The mermaid still visited. The man never saw her, at least never clearly enough that he could be certain. Still, he sometimes walked out on the dock to find a small pile of sea glass or a mollusk shell marked by an embedded pearl and he knew they were from her. He would smile before slipping them into a pocket, buttoning it back up and going about his work. The day he found one of her little treasures inside a crab trap, he knew she was coming to say hello.
That night he brought a chair down from his home, much as he had before, only this time he placed it at the end of the dock. He rested there as the sun set, though he knew it would likely be hours before she showed up. He watched the warm pinks and oranges overtake the blue sky, becoming more brilliant well past the sun’s sinking, and thought back to the trap he’d set, the magic he’d used, the seagreen of her tears.
The moon was high in the sky when he finally spotted her. In the prismatic path of light but still very far away, she bobbed to the surface, watching him for a moment as he watched her. Then she was back under the water with a flip of her tail and he was left to wait again. When she reemerged, it was next to the dock; she kept her head partially submerged as she looked up, mouth and nose still underwater, considering him. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“Hello, little fish,” he said into the ocean soundscape. She stared at him, swimming backwards slowly, then forward again. Finally she lifted her head wholly out of the water.
“Hi,” she said back.
“You’ve messed with one of my traps,” he said. “I ought to give you another spanking.”
He was only teasing but it still made her blush as she remembered. She didn’t answer him for several long seconds, until she said quietly, “You said the magic would work again.”
“As far as I know,” he said, nodding. “The leather pouch needs only to be refilled, and it can go as long as one sunset to the next.”
“Or sunrise?” she asked, her voice becoming eager with the possibility. She had almost refrained from asking, so afraid was she of hearing “no” and her dreams of exploring the island quashed. Now her eyes danced with more than just the moonlight.
“Or sunrise,” he said, nodding again, then glancing at the height of the risen moon, “This coming sunrise?”
She nodded, grinning, then swimming up to him and reaching to rest her arms on the dock. “You’ll show me everything?”
“I’ll show you everything I can,” he said with a smile. “For now, I need sleep. Do you need sleep?”
“Not more than a few hours in a night,” she said with a shrug.
“Well there isn’t much more than that left,” he said. Then he stood, walking over to squat down in front of her before returning home. “Get some rest. I will see you very soon.”
~ ~ ~
“How does it work?” she asked as he squatted once again, this time his feet sinking in the wet sand and the waves peaking just ahead of his toes. She lay almost entirely out of the water, her shimmery aquamarine tail brilliant even in the pre-dawn light.
From a pocket he pulled a leather pouch, one plump with potpourri, and held it out for her to see. “The filling’s bewitched. And when our day is done and the magic run out, they’ll only be so many leaves. Until then, it just needs to be near you, which means you need to stay near me.”
She squealed with delight before he’d quite finished speaking, but he couldn’t blame her. Smoke had again settled around her, a blue-green cloud that soon blew away to reveal a pair of legs resting in the saltwater. For a moment she was completely still, nude in the low tide, and then she kicked at the water and he stood, avoiding the resulting spray and returning the magic pouch to the safety of his pocket. He gave her a moment, then reached a hand down, pulling her up easily when she took it. She wobbled, holding on to him as she found her balance, then grinned and stepped away.
Without warning, she flung her hands above her head and spun, a peal of laughter escaping as she immediately stumbled into him again. He righted her, amused, but didn’t let go of her arm this time. When he spoke again, he was gentle but firm. “Let’s practice walking first, then we can try spinning. And we need to get you clothed before the sun is fully in the sky.”
The coast was mostly deserted, but the view was unobstructed for many miles and there were other docks, other fishers, down the way. He slipped his hand down her arm, taking a hold of her hand and leading her toward his home, not far beyond the tree line. Even tethered to him, she hopped and skipped from time to time, exploring the unfamiliar muscles and completely unaware of the oddity she was, bouncing naked up the beach in the first rays of the sun.
