The Brittle Star

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Digital drawing. A merman, his top half human and his bottom half a fish, facing forward perched on flat earth. He is bare-chested and his tail curves up behind him to the left (his right). He wears a belt of gold around his waist, and in the center is a symbol: three upside down triangles, overlapping and growing smaller from bottom to top. He wears gold cuffs or vambraces. His right hand is curled in a fist by his side. In his left hand, he holds a golden trident, simple save that the symbol of three triangles was worked into the lines connecting the prongs of the trident. Waves splash behind him.

“You would give him back the pearls?” Myra said. 

She was standing at the prow, leaning against the outer wall of her cabin, peering at her first mate.

Rook crossed his arms.  “If…if need be.”

Myra swept her gaze over the rest of her crew.  They were all gathered on the deck to discuss the merman’s offer.

“What say the rest of you?” she asked.  There was a moment of silence, at least among the crew.  The sea was never silent.  Even in the calm waters in which they were currently anchored, warbling waves nudged the ship and bounced it up and down like a fussy baby.

Finally, someone spoke up.

“I see the advantage in being paid in undersea treasure—as the captain said.  The merfolk don’t hoard or covet pearls and gems and the like the way we do.”

“Know many merfolk, do you know?”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?  We don’t know much about the merfolk.  There’s danger in dealing with the unknown, especially when it comes to magical folk, and especially magical folk who live under the sea.”  The crewmate who’d spoke shuddered and shook his head.

His comment triggered a round of grunting agreement among the rest.  Myra could already foresee the direction of the crew’s decision.

“There will always be risk, whatever way we sail,” Myra said. 

And her comment too inspired the nodding of heads and mutters of agreement. 

“The question before us is simple, mates,” Myra continued.  “Is the treasure worth the danger?”

“How can we say,” Rook said, “when we don’t know the qualities of either?  Those few pearls that he’s already given us may be all that he has.  And why does he think that a bunch of common sailors would succeed in finding this ocean realm that’s been hidden with enchantments?”

“That’s right, we don’t have any enchanters on our crew,” the old boatswain said.  “Nor do we have any scholars, map-makers, or explorers.”

“Maybe he’s mistaken us for pirates.  He supposes that pirates are good at finding treasure, and so…”

“Maybe he’s already exhausted all those ways,” said a deck hand.  “Maybe he has chosen us out of desperation.”

“If he’s desperate,” the pilot said, “he’s dangerous.”

“What of the new hull constructions?”

“What of them?”

“Those were meant to protect against pirates, not mermen.”

“What did he look like, Captain?” someone asked.

“Did he have long sharp teeth, like a pike fish?”

“No, I’ve heard they’re more like a shark’s or piranha’s.”

“Either way, there are rows of them, so—“

“Let the captain tell us!  Was he handsome, Captain?”

Myra said nothing, but raised a hand, and that line of discussion tapered off.

“The captain knows my answer to her question,” Rook said, glancing at her.  He stepped up beside Myra, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops.  “Set aside all your fantasies and your wild guesses.  In the end, it comes to this, do you want to make a bargain with a merman?”

“That’s right,” the boatswain said.  “Forget if he’s handsome or hideous.”  He began to cackle, and his humor spread to a few others.

But Myra noted all the furrowed brows, tensed jaws, and gazes cast down in thought.

***

One of the pearls that the merman called Skelmis had given them was a way to summon him back once Myra and her crew made their decision.  She had instructed her crew to dock the ship in a natural bay upon the island they’d been passing.  She and Rook trekked through the sparse woods to the other side of the island.  They found a bluff.  Myra dropped the pearl into the waters.  They didn’t wait long before the waters below began to churn and rise to an unnatural height.  Upon a wave rode the merman. 

His top half appeared like a bare-chested man, save that his complexion was the green of kelp and fresh olives.  His ruffled hair was likewise green, but of a brighter, more vibrant hue, the green of an emerald.  He wore a belt of gold around his waist, and in the center was a symbol.  Three upside down triangles, overlapping and growing smaller from bottom to top.  Gold was at his wrists too, long cuffs, like vambraces. Below the waist, he was a fish, with a long tail of glittering green-and-gold scales ending in a delicate fin split in the middle.  He bore no other fins along his tail.  In his left hand, he held a golden trident, simple save that the symbol of three triangles was worked into the lines connecting the prongs of the trident.

