It's been a while...
I wrote this at the start of the week and have redrafted it a bit since then. I wrote it as a short story with nothing really to go around it, but then decided that I'm going to write one or two episodes more from the lives of the characters, to give a more complete story and answer some of the questions this leaves hanging. Not sure if I'll post the later parts when they're written 'cus I'm wondering about the commercial possibilities of this, but I'll at least post the first part, 'cus it's good to share with friends.
I'm not sure if I'm happy with the ending or not; the detail is all there but perhaps the wording and progression could be better. Feedback about that would be appreciated if you read this. Also, I changed a big part of the conversation part way through, and haven't redrafted since, so it might be a bit wonky in the middle.
It doesn't have much of a title yet, so I'll just call it...
Imogen and Maera
The captain shook his head at her question. “There are two ways the story goes, that I’ve heard. There’s the one you hear sailors tell, where a man sees them in the water, falls in love with one of ‘em and jumps overboard to be with ‘em, and drowns. In the other they use bewitchments, charms, to lure men into the water and to their deaths.” He shrugged. “You’ll hear both stories all the time, and I expect you have. But I’ll tell you this: I’ve never heard anyone say they’ve seen it happen first hand – at least not anyone I’d trust – and my Da’ told me the same, and he was at sea near thirty years even before I was a babe in arms. Half the men who tell the stories haven’t ever seen ‘em, and few who tell the stories have ever spoken to them.”
Imogen, a little shy, a little nervous, nodded. “I’m sorry; I didn’t wish to seem... prejudiced. I just... I know so little.”
“I tell you this,” the old captain asserted firmly, “I’ve seen them pick drowning men out of the water, and I’ve seen them guide ailing ships to harbour. They’re like men; some of ‘em are decent and those are the ones you see; the bad ones keep out of the way of us. They live like savages – they don’t build or trade or farm, just move and hunt – but they’re canny as men. They tell us that years ago they warred with men, and so now they keep away from cities and land where there’s a lot of people, hide from ‘em, like. But out here we’re on their ground, so to speak, and they know the ways of the sea better than any sailor could ever hope to.”
She nodded, trying to look wiser than she felt. Despite the old sailor’s stern assertions, she was still nervous of the people she had come out here to seek; she couldn’t help but be. Not just from all the stories she had heard (did they really come just from superstition?) but because they sounded so alien, so... inhuman.
Not that there seemed much chance of seeing them now, she reflected unhappily, walking to the rail of the ship as the captain moved back to his work. She’d been told even the day that she’d first had this idea, and gone down to the docks to ask the sailors there for their aid, that the odds were poor; it was too late in the season. They migrated to warmer, southern waters for the winter. The same waters her husband had been returning from...
She dabbed at her eyes with a silly, lacy handkerchief, not sure if it was her reflections or the sea wind that prompted her tears.
Too late in the autumn; most of them already gone south... So she’d been told by most of the captains and traders she’d spoken to – those who did business with her husband and father, who she had had as guests in her home and could trust to be reputable. Captain Oliver of the Thisbe
had been one of the few to see hope for her quest. Or perhaps he’d merely taken pity on her. Or perhaps he’d merely been interested in the pay she’d offered him. Either way, they were out here now, the captain with his stern, certain beliefs and her, a bundle of doubts and fears and nerves, for the people she was seeking and for the news they might bear. But she had
to know, she steeled herself. Anything was better than not knowing, than carrying shallow hopes as fragile as sculptures of salt.
Even if what she learnt was what she dreaded.
But now, out here, it seemed it was all for naught anyway. They had been away from land, anchored in the open ocean, for nearly three days now. Though winter’s chill rode the wind, the sky was clear and the sun was bright. “They don’t like sunlight like this,” one of the crew had told her the day before. “They’re used to the dark in the depths, and they don’t like the sun. As long as it’s bright like this, they won’t come to the surface.” And so late in the year, most already gone south...
same old song. Nearly three days passed already, and she’d negotiated with Captain Oliver to wait four. The day after tomorrow they’d return to land, admit defeat. Her silly idea would come to nothing, and she’d go back to her empty home and the plague of not-knowing, until he came, or years passed in waiting.
