In my twelfth year, our household was joined by a governess, Ms. Bradshaw, who would tutor me on subjects deemed crucial to a child of my class and gender. Beyond some elementary mathematics, there was no place for the sciences in my curriculum; for that, I would be forced to self-educate. No, I would instead learn etiquette, social grace, and the banal rites of polite society.
I despised these lessons, and every new rule and ritual – the manners of self-control; awareness of social position; which fork was reserved for dessert – were designed to erode my identity until nothing remained but an elegant husk. Aimless days blurred together to resemble the grey monotony of Purgatory. I was dead, a ghost and her walking corpse, awaiting the chance to live again.
Bound by familial expectations, our aestival retreat no longer afforded me the same respite it had before. It was not ‘ladylike’ to explore the coast, its sea caves and tidal pools – those rare places that soothed my fragile constitution and lulled melancholy to a tolerable repose. Ms. Bradshaw paid close attention to my activities; like Father’s stalking valet, she had become my shadow, and I was forbidden from venturing beyond the estate unchaperoned. It was impossible to live as I truly desired; nay, not merely desired, but in a manner essential to my being.
My family endeavoured to break me of my habits – to destroy me, and shape the remnant pieces into their ideal daughter. If they wished to fashion me into their dreamless doll, I would rather be like an effigy and burn.
Even with my mind lost in the fog of despair, there was no escape from the spring-tide of life. Adolescence, no doubt an exciting phase for many, only served to amplify my frustrations. Mother had finally begun to take notice of me. Some souls, desperate for recognition, will not discriminate between love or animosity.
I immediately wished for the return of her characteristic neglect.
Mother descended from nobility – a fallen house – and married Father in a bid to retain her lavish lifestyle. Inheriting the malignant pride of her ancestors, she turned her nose up at him and other members of the nouveau riche. An interminable hypocrite, Mother’s disdain for Father’s inferior pedigree never prevented her from squandering his wealth on frivolities.
Her lust for worldly possessions typically gravitated towards Parisian gowns, fine furs and pearls – each a sacred relic in her cult of self-worship. This vile sect held power in our household, manifesting itself as an overabundance of mirrors and a constant air of condescension. Father was among the faithful and indulged her every whim.
She ridiculed my appearance, regularly disparaging my body as too thin, my face as too angular, and openly questioned how she gave birth to a daughter so unlike her, placing blame on Father’s common blood. I knew she only wished to hurt me but her accusations were not inherently without merit, for we shared little resemblance; that I took almost entirely after my father was plain for anyone to see. Not that any of that matters. We are all bound by the chains of pangenesis, but I am no more tethered to the most recent coupling as I am to the eldest link.
I am not my blood; I know this now.
Books were to be my only refuge. Neither of my parents could be described as active readers and it is probable that, as a solitary child deprived of friends or siblings, I simply lacked other means in which to occupy myself. My favourite subject was biology, which was in many aspects still in its infancy.
Despite his blatant disinterest in literature, Father maintained a library at both residences. After all, books symbolised status and presented the owner as an individual possessing vast knowledge and a keen intellect. As trade was his only acumen, his intellectual curiosity did not expand beyond new and improved methods of cost-effective shipping.
The library was quite different at our summer abode, containing singular titles that would never be found in the frugal bulk purchases my father preferred. At our primary residence, the collection was, if not famous, then at least recognizable—encyclopaedias, dictionaries, poetry, and prose; authors whose works were known even amongst the illiterate.
But not here.
A sizable portion of this library had been left by the manor’s previous occupants, a family whose name and bloodline had since faded into obscurity. Whoever they were, their selection betrayed interests both scientific and esoteric, with topics ranging from forgotten Pagan gods and rituals to heterodox theories of abiogenesis. I would lose myself in those pages, finding a fleeting, artificial means to transcend the mundane.