Skelmis was taller than both Myra and Rook.  Yet he raised his chin up so that his eyelids had to lower as he gazed down at them.

“Greetings, surface-dwellers,” he said.

He could certainly be an exiled prince.  His bearing, the adornments of gold, worn simply, as if they were his everyday garb, and that trident, they all marked someone of import.  His claim was that he had been usurped, and that the usurpers had used enchantment to hide his ocean realm from him.  Now, he needed the help of those would not think as an ocean-dweller would think.  He had exhausted all his own means.  When Myra first encountered the merman, his mention of pearls the size of her head, and veins of untapped ore and gems, in deep undersea mountains that no surface-dweller could ever reach, had enticed her.

But in the end, Rook was right.  And all had agreed he was so.

Myra held out the sack of pearls that Skelmis had given her as a taste of what would come, if she and her crew agreed to the job.

“I must refuse,” Myra said.  “The risk is too great, both to my crew and to you.  We have not the skill needed to help you in your quest.”  She held her breath, hoping that Skelmis would not react in the way of an angry sea god, summoning storms and crashing waves.  She didn’t know if he had the power to do such things.  But it was wiser to be cautious and assume that he did.

The merman did not extend his own hand to receive back the sack of pearls.

“You may keep the gift of pearls,” Skelmis said.  “But I ask one more favor of you, Captain.  I ask that you allow me to speak to your crew directly.  Perhaps I can convince them.  And they in turn can convince you.”

Myra imagined that if Rook had heard the merman’s words, his shoulders would be stiffening.  But as a precaution, Rook has stuffed his ears with wax so he could not hear the merman’s voice. 

“If I may ask,” she said, “why do you believe that we can help you?  We are a small merchant vessel.  We spend most of our time delivering goods, and we don’t range far in our sailing.”

Skelmis lowered his chin slightly.  “Many leaders in my realm undervalue the abilities of those whom they would call ‘commoners.’  I am not so foolish.”

***

Myra asked for a day to ponder his request.  But in truth, she wanted to ask her crew if they were willing to hear the merman’s plea with their own ears.  She was still uncertain what answer she hoped for from them.  Only Rook seemed certain of his decision.  But most of the rest were curious, curious enough to grant the merman his request.

“What if he casts some kind of enchantment?” Rook argued that night, when they were alone in the captain’s cabin.  “What if he hypnotizes them into agreeing to his bargain?  Or to murdering their captain?”

Myra frowned at his last comment.  “Why bother with the whole crew when he could have enchanted the two us?”

To this, Rook had no answer in the moment.

If the merman were truly as powerful as her first mate feared, then there would be no denying him either way.  But if the merman was one to honor his word, then all would be well.

“Do you believe what he told you about that map he has?” Rook asked.

The merman had claimed that he had a map that led to his realm, but it was a tricky map, and made so that he wouldn’t be able to read it on his own.  His enemies had taunted him with it.  They believed him too proud to turn to others for aid, for the only others he could ask were the surface-dwelling humans.

“If it brings you any comfort,” Myra said, “I will refuse no matter what the crew wants.”  She did not often refuse her crew.  And when she did, she always gave them a reason.  And she expected them to abide by her refusal.

Rook turned to her.

“We will find another job,” Myra said, “even if we have to sail beyond our range.”

***

They awaited the merman’s visit on the deck of the ship this time.  The Brittle Star had anchored again, far out to sea this time.  Myra heard the familiar splash of a wave rising higher than was natural in the calm waters.  The wave did not rise from one side, but from both.  The crew uttered gasps, and most to their credit, jumped into action, their hands poised on parts of the rigging.  The waves churned and foamed, and glinted with sparks of light.  They only rose a few feet above the railing and then splashed onto the deck. 

As the water drained away, it left behind a layer of pearls in every color.  They spilled across the deck until no part of the planks below could peek through.  The crew began to pick up some of the pearls and examine them.

