Megan’s Song

I still remember the night that we threw Megan O’Reilly overboard. I saw other women go the same way, but hers is the face I still see twenty-five years later; she was the only one that ever came back.

‘Remember’ is the wrong word for how I hold that memory. I remember the day I married my beautiful wife, the day my children slipped into life in a rush of caul and blood and water. But that night- I breathe it in like brine on a drowning man’s lungs, no matter how hard I thrash against it. That night, and the one she returned, as if there were no others in my life to call upon, nor will be to come.

Sometimes I think it’d be better if there weren’t.

We found Megan O’Reilly as a stowaway, lying between two crates with nothing but the clothes on her back and a few petty coins in her pocket, just enough to buy a meal when we landed. Had we relented and let her stay she would have landed in Belfast within the week, the home she’d no doubt long dreamt to see again, but we were as superstitious a crew as there ever was, and the Captain swore he’d rather ferry the Devil himself than willingly have a woman on his ship.

I watched her beg her case, weeping on her knees with her hands upturned, speaking half English, half Gaeilge, knowing all the while she hadn’t a chance. No matter that she had a boy waiting for her who wanted his Mammy, or that she could promise us a rich tart’s dowry for her safe passage, if only we could write a note to her people. Whatever people were wealthy enough to buy her back but not enough to clothe and feed her I couldn’t fathom; she might have spun a whole other life for herself in those few minutes.

Pretty she was, too, was Megan, her eyes jasper, hair sin-dark and shining, her lips and bosom full as a whore’s purse- there was plenty on board who might have given in to her, had the Captain not been himself. But he was a harder man than I’d ever known, having seen horrors and beauties fantastic at sea that wore any softness in him rough and any roughness sharp. He seized Meg by a bolt of her dark hair and shook her, screaming til his face was red as a garnet and sweating something fierce.

“You bring a curse to my vessel, woman!” he roared. “Death teems on you like lice on a workhouse rat! Your cunt is a porthole to evil and decay, you and all of your kind. Just a woman looking at a ship as it leaves the harbour can hex a whole crew mad, if she has it in her. And I see it in you, witch! I see it in the damned fucking pits of your eyes!”

The Captain’s fear and anger was contagious, and all of us watching were soon shouting at her likewise, crossing ourselves and spitting to keep the taint of woman off us. Megan snapped her head right and left, looking desperately for a kindly face, finding none, not even mine. I helped my mates bind her ankles together and fill the lining of her dress with iron to weigh it down. She fought like a netted shark, there being more muscle on that dainty frame than any of us thought to account for. It took seven men to hold her still, and still she begged us to free her, to change our minds.

“My name is Megan O’Reilly! I have a little boy called Darragh! He needs me! he-“

“Spawn of the devil!” roared the Captain. “Cast her in the sea, men! I’ll listen to her imp’s shrieking no more!”

We forced her to the side of the ship, glad of the cover of nightfall to hide our shame. The water beneath was black and ferocious, waves striking up towards us like the many tongues of a cat-o-nine-tails. Seeing the ocean in such a rage my stomach soured, knowing what we were about was wrong, wrong, and damned. But I watched as my fellows tipped the screaming woman over into the water, said nothing as her white body twisted through the darkness like a waxworm on a line. It was only when she vanished beneath the wrestling waves that my will failed me and I began to unravel a rope to cast down to her, feeling pity and fear and shame all at once.

One of the lads clapped me on the back of the head and yanked the rope from my hands, scorching my palms raw with the force of it.

“Are you mad, Brennan? Do you want to see us all drowned by a woman’s bad luck? Let her die. She must have known what would happen if she was caught. Let her see the consequences.”

I hadn’t much choice. If I’d pushed to save her I might have been tipped over to my death alongside Megan, and I had my own wife and daughters at home to think about. So I kept my mouth shut and let her go, although I felt sick to think of her wild beauty bloated and rotten at the bottom of the ocean. Another sailor, Harry Cormac, a young one I thought barely old enough to suck a teat let alone admire one, gave a low whistle and shook his head.

“Waste of a fine arse, that,” he said, and the boys laughed, even the captain, who looked half-dead of stress.

Late as it was we all sat up later still, drinking and telling stories to laugh away the guilt and nerves of what we’d done. We recounted the murder of our stowaway like some heroic epic, playing Homer or Beowolf to some ravenous she-demon. Only one of us spoke up against it, Lee Connolly, who’d been a priest before he fucked a girl from his flock and went to sea to escape his shame.

