Wednesday, 22 July 2009
The Sailor and the Nereid
There was a man who went to sea. He took ship at Salonika and the ship sailed away. It happened that one morning the ship was crowded with birds on the deck. The man ran at them to scare them away, but they flew up like a cloud of noise and feathers before settling again. The first mate told him to leave them be and be about his work, so the man left the birds and went on with his work.
But it was as if something had got into his head, an imp or a goblin that made his mind itch. He felt the constant noise of the birds chattering in his ears. The rustle of their feathers as they shifted with the motion of the ship and every so often on deck he saw them as if they were a plague, a ship disease that seemed to have infected the deck. He complained to the Captain who told him,
"Ignore them. Once I knew a captain who had the same notion you have. He went among the birds and slew several of them. The rest flew away in fear, but from that moment on, the captain of that ship never had a moment's peace. He fled from one place to the next, driven hither and yon, just to get away from the birds. He thought they were all following him, every bird in the world, looking for him and wanting their revenge. It is said that he died from a swarm of sparrows that flew into his room and suffocated him before pecking and clawing him to death. All because he once could not leave the birds alone. "
The man nodded and went back on the deck. The birds all seemed to turn their head and look at him with their dark shiny eyes. He shivered and went below decks to work. The ship's cook taught him shanties and wild songs about the pirates that had once sailed in the 18th century. He told him about Anne Bonney and Mary Read and Captain Morgan until the man was so caught up with the cook's tales that he forgot the birds on the deck. That night when he was on watch, he was forced to sit upon the deck and keep a lookout. The birds roosted, sleeping with their heads tucked under a wing, huddled together for warmth. Now they were quiet in the darkness of night with the sky pranked with stars. A moon bathed in the dark waves and looked pale upon the world. The man got up and walked about the deck, carefully moving so as not to disturb the birds. He remembered all the Captain had told him and did not want to be killed in the future by a swarm of birds.
Morning came and the birds arose in a cloud and flew away over the mist-laden sea until he could hear only the gentle slapping of the waves against the ship's hull. That morning in his sleep he dreamed of a fine gull that settled on the deck and shivered off it's feathers to reveal a tall pale woman with green and purple hair like the sea. About her brow she wore a crown of sea-mist and she was dressed in a shift as pale as moonlight. When he awoke, the ship drew into a port. The man helped to unload the cargo and load up with more cargo. He was given a stencil to print the origin of the cargoes on the crates. When he had finished this, he kept the stencil.
For ten years he sailed on the ship and every midday for the next ten years the birds came and settled on the deck and he ignored the imp in his head. They would stay all night and every morning they would rise up like a cloud and fly away. After a while, he had quite a collection of stencils from ports all over the world. He had travelled hither and yon and come to ignore the birds settling on the ship.
One morning after he had been on watch for the whole night, he saw that the birds were shuffling their feathers and yet they were not getting ready to fly away. They seemed to part to leave a path and at the other end of the path was a large fine looking gull with white and grey feathers and large eyes. As the man looked the gull seemed to raise itself and shake it's head and body until it's skin and feathers fell away and left a tall, pale woman with green and purple hair like the sea in a storm. About her brow was the crown of sea-mist and she wore a shift so pale it may well have been made of moonlight.
The man rubbed his eyes and shook himself but the woman was still there. He stayed very still in the hope that whatever was happening would stop or go away. But the woman walked between the birds to him and placed her hand on his face. He felt the cool, damp touch of her hand and gasped. She smiled gently, a fey smile gentle but with a hint of danger about it. He had heard of many things from his fellow sailors and now he knew that he was staring into the deep, deep eyes of a Nereid, one of the daughters of the sea.
"You have travelled far and seen much," she told him, "This afternoon the ship will come to port. You will leave it and go to the churchyard at Little Possett. Beside a tall grand yew there is a flat stone that has been half hidden by earth. Beneath that stone is a chest hidden during the English Civil War. Take it, for it will bring you great wealth. As you leave the churchyard you will meet the woman you are to marry. You will both be married in the church there and live a long and happy life. For, when the imp of the perverse invaded your mind you did not harm the birds of the sea but resisted the imp and this is your reward."
The man nodded and could only watch dumbfounded as the nereid put her gull skin back on and flew away over the mist-laden sea followed by the rest of the birds. Sure enough the ship did come to port that afternoon and the man thanked the captain for having him aboard and took his leave and his pay. He went ashore along with fifty other men and bidding them farewell he went to Little Possett.
Little Possett was a small and pretty village in the beautiful county of Sussex and it's old church dated back to the time of the Saxons. There was a small graveyard and around the edge of the graveyard were fine old yews. The man found the oldest one easily enough and there he found the stone beside it. Having scrabbled away at the earth he lifted the stone and found the chest hidden in a lead box. He took the chest, put back the stone and earth and left the churchyard. Just by the gate he met a woman with dark eyes and dark hair and skin like the palest porcelain. Instantly he fell deeply in love and she with him. All that the nereid had told him came to pass and he was wed the following season and made a wealthy man by the treasure in the chest.
Three days after his wedding, the man woke up early and went out into the garden. The roses were in bloom and the jasmine around the old porch was full of its starlike flowers. Over the garden was a mist and there, on the wall he saw a large gull. He bowed and bid it good morning but it hopped from one foot to the other tilted its head and turning, flew away. He never saw it again, but I believe that he and his lovely wife live there still. Their daughter recently gave the local museum her father's collection of stencils with all the names of places the ships cargoes had come from. She also gave them his journals and a photograph of him as a sailor. In one of them, taken by the dock there is a tall, pale woman who appears to be crowned in sea-mist and wearing the palest shift like moonlight.