It seems strange to find an ancient rock-art painting, depicting what look like mermaids, in a cave near a town in an arid area of the Western Cape, some 60kms (40 miles) from the ocean. However, 250 million years ago, the stark, beautiful landscape of the Klein Karoo was submerged underwater. When the oceans receded, they left behind a fertile valley and these paintings of ‘fish-tailed humans’ have been linked to stories and legends about the ‘water-meisies’ who inhabit springs and rock pools, and who are associated with bringing both rains and droughts.
Some say that the ‘fish people’ in the San rock painting depict a ritual held by their shamans involving swallows, which are also associated with rain. However, many other people point out that the San people were known for drawing what they actually saw. Look again and you can see that the images have arms, not wings. Does this mean that these were creatures encountered and recorded by the San Bushmen?
There are modern-day accounts of people seeing creatures such as these too. One might suggest that the consumption of a few too many glasses of brandy and coke might have been involved, but I’m prepared to keep an open mind. In any case, I’m fond of writing in that space where myth and reality collide…
Excerpt from Song of the Sea Goddess
A mermaid? Sam can barely believe his eyes. His mouth starts to open and close like that of the fish which, imprisoned in the creature’s grasp, stares up at him blankly. Astonished as he is, Sam keeps hold of the line. The hook pulls at the fish’s mouth.
‘Stop,’ he says to her. ‘Wait. Let me take the hook out.’ Sam leans forward over the back of his little boat and extends his left hand towards the fish. He slackens the line and his hand closes over hers. It’s quite a big fish, enough for two. Sam looks into the creature’s blue-green eyes. ‘Can’t we share it?’
Her eyes narrow. ‘You’re not trying to trick me are you, fisherman?’
‘No,’ Sam shakes his head. ‘I’m not going anywhere, am I?’ He stares down at her, still not believing what he is seeing. ‘Now hold steady.’ He slides his left hand forward to grip the fish’s head and with the other he deftly slips the hook out of the fish’s mouth.
The fish is free of Sam’s line. ‘All right, you hold the fish and I’ll get my fishing bucket. We can keep it in there for now. I’ll make a fire later.’
She puts her head on one side.
‘Don’t you move.’ Sam turns and leans across the deck to retrieve his bucket. The moment his back turned, he hears a splash. He jumps up and spins around to see a large silvery fish-tail disappearing below the surface of the murky river. Another flash of silver further on and she’s gone, taking the big, beautiful fish with her.
Sam beats his fist on the rail of his little boat and curses loudly. He grips the rail in both hands and stares after her. Has he really just seen a mermaid?
His stomach growls again and he pulls the line with its empty hook back onto the boat. He threads the last of his bait onto the hook and casts the line back over the rail. No sooner has he finished securing it to the rail, he feels a tug on the other end.
As he reaches to pick it up, the mermaid breaks the surface holding a plump fish in each hand. ‘She smiles up at him. ‘You thought I’d gone, didn’t you?’
Sam shrugs. ‘S’pose so.’ He grabs his fishing bucket and holds it over the side. ‘Put them in here.’
The mermaid drops one fish into the bucket and takes the other in both hands. She opens her mouth revealing a row of little pointy teeth. Sam is reminded of a shark’s mouth. He can’t help himself grimacing as she sinks those sharp teeth into the still wriggling fish.
‘What’s wrong?’ She bites off the fish’s head and starts to crunch the bones.
Sam averts his eyes and looks down at the other fish, which is floating happily in the bucket at his feet. He visualizes it cooked; he’s too hungry to be put off. Sam looks at her again, the long dark hair clinging to her shoulders and flowing over her upper body, and the glint of her silver tail shining through the muddy river water. ‘I’ve never met a mermaid before.’
‘Well, you still haven’t,’ snaps the creature indignantly. She devours the last of the fish, bones and all.
He leans on the rail and stares at her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Come closer and I’ll whisper.’ She gazes up at him with her big blue-green eyes and beckons with an elegant finger. He notices that the nail is narrow and curved, like a claw.
Sam is repelled and yet captivated by the creature. He crouches down and leans forward over the back of the boat. She reaches up to him and he puts his hands on her shoulders. Her hands close around his wrists, drawing him closer. Sam can feel her breath on his chest. Then, arching her back she flips her tail. Sam, caught off balance, is tipped off the boat and into the river beside her.
He flails in the water, unable to find purchase on the slippery river bottom. Although the river isn’t deep, Sam can’t swim and he panics momentarily.
‘Ha! Can’t swim, fisherman?’
He hears the creature taunting him as he splashes around. His hand finds the anchor rope and he steadies himself. Muddy water streams down his face as he finally stands up in the waist-high channel. He retrieves his sodden cap and jams it on his head. Rubbing the water from his eyes, he glares at the creature who is floating in a seated position a little way away from him.
‘What did you do that for?’ says Sam crossly, spitting out water.
‘Don’t you like to play, fisherman?’ she flicks her tail at him teasingly and an arc of water sprays over him.
‘I don’t know who you are, or what you are, but I don’t appreciate being soaked.’ Sam turns his back on her and is about to climb back onto his boat.
‘Oh, don’t be like that.’ She flips forward and swims towards him. She bobs up between where he’s standing and Porcupine’s stumpy stern. ‘I’m sorry,’ she looks up at him coyly with her big blue-green eyes.
‘No, really I am.’ She blinks her eyes at him and a fat tear rolls down her cheek. ‘I’m all alone, you see. No friends. No-one to play with.’
Sam relents. He reaches out and touches her face, wiping away the tear. ‘Look, would you mind if I sat over there on the island? I’d like to dry off a bit.’ She nods and he takes her hand and guides her to the edge of the sandbank.
Sam sits down on the grassy bank while she lounges on her front at the water’s edge, her glorious silver tail sparkling in the shallow slow-moving water behind her.
‘You were going to explain who you are before you tried to drown me.’
‘I didn’t try to drown you.’ Her eyes become even larger, the pupils black like saucers.
‘I’m joking with you, don’t you see? Playing. Like you said you were when you pulled me into the river.’ Sam grins at her.
‘All right, but I’m sorry for that.’ She smiles weakly.
‘All right,’ Sam says gently, stretching out on the grassy bank and resting his head on his elbow. ‘Tell me about yourself.’
‘My name is Shasa. I belong to the tribe of the Water People. You might know me as a water-meisie’.