“Even if we find them, they might not know anything,” the mate had attempted to console her earlier, with ironic effect.
And another sailor had overheard and jeered, “Or they’ll lie to please us.”
That had led to a renewal of her doubts in the people she sought, and in turn to her being berated by the captain for listening to such superstition.
It was growing colder as the evening drew on. The land was at her back, the sinking sun and the open sea ahead. Her eyes ached from staring out there, looking for who-knew-what-sort of sign. Now she was shivering, too. Summer had ended early that year and she’d spent most of autumn inside. She hadn’t built the winter’s resistance to the cold, or changed her wardrobe for the colder season, and most of the dresses she’d packed were ill-suited to the chilly weather. At least she could go and get a scarf and a warmer hat if she was going to loiter on deck all evening. The sailors were bored, not used to being so still at sea and, though the captain and mates set much necessary routine work to occupy them, the mood on the ship fed her melancholy. Or perhaps her mood fed the ship’s – a sorrowful, aimless circle.
She was walking towards the cabin door under the paling sky when she heard the shout.
“Ho, ship! Ahoy! Air-men, ahoy!”
In the sudden, dizzying flurry of activity amongst the loitering sailors, she failed to pick up on what was happening, until someone rushing past grasped her arm and said, “It’s them, miss. They’ve found us.”
She found she was running back towards the railing; then she caught it, and leant over as far as she dared. She could see them, a cluster of heads breaking the water, some with raised arms waving. Were there ten? Fifteen? It was too hard to count them in the bobbing waves beneath the brilliance of the low sun.
Men were swarming around her, hauling on ropes. “Move her out of the way!” She heard the mate call, and moved herself before any sailor could take up the duty, slipping back through the throng, away from the railing. They were preparing to lower a boat over the side.
“Miss,” the captain’s voice caught her attention. “You’ll go down in the boat?”
She wasn’t sure if it was a command or a question, and the breath caught in her throat; she hadn’t even considered talking to them herself before now. Did he believe she would want to speak to them herself, or was it his aim to rid her of her prejudices towards the merpeople? She could hear them shouting up from the water to the sailors. Their words were in her language, though thick with accent and spoken with odd inflections and awkward sentences.
“Yes, yes, I will,” she said, breathlessly. “Just let me get my wrap.” She ran past him (ran! She hadn’t run since she was a girl!), into the ship, to her cabin, dug through her trunk.
By the time she returned to the deck, the small boat had vanished over the side and men were arrayed along the railing, looking down at the water. The captain was there, offering his hand to her and, taking it, he helped her turn herself backwards over the railing, her dress getting in the way, and crawl down the ladder hung below. She felt someone take hold of her foot and guide it into the boat. She turned.
She realised then that, until that moment, she hadn’t really believed in them. Seeing them stole the air from her lungs. A huddle of heads were in the water, those closest obscured by the four sailors clustered close to the front of the boat (the captain had stayed aboard, but the second mate was down here). Their skins ranged through blue, grey and green. They had dark hair clinging wetly to their heads. Their eyes were large, dark and glazed-looking, their noses quite flat, their lips narrow. They had large peaks around their ears that twitched and twisted as the conversation moved between the people in the sea and the men in the boat. When they opened their mouths, she saw pointed teeth.
The sailors were talking to them avidly, their backs to her. The mate was leading the talk, which seemed to be a general exchange of news and fortunes; she judged that it would probably be a while before the conversation turned to her business. Feeling rather excluded, she drifted down the boat, hoping to reach a position where the other sailors didn’t block her view of these peculiar folk so much, and ended up at the very end of the boat (the stern? The bow? She could never remember one from the other).
