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 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here


Listen, listen to me, listen. This is the story, the true story.

You are my First Daughter. You grow, and are swift and silent and savage. You tear the throats of eels for your sport, and their blood turns the water to salt. You are never hungry. You are never still. You circle the world, and nothing is left alive in your wake.

You are my First Son. You grow, and become as beautiful as the light on the water. The maids swim for days to present their tributes to your nets. The sun shines so blindingly on your hoard that none can look upon it, and all the other men gnaw their hands in jealousy.

You are my Second Daughter. You grow, and shape a spear from bone and shell. You hunt crocodiles—listen!—crocodiles with jewelled hides and tails like thunder in the water, but your spear and your strength outmatch them. You deck the nets of the males you desire with golden scales, and spend a single fierce night with them, and then you swim on, in joy, all the long days of your life.

You are my Second Son. You grow, and you weave your nets, so fine and tightly and well that you never lack for food. Your children swim sleepily with fat bellies. Your descendants grow as innumerable as the waves, and when you are old, when you rest on the surface of the sea, you can hear them singing.

You are my Third Son. You grow, and you listen to the distant voices of other men, taking the words and filling your heart. You find your territory and circle there alone in silence for many years, and the stories in your heart turn into pearls. When you finally sing, the stars themselves fall silent to hear.

Listen. Listen. These are the stories of your lives I am telling you, the real stories, the way that things should be. This is not real, this stinking prison where you cannot live, this cannot be real, I am not watching you be born here, no—

O my sisters, o my aunts, circling silent in the dark beneath me—listen! I am Sunlight-Reaching-Deep, the singer of songs, whose chant claimed all the sea within the span of my voice, who weaves words like nets, and there is nothing now I can say to save my children! They are struggling to be born, they are uncurling their fins! O my sisters, o my aunts, if you can strike now, strike; strike and let in the sea. Come, o gentle sea, o separating sea, sweep away my children's scents in your kind currents. O kind and great sea, that lets us tolerate each other while we are still young, before we grow large enough to flee each other and seek out sweet solitude. . . .

I cannot tell them to stay in their shells. I cannot tell them not to struggle forth into this morass of stagnant water. I cannot tell them not to open their mouths wide, not to scent their siblings at their sides. The reek of us undiluted in this tiny, enclosed space! It clangs in my own head, and I cling to my song, holding onto reason—barely, barely!

But my children are yet wordless, and the scent of each other is filling their unformed minds and making their hearts cry out for blood, too young, far too young. There is nowhere here for the weak to flee, nowhere here for the loser to hide from the victor, nothing but each other! I can do nothing.

O my children, forgive me—all I can do is tell you the stories of your lives.

And that you are loved. You are all so much loved. You are loved—


Saturday 9 Iunius, 1831 AA

She is not intelligent.

The eggs hatched last night. The young swam about only for an hour or so, and then turned on each other in great and sudden savagery. They ripped each other to pieces, and the water turned opaque with blood.

Oceana did nothing.

I cannot write more; I have not the heart for it.


Once there was a father, and his children. The children died, and the father died of grief.

I hear you in the water, o my brother and rival. I hear you singing under the hull, demanding I continue my tale. Such irony, that I can hear you and not scent you, that I can hear you unclouded by the red hate, with the taste of my children's blood still hanging in the waters around me. If there was such a thing as justice, it would have been you and I trapped together within these walls, biting at each other's throats in rage, and my children would be swimming freely in the sea.

The children died, and the father went mad and ripped his fins.

Still you sing, a false story, about a man who was taken captive but who was freed. O my brother and my rival, that is not the tale now. There is only one story.

The children died, and the father raged like a maid.

You tell a story of the children who lived, rescued before they too could be slain. Listen, o my brother and my rival, listen. There was once a father who was forced to swim in his own children's blood. But that was not the worst, o, no. For the rest of the children were placed where the man could see them, but not reach them. And he knew that once again he would hang helpless in the water. Once again he would watch his children hatch, and scent each other, and die on each other's teeth—but this time he would not even be able to hold them as they died.

