There is a saying that stranger things have happened at sea. Why the sea? Why should the oceans hold any greater mysteries for us than elsewhere in our world? Perhaps you’d understand better were you to spend any appreciable amount of time sailing out of sight of land.
Aboard a ship there is nothing to see for miles in all directions but a trackless waste of constantly shifting water. You are aware of the immense depths that fall away beneath the keel but you have no means of plumbing them, except with your imagination.
Sailors are a suspicious lot, given to fanciful thinking. Perhaps the sea touches something deep within them, draws from them some primal need to explain what lies around and beneath them, even though there is no understanding it. Perhaps the tedium of daily life leads idle minds to wandering and to the invention of stories. Perhaps there are genuine secrets hidden beneath the waves. Perhaps, on rare occasions, they rise to the surface and grant audience to those courageous or hapless enough to make the sea their home,
I was one of the latter. Aye, hapless describes me well; young and naive when my life at sea began. A child of twelve summers who ran from his home, seeking to escape a father’s harsh words, and a judgement he could not accept. By mischance, I fell upon a press gang prowling the streets. They surrounded me, affording me no means of escape. My last recollection is of looking around, wild eyed, seeking any place I might run. I didn’t feel the blow that stole my consciousness from me, but knew no more till the following morning when I awoke groggily to the sensation of rolling decks, and the bruise of a black jack across the back of my neck.
To find oneself of a sudden in such surroundings is terror indeed, and all the more for a child of my tender years and spirit. I wailed and snivelled through all of my first day at sea, earning the disdain of the entire crew. I knew little enough of hard work, being born into a privileged family. I was aware that others endured long days of back breaking toil, but the worst I had faced in my short life was an afternoon’s study of geometry.
The captain showed me more leniency than perhaps I deserved, and for this the crew learned to dislike me all the more. He left me to my misery until even he reached the limit of his patience, then, mindless of my bruises, he took me by the scruff of the neck and hung me over the side of the ship.
There are no idle hands aboard a ship at sea. Any who refuse to take their place among the crew, are cast overboard, and this was the choice given to me. Fortunately, the duties of a cabin boy are not so onerous, and even unaccustomed to labour as I was, I learned them swiftly enough.
The crew thought me a Jonah, and sought out every opportunity to show their displeasure at having me aboard. I found I became far more prone to accidents than seemed probable, though not through any fault of my own. Tackle would swing unexpectedly out of the rigging to strike me in the back of the head; pales of water would slide across the decks tripping me up and barking my shins; any number of unexpected and unlikely incidents befell me. I feel certain the captain and mates new of my persecution, but they did little enough about it until the day my legs were taken out from under me as I descended to the crew’s quarters.
I fell headlong and struck my head, losing consciousness for the second time in my life. Apart from the bruise to my temple, I received no injuries worthy of the mention, but it was a step too far for the captain. He called a general assembly and laid out his law, that any man who caused another member of his crew to be injured and unfit for duty should feel the bite of the lash,
I was granted the remainder of the day to rest, and when I returned to my duties, I found the deck a safer place to be, though it was a sullen reprieve. None aboard took it well that I should be under the protection of the captain, even though I hadn’t asked for it.
There are more ways than one to skin a cat, so it is said. Denied the route of physical torment, my crewmates turned to tortures of the mind, taking advantage of my youth and inexperience.
I was expected to spend my off duty time below decks with the rest of the crew. None would speak to me directly, and I should have been suspicious of them had they tried. Instead they would settle within reach of my hearing and tell each other stories; tales of what they had, to all seeming, experienced in their time at sea, or tales of what others had told them. They spoke of sea fogs encountered in the dead of night that crept aboard and leached the very essence of life from a sailor’s body, of ghost ships plying the seas, seeking souls to capture for hell, of unholy creatures that appear at the masthead, enveloped in green flame, hunting the youngest and most succulent victims to devour.
My mind’s eye would conjured these horrors of the night as effectively as though they had been real, and I slept poorly with fear as my bedfellow. In the night watches I kept an eye open for all the unnatural dangers I felt certain lurked about me, so you can imagine the terror I endured the first time St. Elmo’s Fire descended on our craft.
When nothing ill befell me from that occurrence, I learned to look for the gleam of mischief in an eye, the hint of a smirk, the subverted glance; all signs of deception. I learned to discern which were stories and which were true.
One night I was awoken by a strange, distant wailing. Plaintive it was, filled with sadness but no distress. There were no words to it that I could make out, only long, drawn out, heart felt cries of deep despondency.
Unable to sleep, I climbed up on deck and sought some answers to the mystery. I leaned against the bulwark and listened as the distant cry swept across the waters.
One of the watch sauntered over and leaned out to sea beside me. He was one of a select few within the crew who I felt tolerated me. I took my chance that he would answer me honestly.
“Do you know what manner of creature that is?”
My speech was another aspect that fed the crew’s contempt of me. Young as I was, I possessed the mannerisms of nobility, and I knew no other way to be. I could, in time perhaps, have learned to imitate those around me, but I found I was as little attracted by their vulgarities as they were by my lofty ways.
“’Tis the siren’s call,” he answered. “Haunting it may seem now, but close too it captures the heart and fuddles the mind. Ware my warning lad. Stay below decks when you hear their song close to, for if one of the merfolk should pass by the ship with you leaning over as you are now, she’ll reach up and drag you down with her, and you’ll not have the wit to fight her embrace. You’ll be drowned afore you’re aware of the danger.”
I looked at him with suspicion over the unlikeliness of the tale, but there seemed to be no malice or mischief to his words.
I remained on deck and listened to the distant wailing, but it came no closer. Before too long, the call of my bed tugged more insistently at me than the alien song, and I returned below to seek what rest I could before duty next called me to action.
Time passed. More months than I knew how to count and we sighted land at last. A week’s more sailing saw us at anchor near a settlement of wooden buildings. My own home and the city within which it lay were of brick and stone. The wood seemed a poor substitute in all ways I could see. It was ugly when unpainted, it did not last well against the weather and it seemed as though it offered scant protection against the elements.
I was permitted ashore under close supervision, but there was no need of a guard. This place was altogether too different for me to seek refuge here.
We stayed a little more than a week, unloading one cargo and taking on another, then set our sails for the east and the distant shores of England.
The crew tolerated me better on the return trip. It was as though I had passed some obscure rite of passage. There was no longer any cruelty from most of them, but there were still a few die-hards who continued to torment me.
For my part, I kept to myself and nursed my misery. I missed my family, as I was sure they missed me. I had no knowledge of how hard my parents searched for me, nor how long they grieved for me when they realised there was nothing they could do. All I knew was I missed them terribly and longed for the moment I could set foot upon my home land once more.
It was nigh on two years since my capture when we weighed anchor once more within a British port. I itched for the moment I could go ashore, and had a head full of plans on how I would steal away and seek passage to my home.
