Every evening I watch from the shore for a sign that Veronique will come to the shallows. Sometimes I wait until the night winds whip up the sand and the tide begins to ebb before I accept that she is not coming, and turn for home.
Veronique is a mermaid, one of those flighty creatures who refuse to be contained. I have learned to accept her on her own terms. At the very least, I owe her that freedom.
Today, the evening light is still bright; there is still time. She always comes on indigo waves, never when the sea is blue and the shallows clear.
I first met Veronique on the afternoon of my wedding, where she had kissed the prince’s left hand as he clasped me to him with his right. Fine-boned and elegant, with eyes deep-ocean blue, she was almost regal as she looked down at me, taking in my expensive robes and my jewellery. Veronique was exquisite, like the sculptures that lined the palace gardens, but she almost appeared too groomed, as though much effort had gone into hiding her real self. I thought briefly that I knew how she felt; that under all my finery, I was really just the heir to a bankrupt kingdom who had had the strange fortune to find a shipwrecked prince washed up on the shore.
“Nelle, this is my little foundling,” he said to me by way of introduction. I pitied her for her muteness, for her smell of salt and hot sands, so different from the perfumes I had become accustomed to drenching myself in. Much later, I learned that she had saved him from drowning in storm-tossed seas, had carried him across the ocean and laid him on the shore where I discovered him.
How frivolous she must have found me with jewelled butterflies pinned to my hair and sapphires twined about my throat.
Our wedding reception was held on his ship, under star-pinned skies. She prowled the decks, slipping through the light cast by lanterns and rockets flaring above. I heard her circling the royal marriage tent on the deck as we consummated our union, her footsteps a welcome distraction. He didn’t seem to notice my trepidation as he undressed me, or my subsequent cries of pain. As is this land’s custom, my husband had been sent to war as a child soldier, so it was never in his nature to be gentle. Still, I wondered if all new wives felt this strange hollowness, as though watching it all from a distance. How could I possibly love someone who seemed oblivious to my pain? I told myself that he loved me, that it would get better in time, that I must make the best of this. He was mercifully quick and slumped in a sweat-slicked heap after he was done. As he slept, he held me to him like a bloodied prize. I lay awake all night, listening to her footsteps up and down the deck: soft, urgent, constant.
Just before dawn she flung back the curtains. Towering over us against the red and gold sunrise, her hair wild and face furious, the graceful beauty of yesterday was gone. She raised her hand and the sight of the dagger with its meanly curved blade froze me to the spot. My husband woke and sprung towards her, grabbing her wrist as she moved the knife towards his throat. They struggled, spilling out the door onto the deck in a writhing knot. I stumbled after them to see him pin Veronique to the ship’s rails and smash her arm against it with a great crack. The knife dropped from her hand into the waves and the air filled with shouts as the crew ran toward the commotion. With his free hand, my husband motioned for them to stop. “Fall back!” he shouted. To a man, they obeyed him.
Veronique and the prince stared at one another; the waves lapped at the side of the ship and the sails flapped in the breeze. Then a strange cry broke the morning and, from the corner of my eye, I saw mermaids dive beneath the ship. Faster than he could react, Veronique ripped her arm from his grasp, grabbed his head between her hands and kissed him viciously. He cried out as she scratched his face, drawing blood. Then she flung herself over the side and disappeared under the waves.
With a flick of his wrist, my husband dismissed his anxious attendants, then walked towards me and slapped my face with the back of his hand.
Later he bathed my cheek where his heavy rings had cut my flesh and begged my forgiveness, promising that it would not happen again, that this was not his way. I knew he had seen terrible things as a child-commander at war, that brutality was forced on him in the same way the marriage was forced on me.
Because I wanted to believe in him, I did. As time passed, I kept believingagain, and again, and again.
As we sailed the northern seas on our honeymoon, the crew were restless, whispering to one another as I walked by. I saw swift, dark shapes trailing our wake. One night, two weeks after she had dived overboard, my suspicions were confirmed when Veronique began to sing, her voice keening across the ocean, a song of warning. It was a desolate, angry sound, beautiful and terrible. She sang every night after that, never the same song twice. Although I couldn’t account for her singing when I knew that she was unable to speak, I felt sure it was her. The prince refused to believe me, claimed that it was the cries of seabirds and nothing more. “That useless article is mute!” he laughed.
But the men were still nervous. They had crossed the oceans long enough to know that there was truth in the tales of sailors being called to their deaths by sirens and mermaids. Although the prince dismissed the notion that she was following us, I knew that he had given the crew orders to harpoon her on sight.
