Was it just sea cows peacefully suckling?
When scurvy set in they carried on,
until even the captain lay below,
his gums red and swollen
in his dry face.
And then the wind died.
Long, long days of the sail sagging.
Thin and weak they sprawled on the deck
dreaming of oranges, limes and red peppers,
only small waves, breaking softly against the bows,
white as a hand
that grips the hull…
A thump on the wooden prow, once, twice –
and then the singing begins.
They had no Circe, no bees wax.
If they were deaf and blind they might stand a chance.
The tiller creaked, the ship lurched,
towards the rocks.
Their voices rise
her fin slaps the stone, faster and faster,
one spreads her arms
chests heave the crescendo –
There is the first awful boom,
and the creaking, splintering of tarred planks,
and the pouring rush of water.
A sailor screamed, high as a woman
some cursed, and scrabbled for muskets, for clubs,
one shouted a prayer to the Virgin.
Later, in engravings
they showed the men brave and strong and handsome.
And the women’s silky hair soft billows against the dusky sky,
scallop shells for modesty.
That was later.
Now the men reeled against the bucking floor,
dizzy and hungry, their ears full of song,
full of song, full of song.
Great gashes in the curved planks
broken like a rib-cage.
Now smooth arms hauled themselves up
hair plastered back
streaming salt down their breasts,
the flick and thrust of those muscular tails, terrifying.
Already dying of salt-pork
the men were weak in those wet arms,
before the freezing plunge of water.
They bubbled and turned blue,
gouts of water,
no blood – only cold fingers at their lips.
And still the chanting like sonar calls of mammals,
notes they’d never heard before
not meant for mortals.
Still they struggled,
sluggish under water,
a cracked splinter, two foot long, scratched deep
a scream of pain, of rage,
and her hands were round his throat
her tail between his legs.
Embracing as the fathoms pass
– unheavenly choir
seducing them to chilly boudoirs
in ladylike blue-green,
and darker places,
not so ladylike.
This is no cold-blooded androgyny, no sexless fish.
The sea-bed approaches,
A nuptial, welcoming,
waves sweep nausea
and peels of song,
face on face, eyes clouding with beauty, and death.
Down here there is no sun to flash against silver scales
nor sails for shrouds,
only the wet enfold of the sea, of the mermaids, no longer maids.