Before I start this story, I’d like to explain an expression from my native language, the brazilian portuguese. As you may have already concluded, I’m brazilian. I was born and raised in a small town in Bahia, a state to the northeast of the country. My city basically survives through fishing, so I can pretty much say that the expression. I’ll explain right now is one commonly used there.
“História de pescador”, or, in English, “fisherman’s tale” is an expression used to name tall tales or absurd lies told by someone. As you must have already guessed, it’s named so because fishermen usually stories about giant fish they caught or some fantastic creature they saw in the ocean or something around that. My dad used to be a fisherman, so I guess I can say I really heard lots of those.
Anyway… My family was really poor. Actually, the whole small, almost microscopic fishing-based town we lived in was really poor. Well, not only that, we lived in one of the poorest regions of Brazil. Despite that, I can’t really say that I had a bad childhood. On the contrary, actually. Sure, we had our share of difficulties, but we had a simple life and I never came even close to starving or working as a child.
As I already said, dad was a fisherman. Mom was a school teacher. If you don’t know about Brazil’s basic education situation, then I’ll just sum it up to you: it’s awful. The government doesn’t really give a flying fuck about basic education and it pays our teachers really badly. Despite that, the two of them always incentivated me to study really hard, which I do to this very day.
Especially dad, who couldn’t read at all. He had a very difficult life and I won’t be getting into detail with that. Not because I don’t want to, but because he barely ever spoke about his younger days, which leads me to believe he went through some really tough shit. But, still, he always had a smile on his tanned face.
Whenever he’d take his fishing trips with his fellow fishermen, he’d tell me one of his “fisherman’s tales”. It usually was about some trouble he went through in the high seas or something he heard of. I think that’s how he tried to tell me stories so I could sleep easy before he left early in the next morning. And since he couldn’t do the usual “grab a fairy tale book and read your kid to sleep” thing, I guess he made up his own stories. I also think it was his way to say some sort of goodbye, since his fishing ventures took from 3 to 4 days, and you’d never know if there was an accident or not.
Anyway, I knew better than to believe in sea dragons or colossal tuna fish, but I never complained. I always loved his tales, no matter how absurd they were. I had my own Errol Flynn at home, always with some fantastic adventure to talk about.
When I got old enough, he began to take me to the sea with him on some weekends. I think that’s what made me fall in love with the sea life. So much we didn’t know, literally right beneath our feet, so much mystery under those blue, deep waters… I became facinated with the sea life. Dad agreed with me about the mysteries when I first talked to him about how enthusiastic I was about the oceanic biology, which led me to believe it was going to end up as another tale of his. But instead, he said nothing else and looked at the sea with distant, but shaken eyes. —I guess it runs in the family — he muttered in a sad sarcasm. It sounded more like he was talking to himself instead of talking to me. I found it strange, but thought nothing of it at the time.
There was this one day, though, that made me think about that look in his eyes. Or rather, every single look of his, but more specifically that one. There was a subtle emotion that didn’t really fit with my dad’s usual sunny personality. I remember it all too well. I was 16 at the time and I already decided I wanted to become a biologist. The local school had grown just a tiny bit due to a government program. I was pretty sure there was something weird about that, but made no big deal of it. I had better education and a real shot at life because of it, so it didn’t matter. I was the best student at the school at the time, since I was dedicating myself to getting into a public university in any way I could.
A quick explanation before I go on. Public universities in Brazil are mostly very good, but also extremely difficult to get into, since there’s an entrance exam called “vestibular” that tests everything you’ve ever studied in your whole school life in a very rigorous way. High school here basically prepares you for it.
Anyhow, going back to the main subject.
At that night, at dinner, dad was acting weird. He was… silent. Usually, he’d always be telling mom jokes, making her slam the table as she laughed. But not that night. That night, he kept quiet, with a shocked look on his eyes. Almost as if he’d seen a ghost. He was going to leave to one more of his fishing ventures at high seas on the next morning, so I expected a tale. Nothing. When we finished dinner, he kissed mom very softly on her cheek, almost as he was saying his last goodbyes. I was making my way to bed, very puzzled with his attitude, when he followed me to my small bedroom, which was getting cramped with books from the school’s library.
I felt a little better, as his tales always put a smile on his face and mine. But when he started speaking, I couldn’t help it but feel a chill down my spine. I know it sounds strange, a 16 year old boy still having his father telling him bedtime stories. However, dad and me really bonded through that. His tales became more and more elaborate as I spoke to him about literature. He and me would always laugh together and… Well, I couldn’t ever let go of that.
—Tale time, isn’t it, boy? — he said in a melancholic way.
—Is everything alright, dad? — I asked, as I sat in my bed.
—Yeah… I’m just… Thinking, that’s all. — he answered, in a distant way. I knew he was lying. I just didn’t know why at the time. — There’s a tale I wanted to tell you when you grew older. My dad told me this one.