She could see four or five huddled close together below the sailors, with about the same number again gathered on the edge of the huddle. Others trod water nearby, some keeping their distance and others right under the shadow of the ship. A small group were up near the far end of the ship and were singing eerie music into the air, their faces turned up to the staring sailors above them.
Imogen started, and looked down. A woman was in the water just before her, her hand holding lightly onto the side of the boat. Her fingers were long and webbed, and her arm was slightly pudgy, skin thick with layers of insulating fat. There were large fronds of thin, translucent flesh on her forearms that reminded Imogen of the fins and tails of ornamental goldfish. Her skin was greenish in colour, her long, dark hair was sticking to the back of her neck and making a cloud in the water behind her, and her eyes were daring and curious.
“Hello,” Imogen replied, slightly breathless at this strange encounter.
“You’re no sailor, are you?” The woman asked her, her voice exotically accented.
She shook her head, “No. My name’s Imogen.”
“I’m Maera,” the sea-woman told her. Her expression was assessing, challenging. Her other arm was crossed over her chest, clutching a dark bundle there. Imogen could barely see the top of it, just breaking the surface of the water and obscured by the woman’s hand. “Why are you here?”
Now the moment was here, it was difficult to get the words out. So many hopes rested on what would come next. “My... I’m... My husband is... at sea, somewhere. I don’t know where. He’s a trader; he sails to other lands, and buys and sells.” She felt so awkward having this conversation. She was usually so certain of herself, bred to be a creature of society, but this last month it seemed she’d had so little control over everything in her life, and here she was, talking to this... this otherworldly woman.
“I know how human trade works,” the merwoman said stiffly, though her expression was slightly softer now. She pronounced ‘human’ as ‘yair-man’, or perhaps ‘air-man’.
“I... I’m sorry, this is... strange for me. I’ve never seen one of your kind before.”
“One of my people
,” she corrected, and Imogen flushed. She seemed to be making mistakes and dropping accidental insults every time she said something. Perhaps she should have stayed in the ship and left the talking to the sailors. “We’re not fish. You are new to me, too – you’re the first air-woman I’ve seen.”
Now Imogen felt nervous and rather embarrassed, both at her own blunders and the way she now felt judged. “Have you seen many sailors?” She asked, floundering in the conversation slightly and hoping to strike on a safe question.
Maera tossed her head from side to side. “Many ships; air-men have ships everywhere. Some stop if we surface, and we see the men onboard them. Sometimes they come down and talk.” She gave her that assessing look, and Imogen raced to fill the stuttering conversation.
“I used to sail with my father, sometimes, when I was a child. He’d take me on short trips, up and down our coast. This is the first time I’ve sailed out of sight of the land. He was a trader too...” She was babbling, she realised, and stopped herself. But Maera’s expression invited her to go on, so she added, “It stopped once I had a brother, and I went to my mother’s care. This is my first time at sea in... oh, fourteen years?”
“What do you do on land?”
“Um,” Imogen struggled to think of a way to justify herself to this woman who looked so wild, so savage, who travelled around the world with her family and her men. “I, well, I take care of the money, the house, and the land. I organise my family’s holdings as my husband is away so much.”
Maera shook her head. “Air-men place so much care on... owning things. On holding things.”
Imogen frowned at this quick dismissal of her world. “Don’t you want for stability? For security?”
The merwoman’s reply was odd; she spoke with belief, with conviction, but her expression suddenly looked troubled. Her face showed none of the certainty of the words; “The sea provides our home, our food...” Her eyes cast down into the murky water as she added, “So my people survive.” She took her hand off of the side of the boat and gestured broadly towards the other merpeople clustered around the ship. The movement disturbed the bundle she held to her chest and it stirred suddenly. Imogen was shocked to realise that the thing the woman held was alive. And then a small fist flew out and she exclaimed.
“Oh, you have a baby!”
She put a hand over her mouth, taken aback by her own loud outburst. Maera clasped both arms protectively around the child, but smiled proudly up at the human woman. “My daughter. My first.”
“What’s her name?” Imogen asked, wilfully resisting the maternal and very human urge to reach her arms out towards the child.
