by Jim Bates
Before he died, Moshi and I became pretty close. In fact, to be honest, I have to say that he was the best friend I ever had.
I met him when I took a break from my work as a biologist researching mermaids for the Woods Hole Institute out of Massachusetts. I’d been intrigued with those marvelous creatures as far back as I could remember, and certainly throughout my career, participating in a number of research expeditions as well as writing the definitive paper, “Mermaids: Myths Debunked”.
But the field had become severely overcrowded, with hoards of scientists jumping onto the mermaid bandwagon, and it all got to be a little too much. Don’t get me wrong, I could understand the allure. After all, the study of mermaids was a very sexy subject, not to mention a wonderful topic of conversation at any dinner party or crowded sports bar. But geez, you’d think we’d discovered a space alien or something every time we captured a new and previously unidentified mermaid in one of our nets. Personally, the hype of it all got to be a little too much, so ten years ago I took a step back to re-evaluate my life.
With recharging my emotional batteries in mind, I decided to do something I’d wanted to do ever since I’d been a kid growing up on the south shore of Long Island: sail along the eastern seaboard from Miami to Nova Scotia. It was on that fateful trip where I met Moshi, as charming a merman as there ever was. In fact, it turned out he was the only one. I never found another merman, and to this day, no one else ever has either. Even Moshi figured he was the last of his kind. He told me once that he’d not seen another merman for over one hundred and fifty years, so who was I to doubt him?
We met when I saved his life. I was making good time sailing on a southwest wind in my thirty-two foot boat, The Wanderer, along the coast of North Carolina. The two foot high swells were gently breaking, and a deep blue sky foretold of a high pressure system that would make for fantastic sailing for at least three days. Above me, herring gulls circled and called, keeping me company, and occasionally diving down to pick up a floating fish.
I was in good spirits, wearing my Oakley wraparounds, faded cutoff jeans, and worn flip-flops, sporting what I called my Robinson Crusoe beard and shoulder length hair, held in place by my sun visor. I was scanning the horizon, and keeping a lookout for those huge cargo ships that frequent the shipping lanes off the east coast, when I caught a glint of something about one-hundred yards off the starboard bow. It was shiny and reflecting the sunlight. Metal of some sort?
Curious as to what it might be, I sailed over to check it out. As I approached, the mystery made itself clear. What I thought might have been a solitary floating aluminum can turned out to be worse. Much worse. It was part of an immense flotilla of plastic.
I was furious. For years, I’d been fighting a battle for stricter measures regarding the disposal of plastic in the landfills along the east coast. The brutal fact that the oceans were becoming the world’s dumping ground for garbage was a cause near and dear to my heart. But my anger turned to horror when I saw something living was struggling in the toxic debris.
Thinking it might be a dolphin, I dropped the mainsail, fired up the auxiliary motor, and moved in for a closer look. When I realized the trapped creature was not a dolphin but a merman, I almost fainted. I’d heard rumors that mermen existed but had always ignored them as only so much gossipy baloney. Obviously, I’d been wrong. Here was one, right before my eyes, entangled in a festering plastic mess, nearly choking to death on the yellow tie string of a garbage bag wrapped tightly around his throat.
As I was wondering what to do, he coughed politely, and asked, “Um … can you please help me? I seem to be stuck.”
Talk about an understatement. Not only was the garbage bag’s string nearly choking him, countless other strands of plastic were wrapped so tightly around his body he could barely move. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said, not wanting him to drown and feeling an overwhelming desire to save him.
I spent the next ten minutes using my knife to cut away what seemed like half a ton of plastic. When he was free, he smiled and swam around my boat, and even leaped out of the water a few times. I’d saved his life, and he was thrilled to be alive. It was the beginning of our friendship.
I should probably say that we didn’t really “talk”, not in the strictest sense of the word. His language was impossible for me to understand, let alone speak but I have to say he was more than patient when he tried to help me learn. I just could never get the hang of it. Moshi, the name I gave him, was a version of Xmykkezm, his name in the language of mermen. Mermaids, too, for that matter. You can see why I gave up. Instead, we communicated telepathically, which seemed to come naturally to us, and was much easier than learning Yylaczackim, the language of both of mermaids and mermen. No wonder we never figured out how to communicate with our captured mermaids! Their language was beyond the skill of us humans to figure out, not to mention the fact that unlike with Moshi and me, the mermaids had no desire to communicate with their captors. In a way, I suppose, I don’t blame them.
But Moshi and I got along great from the very beginning. He started traveling with me as my summer vacation morphed into me living full-time on The Wanderer while I traveled up and down the east coast. I quit my job at the institute, and concentrated on writing articles about ocean pollution to make money. I hung out with Moshi too, of course. We had a lot in common, our mutual love for the sea being first and foremost.
And he saved my life too. A few years after we met, I was anchored off the coast of northern Florida. It was a hot day, and I had decided to go for a swim to cool off, unaware there was a hammerhead shark in the vicinity until he swam close enough to try to nibble at my toes. It scared the crap out of me. Fortunately, Moshi was floating nearby, resting, and noticed what was going on. He immediately swam to my side, and frightened the hammerhead away. As kind natured as he was, he could be really aggressive if he needed to be.
After he saved my life, our relationship moved to a deeper level. I found that I enjoyed being with him more than I did with my friends, and took extra precautions to keep the two worlds separate. The thought of Moshi being “discovered” made me physically ill. Whoever did would turn the event into a media circus for sure. It was something I wasn’t going to let happen. Not to my friend.
So I kept him to myself, and we had some wonderful years together. I even cared for him in those last agonizing months before he passed away due to old age. He was two hundred and thirty-five years old, according to my calculations. The fact that he’d been around since just after the Revolutionary War was pretty incredible to think about. When he finally did die, I buried him in a favorite spot off the coast of Maine, near Boothbay Harbor, weighted down with rocks, of course.
After his passing, I was going to write a scientific paper about Moshi. Lord knows, I’d accumulated pages and pages of notes and observations throughout those years we were together. But in the end, I burned them in a bonfire on the coast near where I’d buried my friend. It seemed at the time like the right thing to do. It still does.
Nowadays, I sail up and down the eastern seaboard, writing about ocean pollution and thinking of Moshi, wondering if there might be the possibility of another merman out there someplace. I doubt it but even if there is, who am I kidding? There could never be anyone like him ever again. At least not for me. He truly was one of a kind.
Jim Bates lives in a small town, twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in many online and print publications. His collection of short stories, Resilience, is scheduled to be published in 2020 by Bridge House Publishing. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.