It was not to be though. All those of us who had been pressed at the beginning of the last voyage were locked in the brig for the duration of our stay. To be so close to home and yet never close enough to reach it was unbearable agony, and when the ship set sail once more, I and two others stood on deck watching as England slipped beneath the horizon.
Later that same day, one of them went over the side, preferring he sea’s embrace close to his home shore than more years of hardship.
The years passed. This time we toured the Americas, making fisrt landfall in Virginia, then heading south thereafter. We crossed the equator and continued on our way until the weather grew cold again. We rounded Cape Horn, braving seas that threatened to shake loose our masts, then for a year and a half, we plied our way up and down the Pacific coast.
When at last we approached the Cape for a second time, it was deemed that I had outgrown my position as cabin boy, and I was made up to seaman.
I cannot say I ever took to life at sea. In the years I had spent aboard, I had learned to endure and to survive, holding on to the hope that one day I would return to England and escape back to my parents. That hope faded with the years, and died the day I took on a man’s role in the crew.
The transition above decks was beyond my capacity to endure. The work was punishingly hard, and I had no escape from the bitter cold that accompanied our second rounding of the cape. With the winds behind us, we made a swift passage, but as we turned north, the cold was quickly replaced by a merciless sun that stripped the flesh from my back and turned it raw with blisters. I earned myself a week in the infirmary from that, leaving only once my skin had taken on the texture of leather. My hands grew calloused from the rough, hempen ropes and from scrubbing the course wooden decks, and my arms grew strong and my shoulders broad from long days of hard graft. There are those who would have welcomed the toughening of their bodies, but I hated what I was becoming with a vengeance. To me it signified an inexorable change from what I had once been, from what I had dreamed of becoming and toward what I detested most of all.
I learned to climb the rigging, as is the duty of all seamen, but I never lost my fear of falling. The two or three crew members who had most tormented me as a child continued their vendetta into my young adulthood, only this time, high in the rigging, we were away from the skipper’s prying eyes, and being in such a precarious place, the likelihood of a genuine accident was greatly increased.
There were incidents. Rigging poorly tied that gave way under me, a seemingly accidental push that overbalanced me. In the last it was only by the narrowest of margins that I managed to grasp a handhold and prevent myself from plummeting to my death on the decks below. After that, I refused to take to the ropes.
For my punishment, I was assigned to clean the bilges. It is perhaps the worst of jobs you can imagine on board a ship. Days spent up to your knees in indescribable filth, crawling through cramped spaces with no light, dimly aware of rats scampering about you. Often enough the combination of the revolting smell of the place and the rolling of the ship with no horizon to settle my rebellious stomach would cause me to heave up what little food I could keep down, adding to the foulness I was there to clear.
The stench of the place was ever reluctant to leave me. Every time I emerged onto deck at the end of a day, the crew would thoroughly doused me in cold sea water, but even so I would reek so badly, no man would come near me. I was not permitted into the crew’s quarters where the others slept, but rather had to find some spot on the deck out of the way of the duty crew and rest as well as I could.
The task was never ending. I spent months at it and noticed not the slightest improvement. From time to time the captain would look at me as though to ask if I were ready to climb the rigging again, but I knew I had a better chance of surviving in the bilges than high above the decks.
The months passed without a soul so much as speaking a word to me. I thought of escape, but each time we dropped anchor, I was shut in the bilge with no means of egress. I began to wonder at my options, that perhaps I would be better off among the sails. Perhaps a short fall to a bloody end might be preferable to this interminable hell my life had become.
England seemed further away than ever. The captain announced his intention to continue trading up the Atlantic coast of the Americas, and I sank to a level of despair that left behind the last vestige of hope I possessed. The following day I told the captain I was ready to re-join the crew in the rigging. I had it in mind to climb to the top of the main mast and simply let myself fall, but he must have seen something of the intent in my eyes. He told me the bilges were not yet cleaned to his satisfaction and I should continue with the task.
That night, I lay awake in the coil of rope I had made my bed, staring at the low scudding clouds racing past the masthead, when I heard the siren’s song for the second time in my life. It sounded closer this time, and it reached deep into my despondency, drawing me.
I eased out of my makeshift bed and made my way to the port hand side of the ship. A clamber net hung down to the water where some of the crew had been tarring the hull. I eased myself over the bulwark and climbed down to the level of the water hissing past as we sped southward through the night.
The spray was cool, but not unpleasant as I settled just above the waves and looked into the pitch black depths. It would be so easy just to let go now. All the dreams I’d ever had for my life lay in tatters, hanging dejectedly in the recesses of my mind, taunting me with what could now never be, perhaps what could never have been in any case.
Drowning is not a pleasant death, and not an easy one to contemplate. Even faced, as I was, with the prospect of spending interminable days in the deepest, darkest, most disgusting part of the ship, my courage failed at the thought of giving myself to the ocean.
The siren song sounded again, so close this time I could almost feel it. My mind recalled the conversation I’d shared so many years ago.
“You’ll be drowned afore you’re aware of the danger.”
Now there was a death I could embrace.
The song sounded again, giving voice to my hopelessness, filling me utterly, drawing from my lips some groan of response. It was as though I were joining the song.
More memories drifted back to me, this time of that fateful night, of my father’s angry words, angry beyond measure for what I had told him I wanted from life. I could only imagine his satisfaction at the turn fate had dealt me, that such hardship as I was enduring would make me into the man he wanted me to be.
“You’re wrong Father.” I spoke the words to an uncaring ocean, but they would have had as little effect if my father had been there to hear them.
I caught a movement in the water below and dropped my hand into the passing waves, leaving a stream of scintillating sparks in the wake. I had often wondered what caused the trail of phosphorescence that sometimes followed our passage, but to those who shared the ship with me it was just one more mystery in the eldritch nature of the sea, and every time I had raised the matter, my queries had been dismissed with unsatisfying half-explanations.
There it was again, the movement. A creature in the depths, leaving its own streaming wake. Unless I missed my guess, it was no larger than I was, and swimming as fast as the ship.
A strain of the song emerged from the water, so close, so heartrendingly beautiful that I all but lost my grip of the net. The creature broached half a chain’s length from the boat. Outlined in her own soft phosphor iridescence, she was unutterably beautiful. Silver scales from the waist down shimmered in the dim radiance. Her hair streamed behind her, reaching more than half the length of her body. Her breasts were bare, perfect globes on her chest, and her face smiled at me with a warmth and welcome I would have defied my mother to equal.
I reached out my free arm to her as she dropped and slipped, with the faintest of splashes, back beneath the waves.
My heart was torn with the loss of her. I all but cried out that something so beautiful should appear before me and then be taken so swiftly. I searched the waters frantically, but they were dark again.