It was dim inside, even with the windows open, and he released her hand to light the candles. In the flickering light, she looked around the humble quarters and was drawn immediately to the sturdy wooden shelves that lined a wall across from the bed. Amid a few books and baubles were trinkets and treasures she’d left him. She reached up to touch the side of some ancient bone worn smooth, remembering the finding of it and feeling pleased that he’d kept it. She turned around, looking at the bed and the clothing he’d laid out for her. She wrinkled her nose at the long shirt, then picked up a smaller cut of cloth she couldn’t name.
“That’ll have to do for underwear,” he said, walking over, coffee in hand. “To protect that bottom of yours.” He reached his hand out, and she handed the drawers over to him, still confused. He sat on the edge of the bed, set his mug on the nearby table, and indicated she should take the few steps over to him. Once there, he held them out for her to see how they were worn, but she just looked at him curiously and he let his arms rest.
“I’ve never seen these,” she said, hesitant, her gaze falling on the washed out fabric of the shirt and the frayed buttons going down its length. “But this doesn’t look like what I imagined wearing.”
He raised an eyebrow, amused. The shirt wasn’t much different than the one he wore, save being long enough that it would fall like a dress on her, he hoped. Not fancy by any stretch, but it was a fisher’s village and not unlike what most would wear there. He supposed she had seen more docks than his, though, and knew they were not far as the crow flies– or as the mermaid swims– to other islands where they threw lavish parties, dressed very finely, and likely dined on food from his own traps bought early at the market.
“Well, this is what we have,” he said, holding the underwear up again expectantly, but now she crossed her arms and her shoulders sank with disappointment.
“Don’t you have anything else?” she asked a bit woefully.
“I don’t,” he said matter-of-factly, “And it’s good luck I had these. If it weren’t for the draw string, I doubt they’d fit. Now, step into them please.”
She looked at them skeptically for another few seconds, then reached a hand out to rest on his shoulder for balance and did as she was asked. He pulled them up to her waist and tied them loosely, then patted his left thigh. She sat down obediently, though her pout was still firmly in place, and he reached for the shirt. He helped her with first one arm, then the other before buttoning her from the bottom up. Then she stood, twisting her hips a bit and watching the worn cloth twirl around her legs as she scanned the room. Her eyes landed on a long bit of twisted rope, and after a glance for permission, she tied it loosely around her waist then looked to her reflection in the window and smiled.
“I think that will do just fine,” he said, satisfied. He reached down to slide a pair of simple sandals out from under the bed, then stood and gestured. “Slip these on, and we’ll be on our way.”
~ ~ ~
It was a long walk to the village, but he made it often and the path was well worn and easy to follow. The mermaid danced from flower to flower, entranced by every petal and leaf, amused by the bees, in love with every new thing she saw. For the most part, he let her wander, though a few times she strayed too far from the trail and he had to call her back. The third time, he stopped their walk and made her look at him as he said, “Stay with me, please. Not everything on the island is a friend any more than in the sea.”
She frowned at him and tried to look away, but he tipped her chin back in his direction. “Do you understand me?” he asked, wanting to hear her say so.
“I understand,” she said quietly after several seconds of internal struggle. She was afraid that if she argued, he wouldn’t take her the rest of the way and she knew there was much she wanted to see.
“Good,” he said and then, as if reading her thoughts, “That goes for in town, too. Soon the trees will thin and there will be people, and much more to see. I don’t expect to have to call you back to me again.”
“You won’t,” she said, her tone sullen. She was embarrassed to be scolded, though she knew she had been testing the limits of his patience with every seemingly innocent step into the treeline. Perhaps that was why it was so embarrassing.
This time he just nodded as he released her chin, and she quickly danced away from him, looking for a new distraction. Now he wondered if she might be a mind reader; if she’d lingered for even a second, he might have delivered the warning swat that still tickled his palm. As it was, he took the next step forward.