I was taken aback a little. Dad barely ever spoke of grandpa, who died when dad turned 19. That was new. I wanted to know more about dad’s story, even just a tiny bit. That was my chance. I sat up and listened carefully.
—Have you ever heard of the tale of the singing fish? — he asked.
I shook my head in denial. That was definetely not how he told his stories. As I said before, he nearly always made them up, so to have one that was already ready… That was big news.
—They say that this tale is as old as the first boat made by man. A tale that might as well as be true. You said it yourself that the sea holds many mysteries. Anyway… It’s said that deep in the sea, lives a form of fish that was born to trick sailors. One so diabolic that makes the biggest of sharks look friendly. They call it the singing fish. As silly as it sounds, the singing fish is the most dangerous thing to ever come to life. It has the tail like of a dolphin… You know, fins to the sides. — He was talking about the horizontal fins, I thought. I found it strange. There were dolphins in Brazil, that’s true, but nowhere near where people of my town went fishing, so how did his dad know that? More importantly… “Singing fish”? I grew more and more confused, but shook my thoughts, as dad went on with his tale. — They have long tails and an upper body that looks almost human, but covered in dark blue scales. My father told me they even had arms and hands, with six fingers each. He also told me they have long hair and an appearance close to a woman’s. Also, a big mouth filled with long, thin and very sharp teeth. But the most dangerous feature about it is its voice.
—Its voice? — I disdainfully asked. Fish don’t have voices, I thought to myself. A fisherman would know that very well too.
—Yes, its voice. — Dad calmly answered. — A female voice, a very beautiful voice that can’t be forgotten. One so beautiful that… messes with your head. You may hear it once, but never twice. Whoever has an encounter with it, vanishes in the ocean, along with the boat and whomever is with them. They say that men are hypnotized by the voice and are taken down to the water to be eaten by the singing fish and its children.
Dad finished his unusual story with a grim look on his face. I was scared, not because of the mermaid story, but because of his eyes and the fact that he was telling something of a horror story, which he never did. After that, he patted me on the shoulder and then hugged me.
—You get to sleepin’ now, ok? You got a long way ahead of you and lotsa books to read. — Dad said, his voice cracking a bit, almost as if he was about to cry. I hugged him back, trying to comfort him in somehow, worried if something was happening and I didn’t know about it. Maybe mom and dad were splitting? Maybe dad was in debt? Maybe something happened to the boat? I couldn’t tell. And that’s what scared me the most. I couldn’t get any sleep that night, thinking about dad’s strange attitude.
I could even hear dad leaving the house to get to the boat at 5 am. He was completely silent, respecting the sea’s constant sound.
And just like that, he never came back. It was tuesday when he left. The weather was perfect: not a single cloud in the sky. And it remained like that for the next six days. After the fourth day of waiting, I could hear mom cry herself to sleep. I went to the small wharf where his boat would always dock, every day of the wait. The people in the town shortly began to speak about it.
Six days after he left, someone saw something float in the water, slowly being carried to the beach. It was a huge piece of wood.
A piece of a boat, more specifically.
On it, in weathered paint, the name “MEDUSA VI” was painted on dark green.
It was dad’s boat. Whatever was left of it, anyway. Dad was gone. The shock was so great that I had no reaction. I didn’t cry when they placed a memorial grave at the cemitery, burying the piece of dad’s. I didn’t cry when mom held me or when she cried at home.
All I could think of was how dad’s eyes were changed before he left to never come back. Years passed and, with a lot of effort, I managed to pass on the entrance exam for the Federal University of Bahia on third place in the overall ranking. I was even in the news, since I came from a very small and poor town that had, basically, five big streets and less than 2000 inhabitants.
I had to move to Salvador, the capital city of the state. Mom had a relative there, so I moved in with her. She was really proud and cried a lot. People even threw me a party the day before I left.
When I began studying there, my life changed completely. I studied so much I barely had time to sleep, and you know what? I loved it. I was absolutely facinated with everything I learned everyday.
Nearing the end of the course, we began the field researches. Since I was specializing in sea life, and, obviously, me and my classmates were going to the sea. It was a 22 day trip into high seas and I was very excited.
It kind of reminded me of when dad used to take me to the sea on the weekends. By then, I had started to ignore the memory of that particular tale he told me, making room to the fond memories I had of him.
When we got to the sea, we started researching right away. Nothing other than the usual. Samples of zooplankton, deep sea fish and even sea turtles if we got lucky. We also had a lot of fun in the ship, making fun of those that got sick at the first three days into the sea. It was all very fun, until the night of the fifth day.
We were discussing part of our research until we kind of lost track of time. After seeing it was 2 AM, we decided we needed to sleep. It was a tiring trip, since we had to stay in the boat’s built-in lab most of the time.
I was about to fall asleep when one of my colleagues came next to my bed and sprung me awake, shaking me.