No, not quite. There she was once more, closer to the ship this time, keeping pace with us, gently revolving, smiling up at me through the waves, drawing slowly nearer.
She broke the surface again, reached out her own hand and took a hold of the net less than an arm’s length from me. She opened her mouth and the eerie song that emerged captured me utterly, heart and soul.
She reached for me, and unable and unwilling to resist, I reached back.
Her hand was cool against my skin. Smooth and soft and so inviting. She glanced at my other hand, the one with which I clung to the ship. Her meaning was clear, and I had no qualms about letting go my hold of the net.
I fell into the water beside her, dimly aware of the shock of cold passing through my body, of the ship speeding on into the night. The waters enveloped me and she put her arms around me in a soft a welcome embrace.
I had never felt so loved.
We dived deep, her tail moving back and forth with easy, efficient strokes. I let her take me, certain this was my end, but not caring in the slightest. I would hold my breath as long as I was able. I would accept these seconds of euphoria as the fare price for my life, and I would eke them out as long as I could.
My body was tingling with the delight of it all. I felt light and free and filled with an ecstasy I had never known. It seemed I was surrounded by a light even as the depths of the ocean closed around us. She smiled at me and I smiled back, bubbles escaping in a thin silver stream from the corner of my mouth.
My lungs were burning and I knew my time was nearly done. I would hold out a while longer though. To replace the air turning sour in my chest with the cold, Atlantic water would be painful, I was certain, and it would bring on the darkness all too quickly. I determined to endure to the last possible moment. Despite the pain in my ribs, there was still a joy and a peace to all this.
Her lips moved and her melancholy song filled me.
“You can breathe,” she sang.
It wasn’t English, and I knew no other tongue, but somehow I understood.
The word enveloped my mind, taking control. I couldn’t disobey. This was it. Farewell cruel world. In that moment I harboured no regrets.
I released the foul air and sucked in what I fully expected to be life taking water, but it never reached my lungs. Instead it streamed through my mouth and out the side of my neck. My vision cleared, the ache in my muscles eased and I looked about me in wonder.
Unearthly laughter spilled around me. My companion had released me and was swimming gentle spirals around me, enough luminescence clinging to her that I could make her out as a ghostly shape.
“Welcome sister,” she sang.
“Sister?” My own voice seemed harsh and discordant by comparison, but I could feel the words and the notes, how they should be spoken, or perhaps sung.
“All merfolk are women,” she sang. “I thought you would know that.”
“I am no woman,” I said. The words were the embodiment of an ache that had clung to my heart for most of my life.
“Look to yourself sister.”
I bent my head to look and long strands of hair streamed into my vision, framing my view of a long, slender body, glowing with a subtle luminescence. My arms and chest were slimmer than they should be, my skin smooth and unblemished, on my chest sat two rounded mounds, and beyond them my waist blended into silvery scales and the delicate membrane of a tail.
“How?” It was more an exclamation than a song. “How is this possible?” I added music to the words.
“The story of our origin is shrouded in the depths of the past. So the story goes, it began with a young woman, jilted by her lover, who threw herself into the sea in her despair. A young man leapt after her, seeking to rescue her, to show her that she was loved even so. The powers of the deep remembered the way mankind had once been, male and female joined in one body, and so they remade this man and this woman melding them together, granting them a new body, a new life and a new form. Two became one and so the first of the merfolk were formed.”
“That’s no answer. How did this happen to me?”
“It is the beginning of an answer. The deep remembered when men and women were one, when both parts existed within the same flesh, each balancing the other. It gave form to this in the first of the merfolk, and it gave to her the capacity to recognise the balance in others.”
“You say her. Surely if there was both male and female…”
“There is both male and female in equal measure, but the balance sits most comfortably in the female form both you and I possess. Were our bodies male, the masculine side of our nature would prevail. In female form, the woman in us is the stronger, and allows the man equal place. So in our natures we are balanced, but in our form we are female.
“Humans also possess this mix of both male and female, but in all but the rarest of cases, one side dominates over the other. Born to a female form and surrounded by those who fully embrace a woman’s life, a young girl will learn to suppress that which is male inside her, and so the converse is true of those born to manhood.
“Rarely though, there are those who recognise the other nature within them, those who are unwilling or unable to suppress it. They suffer much in the world of men, because those whose nature often steps beyond their appearance are neither understood nor accepted.
“It is given to each of us to recognise such a nature.
“I encountered you once before, some years ago. I sang to you then, but you were not ready. I have waited a long time to meet you sister, waited and endured your sufferings alongside you, until you were ready. It brings me great joy to greet you at last.”
She swam in close and I found myself caught up in a joy filled embrace, propelled to the surface where we launched as one into the cool night air.
Somewhere in the distance lanterns burned. The ship that had been my home and my prison for the past many years sailed on, as yet oblivious to the loss of one of its crew.
We swam on into the night together. Amatheia, for that was her name, introduced me to all the aspects of my new life.
The tail took some getting used to. There was a tendency for my mind to imagine knees under the scaly flesh, and so to expect a restriction of movement, but the tail was highly flexible along all its length, and once I accepted that, I discovered a turn of speed through the water which was truly exhilarating. Should I swim directly upwards through the surface, I could jump perhaps as high as the masthead of most ships.
The gills on the side of my neck were also something utterly new to me. They needed water flowing through them to work, so I felt constantly inclined to keep swimming. Again the instinct remained in me to wish breath into my lungs, and if I raised my head above the surface, I found I could tread water and breathe normally as I had. Holding off from doing so while I was swimming could be learned, but for the moment I found I had to concentrate to stop myself from taking water into my lungs.
Eyesight, I discovered, was no longer my primary sense. The sea, it seemed, was filled with a persistent suspension of tiny particles, in some cases living organisms. It meant that even close to the surface you couldn’t see further than two or three fathoms. Also, you didn’t have to dive very deep before the light faded, leaving you in perpetual darkness.
Despite all of this, I found I was aware of my surroundings for some miles. While we had been singing to one another, I found that my awareness of the space was expanding at an astonishing rate, As sound was reflected and my mind made sense of the jumbled echoes, I found myself aware, without turning around, of the creatures around me, the ships above me, even the sea floor far below me.
I tried swimming down, but Amatheia cautioned me. We could go deep it seemed, but not too deep, and when changing depths it was as well to do so slowly and cautiously. In the one dive I made by way of experiment, I could feel the weight of the water pressing in from all around me, and decided to satisfy myself with remaining close to the surface until I knew better.
She led me to a nearby school of fish, and as we approached, took on a turn of speed that made my earlier efforts pale in comparison. I did my best to follow, but she drew ahead, then darted in and out of the mass of scaly bodies, stopping a moment later with a writhing fish in each hand. She handed one to me and raised the other to her mouth.
“You eat fish raw, and living?” I asked, trying not to sound judgemental.
