Can I tell you about it?
I’ve been in love with this story since I was 16 years old and read it in a book of Nantucket ghost stories.
It isn’t technically a ghost story.
It’s more like a mermaid-jealous-lover-reincarnation story.
You know. One of those stories.
Edward (not his real name)
I call him Edward for reasons of my own.
His story goes something like this (in my own words):
Some time in the mid-1980s, a woman walks into the Nantucket Whaling Museum, which lies hard against the docks on Nantucket. (This was before the recent renovation and expansion of that wonderful museum. Back then, they had one room right off the entrance in which all the portraits of Nantucket whaling captains were displayed. Now they are more scattered around the place.)
She walks into the Portrait Room. She locks eyes with a portrait of a young, handsome man, and stands stock still for several minutes, transfixed. She knows him — she doesn’t know how, but she knows him very well. The experience unnerves her deeply, and when she is finally able to break off eye contact with the young man in the painting, she makes her way, shakily, to the information desk of the museum and asks about the man. Who is he?
Oh, the woman behind the desk says, you found our mermaid lover!
What? says the woman (not unreasonably).
The story goes that that young man fell deeply in love with a beautiful mermaid during his travels out to sea. When he returned, his wife here on Nantucket learned of his affair, and she became deeply jealous. Learning that the mermaid had followed him back as far as Nantucket Harbor, she had the local blacksmith forge a slender harpoon, so that she might murder her rival. One moonlit night, she made her way to the docks and pierced the mermaid’s heart clean through with the harpoon, killing her.
Of course it’s all nonsense, laughs the museum worker.
The woman hurries outside into the bright sunshine, shaking harder than ever.
Because all her life, she has had a recurring memory, a dream — she always assumed it had been some old memory from the womb, for the vivid memory had always been with her, for as long as she had lived — of swimming back and forth, back and forth, through cold, dark waters.
With a piercing, excruciating pain in her chest.
Now tell me that isn’t a fantastic story.
When I was a teenager, growing up on Cape Cod, my mother used to work for one of the ferry companies that ran from Hyannis to Nantucket. We used to get free tickets every year, and I always, always used mine to travel alone, across Nantucket Sound, 40 miles out to sea, preferably on a dark, grey, foggy day.
I would walk straight off the boat and into the Whaling Museum, pay my admission and find that portrait. Every time, hoping to feel the thrill of recognition. Never feeling it. But always, always loving that story.
Last summer, I finally visited the Whaling Museum again for the first time since those days. I had last seen my sea captain during the summer I turned 19, which was my last summer living at home on Cape Cod. Just before I went, I told Melissa the story.
She told me to bring back a photograph of the sea captain. Which I did.
This Valentine’s Day, Melissa painted her version of my sea captain’s portrait for me. And now he resides in my bedroom.
That same day, February 14, 2010, I bought a necklace at Melissa’s store in West Barnstable (Yummy Goods) which I had been coveting, and which now hangs next to my portrait of Edward, when I am not wearing her myself:
And they lived happily ever after.