Merrow - Part One
By: Clark Zlotchew

It was a chilly evening in September. A bitter Atlantic wind drove rain through the streets of Waterville, a seaside village on the Ring of Kerry. Jeff MacNamara, a recent American college graduate on holiday, head bowed against wind and rain, lumbered past the varicolored two-story structures on his right, searching for the Mermaid Inn. Over the roaring of the black and white billows that smashed against the rock-strewn beach to his left, he heard the music. It was a wild and merry tune that surged in patches between the crashes of surf on shore. It made Jeff want to dance. Or run. Or fight. It was a surprisingly strong feeling, yet diffuse, bearing no specific goal. He accelerated his pace.

Almost all the structures –some painted white, some blue or yellow or violet-- on this sea front promenade were illuminated by lamps in windows and lanterns over doorways, except for the location he sought. Within thirty seconds he caught sight of it. Jeff might have walked past it in the darkness, he realized, if it hadn't been for a lightning strike on the ocean that intensely lit the entire area for a split second. It flashed a brilliant light on the structures along the sea front, allowing him to catch sight of the small green building with the red door. In that instant he glimpsed a sign that read Mermaid Inn and displayed a crude painting of a bare-breasted mermaid combing her golden tresses with one hand, holding a lyre in the other. Her smile was inviting, and her eyes seemed to focus directly on Jeff.

The American opened the door to the Mermaid Inn and entered. A wave of warmth chased the smell of fresh salt air, replacing it with various aromas that washed over him, and seeped into his clothing: beer, both fresh and stale, fish and chips frying. He scanned the people on the barstools as well as those at the round oak tables. Every barstool was occupied, and people drank and chatted while standing between and behind the fortunate ones seated at the bar.

The rousing music emanated from a group of young men and women in jeans and sweaters sitting at a table in a far corner. There were two fiddlers, an accordionist and a pennywhistle player whipping out a reel. Jeff stood behind the barstools, caught the attention of the burly middle-aged bartender who smiled and walked over. "Good evening, sir. And what's your pleasure this evening?"

The American ordered a Murphy's Stout. While waiting for his drink, Jeff vaguely became aware that the pub was bathed in soft lighting that threw the entire room into a mellow setting of brown and beige, which somehow put him at ease. He struck up a conversation about the weather with the man standing next to him but stopped in the middle of a sentence when he noticed a strikingly attractive girl at the table with one unoccupied chair. She wore a bright red cap at a jaunty angle.

Mike, the bartender, plunked the pint down on the bar and wiped his hands on his white apron. Jeff took his frothy glass, strolled over to the vacant chair next to the girl, and said, "Excuse me. All right with you if I sit here?"

She looked up at him and smiled. That smile produced an odd feeling in him: a surge of adrenaline, and a sensation somewhere between pleasure and fear. She answered, "And why not? I don't see anyone's name on it."

He seated himself and said, "Hi, my name is Jeff."

She regarded him for a moment, then indignantly asked, "And who was it that even asked you your name?"

Jeff turned red and just gaped at her. He didn't know what to say at this rebuff.

Enjoying his discomfort, the girl chuckled and said, "Ah, I'm just pulling your leg, Jeff. My name is Merrow." Her chair was next to his, but he had the odd impression that her voice came from a distance. He'd been listening to too much high-decibel rock music back in Dublin, he decided.

"Tell me, Merrow," he said, "Do you live here in Waterville?"

"Not exactly."

"Just visiting, then?"

"Well, sure, and you could say that, but my home is not all that far from here."

Jeff was about to ask her exactly where she lived, but she said, "Well, then, Jeff, where in the States are you from?"

"Boston. But how did you know I was American?"

She threw her head back and laughed. "Oh, come on now, Jeff, do you really think you sound like everyone else around here?"

Her laughter had a musical ring to it. I bet she has a great singing voice..

"I do," she said.

"Huh? You do what?

"I've a beautiful singing voice. Or at least that's what people tell me." She paused, then added, "Some even tell me I have a voice to die for." She chuckled.

He stared at her for a moment, then stammered, "But how did you know what I was thinking?"

