The Mermaid's Tale

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Ship-Shape and Bristol Fashion


Something else you ought to know.

When you cry in sea you don’t know where your tears begin. How can you? Everything’s salty, everything’s wet. All you know is that lump in your throat. It may be a long time ago that you felt it but you absolutely remember it. And now you just want to cut it out.

The Mermaid darted about in the cave, returning with farewell gifts for Akua - gifts that Akua kept dashing on the seabed. She grew more and more angry.

“I will return to the land,” she said in anger, “ and I hope I forget you.”

The Mermaid thrashed about, desperate to find something to make Akua feel better.

Akua was very confused. Why did The Mermaid want her to leave? Worse still, why did she want her get back on board a ship.? Surely The Mermaid knew only too well that Akua had been on board one before and did not much like it. Why did Akua want to ever return to land without The Mermaid and what in the name of Poseidon was a pirate?

Then The Mermaid found a wooden chest. She took a pebble and smashed open the lid. The treasure inside would surely have induced fainting in humans but to the mermaid the contents meant nothing. She knew what she was looking for. Something special. She dug deep as Akua stamped and pleaded and bargained. At last she found what she was looking for and swam back to Akua. She opened her palm.

“This is so you remember how you and I felt on this day” - and there in her hand was a very small tourmaline stone pierced through with a single hole. A black heart, Akua gasped. She hadn’t set eyes on anything so magnificent since she first saw The Mermaid. Akua had always had a ring of gold in her nose and in her navel. She never knew why, they had always been there. And. now allowing The Mermaid to break the seal on the ring she wore in the flesh of her belly button, she snapped the gemstone into place. Gazing at it for a while, The Mermaid took Akua by the hand and led her to another cave.

Lobsters filled the mouth of this other cave - a sure sign of an octopus. Akua was afraid but hungry and thought lobster quite a good idea. But The Mermaid wasn’t interested in food. Instead she found a large metal plate and banged it loudly on the outcrops. The octopus started making some very frightening noises and then there was a gush of black and Akua was blind. The ink was so thick that Akua thought she was going to stop breathing.

When she could see again, The Mermaid had in one hand a large crayfish and in the other a bottle of murky liquid. She knew how to ensure Akua never forgot her, and as she was still in the sea, she wasn’t breaking any rules.

They went back to the treasure cave and there The Mermaid sat in Akua’s lap and asked her to stay very still, no matter how much it might hurt.

“What do you mean? Hurt?”

But before Akua could protest any further, The Mermaid grabbed her tightly by the arm. She had to wrap her tail around Akua to keep her still enough whilst she took the crayfish and dipped one of its claws into the bottle. Holding Akua’s arm still she started to draw with the octopus ink on Akua’s upper arm. And as The Mermaid kissed away the blood left by each stroke, Akua made out the picture being conjured on her skin. It was a painting of the mermaid. Starting at her shoulder curling down to her elbow. And a pretty good likeness too - the scales on her tail, eyes that were now the colour of the sea at night. All there in perfect inky miniature. This made Akua very, very happy. Akua looked at the mermaid with guilt and then bowed her head.

“I am sorry I said I wanted to forget you.”

“Well, now you will not.” The Mermaid looked determined. “Now, she said. “We must find you some clothes.”

Swimming back and forth, The Mermaid found boots from Lombardy in Italy and fine Egyptian cotton tunics, plus sets of breeches cut from Manchester cloth. Akua put them on and took them off, still crestfallen but brightening at the thought of new clothes. Akua found a hat of English felt with three corners lined with Indian silk and put it on her head. The Mermaid smiled and swam toward Akua with a coat tailored with French buttons and black Broderie-Anglais finished with wide cuffs finally a waistcoat from France – and finally, from the land above their heads in Spain, a short-sheathed sword, broad, strong and slightly curved. Akua held out her arms to the side. The Mermaid nodded approval.

“We must teach you how to sail,” said The Mermaid, pointing to the book bag. “We will need those.”

