I’ll start by saying this, fact is stranger than fiction. Mother Nature is the architect of creatures more fantastic than any mythic beast of lore.
Consider the Lancet Fluke, a parasite who, in a stunning feat of telepathic mind control, commands its host as thoroughly as a puppeteer commands a marionette. An ant, infected by the Lancet Fluke, will eventually be overcome by an inexplicable and overwhelming urge to find a field where sheep are grazing, climb to the top of a tall blade of grass and wait. The infected insect will forgo food, shelter and all of its antly duties until at last it is devoured by one of the grazing animals. Why? Because the parasite can only grow to maturity and lay its eggs in the belly of a ruminant, and hijacking an ant’s mind is a convenient way to get there.
If evolution can produce something as baffling as the Lancet Fluke, as tender and ethereal as the orchid, as majestic and humbling as the blue whale, why then should a werewolf, or Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster be any more improbable?
Ah, now I have your attention.
My name is Doctor Wolfgang Horst, and I am a cryptozoologist. I have hunted the creatures that reside in the shadows of science for most of my adult life. I have tracked the Yeti through the Himalayas, collected the droppings of the Sasquatch in the forests of the American Pacific North West, and studied beneath a microscope the hair of the lycanthrope.
Learn this, good reader, if you learn nothing else. The creatures I chase around the globe are no more supernatural than you or I. They are nothing more than the products of that most fantastic process, evolution.
Three weeks ago today I was contacted by a colleague in Ireland regarding a mermaid sighting near Galway bay. A fisherman from the Aran Islands claimed that he and his brother had spotted the creature while retuning home one evening with their catch. The story had been vetted through a trusted source and so, without hesitation, I traveled to the fisherman’s hometown on the island of Inishmaan. We met in a small pub called, fittingly enough, The Merrow. He was a salthaired gentleman with a weathered and honest face. I liked him instantly. He said his name was Declan and told me his story over a pint of ale.
“I have been a fisherman my entire life. I have seen strange things in the sea over the years, but the thing I saw that day I have never seen before and hope to never see again.”
I was intrigued. Why, I wondered, would anyone who had seen something as rare and as fantastic as a mermaid wish never to see one again?
“It was near sunset. My brother and I were hauling in the nets and getting ready to head in with our catch when we heard a strange sound. We turned toward the sound and saw a pale-skinned woman floating in the water. My first thought was that she had fallen from a boat and I readied a line and buoy, but as she drew closer it was clear that she wasn’t human at all.”
“How can you be sure she wasn’t human?” I asked.
“I only saw her from the waist up, but her skin was aglow with some sort of devil’s light, and her hair moved as though caught in a breeze, but the air was still. And she was nude. No one could survive for long in that icy water, but she swam along as relaxed and as lazy as you like.”
“You mentioned a sound. Was the sound still present?”
“Indeed, the sound was coming from her. She was singing, but not with words. It was like a bird’s song, but not quite.”
He paused, seemingly searching for words to describe the melody, but I bade him continue.
“It was a beautiful haunting song and I was lost in it. I did not know who or where I was. I was in a trance. After a few minutes, the singing stopped and she disappeared beneath the waves. It made me terribly sad to see her go. I wiped a tear from my eye and turned to my brother just in time to see him leap over the side of the boat and plunge head first into the frigid water. All at once I came to my senses. I leapt in after him but it was useless. I could not find him. The water was icy cold and black as the devil’s own sin.”
Declan shivered as he recounted the incident.
“Is it possible,” I asked, “that it was suicide?”
“I know my brother as well as I know myself. It was no suicide, it was that devil fish. She captured his mind with her song and lured him to his death. I’m as certain of it as I am of my name.”
Declan gave me the exact coordinates of the encounter. It was clear that our conversation was over. I offered him my deepest condolences, promised him I would investigate the matter, thanked him for his time and wished him farewell.
He seemed not to hear me.
Walking back through cobbled lanes, then graveled roads, then winding footpaths to the small seaside cottage I’d rented, I considered the fisherman’s tale. Fantastic? Perhaps. Unprecedented? No. There is abundant historical evidence for those who have eyes to see it. In 1493 Christopher Columbus reported seeing three mermaids near the coast of Haiti on his first voyage to the Americas. In 1608 Henry Hudson reported seeing a mermaid near the arctic coast of Russia while seeking a northeast route to the spice markets of China. In 1614 John Smith wrote elegantly of a mermaid he and his crew encountered in the Caribbean. But they were hardly the first. There are endless accounts of sailors throughout the ages telling tales of longhaired maidens gazing from the waves. The idea is as old as antiquity.
But there is, more importantly, an evolutionary argument. The aquatic ape theory proposes that human beings are direct descendents of a semi-aquatic ape that lived between five and seven million years ago. The theory explains some notable differences between modern humans and our primate cousins.
We, unlike chimpanzees, are nearly hairless. For the most part, only aquatic or semi- aquatic mammals, whales, dolphins, hippos, etcetera, are hairless. We, like other aquatic mammals, have an insulating layer of subcutaneous fat, making us ideally suited for cold-water environments. We have hooded noses, perfect for diving. And, less scientific but no less relevant, human beings across the globe share a deep and heartfelt love of the sea that is as old as humanity itself.
If the aquatic ape theory is true, and I suspect that it is, is it not possible that some of our semi-aquatic pre- human ancestors remained in the sea, evolved there, and can be found there still? The implications of an aquatic hominid, a distant cousin fully adapted to an ocean environment, are simply staggering.
The next morning I purchased a small but seaworthy skiff and readied a day’s provisions. I spent several hours exploring the island’s eastern coast, familiarizing myself with the area. At midday I maneuvered the skiff to the spot where Declan and his brother had encountered the mermaid. I dropped anchor and waited.
