Art Pact 208 - Mermaid Revenge


There wasn't a man-jack of the complement who had the slightest sense of humour about the whole situation, but I tried to soldier on regardless of their intractability, using a little levity here and there in an attempt to make the rest of the journey a little more bearable. The trouble was that without the sails there was no way of judging quite how long the journey would actually be. We were still moving - the captain kept reminding everyone that the current would take us all the way to the coast eventually - but it was very difficult to judge our speed, and the quartermaster reminded us every day that we had only taken aboard enough supplies to last us for the journey as originally planned.

Of course, there were solutions to that - we had plenty of water surrounding us, and although it was not quite fresh water, it was considerably less salty than the ocean, and potable without danger of illness. The overlake was also remarkably well stocked with fish, silvery pilchard-like creatures that swarmed together in such great shoals that it looked as though a man might be lowered over the side and walk quite happily along their backs. Unfortunately, we soon learned that if we had tried that the unfortunate sailor in question would have plummeted to his death in short order. First of all, of course, despite the fact that most of them had spent a great deal more of their lives on water than on land, none of the sailors (not even the captain) was able to swim, making me the only one with any hope of surviving should the ship founder or anyone, as I said, be lowered over the side. Next, it appeared that the mermaid's revenge extended further than just damaging the sails - she had also apparently said something to the fish that meant that they were less than averagely cooperative with us. Considering that a fish's normal cooperation with an angler is already weighted towards thwarting the man's aims, you can imagine quite how awkward they made life for us.

Every morning, since they had nothing else to do, the rigging teams were sent out with rods and hooks and nets to stand at (or hang over, in the case of the more daring crewmen) the side of the ship and attempt to supplement our food supply with some of the local fish. The captain and quartermaster both assured me that on normal trips the fish were relatively easy to catch and also tasty (if the heads were removed). I think I'd rather have heard that they were obnoxious, since the prospect of a delectable morsel hanging just out of reach was the worst part of the torture that hunger slowly began to work in me. It's possible that the captain knew that, and he was being deliberately informative (surely unlike his normal self) in order to ensure that I was suffering just as much as he was. He was certainly crafty enough for that.

For the first few days the hooks were baited with the less appetising scraps and morsels from our larder, but all that happened was that the hooks came back empty of either food or fish, so that either what we had put on the metal was dissolved in the dull water of the overlake or the fish were so canny that they could come up to the line and nibble off pieces of the bait without taking the hook. The cannier seamen quickly realised that it was better to eat the scraps themselves than simply feed them to the fishes, and a few of the more cynical ones noted that as they themselves might soon prove fishfood it made no difference in the long run who got to eat the bait except that if they ate it they might at least go to their graves a bit fuller in the belly. I could not fault their reasoning, although the quartermaster and ships cook both cottoned on pretty quickly and simply cut off the supply of scraps, retaining them for equal distribution (in particular it was deemed a little unfair that the rigging crews, who had little hard work to do, should be getting more than their share of the food compared to the bilge teams).

The fish shoals also managed to avoid nets, simply opening up and reforming once the net had gone past, and a experiment with chumming the waters and spearing a shark or two turned out rather sinister. The harpoons were knocked up in the ship's chandlery (a rather grandiose term for a carpentry block in the dark at the bow end of the cargo hold) - straight poles of wood tipped with a crude barbed head and with a hole drilled through the other end which a line could be passed through. We expended one of the few remaining live chickens to form the chum (about half the chicken's meat and all of its blood), then waited patiently. We were soon rewarded by the appearance of a shark that must have been twice the size of a man, but rather than coming to the surface the beast merely waited for the chicken meat to begin to sink - which it did, terribly slowly, over the course of perhaps a couple of hours. Once it was down far enough that the shark could get at the meat without our throws being accurate it simply gobbled up the food we'd supplied it. We made a few cursory attempts to spear it, but none of the sailors was good enough to hit it through the water. The spear would slow down once it had gone under the water completely, making it trivially easy for the shark to avoid it. On the fifth throw to our horror it looped around and grabbed the spear in its jaws before we could pull it back and shot downwards, the wood still gripped solidly in its teeth. It was only my quick reactions in grabbing the unfortunate sailor's legs that stopped him being pulled in before he could let go, and even then it was a full second before he released his grip, enough for the skin to be stripped off his palms.

We did not try that again.

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