“Try it,” she sang back to me, and sank her teeth into the creature squirming in her grasp.
I was going to have to eat, and there were obvious problems with the concept of cooking underwater. If this was something I’d have to get used to, then the sooner started, the better.
I bit into the fish and felt the blood pumping through its succulent flesh. Flavours burst inside my mouth, unusual but unutterably delicious. It didn’t take me long to reduce the creature to little more than bone.
“There are those among us who prefer to kill before eating,” Amatheia said, picking at her teeth with a fishbone, “but being eaten alive is the same fate they would face from any other hunter of the sea. Personally, I think their flavour is better this way, but don’t let me influence you.”
We drifted on, replete from our meal.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Is this my life now? Roaming the wide ocean, catching fish when I’m hungry, but otherwise doing little other than swim?”
“Would you be content with that?”
“I don’t think so. I mean there has to be more to life than that, surely.”
“There is so much more, and now you have the freedom to explore whatever interests you. The open sea is much as you see it here. It does vary, but only in the subtlest manner. There are also dangers away from shore; sharks and orca and worse. Most of our kind seem content to form communities in secluded lagoons, and there are enough of them about the world. There is a rare beauty to be found around the coral reefs of the tropics, though some still prefer the starker rocky shores, with their caverns to explore. Before you decide, you might like to travel a little. The world is, as it were, your oyster.”
“But the sea is all?”
“There’s nothing to say you can’t explore the rivers and lakes. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Lorelei.”
“I’m not that old, and I’ve been on that ship since I was twelve. I’ve had no great opportunity for learning.”
“The Lorelei is a rock on the River Rhine. There are legends surrounding the place. Some speak of a woman who was betrayed by her sweetheart, who fell from the rock, and ever after the stone retained an echo of her name. Others speak of a siren who sat on the rock, combing her hair and luring sailors to their doom with her songs. There are those among us who believe that the woman, Lore Lay was her name, along with a young knight who dived after her to save her, were the ones who became the first mermaid.”
“The story isn’t that old. Mermaids have been around for far longer than that.”
“Do you mind if I ask, how old are you?”
She laughed. “Older than you might think. The sea is gentle with our kind, and we show no sign of age, except perhaps in our eyes.”
She swam in close, smiling, daring me to look. I did, and found they possessed the depth of ages.
“What of the land?” I asked, distracting myself as much as anything from her unnerving gaze. “Now that I have this form, am I forever a creature of the sea?”
“Or is there somewhere a sea witch who can give you legs in exchange for your beautiful voice? Would you go back to the land if you knew that every step you took were like walking on knives, and once transformed you could never return to the oceans?”
“I know that story. My mother told it me once. I thought it was a fairy tale.”
“And so it is. Hans Christian Andersen had a fanciful imagination, but he knew nothing of mermaids.”
“So? Is there a way for me to return to the land?”
“Would it be so terrible if you could not? Here if you seek adventure, you have an ocean the size of a world to explore. If you seek peace and tranquillity, there are many beautiful coves where you may live. If it is company, there are many places where mermaids gather together in community.”
“What of love, and children?”
“You are the closest the merfolk have to a child. None of us will know what it is to have a baby, but to have a child, all you need do is seek out a human who is ready and call him to new life.”
“So you consider me your child? Am I to call you mother?”
“Hardly,” she laughed. “The community of merfolk is one of equals. There is no inequality between men and women because all are women, there is no inequality between old and young because all seem young. I called you sister, and even that is not the true nature of how I see you.
“You ask about love. Tell me, do you find me beautiful?”
“Of course. How could I not?”
“It is the same when I look upon you, and you would find the same with any of our kind. So is love in the beauty we each embody?”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“In the human world, what we call love starts with an attraction between a man and woman, or perhaps more rarely and never spoken of, between two men or two women. Humans seek that one person who they would set apart from all others, with whom they would create that singular bond.
“It is an echo of what humans once were, a recognition that once male and female were one and the same, and by coming together they can, in some way, become a single person again. Two bodies and two minds, but one person.
“We already possess that balance, so we have no need for this kind of love. It is more a need in any case, so you could wonder how much of it is truly love.
“Love is selfless, you understand. It is a giving more than a receiving.
“The love of a mother for her child calls upon her to sacrifice. The love of one sibling for another means that one will face peril for the other’s benefit. The love between friends is the same. The love of the creator for his creation leads to the greatest of sacrifices.
“How would you decide to love in a world where all about you are the same as you, no better, no worse, all as beautiful?”
“I would look for a like mind I suppose, a kindred spirit.”
“A fine answer. And if everyone you met had the same balance you possess within you, had suffered and so possessed the same gentleness and generosity of spirit? How would you recognise a kindred spirit?”
“I suppose I would look for someone who cared for the same things, who held the same interests and values as myself.”
“And so you draw closer to your answer, for the love between equals is not one that comes from each looking to the other, but rather from both looking together in the same direction.
“Tell me, what lies at the heart of you? Now you are not driven by a longing to be other than you are, what remains in you? Where does your passion lie?”
The question drew me up short. I stopped swimming for a moment, became aware of my need to breathe, swam for the surface.
Amatheia joined me, and together we looked up at a break in the clouds through which streamed the pure liquid silver of moonlight.
“I suppose,” I said, tasting each word as it came to my mouth. “I suppose I would seek out others like me, like I was. I would want to bring them peace.”
She touched her hand to my cheek. “That is what drives me too.”
She reached in and kissed me on the lips.
How can I describe the sensation? In physical terms it was gentle, timid, an asking rather than a demanding. I had never kissed before. In all my years at sea, there had never been a woman aboard, and most of the time when we made landfall, I had been denied access to the land, so as a man I had never found an opportunity to be with a woman. If I had it would most likely have been with a whore, and would have possessed none of the communion of spirit held by this one simple act.
My body responded to it in ways I had no way to understand. Until recently I’d had a man’s body with a man’s urges and responses. I’d known the release of passion, if only in my dreams, and none of it prepared me for the feelings flooding through me in that moment.
“The love between two of our kind is a purer form. It requires no physical consummation, and yet there is a way. I will show you if you like.”
I nodded my consent, and she drew me back beneath the waves.
I have no words for it. How can you describe colour to a blind man, or music to the deaf? All I knew of human loving was in the release of my erotic dreams, and it compared poorly to what I shared with Amatheia. We dived deep and entwined ourselves in an embrace that seemed all at once to be electric, escalating, exciting, ecstatic, effervescent, enraptured, eternal. Even when the passion of it was done, something remained and in a way I find impossible to explain, I felt aligned with her, as though our thoughts genuinely did march to the same tune.
We had no need to speak, since the moment one of us thought of something, the other held the same thought in her mind. We swam on weaving patterns through the water with an all-consuming synergy of mind and spirit. It may have been days, or even weeks before we separated from one another enough for our thoughts and feelings to become our own again.
