Rigorous
Inaugural Issue
Volume One, Issue 1


The Cowboy’s Mermaid, or,
A Story of Wet Love in the Dry World

Shannon Barber


The Cowboy walked into the juke joint at the outside edge of a half-dead town in the deep in the drylands expecting nothing more than a watery beer and perhaps someone to warm his bed that night. The barroom was clean and smelled of the bunches of flowers on most available surfaces. He paused to look down at a bunch of light purple flowers that exuded a scent like nothing he’d ever experienced.

He dipped his face into the bunches of flowers, his eyes closed. Pleasure vibrated in his soul. ”Those is called lilacs. Welcome to The Siren’s Cove. Beer?”

The Cowboy straightened up and looked around again, before speaking. “Thank you friend, you say these is called lilacs? They sorcery? This place a den for sorcerers or some other thing?” The bartender shook his head. “No sir. Ain’t a sorcerer for at least hundred miles around. You hunting?”

The Cowboy shook his head, “Not me, friend. Not me.” The bartender wandered back behind the bar and the Cowboy trailed. His face was full of naked awe; everywhere there were flowers and gleaming ribbons, shiny things, and most strange of all pretty things that reminded him of a sea he’d only read about.

After a few cold beers he took a room. Upon entering he stood in the doorway transfixed. The walls were painted pale sweet blues and greens, and everywhere lay relics of the sea. Fishing nets hung from the elegant canopy bed, strange and beautiful shells, everything, green glass baubles and matte smooth bits were scattered in loving disarray. It was the most beautiful thing he’d had ever seen.

There were even more of the lilacs from downstairs and the room smelled divine with the strangest tang of salt. It felt sacred to him, magical.

The Cowboy took off his hat and held it in a white-knuckled grip. He had died on the trail, about forty miles back when his mule had wheezed his last, and he’d wandered into the shit-dirt town on his way to his Reward. Of course. He wasn’t a smart man but he could figure it out.

Staring at the pretty room, he dug the knuckles of his right hand into the bruises on his ribs. Pain wrapped him up tight and he wheezed and coughed. “Oh shit, sweet Mother Mary. I ain’t dead.”

The Cowboy stood looking down at the elegant bathtub, sitting discreetly in one corner. How long had it been since he’d sat in a tub full of hot water up to his chin? Years? He bent to read the hand lettered sign on the wall above the tub. “Ring bell, for s-s-suh-er-vice.”

The Cowboy hated that he was so rusty at reading. Books were too precious to carry on the road and most signs were a mix of sigils, archaic runic alphabets, and the ancient English alphabet. The general difficulty he had reading aside, he had no idea what that sign meant. Service? The only service he knew of was a funeral and he certainly didn’t need or want that.

He slid on his nightshirt and went back to the signs. Ring for service, he saw a pretty silver chain that ran up the wall and into a little hole. The most musical sweet chimes began to ring at his gentle pull. His voice came out easier, greased by conversation with folk outside his own head.

“Well, ain’t that a hell of a living thing.” His door opened and he turned to see a pretty brown girl slip into the room. He self-consciously tugged at the hem of his nightshirt. “Evenin’ ma’am. Uh, I was wondering how do I work this bathing tub? I just, you know been on the road a long time and it’s been a while.”

The pretty girl smiled at him laughter dancing in her big dark eyes. She gestured for him to relax and he understood. She wore layers of filmy seafoam, blue and white fabric of some sort that shimmered and waved as she walked to the tub.

“I like your dress. It looks real nice, like something out of a fairy story.” He knew he was yammering but her graceful silence disarmed him. She turned and sparkled at him over her shoulder, then went to work on the seashell tap. A moment later he heard the water whooshing and saw steam rising.

Under the sound of the running water, he heard music again. Not the hip-swinging filthy rhythms of the juke downstairs, it was soft and full of wonder and sweetness. He watched while her backside swung slowly to the beat of the soft music. Swaying she undid a clasp and the floating dress fluttered into a multi colored puddle at her feet.

“Oh.” He blushed deeply. Naked she transcended pretty. She had wide hips and a little round pot belly, her skin seemed marked and scaly here and there, but that too was beautiful. She undid her bun and fluffed out her curls, when her mouth opened, he expected some words of seduction instead what came out of her was music.

She raised her arms over her head and danced to her own song. It wasn’t fancy or bawdy. Her plump body followed the rise and fall of her song.

The Cowboy was no graceful man. He could dance a jig when he was good and drunk, he could keep close to the beat and hold a body tight to slow dance under a full moon to the music of the rustling grass. He stripped off his nightshirt and raised his arms too, he hummed out of tune and let his body move as it would.