Most of the books were handwritten, often in languages not yet familiar, and lacked any indication of formal publication. Knowledge starved, my appetite had grown voracious. Many of these age-worn tomes were ultimately beyond my comprehension and it would be decades before their full impact came to fruition.
I retained access to the widow’s walk, where I would excuse myself to watch the sunset. Of course, I was not there for the sun, nor the moon and stars, as my interest, my obsession, was strictly worldly. The heavens could wait, for I sought the electric blue and amber lights of vagabond merrows – of my solitary, long yearned companion.
My patient vigil was rewarded five years after my initial encounter with Muirgein, just a month after my sixteenth birthday. I remember gazing at the coast as our carriage approached Caeruchel Hall. There, by the water’s edge, were rocks stacked in tight formations and laden with oblations that glistened beneath the Summer sun. These were the silent harbingers of her return.
I departed from the manor once all had retired for the night and surreptitiously made my way to the rocky peninsula leading to the lighthouse. The keeper had once again raised his palisade in preparation against the merrows. It was a bulwark born of fear without reverence and betrayed his status as an outsider.
In time the sea erupted in light and song. I came prepared this time, donning a navy blue bathing gown and carrying a folded terrycloth under my arm. Had I brought my parasol, I’d have undoubtedly appeared ready for an ordinary day of sun and leisure on the beach.
Silver ripples moved upon the face of the water, joined by the foamy wake of undulating bodies hidden just below. A couple serpentine shapes broke from the throng and surged towards me, reigniting old fears – primal, instinctive. How foolish I was, to stand so boldly before the sea folk; for fear, like respect, was due. They breached the surface with incredible force and sent me flying backwards.
A vociferous wail, like a banshee’s shrill lament, called the merrows back into the water. I sat there, bewildered, as my rescuer slithered up the stony slope and threw herself upon me. Blinded by tears of joy, I lurched forward and wrapped my arms around Muirgein while she cantillated a delightful song of reunion. Both of us had grown, with nature guiding us along analogous paths of development.
Mesmerised by her sacred tones, I surrendered to her euphonic baptism and sank into the depths of its profundity. Soon we were in the water and among the tides we sang and danced; no one could stop us, nothing else mattered. Here we made merry until forced to flee the approach of dawn.
Feigning illness, I took to bed during the day and visited Muirgein in the night. By this method, I was able to maximise our time together – a resource I now knew to be in short supply.
Misanthropy and a propensity for brooding rendered friendship, let alone the lowest manner of acquaintanceship, an unfamiliar notion. Despite my introverted nature, I still knew that girls my age typically gifted each other tokens of appreciation.
But what does one give to a merrow? Wild and transitory, the sea folk had little need for material possessions. Humans hoard; it is an instinct born in reaction to our environment – to cycles, to seasons, of sowing and reaping and of famine and feast. But for a merrow, survival is to live in the moment, to exist in the now, without care for the future or past.
At least, that is what I imagined at the time. The truth is more complicated.
Following days of indecision, I eventually settled on a gift and made my offering at midsummer. It was a cannetille necklace, whose golden filigree tendrils and aquamarine adornments reminded me of her. I had pilfered it from Mother’s armoire, who regarded the piece as out of fashion. Having plenty of jewellery to spare, she would not notice its theft.
My hands trembled when I wrapped the chain around her neck. I felt something with her that I had never felt before – an emotion I was too naive to understand. It began as an inner warmth, a perplexing sensation that left me almost stupefied.
On our final night, before Muirgein parted, she held me close and pressed her sable lips against mine. She uncoiled, releasing me before slithering wistfully back into the sea. I looked on, tears trickling down my cheeks, as her luminous body merged with the radiance of her kindred shiver. Sorrow took me, sending me to my knees, while one by one their light disappeared, until the sea was again as black as the moonless sky.
The dynamic of our relationship had changed. I did not simply wish to be with her, to frolic and delight in shared activities – I wanted her. My burning heart, so consumed by girlish infatuation, ensured that the next five years would feel like an eternity.