The Mermaids' Smoke Rings

by Becca Rose Hall

For Aimee Bender


Loneliness, and the smell of tobacco cutting through sea brine, drew the sailors straight towards the mermaids’ smoke rings. Be careful, cried the ship’s boy, spying the rocks from the crow’s nest. The sailors laughed.

He’s too young to understand, said an ordinary seaman, adjusting himself in his trousers.

 He still cries for his mother, said another.

I still cry for his mother, said the boatswain’s mate.

Oh shut up, the others thought but outranked could not say.

The ship’s carpenter fingered the empty pipe in his pocket. He doesn’t even smoke.

The mermaid on the north-most rock drew deep on her kelp-pipe and exhaled three perfunctory rings in the direction of the ship. It was a large one, redundant with masts and vast sails. No scrappy fishing vessel making ablutions to the sea. She squinted as if the sails’ blazing pained her. Don’t trust a white sail. It’ll give you nothing. A white that clean never rains. She scratched her ass scales on a limpet.

The mermaid on the southwest rock coughed and pulled her fingers through her tangled hair. Oh you prefer seals, so what do you know.

A seal, said the north maid, washes.

So, said the southwest maid, does the sea.

The sea, the sea, murmured the mermaid on the eastern rock. What can’t the sea do?

The smoke, the smoke, the sea brine and smoke. The sailors pressed against the rails. They had taken for granted theirs would be the only bodies, voyage long. They had not considered the pull of beings beyond themselves. Pleasure that came in tides and waves, dispersed and phosphorescent, hardly lapped at their minds. It was almost inconceivable, the livingness of the world. They had a grip on themselves. They primed the cannons. But they had poorly rationed their tobacco.

The mermaids flicked their salt-thick hair over their shoulders, the very picture of insouciance. But insouciance is a word mermaids do not favor. They care very much, you see, when they care at all.

With one thumbnail, the mermaid on the eastern rock picked at a tendril of seaweed dried on her shoulder. With her other thumb, she tamped another pipe. If they’d only quit their flitting. It’s nothing good, this incessant to-and-fro as if all the world were theirs.

Wreck ‘em, said the north maid.

Loneliness drove the sailors towards the mermaids’ rocks – but how could it be loneliness, packed like mackerel in the belly of the ship? Desire, then. But desire never left them, fed as they were on its perpetual manufacture. Desire, or greed, set the entire enterprise of empire in motion. Everything in every hold of every ship could not slake it. Yearning. Was it yearning? To curl like kelp, to slip, surrender. To remember the sea home, the blood’s salt, the swell.

Hey hey, rasped the mermaid on the southwest stone, aren’t we supposed to be singing? She stopped, caught in a fit of coughing. The east maid lit her pipe with a flick of flint and watched her without comment.

Tra la la, said the north maid.

The ship had come quite near. For a while it appeared and disappeared with the swell, then loomed so close the water could not hide it. It sped under full sail, the little ship’s boy flapping and squawking from his perch on the mast.

The east maid arched her back and leaned on an arm. She released one perfect ring of smoke. A groan went up from the ship. Was it the smoke? Her limpet breasts? The rocks, finally the rocks?

Swab the decks! Swab the decks! Ye cogs of empire! Swab swab the decks! called the ship’s parrot.

A shout and a scurry. A man in the water. Swimming, if that was the word, towards the north-most rock. Fuck a duck, said the north maid. He’s not so bad, as they come.

And they do come, said the southwest maid.

For there they were, plummeting like ungainly gannets, two then three then four, surfacing to gasp and flail.

In his cabin, the captain looked up from his accounts. East by southeast around the shoals, but then why was the sun hazing through the portside glass? In ran the first mate, stuffing cotton up his nose. Mermaids sir, we got mermaids something fearful.

The captain stood and peered through the warbled glass. Rocks, the shimmer of a seal or two. Mermaids. Are ye daft?

But the smoke rings. The men are leaping like fecking lemmings merely at a whiff sir.