O my sisters, why have you brought this voice to torment me? Your silent sleek presences are all I need. I no longer wish to weave words and catch the unfolding streams of our histories. I have become a maid in my mind; all my desires are turned to blood.

The children died.

The children will die.

Cease your false tales, o my brother and my rival! I sing across you, and I am Sunlight-Reaching-Deep, whose tales catch the truth from the world! Here, here is the story, the true story, what is and what will be:

Once there was a halfmaid. Like all halfpeople, she huddled on boats and rafts, constrained by the waters, her territory barely a span long. But while the other halfpeople raged against each other and were driven mad by overcrowding, the halfmaid looked down into the sea. She saw the people hunting freely, alone and splendid, and hatred filled her heart like fog. She wove between her hands a great net, invisible to the eye, so fine that it caught the very water in its weave. She cast out the net so that it surrounded all the people—and then she caused it to squeeze inwards. The people swirled within the decreasing sea, and the scent of each other filled their mouths.

Maid could not help but see maid; there was blood in the water.

The nets of the men became entangled, the territories merging together; there was blood in the water.

The people tore each other into pieces, because the sea was no longer large enough to contain them, and all the waters turned to blood. The halfmaid saw the blood, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

If this is not the tale you want, o my brother and rival, then sing with me to our sisters and our aunts. Let them fill the waters with other blood.


Tuesday 12 Iunius, 1831 AA

The chledophagic filters are hopelessly damaged. We must drink our water straight from the muddy ocean, like savages. Of greater concern is the rudder; the mechanism is responding listlessly, and Captain Humby fears that the mermen have been gnawing upon it. We have harpoons and firearms, but we cannot shoot through our own hull.

Captain Humby has ordered that all sail be put on, and for the Ocelot to wheel and run before the wind as fast as can be. Our hope is to outpace the mermen, or at least to progress at such a pace that they may not congregate under our hull to work mischief unseen. But run as we may, still those sinister dark shapes may be seen in our wake. Sometimes it is even possible to see a brighter form amidst the waves—one of the colourful, longfinned mermaids, come to watch us pass, with the hunting mermen snapping at our heels.

Or so Small Jack tells me; I must rely on his word, for I have been forced to guard my study night and day, ever since I discovered a group of sailors attempting to pour poison into Oceana's tank. I quite lost my head, and charged at them howling; I fear that it was more simple surprise than any higher virtue that routed them, as they fled like startled foxes. Nonetheless, my eye is still black from the parting blow one particularly vile sailor gifted me with, and I must wear my second-best pair of spectacles.

I cannot bear him any malice, though, for now the poor soul waits upon the good Lord's judgement. The mermen's spears are sharp, and they can cast them a fearful long distance.

What suddenly provoked the mermen to direct attack, none can say; but five men were jerked into the sea like gaffed fish before any could respond. Now Small Jack tells me that every spare table and bench and plank of wood has been pressed into service as a barricade. With a stout barrier of wood between them and the fearful sea, the men may hope to still work the ship—

I take up my pen again, and look back at those words I wrote a bare four hours ago with a heavy heart. Regardless of our attempts to protect ourselves, a javelin took a man as he climbed towards the crows-nest. He fell to the deck, but yet lived—and I am the nearest to a surgeon on board. They carried him here, and I did what I could, but my hands are more used to wielding the dissection scalpel than stitches. He lives yet, but I know not—

The first sailor has died. Two more have been brought in, but thankfully with lesser gashes. These I may be able to save.

Addendum

My handwriting is growing dreadful, but I must record events like a true scientist before I retire for the night. In the midst of the confusion and the hideous groans of injured men, I noticed that Oceana (who previously had been swirling in agitation in her tank) had grown still, and was staring fixedly at the other specimen-jar, wherein I had placed her remaining eggs. When I examined them myself, I saw that three of them were starting to rock, as though in imminent danger of hatching. Remembering the dreadful way in which the previous batch of young turned on each other, I hastened to find a number of large jars, into which I placed the eggs so that they might hatch separately.

