Once, a mermaid fell in love with a prince who fell from his ship in a storm; when he had ceased to struggle, the mermaid took his face in her hands, passed her fingertips over the lids of his closed eyes, pressed her mouth against his mouth. Then she delivered him to the surface, where he was safely found.
But the salt of a man’s lips was sweeter than the salt sea, and the memory of it drove the mermaid nearly mad, until at last she left behind all she knew to find the prince again.
She gave her voice to the hag in the grotto; the hag gave her a knife and said, “Very well.”
She swam until her home waters were far behind her, until the prince’s castle was in sight and she could swim no farther; then she lay at the edge of the water, and cut at her flesh until it was cleaved in two.
She was not allowed to wash her hands clean (she was not allowed to ask anything again, of the sea); when the men found her in the morning, they saw a naked woman holding a knife, up to her elbows in blood.
They hanged her from the first tree they found, so young that it sagged under her weight.
It’s grown crooked ever since; I can see it from my window, as I tell you this.
Miss Warren came to the school the winter the ice broke in filmy crusts across the rocks.
The rain was coming down in sheets, waves trying to devour the shore, and no one saw her arriving; she was just there, waiting for them in the schoolroom the morning after, as if she’d grown overnight from the boards.
She looked them over, one by one, as if searching for something, but she must not have found it, because they just studied geography, and she walked among them carefully, and silent as the grave.
The consensus after class was, it was no wonder young single ladies were now permitted to teach in Cornwall, if they were as plain as Miss Warren.
(Matthew said nothing—he was already sixteen, and would graduate by summer, what did he care if she was plain for a spring?
She had paused by his desk a long time, watching him draw from the map, little strings of islands like a necklace of beads. He could feel her gaze on his neck; it never moved, all the time she stood there. Her hands were thin and white, and she held the fingers together, like a dove’s tail.
There was a hitch when she breathed, as if her lungs were giving out.
He watched her walk back up to the board, watched the line of her arm all the while she wrote the names of cities on the blackboard, her little white wrist sliding in and out of her sleeve, her hair as colorless and fragile as a sheet of ice.)
The first story she writes at the start of spring, when the green is creeping back over the rocks wherever the ice scraped it away, and the ospreys wheel over the courtyard of the school.
She writes it on the ruins of the old stone wall, where she was high above the water and alone but for the ghosts of the oppidum, who had, in the Roman years, looked out onto the ocean and seen serpents in the spray.
(It’s a relief from the press of anxious boys, their little wars and flares of temper.)
She gives it to Matthew, a single sheet of paper pressed into his workbook, where he’ll discover it some time from now, turning a page to start a lesson, frowning at it, touching his left lapel as he always does when something has taken him by surprise.
(She wants him, by then, because he holds very still; because of the way he looks at dead things with an air of sorrow; she wants him because his hair is dark, and gleams like the hair of a drowned man.)
Matthew waited two weeks for some word from her, but nothing came. She gave lessons as though nothing had happened, and spent Saturdays in the schoolroom reading, and Sundays walking the path that led to the sea, stopping from time to time to turn her profile to the water as if she was looking behind her. But she was too far, and from where he stood at the window, he couldn’t see anything for sure.
The next week he stayed behind on Saturday, after service, to get her alone.
(The story wasn’t the sort of thing one brought up to the Schoolmaster.
It was the sort of thing you read over and over as you pretended to study at night, casting looks out the pitch-black window, as if you could peer past the candlelight and all the way down to the sea.)
She was reading from an atlas.
“Sit, if you like,” she said.
Her voice was metallic at the edges, like a rusted bell, and she didn’t look up to greet him, or use any words of kindness.
He thought how strange she was, how little she knew of manners or the customs of the school.
Still, he sat beside her.
“I found this,” he said, and set the story on the open pages.
She looked at it. Then she turned a leaf; the paper vanished.
“Why did you give it to me?”
“I don’t love you,” she said. “You mustn’t think that. You’ll go mad if you do.”
She had unfastened the topmost button of her collar, as if she couldn’t breathe; he could see a sliver of shadow under the line of her dress.
“What did you think of the story?”
He thought about it.
(He had drawn the scene twice in his notebook, then burned the pages. They weren’t the sort of thing you left for others to find.)
“It seems truer than the other stories they tell you,” he said at last.
She raised an eyebrow, turned another page.
He said, “And I pitied her, for losing everything in pursuit of love.”
She looked at him, just for a moment, as if she was surprised. Her eyes were green as glass.
