Saturday, 22 January 2011
The Mermaids Revenge
In our town on the seafront, there is a statue that we always thought was called The Old Sailor. At least when I was at school, we assumed that the statue was just a symbol of the sailors of the 16th century. I don't think any of us ever thought that this was a statue of a particular man. The statue had been paid for by Miss Celia Allan a rich old woman who lived at the grand old Rectory in the centre of town. It was a large house with a larger garden, part of which was an orchard. We were very familiar with the orchard, though we never mentioned such a thing for fear of getting into trouble.
One afternoon a group of us, all in our twenties sat at a cafe on the seafront talking. J____ indicated the statue and mentioned that he looked miserable.
"He must have been on a terrible ship," he said.
"Not a terrible ship, but it had a terrible fate," a voice answered him.
We were a little in awe turning to face Miss Allan, taking tea. Now I have never been able to resist a story, especially one that involves real people. Indeed I have often wondered at the people in our town long ago who lived and moved where now I live and move. All their stories have fascinated me and the thought that they had their stories even as we have ours. So I could not help myself and my friends knew it, smiling at me as they did. We were off to university that autumn and it felt as though this was our last hurrah before leaving home.
"What terrible fate was that, Miss Allan?" I asked.
At first she did not seem as if she would tell. She fell silent and bowed her head for a moment and when she raised it her eyes seemed filled with tears. I knew then that there was such a tale as would hold me. Yet, at first I did not know what to say to apologise for her tears. I opened my mouth to speak, but she waved any apology away and said softly,
"Forgive me, my dear. The young always believe that love is their dominion, but well I thought that too once. That statue represents Captain Mortimer Speedwell of the ship Fearless. She was a fine looking ship, built along the coast at Shalemouth and my aunt loved him. Every time he returned from the sea she met him and every time he kissed her and thanked her. He called her his blessing for every time he thought how far he was from home, he would tell himself that Iris was waiting for him on the quayside. That her love would draw him home no matter what.
Now you young men will laugh no doubt, but believe you me there was once a time when the ancient sea was full of ancient things and ancient beings before the times of human beings. At the end of one voyage he came home to her a little afraid. He said that he had seen a mermaiden and she had called to him. She had named him love and sea-sweet and bid him wed her. But he had told her that he had a sweetheart waiting for him and he intended to wed her and no other.
Iris kissed him then and said that they should wed before he went back to sea. He sighed and said he would but he feared the mermaiden would be angered. Iris wondered what could be done and being a sensible young woman asked her grandmother, for they know all the old things that the young forget or dismiss. Her grandmother told her that if she sang a true song of love every twilight between day and night a mermaid might grant her a wish or three. Iris thanked her grandmother and told the good Captain not to fear.
They were married the next day and much rejoicing there was too. They were so much in love and it was so evident that all the guests recalled their own vows, those that were married. Those that were not wished they were. The following day Captain Speedwell was to go to sea again. No matter that he had been wed the day before, but that he must to sea. Iris kissed him and swore she would sing him home safely if she could.
That evening, she went down to the quayside and looked out over the dark sea. She sang of how she was wed and how much she hoped her love would come home safely. How she missed him and longed for him and how she knew he longed for her. There was a sighing breeze across the sea that lifted her hair from her shoulders and ruffled the tops of the waves. She sang until the fair moon rose up and then went away to her bed alone.
Each evening she sang on the quayside until the news of it got around. Each evening she sang and each evening the wind sighed across the sea and the waves lapped softly against the quayside but no mermaid came there. But on the third evening, the sea broke to let a head rise from it's constantly moving waves. The head of a beautiful young woman with skin as pale blue as a summer sky at morning and hair a thousand shades of greens and blues. The mermaid, for so she was, lingered until Iris had finished singing and the moon had risen. Then before Iris could say a word, the mermaid sank beneath the waves and once more the sea was full of waves and nothing more.
