How to Bind a Sailor’s Heart

by Jelena Dunato

Edited by Ashely Deng

Content warning: This story contains mentions of bloodletting and mutilation

So you’ve fallen in love with a sailor. If you asked me for advice – which you are emphatically not doing – I’d tell you to find yourself another sweetheart. A fat butcher with a murderous gleam in his eyes, a silk-clad merchant aroused by the clinking of coins, a cunning innkeeper who turns water to wine. Anything but the man whose heart was stolen by a mermaid frolicking in the foam, with her seaweed hair, coral-red lips and a voice that enchants mortal men.

You insist? Yes, child, I understand: she enthralled him and you want him back.

You’ve heard about the pogača, of course, and you want the recipe. It is a powerful, deadly thing. Do you think you are the first girl desperate enough to row to my lighthouse in the middle of a winter storm, hair plastered to your head, your dress a sodden rag stretched taut over your swollen belly? There have been others, all drowned now. Let me warn you – 

No? You’ve made your mind up?

All right, don’t weep. I understand. I once sailed to the Last Lighthouse in the storm, mad with despair (look for it on a clear day and you won’t find it, every child knows that). Go ask my husband to tell you the story, he’s the old man quarrelling with the waves outside – 

What? Hurry up? You’re not interested in an old hag’s ramblings? Suit yourself, child.

This is the recipe for the pogača, the fish pie that will bind a sailor’s heart, scrape the salt off his skin, drain the blue out of his eyes, silence the song of the waves in his ears.

Prepare the dough first. 

Firm base, hard crust, that’s what you need. Four cups of flour. Fat, golden wheat grown on the rich dark soil untouched by the sea winds. A stone from his mother’s grave, small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, and ground into fine dust, to remind him that the land loves him. An acorn from the tree his father planted beside the house he was born in. And a sailor’s bone, to warn him that the sea is deadly. Under the Vulture Cliffs, there is a Roman galley lying on the seabed. Plenty of bones, picked clean by the fish, white and brittle.

You’ll need something to make your dough rise. Hope? Yes, hope is good but yeast is better. Find the oldest ship in the harbour and sneak into its galley. No, don’t look for bread, they only have hardtack. Look for the little keg of beer the cook has stowed away for himself. You’ll find some lively yeast there, ready to rise and whisper about the long lonely days, rolling, rolling.

Liquid, yes, you need that too. Sweet spring water will do, but if you find a sailor’s widow and collect her tears, their bitterness will greatly improve the taste.

No salt, remember. Your sweetheart is salty enough.

Knead the dough, let it rise. Prepare the filling.

Onions are a no-nonsense vegetable: tough, sharp, and resilient to bugs and blight. They won’t rot in the ground or shrivel on their vines, they won’t freeze or wilt or betray you. No, an onion is a sensible friend who might make you cry but will always, always tell you the truth.

Slice the onion finely with a sharp knife. Wipe your tears when you’re done, wash your hands. Put on your best Sunday dress and walk the narrow streets of your town, your eyes hard, your chin high up in the air. Never let them see you cry.

I never cried, not even when he killed my – 

Never mind.

Next, you’ll need three large tomatoes.

What is love? A sweet and sour concentrate of the summer sun: heart-shaped, scarlet and bursting with life. You’ll need the ripest, juiciest, most intensely red fruit if you want him to remember the taste of your love on his tongue.

Blanch, peel, and sauté them with the onion. Add blood.

Whose blood? Why, your blood, girl. Cut your wrist, let it drip into a cup till it’s full. I never said this would be painless.

Add fish.

This is the tricky part. You need to find the mermaid that enchanted your sailor. How? Well, I already suggested you should go and talk to my mad husband outside, begging the sea for forgiveness. It was he who followed me to my secret cove where I used to kiss my sharp-toothed lover on the smooth white pebbles. He grabbed her silky teal hair and tore her out of my embrace. He plunged his knife into her breast, spraying her cold green blood all over my face. Then he dragged her body to his boat, cut and deboned her tail and baked it into his fish pie.

If you want to bind your sailor’s heart, you’ll have to do the same. Remember to add a cup of anchovies: mermaid’s flesh tastes of dark water and regret.

Roll out half of your dough and line your pie dish with it. Pour your filling in and cover it with the remaining dough. Steal your sailor’s boat under a full moon and chop it into firewood with all the resentment you harbour for the sea. Light a fire and bake your pie.

What will it cost you? Nothing. Everything.

Go ask my husband what it cost him to bind the heart of a sailor. Ask him if I ever loved him. Ask him if I ever forgave him for killing my beloved monster.

Or better yet, don’t ask him anything. The monsters who enchant us, the monsters who save us – who can tell who we are supposed to choose, when love feels like enchantment and enchantment feels like love?

Bring your sailor home or the mermaid’s love will kill him.

And pray the pogača makes him remember his love for you.

© Copyright Jelena Dunato

Jelena Dunato is an art historian, curator, speculative fiction writer and lover of all things ancient. She grew up in Croatia on a steady diet of adventure stories and then wandered the world for a decade, building a career in the arts and writing stories that lay buried in the depths of her laptop until she gathered the courage to publish them. Jelena lives on an island in the Adriatic with her husband, daughter, and cat. You can find her at and on Twitter @jelenawrites.

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