She smiled and placed her hand on his shoulder, looked deeply into his eyes. "Just thinkin', was it? And did ya not just tell me ya thought I must have a great singin' voice. If you were thinkin' it, then you were thinkin' aloud, Jeff."

There was something about this girl that intrigued Jeff. Intrigued and strongly attracted him. Still, that uncomfortable feeling he had experienced when she first smiled at him persisted. The attraction stemmed from her beautiful oval face, the shape of her wide mouth, the gleaming white teeth behind her pink lips, and the way her nose crinkled when she laughed. She was playful with her wicked sense of humor. Even the musical sound of her voice charmed him. She was enveloped in a light scent that reminded him of the fresh salt smell of the open sea. But most of all, he loved the way she gave him her entire attention when he spoke, as though his thoughts were the most fascinating ideas imaginable. Which he knew they were not. Even the way she had of touching his shoulder or upper arm when she wanted to make a point enchanted him.

And her eyes, those grey eyes –eyes that seemed unfathomable, bottomless, vertiginous, that swirled like whirlpools that one could be sucked into and gladly fall, fall, fall forever– eyes shaded by thick brown lashes that partially obscured those beckoning depths. And the long, wavy golden hair that coiled around her face and neck and draped over her shoulders to cascade down to her hips, seemed to glow with a life of its own. The vague unease she inspired disturbed him, but not enough to cancel out everything else about her, which he found truly alluring.

Although he had felt warm while standing at the bar, Jeff felt a bit chilled while seated at the table. No doubt a draft from under the front door. He looked at his watch; it was almost midnight.

Merrow suddenly stood. "I've got to be off now, Jeff."

"Oh, so soon?

She nodded.

"Can I take you home?"

"No, Jeff, I'm not in need of an escort, but I thank you for the offer." She thought for a moment and said, "Will I be seein' you next Saturday, then?"

This simple question produced a feeling of joy in Jeff. It was like the sound of an orchestra suddenly striking up Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But the young American had not planned to stay more than two nights in Waterville, after which he would go back to Dublin before flying home. He had by now a good taste of Ireland and was ready to return to Boston.

His wanderlust had decreased dramatically yesterday when he visited the Cliffs of Moher, on a rare bright sunny day. Jeff had gazed at the Atlantic horizon, and wistfully pictured his home across the sea. He experienced a sudden pang of homesickness, a feeling of being too far from home, a sense of detachment, irreversible separation from family, friends, everything he knew and loved. The American shifted his gaze to look down at the breakers below and experienced an attack of vertigo. He turned and moved away from the cliff's edge. He was ready to go home. And now, here in Waterville, this beautiful, exciting young woman asked if she would see him the following Saturday.

Jeff stood and offhandedly answered, "Sure." He didn't want to show he felt the idea of seeing her again was thrilling, didn't want to seem too anxious. This young American wanted to be "cool," or at least seem so. He limited himself to replying, "So, I'll see you next Saturday." Dilemma resolved.

During the week he did some touring, but always returned to Waterville where he stayed in an inexpensive little hotel. Evenings he would spend at the Mermaid Inn, enjoying the impromptu music while having a pint or two of Murphy's Stout, and sometimes chatting with locals. During that week, which seemed to creep along sloth like, Merrow's face, misty eyes, golden tresses, her touch and her silken voice kept haunting his thoughts and his dreams. Sometimes, in those dreams, he saw Merrow, her grey eyes like ocean waves that swelled and heaved and crashed and foamed and sank back and swelled again. He heard her beautiful voice croon haunting melodies in a language he could not understand. He heard strange murmurings like Teacht chugam and Tabhair grádom and yet he felt those incomprehensible words or commands, or incantations, were carrying a message meant for him, for him alone and no one else. As he heard those strange words in song, he seemed to hear, in English, a feminine voice whispering: "Come to me. Give me love."

In some dreams he saw a sailing ship in a raging sea driven by a fierce wind to crash against huge rocks, splinter and sink, while crewmen were dashed by mountainous waves against those same rocks and then slid below the surface. He felt a wave thrusting him toward the rocks, but just as he was about to be dashed to pulp, he awoke in a sweat, sitting up in bed, heart rapidly beating against his ribs as though it would break out of his chest.

END of Part One


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