He felt easy, the aches and pains from a long hard journey moved to the periphery of his awareness. Instead of his saddle-soreness and lingering injuries he felt the liquid movement of his own hips; he felt the blood rushing lazily into his wagging penis. He opened his eyes and found her swaying and watching him intently; when their eyes met she beckoned him closer.

For long minutes he forgot his knobby knees, scars and grizzled body hair. He forgot his big flat feet and narrow buttocks. Her gaze gave him beauty and grace. Her soft eyes pulled him out of his role as Cowboy and into the role of sweet pure lover. “Come, let me bathe you.”

He never saw her mouth move and heard her words sung in the low cacophony of music that filled him from toes to ears. He allowed her to sit him down on a low stool and scrub his weary body clean. She used a soft, creamy soap that smelled of… what? It was sweet and salty, flowery and calming.

“That’s a lovely thing. You are sweet and kind.” The woman’s fingers gently smoothed over his old bruises and scrapes. She used a strange rough sponge to rub away the grit and grime. When she rinsed him, with buckets of warm water poured over his head, he felt his hair curl up in soft springy coils. How long had it been since he was this clean? To be so clean was a joy he’d forgotten.

He reached up to touch his hair and smiled up at her. “Thank you, thank you.” She laughed, the kind of laugh that could have sprung an oasis anywhere in the dry land. It made him feel good. It all made him feel so good. “Yes, into the water now.”

Her voice made him giddy. The sweet water whirled promising goodness, sweetness, that all his pain would wash away in the steam of the water. “Good, good. Come now.”

The Cowboy didn’t hurl himself into the steaming water. He slid into it with ease and deep thrumming happiness. The girl lay on top of him. The music was louder in his ear, almost unpleasant and the water left a salty film on his lips. Aimless nervousness nibbled at the edges of his joy. “Salt bath? I-”

He trailed off when her weight settled on him, he let out all his air and closed his eyes. Somewhere in the back of his brain, mislaid information wriggled. Something about the temptations of the Salt Water Women? No, that had been a juke band he followed like some fanboy saddle bum. No, it wasn’t that. The knowledge tickled so faintly it was barely a glimmer; he was distracted by the wet somehow rubbery slide of naked woman flesh against him.

The press of her flesh and the silky feel of the salty water and the music crashing around made him remember. It pained him in his nether regions to suddenly picture his brown pretty old Nan. Behind his closed eyes he saw her in her chair, rocking and tatting lace and telling tales.

His Nan, upon realizing that like his Mother before him, he had the wanderlust on him and would become who he’d become. Took it upon herself to teach him the dangers in the Big Dry World.

Among the many cautionary lectures and fussings he got, there was one about the evolution of the Siren Nymphs. Once upon a time they had been beautiful half-fish women who lured men to their deaths on waves or shoals or rocks. She gave them a hundred names: River Mumma, Kelpie, Water Sprite and sometimes simply Water Temptress and many others he’d never remember. At the end of the wet world, they evolved.

“Because they women, and women drive the changes.” Nan took special care to explain the intricacies of womanhood to the Cowboy because he feared women. Men--well, the men he knew--had little in the way of that level of sankofa knowledge. He had the knowledge, but it wasn’t enough to keep his arms from wrapping around the slippery soft woman. Nor was it enough for him to jump up and get his guns.

The nymphs evolved to live in the dryness. They scattered and turned their tumbledown juke joints into oasis and hunting grounds. He tilted his head to listen to the music overlaying the beat of her heart and moving under the rush of the water.

“You hunting Mami Water?” His voice was far away. “We, we always hunt. Don’t worry Cowboy I won’t eat you tonight.” The Cowboy smiled and his eyelids drooped. “Why’s that?” The Cowboy felt his body relaxing and let it take him.

“You danced for me. I never seen a man dance so. Why did you do it?” He blushed, but naked and pinned under her and quite happy he felt bold.

“My Nana, told me about you. And how when the world dried up, all River Mumma and Siren and Naiad and all, uh, she said women make the change in the world. Women make survival. I ain’t a learned man, ain’t no pretty man so, I do what I did. Least I can do, say thank you.”

The woman rolled over to face him nose to nose, her brows slightly knit. “You know me?”

“Yes.” Emboldened by her closeness his fingers found a pattern of scales on her hip, he traced them lightly.

“Saw these. I know these.” When she put her mouth against his and her soft chubby body squished into his long starved body, The Cowboy wanted to die.

It was a perfect moment. The apotheosis of his most secret desire to be felt and loved. He felt seen for true, the way his Nan had looked at his Nana. It was enough for him to happily go into the next place.

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