~ ~ ~
There wasn’t much to the town, but he showed her what there was. They found food at the lone tavern, wandered the modest library, and ducked their heads every open door. She was curious about everything and shy about nothing and he enjoyed their palaver greatly as the day passed. The sun was hanging low in the sky now, though, and he knew they should be making their way back toward home soon. He could also see that she was growing tired, and wondered if the feeling was unfamiliar. She may only need a few winks when she was asea, but it appeared that didn’t translate to her current form.
“I’d just like to spend some time with this tree,” she said when he indicated they should head home soon. She skipped ahead to a large magnolia that grew nearby, one of the only climbable trees on an island full of palms and pine. He watched, amused, as she clambered onto the lowest branch, somehow both clumsy and natural, as if she had spent all of her years walking on land.
“It is a good tree,” he acknowledged, but he glanced again at the sun as she settled herself a bit higher. “It’s time for us to begin the walk home.”
She pouted at him from her perch. “It’s ages before sunset.”
“We’ve a meal to prepare and traps to check, and I think you’ll be needing sleep earlier than you are used to,” he said, not unkindly. “Climb down, please.”
He watched her consider his request, her eyes darting downward and growing a bit wide at the distance between herself and the ground, then back up to find the horizon. Her grip tightened, but her face lit up as she spotted a new distraction. “Look!” she said, pointing excitedly, “What is that?”
The man put his hand up to shield his eyes as he turned, finding the palm tree she eyed. “An egret’s nest,” he answered before turning back to look up at her. “It is time to come down now.”
She bit her lip as she looked down at him, and he watched a slew of emotions flicker across her face. After another moment, though, she stretched a leg down hesitantly, found her footing, and began to climb. When she was once again on the lowest branch she reached for him, and he stepped over indulgently to help her with the final jump. The moment her feet touched the ground, she scampered away from him, much like she had on the walk there. He raised an eyebrow at her and moved his hands to his hips.
“What game is this?” he asked sternly. Around them, others began to exit the meager shops with the same goal in mind: to make it home before the dark settled over them. It was still plenty bright now, but the sun had a way of tricking a person unfamiliar with the long island days or the surprising shade of the palm forest at dusk.
“I’m not ready yet,” she said stubbornly. “Just a few minutes more.”
“You’ve had a few minutes more,” he said, taking a step toward her as the last of his patience dissipated. She retreated, but he kept advancing and kept talking. “And I thought I made it clear how I feel about chasing after you.”
Her mouth became a tight line as she looked at him reproachfully, still backing away in step with his forward motion. He knew she was going to trip before she did, her heel catching on a far reaching magnolia root before she landed squarely on her bottom. She glared at the tree but didn’t have long to contemplate the betrayal. The man moved quickly, reaching her before a new impulse could emerge and hauling her up by her bicep. “Wait!” she squealed as he then began to march her toward a nearby vacant bench.
But he had no interest in waiting. He could play games like this well into the evening, calling and retreating and growing more frustrated. Or he could take care of it now and put them on the path home in a matter of minutes. He chose the latter.
“Wait, don’t!” she said uselessly as he sat and then pulled her across his knee.
“I’m finished waiting,” he said as he pulled the hem of her long shirt up with his free hand; the other kept the flailing girl from falling off of his lap, pinning her captured hand neatly to the small of her back. Next he tugged at the makeshift underwear he had dressed her in this morning, pulling them easily over her hips and down to her knees. In his periphery, he saw a few of the villagers pause to see what was happening. They were certainly about to get a show, he thought grimly, but he wasn’t concerned with his audience. He was only concerned with the headstrong mermaid, the spanking she had earned, and the sun sinking in the west.
“No!” she said, still struggling, but his hand smacked down on her newly bared bottom all the same. “You can’t!”