“We don’t name our children until their eyes open,” Maera replied, and lifted the child out of the water and turned her enough for Imogen to see her face. It was growing dark now, but Imogen could see that the child’s eyes were gummy and tightly closed beneath fleshy eyelids. “Not until a month after birth.”
Despite its alien features, there was something in that baby’s face that called out to Imogen’s maternal instinct and, forgetting that the child she saw wasn’t human, was the daughter of a sea-creature, was at home in the ocean, she reached out towards it with both her arms. Maera shot back six feet from the boat, closing her arms tightly around her daughter.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...” Imogen stuttered.
Maera pierced her with a warning look. “Humans once stole our children from us!”
“Long ago, there was war between us!” Maera spat. “Humans forget, but we remember! How you hunted us with spears and hooks! Drove us from the shores! Men would kill us, cut us, take our children and lay them in high places to dry to death in the sun!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Imogen said beseechingly. “I... I just...” Tears were coming to her eyes; she couldn’t prevent them. She rubbed at them with her fingers and wrapped her arms around herself.
When she looked up, Maera was watching her guardedly. “Are you a mother?” The merwoman enquired.
“I... no... I mean, I was...” She sniffed. “I had a son. But he died before he was a year old. And...” She drew in a deep breath. “I had another die in me, before he was born. And since then... no.”
Cautiously, Maera was treading back towards her.
“How old is she?” Imogen asked, needful.
“Six days,” Maera replied quietly. Her expression warped with indecision for a moment, and then she lifted the child up, “Here, hold her.”
As the tiny body rose from the water another mystery was solved for Imogen. With the way they floated so effortlessly with just their heads and shoulders above the water, it seemed small wonder that so many people thought they must have fish tails beneath their waists, but this child had legs, long and lithe, with long, flat feet. Imogen reached out quickly, her hand brushing briefly against Maera’s wet, fleshy forearm before closing protectively around the girl. “She’s slimy,” she exclaimed quietly. And indeed she was coated in a layer of slime that Maera didn’t have.
The sea-woman nodded, “It keeps her warm, until her skin grows thicker.” Apprehensively, she added, “This is her first time out of the water.”
Imogen clasped her to her chest, unmindful of how the wet and slime soaked her clothes. She could feel the child stirring in her arms, her lungs pumping as she breathed noisily through her mouth for the first time. There were gills in her sides, below her ribs, closed tight now she was in the open air. “She’s gorgeous,” she breathed. The child stirred in her arms and let out a soft, high-pitched squeak, disturbed to be in this strange, new world. Like a second birth, Imogen thought.
Maera now had both hands on the side of her boat, staring at the child in the human’s arms. “She is...” She took a deep breath, “But she’s born late in the year. She should have been born in the spring... I...” She cast her eyes down and went on quietly, stunted by shame, “I was picked out by my husband last winter. He sowed in me, and four others of his wives, and he let his brother plant in me, too. But I, alone of us chosen, didn’t conceive.” She raised an arm and pressed her hand against her daughter’s back, those long, webbed fingers brushing against Imogen’s pale arm. “It brought shame on me, and on him. Our family is very large; soon it will split in two. He hopes that he will be head of the new family that forms, and so he took me for a wife, has many children and curries favour, and so increases his strength and standing. And because I didn’t conceive for him, he sowed in me again in the spring. And this time I had her.”
“I’m glad for you,” Imogen said softly, meaningfully.
Maera gave her a baleful look. “His shame is assuaged, but he wanted a son. Now I must journey with her, all the way to the southern seas, and he will not support me. She will make me slower than the others, and predators will be drawn to her, and I must find food for us both. I don’t... I fear...” She swallowed. “If I lose her now, I will be shamed further, a failure of a mother. He will never give me another child.”
Imogen stared at her. “He’d do that to you?”
Maera shrugged one shoulder without meeting her eyes, bowed beneath shame and fear for the future.