Myra heard crewmates exclaim that the pearls were real.  Most were so distracted that they did not see the merman perched on a spout of water at the port side.  Myra was standing at the port side.  She saw the trident’s bottom dip below the surface, stirring the waters around the ship.

The merman spoke, drawing the attention of the crew.  And the few who had agreed to stuff their ears with wax, as Myra and Rook had done, were drawn by the sight of the gleaming pearls.  Myra did not see any that were the size of her head.  But there were a few that were as big as her eyes.  Some of the pearls gleamed a cool white with a tinge of blue, like the moon.  Some were the color of cream with a dash of caramel.  Some were bright pink or bright orange.  Some were like bubbles of soap with streaks of rainbow at the surface. 

Myra glanced at Rook.  He too had noted the simmering and bubbling of the waters surrounding just their ship. 

As the merman spoke, the crew stepped closer to him to hear his words.  Water splashed and slapped against the hull.

Myra watched her crew.  When they began to smile and clap, she knew that the merman had finished speaking.  Waves rose and washed across the deck again, but this time, they swept away all the pearls that they had delivered.  He had only meant to show them what was to be theirs once the bargain was fulfilled.

The merman dove back under the waters.  The crew crowded the railing and gazed down after him.

Myra did not remove the wax from her ears until they had sailed the Brittle Star far away from that spot, and closer to a port in friendly waters.

***

“On the bright side,” Myra said, “even if all he gives us is the riches that were just rolling around our deck, we would never have to work again.  Nor would our heirs.  We could sail wherever we wanted to.”  She and Rook were sitting in her cabin.  She slapped the wall.  “I could have the Star built up in high fashion.”

“The Star is beautiful as she is,” Rook said.  He stared out of the window.  Neither sad nor angry did her first mate look, for he knew what she knew.

“If we run into any trouble, we do have those new hull constructions.”

Rook sighed and turned to look at her.  “We’ve only tested those in still waters, shallow waters.”

Even if their crew had not been swayed by the merman’s sweet words and his shiny pearls, Myra would have to agree to the job he offered them.  The simmering waters around the ship had been a show of his powers, and a warning. 

They were already on their way to the location of the first clue that the merman had revealed to them.  The merman had given them a map to follow but one with gaps and puzzles.  The first puzzle had not been difficult to solve.  Perhaps the riddle had been difficult when the map was made centuries past.  But in present times, the riddle and its answers were commonly known.  This gave Myra hope that the job might be easier and quicker than she’d feared.  But for Rook, it only added to his misgivings. 

“I’ll give you sole say over what we do next,” Myra said, by way of a weak appeasement.

“You’re assuming that we’ll both live to see what comes next,” Rook said.

Myra rose from her chair.  She put a hand on his shoulder.  “Have hope.  Maybe it’s not as dire as you fear.  Maybe what seems easy for us is difficult for him.”

“We’re at his mercy, Myra.”  Rook peered down at the tattered map that was unrolled over Myra’s desk.  “The lever falls in his favor.  But everyone has a weakness.  I hope we find his before we reach the end of our journey.”

*** 

From one new moon to the next they had been sailing.  They had bridged a few of the gaps in the map.  Curiously, the task required a knowledge of the stars and their positions in the sky during the different seasons of the year.

“Merfolk didn’t make this map,” Rook commented one morning.  “But neither did human folk.  I’ve never seen ink quite this color.”

“It’s very black,” Myra agreed.  “Hasn’t faded at all, even though the paper has.  Maybe it was treated against water.”

“Even so, it’s a strange thing.”

They rolled away the map and strolled upon the deck.  A moon had passed and they hadn’t yet discovered any advantage they might have with the merman, any great advantage that is.  Myra believed she had uncovered a weakness, albeit a minor one.

Myra had requested that the merman follow them at a distance.  Lest he be insulted by the request, she had explained that she worried about her crew being distracted by the merman’s presence, since a good number of them found him to be handsome.  The merman’s sea-green brows had furrowed and then stretched up in what seemed to be genuine surprise.  Then he had raised his chin, and the corners of his mouth had quirked up just a bit, as if he were pleased.

“If he raises the tides against us, I doubt we’ll be able to fight back by appealing to his vanity,” Rook had said. 