“There was one question you didn’t answer,” I said when I was once more myself.
“I know. Is it so important?”
“I think you know that too.”
There is no sighing under water. To sigh would require taking a breath, and that would require air. Even so there was a resignation about Amatheia that was palpable in other ways.
“Not all tortured souls come close enough to the water for us to reach them with our song,” I continued. “Is there no way we can go to them?”
“I believe there is. In the consummation of our love, we embraced the deep, and just as we aligned our two souls, so it saw into the depth of us. I felt a change I have not experienced before. I doubt you would have noticed it as all was so new to you, but I believe there is a way.”
“What is it?”
“We’re near enough to land now. Let me show you.”
I could feel the sea bed rising beneath me. Ahead and either side of me the sea was no longer endless. It was closing in around me, and I felt an unusual sense of claustrophobia. Amatheia steered towards a cut in the shore to the right. As I followed into the narrow passageway, I tasted sweet water and felt the flow of a current slowing our progress
We rose to the surface. The sun was dipping below the horizon, but there was enough light to make out details on the land. A beach, and nearby a farm house, washing flying on the line like pennants on a ship. There was no sign of people on the land. The beach was empty and deserted, and though there were lights on in the farmhouse, they were shrouded behind thick curtains, already drawn against the evening chill.
I followed Amatheia into the shallows and pulled myself up onto the sand beside her. Mere weeks had passed since I had been out of the water, and I felt clumsy dragging the weight of my tail over the sand. I looked over at my companion and wondered how this must feel for her after so many years.
Wind can be as effective as warmth in drying, and as the last drops off water evaporated from my scales, I sensed them change. Long, slender limbs replaced my fish’s tail, and I stood. No knives in my feet. Truly Hans Christian Andersen knew nothing of mermaids.
I looked to Amatheia who seemed less enamoured of her own transformation.
“I’ve been in the sea too long,” she said. “This feels unnatural to me.”
“It feels no less natural to me,” I said. “I may have legs once more, but I was never a woman before this moment.”
“I feel all that too, but I feel wrong without my tail, without water flowing around me and through me gills.”
“Go back to the sea then, and wait for me there,” I said to her. “We both want to know how readily we change back.”
With a grateful smile she ran out into the cold water and dived under the waves. Enough time had passed for me to grow anxious, and I was about to follow her to make sure she was alright when she leapt from the water. She cleared the surface high enough that I could see her full form silhouetted against the luminous sky, and make out the shape of her tail, then she fell back with barely a splash. Scarcely a moment later she was back out of the water beside me.
“I can’t leave you to do this alone,” she said, and shook her tail, willing it to dry more quickly.
“I’ll borrow us some clothes,” I said.
“Leave this as payment,” Amatheia said, offering up a handful of coins.
“Where did you get those?”
“The bottom of the river. There’s so much down there people have lost or thrown away, but this was all I could find that still had value.”
I ran over to the farmhouse. Among the clothing on the line were two dresses that looked as though they might fit us. They were a utilitarian brown and made from course enough wool that I felt sure the coins would more than compensate for their loss. Even so I felt guilty for taking them.
By the time I returned to the beach, Amatheia had transformed again, and was trying to find her balance on two legs.
“I never thought to stand again,” she said. “I find I don’t care for the sensation.”
I handed her a dress, and examined mine. This would be a new experience for both of us as well. Though she hadn’t said as much, I suspected that Amatheia had been no more a woman than I before she had been transformed, and neither of us had felt the need for clothing in our aquatic forms. It turned out to be simple enough though; no more difficult that pulling on a shirt, except that the hem hung considerably lower. The sensation of wearing nothing underneath was somewhat unnerving, but at least we wouldn’t cause a sensation.
We made our way off the beach and onto the road which ran past behind it. The surface was rough, and our feet tender, so progress was slow.
“I don’t suppose you have any more of those coins,” I asked wincing for the umpteenth time. “We could do with some shoes as soon as we find anywhere that might sell them, and I would be glad of some better quality clothing.” The woollen dress itched madly, and the rough material was rapidly rubbing my delicate breasts raw.
“The coins I gave you were all I could find, I’m sorry.”
“Maybe we can make our way back to the river and search a bit longer.”
“It’ll be full dark now. I doubt we’d find anything before morning, then we’d have a greater risk of being seen when we came ashore again. I think we’re stuck for now.”
“We could always go back to the sea, and try coming ashore in a few days after we’ve collected some valuables.”
“We could, but that feels wrong. I don’t know about you, but I sense something up ahead.”
I’d sensed the same thing, and even as I’d made my suggestion I’d felt a wrongness to it. There was something ahead that was calling to us, and it didn’t feel like it could wait.
We walked on as best we could. In the dark it was impossible to see where I was putting my feet, so nearly every step landed on a sharp stone. From the noises Amatheia was making, she seemed to be having the same problem. Maybe there was something to the Little Mermaid story after all.
The cold of the night made it through even the thick homespun material of our dresses, added to our misery, and I found myself wondering why I had raised this whole idea. Amatheia was still well enough aligned with my thoughts to recognise my doubts and gave my shoulders a squeeze.
“Just because it hurts doesn’t mean we’re doing the wrong thing. I rather think I dislike this more than you. I’ve lived under the sea for more years than I care to mention, and I never thought to return to the land of men, yet since joining with you, I have felt the same need to pursue this course.”
We walked on in silence, drawing some small comfort and warmth from each other’s proximity. We passed no other travellers on the road, nor did we come across any signs of habitation other than the farmhouse by the beach. I was on the verge of accepting that we should spend the night trudging along in misery when we rounded a bend in the road and found a tavern a short way ahead of us. At sight of the place, the compulsion that had drawn us thus far redoubled, and we increased our pace.
A hundred painful yards further and we stood at the entrance to the inn. The door opened as we approached and sounds of raucous laughter spilled out, following an individual walking more sideways than forwards. Every ounce of his concentration seemed directed to keeping himself upright, so it seemed only fair that we should stand to one side and let him stagger past.
I took the lead and entered the inn, Amatheia at my shoulder. It took a long moment, but as heads turned in our direction, the hubbub fell away until we stood in the entrance facing a roomful of silent, stupefied faces. I took a second step. The floors were covered in sawdust, much of it already clumped and damp from spilled beer and who knew what. The thought of placing my bare and bloody feet on the mess revolted me, but it couldn’t be helped.
I caught the landlord’s eye and opened my mouth to speak, only then realising that I had no idea what to say. The discomfort in my feet had been that much of a distraction that I’d given no thought on how to handle an encounter such as this.
“Sir,” I said, smiling what I hoped was a winning smile. “I… I beg your indulgence. My sister and I have come a long way. We’re footsore and weary, and we’d consider it a kindness if you’d permit us the use of your fireplace to rest a while.”