My curiosity was stronger than the fear that she may hurt me. She was fearlessly crossing the ocean in pursuit of a powerful prince who had not only rejected her but wanted her dead. How did it feel to menace him like that?
An attendant named Belsari, with leathered skin and wise eyes, had been assigned to me at my request, as he was older and, I was sure, no-one’s fool. One evening as I sat at the bow of the ship, watching for the flash of her fins, or the streaming of her hair beneath the surface, he appeared beside me with my evening brandy. We watched the ghostly green of the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. The moon silvered the still ocean and capped the thick blue icebergs as they creaked and groaned. I jumped when she began singing again, the sound unsettling me.
“I thought she was mute,” I said, turning to Belsari.
“If I may be so bold, madam, that was only so long as she still craved a human soul.”
“What makes you so sure?”
He laughed quietly. “I have seen a lot of things in my years, madam, and I know a little of love. And of mermaids, for that matter.”
The song seemed to weave itself with the ocean, a liquid sound that was timeless and soothing.
Belsari spoke again in a cautious tone. “Have you noticed that now she sings of healing? She sees how he treats you.” His eyes reflected the sky and I felt insignificant and suspicious.
“What makes you say such things?” I asked. Our marriage was complicated, I thought. It wasn’t that he set out to deliberately hate. Rather, he did not know how to love.
“She confides in me, madam, and she wishes you to know that she is following you.”
I shook my head at such nonsense and turned to leave, but he gently placed his hand over mine, tilted his head back and sang, an ululating song unlike any human voice. It stilled everything around us.
An answering call came back from the iceberg nearest to the ship and that is where I saw her, laying across a crag at its base and dwarfed by its bulk. Her dark hair was tangled with shells and starfish, reaching to her waist. Green, black and silver scales covered her tail: around her waist hung a rope of coral and pearl, and resting at her hip was the dagger I had seen disappear beneath the waves only these weeks past. She looked at us and smiled, then dived back into the freezing waters. For the first time since my wedding night, I felt joyful.
Belsari was right, her songs were healing ones. When I was bruised, I healed more quickly and her song seemed to settle itself gently over my skin. I felt less alone; there were more bright points in my days. I waited every night to hear her sing and she never failed me. So as we docked in our home port and Belsari told me that she needed my help, I did not hesitate.
A few days later, I went to the seashore to meet her. If my husband found it odd that I should want to visit the ocean so soon after our voyage, he said nothing. Perhaps it was the fresh scars on my back or my bruised thighs that kept him silent.
With Belsari at my side, we reached the rocky cove that was to be our meeting place. The tide was low, exposing the rocks that were slick with green moss. I took off my shoes and made my way around the headland, above the tide mark, the waves crashing below me and spraying me with salt. She was waiting for me at the very tip of the headland, where she couldn’t be seen from the shore. I was surprised that she was on land, her legs stretched out before her as she sat on a large outcrop as though it were a throne, wearing a cape made of seaweed and the white foam that licks the sand’s edge.
I asked Belsari to stay put, then walked over and sat beside her. She said nothing at first, only stared out to the endless sea beyond the breakers.
“You are far from home,” I began.
She nodded. “As are you,” she replied, turning to face me. Her hair hung in dark ropes dotted with blue periwinkles down her back and her eyes stared into mine as though she was trying to find something of my true self behind them. She took my breath away.
“I thank you for coming to meet me. I know that you take a great personal risk in coming here.” Her eyes flicked to the scar above my eyebrow, then away again. “But I don’t ask for your help for free, princess. I will pay you.”
How could I explain that it was I who owed her, that just by following the ship and singing out to me across the waters I was, in some ways, whole again. “I have no need of money – ”
She cut me off with a laugh like a seal’s bark. “It’s not money or trinkets that I offer. If you agree to help me, in return I will keep you safe from…your husband.” The last word was spat out aggressively and I knew, had seen on the ship, that she also had a brutal side. It had made me wary, and I had spoken of it to Belsari and remembered his words:“She is not savage like he is, madam. Never in anger or power, only in revenge or retribution. It is a different kind of physicality.”
I looked up at her and shook my head. “I don’t think it’s possible to keep me safe. But there is something I would like…would you meet me each week and sing for me?” I was sure it would have seemed like a small thing to her. But she smiled and held my hand in hers, her flesh cold against mine.
