There once was a boy. His name was Mark. His mother had abandoned Mark when he was a baby and put him in a lake to drown. But he had not drowned. Mermaids lived in the lake. Mermaids that liked a toy to tease and abuse. They had entrapped Mark in a magical net that kept him tied to the lake forever or until the net was removed from him by a human.

The net was what kept the mermaids alive. The net had to have a living being in it to feed off. Without energy to feed off, it could not supply the mermaids with life, and they would all die. Always, the mermaids kept a living child in the net to supply the net with energy and them with life. When the child died eventually, they tricked a human mother into leaving her baby in their lake as the next victim of the cruel, pitiless net. It was not hard for the mermaids to enter the human mother’s dreams and convince her that her child would be born cursed and must be got rid of.

Mark grew gills so he would not drown. He lived endlessly in the lake, miserable and unhappy for many years. The mermaids teased him and taunted him. They enjoyed watching him cry from fear and misery.

At first Mark had been hopeful that a human would come by the lake and take the net off him. But no humans came near the lake. The humans were afraid of the mermaids.

Not far away from the lake was a human village. In the village was a man name Sef. Sef had been born with a gift that allowed him to see into the future. The gift was a temperamental sort and did not function, as a proper gift should, in Sef’s opinion. Because of this, Sef could not see into his own future, nor could he see into the future whenever he wished.

The people in Sef’s village did not believe magic was a good thing. They believed anything to do with magic was evil and tainted. As Sef was growing up, they ignored his abilities, merely marking it off as an uncanny knack for prediction. However, when Sef was a grown man and he had more control over his gift, the villagers began to notice and understand that whatever Sef said usually came true. Floods and draughts hit just when he said they would. Wheat thrived and gardens grew if they were planted when Sef said they should be. And even though that knowledge was helpful to the villagers, they still believed Sef was tainted and that he would bring bad luck to the village. In order to decide what to do with Sef, the villagers consulted their leader.

The leader of the village decided not to burn Sef at the stake. Instead he said to the assembled people, “Has Sef’s knowledge of earthquakes and floods not allowed us to move out of harm’s way? Has his mysterious way of telling us when and how to grow our food not helped us thrive? I will set Sef a task. If he can complete it, we will allow him to return to this village and live here with us. If he fails, he shall be banished forever. If Sef refuses to take the task on, we will burn him.”

The villagers all yelled with agreement. It was an excellent proposal. Sef certainly could not refuse to take on the task; otherwise he would be burned alive.

Seeing that he had no choice in the matter, Sef asked, “What is the task you have set for me, ‘o wise leader?”

The leader of the village said slowly, “In this village we have plenty of grain and meat and vegetables. But what would we all give for a bite of fish! I have not tasted fish in my whole life. Your task, Sef, will be to go to the lake and get rid of all the mermaids so that it will be safe to fish in that lake.”

A great yell of excitement went up from the assembled villagers. That was a fabulous idea! Fish. Wonderful fish! The taste of fish would be a blessing! It was the perfect task to set for Sef. If he succeeded, they would all benefit from his accomplishment. Sef would have all their hope behind him. If he failed . . . well, he was tainted so no one would really care.

The naming of his task dismayed Sef. Get rid of the mermaids? How would he ever do that? It was not as if his gift would allow him to see just how he could succeed. His gift was in another temperamental stage at the moment.

The villagers were eager for Sef to begin at his task. But their leader had one more thing to say. He said, “Sef, if you succeed at your task and come back here to live with us, you may not marry nor have any children. Your magic must not continue to survive here.”

A wave of sadness washed over Sef. That was so unfair! No children or a wife? Why was he even living in this horrible place?

Sef set off for the mermaid’s lake the next morning. A glimmer of hope remained in his heart. The night before, his gift had sought to cheer him up and had sent him the feeling that, if he went to the lake, he would be happy.

When Sef came to the lake, it was midafternoon. The lake looked blue and flat and normal. Now and then, a huge fish would jump out of the water. In one corner of the lake, a large patch of cattails grew. They cast a dark shadow on a small surface of the lake. Sef stood on the shore and wondered how he would go about succeeding at his task. If he jumped in and tried to kill the mermaids, they would drown him at once. And it was not as if he had anything he could try to kill the mermaids with! Sef was a mellow, kind type of person. He did not go around carrying knives and javelins with him.

Dispirited, Sef wandered around the lake, following the shoreline and keeping an eye out for the mermaids. As he neared the patch of cattails, Sef heard the sound of a child’s heartbreaking sobs. Curious, he stepped into the shallow water of the lake and parted the cattails. He thought perhaps he would see a mermaid child weeping prettily, but instead he saw a skinny, naked, little human boy covered in a weighted net. He was sobbing pitifully into his hands. Tears were dripping down into the water.

“Hello!” said Sef in surprise. “Who did this to you? Better get out quick or the mermaids will get you.”

The boy started and turned around to stare at him in surprise and fear. He started to get up but a screeching mermaid suddenly dove out of the water and grabbed the boy’s ankle. “Get back here, you beastly little wretch! You are not going anywhere!” She started dragging the screaming boy out into deeper water.