All the while, the crew kept finding pearls around the ship.  A white pearl lodged in the crack of a deck plank.  A soft blue pearl in the corner of the pantry, behind the tins of fruit.  An iridescent rainbow pearl just rolling around in the cargo hold.

Myra suspected that the merman had left them behind when he swept up the rest, just to remind the crew of what rewards awaited them.  The merman had certainly discovered their weakness.

***

The last clue was revealed to the crew of the Brittle Star when they reached a destination far beyond their typical range, an island that was shown on none of the other maps they possessed.  No people lived on the island.  Nor were there many animals.  One type of bird and a few insects.  And a cave, half above water, and half below.  Myra sent down their two best swimmers, but only after she had tried to convince the merman to go down and search in the underwater part of the cave.  He went down but came up looking quite frustrated.  He said he could see nothing, nor could he tell them there was anything at all of interest in the underwater cavern.

But when Myra’s crewmates swam down, they found a glowing wall inscribed with symbols.  On surfacing, they looked at the map and found the same symbols.  Again the puzzle was not difficult to decipher. 

It revealed the way to the hidden ocean realm.

But this time, solving the puzzle revealed something else as well.

***

“To say I am out of my depth is the grimmest jest I could make,” Myra said.  She was gazing down at the back of the map.

She, Rook, her second mate, and the two who’d swum down to the cavern—the pilot and a deck hand—were all gathered in the captain’s cabin.  The last puzzle had required that the map be folded so that certain symbols lay over certain other symbols, matching the patterns found in the cave. 

As they unfolded the map, ink appeared before their eyes.  Ink appeared on the map pointing the way to the hidden realm.  And from a curled corner, they had seen ink appear on the back of the map as well.

They had flipped the map over.

Characters formed at the margins, but none of them could read the language.  Myra asked her second mate to go fetch one of the younger crewmates who had left his schooling to join her crew.  He had been studying languages. 

But most of what they saw needed no interpretation.  There were ink sketches of merfolk bowing before others who bore crowns.  Some of those who were bowing were weeping, their dense tears dropping through the waters.  Some bore grave wounds, missing limbs and frightening scars.  The wounds matched weapons that were held in the hands of the crowned.  There were some who stood between the crowned ones and the bowing ones.  But in the next image, those were shown being struck down.  Foremost among the crowned ones was one who bore a trident.  He wore a belt etched with three upside down triangles.  The ink was deep black, but Myra knew that belt was made of gold.

“No wonder he was banished,” Rook said.  He frowned and drew up his lips.

“Maybe it’s not true,” the deck hand said.  She was among those who had been dazzled at meeting the merman. “We don’t know who left this record.  We don’t know who made this map.”  She glanced at Myra.

“He didn’t tell me when I asked,” Myra said.  “And I did not press him on it.”

In the next set of sketches, some of those who had once bowed were standing up.  They were struck down.  But this did not deter others.  More and more of those who had once bowed, stood up.  In one sketch, some of those who were crowned seemed to be climbing down to those who were standing.  Or perhaps they were stepping down, down from their thrones.  They were setting their crowns down on the ground.

But some of those who were still crowned turned away from the steps.  They raised their weapons against all those who were gathered around them.  Trident and pike and sword. 

But in the next sketch, they were alone, their weapons raised against no one.  Their realm and their people had vanished.

“He wasn’t banished,” Myra said, peering at the sketches, reasoning out the story they told.  “They were.  They banished themselves, hid themselves.”

She pointed to the map where a set of gates appeared and a great lock.  As her finger settled on the map, the ink began to vanish.

“They’re hidden.  Locked away.”

“But how are we able to find them?” Rook asked.

The other crewmate, the ship’s pilot, crossed his arms and drew in a slow breath.  “If their enchantments were made to hide away from their own people, maybe they don’t affect surface-dwellers.”

“Look here,” Rook said.  He pointed to a series of sketches showing ships of different kinds—pirate, merchant, warships, even royal vessels—sailing toward undersea gates.  Trailing them all was a familiar figure.  “We’re not the first.”

“If he’s reached the gate before,” Myra said, “he must not have been able to breach it.”

