Jasper turned to the bristly sailor who stood in the center of the deck, expertly coiling a rope in his muscular hands. "Is it true that if you steal a mermaid's girdle, she must grant you a wish?"
The sailor shrugged. "'S possible. I've been up 'n' down this spot dozens o' times an' not a hint o' a woman or even half o' one."
"But Square Cut Bay is famed for mermaids throughout the world! Half my reason for taking this route around Calithwain instead of the shorter overland trip was to feast on their beauty with my own eyes. And maybe," Jasper added, nervously licking his lips, "just maybe have a wish granted to me as well."
A cluster of sailors who'd apparently been listening in, burst into hearty gales of laughter.
Jasper glared at them. "You may think I've no sense, wearing the robes of a scholar instead of your rags or a soldier's armor, but I know what I've read. I'm not big or strong but I'm wise. Calithwain is different; everyone knows magic abounds here. There are ways to steal a mermaid's girdle, and then you can just go about begging for jobs if my wish is to own all the merchant ships in the country."
"Or you could wish for the mermaid to marry you," a sailor pointed out. Jasper found himself grinning triumphantly. Finally they were taking him seriously.
"Aye, I could. Or court any girl on the land with the treasure I'll win."
"Of course, she'll have a time walkin' up the aisle with her tail flopping about," the sailor finished.
Jasper stalked to the rail, staring out into the black, murky ocean. The moon's reflection on the waves gleamed just like a piece of silver. Jasper would be seeing silver pieces that large and more once he found the mermaid he searched for. All of his books said that this was the place. For all he knew, a mermaid might be swimming under the boat even as he stood there. Wouldn't that surprise the men who had moved on to even stupider jokes now, such as how many mermaids it took to light a candle.
The next day, the ship stopped to take on water and supplies at Fisher's Village. Jasper wandered away, after making certain that the ship wouldn't leave until sunrise the next morning. Fascination with mermaids or no, he had a job waiting for him cataloging books in Lotorinum, and couldn't delay it only to search for an elusive and possibly mythical mermaid.
As he walked along the pier, thinking thoughts of mermaids and wishes, not to mention the arrogant sailors, he heard a splash off in the distance. Probably a fish. Yet he moved closer to the pier's edge, staring into the mists hard enough to part them and reveal his elusive quarry.
After a moment, Jasper stepped back. It had been a fish after all. He resumed his walk, deciding to stroll into the inn and have some food that hadn't been rotting in a barrel for weeks before consumption. There was another splash now, closer to the pier. But there was hardly any point to straining his eyes looking for another--
A feminine giggle cut through the soft murmur of the waves and Jasper's head dropped like a load of rocks. There, beside the pier, a lovely head bobbed above the level of the water. Soft, green-gold ringlets, blue eyes deep and wide enough to drown in. Her grin seemed warm and amused, lips parted slightly to display even, white teeth. Her skin was a warm, honey brown that glistened damply in the sunlight. All he could see was her head and bare shoulders but Jasper knew, with all his heart and soul, that this was no village maid out for a swim. A living, genuine mermaid floated beside the very pier that he stood on.
"Hello," she said, giving him an artful smile that made his heart skip a beat. She was breathtaking, no question of that. Jasper regretted that he looked like a tall, brown-haired beanpole in his old fashioned robes. For a moment, he found himself fantasizing about wishing her to be a human and his wife. But no, mermaids were tricky creatures, and wealth a far more secure choice. Finally he realized that she was waiting for him to answer. He should say something that would show off his incredible knowledge and learning and leave her captivated. Perhaps she'd even choose to wed him without his wasting a wish.
"Er, hello." Jasper winced inwardly. Hardly the most original thing he could've chosen to say. Still, the mermaid hadn't left yet.
"Come swim with me," she said. "The water's lovely. Just take my hand."
Jasper's smile was wholehearted now, for at last he was on familiar ground. Mermaids sometimes tried to drown people, and were far stronger than they looked. If he took that lovely, delicate hand, he would be completely at her mercy.
"All right," he said. "Reach up a little higher."
The mermaid rose slowly out of the water. She was high enough that he could see her pink clamshell top that clung to her upper body. Below that was her bare stomach, encircled by an intricate webbing of tiny gold and purple seashells, none of them larger than a fingertip. Jasper reached out and lightly took her outstretched hand with one of his own. With his other hand, he reached out lightning fast and snatched away the girdle of shells that hung around her waist. He let go of her and stood, smiling as he held her girdle far out of reach, gleaming in the light. "You owe me a wish."
"So I do," she said. The mermaid didn't seem angry with him; she smiled and actually seemed amused. Amazed by his cleverness, he supposed.
"And what will you wish for?" she asked.
He had pondered the question for months. Years in fact.