“May I ask – how is it that you have legs on land but your mermaid tail in the sea?”
“A long time ago I bargained with a Sea-Witch to be able to walk on land. She gave me a spell to coax out the more human part of myself that hides when I am in the ocean. That is the part that lets me walk, but there is a price, of course. Every step I take, I feel as though I am walking on the sharpened blades of knives.”
I shivered at the thought – at least my pain healed in time. “What is it that you need my help with?” I asked.
“I need you to retrieve something from the palace for me. It is a little bottle filled with sea water and holding a miniature garden in it – flame-red flowers, a statue of a small boy …”
“Why do you need it?” I managed, although my mouth and throat were dry. I knew the particular bottle she spoke of and my stomach twisted into knots. It sat in a locked glass case in my husband’s bedchamber and the key to the glass case he kept on a chain around his neck.
“My father’s palace is well hidden, enchanted to keep out intruders. Long ago I gave the prince that bottle to keep it safe, for it holds my precious piece of home and without it, I can’t find my way back there again,” she replied.
I nodded, even though I knew that once she had the bottle, she would leave and there would be no more songs. I wanted her to be happy. And I knew – better than anyone – that she could never be happy while she was still at his mercy. One of us, at least, would be free.
For reasons that I could not fathom, the beatings from my husband stopped and life at the palace over the next month was remarkably calm. He presented himself as kind and loving, occasionally dropping a kiss on my shoulder or taking my hand to walk with me through the gardens. I didn’t dare ask about the glass cabinet for fear of arousing suspicion or another beating. Only he knew the rules to his cruel game. I still let myself believe that things would get better. I still wanted to try to love him, instead of nurturing the kernels of pity and hatred inside me.
As the days grew longer, each week I would meet Veronique at a different shore. On my way there, I constantly turned to look behind me, fraught with nerves and convinced that my husband would be there, ready to strike. There was no doubt that he would execute me for treason if he found me with her.
But I needed her songs to survive – just as on my honeymoon they had sustained me through his violence, now they comforted me in my loneliness. I would be empty without her. When we met, we would talk and swim in calm seas, or walk along the beach. Then, before we parted, she would sing.
She sang for me at dusk when thunder-filled clouds rolled in from the horizon: under a crescent moon whose light pocked the ocean and caught on her scales: in coves sparkling in spring sunlight as gulls wheeled over the cliffs. Through the shallows and the deep, she sang me back to life.
Not once did she ask about the bottle, though I knew she must think of it constantly. I certainly did, and as much as I wanted to give her what she needed, I couldn’t help being relieved when the key to the cabinet remained on the chain around my husband’s neck.
On the first warm night of summer, Belsari came to fetch me as I prepared for bed, to tell me that the prince demanded my presence in his bedchamber.
I cast my eyes down as I approached him, laying in his bed, and felt him watching me as I undressed and climbed in beside him. He stroked my face awkwardly and smoothed my hair away from my forehead before I lay back on the pillows. He kissed my throat and my breasts. I tried to respond, but there was too much, already, in our past to ever let me trust him so intimately. Memories of him striking me with his fists, of the pain of his kicks to my back, of split lips and broken fingers assaulted me, and I froze. He abruptly stopped his caresses, then rolled me onto my stomach so he would not have to look at my face. It was over quickly, a perfunctory exercise of a husband’s right to his wife’s body. I lay still and quiet, feeling neither arousal nor too much pain. I had trained myself to feel nothing at all.
The next morning I awoke alone, with the sun shining through the windows and onto the gold chain lying on the table by the bed. Onto the little key that hung from the chain.
Though the day was warm, I shivered and my skin was like gooseflesh. Was this a trick? Did he know, was he waiting to spring out if I picked up the key?
But I had made a promise to Veronique. I couldn’t bear the thought of her wandering forever. I had to at least try.
I reached down for my nightdress, slipped it on, then crawled slowly across the bed. Trembling, I picked up the chain, then stopped and listened for footsteps. Nothing.
The cabinet, it seemed, was waiting for me. With a deep breath, I tiptoed over to it. With shaking hands, I turned the key in the lock. A soft snick of metal, then the door opened. I paused, looked at the curiosities inside. This, I knew, was the last moment to turn back.
The bottle was cool to the touch and I picked it up gently, held it to my chest. For just a moment, I thought about smashing it to the floor or throwing it in the river that ran through the palace grounds. Then I closed my hands tightly around it, locked the door and lay the chain back in its place.