On the sixth evening however, the mermaid had come a lot closer to listen and in her song, Iris asked the mermaid of her pleasure to protect her love and bring him safely home to her. The mermaid said nothing at all and sank beneath the waves again, but as Iris turned to go she heard the waters break and a clear voice called her back. She turned and the mermaid asked her,
"Why should I protect your man when so many women long for their men to be safe?"
Iris said that her husband was afraid he might not see her again for he had been told to wed another but had wed her. The mermaid considered this and said that well if Iris would sing for another six nights - even if her love came home, he would be safe.
"But mind you do, for if you but miss one evening, he is as good as lost," the mermaid told her.
Iris thanked her and said she would do all in her power to be at the quay every night to sing for her. The mermaid flicked her tail and disappeared. Now I said that the news of Iris singing had got around and the reason why also. Many in our town then thought that a find romantic thing to do and would do all they could to make sure she was there every evening.
But a priest came to our town. A stern and powerful man who had no time for such trivial things as romance. Unlike the Christ he professed to believe in, there was little love in him. He was a powerfully persuasive talker too and in two days he had the town in his hands. On the third day he had heard of Iris' singing to the mermaid and vowed to prevent this superstitious nonsense. He visited my grandfather's house, though my grandfather was away and spoke fiercely to Iris. He called her a blasphemer and a rebel against his true faith. He told her that to believe in such superstitions was foolish and would lead her to Hellfire and eternal damnation.
Iris was a fierce young woman when roused and told him that she would sing as she pleased and if it meant damnation because he said so then she would 'dare damnation!' The priest was furious at this and demanded that she stop her singing or he would demand she be stopped by the town council. Iris laughed in his face and sang a song of ridicule and derision at him until he dashed out of the house in a rage.
That evening, she went down to the quayside by the cliffside walk and so avoided the priest who was waiting to stop her in the town square. All he heard was the wind murmuring through the square and the wild screams of the gulls. That evening the wind blew across the quayside and took Iris' song out over the sea where the mermaid listened clad in the lacy-crested waves. Iris told her of the priest, but the mermaid reminded her of her promise.
Iris pleaded with the mermaid but the sea-maiden was as fixed in her view as the priest was in his. Iris sighed and went home sadly for she feared the cruelty of the priest. The priest having heard nothing that night went home satisfied and vowed he would be sure of stopping her the following night too.
This time he placed six of his fervent disciples in the square but one of them remarked upon the cliffside walk and three men were sent to block that way off too. But Iris came down to the quayside by the poor fisher's cottages, for they understood her singing all too well and loved to hear her. She sang through the evening until the moon rose up and the wind whispered along the cliffside walk and through the square so that neither the priest nor his disciples heard her singing. When the moon arose Iris went home to bed but as she passed through the town she was seen by one of the priest's men. The priest was furious and the following day he and his disciples caught hold of her and locked her in the church so that she should not find her way to the quayside. She begged the men to let her free for one night - the last night of her vow to the mermaid, but the priest had so persuaded them that he was right they would not relent. She reminded them of Captain Speedwell and how their love for him was not greater than her own. Would they let him die for want of one night's song?
The laughed and mocked her using the priest's words to justify their cruelty. Then she stood up straight and told them that if they wished her as well as the Captain dead they would hold her in the church. For if her love was to die then so would she. Still they would not let her go, but she persuaded one man to go and tell her grandmother what was being done and why.
Now the day began to fall away and in the quiet afternoon the priest himself came to watch over her. He mocked her and derided her foolishness but she sat quietly, resigning herself to her death for she was sure he would not let her sing. Then he became seemingly gentle and said that she might sing for his god instead of some absurd fairytale thing. Iris remarked that a dead woman cannot sing and that if her husband died, then so would she. The priest told her severely that if she committed suicide she would burn in Hell. Iris replied that if he was for Heaven she would prefer Hell with one she loved.
The men went home for their supper but the priest ate hard bread with hard cheese and a little water. Iris would eat nothing. Just after supper, her grandmother knocked at the door of the church and demanded to speak with her grand-daughter. The priest opened the door to reject her and the poor fishers thrust him back and held him while they carried Iris down to the quayside and fed her along the way.