He didn’t waste time on answering such a ridiculous claim, instead focusing on using his well-muscled arm and work-roughed palm to spank her deserving backside. She kicked and yelled, but he held her easily in place as he found his target again and again. He didn’t wait long before shifting her to one knee, her underwear falling even further as he pinned her there and continued spanking.
He heard a gasp from someone nearby as he concentrated his efforts on the crease of her thighs and bottom, but it did little to change his course of action. He was methodical, turning his weathered hand into a paddle and putting it to good use. She squealed and bucked, and he listened to the tenor of her cries shift and change until eventually he recognized the beginnings of a sob. He was unsurprised when he glanced down to see shimmering tears making tracks down her cheeks. He tightened his grip on her and began to spank harder.
“No,” she said again weakly, but her voice was heavy with tears and he knew it wouldn’t be long now before he could trust her to follow directions. He’d be foolish to end her punishment early, though.
“I’ve had my fill of repeating myself,” he stated calmly over the smack of his hand. “Have you had your fill of running off?”
“Yes,” she choked out, limbs still weakly resisting his hold but the fight in her dwindling quickly. “We can go, let’s just go, please,” she finished pitifully.
“Not quite yet,” he said above her, determined to be thorough. “There was a time when we could have journeyed home without all this, but that moment has come and gone.”
There was little else to say after that. He was vaguely aware of some tittering from passersby, but it was easy to pay them no mind. She never quite stopped her wailing, though she became quieter as the spanking took its toll. He continued until he was sure she’d feel the throb of her swollen bottom every step of the way back and well into the night, he hoped. And then, eventually, he stopped.
“Are you ready to behave?” he asked, not yet releasing her. She was bent nearly double over his knee as he held her, one hand still pinned while the other gripped the iron leg of the bench. He ran his fingers lightly over her punished backside as she took deep gasping breaths.
“Yes,” she said, and he recognized her newly contrite tone from the last time he’d had her in this position.
“Good,” he said calmly as he released her hand and pulled her undergarments up slowly over her swollen bottom. Then he lifted her to sit on his opposite knee, letting her shirt-dress fall as he settled her there. She sniffled quietly, blue-green tears rolling down her face with less and less frequency as he rubbed her back and waited for her to calm down. If she was aware of the scattered others milling about the square, she didn’t give any indication. Without warning, she flung her arms around the man’s neck, squeezing him tightly, and then just as abruptly stood. Her hands came to rest on the curve of her bottom, palms out, and he was certain she could feel the heat from her skin through the thin layers of clothing.
“I’m ready,” she said quietly.
He smiled, nodded, and rose to lead them home.
~ ~ ~
Later, back in his home, rested and fed, they sat in the candlelight as he answered her many questions about the things they had seen and done that day. If it weren’t for her constant shifting and the little winces that occasionally appeared on her face, no one would know that their outing had ended with a loud and public spanking. A huge yawn overcame her, and he smiled.
“I think it might be time for sleep, little fish,” he said gently, and she nodded sleepily.
“I don’t know why,” she said, sounding genuinely confused. “I’m not usually so tired.”
“There are limits to the magic, I suppose,” he said as he stood and began to douse the lanterns around them. Outside, the moon was once again bright in a near-cloudless sky and silvery light filtered in through the windows. He walked to the bedroom and pulled down the covers and she met him there, crawling into the bed with a bit of wonder. He realized it must be one of countless new things she had encountered that day, but as with everything else, she took it in stride. He tucked the blankets gently around her.
“Will you lay with me?” she asked, voice drowsy.
He contemplated her for a moment and then nodded, circling the bed and then climbing in himself, lying atop the covers next to her. She pushed herself back against him, reaching blindly for his hand and then pulling it to her chest so his arm encircled her. He felt the edge of sleep push at his own consciousness and knew it wouldn’t be long before they were waking up to a new dawn. With the sunrise, she would return to the sea, but for now they would rest and save their goodbyes for tomorrow.