With fear coursing through me, I returned as quickly as I could to my own chamber, then summoned Belsari.
He and I agreed that I should leave the palace as soon as I could, although I insisted that he stay behind. If I was found out, I would not have him implicated in this. Belsari’s eyes shone with tears as he told me to return safely and I embraced him as a brother.
It was after midday when I arrived at the shore. It was a rocky, deserted coastline which was known as a ship’s graveyard. Many said it was cursed and kept away from it, which made it that much safer for us.
On a short stretch of beach between the rocks, in the shadow of an old fishing shack, Veronique and I met again. She sighed as I handed her the bottle and I knew that if mermaids had tears, she would have cried.
“My father’s palace,” she began, “is made of coral and pearl, with a roof of shells that open and close with the currents. Fish swim through its rooms and take refuge there from the sharks. It is the only home I have ever known, but I left it willingly in search of an immortal soul.”
The wind blew along the cliffs and joined with the cries of the gulls. It sounded a little like Veronique’s sadder songs.
“I watched what he did to you, Nelle, I see how you have suffered. I think that humans, with their souls and their riches and their power are more terrible than any other creature. Even those that end life as sea-foam, to be washed about on the tides. Like me.”
“It won’t always be like this for me…”
“You shouldn’t be suffering like this. I want you to be protected from him. Will you trust me?”
I nodded, knowing there was no-one in the world I trusted more, but also doubting that there was anything anyone could do for me. Still, if it made him even a little more bearable, maybe we could find a small happiness together.
She led me along the sand to the rocks, where we picked our way over rock pools and shale mounds, through a tunnel hollowed out by the waves. On the other side, the deep water was so clear that I could see the outline of the wrecked ships, grown over with barnacles and weeds.
“Out past the wrecks, in a forest of polypi and kelp, waits the Sea-Witch,” she said.
Veronique had spoken of the witch in the past and I imagined the snails crawling across her lap and sea-snakes dancing through her hair, while she sat on a throne of the bones of dead sailors and the mermaids who loved them.
She shed her seaweed cloak and motioned for me to do the same with my outer clothes. I dived in after her and swum along the surface after her, the sun flashing off her tail as she navigated through the skeletal wrecks. At the outskirts of the ship graveyard, a mast with a crow’s nest, smooth as driftwood, broke the surface. I climbed onto the rickety platform and watched as she dived out of sight among the kelp that danced with the tide. The sun beat down and I thought that, surely I would have been missed by now. I didn’t dare think about what awaited me when I returned, but I could not contemplate leaving my marriage, for he would hunt me down. As the minutes ticked by, marked by trade ships scudding along the horizon and the call of far-off seabirds, I felt sick with the fear that Veronique had left me here.
The sun was beginning to burn my skin when she finally broke the surface and swam towards me, the Sea-Witch by her side. The witch was monstrously large, with ligature marks around her neck and strings of tiny skulls ringing her wrists. I couldn’t see how she swam, only that she was surrounded by a vast pool of squid-ink darkness.
They drew closer. “Your hair!” I cried. Veronique’s thick, waist-length hair, knotted with its starfish and shell adornments, had been roughly sheared off.
She ran her hand over her scalp and smiled. “It will grow back.”
“Your mermaid tells me you are seeking safety.” The witch’s voice was watery and full, a dozen sirens speaking in unison from one mouth. “I see the past and the future and the beyond; I see this is a fair boon to grant you. We have bargained for it, but I will need a drop or two of your blood to seal it.”
Veronique almost looked ashamed at the witch’s demand.
I simply held out my hand, palm up. She grasped it in her right hand and pulled out a rough knife with her left. Trembling slightly, she drew the blade across my skin, the salt on it stinging the wound. She collected the blood in a small, empty conch shell, which she then popped into her mouth.
From the inky shadows that surrounded her, the Sea-Witch pulled an old bottle filled with black light that glittered like stars. She uncorked it, drank and the darkness stormed across her skin. Veronique was next, then me – it tasted hot and sweet and a little like blood. I needed to close my eyes to swallow it and, when I opened them, the witch was gone and Veronique motioned for me to follow her back to shore.
I was exhausted by the time we reached the rocks again, although the witch’s draught had changed me. The fear that usually shook deep inside me was gone.
Standing on the rocks on two legs again, Veronique pulled me from the water. I put my arms around her, and she leaned forward and kissed me. She tasted of the sea; she tasted of the truth. I love her – the thought lit me within. All the things that I could never feel for the prince, I felt for her. I was aware of her naked back under my hands and her hands on my waist. For me, this was a new world, unchartered lands, and I knew there was no going back.