Lulled by the boats gentle rocking and the far off gull cries, I drifted into sleep. It was, I admit, unprofessional, but the travel, the lack of sleep, and the excitement of the quest had finally caught up with me. When I woke, the sun was setting in the west. The clouds over Inishmaan turned first a fiery orange then a blood- soaked red. As I came to my senses, I heard a sound unlike any I’d heard before. It was a strange sort of humming, like cicadas in June, but deeper and more rhythmic. The sound lulled me and I looked out across the sun- burnished water as though in a trance.
I saw a pale woman, completely nude, swimming lazily through the placid water. She moved with the fluid grace of a seal, as though she were at home in the sea, as though she were a part of it.
She righted herself and floated vertically, exposed from the waist up. Her cheeks puckered as through she were blowing kisses and I understood that the unearthly sound was coming from her.
Like a drunkard I stumbled toward the apparition and nearly fell over the gunwale. It was only the sounding of my satellite phone that brought me back to my senses. I paused and looked askance. When I looked up again she was gone.
I do not know who called me that day but whoever it was probably saved my life. I had been completely ready to dive into the water and follow that woman beneath the waves.
It had been exceedingly foolhardy to begin my investigation so unprepared. Declan had been clear about the hypnotic nature of the mermaid’s song, yet I’d taken no precautions. Scolding myself for my impudence, I buckled down and devised a plan.
When I returned on the following sunset, I was ready. With diving gear at hand and a pair of wax earplugs suspended from a cord around my neck, I threw my anchor and waited. I did not wait for long. As the setting sun steeped the sea in copper, the mesmerizing music washed over me.
Only with enormous will power was I able to press the wax plugs into my ears. Immediately, my senses returned. I could still hear the music, muffled and far off, but it held no power over me.
With a smooth and practiced speed, I donned the diving gear and plunged into the frigid spume. I righted myself and spotted her bobbing in the choppy waves. For a heart- stopping moment, just before she dove beneath the surface, we locked eyes. She was devastatingly beautiful. I emptied my buoyancy compensation vest and followed her into the gloom.
Her skin, pale and waxy white on the surface, was an incandescent green beneath the waves. She pulsed with an eerie inner light that was both beautiful and haunting. Slowly, she slipped deeper, arms outstretched and beckoning.
I descended and followed the emerald glow into the depths. She moved quickly and purposefully but I did not feel that she was trying to elude me. Rather, I had the distinct impression that she was leading me. I followed as fast as I was able, but as we neared 33 feet, I had to slow my descent.
To my delight, she paused. Was she waiting for me? She seemed to pulse brighter still and I felt I had my answer. She hovered seductively beneath me, her skin translucent, her body lithe and shimmering, her sea- green hair undulating and radiant. She waited as I sank slowly to her depth. Why she had led me here, I wondered. What did she want to show me?
Slowly, gracefully, she came to me. As she approached, I felt an icy chill run through me. Somehow she was different. Her eyes, once deep and mysterious, now seemed empty and dead. The light that had pulsed from someplace deep within her was gone. I noticed, for the first time, a long fleshy cord growing from her back and disappearing into the darkness beneath her. How had I not seen it before?
Something was wrong. My heart thundered in my chest. I was overcome by an urge to get away from the dead- eyed creature bobbing before me like a piece of bait on the end of a line, but my scientific curiosity was stronger than my fear.
Suddenly, the white fleshy cord snapped taut and the woman was pulled downwards, at incredible speed, into the inky black. In her place, I saw a giant tooth- filled mouth rushing towards me.
There was no time to think, no time to react. In a flash, my world was surrounded by tooth and jaw. I was being swallowed by something of leviathan proportion. As the peristaltic action of the esophagus pulled my body toward the great fish’s stomach and hence my doom, I felt something pulse beneath the spongy flesh of the monster’s throat. At last my wits returned to me. I quickly deduced that the pulsing object was not the beast’s heart, but its swim bladder. Although my body was being compressed and contorted, I was able to reach my waist and pull my diving knife from its sheath. I sliced through the fish’s gullet, plunged my arm in to the elbow and penetrated the bladder. After taking one last breath of air, I cut my air hose and pushed the severed end into the hole.
The monster’s swim bladder filled with compressed air. The fish became a living balloon, rocketing toward the surface and taking me along for the ride. As we rose, I exhaled that last life sustaining breath. When we crested the waves, the bladder burst. I barely had time to unhook my tank and vest and slither from the monster’s mouth before it sank, lifeless, back into the depths from whence it came.
Floating face down in the water, I peered through my facemask, eager to behold the thing that had nearly devoured me. What I saw shocked me to my core. It was a gargantuan anglerfish, an ugly brute wielding a lure unlike any known to science.
All at once I understood. I watched and marveled as the dead beast sank into the briny blackness. The long fleshy cord protruding from its head spooled out around its body. Last to disappear, at the cord’s end, was the form of the mermaid. She fell from sight, ghostly in the gloom, arms outstretched as though still beckoning, hair fanned medusa- like, eyes cold and dead.
Anglerfish, over the years, have evolved their glowing fleshy lures to attract their prey. But what if your food of choice was human flesh? Throughout history, sailors have been predominantly men. Naturally, this beast of the deep had evolved the perfect appendage to lure lonely sailors to their death. Rather than a fleshy luminous orb, this leviathan dangled the form of a beautiful woman, a mermaid, before its toothy maw.
As the sea swallowed the beast, it occurred to me that I had no proof of my discovery. I would, of course, publish an article detailing my adventure, and my article would, like all of my articles, be ridiculed and scorned by the majority of the scientific community.
I pay them no mind.
My work goes on.
Such is the fate of the crypto- zoologist.
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