Whilst I was thus engaged, Captain Humby came to speak with me, to ask whether it would not be best to return Oceana and the eggs to the sea in hopes of pacifying the mermen. I regretted to inform him that there is no evidence that the attacks are motivated by anything other than blind instinct—I believe it is simply that we are in their territory. To return our specimens would no more dissuade them than a wolfpack could be halted by throwing fur coats at it. Besides which, we have our mission. How could we flee craven, with that work abandoned?

So many dead. I must make sure that it is not for nothing. I must serve science.

It seems that unrelenting, mindless savagery is the lot of the merperson; I hypothesise that in the wild the young immediately flee each other and disperse. Of course, this means without a doubt that they are not intelligent, for if the parent cannot instruct the young, how can any knowledge be retained? For me to see a soul in Oceana's blue gaze is nothing but anthropomorphism of the worst sort. I must rigour myself against such foolishness. They are animals in the mockery of men, that is all.

Two of the three eggs have now hatched, and I can observe the young swimming in their narrow confines. For the moment I am feeding them on a mixture of biscuit and dried fish, chopped fine, which they devour rapaciously. However, I am aware that I have not the space to raise even three infant merpeople, let alone all the remaining eggs. Tomorrow, should there be no more injured to attend to, I shall get out the preserving-jar, and my dissection kit.

Even now, I can hear the mermen scratching mindlessly at the hull underneath my feet.


Once there was a halfmaid—

Once there was a halfman—

O my brother and rival, o my sisters, how can I sing of this? This is stranger than anything that lives in the depths, this is darker to me than any crevasse.

Once there was a man, who—

Once there was—

Here and now, there is a halfperson. It is grey and dull like a maid, but it brings food to children like a father. One day it puts people into small spaces where they cannot help but tear at each other; the next it separates eggs so that the hatching children cannot smell each other at all, and all—all! Even the weakest!—may flourish and thrive.

It stares at me, direct in the eye, so that I feel at every moment it must lunge for my throat, and my own fins rise in answering challenge.

It hides its face in its hands in submission, and stays still.

Other halfpeople rush at it, and there is blood. But then it shouts, and its attackers flee as though before a mighty song. But if it is a song, it is all on one note.

It feeds children not its own, as tender as any man with an orphaned clutch.

Halfpeople are brought to it injured and dying, and the scent of blood fills the air. But it does not eat. It touches them gently, as if they are its own children, and does not drive them out of its territory.

Water runs down its face.

I cannot make this into a story.


Wednesday, 13 Iunius 1831 AA

The specimen I have selected is the largest of the three, perhaps twelve inches in length from nose to tail-tip; I shall make an accurate measurement after I have euthanised it. But before proceeding I will here document a last few observations.

It is my current belief that this is a male, though it is extremely difficult to judge. All the specimens are the same drab grey in colour, which is not similar to either the bright colours of the adult females nor the grey-green of the adult males. Its features are rounded and neotenic, as difficult to sex as any newborn infant. I must remember to probe for milt or roe.

Its eyes track the end of my pen when I move it in front of the glass, and its chubby fingers reach for my own when I dangle them in the water. It appears alert and curious, perhaps even more responsive than the adult specimen. It is like the difference between a kitten and an adult cat; one has not yet learned to be wary.

When I take the lid off the jar, it swims up expectantly to the surface; it has already learned to associate my hand with food, I believe. Its face is identical to that of an infant of perhaps six weeks, though cast in miniature, and unlike a human infant its expression is as still and grave as a carved church cherub. I have noted a similar lack of facial mobility in the adult specimen, so perhaps their musculature is simply more primitive and less expressive than our own.

It looks very much like an infant.

I am anthropomorphising again. There is nothing more to be learned by observation; I must begin the—


I hear you, o my people. I hear you, o my children.

I am chasing words through the dark; I bite, but they are harder than the turtle's shell. I must bite, bite on words until I reach the meat.