The silence held for a moment longer as the landlord looked around at his guests. Everyone in the room continued to stare at us with mouths agape, so much so that I looked down at my feet to satisfy myself they hadn’t turned back into a fish tail.
“You speak good and fancy for one so poorly dressed,” the Landlord said at last.
Something else that hadn’t occurred to me, but I’m uncertain I’d have been able to do much about it anyway. My mannerisms and pattern of speech had been so ingrained into me as a young child that even several years on the high seas hadn’t been enough to change them.
“Sirrah,” Amatheia said beside me. Who says sirrah in this day and age? “We would beg you overlook our poor attire. We have fallen on hard times since we, er, since we left our band of players.”
I glanced at her. Wandering players were very much a thing of a past – quite possibly her past – though there were still a few that made the rounds. It did explain how we could be dressed as bare footed peasants and still speak well. It needed a little more to sell it.
“We have no money, truth be told, but if it would please you, we could sing for your entertainment.”
“Well lads, I’m sure we’re not averse to a bit of entertainment.”
The crowd stirred enough to agree; not so much with discernible words, but the tone of their response seemed positive enough. The landlord held out a welcoming arm indicating the blazing fire, and we moved closer to it, grateful to be able to put some warmth back into our bodies.
Out of the corner of my eye I did catch a few of those present sidling closer to the door. They didn’t make to leave, but rather settled into a slump against the wall. Should we wish to depart ourselves, they were in an ideal place to stop us.
A serving girl approached us with a tray full of tankards. She passed the two smallest to us.
“Please,” I protested. “We have no means to pay for these.”
“The master’s wishes,” she replied, bobbing a clumsy curtsey. “Says if you’re to sing, you might as well sing for your supper.”
There was something about the girl. Perhaps the way she kept her head bowed so her hair hid her face. Perhaps there was something about her voice or the way she moved. The uneasiness that had settled on me earlier, that had grown as we approached this tavern, reached its peak when she was beside us. I looked at Amatheia and she nodded, as though she’d been thinking the same thing.
The tankards contained hot, spiced mead and would have been a meal in themselves. I’d not downed a quarter of mine before the serving girl was back with two wooden platters, each holding a small helping of stew and a decent sized trencher of bread. I raised my tankard to the landlord who had his eye on us. He nodded in acknowledgement.
The helpings weren’t immense, but they were more than our meagre appetites could manage even so. When the serving girl came our way a third time, ostensibly to collect our near empty cups and plates, I put a hand on her arm.
It was rough and not a little hairy. Nervous eyes peered out from behind a curtain of greasy hair. The face was still in shadow, but it seemed a little heavier than one might expect. The eyes pleaded with me not to say anything and after a moment, I withdrew my hand with a quietly spoken thanks.
As she scurried off to her refuge in the kitchen, I stood up, indicating that Amatheia should do the same.
“I think it’s time we paid our dues,” I said to her quietly.
“You are aware that I know no songs of this age,” she murmured to me.
“I know little enough myself. My mother sang lullabies to me as a child, and I picked up a few shanties from my crewmates.”
“So what do you propose we sing?”
“You sang to me fair enough across the waves.”
“That’s siren song!”
“And are we not sirens? If it stupefies men’s minds as it did mine, will it not serve our purpose?”
“We’re a ways from the sea.”
“Aye and what of it? The Deep gifted us our legs on land as much as it gave us our tails for when we’re at sea. It gifted us with a sense that now leads us as well to those in need on the land as at sea. Who’s to say that our gift of song is not now as well suited to the land as to the ocean?
“What if it doesn’t serve us so well? What will ensue if it becomes apparent neither of us can hold a note?”
“Little worse than should we stand about and do nothing. We lose no advantage from at least trying.”
The muttered conversation had carried us from one end of the room, by the fire, to the other, where a raised platform indicated that the place wasn’t new to entertainment.
The room fell silent and all eyes turned in our direction. I glanced at Amatheia to find her glancing at me. A good sign if our minds were still so entwined. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, aware that my partner in this venture was doing the same. Apart from our gentle sighs, and the crackle of the fire, the room was utterly silent.
From somewhere deep inside me, a voice rose. It was a voice without words, but possessed of the same mournful tones that had drawn me over the side of my ship. They reached my mouth and swept out, swirling across the room, filling it, bouncing off the walls, casting tiny whirlpools of sound
Amatheia sand beside me, her notes different from mine, but providing a perfect counterpoint to my own, or perhaps mine were a counterpoint to hers. There was something in the sound that mirrored our own spiral of lovemaking. It held within it hints of joy and delight, but all of it was overshadowed by the deep sorrow in the tunes.
Not a soul in the room moved, so entranced were they all. I cannot say for how long we sang; all I know is I gave voice for as long as the voice rose from within me. In all of that time – I think minutes rather than hours – I don’t recall seeing a single tankard raised to a single pair of lips.
Our turn done, we stepped down from the stage and made our way carefully between the forest of stationary people. We could have made our escape then, given that the self-appointed guards were as stupefied as I the rest. What held us back was the thought of the girl, so instead of seeking our freedom, we turned about and made our way to the kitchen.
The kitchen was small and none to clean, populated by two figures. One of them was familiar, small and awkward, standing transfixed and hiding behind long greasy hair. The other unknown to us, was an older woman, also staring at space with a look close to rapture on her face.
I went to the younger one. She stirred at my touch and turned dazed eyes towards me.
“Come with us if you long for a better life,” I whispered to her quietly.
“I’m no singer,” she said.
“You can be,” I replied. “You can be so much more than you are now; so much more like the person you know yourself to be inside.”
Panic flared in her eyes, and I touched her with a reassuring hand.
“We only want what’s best for you. Yes we know, but we were no different once.”
She stared at me with disbelief; glanced over my shoulder, her eyes widening.
I turned to see Amatheia talking quietly with the older woman. Her response was not so generous though. She was looking thunder across at me and my young friend. I was seized by a certainty.
“Your life will ever be as it is unless you follow us now,” I hissed.
I took her hand in mine and pulled her towards the door. The older woman barred our way to the kitchen’s outside exit, and we knew nothing of the layout beyond. It could as easily lead to an enclosed courtyard as to freedom. Our only sure escape route was out through the bar.
Amatheia backed away and turned to follow us. We pushed out into the throng of slowly rousing patrons, and weaved our way as swiftly as we could to the exit.
“The wench!” the woman called from behind us, her voice harsh and shrill. “They came for the wench.”
It was enough to rouse those around us. We were surrounded by suddenly angry faces, but near enough to the door that a sudden dash had us though it and into the night air.
“We’ll not go far on bare feet,” Amatheia called after me.