The pages were a map of the West Indies and the sea that surrounded them. Amidst the roiling waves, someone had drawn a ship, splintering to pieces. Sirens circled the drowning sailors, the water beneath them nearly black. Safely at the edge of the tumult slid the legend, Abyssus Abyssum Invocat.
He sucked in a breath.
She looked sad, now; he didn’t know what he had done.
“The deep calls unto the deep,” she said.
The translation wasn’t quite right—Millard and some of the other boys would have called her stupid or romantic, if they’d heard her, said it was the reason she taught geography and not Latin.
But her hair was the color of seafoam, and the lines of her profile were carved out by the last of the daylight, and the words sounded so like a prayer to her that he only nodded yes.
If he reached out a hand and held the edge of her cuff in two fingers, who else was there to see it; if they sat together until it was full dark, who was there to say?
Once, a mermaid fell in love with the prow of a ship that fell from a ship in a storm; the mermaid pushed aside the bodies of the dead as she swam, and caught it up in her arms.
It had hair like her own, blown back, and it had arms like her own flexed in fists, and a face like her own set in a mask of triumph, and from the bottom of her gown bloomed two pointed feet, one on top of the other like the suffering Christ.
Within each thing on the land, the mermaid thought, there must be such a spirit waiting to be freed, and kissed the wooden lips.
She gave her voice to the hag in the grotto; the hag gave her a knife and said, “Very well.”
She cut at her flesh until it was cleaved in two. Then she walked along the beach, the sand a hundred thousand little wounds against her feet, until she came to the first tree she saw, and sank down with weariness.
The bark came apart in her bloody hands, and beneath it she saw the grain-wood of her beloved, and she began at once to weep for joy, and to kiss its smoothness. And the tree, from her beauty and from its loneliness, bent its branches down to meet her.
But the mermaid had been careless. Day is ever the enemy of the sea, and as dawn touched the shore, the mermaid was turned into a spray of seafoam; the tree, stained with blood and tears, died of grief, still reaching out for its beloved.
The tree has been crooked ever since; I can see it from my window, as I tell you this.
The second story comes in full spring, when the trees are leafing and the birds are roosting in nests that cling to the rocks.
(She has been back often to the wall, and rested her feet on the bodies of the dead that lie under this ground that is shallow enough to push them through the grass at any moment.
His was a careful sorrow, in a careful heart, and had to be tended as carefully as a grave.
She has let a dozen papers be ripped from her hands, until it was the right story.)
The water at the foot of the cliffs is green, green as the waters of home.
Since the first story, she has seen Matthew go out walking past the shelter of the school and stand along the path that goes down to the sea, holding perfectly still in a way she can’t stop looking at.
She doesn’t know how he can do it, with the wind here the way it is.
Sometimes he frowns; sometimes he closes his eyes.
His eyes are dark, as dark as if no happiness ever reaches them. She had thought it was a sorrow of his own, before he told her he had sorrowed for a mermaid in a fairy tale.
(Some stories have been ripped from her hands against her will; some stories will never be right.)
Matthew had looked for stories a hundred times before the next one came.
He knew it was the day when her hand trembled as she held it out, her fingers resting an instant too long on the cover, as if she was thinking better of it until the very last.
As soon as they were dismissed, he turned and took the long way round to mathematics, just so he could hang back alone and read it as fast as he could, his fingers trembling.
(She never said what the mermaids looked like; for him they all had green eyes and hair the color of seafoam, their white wrists sliding in and out of the waves as they swam.)
He folded the story shut when he had finished, closed his eyes, pressed it to his chest like a talisman.
The paper carried a smell of the salted sea, and he breathed deep, felt his fingers ache as though he had torn at a tree.
He was late to mathematics; all the while the willow switch was stinging across his hands, he was looking out the window, where the tide was coming in.
He grew distracted. He watched the sea when he should have been at study; he looked at little trees until he swore he could see the branches curling in.
He kept the story folded in half inside his jacket pocket. When he was nervous, he touched his lapel until he could feel the paper pressing back.
During science, they looked at anatomies of insects and frogs and fish and birds, the skin peeled back like the skin of a fruit, everything carefully labeled.
He drew seals, bones and muscles and blubber cradling a pocket of organs. Beside them came drawings of men, the groups of muscles that powered the arms and the abdomen.
At night, he cut them each in half and set them side by side.
(Such a thing could be, he thought, if Nature was clever; he tried to determine how high the little mermaid had cleaved herself in two, before she could walk.)
