, broad shoulders, balancing quite still on the surging waves. The head was hairless, with great staring eyes of unrelieved savagery and a mouth filled with terrible jagged teeth. That twisted maw was smeared with blood. And, to my horror, it was not unfamiliar.

It had not occurred to me, until that moment, that those twisted, distorted remains I had examined back at Oxford might not be those of mermaids, but mermen.

To behold the monstrosity so unexpectedly caused such a shudder to go through my spine that I fear I quite fumbled the glass; when my shaking hands regained their grip, the sea was clear again. Though—and I do not know if it was fancy or fact—for a moment I though I saw a great dark shadow passing under the waves, flickering out of sight under the hull of our own sturdy Ocelot.

Since then, we have caught only fleeting sightings of them, though it is clear that more than one plagues us; we have seen stormcloud-grey fins slapping at the water, as well as the more mossy colouration I beheld earlier. Their camouflaging scales make in near-impossible to get an accurate count of the males, though I am certain there is only a single bright scarlet female amongst them. I have glimpsed her trailing fins through my spyglass, though she keeps her distance, observing us from afar as her fellows approach us more closely. Their presence is more heard than seen; every night we hear them pounding at the hull, for what purpose cannot be said.

The sailors are all in a great terror, for fear that the creatures are seeking to prise apart the planks underneath us. I have sought to quell their fears, by pointing out that we have seen no evidence of tools more sophisticated than bone knives, and that surely dozens of fish might saw away merrily for a decade with such implements without making a dent in our stout Ocelot. The sailors look askance at me, and I have heard them muttering behind my back. But I cannot blame them; they must find my joyful countenance and pleased air most difficult to understand.

But how can I not beam broadly, when my heart is so light! For surely this is the most conclusive proof—why would the mermen track us so, were they not concerned over the fate of their dear companion Oceana? How would they have found us, save that Oceana has somehow mysteriously conveyed to them her location? I am convinced—she is intelligent, and she can communicate with her fellows. It remains only to discover how, and then I too shall be able to discourse with her!

I have a thought—perhaps she speaks via etheric resonance! I shall set up the apparatus forthwith. When Oceana's eggs hatch, surely she shall speak to her young; I shall record her utterances, and learn alongside her own children. Surely my features will one day be cast in bronze and displayed in the Halls of Science with the other great minds of our age—for I shall be the first man to translate the language of the mermaids!


Read Part 2 here


When not writing, reading, or blogging, Helen Keeble designs software for industrial control systems. She lives in West Sussex with her husband and a variable quantity of fish. More of her stories can be found in our archives. To contact the author, you can email her at helen.keeble@gmail.com, or visit her website.