“We’ve done wrong,” Lee said, swilling ale at around the bottom of a bottle. “We’ve done wrong, and God sees it, the Devil, too. Which do you think favours us most?”

“She was the fucking Devil,” said the Captain, sharply. “You ever see a girl need seven men to pin her down? Misfortune made flesh if I’ve ever seen it. You mark my words.”

“I can’t say as to her nature,” said Lee. “But drowning a woman beckons more trouble than harbouring one. The Lord says thou shalt not kill. The Devil relishes it. But the Lucifer’s wife was Lilith, a she-demon who does not look kind on her ilk being consigned to the seabed by the hand of man. We’re a blighted lot.”

“I’ve seen women thrown overboard many a time and not died yet,” I said. “Did Lilith take a fancy to me, or such like?”

“May be that she sees your living as curse enough,” said Lee. “Listen, I’ve heard stories of drowned women not dying, but changing, turning into something else. Bound legs becoming one great muscle, teeth and nails growing like barbs.”

“Is that mermaids you’re speaking of?” Harry crowed. “Jesus, I’d welcome that one coming back, then, only I’ve never seen a fish with a quim. Never looked close enough, mind. A suck then, aye?”

We all yelled with laughter, too loud for such a joke, truth be told. Lee sat clutching his empty bottle, his face grimmer than a widow’s.

“I’ve heard men talk of their mates being eaten alive,” he said. “Torn into four pieces by sirens with a hunger for any who did them wrong. Eaten alive, like something in a foreign market. Dragged into the depths and drowned like kittens.”

“Horseshite,” said the captain. “You shut your mouth, Connolly. You’re soft, and that’s all there is to the matter.”

But the Captain looked ashen pale, and I wondered if he’d heard such stories and thought the risk of some dead woman haunting him rather less than her femaleness tainting the ship.

The following week was dampened by what we’d done, none of us talking much nor eating our fill, not having the stomach for it. The weather was poorer than it had been in all my years as a sailor, the skies black-green and bilious, the sea tearing about with a fury that made even the most seasoned of us puke up the little we’d eaten back up again. The Captain gritted his teeth and rallied at the heavens, condemning ‘that whore woman’ for poisoning our venture with her brief stint on board. Lee stared into the boiling depths with a terrified fervor, murmuring prayers none of us could hear over the wind. The few hours of sleep any of us found were tormented with the most unholy dreams, each of us seeing Megan in the water, her grinning corpse swimming towards us.

If only dreams had remained dreams.

At the end of the week the waters calmed at last, stilling with a suddenness that was as disturbing as the storm itself. We watched it with apprehension, certain it would turn again, flinching at even the slightest breeze. Lee paced and shook his head, the dullness in his eyes suggesting a man who’d long expected death and was merely awaiting its approach. Only the Captain maintained an unshaken determination to see this voyage out, his jaw grimly set.

“We’ll find our way home, deliver our goods, and be off again,” he said. “Witch or no witch. I’ll make it so.”

He was as obsessed with the dead woman as the rest of us, mentally bestowing her with the same mythological evil as some pagan goddess. It was as if we’d all forgotten that she was just a girl, scarcely more than twenty-five, an innocent yearning her son’s embrace. We saw only a deviless, bent on destroying us from her first tread upon our vessel.

Yet for all our terror we didn’t believe it, not really. That was why when we saw her again none of us trusted our eyes, at first, thinking her a glimmer, a tired fancy, a dream. Then we knew, and begged for our lives.

In the middle of that still ocean we came abruptly upon a shelf of bleak, obsidian rock, bearing nothing but barnacles and picked bone. This wasn’t so unsual, there being many a seabird or lone seal who might eat their dinner on such an oasis, but it was neither creature we spied there, watching us with a madman’s vacant zeal.

Lee let out a shriek of righteous terror, his pointed hand shaking violently.

“There! She lives, didn’t I tell you? She’ll kill us all!”

None of us had breath to reply. It was Megan alright, coiled on the rock stark naked and as lovely as a funeral rose, the mouth we’d only seen torn open in a frightful scream now smiling, smiling, as if she was glad to see us again. From the waist down were the wings and thin, cord-like tail of a stingray, its barbed tip poised, waiting. For all the stories we’d exchanged between us not one soul on board had ever clapped eyes on such a creature- none, but the Captain, for he turned to the crew and bellowed for us to steer the ship away at once.