Sometimes he looked out the windows of the library and said the words over and over to the glass, his lips barely moving, watching a figure in a slate-gray dress walk the narrow path that wandered too close to the sea.
But he wasn’t afraid, watching her; if the waves rose and claimed her, he would run down the rocks and dive into the sea, and seek her until he found her.
He imagined pressing his mouth to her mouth until she breathed; he thought, Abyssus Abyssum Invocat.
The atlas sits on her desk, beside her globe.
It’s safe there, of course; none of the boys see much thrill in pilfering a text.
If Matthew wants to study in the room after the others are gone, who cares enough to stay behind? Who cares enough to watch him turning pages, examining the chains of islands to be sure he can recall them?
His notebook fills up with mermaids in ink. He knows more of the true shapes of things than the men who made the maps, and his sirens have a breath of life.
They have marlin tails and seal tails; their hair spreads out across the surface of the water as they gather around the bodies of the drowned.
(He never draws the shipwrecks; the ships don’t matter, the ships are gone.)
All the mermaids have hair like seafoam; their lips are parted.
When she sees them, her hands tremble.
(She wants, for an awful moment, to reach for a knife and cut until she’s cleaved in two.)
You can’t do this, she writes in the margin. She writes, as small as she can, They were warnings; I told you, you would run mad.
The drawings are too close to life; her face is stamped on every one.
He leaves it on her desk two days later.
He’s drawn a page so thick with waves the page is nearly black. Amid the storm, a mermaid—empty and white—has embraced a sailor with dark hair.
His limbs are loose in hers; he’s stopped struggling; it’s too late.
(Outside, when she looks, he’s standing on the path to the sea, watching her window.)
She writes, This is not for you.
(The waves are too dark to write anything on; she writes it across the body of the mermaid, a tattoo that swallows up her torso, her hair, her open mouth.)
Once, a mermaid fell in love with death.
Men fell from a ship in a storm. The mermaid caught one up in her arms, pressed her hand to his screaming mouth to feel the warmth of his lips. After he stopped struggling, she swam among them all, closing their eyes with the tips of her fingers, their lids so thick that she could no longer see their eyes.
She kissed their hands; she carried each of them as far down as she dared, watched them sink into the dark water with their legs trailing like seaweed behind them and their faces sleeping, sleeping.
They carried pink halos with them, where her nails had curled into the skin and drawn blood.
The mermaid could not forget the faces of the drowned men; their faces kept sleep at bay, they drove her mad, and she knew she would find no peace until she could release all the suffering of men.
And she said, “Very well.”
She swam until her home was far behind her. She followed storms wherever they touched the water, and gathered the dead gratefully into her arms, and sent them to the depths with her salt kiss on their mouths.
When there are no storms, or when those who die have not grief enough, she swims as close to shore as she dares, and tastes the salt tears on the air, and waves all mourners welcome in the sea.
She has been searching since; I can see her beckoning me from my window, as I tell you this.
The last story is written in haste, in a schoolroom in a moment of quiet, and pressed between the pages of an atlas.
She wants to warn him, Don’t follow, don’t follow, but her hands betray her, and the story stops.
(Nothing she says will keep him away from the water, now. He has an interest in dead things, and his hair gleams like the hair of a drowned man.)
On the beach she strips down to nothing, walks into the waves.
(The tide is going out; the sea is pulling at her with every step.)
Against the rocks, the waves crash and shatter like bodies; hair like seafoam, white as bone, sharp as the water calling you home.
Don’t follow, she thinks, just before the water closes over her head.
Miss Warren’s disappearance caused a little uproar in the school.
She could not be found. There was nothing in her room to suggest she had lived there at all, save the atlas. At first there was some little scandal as if she’d eloped, but then they all remembered she was plain.
Matthew was not surprised to find her missing; he was only surprised she had gone alone.
(He had gone down to the edge of the water. One lace cuff had gotten trapped in the rocks. It lived in the pocket of his jacket, between a story that had warned him and a story that told him what had happened.)
For two days, he counted time. He did not weep. He was not afraid of little partings.
(He knew what she was; he had always liked dead things.)
On the morning of the third day, there was a storm; sheets of rain battered the windows and hid the shore from view.
He woke when it was still dark.
He wrote across the body of the sailor, Abyssus Abyssum Invocat.
He carried the book tucked close at his side, all the way down to the sea.
© 2013 by Genevieve Valentine.