The sun was beginning to bleed across the sky turning the pale golden sky red. She was tired and frightened, but Iris lifted up her head, supported by the poor fishers and sang the last song required. She bid the sea be kind and the mermaidens and their mermen be gentle and bring her husband home. She told them of how some had tried to prevent her coming to sing her last song but that good friends to Love had triumphed at the last. She begged the sea to never forget her love and how she had fulfilled her vow through love of her good Captain Speedwell. She sang of his firm chin and strong brow and of his sad yet loving eyes and his kisses that she longed to taste again.
All this time the mermaiden had listened with her head tilted on one side, but when she heard the name of Iris' husband she grew wild and howled at the sky. Still Iris sang and the wind blew in off the sea drawing up the sea to the sky. It raised her hair and tore at the fishers' clothing and their hair, it growled and wailed as if it would drown out her song. Still she sang through it all and the fishers joined with her singing so that it might be heard that she had kept her vow.
Then the winds seemed to reach down into the troughs of the sea and pull it up by the crests so as to fling it against the quayside. The fishers stood firm and raised her up a little. Still they sang on together with Iris' voice clear among them all. The mermaiden shrieked as the moon arose and plunged down into the sea. Now the fishers lowered her to the ground and she thanked them for their help and swore she would do all she could to help them. The fishers wept for they were deeply moved and carried her home. The priest they took from the church and led him out of the town telling him to go and never return.
That night a storm raged and Iris only slept from sheer exhaustion. The wind howled about the house, rattled the windows in their sashes and the doors on their hinges. A savage rain beat its drops upon the town as if it would destroy every house to it's last brick and stone.
In the morning with the rising of the sun, the sky was clear and the storm had died away. The day was calm and subdued as if the world was holding its breath. That evening Iris went down to the quayside and sang. This time, the whole town turned out to join her and sang with her so that their voices went out over the waters as if calling to the Fearless and her crew. The wind died away a little and the sea lapped indifferently against the quayside. The following morning as Iris stood upon the quay, the Fearless sailed into harbour and the whole town cheered. Captain Speedwell and his goodly crew were embraced and patted on their backs. Drinks and food were brought for them and music was played. Though she was happy to have her husband back, Iris told him what had happened and begged him to stay on land with her. He, for love of her said that he would.
Five days after, he felt the sea call to him and would spend hours upon the quay looking out as the fishing boats went out to sea and the great ships like the Fearless, the Adventure and the Sea-Tiger were sail-set and un-moored for their voyages. He felt his heart torn, for he loved Iris but the sea was a part of him and he knew it. At first he pleaded with her, but she reminded him of the mermaiden and asked him if he was so quick to choose death over his own wife. But her grandmother shook her head and sighed, for she understood. She tried her best, but she could not make Iris understand.
So on the seventh day, Captain Speedwell went down to the quayside and joined the crew of the Valiant as a navigator. He had left a letter and as the Valiant sailed out of the harbour mouth, he saw with sorrow his darling wife standing on the quayside. She was calling vainly out to him with the letter he had left for her in her hand as if it were a flag of surrender. In that instant it came to him that he would never see her again. He dived overboard and swam to the pilot boat, but he never reached it. Two pale blue arms reached up and took him down into the depths of the sea never to rise again. In that very instant, Iris flung herself into the sea also. Her clothes soaked up all the sea and dragged her down also.
The town was in mourning for many years until their story seemed to be in danger of being forgotten. That was when I paid to have that statue put up. There was one on the quayside of Iris singing, but no matter what happened, it kept falling into the harbour. Eventually, I settled for just the Captain and there he stands gazing out over the sea as his darling wife once did, singing him safely home."
"We'll not forget them, Miss Allan," R____ assured her and the rest of us joined him in his assurances.
She smiled then and thanked us. We went off to university shortly after and did not meet up for years after. Then it was at the funeral of Miss Celia Allan and while her coffin was being lowered into the grave, a fisher began to sing a song of such deep longing and sadness that I wept. It was the first song that Miss Allan's aunt Iris had sung to bring her husband home.