The man was poised in indecision, staring at the thing which lay heaped at his feet. I saw then that it was not a human corpse, or the trunk of a tree, or a bundle of sail that he had found, but a mermaid. She was lying facedown, her body twisted into a loose curl, her hair matted with scraps of seaweed.
The year was fourteen hundred and ten, and it was very early in the morning, with the sun pushing its way gently through a covering of mist that floated aimlessly over the land and the water.
The man had never seen a mermaid before except for the one carved in stone above the east door of the church. She had very pointed teeth and a double tail like two soft and tapering legs, while this one had a single tail which could have belonged to a large halibut or a cod.
The man stepped forward and squatted down beside her. The pattern of her interlinking scales glinted with an oily light. He stroked them along the direction in which they lay and they were wet and slippery, leaving a coating of slime on his palm. But when his hand moved over the pale skin of her back it was dry and cold and as rough as a cat's tongue.
He lifted a hank of dark hair, feeling its weight. Little translucent shrimps were tangled within its mesh and struggling to free themselves. A yellow crab scuttled around the curve of the waist and dropped out of sight.
He hesitated for a moment, but then he took hold of the mermaid's shoulders and rolled her over. The sand clung in patches on her body like the map of some forgotten country. Her nipples were as red as sea anemones. Her navel was deep and round. Her eyes were wide open and as blue as the sky could ever be. As he gazed at her, a lopsided smile drifted over her face.
He had presumed that she was dead and with the shock of finding her alive he let out a cry and jumped to his feet. He turned and began to run as fast as he could over the ridges of muddy sand and towards the village.
I watched as he trampled on the gray scrub of sea lavender and the low samphire bushes, their thin skins so easily broken. But he trod more carefully once he had reached the strip of pale stones littered with the sharp empty shells of clams and oysters, and with his heart thumping in his throat he was beside the fishing boats and the wooden hut battered out of shape by the north wind.
The old fisherman was sitting there just as before, his legs stretched out stiffly in front of him and his bones aching. He made no response when the young man tried to explain what the sea had thrown onto the land; he didn't even raise his head to look at the speaker.
The young man ran on again until he arrived at the first house of the village. The shoemaker's wife was standing by the door, her arms cradling her huge belly.
"There is a mermaid!" he said to her, but she was lost in thought and hardly heard him, although her baby lurched violently inside her womb as if shocked by the news. She remembered that later.
The man went into the house and from a back room he fetched one of those narrow wooden spades that are used for digging lugworms. Then he returned the way he had come. He meant to bury the mermaid even if she was still alive and his task made him walk slowly now, with the solemnity of an executioner.
He looked out across the expanse of sand shimmering like an ocean of calm water. He saw how a flock of gulls had settled in a noisy mass on the place where the mermaid was lying, and as he drew closer they lifted, screaming and turning into the air.
But the mermaid had gone. Nothing remained of her except for a single lock of dark hair which resembled a ribbon of torn seaweed.
Nevertheless the man dug a hole as deep as a grave: the salty water seeping into it, the sides crumbling away and seeming to melt like snow. And as he dug the surface brightness of the sand was replaced by greasy layers of black and gray mud smelling of age and decay.
When the hole was ready he picked up the hair and dropped it in, covering it over quickly and stamping it down. He marked the place with a big black stone.
That evening he sat with the old fisherman, drinking from a jug of beer and going over and over the story of what he had seen and what he had done. During the night his wife Sally shook him awake because she could hear the sound of a woman crying, desperate and inconsolable. On the following morning a cow died for no good reason and the shoemaker's wife gave birth to a baby with the head of a monstrous fish which only lived for a few hours.
Everyone agreed that this must be the mermaid's fault and they told the priest to do something. So the priest went with the man to where the hair was buried. He took a holy candle with him which kept on going out in the wind and he had a bottle of holy water to sprinkle over the sand. In his spidery handwriting he had copied three paternosters onto a scrap of vellum and he tucked these under the black stone while reciting a prayer to protect them all from harm.
After that things were quiet again for a while, but it was as if a lid had been clamped down on a pot that was bound to boil over sooner or later. The mermaid had disturbed the pattern of life in the village and people waited with growing apprehension for what might follow.
The man who had stroked her rough skin had a dream in which she slithered over his body like a huge eel and wrapped her tail tight around his legs. He was crying when he woke up. He kept on stumbling against her image in a corner of his mind. Whenever he went out with his boat he would hope to find her glistening among the fish he had caught in his nets. He began to travel farther and farther from the shore, searching for her.
Excerpted from The Leper's Companions by Julia Blackburn. Copyright © 2000 by Julia Blackburn. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.