Akua slung the books over her shoulder, and then, hand in hand, they swam back to the ship wreck.

When they arrived The Mermaid pulled the bag from Akua’s arms and tossed the books onto the sandy floor. The mermaid then tore pages out and laid them flat on the sea bed, securing them with stones and coral. She knelt with her tail wound up like a glass vase, her arms outstretched, counting the order of the pages. She looked at the shipwreck through a little circle she made by touching her fingers to her thumb as if looking down the lens of an invisible telescope, then glanced back at the map.

Akua paced, This looked a bit like being at school and they had finished being at school very long ago.

“You are supposed to be standing there,” said The Mermaid, waving with a little irritation at Akua.

“Where?” said Akua, looking at the spiky bits of wood sticking up through the sea-bed and not being impressed by the broken barnacle covered mast.

“By the wheel stand.”

“There is no wheel stand.” Akua pointed to the space where she thought the mermaid might suggest there ought be a wheel stand.

“ No, look…” The Mermaid held up a picture. “See. This is a picture of the ship we are standing on - well, in - and look, that’s the helm… so this must be where the wheel stand should be”.

“So what do I do?”

“You must turn the wheel to the right to steer a ship left and turn a wheel left steer a ship right.”

“What? That does not even make any sense,” Akua was annoyed, then gave up completely. “I do not want to do this, I do not want to leave you, anyway.”

The Mermaid was exasperated and swam up to where Akua was standing.

“You have to learn to sail, else you can not be a captain. And they are the ones to be buried at sea.”

The Mermaid swam around the wreck to find out if the wheel had snapped off and was lying somewhere else.

She beckoned Akua over. “Look what I have found”.

Akua stepped off what she supposed was the helm and swam towards the elated Mermaid.

“Oh, the wheel.” Akua was less than enthusiastic, but nevertheless she allowed her hands to join the mermaid’s as they pulled the wheel free from strangling seaweed.

The mermaid was very excited with the find. “Look! We can pretend, and when you see land, shout out ‘Land Ahoy!’”

They took it back to the non-existent helm and Akua could not be bad-tempered for long. She loved make-believe and surrendered to the enjoyment for hours and hours, wheeling this way and that, Akua started feeling the part keenly, and before she knew it was shouting orders to her solitary crew. They played like the children they were when they met.

The Mermaid was floating behind Akua, steadying her hand as if steering a real ship. They imagined that one day they would sail together somewhere, or that they would both have fins or both have legs.

Akua had her hand up to her brow as if scouting for imaginary land. “I have found a place, oh sorry, ahem… land ahoy!”

The mermaid swam to where the mid deck should have been and unfurled an invisible mid-sail.

“No, no not the mid-sail, you insolent shrimp!” shouted Akua. “The main sail, hoist the main sail!”

“Are you supposed to speak to your crew like that?”

“Well, that’s how captains speak in your book.”

The Mermaid swam to where she thought the mainsail should be. Akua seemed to remember where she was and what she was doing and the reason she was doing it flooded back. This was not a game, it was a lesson, and she sat down, dejected.

“This is not like the real thing, besides I do not even want to do the real thing. Are you sure I cannot just stay here with you?”

The Mermaid could tell that Akua felt too sad to keep playing, and decided that enough was enough.

“When will I have to leave?” said Akua.

“Soon. We may as well make it sooner than later. The longer we leave it, the longer it will take for us to say goodbye and then maybe you will never want to go.”

Akua nodded, then she rose to her full height and gave a little turn in her new clothes.

Akua stared up as far as she could see. A ceiling of blue stared back, and although she was quite, quite she found her voice.

’ Have I learned all I need, do you think?”

“You have, Akua.” The Mermaid folded her arms.

“So my fish girl, will I do?”

The Mermaid swam to Akua’s side so she could be sure she would be close enough to kiss her, and touching the little heart-shaped stone she answered Akua.

“Yes my Captain Blackheart, you will do very well.”

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