“Did you... did you choose your husband?”
“He chose me,” Maera replied, looking up now. “That is how it is done. He picked me, with my father’s favour, and took me from my family, to swim with him, to mother for him if he wills it.”
“Do you... Do you love him?” Imogen dared to ask, breathlessly.
“I...” She faltered, and then ran her hand over her daughter’s back. “I love her. And he gave her to me. I couldn’t bear to lose her, whatever suffering she costs me. But...” She looked up into Imogen’s eyes, “My people do not have security. We do not have a home. I must trust the sea to provide for us, and hope.”
Imogen stared at her, struck dumb.
As they stood in tableau, there came a piercing bark from the huddle of merfolk near the sailors. Imogen jumped and turned sharply to see one of the women in the water glaring at her.
“Give her to me,” Maera said softly, reaching towards her. Wordlessly, Imogen handed back the girl. Maera clutched her to her chest again.
“We’re leaving,” One of the mermen near the sailors declared in a deep voice. Immediately the others began gathering towards him as he turned away from the boat and disappeared beneath the water.
Maera’s eyes flashed with hesitation again and then, on impulse, she reached and pulled off a necklace she was wearing. It was strung with what looked like small teeth, about the size of Imogen’s finger nails. Hanging on the bottom of the loop like a pendant was one much larger tooth, big enough to sit in her palm. “When you have a child, let it cut its teeth on this.”
Silently, Imogen nodded and reached out to accept the necklace. She kissed the fingers of her other hand and reached down, hoping to press the kiss like a blessing onto the child, but the tiny girl was out of her reach, so she waved her fingers in the air between them. “Goodbye,” She said softly. “Thank you.”
“Fair parting. I hope we meet again one day, Imogen,” Maera told her.
Daringly, Imogen began, “Here, next year-”
“I must go where my husband goes,” she apologised as she pushed away from the boat and began to swim away through the water.
“Goodbye!” Imogen cried, waving, “And good luck! Good luck to both of you!”
Maera gave her a last wave of her long, webbed hand, and disappeared beneath the waves, which glowed under silver starlight.
Back in her cabin, Imogen set the necklace on a table and changed out of her dirty clothes. She was just straightening her nightdress when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” She called, and one of the crew entered, carrying a bowl of stew. It was standard fare, but Imogen suddenly felt intensely hungry and, after thanking and dismissing him, gobbled it down.
When her meal was done she set the bowl down and reached for the tooth necklace but whatever cord it was on was not meant to be out of the water; now dry and brittle, it snapped into pieces as Imogen lifted it and several of the teeth skittered free. Fortunately the table’s raised edges caught most of them, and only a few fell to the floor. She dropped to her hands and knees and chased after them, collecting them in a cupped hand. She would have to restring them on something, and wondered what she might be able to get that would be suitable. She had seen one of the sailors mending a sail with a massive needle earlier that day, and wondered what sort of string or cord they used; perhaps she could ask for a length of it.
She was on her feet and tipping the teeth onto the tabletop as there was another knock at the door. She was slightly irritated by the disturbance as she called the knocker to enter but when the door opened Captain Oliver stood there, his expression grave.
“Michael says you had a long discussion with one of the sea-women,” he stated.
“Yes, that’s true,” she said, wondering what trouble she might have gotten herself into. Was he going to berate her for holding the baby? Or talking alone with Maera?
“What did you talk about?” He asked her.
Guardedly, she replied, “I told her a bit about my life, and she did the same.”
He frowned. “Did you ask her about your husband’s ship?”
She felt stunned that she hadn’t, hadn’t even thought of it. She’d been so awed to see them, and so nervous at first, that the topic hadn’t come to her mind. “No.”
His frown deepened. He paused before speaking. “Then I’m afraid I have to tell you this... Their leader spoke to another clan of their kind a week or so ago. That clan saw your husband’s ship caught in one of the storms we had at the start of the autumn. They said the ship was already listing badly – leaking or with too much cargo, badly stowed – and it was turned over by the wind and water. Normally they try to save drowning sailors but the storm was so fierce, they couldn’t surface. There was nothing they could do.”
