The sea was black, cold, and seemingly infinite. Though conscious of my environment, I had been rendered senseless and made no attempt to breach the surface. Even as the darkness pulled me under, I offered no resistance and slowly succumbed to a death-like sleep.
After lingering in a state of unconsciousness for an indeterminate length of time, I awoke with a spastic jerk. Rolling to my side, I coughed and heaved until every last drop of seawater was purged from my body. Choking, gasping, I struggled for air and blindly reached for some surface to clutch and regain my composure. The silence was oppressive and neither wind nor rain nor thunder reached this place. Lifting myself to my feet, I leaned against the rightward wall and waved blindly ahead with my left hand as I stumbled onward across the barnacle-encrusted floor.
Despite their neglect, I did what any imperilled child would do and instinctively called out for my parents. When my voice echoed back, it brought with it a realisation. Though I had little notion of how I arrived, it was nonetheless evident that I had become trapped within one of the many sea caves that dotted the lower cliffs. With this knowledge, escape became conceivable and emboldened my steps. Alas, hope is a fleeting, flickering thing, and mine was extinguished the moment I felt the undeniable tactile sensation of flesh upon flesh.
I tried to scream, not that any would hear it, only to find my voice muffled by a slick hand. Never before had I known such fear, such sheer and bloody consternation. I kicked and thrashed about until the stranger sang softly in my ear and lulled me into a state of limp surrender. As my head rolled back, I beheld a pair of luminescent eyes – spiralling radials of gold, stippled by flecks of azure and encircled by pitch. These eyes, gleaming with intelligence, gazed deep into my own before blinking through two distinct sets of eyelids.
Wrestling with the unnatural calm, I eventually slipped free of my captor’s grasp. In desperation, I crawled into the miry darkness but found egress barred by solid rock in every direction. Trembling, I reluctantly turned to face my pursuer and was granted my first full and unobstructed view of the creature.
The entity’s skin bore streaks of luminescent colours, forming beautiful patterns and bathing the cavern in a pale, spectral glow, without which I would be blind. It was not as large as I anticipated, only eclipsing my petite frame by virtue of its serpentine lower-half. Long, supple arms hung listlessly to its sides, ending in broad palmed hands with spindly webbed-fingers. A pair of appendages whip-like extended from the waist down, appearing to aid in balance and stability when on land.
An osseous crest spread from its brow to the top of its skull where it separated into six sharp points, beyond which hung a gorgonic mane of luminescent tendrils which coiled and writhed as if by their own volition. It continued to stare in my direction, its grey lips parting to expose rows of shark-like teeth. This creature was not the unimaginative merger of fish and woman of folklore, nor the crudely stitched together chimaera from some huckster’s exhibition. These traits were seamless, revealing a singular species greater than the simple sum of its parts.
Strangely, it was not its monstrous aspect that astonished me most. As a suffererer of chronic nightmares, I already expected something bestial but instead, the creature bore a visage of youthful femininity. My “captor”, in truth my savior, was a girl, like myself, but from a world utterly alien to the one I thought I knew.
She immediately reminded me of the merrows – the sea-folk of Celtic legend. Among my family’s servants was the widow Ms. Kelly, who, acting as a surrogate to my mother, regaled me with tales of these and other fantastic beings at bedtime. Even as a child, I never imagined them to be more than fairy-tales and make-believe. In retrospect, it was a trifling resemblance but “merrow” would remain my preferred nomenclature for the species. Every culture with an affinity for the sea had tales of mythic species bearing these singular traits – sirens and finfolk, naga and lamia, and a full bestiary of others – and the very reason as to why was right before my eyes.
Through the sidewinding slither of her serpentine body, the merrow came nearer. Uncertain of her intentions and paralyzed with fright, I dared not even breathe. At various times she would retreat, disappearing as she dimmed her light-bearing flesh. After several minutes of this game, the merrow lunged and wrapped herself around me. She proceeded to open her mouth, widening until the jaws parted far beyond its lips and eventually separated from ear to ear. Slowly, deliberately, she clasped my neck between her teeth. I remained perfectly still; too afraid to scream, I merely whimpered. The ordeal lasted only a few seconds before she pulled away and returned her mouth to its resting size and shape. It had been a surprisingly gentle display and failed to puncture the skin.
It made little sense to me at the time but I would later understand the meaning: “I could devour you, but I choose not to.”
I occasionally wonder if the human smile or kiss originated to express a similar intent or lack thereof.
Like a sprightly child on her first playdate, she took my hand into hers and dragged me off. At first I faltered, for though her light allowed me to see her, I was otherwise oblivious to my surroundings. Though she had the strength to take me by force, the merrow instead showed patience, even empathy, and slowed her pace in response to my frequent stumbling.
