Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Ballad of the Mermaid by Ruth Moore

Doug Anderson, The Ballad of the Mermaid

Hannah, the storm being done, took down her shawl,
And softly, mindful of her husband's snore,
Stole with her basket down the moonlit path,
To see in secret what had washed ashore.

Three days of wind had stripped the trellis bare
Of trumpet-vine; autumn was cold and late.
A bird's nest on the path forlornly seemed
A summer frippery, quite out of date.

She set a decent rubber on it; then
Easing her body, with rheumatic twinge,
Came to the beach, nor saw, behind, the moon
Make ribald shadow of her, shawl and fringe.

"It's time to pile the punkins. There'll be frost
Before tomorrow morning, I misdoubt.
If I'd have known how cold a night it is,
I'd have thought twice before a-venturing out."

The sea far out withdrawn, the stricken beach
Left lonely to the moon, the whispered stir
Of sucker-shells moved something in her mind.
Bits of inspired gossip came to her;

Unthought of ways of circumventing folk;
A penny saved; the sucking pig grown fat;
"That pan I'll solder; and that tennis ball,
Some youngone, now, will pay a dime for that."

Sure-footed as a cat, but not so light,
She plodded gravely on to where the beach
Ended in ledges and great rows of foam
The shrieking sea had left. Beyond her reach

She saw a gleaming; grunted; peered; and there
Stark in the moonlight, shining silverly,
Beauty forever kept from mortal eyes
Lay in a pool for Hannah's eyes to see.

She saw bright hair afloat on starlit shell,
A frightened hand that beat the hollowed ledge,
White, blood-stained breasts, a torn and delicate fin,
Scales, spattered out like jewels at the edge;

And for a moment, while a thin voice cried
A piercing word she could not understand,
Her mind slipped sideways, seemed to spill itself,
And tumble, with her basket, to the sand.

How had the old wives talked, who, dying late.
Had said a bitter name for what must be
In wait beyond unknown, unearthly foam,
To keep their sailor-men so long at sea?

And after all, 'twas so! She felt the blood
Move in her veins again; she caught her breath
And crushed the terror rising in her throat.
"You hussy! Scaring decent folks to death!"

She stooped and peered, remembering her God.
"You! With your finny tail and yaller hair!
And not a rag to hide you! How'd I be
Flat in a puddle, with my bosom bare?"

There was one thing for decent folks to do,
When devil's spawn like this should drift ashore.
"It ain't a human woman, it's a fish.
It's half a fish; and I've kilt fish before."

The clasp-like knife from her pocket...then, she chilled,
For as she leaned above the white and gold
And shuddering thing, it watched her, in its eyes
Something as veiled as starlight, and as cold.

No, it was not a fish. She struck and fled.
Clumping across the rocks and up the hill,
Leaving her knife to glisten by the pool,
Her basket for the rising tide to fill.


Ruth Moore, "The Ballad of the Mermaid," excerpt from Cold as a Dog and the Wind Northeast, illustrations by Doug Anderson, Timberhead Ink, 1986.

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