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The Last Voyage of the Mermaid

by De Kenyon

Steal pirate ship.  Hire crew.  Decide:  wooden leg, hook, or eye patch?

Obtain parrot.

Arnold had always imagined himself as Captain Hook–only he would never have chased around that little dolt Peter.  He wanted better treasures, ones that Peter had taken for granted until it was too late.

When Arnold was a boy, he wondered about two things: what would it be like to be dead, and what would it be like to be a pirate. Being the kind of boy who first asked his mother about things, he received a lecture saying that a) being dead was something that would happen in its own time, and he was forbidden to try to find out early and b) being a pirate was not at all as nice as it seemed in Peter Pan, there being no such things as mermaids, pixies, or alligators with clocks in their stomachs. Whether he should have listened to his mother or not remains to be seen.

And so Arnold grew up, got a job, got married, and had kids. For the longest time, as a boy, he wondered whether he would do these ordinary things, as he was convinced that girls would always have a terrible antipathy (which is the opposite of understanding) of him, and that he would have to adopt children if he wanted to have them. As it turned out, a number of girls fell in love with him, although there was only one he truly loved back. And although her name was something else entirely, he always thought of her as his Wendy.

He did not think of himself as Peter Pan.

Instead, he secretly thought of himself as Captain Hook.

In Arnold’s version of the story, he had given up trying to cut down that annoying little boy, courted the beautiful girl, and won her away from Peter, who had no idea what kind of treasure he’d given up until it was too late. And for as long as his wife lived, he imagined that the alligator who contained both a clock (symbolizing time) and his hand (symbolizing ouch!) swam in other waters, looking for easier prey.

But then they both got old, and his wife died of a number of very serious thing going wrong all at the same time. She was a whole year younger than he, so this was entirely unfair. He’d been counting on having her protect him from the alligator while he slipped away with death, to find out what it was like to be dead. For the alligator did not symbolize death, only violence and fear and being attacked and eaten and pulled down into the dark.

At any rate, there he was, an old man, and he had never found out what it was like being a pirate.

His wife, who had encouraged him to follow his other, more ordinary dreams, would have encouraged him to find out what it was like to be a pirate, if only she had known of his secret wish.  However, he had never told her:  being a pirate would have meant that he had to leave her, for pirates did not have wives, or if they did, they certainly did not take them to sea. He wasn’t entirely sure why. But he had waited. And now she was gone, and their children were grown and had children of their own, so clearly they could take care of themselves and didn’t need him around anymore.

And so he put his affairs in order and went to Florida to become a pirate.

He made a list:

– Get a pirate ship, preferably by theft.

– Learn how to sail it, OR hire a crew.

– Parrot.

– Wooden leg, hook, and/or eye patch?!?

– Fountain of youth.

In Florida, the sand was white and the sea was a color of green that his children had always called mermaid tail green but was now called Caribbean Green. The palm trees had astonishingly patterned trunks, and the sky was so wide he often fell asleep on his beach chair trying to look from one side to the other, it took so long.

After a time, he realized that if he was going to get any pirating done, he was going to have to prioritize his list so the Fountain of Youth was on top. He was so old. It was like being sick all the time, forced to stay inside and take it easy, lest he make things worse.  And he had long since tired of skipping school (having graduated decades ago) and daytime TV.

And so one day he got out of his beach chair and stretched, determined not to fall asleep again. He set out at a slow pace, because the sun was very hot and made the top of his head sweat through his thin, white hair.

He walked and he walked until he found a thin stream that fed into the ocean from the beach. The stream had worn away at the sand dunes on the shore, making a deep ditch. He couldn’t climb down on his own, so he followed along the thick grass at the top, getting all kinds of burrs stuck in his leg hair (for he was wearing shorts; he didn’t feel that he could dress in his pirate outfit until after he’d found his ship) and sand in his sandals.

He followed the stream for miles and miles and miles, through thick woods and swamps that started out as thin puddles and turned into kiddie pools, then regular swimming pools. The insects became so thick they were like a fog, and birds screamed under the thick trees. From time to time he would hear the sucking roar of an alligator or the chitter of monkeys who had escaped from their long-ago pirate owners to populate the high canopy of trees. Once, he heard drums.

He walked on, following what seemed to him to be the true trail of the stream, hoping that it would lead him to the Fountain of Youth, or at least to one of the other items on his list. As he walked, he noticed that he had something in his hand that he had not had before: a machete, a thick blade of metal that didn’t so much cut through the thick branches as chop them like an axe. With one strong hand, he pulled back branches, and with the other, he whacked them off in a steady rhythm, until he had made quite some progress into the swamp, standing on a small islet of floating logs and grass.

As he stepped up onto the islet or hummock, he noticed that he was wearing black leather boots, from which the water beaded up and ran as though they were made out of rubber. The leather had been oiled, he realized, unlike the boots of his pirate costume, hidden in his suitcase at the hotel room.

He patted all around himself and found that he was wearing long boots whose tops could fold over at the top or rise up to help protect his legs from water, as they did now; thick cotton pants with no zipper; a leather belt that kept his pants from falling off as well as holding a leather sheath for his machete; leather straps across his chest that held leather purses, a handgun, powder and shot (rather than regular bullets), and a number of other useful-looking things. He held his hands in front of him and was relieved to see that he still had both of them (he thought for a moment that he saw a hook out of the corner of his eye), and, further, that they were the hands of a young man.