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Old Man of the Sea

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There is a man who lives on the edge of the sea. His skin is tanned and leathery, his hair shot through with gold from days in the salt and sun. He uses the tides as a clock, and I’ve seen him sit next to a seal in companionable silence.

He’s a fisherman. He rows out from the beach in the morning with the tides, and drifts in with a laden boat. His catch is always the best, and if it isn’t the largest, you can be sure it will be the most succulent fish in the market.

The first time I met him we shook hands in greeting, and I was surprised. For a man of the sea, his hands were not cracked or worn. They had calluses, sure. But none of the dry, peeling skin or red lines where the cracks had split open.

I think he knew my thoughts because before I could ask after his remedies he rubbed his hands together and said, with a twinkle in his bright eyes, “The sea can be your enemy or your friend.”

Such cryptic remarks added to his eccentricity. “I must maintain an air of mystery.” He’d said laughing, while mending a net he used to drag in a catch. Life seemed like a joke to him and there was always a twinkle buried in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure of the punch line. In that moment though, he looked like nothing more than a sailor, content to be who he was, the sea was more than enough for him. The ocean fit him like a glove and sometimes he stared at it like it held the answers to all life’s problems. Maybe it did. But sometimes he looked at it as a man dying of thirst views a glass of fresh water.

I never saw him with a woman, but often with a Bible. I assumed at one point in his life he’d been burned by the church and left the stone walls of churches for the open cathedral of the sea and sky. I would find out years later that being burned by the church had been almost literal for him. “Thank goodness for the dousing waves of the sea.” He’d muttered, eyes almost soft at the memory.

The women in our town loved him. The handsome bachelor fisherman, obviously spurned by a woman, all he has left is the sea. They said it was all in his eyes; they were deep and old, belying his youthful appearance. Eyes like that could only come from sorrow at a lost love. They all had room in their hearts and beds to make it better. But he never batted an eye at the charms of our landlocked ladies. But they did love to talk about those deep, sad eyes of his. His air of mystery enticed them, but he never satisfied anyone’s idle curiosity.

I was sceptical about the eyes full of a lost love; I’d seen his eyes and they didn’t appear full of sorrow. They did appear old, but I think it’s probably because he’s been the same age for well over two centuries. But a man so content with the ocean? He had all the love he needed I think.

And how could he even look at those silly women with something other than amusement, when I’d met the vision who rose gleaming out of the water to meet him. The love of his long life, his beautiful mermaid wife.

“It’s been so long, we’ve stopped remembering who caught who.” His voice affectionate, as he stares at the waves that hide his fair mermaid away from his eyes.

“I called her Syrena, when we met. Or near enough to when we met.” He laughs at some memory that I cannot see and he has not shared. “I’ve tried to learn her mermish name. But she scolds me for trying and says it’s insulting. Syrena she remains.”

I only went with him the once, out in his boat, to meet his lady fair. She destroyed and affirmed his faith in beautiful God, the church never really saw eye to eye with him on the matter. Mythical creatures who make no appearance in the Good Book were not to be trifled with. Definitely not for falling in love with. After all, you couldn’t have a parsonage beneath the waves, and a preacher’s wife who would as soon eat you as serve you tea didn’t do much for religious diplomacy.

Syrena was charming, a wild creature all gleaming scales of golden sunset hues and lilting voice. She draped herself in his boat, coral tail always rippling through the waves, made easy conversation with this man of hers, teased and laughed and loved. But there was a fervency to her, an unbridled spirit that shimmered in her eyes and twitched in her fins.

And when the waves drew her attention from her man, Philip’s eyes grew soft. I witnessed a chaste goodbye kiss, that made me blush for the passion it contained.

“Two centuries,” Philip sighed contentedly after the waves had closed over her shining form “and she still makes me feel like an awkward priest who’d never kissed a girl.”

The thing is, she can grow legs. And has. And does. After all, what sort of man and wife would they be if they hadn’t shared a marriage bed? But she’s a child of the sea, and elemental being and her heart is held in two pieces. She has his entirely, but he has the half of hers she can give.

“You would think you would hate the sea, for keeping her away from you.” I said to him one day. I’d had a lot to think about, the revelation of mythical creatures threw me for a loop, and this conversation took place soon after.

His glance at me was full of pity. “How can I hate that which has made her what she is? I’m not perfect and I think I might love her less if she walked only on legs, and not every meal was sashimi. If her hair lost the smell of salt and kelp, if her teeth lost their razor sharpness, I would not recognize her. I would die if I saw her eyes clouded with longing for the sea.

“I love who she is. Every part.” He shrugged, so unassuming with his eloquent love.

I’d never felt so very young and chastised. In comparison to him, I knew nothing of love. His eyes at that moment were clouded with sorrow like all the women say. But not for a love a lost, for she rose up white and gleaming out of the tides to visit him at night. They spent their days in each other’s company on the waves, she draped over the gunwales of his boat, a living breathing figurehead. Somedays are stormy, but he still goes out. He doesn’t fear the ocean’s moods.

“What do you fear, if not the sea?” I asked one day. “That Syrena will die alone.” He paused, “And of course there’s a kraken I’m not keen to tangle with.” There are harrowing tales of adventure and death that he likes to regale me with, so I know it hasn’t always been calm seas and idyllic boating trysts. Far from smooth sailing, as it were.

It’s funny because you always think that in a mermaid fairy-tale, the mermaid should grow legs, live on land and have a happily every after with the man of her dreams. But in Philip you can see that he’d rather it was him. He’d rather leave the sand and dirt behind, grow fins and breathe the water, dance among schools of tropical fish, and flee from sharks jaws. He would rather sink beneath the waves that treat him as a friend, than ever ask his Syrena to stay on land.

And if he can’t have that, he’ll have the next best thing. Because it’s still a best thing.

There is a man who lives in a house by the edge of the sea. So close the tides almost touch his door. People feel sorry for the poor bachelor, living such a lonesome life. Poor too, for he can’t even afford an engine for his boat, he still uses oars. Meanwhile the poor fisherman has been dating a mermaid for years beyond our grasp, and has seen more of life than we’ll ever know.

His eyes are full of laughter at their pitying looks; it’s a joke few are in on. His eyes gleam and twinkle and have unfathomable depths. They look like the sea.