Imogen stared at him, speechless. She sank slowly into her chair.
Silly girl that she was, she had brought now black clothes with her, and so couldn’t dress for mourning; for the rest of the voyage, she wore her grief on the inside and felt the pain of it more poignantly for that.
She avoided company as much as their confined world allowed, staying in her cabin or drifting to the prow of the ship where she could look out over the vast, restless ocean and imagine she was alone. All the worlds seemed very empty and bleak. The life she had always imagined for herself seemed to have petered out before she was twenty three years old.
Thinking of his face was a pain that brought tears to her eyes. His loss was a black hole in her; her path and her plans disappeared in a shadowy fog. Could she really be a widow? Could it be true? Was uncertainty really worse than knowing the bitter truth? Or had she come out here knowing that after the storms at the end of summer, after his long delay, he couldn’t really be alive? Then why had she come? What had she sought, and why had she found only pain?
The necklace remained broken on the table in her cabin. It seemed a useless gift now, for her husband’s death was also the death of her dreams of motherhood. Why had Maera given it to her – because she knew her own child couldn’t possibly survive? She nearly left it behind on the ship, as seeing it brought only the pain of what she had lost, but in the end , nearly on a whim, she folded the pieces in a handkerchief and took it with her; she told herself that she couldn’t let herself forsake the only physical memory of her dreamlike meeting with the merpeople.
Three days after her meeting with the merfolk, her ship returned to its harbour, and she to her home. Sharing the news with her mother-in-law was nearly unbearable, but to have someone share her grief with was a blessing.
So she mourned and remembered. They were dark days, strangely empty to her memory. And then one day she looked at the calendar and realised that a month had passed since she had spoken to Maera; if her child still lived its eyes would be open now, and it would bear a name.
She wondered, once more, why Maera had given her the tooth necklace. Was it just the first thing that came to hand? Had Maera believed that she herself wouldn’t need it, that her precious daughter wouldn’t survive the long, dangerous journey to the warm southern waters?
Or, perhaps, were some of the stories true? Did her kind really possess some magic, some charm? Was there some power in the strange gift she had been given (when you have a child, let it cut its teeth on this)?
In the days that followed she thought often of Maera and her daughter, praying for them and wishing them well. At times their plight seemed so distant, so unreal, that she struggled to believe that it could be taking place. But then she took out the broken necklace, ran her fingers over the teeth, and remembered. Later on, she repaired it.
Had they survived their journey? The hunger, the exhaustion, the danger? Had they reached that distant place, those southern seas that offered warmth and hope?
She realised, as her own healing began, that she had already believed her husband dead when she had gone on that voyage. All she had sought was confirmation; all she had lacked was solid fact. Finding it had let her bring her pain out into the open, where it could begin healing.
Life wouldn’t go on as she had dreamed. The expectations she had had as a girl didn’t form a map of her life. But perhaps she didn’t need a map to find those warm seas; perhaps all she needed was to carry on her journey.
This is a bit of an odd thing for me, so please reply and let me know what you think! I'm really not sure how believable or generally readable this is, so your feedback is very valuable to me!
As I said before, I'm not sure if I'll post any more of this. But if you insist on stepping outside the bounds of the story, and you don't mind spoilers for if I do post more of this, then I will tell you that Maera's baby survives the journey - and Maera names her 'Imogen' (obviously). The malnutrition in her infancy permanently effects her health, and she'll always be leaner than is healthy for one of her species. But she's a born fighter and she won't give up on survival
but that's not the whole story.
I read probably more than is healthy about dolphins and killer whales while and after writing this. But I won't bore you with the details. The merfolks' social structure is based very loosely on dolphins', and Maera's struggles are partly inspired by a nature documentary that was on TV recently. Imogen's story is partly inspired by a series of novels I read recently - the Liveship Chronicles by Robin Hobb.