I am composing a new song, o my people. Wait.


Thursday, 14 Iunius 1831 AA

I take up this journal again, but for the longest time I have sat with pen poised over the blank page, Oceana watching me. The iron bars are gone from the lid of her tank; now she leans with her head rested on her folded arms, her long tresses swirling down into the water. Oceana's face is as serene and mysterious as ever, but I do not think that calm blue gaze would be upon me now had I completed that fateful operation last night. I look back at that unfinished sentence now and shudder. Save but by Providence. . . .

O Lord, Your grace is great; but the lessons are hard, so hard.

For it was Small Jack who all unknowingly saved that small newborn scrap of life from the oblivion of my scalpel. Small Jack who, even as I prepared to lay down my pen and begin the dissection, was carried over my threshold, with his life's-blood trailing in his wake. His belly had been slashed open by the cruel edge of a javelin, and I knew at once that there would be nothing I could do for him, save to hold his hand.

I have never known time to stretch so, like tar, as those hours in which I tried to comfort a dying child as best I could. If I had had my ether—but all I had were my scalpels, and I could not bring myself to wield their cold mercy. When he was lucid, Small Jack was as brave as any officer of the Fleet; but the moments where his gallant young soul shone through his pain grew fewer and briefer as the hours crept by. He sobbed for the mother he had never known, until the extremity of his injury robbed all words from him. The darkness of the ship's hold grew thick and close around us, the circle of the lamp but a weak and flickering barrier against the night; and always the scratch-scratching of the mermen from the hidden infinity below our feet, as if Death itself gnawed at our flimsy protection. Like Jonah in the belly of the whale, I prayed for delivery—for Small Jack, for myself, for us all.

I am a poor substitute for a mother, and there are no children in the towers of Oxford, but in that endless midnight I found again within myself those distant, dimly-remembered nursery days of my own. I murmured counting-rhymes and fairy tales over the dry, quick sound of Small Jack's labouring breath. I held his hand and I sang the simple, gentle hymns of childhood, filled with the things that should fill childhood: thanks for the sun and the grass, wishes for a peaceful sleep and a joyous awakening. His glazed eyes fixed on my face, so I sang on, of things that he had never known—games with puppies and a clean bed in a snug home, a picnic in the summer—seeking to paint the images so vividly that they should overlay his own poor memories with what should have been. My throat grew dry and my voice cracked; but Small Jack's sweat-wracked body grew quiet, the thin muscles unknotting. Even when I fell silent, he lay easy, a sweet innocence illuminating his face, as if he listened to some other music now. I thought that finally his trials were over—but as I moved to release his hand, his fingers stirred in my own.

"Singing," he whispered, just the barest shape of air, and smiled with such simple pleasure that the sight sliced my heart. "I can hear the angels singing." And he sighed out, a long, quiet breath, and did not take another.

I thought then that the gates of Heaven had cracked open to receive his virgin soul, for I too could perceive a faint, high voice, pure and sharp as glass. It was no earthly song, for it soared wordless in registers right on the edge of hearing, rising unbearably to such heights of purity that no mortal soul could follow. I am not ashamed to admit that the tears ran freely down my face, and I held my breath until my lungs burned, for fear of breaking that moment of perfect grace.

But I, being mortal flesh, must breathe at last, and I did; but still the song continued.

It was Oceana, her face raised above the water with her golden hair spread out on the surface like the rays of the sun. Her face held the same still, remote innocence as Small Jack's, and her lips, slightly parted, did not move, and the music poured from her like pure light. It contained the echoes of my nursery songs, transposed into a register beyond the reach of the sweetest piccolo, transfigured into interlocking rhythms as vast and endless as the sea; and the tones of my own voice were there, and Small Jack's clear boyish tones, and the sound of the waves on the hull.

Oceana's head slipped back beneath the surface, and my straining ears could no longer hear anything but the distant echo of memory; but yet I had the strangest conviction that her song had not yet ended, just moved into realms beyond my perception. Long moments passed before she swirled her fins, like an opera singer retreating into the wings, and lowered her head to look at me directly.

