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A mermaid, upon first encountering men of science

Illustration for article titled A mermaid, upon first encountering men of science

What happens when scientists at sea discover a mermaid? Helen Keeble's gorgeous short story about this strange meeting has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and now you can read it for yourself.


Photo by Waltzing Ghost.

Keeble's story, which first appeared last year in Strange Horizons, is called "A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc -or- A Lullaby." It's a marvelous evocation of the kinds of sea stories Herman Melville might have told, if he'd been interested in mermaids and science, rather than sperm whales and seamen.


Here is how it begins:

Monday, 27 Maius, 1831 AA

By Divine providence, we captured the mermaid with neither loss of life nor injury to any seaman, nor any harm done to the specimen. So easily we might have passed her by without even noticing her; but the sharp young eyes of Small Jack espied her as she lay all in sleep at the surface of the sea. The good Captain gave the orders to turn, and to adopt a stealthy approach, and never have my scholarly eyes seen such a display of unison and harmony as the work done by the seamen, all in silence so that only the humming of the wind in the rigging gave any hint of our approach. Stealthy as her namesake, our loyal ship Ocelot crept through the waves; and so we came across the maid all unawares, dreaming in the midst of her green nets, with her hair spread like sunbeams. Quick as a cat with a goldfish, we snapped her up with the catch-nets, and though she thrashed like a net-full of herring, the brave seamen managed to wrestle her under my direction down to the hold and into the waiting specimen jar.

I must commend the excellent craftsmanship of Messrs Jameson & Wright; though the glass shivers in its frames under the mermaid's powerful tail and the iron bars across its mouth shake in her grasping hands, the jar remains adamant. Never before can any man have beheld a mermaid so clearly-and how much more dynamic, vibrant and thrilling is the living specimen compared to those sad stuffed and dried skins back at Oxford! What appears at first glance to be a perverse mixture of fish and primate reveals itself under scientific scrutiny to be as well-designed as any pocket-watch, surely demonstrating beyond all doubt that the mermaid is one of God's own beloved creations, and not (as Prof. Greene speculated) the degenerate descendants of those who failed to find refuge on Noah's Ark. She is somewhat larger than I had anticipated, perhaps some twelve feet in total; although fortunately most of that is tailfin, which age and moths must have eaten away from the preserved cadavers in the University archives. I now see that those dead specimens were greatly distorted by the preserving process, for whereas they had twisted limbs and simian features, my specimen-my specimen! How it thrills me to be able to write those words at last!-possesses slender shoulders as well-proportioned as any maiden's, and the elegant curve of her brow bespeaks an admirable cranial capacity. The initial indications are excellent indeed.

I confess that through our long voyage I have sometimes found myself losing faith in my own hypothesis-who am I to pit my feeble thoughts against all the weight of orthodoxy?-but as I gaze now upon the specimen I am filled with renewed vigour. I cannot wait to begin.


Read the rest at Strange Horizons!

(And if you like it, consider donating to Strange Horizons, which is run entirely by volunteers.)


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Story discussed below!

While it is a beautiful story there's one thing I don't understand.

It seems to be stressed that the eggs are tended by males while the females hunt, and yet the story is predicated on the Osprey catching a mermaid instead of a merman.

Did I miss some hints about what was going on when the capture was made? Do the parents swap hunting/protecting duties (and it was just coincidence that all the other references to eggs occurred during the male's shift)?