The captain opened his door and sniffed. The mate at his heels bearing wadding–Be careful, careful sir–the captain waving it off. Rotting kelp. Maybe a dead gull. He stepped out onto the deck just as another man plunged over the side. Cod-blooded plebeians, swore the captain, who cultivated his vocabulary.

Fifty lashes, cried the parrot. All deserters will be shot.

The mermaids drew themselves up, tobacco abandoned. The east maid licked her lips.

Then the first man reached the north maid’s rock, his hands scrabbling on the barnacles. He heaved himself out of the sea, shirt askew, his skin browned and shining. The southwest maid, on her rock, sighed in envy. The sailor grinned and reached for the north maid without a hello. She clasped him and with a flip of her tail they slipped together into the water and sank in a spiral of bubbles. After merely the necessary interval, she surfaced alone.

Two men struggled onto the southwest rock. Its mermaid took one under each arm. She licked one’s salty cheek. She bit the other’s ear. She lit a pipe and passed it between them. One gasped. The other kissed her hair. She ran her hands down muscles and scars. She slid her tailfin over their toes. The men moaned and swore off ships and land and all dry places. They followed her willingly down and down. For a long time, the bubbles rose.

Out in the water, the fourth man – no swimmer – sank without a sound.

The east maid flipped from her left side to her right then back again, then dove in to find the fifth man, not waiting for him to reach her rock.

The rocks, the rocks, called the ship’s boy, but even he had tears on his cheeks, unknown longing springing within him. All his life he’d been bound for the ropes and decks, the regimented days, the ranked rise. But the tides, he saw now, rose and fell like breathing, the sea one great and loving bosom. Hush, the wind breathed, its voice like his mother’s.

Back on her rock, the north maid retrieved her tobacco. Any moment the ship would wreck, for the shoals went out past the rocks by some distance. She blew a slow smoke ring and anticipated the wrenching crunch. But the ship swung suddenly away from shore. Off it sailed, impervious. Sing, she cried, slighted, and from rock and wave they sang. Sailors dove off, one then another, yet the ship swung on, immune.

The mate, ears and nose tufted white, ran about passing out cotton. But the captain stood unwadded at the wheel. He corrected the course then held steady. Unperturbed by the strange cries of the shorebirds, that terrible rotten-kelp smell, he had a schedule to keep. Unfortunate about the lost men. They’d have to cover their watches for the duration, a strain certainly. If possible given the idiocy of the masses, he would replace them with a less superstitious lot. (Mermaids, for the love of God.) Inconvenient, but still, he’d make his profit. Besides, he was insured.

Plebeian, plebeian, cog, cog, cog, screeched the parrot from a spar. The captain held the wheel.

Sonofabitch, breathed the north maid. The ship sailed on as if she did not exist. Sing louder, she cried, furious now. If it thought it could ignore them, they would get still louder. If it thought they were just some fish girls slouching on some rocks, how mistaken. How little it owned the sea. The mermaids sang. The mermaids howled. A wind came up, unseasonable and strong. The ship shortened sail, but did not slow down. The seas rose. The air hung with smoke. The ship pitched and creaked, but sailed on. The mermaids lashed their tails. A mast cracked, then another. The ship kept sailing as if merely the third would do. The mermaids sang, exultant with spray. The sea was inescapable; it only loaned life to the land through its own benevolence. Oh humans. The sea did not need them. It only kept them around for their songs and gratitude, their pretty, startled smiles. But lately, these ships whipped over the sea, no singing, no thanking, no awe, their holds filled with suffering and gold. The mermaids roared just thinking about it. The seas rose in a blue heat. Give it up, turn back, come home, the wind seemed to cry. The ship faltered, floundered, nearly foundered, but pressed on.

Where, said the north maid, tucking her pipe into her hair and squinting into the spray, where do they think they are even going?

Becca Rose Hall studied writing at Stanford and the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in Orion MagazineAbout PlaceSoFloPoJo, and sPARKLE and bLINK. She received the Writers Lighthouse Emerging Fiction Fellowship. She directs Frog Hollow School and lives in Seattle with her daughter, dog, and bees.