Swept Away! Part I
The Time & Place: Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. Sunday August 28, 2005
Through the path that led from her underwater home to Joe's houseboat she sped. There was precious time to lose as the storm's 150 mile-per-hour winds whipped the waves into a frenzy. She cursed her timing as she wanted to catch her friend before he headed further inland away from the hurricane's impending landfall. Surely the treasure tucked under her arm would be greatly appreciated as her dear friend could use the tremendous sum it could fetch.
It was a huge pearl, almost perfect in form and shimmer, nearly the size of a softball. She found it during a sojourn deep in the waters near Grand Cayman. Now she knew the questions that would be leveled at her friend: How did he come into possession of a rare and obviously costly pearl? Who gave it to him? Did he steal it? Such worries she shoved from her mind as she made haste to that part of the Gulf coast where Mississippi and Louisiana meet.Her name was Zéphyrine; her friend Joe was an old fisherman so deep in debt and in danger of losing the means of his livelihood. She met him not long ago, when she surfaced one night just as Joe sat out on the pier to enjoy his pipe and the beautiful full moon. At first, when he laid eyes on Zéphyrine, he thought she was one of the local gals out for a late night swim. So odd that she was all alone. These waters are deep, and swimming after dark had its risks. As she lifted herself out of the water, Joe did a double take. He blinked. Oh yes, from the waist up she was all lovely woman, probably the most beautiful he'd seen ever. However, where legs should be was a long glistening black fish tail. A mermaid! He was looking at a living, breathing mermaid.
Zéphyrine smiled at that memory as she swam toward the surface, paying no mind to warnings from her sea creature friends to remain deep in the water. The violent hurricane had traversed southern Florida, moved into the Gulf, then rebuilt in strength. The storm of the century the humans said, and this could be one of the most destructive in decades. The mermaid knew the risks, but perhaps the storm wouldn't move so quickly, thus giving her valuable time to get the pearl to Joe. The last time she visited, he intimated that he and his family would have to leave for Jackson where his married sister lived. All this talk of the hurricane made him nervous, and he followed the weather reports very closely. Storms had roared through here before, but this one...
No, he really needs this pearl. Even if the houseboat and equipment is damaged, he would have more than enough to rebuild. Besides, I've been in storms myself; if it gets too rough I'll return to the deep until it blows over. Safe inside the Doña Inés Velasquez, that old sunken Spanish galleon I call home.
"Zéphyrine! Come back! Don't go to the surface!"
She paused, recognizing the clipped Caribbean Spanish accent. That was Azul, an immense blue marlin, one of the mermaid's oldest and trusted friends. He had a "gift" for sensing impending danger, and today was absolutely no exception. Tropical storms abounded this time of year, and the myriad sea creatures knew to remain within deep waters out of harm's way. Oh, a few brave souls would venture to the surface despite gale force winds and mighty surge. However, this storm was different and promised to be far more violent and destructive than those in years past.
Azul called out again, "Stay in deep, mi amiga. It is quite dangerous on the surface."
The great blue marlin then explained how, days earlier, he traveled where the Atlantic met southern Florida. The storm, though it had yet to brush the state, had already made marine navigation hazardous for the humans. That was a very welcome blessing for Azul as the sport fishermen who relentlessly pursued him cursed their luck and returned to dry land.
"I managed to evade the fishermen, seeking shelter in deep water. By then the storm crossed the land into the Gulf. My dear, it has gained tremendous strength since, and the humans on the surface are scrambling for shelter. There is talk along the marine grapevine the hurricane will surely cause much damage and death."
For a few fleeting moments, Zéphyrine pondered the marlin's words. Although she so wanted to reach her friend in Biloxi with all deliberate speed, there was that chance that Joe could have already left for safer inland environs. She looked at the pearl and thought of how much it would help Joe out of financial difficulty. Then again, he could be one of those humans who decides to ride it out, hoping life would be spared but knowing the horrible damage wrought.
"But what if he doesn't survive?," she said out loud. "I have to go, Azul. Joe needs this." She showed the pearl then quickly swam towards the surface.
The blue marlin hung back, preparing to dive deeper into the sea, called out one last time, "No, Zéphyrine! You can't go up there!"
It was no use reasoning with her, so Azul left for deep water, encountering a manatee along the way, saying to the creature, "Seek help."
Maybe she should have listened to Azul, perhaps postpone her trip to the surface. The blue marlin was right; the storm had grown into a monster hurricane. The moment Zéphyrine broke the water's surface she felt her breath taken away by strong winds. Navigation proved very difficult due to endlessly churning waves, visibility reduced to almost nil from blinding torrential rain. Never had she experienced such fury. There have been storms in years past, ever since she came to the Gulf and called it home. Now all she wanted was to go back into deep water away from the hurricane's pounding wind and surge. Besides, even though she wasn't that far from shore, the closer she approached the farther the wind and surge pushed her back.
Okay, so it's no use. Go home, wait it out, then resurface tomorrow. But how will it be tomorrow? What would be left? Oh no, all those humans on shore, in the storm's path, are in grave danger. Many will not make it, and so many more could be homeless. There is nothing I can do...What is happening? Why do I feel as if I'm being lifted up? Oh no...
No sooner had Zéphyrine prepared to dive deep underwater that she felt herself swept upwards, far above the sea. Now realization came hard and fast. She was inside the hurricane, swirling up and around higher and higher within the storm's massive rain bands. She tried to free herself from the storm's grasp, straining to aim back into the water. Her struggles were useless as the storm whipped her about as a child would toss a rag doll.
Zéphyrine hung tight to the pearl, fearing she'd drop it into the sea, losing it forever. She believed surviving the tempest was not to be. Screaming was not helping. No one came to her aid, so she resigned herself to become one of the hurricane's many victims. Back and forth she was tossed, her entire body drenched, her energy nearly sapped. She thought of her brief life in the Gulf, reminiscing the first time she came here. Her only friends were the creatures of deep, and Joe, her only human acquaintance. She loved Joe, an old man who loved the sea, Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, and Italian opera. He kept the mermaid's secret, promising never to reveal that such a being resided in the Gulf area. People wouldn't understand. Some would want to capture her, display her as a freak.
"That life," he told her that last night before leaving for Jackson, "is not for you. Your world is the sea. Too bad there aren't more of your kind around here. Maybe, one day, you'll find them."
Find more merpeople, but that will never happen. Even if I survive this storm, it will never be. I'm destined to live my life alone, away from my kind, that is if there are any merpeople left in the world.
Zéphyrine was now firmly in the storm's grasp, forever swirling with the massive rainbands. Up, up she went deep inside until she felt an odd calm. The eye, I'm inside the eye...
Suddenly, she felt herself fall. Surely, she wondered, I'll fall back into the sea, but I'm so far above the surface. What if I don't survive the fall? Though I'm a good swimmer and can handle rough waters, the descent is too great; I could drown before trying to negotiate those humongous swells.
However, instead of falling straight to the sea as feared, she felt herself caught up the tempest's winds. Again, Zéphyrine was tossed back and forth with such force that she suddenly loss consciousness. Just before she blacked out, she sensed what felt like a strong hand reach out to her. She felt that hand grab her, tugging her along. A dazed Zéphyrine tried to focus on her unknown benefactor but failed. Within seconds she fainted dead away.
To be Continued...
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