We broke apart, dressed, then walked, hand in hand, towards the beach. I tried not to think about the pain she suffered with each step. As we reached the fisherman’s shack, I noticed that her knife was missing.
“The Sea-Witch took a fancy to it,” was all that she would say.
Inside the shack there were old fishing nets, rusting pans on a wood-stove and a rickety bed. For that night that we spent together, the whole world was contained inside those walls: a world that was the size of two hearts and just as infinitely vast.
I was jolted awake the next morning: had I dreamed a shout or a cry? Veronique was not beside me and the door of the shack was open. I rose and dressed quickly, then walked outside.
The cry that came from me as I stood on the beach did not sound human. It didn’t feel human, it didn’t feel real. There on the high-tide line lay Veronique, face down and unmoving. I ran toward her and dropped to my knees, screaming again when I saw a knife – far grander than any she had ever carried – buried to the hilt in the base of her spine. Sobbing, I pressed my face to the back of her neck, still warm in the morning sun. I stroked her skin and whispered to her to wake up, wake up.
Behind me, a soft and cruel laugh broke the morning. I didn’t need to turn around to know to whom that laugh belonged.
“Am I stupid, Nelle?” my husband asked, dragging me to my feet by my hair. “No, I think you know I’m not. But you are, dear wife, you are by far the most stupid woman I have ever met. All this time, I have known that you’ve been meeting her. I have waited and bided my time and you fell into my trap like the fool that you are.”
He pushed me away from Veronique. “Walk!”
So used to following his commands, I walked, crying and almost unable to catch my breath. He had chipped away parts of me since our wedding, had taken me away from myself and I was almost numb to it, had separated myself from the awful reality of my marriage. But now he had taken Veronique from me and I couldn’t be numb to that. Through my grief, rage boiled up inside me as I stumbled along the waterline with him at my back, not feeling the sun or the waves across my feet. All the way he spoke low and deliberately about the fate the awaited me when we returned to the palace. About how I would be lucky to survive it. But he no longer terrified me. I was no longer the person I used to be. I was not my own, anymore; I was not his either.
The sun glinted off an object as it washed in on the tide, just ahead of me. Something part verdigris, part shiny-gold, with ocean-opals set in it. Veronique’s dagger. My mind raced and I thought about the bargain she had made to ensure my safety. About the Sea-Witch and her promise of safety.
My husband whistled a soft dirge. Walking close behind me, he breathed his song upon my neck. I pretended to stumble and fall, closing my hand around the dagger. As he leant down to lift me up, I turned. Savage and relentless, I stabbed him through the heart. He didn’t even have time to cry out – his death was silent and ignominious. The sea-foam turned crimson with his blood as I ran back to Veronique.
The tide had begun to rise and the waves were starting to wash over her legs. I washed his blood from my hands in the salt water before I touched her. I ran my hand over her back and kissed her cheek and told her that I loved her. I would sit with her until she turned to sea foam and washed away from me. But as the water sluiced across her legs, her skin transformed into silvery green scales and her feet became the feathery tail-fins that I had seen so often disappearing under the waves. The scales were just patches at first, hard and glimmering against her soft flesh. With each wave, her body became more mermaid than human, her tail sparkling as though it had been scattered with diamonds.
Even though everything told me that it was useless, I dug my hands under her arms and pulled her out into deeper water. Laying her across my chest, I swum out further and further and I felt her sigh. She began to move her tail, slowly at first, then with a more urgent flicking.
Then she opened her eyes and took a deep breath as though it was her first, then leaned forward to kiss away my tears. I pointed to the body that lay on the shore and her smile faded. My Veronique, though, is nothing if not resourceful, and told me that it is hard to prove a murder if no corpse can be found. Even a prince’s.
So as I turned the bloodied sand until the beach was clean again, Veronique took his body far, far out to sea, where it would feed the fish and leave only bones with which the Sea-Witch would build a new throne.
Belsari is still my most trusted adviser. He waits with me sometimes on the shore and doesn’t seem to mind that he must wade into the water to see Veronique, who will never walk on land again. The prince’s knife saw to that, but the spells of the Sea-Witch saw to it that I was not the only one who was protected.
I am beginning to think that she will not come tonight. Then – there! See how the water turns to indigo and there is a silver flash far out to sea? She swims towards the shore and I dive through the waves to meet her in the darkening shallows.