“But if he knows the way there, why does he need us?”

Myra pointed to the sketches of the many ships that came before.  “It must be the same reason he needs us to read the map.  Their enchantment…it confuses the way.  At least for him.”

Sketches followed of Skelmis battling and killing other merfolk wearing crowns. 

“He’s killing all his rivals,” Myra said, “and look, he’s stealing their powers.  Does anyone want to wager what he means to do with all those powers?”

“Kill us?” the pilot jested darkly.

But he gasped when his gaze fell on the last sketch.  Sailors drowning in storm and maelstrom.  Cast overboard as they screamed in terror.

“Why?” the deckhand whispered.

Myra could guess.

The merman could not have news or even rumors of him and his realm circulating among surface-dwellers, so he was careful to pick ships and crews from all over the world.  And once the job was done, he drowned the crews.  And he recovered his bag of pearls to entice the next ship, the next crew, the next captain whose greed outweighed her caution. 

Myra started wondering if she could put the crew on the boats, and have them row away from the ship without Skelmis noticing. 

Suddenly, she rolled up the map and jammed one end of it into the fire of the nearest lantern.  Her crew cried out.

“Captain!”

“What are you doing?”

The map did not catch fire.  Myra was not surprised.

“I have doomed all of us,” she said.  “My people.  And theirs.”

“It wasn’t you who doomed us,” Rook said.

Myra gazed over at him. 

“Let’s put our crew on the boats,” he said.  “Let them escape, and you and I will lead Skelmis away from the gate.  He’ll try to kill us.  We can finally test out those hull constructions like you’re been wanting to do.”

Myra nodded.

***

The crew gathered below decks, in case Skelmis decided to visit them unannounced.  She and Rook explained their plan.  They began to give out orders for stocking the boats and assigning crew to each boat so that there were those who could pilot, those who could navigate, and so forth. 

When one of the crew raised her hand, Myra realized that the crew had been waiting for her and for Rook to stop talking, so they could give their response.

“Captain, what if some of us want to stay?” she asked.  “The Star can’t be sailed with a crew of two.”

A crack of thunder answered her before Myra could.

“Wouldn’t we be safer on the ship?” another asked.

“And wouldn’t the ship fare better if she had all her crew?”

“That’s all well and good, but Captain, if you’re offering to let us go, I’ll take that offer.  I have young ones back home.”

Myra nodded.  “Those who will leave will have to go soon.  Let’s split the crew then.  If you want to stay, then stay, but help the others with the boats.”

Gray clouds gathered.  It started raining as they prepared the boats.  Some of the crew wanted to row away right then, without even fresh water loaded on the boats.  The sea began to heave.

And upon one of the waves, rose the merman.

Lightning arced across the clouds. 

“Greetings!” Skelmis cried.  Thunder cracked.  “You have brought me to the gates of my realm.  You have served well, surface-dwellers.  I will render payment.”  Another wave rose, bearing a huge sack that was dropped on the deck.  A few pearls spilled from the sack.

Skelmis slipped again below the waters.

They should not yet have been at the gates of the hidden realm.  But perhaps they were not.  Perhaps Skelmis had found them out somehow, and he had decided it was time to find others to bear him to gates of the realm that did not want him.  

“It’s too late,” Myra cried to the crew.  “I’m sorry to those who wished to leave, but it’s too late.”

They had already lowered the sails. 

The ship tilted to port.  Thunder boomed and rumbled.

No one would hear her now, over the sound of thunder and crashing waves.  Myra stood on the prow where her deck crew could see her.  She raised her arms and gave them the signal that they had been waiting for.  Just as she did, a maelstrom began swirling around them.

And just as she did, the crew collapsed the masts.  They pulled levers, and curved planks that were hidden in the hull slid upwards, like ribs, above their heads.  The sky vanished as the planks connected.   The rain was blocked, but began to leak through.  Some of the crew scrambled over the deck, reaching up to clasp planks in place.  Others were pumping a hose that sprayed an altered sealing wax over the planks.  Crew on the decks below would be doing the same.  Myra prayed the ship would not be struck by lightning. 

Rook went below decks while Myra remained above.  He and a few others took the bag of pearls down to the cargo hold. 