—Hey, do you hear that? — He whispered. Oh great, he had no problem waking me up(or rather interrupting my “almost-asleep” state), but waking up the others was completely out of the question.
—Heard what? — I answered, kind of groggy, profoundly irritated.
—This humming! There’s someone singing! — He whispered again. He sounded thrilled and excited, which was not only strange, but a bit creepy.
—Dude, go the fuck to sleep… It’s really late… — I said, rolling to the opposite side. I heard nothing other than someone’s snoring and the subtle sound of the water touching the boats sides.
He shook me again, this time more vigorously. I was about to tell him to fuck right off when… I actually heard a distant voice, humming some tune. It was a beautiful female voice, a nice baritone too.
That not only sprung me out of my lethargic and sleepy state, but also rang all the danger alarms in my head. Something was way, way off there. I knew everyone in that boat for years now and nobody there knew how to sing, especially not the girls.
I got up and held his shoulder as he tried to go outside.
—Don’t go outside! — I said in a surprisingly desperate tone. I didn’t hold my voice back and didn’t notice how loudly I said that.
Everyone else woke up, mostly complaining about how it was too late for pranks or any kind of bullshit.
They all stopped complaining when the voice began to sing instead of humming. My heart began to pound.
No, no, no, no. Wasn’t that just a fisherman’s tale? A lie, a story just to inflate the teller’s ego? Just an urban legend?
—Hey… Who’s singing? Did someone leave music playing or something? — One fo the girls asked, in a sleepy, yet surprised tone.
—No… — said another girl — The sound’s coming from outside… Who is singing? Everybody quickly looked around to see if everybody was inside the room. It turned out as expected: everyone was in there.
I began to shake with fear. My heart felt like it was going to explode out of my ribcage and run. I had to do something. I finally understood the weight of the usual commonly told legends. Sometimes even the tallest tales might be true. After all, they had to come from somewhere, right?
The singing grew louder. My thoughts began to grow fuzzy as the melody of that beautiful voice kept growing more and more emotional. My thoughts began to grow too peaceful to be natural in that situation. I began to feel more and more scared because of that, but my body was starting to give signs that it’d soon stop obeying my commands.
—We should go look… — Someone said.
—NO! We have to stay inside! Don’t listen! Whatever you do, don’t listen! Please! — I screamed, moving toward the doorway trying to block the way out. I didn’t notice how I was limping and struggling to speak until the words came out my mouth. I was drenched in cold sweat.
—Why should we listen to you? — the guy who woke me up asked, in a distant tone. His eyes were mesmerized as he looked at the doorway. — She’s calling out to me. Can’t you hear her pleas?
—You don’t understand! Please, don’t go out there!
My thoughts began to grow fuzzier by the second. The singing kept getting louder and louder. It was so… Beautiful, so heartfelt, so… Sensual. I could feel it… I could almost see a beautiful brunette mermaid singing in the water, singing my name, waiting for me under the moon…
No! The singing fish was getting to me too! It was messing with my head and I could do nothing but try to resist… And I was starting to fail! The singing was too loud not to listen anymore…
—What’s going on… What is this…? — One of the girls asked. She didn’t sound mesmerized at all. She sounded sick to her stomach and profoundly confused.
I slapped myself in the face and I saw her cover her ears slightly.
—What’s happening? Why am I having these thoughts…? — one of the guys asked.
They were asking me that. I knew the answer, although… I didn’t want to accept it was what it was.
I no longer felt fear. I knew what was going to happen to me. The same that happened to my dad. The same that happened to his dad.
—What’s going on!?— the confused girl asked me again, demanding me to spill what I knew about that singing… That beautiful, yet horrifying singing… That beautiful baritone from the sea… With a sad acceptance, I opened my mouth, mimicking a few of dad’s last words. I felt like I’d see him again soon. That I’d be in peace, right beside him in the ocean.
—Have you ever heard the tale of the singing fish?
That was the last thing I remember about that night. Afterwards, I remember waking up to an incredibly harrowing amount of pain through my entire body in a hospital in Salvador. The nurses said I was found half dead by a fishing boat, floating around the wreckage of the one I was in. Nothing nor anybody else was found and they seemed surprised when I asked about the other people.
Nobody believes my story. Hell, because of it, I was sent to this psychiatric clinic in the inner part of São Paulo. They think I hallucinated the events and that the boat sunk because of a gas leak or some bullcrap they made up. It’s funny, however, how they seem unable to make up another fisherman’s tale to explain the disappearances of both of my legs, my left hand and of my colleagues, since their families and the University’s professors began to poke around. There was even a private investigator who came to visit me. She didn't really believe me either.
They might not believe me or even try to shut me up, but I know better than to stay quiet. I know what I saw and heard that night. I know what happened to my dad and I know that somebody else out there knows what’s going on.
I know it was all real. Sometimes I still listen to the singing. Sometimes, I swear they’re calling to me, even though I’m so far from the sea now. They remember…
And so do I.