We would eventually arrive at the edge of a briny pool, where she slithered into the water and waited half-submerged, her luminescent eyes watching me expectantly. My mind raced, leaving me dizzy and dumb but still clever enough to observe my environment, from which I deduced that there would be no possibility of escape once I entered. After untangling my thoughts, I further recognized that the merrow had many opportunities to kill – and that if she intended my demise, then she would have already seen it through.
Freed from trepidation, I silently agreed to her invitation and lowered myself into the pool.
The merrow looked at me and smiled and I tensely smiled back. Unable to contain my anxiety, I fell into a fit of nervous laughter. My pathetic noises seemed only to delight the merrow, who gaily slapped the surface of the water. I pointed to myself and told the merrow my name, distinctly enunciating each syllable. She tilted her head, seemingly perplexed. How strange my sounds must have been.
She lay both hands upon her chest, closed her eyes, and sang the aria of her true name. The harmony called forth visions – whole experiences – all closer to reality than any dream. I imagined myself floating through the murky shallows of mangroves and among coral gardens in unknown tropics. I tasted blood in the water as ancient reptilian instincts awakened, if but only for a moment.
It is a name beyond the human tongue, something no system of writing could ever truly convey. In later years, I would endeavour to transcribe her song, merely to create something so shameful, so utterly profane, that I had no choice but to consign it to the flames.
I would instead call her Muirgein, meaning “sea-born”. According to legend, it was the Christened name bestowed by St. Comgall to the mermaid Lí Ban as part of her baptism. Though it ended with the mermaid’s death and ascension to heaven, it was her aquatic adaptations and angelic voice that stuck with me most.
It was a flawed, all too human name for such a magnificent being but alas, it would have to suffice. Simply lingering on the memory of her true name excites my mind with the anguished longing of a dipsomaniac for the bottle. I sweat and shudder even now, failing to hold it back. If you heard what I have heard, you would feel the same.
I let go of the edge and drifted towards Muirgein and into the pool’s centre. I remember the curious manner in which her grey lips curled – almost mischievous. She would again take my hand, drawing me so close before plunging us both beneath the water. Perhaps it was the influence of her voice but I heedlessly capitulated to her whims.
Muirgein was, in what should come as no surprise, a phenomenal swimmer, and I had not yet even begun to struggle for air when we breached the surface. The sky was a welcome sight, tumultuous as its darkened clouds were, and what I now knew to be the light of her kin still filled the sea. She took me to the shore, where we would spend the rest of the night at play.
The language barrier – and the barriers of culture and species – were minor obstacles to our amusement. We swam, gathered shells and driftwood, and built small palaces from stone and sand. At dawn, we parted; I waved goodbye, and she mimicked my actions, though I cannot know whether or not she understood. I hurried home, washed the salt from my skin, and returned to bed mere minutes before the grandfather clock struck and rang the sixth hour. Exhausted, I feigned illness to catch up on sleep lost to last night’s escapades.
Muirgein abhorred the daylight, a trait emblematic of her species, and so we came together exclusively under the cover of darkness. The storm had passed and the moon was waning gibbous, leaving me less reliant on my companion’s nocturnal vision.
One particular night stands out among my memories. I had led Muirgein, who swam in the water parallel to me, along a lowland peninsula and to the old lighthouse. It was hardly the Pharos of Alexandria, but it was one of the few artificial structures to ever really call to me and I wished to share it with her. Once we arrived at our destination, she climbed up the rocks to join me, employing all five of her appendages with hypnotic grace.
The lighthouse was different from how I remembered it. The keeper had boarded its windows and wooden stakes formed a palisade around the tower’s base. Though undoubtedly raised for defensive purposes, my young mind failed to connect the enclosure to the merrows’ arrival. Inside the lighthouse, a man recited a litany of prayers.
A mournful dirge echoed from across the bay and drew my attention back to the sea. It was the song of a great whale that had been lured into shallow water, stranding and bloodying itself upon a reef. Merrows swarmed the trapped leviathan, and though the finer details were beyond my sight, predator and prey alike glistened crimson beneath the moonlight. I have heard that whales are notoriously difficult to fell, and knowing this, I can say that the beast’s lamentations were mercifully short-lived. These pelagic hunters were, if anything, efficient killers.
The wild hunt was terrible to behold and though I pitied the beast, I could not avert my gaze. I had to see this – I had to understand – that there was no evil, no cruelty in the hunt. This was the way of all living things.
I learned this lesson well.
Unfortunately, these nights of joy and adventure could not last. Although I dreaded my family’s return to the city, it would be the merrows who were first to depart. I waited by the shore, gazing at a sea of stars, but Muirgein never came. One by one, the lights disappeared, and I was left alone to wonder if it had all been a dream.
It would be years before I saw her again.