No Death Finer Than She
It took exactly twenty-four days for the mermaid’s poison to kill. We knew this specifically because Reginald Victor’s crew was dead, and they hadn’t been out to sea in twenty-four days.
They only started showing signs on the fifth day when they were too drunk on cheap rum to think of the pain twisting in their guts as anything other than too much alcohol in the belly. By the seventh day, we’d somehow found it within ourselves to host them in our local hospice, but the doctor was a neophyte: the fired apprentice of a doctor in a hamlet over. So while we knew they would not be getting better, we did not anticipate how much worse it would get.
Not the retching. Not the dehydration. Not the reddish, flaking rash that sprouted along the pirates’s cheekbones and their noses, their thighs, their calves, even scaling their toes. Not the pustules. Little, onyx-colored orbs pushing through the tan skin on the pirates’s throats and jawlines and feet and eyelids—pustules that oozed and spat black liquid like tar when burst. Surely not the delirium—the cries and moanings for the sea and the saltwater and the surf and nothing, nothing at all.
But we understood their want for death. Some of Victor’s crew called for it, begged for it, promised the gold of kings if obliged. The neophyte Doctor passed them a bottle of Raféluk’s Mercy, and with the downing of that potion they slipped away, dead. Seven of the thirteen pirates went that way, with shaky hand and potion pressed to cracked, dry, pale lips. We burned the bodies, promptly. Some had wondered about the wealth and riches the pirates had regaled; others did not need or entertain the idea of it. The Doctor seemed rather set on the pirate’s plight; when we asked him how he fared, twelve days in, returning from the local well carrying the water his wards so feverishly desired, the neophyte Doctor replied, Fair. Ultimately, the Doctor never asked for the coin promised.
The remaining six, including Captain Reginald Victor, stayed alive until the twenty-fourth day, twisting, damning, twisting, moaning, twisting, praying in their cots as the sound of the waves rushing against the shore mimicked the roar of agony just inside.
Slowly, one after the other, like water dripping, dripping away, the rest died of dehydration on that twenty-fourth day, bodies stained opaque with black oil and when not: skin a pugnacious red with a scale-like rash.
They all died, with certainty, except for Victor. He vanished.
When we asked the Doctor, he simply gestured out the open window—toward the sea.
He was desperate, the Doctor said simply. In his delirium, the Doctor continued as he prepared to burn the dressings of the cots the pirates had occupied, He forsook the hospice and my aid and stole a little rowboat rusting on the shore.
Sure enough, a pair of oily black footprints upon the sand lead out toward sea.