"I want a pile of gold as tall and wide as I am." Simple, direct, and above all practical.
She laughed. The mermaid giggled a bit at first, then finally burst into spasms of laughter, rolling in the water and clutching her perfect, smooth stomach as if it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard.
"What? What is it? Can't you grant me that?"
Finally, the mermaid finally managed to compose herself. "The question is, why would you want it?"
"I'd be rich. And then I could devote myself to studies and travel as I've always wished. I could see all of the magnificent sights that I've read and dreamed of. Like you."
She smiled prettily at the compliment. "But you'd have no way to transport it. Would you carry it coin by coin onto the ship? Gold's heavy, you know. Or ask the crew to help and trust them not to steal?"
"If you had any sense, you'd wish for a house filled with gold, and then you'd have somewhere to store it."
"That's a good idea. I wish-"
"But why just a house? I could build you a palace. Make you a king, even.
"You could? Kings can have everything in the world!"
"Of course. But then I suppose you wouldn't have much leisure to study. And if you were a king who spent all his time closed away with books, the people would probably revolt."
"Oh. I suppose I could wish for wisdom." This last suggestion was a bit halfhearted, and the mermaid seized on his indecision immediately.
"But even if you asked to be the wisest person in the world, the next baby born might have more than you. And don't you have enough wisdom already? For instance, I'm sure you're smart enough not to wish for fame."
"Fame. You're right, of course. I'd never get anything done if people flocked from miles around just to see me." Jasper scratched his head. He was starting to run out of possibilities. "Perhaps I should choose something unique, like a magic wand."
"Carefully now. Magic rarely works in quite the way people expect. And worse, people with magical items generally become overconfident. Magic trinkets have a tendency to fizzle out when they're most needed, leaving you dead, or worse.
Jasper could feel the crease in his forehead deepening. "I'm sick of all these games! What would you wish for?"
The mermaid beamed; there was no other way to describe it. This was a long distance from her amused giggle or careful smile to trap a man and drag him into the water. For one, perfect moment she actually seemed to glow. It was as if she'd waited her entire life for someone to ask that question. She hesitated, as if trying to come up with the most perfect way to describe the thought echoing in her lovely head. "An indestructible book of stories, that could survive storm and flood, and filled with the most wondrous, magical tales in the history of the world."
"Stories are the most precious thing that people have. A book of such stories is far more valuable than gold, kingdoms, or even wisdom. A person who could share such stories with others would be loved and cherished far more than any mere scholar ever could be. As a wise man of the world, I'm sure you know this in your heart."
"You really believe that?"
The mermaid nodded silently, face still shining like a ray of sunshine at her description of the perfect wish.
"Then that's what I'll take. I wish for the perfect storybook, one that is protected from all damage and contains."
"The most wonderful, enchanting tales ever read," the mermaid prompted.
"The most wonderful, enchanting tales ever read," he said.
"Done!" the mermaid said happily. With a flourish of her hand, a beautiful book appeared in her outstretched palms, covered in gold curlicues and the most cunning little pictures. Its red leather cover was tough and indestructible, yet refracted the sunlight like a living thing. It was as wide as half a table, and must've weighed a great deal.
Jasper stretched out his hands for it. The moment he'd made his wish, the girdle has vanished from his hands, leaving them free to accept the immense volume. "Thank you," he told her.
"No, thank you!" the mermaid said. With a saucy flick of her shining, green tail, she dived into the sea, and vanished from sight, leaving barely a ripple. Only after she had completely disappeared did Jasper realize that she had never given him the book. He stared disappointedly at his empty hands. His books had told him of mermaids' strength and beauty, but had failed to mention their exceptional cleverness.
"Hey, scholar, caught any mermaids yet?" a sailor's voice called from the tavern.
Jasper shook his head. "You were right," he said. "They're only a myth."
"Oh thank you, Aunt Pearl, it's lovely," cried the little mergirl as she rushed to embrace her favorite relative. The book of magical stories now occupied a place of honor between the most beautiful china doll ever seen and a glittering, bouncing ball that would always return to a person's hand. Other, less useful items such as giant lumps of gold or half-spent potions of invisibility lay piled in the corners.
"I'm glad you like it, darling," her Aunt Pearl said. "If we are the ones granting wishes to everyone greedy or lazy enough to steal our girdles instead of finding an honest job, we may as well reap the benefits of it. What a pity only humans can make our wishes for us. I'm just glad they're so easy to fool, all because they want far more than is good for them. I hope you'll remember that."
"Yes, Aunt Pearl," the child said dutifully, as she thumbed through the pages of her new storybook. The girl didn't understand how greedy and foolish humans were, of course. But she would someday. Soon enough, she'd be swimming to the surface and tempting mortals with her girdle to bring treasures to some other little merboy or mergirl.
Re-printed by permission of the author.