Characters are tricky things to get right in short stories. It’s all well and good for novels, who can afford to spend chapters and chapters coaxing the reader to connect with their characters and care about their plights, but things are quite different when you only have ten pages to play with. And today’s story is a particularly good example of a protagonist who, right off the bat, charges at the reader and demands they pay attention to her.
The shops were not noticeable from the main street and almost lost in the back-alley maze as well. But Mrs. Stambley was an expert at antiquing. A new city and a new back alley got up her hunting and gathering instincts, as she liked to tell her group at home. That this city was half a world away from her comfortable Salem, Massachusetts, home did not faze her. In England or America she guessed she knew how to look.
She had dozed in the sun as the boat made its way along the Thames. At her age naps had become important. Her head nodded peacefully under its covering of flowers draped on a wine-colored crown. She never even heard the tour guide’s spiel. At Greenwich she had debarked meekly with the rest of the tourists, but she had easily slipped the leash of the guide, who took the rest of the pack up to check out Greenwich Mean Time. Instead, Mrs. Stambley, her large black leather pocketbook clutched in a sturdy gloved grip, had gone exploring on her own.
From this alone she comes across as an indomitable adventurer, the equal to any pulp hero, and I can’t wait to see what she finds. Nor does she disappoint. The first three shops display her skills, effortlessly discerning the true treasures from the mounds of tourist tat. She resists a beautiful seventeenth century map when she knows it would exceed her budget for paper antiques; as group leader, she must hold herself to the same rules she sets to her fellow collectors.
This prelude not only establishes her credentials, but it hints at the tone to follow. Not only does she specialize in artifacts relating to the sea, she’s described as being an expert on sea-magic, and the spells and grimoires she finds in the shops imply this is more than mere folklore.
All the same, we get a genuine piece of folklore when Mrs. Stambley enters the fourth shop and finds a Malaysian mer. As the text describes, this is a fake taxidermied creature (in this case the top half of a monkey sewed onto a fish tail) that Malaysian natives would sell to European sailors and travelers as exotic souvenirs. (Indeed, Jolen Yolen says in the afterward that this creature was something she actually came across in an antique shop, and were it not for the price and the disapproval of the rest of her family, it might be on her coffee table right now.)
Yet somehow there is magic to the creature, and it shows that taking an interest in it is a dangerous thing to do. But Mrs. Stambley is as iron-willed in the face of danger as she is in haggling, and she knows a thing or two about sea-magic. What follows would not be out of place in a pulp magazine.
(Seriously, I would love to read a series about Mrs. Stambley’s adventures. Hellboy played by Miss Marple: what more could you want?)
The Malaysian Mer by Jane Yolen
Availability: print only
Word count: 3,300
First published: Neptune Rising: Songs and Tales of the Undersea People, collection, 1982, Philomel Press
Where to find it: Magic for Sale, edited by Avram Davidson, 1983, Ace Books
The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 9, edited by Arthur W. Saha, 1983, DAW Books
Dragonfield and Other Stories, collection, 1985, Ace Books