Sef splashed out into the water as far as he dared go, and grabbed the boy’s hand that was desperately reaching for him. A short tug-of-war followed. The mermaid shrieked and clawed at the boy, drawing blood from his leg. She screamed for her sisters to help her, and Sef saw ripples in the lake. Many mermaids were coming! He had to get out of the lake or they would get him too. But he could not leave the boy behind!

Desperately, with an extra strong pull, Sef pulled the boy free of the mermaid’s grasp and dragged him far up onto the beach. He collapsed, panting. The mermaids were all yelling and splashing in the shallow water, unable to come out any further. They screamed fearful threats at the boy, and he huddled next to Sef, looking frightened.

Sef started taking the net off the boy. “Here, let me get you out of this nasty old thing. The mermaids cannot do a thing to you from here. What is your name?”

“They just call be Mark,” the boy said in a small voice. His eyes lit up as the net came off him and Sef discarded it next to him on the beach. He was shivering so Sef wrapped his cloak around him. “What do they call you?”

“Sef. How did you get into the lake?”

“I always lived there. I could not leave on my own while the net was on me. And I could not take the net off myself either. The mermaids put the net on me. It takes away all my energy and gives it to them.”

Sef looked appalled. “That is a cruel thing to do to a boy your age! Will they die if I destroy the net?”

“I guess so.” Mark was looking at the gills on his chest with fascination. They were slowly fading away into his skin.

Sef noticed. “Did the net grow those on you?”

“Yes. But it did not give me a tail or webbed hands. I wish it had. If it had, I could have gotten away from the mermaids in the water, and they would not have been able to catch me and hurt me.”

“Did they feed you enough?”

“No. I had to catch my own food. What are you going to do with me? Do you have a net too? Are you going to put me in it?”

“No! Even if I did, I would not put you in it. That is an awful thing to do. How do you destroy the net?”

“I guess you burn it. At least, the mermaids hate fire so I bet it would hurt the net. Where do you live?”

“In a village not to far from here. Will you help me gather up brushwood? I am going to burn the net.”

Mark brightened. “I would love to. I hate the net. It was so heavy, I could barely swim in it at all!” He jumped to his feet and ran up the rocky beach.

When the wood was collected, Sef lit a fire and tossed the net onto it. The wood all burned but the net remained unscathed. Mark looked dismayed. “Now the mermaids will get it back and put someone else in it! It is not fair!”

“No, it is not,” Sef agreed. “Well, there is nothing we can do so we might as well get some sleep. We cannot walk back to my village in the dark.”

While Sef was sleeping, his gift sent him a dream. In the dream, Mark was standing in the middle of a fire with the net on him. He was screaming horribly as the net slowly burned away in patches of black smoke and he burned with it. Sef awoke with a jump. If that was the only way to destroy the net, he would not do it. To have to burn Mark as well . . . . .

Mark persisted that they try again to burn the net. They tried all day to burn the net. As the fire burned away for the hundredth time, Mark said mournfully, “I would do anything to destroy the net. It caused me so much pain. Do-do you think if I went into the fire with the net it might burn away?”

Sef looked at Mark, startled. “I-I am sure that would not work at all. Why do you think it would?”

“I had a dream. Only, I died too and it hurt a lot.”

Sef thought about lying and saying Mark’s idea was foolishness. But his lips refused to form the lie. In the end, he admitted that the only way to destroy the net was to place it on its last occupant and burn them both.

Mark tried to look brave and failed. Instead he looked frightened and pale. “Okay. I want to do it. That way, the mermaids will all die and never be able to hurt anyone else. Will you—will you light the fire?”

“You do not have to,” Sef warned. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Mark nodded. When he was standing in the middle of the pile of wood Sef had gathered with the net on him, Sef lit it and turned away. He waited on edge for the dying screams to start. When he did not hear any, he turned uncertainly around.

Sef was just in time to witness the fire all rush in on Mark and explode all around him. Mark let out a yell of terror. But the fire burned down and disappeared, leaving Mark unscathed. He stumbled out of the brushwood and fell against Sef, shaking all over. The net was gone.

Sef blinked in astonishment. He saw the lake begin to boil and steam. He saw the mermaids all wither away into little puffs of black smoke. Letting go of Mark, Sef waded out into the lake water. He went in up to his chest and finally swam out to the middle of the lake and back without any mermaids coming out of the depths to drown him. He came out of the lake, dripping all over, and told Mark the mermaids were all dead and the lake was safe.

“Are we going back to your village now?” Mark asked, looking happy.

Sef considered. He said finally, “No. The people there did not treat me very well. I am going to go find a new home. You can go to my village if you want to. My people will treat you kindly.”

“But I want to come with you. You are the only person who was ever kind to me. And you saved me from the mermaids and their net. Please may I come with you?”

“Well, why not?” Sef took Mark’s hand. “My gift told me I would be happy if I came here. And I am because I found you. Come on; we have time enough to get away from here before any of my people come to see if I am dead or not. The boiling lake and the steam rising off it must have attracted a lot of attention.”

Sef and Mark found the road and walked down it, away to the west and into the setting sun.

~A short story by Layla

Mindlovesmiserysmenagerie Photo Challenge #120, Art: Alessio Albi

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