We never had the chance. Megan raised her hands towards us, still as pretty and delicate as lily flowers, and opened her mouth, the notes spilling from her tongue so pure that, for a second, I wondered if we hadn’t already died and become privy to the shrills of an angel. But then the men around me started screaming, their faces wrought with agony and terror, and all began running towards the side of the ship, compelled somehow by that awful music despite knowing the sureness of death in its beauty. Only I remained rigid, clinging to the mast as one by one my fellows clambered over the ship and plunged into the black water, their ears imploded into shapeless, bleeding holes.

Feeling a trickle of blood from my own ears I wondered wretchedly how such sweet music could wreak such devastation. Turning my head I felt my ears pop, the way they might upon descending from some great height. As they did so I heard the true sound of that creature’s song, something akin to the screams of a maniac and a dolphin’s wordless chattering, no music at all.

Looking over the side of the ship I saw the ocean had begun to churn again, the tranquil surface thrashing with seafoam and human limbs desperate to seek land. Many of those men, like poor Harry, simply drowned, but those who tried to strike out towards that pitiless black rock were stopped long before they reached it. In that terrible sea I saw strange, slithering limbs emerge, tentacles and claws and clicking beaks, biting grown men apart like dog meat in the jaws of a slavering hound. The mermaid’s song had done more than lure men to drowning; it had summoned creatures from the deep, squid, whales and infernal Gods without name all fighting for a morsel of a woman-killer’s flesh.

I watched the way I’d watched my crewmen vault Megan into the tumultuous waters only days ago: helpless, nauseated, awed by the monstrosity of it. Lee- poor Lee, who I saw throttled in the limb of some great octopus and crushed into a pap of meat and bone -had perhaps been right about Lilith’s judgement of me. My survival was to bear witness of this violent wrath, to know pain greater than any man.

One sole member of our party managed to thrash his way to the gleaming rock, his clothes and much of his skin ripped away as he clawed up onto those jagged plains. The Captain had bound bloodied rags about his head to drown out Megan’s singing and, thus protected, inched his slow way towards the beautiful woman he had condemned to die.

She seemed defenceless, having neither fangs nor claws to speak of, and her angelic features, or a moment, turned with fear. Then that great, slithering tail unfurled from where it sat and snapped about the Captain’s body, clinching him into a bone-crushing squeeze. Megan drew her face close to his, her singing, at last, halting on a squalling note. I thought for a second that she might kiss him, but such a caress never came. Instead the barb at the tip of her tail pierced the Captain’s throat and sent a great volt through his body, killing him as the beasts about them sank slowly back into the sea.

When he was still the mermaid let him go, her flat stare returning to me. I let go of the mast and crossed the ship towards her, wondering if she had another particular death stored for me. But she only looked at me, blood slipping down her torso like crimson rain, and followed her nightmarish brethren back into the ocean.

I scarcely remember how I made my way back to land again. A passing ship sighted me and allowed me to board, its captain, hearing my story, no doubt thinking I’d be driven to lunacy by starvation or sunstroke. It didn’t help that I was unable to hear him in return, having gone quite deaf in the midst of the mermaid’s song.

Upon returning to Belfast I was fortunate enough to fall into the comfort of my family’s embrace, dodging the confines of the sanitarium by a hair’s breadth. I gave up the mariner’s life and took up carpentry, a solid enough trade physical enough to keep my mind from revisiting my terrors for at least a handful of hours. I couldn’t tell my wife and daughters what had happened to my crew; to this day they think them lost to a storm, myself its hapless sole survivor.

They will never known Megan O’Reilly’s name, or what it means to me. They do not know that, having sifted through the city for her little son, I found him in the care of his mother’s sister, to whom I expressed news of Megan’s death. I learned that she’d been transported for stealing food some years ago, having run away from her family after giving birth out of wedlock. I was surprised to discover that Megan’s people were indeed as well-off as she’d claimed, but I pledged money to her boy, all the same, knowing my conscience would never be settled if I did not.

For myself I live a better life than many, better than I deserve. But it’s like rutting a beautiful girl while in terrible pain, each joy eliciting new agonies as I think of that woman, young and beautiful, and what she became. Often I wonder what life she lives out there beneath those cruel waves, if she even remembers who she was, before.

I hope that she does, the way that I do her. One of these days I will walk down the harbour with a pocket full of stones, take a small boat out to the distant reaches of it to meet my end deep down below. Whether drowning or the cold takes me I will at least meet the death she should have given me that night she sang her mermaid’s song.

Published by (Not actually a Lady) Ruthless

I'm a Manchester based horror writer! Non binary. Stuck with this domain because I'm lazy

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