There were small portholes in the planks that covered the prow.  Myra wiped excess wax off the glass so that the pilot would be able to see.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if we go under,” the pilot said.

Myra placed both hands on the pilot’s shoulders.  “Try to keep her upright.”

***

Through her fear for her crew, Myra felt tremendous pride.  Those who had wanted to flee had only to see the storm that Skelmis brought before they returned to their duties.  All were afraid.  None gave complaint. 

She was proud of the Brittle Star too.  The ship was holding against the storm.  But all could tell that it was no ordinary storm.  It had a will, the will of Skelmis, and it was attacking them. 

When Rook returned above deck, Myra asked him, “Is it done?”

He nodded.  “Every one of them jettisoned before we sealed the hold.  Even the ones he’d given us before, and the ones the crew found.”

“Let’s hope if anyone kept any that they aren’t cursed.”

“No one has knowingly kept any of those pearls.  They’ve judged the danger too great.”

***

For hours they suffered the storm.  The crew checked for leaks.  Some tried to rest so they could rotate through watches, but none could sleep with the sea heaving and tossing them about.  They moved little from their assigned stations.  They drank water, but none were hungry.

And then they began to sink.

The pilot cried out. 

“How can you tell?” Myra asked, for the prow-side portholes had been drenched the whole time.

“Can’t you feel it?” the pilot said.  “We’re diving.”

“Ready the air pumps,” Myra said. 

Rook slowly made his way along the starboard railing. 

The ship lurched, and he tumbled across the deck.

Myra called out.  “Rook!”

“Captain, we’re rising again!” the pilot said.

He struggled to keep the wheel and the ship steady and upright.  Myra gripped the wheel to help him.  The ship jolted to port.  Both of them were thrown off.  The wheel spun.  The ship tilted and tilted, and fell on its side.

But then, they were floating.  The waters had calmed.

The ship seemed to butt up against something, but gently, and as it rocked to and fro in the waters, the port side began to lift.  It lifted and lifted until the ship was upright. 

The pilot scrambled to the wheel and glanced around.  “How did she right herself?”

Myra felt a sprain in her left wrist.  She held it against her chest as she helped other crewmates to their feet. 

“Do you think he’ll check to see if we’re dead?” Rook said, rising and trying his limbs to check for injuries.

“We can’t risk sitting here and finding out,” Myra said.  “We have to unseal the top deck and start rowing—everyone who’s able.” 

“There’s wind, Captain,” one of the deck hands said.  “Maybe we should raise the sails.”

They were only able to lower some of the cover planks.  The altered sealing wax was resistant to being removed.  But as they cleared their view of the open ocean, they glimpsed in the northern distance, a most terrifying sight.

A hundred-headed sea serpent was skimming the water’s surface.  The serpent was towing a net within which was caught a sphere, within which was a raging Skelmis.  Half the serpent’s heads were facing and watching the merman.  Half were looking ahead.  The serpent sunk below the surface, dragging the merman under. 

The waters around the Brittle Star simmered, as if there were others below the waters.  But only one broke the surface.  Riding toward them on the back of a porpoise was a little squid. 

“Should we sail away, Captain?” the pilot asked.

Myra glanced back and saw that the sails had been furled.  They would catch the winds once the pilot turned the ship. 

“Yes,” she said, “but first drop the longboat.  And I want two volunteers with me.  Not you, Rook.  You’re captain until I return—if I return.”

For there would always be risk, whatever way they sailed.

Myra, her second mate, and one of the deck hands jumped on the longboat as it was lowered into the water.  The others rowed toward the porpoise and the squid. 

“Come back, all of your,” Rook called down to them.  “Captain’s orders.”

“Oh, we’ll come back,” Myra said.  “With treasure.”

“Anything but pearls.”

Myra grinned as she wrapped a bandage around her sprained wrist.  But her grin faded as they neared the porpoise and squid.  She glanced back to see that the Brittle Star was well on her way. 

She turned forward again and noted that one of the squid’s tentacles was curled around a small purple shell.  He offered the shell to her.

Myra looked into the depths of the squid’s purple-black eyes. 

She reached for the shell.


Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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