“I know.” I turned to the girl beside me. “Where is the nearest water? A lake, a river, anything.” We were a long way from the sea, I knew that much, but Amatheia was right; we couldn’t travel far on bruised and bloody feet, no matter how much the food and warmth had revived us.
“There’s a stream the other side of the village. The bridge is that way.”
“A stream!” Amatheia wasn’t impressed. “How deep? How wide?”
“Wide enough and deep enough for a bridge rather than a ford,” I said. “It’ll have to do.”
“You don’t understand. We need to take her deep if we are to call out our sister.”
“Er, you do know…”
“There is enough of a woman inside you that she calls to us,” I interrupted her. “We’ve no time now. Show us this river.”
She turned towards the village and increased her pace, outdistancing us. The shouts of the crowd increased behind us as they grew in numbers and began their own chase.
The human body is a remarkable thing. That at such times as this, the fear of capture should flood our veins with liquid ice – that we should be so be made capable of doubling our speed and running across those same crippling stones without feeling the way they tore at our feet – is a miracle of no small wonder. We reached the bridge with more than a hundred yards lead on the mob that chased us. Enough time to help each other up and over its edge.
In the water, I felt my legs re-join to form a powerful tail. Trousers and shoes at such a moment would have been highly inconvenient, and even the dress was encumbering enough, weighed down with water as it was. Amatheia and I struggled to divest ourselves of the clothing, then took a hold of the floundering girl beside us. We had drifted some distance from the bridge where the crowd stood and yelled after us. I wasn’t sure how much they could see from their vantage, but with luck the darkness and the distance would hide our nature.
I tried to reason with our newly rescued companion but, like so many people of my age, she had no knowledge of how to swim, and her clothes were tangling her legs and pulling her down. She was panicking and threatened to cause me as much harm as to herself. Amatheia swam up to her at speed and caught her a blow to the side of the head that laid her out cold. When I had a moment to consider, I would agree that there was nothing better she could have done, but at the time, her actions shocked me.
We took an arm each, and keeping her face upwards, we swam as fast as we could down the narrow and altogether unnervingly shallow ribbon of water.
At the far end of the village, the river separated. One way led to a mill pond and the waterwheel that drove the mill, the other way became shallow enough that we floundered for a while among more sharp rocks. It was a short enough stretch though, and the water fast enough running that we made it through quickly and with only minor cuts and bruises. We pressed on, putting as many miles as we could between us and the mob, pausing only once. When we felt sure we were far enough away that none would catch up with us, we stopped long enough to make sure our companion was in no danger. Bedraggled and unconscious though she was, with a growing bruise on her temple, she was nonetheless alive and in no danger. With her dress clinging to her, we were left with little further need to confirm what we had already suspected.
We swam on into the night, with the stream slowly broadening and deepening until finally it reached the river at its end. We were some miles further up the river than we had been when we came ashore, so we still had some way to go. The sky was beginning to show a dim redness in the east, so we put on an extra turn of speed, seeking open water before the sun was high enough up that me might be seen. It wasn’t easy keeping her head above water and maintaining a good pace, especially as we didn’t want to leave to much of a visible wake, but we made it back out into the estuary, tasting salt water again, before the sun’s rays first broke over the horizon. Amatheia changed our direction a little and we sped on.
We were well out to sea, with the waves tall enough to hinder our progress, when we first sighted the island. In truth, the rock barely merited the name, offering little more than space enough to lay down our burden with no part of her quite reaching the water’s edge.
“The tide has a little way yet to fall,” Amatheia said as we made her as comfortable as we could. “Perhaps an hour yet, then two more before the rock is covered again.”
“How did you know it would be here?”
“I was a sailor once, and my home port lies just a few miles further up the bay. I’m not sure if it was my past that drew me here, but now I am returned, I find a great many memories returning to the surface. So much of what’s on land has changed, but the sea remains eternal.”
“What do we do now?”
“We wait. There’s another rock or two over this way that should uncover soon enough. We wait for our quarry to rouse, then we sing to him.”
“You saw as well as I.”
“Aye, I saw, but tell me, how fully did you consider yourself to be a man before you heard the song?”
“More fully than that, I should say.”
“Do you despise her?”
“No. I envy him a little, and I admire his courage, that he should embrace a life such as this in order to be as much as he feels himself to be inside, regardless of what lies on the surface.”
“You speak of her in such terms and still you see a male?”
“I see what lies on the surface. I would have called you male, just as I called myself male, before the change, but now we are as we are, I call us female.
“It’s true, I see the woman in him seeking to escape, but I can call him by no other name than suits what I see, no matter how much I wish otherwise. It is my hope that I will call him sister soon enough.”
We debated on for some time, but reached no consensus. There were differences between us after all. Minor ones, I would say, but they were there. No matter how much we became one another when we shared our love in the deep, the differences were embedded within our cores and, it seemed, would reassert themselves in time.
The sea was on the make and lapping at her – or his if you would take Amatheia’s view – hands and feet when she began to stir. Amatheia beckoned for me to follow her into the water, and together we began to swim about the rock, singing the true siren’s call. She hadn’t fully regained consciousness when the haunting melody reached into her. We kept up our singing until she threw herself bodily into the water, uncaring of her future.
Amatheia was ready and swam in as soon as she struck the water, drawing her into the same embrace with which she had taken me. I joined them and together we made for deeper water, continuing our song as we went.
The change was a wonder to behold. As we swam deeper, I became aware of the faint phosphorescence that surrounded us all in the growing darkness. Some of it seemed to be shifting from Amatheia and me towards the body we held between us. Her face was enraptured, and her body glowed ever more strongly as we swam deeper. Her clothes fell away, losing their glow as they drifted apart from us, revealing his very male body, which began to transform in that instant. It seemed to take forever, and I wondered at how much longer she could hold her breath.
Definitely a she now. In my mind she had always been, regardless of what was to be seen on the surface, but here the gift of the deep was transforming her. Legs joined to form a tail, body and arms shrank, became slender, smoother, grew breasts. Face softened, changed, grew beautiful. Hair, already long enough, grew that much longer. I caught the moment when her gills appeared in the side of her neck, saw Amatheia’s smile and nod.
“You can breathe now,” I sang to our newest sister, letting go of her and drifting away.
She chose the name Pearl.
Her life had been a hard one, and even she referred to herself in the masculine when telling her tale. His parents had died some years before of the typhus, after which he had been taken in by the innkeeper and his wife. They had given him drudge work to do in order to earn his keep, and it had been one day when doing the laundry that he had first put on one of his aunt’s dresses. His mother had long known of his desire to be a girl and had indulged him as much as she could while he was young, so he didn’t understand that his aunt and uncle would not approve. They caught him, beat him. Scolded him, then reconsidered. The work they had for him was that more commonly done by a scullery maid, so it seemed to them that perhaps he would raise fewer eyebrows and less criticism if he were to do his chores with the appearance of a girl. Few enough people had seen him as a boy, so they changed his clothing and his appearance and none were the wiser.