It is grief that bridges the chasm; it is bereavement that unites us.

We have sung at each other since, she and I, but I do not know what we are saying to each other. I do not think that previously she had understood my speech as communication; her songs are so rich in tone and rhythm that our words must seem like the dull banging of a drum. She does not use gesture or expression at all—so obvious, in retrospect, that a creature that lives in the vast murky depths would not communicate by sight! All must be done by music, so that to me her arias leap and flicker in unimaginable complexity, and to pick out any one meaning is as impossible as watching one fish in the midst of a twisting shoal. Perhaps there are no words at all; perhaps she is a creature of pure emotion, as utterly feminine in her mystery as the mermen are masculine in their aggression. Perhaps we shall never understand each other better than we did then, in a moment of matching sorrows.

But we can try. I have been given the chance to try; I, who all unknowing engineered the deaths of some of her children, and might have slain more. I have attempted restitution; Oceana's children are returned to her people, who have vanished once more into the endless sea; we ourselves limp on the long journey home wiser, and pensive. I thought that I must return with just my journal and notes, and the empty webs of Oceana's nets—but I have been given a gift, a great gift, of which I must forever now strive to be worthy.

I meet Oceana's blue gaze, and I know that, though I do not deserve it, I am forgiven.


Once there was a man who mourned his children. He swam slow in the water; for though he had many living children, always the small intangible hands of those who had not survived dragged at his fins. Every clutch would have those who were weakest. Every clutch would have those who were not fierce enough, swift enough, cunning enough; those who were devoured by their siblings.

This is the way of things; the man knew this. He himself had torn at the throats of his brothers in his time, and rejoiced in their blood. He had been the one who fled; he had been the one who pursued. It is the way of things.

But it is different to be a father than to be a son. Sunlight passes from air to water; it is still the same sun, but all is made different.

So the man mourned his lost children. He trailed ghosts behind him, and lamented in silence the silences of their voices. There are things in the world that no man will weave into story. They are known by all fathers, and they cannot be sung.

Now, one day a halfperson came upon the man. The halfperson was more than just halved in form. It was half man and half maid, half child and half parent, half wise and half mad. In nothing was it whole. The man pitied it, in its halfness; then he hated it, in its halfness. There was nothing new, nothing of worth, that could come from a creature that was all air without water.

But the halfperson had been able to create a new thing—a thing that only a half-creature could conceive. It was a substance that was half water and half stone, clear like water but hard like stone. Song travelled through it, and light, but not scent or sea. The halfperson showed the man how the substance could divide children one from another, as if each had its own private sea. The children grew—even the weakest!—and sang happily, all uncaring that barely an arm-span away swam a sibling.

"O halfperson," said the man, in wonder. "What marvel is this?"

The halfperson's voice was but a half-voice; crude, unformed, barely perceptible. But it showed the man a dead halfchild of its own, and it tried to sing. And the man knew that it was a song of grief; the song that he had carried in silence in his own heart; and he realised that the halfperson had found a way to voice the unvoiceable story. The clear substance was that story made solid. The story that the way things are is not as they should be. The story that all children, even the weakest, should live, and grow, and that the ocean should shake to their songs.

It was not a story shaped from the world, but the world shaped from the story.

Then, seeing that the man had understood at last, the halfperson opened the barrier, and offered the ocean back to the man.

The man looked into the depths of the waters, and saw the sleek silent forms of his hunting sisters, and heard the voices of the other men singing. The man looked back at the halfperson, who regarded him wistfully, as if it too would like to slip into the waters and know freedom. The man looked back at the close dark world of the ship, bound for places beyond the knowledge of any song. The man looked back at the unsingable story.

"O halfperson," the man said to the halfperson, greatly humbled, "teach me this song."

And he went with the halfperson, so that there should never again be another ghost-child in the waters around any father. The man went with the halfpeople, to learn their ways.

But the man's living children went back to their own people, and learned to kill.


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.