They then threatened him with the shame of discovery, and the unimaginable horror of being forced back into the life of a boy. They placed ever greater burdens on his small shoulders, and he accepted them all out of fear. They treated him shamefully, beating him and permitting him little or no time to himself. He was expected to wash once every month, but no more frequently, and his clothes were always the last he was allowed to wash, and only if he had time. Which was rarely as he his other duties included cleaning out the rooms, sweeping up the mess in the main bar once the inn closed its doors for the night, cleaning the kitchen, and so many other chores that he lost count.
He knew he was growing and changing, and that one day soon he would be discovered. He lived in constant fear of that shame, and of the change that would be thrust on him ever after.
Then we had come.
Changed and free to be entirely herself, all she wanted was to find a place where her life would be easier. Amatheia said she knew just the place, and that we might benefit from a place to recuperate from our own ordeal.
It took some weeks to swim there, but it was worth the effort. There are five oceans in the world. The Arctic is too cold for most of our kind, as is the Southern, but that at least acts as a means of passing from one of the other three to the next. From the Northern Hemisphere, it is necessary to swim almost as far south as it is possible before rounding either the Cape of Good Hope, which separates the Atlantic from the Indian, or Cape Horn, which provides passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Amatheia’s destination lay in the Indian Ocean, so our journey took us down the west coast of Africa.
We found enough deserted beaches on the way, and took time out to bask in the sun. Each time we dried out, Amatheia and I regained our legs, but Pearl it seemed did not. She didn’t mind though. She was happy enough in her new life, and once we reached the atoll in Chagos Archipelago, she seemed happy enough to join a colony of mermaids whose great pleasures included sunning themselves, swimming about in the clear blue water, and decorating themselves and one another with the beautiful shells and corals they found strewn about the place.
A life of ease and delight to repay the years of hard work and misery. We didn’t begrudge her the choice she made, and we enjoyed a vacation of our own, sharing the sea with others of our kind, but also setting ourselves apart and tracing the deserted beaches with our footprints.
Our first foray into the land had been successful enough, but it had come so close to going wrong. We discussed what we had learned and came up with a plan of action to improve our chances for the next.
We asked among the mermaids, all of them former mariners, and identified the possible locations of a number of wrecked ships that might afford us a reliable source of wealth. Acting on the information we were given, we investigated each. Many were little more than rumour, or had already been plundered, but we found enough to make ourselves very wealthy in the eyes of the world. The money meant little enough to us, but it provided us better means for survival in our excursions.
In some of the wrecks we found clothing in good enough condition that it could be cleaned, mended and used again. Once repaired, we wrapped it in oilskins, which we also reclaimed from the lost vessels.
We must have looked something of a sight the next time we walked into civilisation. Both Amatheia and I had some experience with a needle, but repairing the tough canvas of a sail is a wholly different skill from mending fine clothes. We did well enough, I would say, but between our wild hair and somewhat shabby clothing, we turned a great many heads.
Fortunately, it has ever been a part of human nature to forgive the eccentricities of the wealthy, and between my noble manners and the gold we had recovered from the sea bed, we were able both to assuage any suspicions and to repair our appearances to become more acceptable to those we met.
Once established in society, I sought out my parents. So many years had passed, I almost did not recognise them. They had grieved my death after the ship on which I had served reported back my loss at sea, and it seemed an unnecessary cruelty to attempt to reintroduce myself to them. I was so much younger in appearance than the person they remembered, it would have been all but impossible to convince them of who I was. I left them to their lives and returned to mine.
Amatheia similarly sought out his family, though all he had to show from his search was a genealogy. He had been married with children, and after his disappearance and presumed death, his widow had grieved then remarried, living a long and happy enough life and surviving to see three grandchildren born. Amatheia’s family had expanded through many more generations and was a veritable dynasty, but he felt little affinity for any of them, and was happy enough to leave them to their own devices.
We bought ourselves properties near the sea in nearly every country on the globe with a coastline, and altered them to our needs, each with an underground channel leading from a secret chamber within the house out to the open sea. We bought ourselves a fleet of ships and grew our wealth through honest trade.
Ever on the outlook for those in need, we found them often enough. Buying them from poorer parents, and promising richer ones that we would turn their sons into men if only we might employ them as crew or officers on our ships.
Once at sea, we would take them to the edge of their endurance before swimming alongside and calling to them with our song.
It lasted well enough for a while, then our ships became more renowned for the loss of crew through their encounters with merfolk, and families became less inclined to let us have their children.
The world is ever changing though, and if our experiences had taught us anything, it is one must change in order to survive. Great Britain entered an age of great prosperity, and we reaped in some benefit from that, though business in a man’s world is hard, and we faced many vindictive campaigns from misogynist businessmen. Had we not possessed the sea as a greater resource than most, we might not have survived, but survive we did. In time we learned to hide our own investments behind the faces of respected businessmen, and our persecution eased.
We found more subtle way to bring the needy to a point where our song could meet their needs, and as the years passed into decades and even centuries, we survived war and change, and brought thousands of suffering souls to a place of peace. As more of the world became known, refuges for the merfolk became fewer in number, and we used a considerable amount of our wealth to annex private islands and provide havens for our kind.
An inconvenience of living such long lives is we do, and of never changing, is that we can only remain in one place for a few short decades at a time. We had anticipated this, which is why we bought so much property as soon as we could. By moving from one side of the word to the other, we have avoided awkward questions regarding how well we age, but it is becoming harder as the world grows ever smaller, and I wonder how much longer we will remain undiscovered.
I find the modern age to be something of a mixture of blessing and curse. The technological marvels of this twenty-first century would have been tantamount to miracles or witchcraft in my age, and so much has been achieved in eliminating the drudgery of daily life. There has also been a general move in much of the world towards understanding and acceptance of differences within our kind, whether it be across borders between countries or more subtle division. It means that the need for us in this world is lessening.
By contrast though, I am alarmed at the rate with which the human race is increasing in number, and at the same time appalled at how technology has enhanced the greed of many to bring our planet to the limit of what it can endure. Once beautiful oceans are now poisoned wastelands, and every time Amatheia and I return to the sea, we mourn the loss of so much beauty. Despite our best efforts, the world is dying, and the time has come for us to seek a greater wisdom.
We have put this off for far too long, but there is no sense in waiting for one catastrophic event to goad us into action. The Deep has responded to our needs in the past, and it is my hope that it will do so again. I do not relish the thought of war. I have lived through too many, and with the destructive power present in the world today, we could very easily kill our already weakened planet outright. There has to be some solution though, and we have waited long enough for others to find it for us.
Amatheia and I leave for the ocean tonight. We do not know what answer we may find to our world’s dilemma, but we will not return until we have found one. I only hope we are not already too late.