Seabound – Part I

Edvard_Munch_-_The_Mermaid_(1896)
Edvard Munch – The Mermaid (1896)

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

Part I:

I was known as Eliza Coldwell. It is a dead name, one discarded the moment I shed myself of this shadow. I leave it here, alongside the husk of my former life. Woe betide any who immortalize it in requiem or stone.

I am forever bound to her; forever bound to her and those deep dark waters. I squandered decades in search of answers but now see how the way had always been open to me. When most refer to the call of the sea, they speak metaphorically. For me, the call manifested as a song born from lips of flesh and blood; a song that first came to me when I was young.

Some will no doubt treat these words as evidence of my madness. It does not matter; none of this matters – and only the mad would ever believe me. I have no kith or kin among humanity – no earthbound soul to which I owe any explanation.

And yet here I find myself, a slave to this compulsion. Am I collecting my thoughts before the final plunge? Or is this a letter addressed to my former self?

Though our primary residence was in the city, my family summered at Caeruchel Hall, an attractive Jacobean three-story on the coast, which as an adult, I would claim as my permanent home. It is the only place where I associate any happy memory and where the most formative influences on my life would occur. The other seasons brought only tribulations and despair, but these were the halcyon days where I could, for a time, escape from misery.

The manor had been built atop a high drumlin and cast a long, oppressive shadow over the lowland hamlet of Craigwen. The villagers below regarded my family with a curious mixture of fear and reverence – opinions natural to a society obsessed with social hierarchy, where grumbled profanities followed greetings rife with honorifics out of earshot.

You will not find Craigwen on any map. Even after the Crown’s intervention – the displacement, replacement, and industrialization – the town remains mostly unknown. All relevant parties, myself included, seem to agree that such obscurity is for the best. How Father stumbled on Caeruchel Hall in the first place will forever remain a mystery to me. Only those of neighboring communities were in any way familiar with the village and its residents. They knew the people of Craigwen lived exclusively off the sea, that supposedly no two fish caught from its waters were ever alike, and that there was something unwholesome, perhaps even heretical, with the local religion – the Church of St. Jonah.

Father owned a shipping company and would be absent throughout much of my childhood. I believe he cared for me, in his way, though it was a tenderness not shown until already too late. I cannot say the same of my mother, who displayed a consistent and cruel indifference to my existence. Wanting nothing to do with me, she relinquished all parental duties to the servants.

What I desired most was love, but that was something my parents could not – or would not – provide. Numerous miscarriages preceded my birth, but it was evident that what they truly wished for was a son. Though I was practically a tomboy, my character and interests did nothing to satisfy their yearning for a male heir. The effect proved quite the opposite, as they ardently sought to subdue my hoydenish behavior.

There were signs of things to come. The denizens of that seaside hamlet, already superstitious folk, exhibited certain singular behaviors. They arranged loose rocks to form primitive altars, where they placed offerings of scrimshaw, meat, and even jewelry, despite the community’s abject poverty. Strange fetishes of wood and bone decorated the coastline, silent harbingers of her arrival.

My family and I observed these oddities from our carriage while passing through the village en route to Caeruchel Hall. Mother muttered something disparaging, but father assured that the bizarre displays represented some manner of festivity – perhaps a holiday unique to the region. If this was a holiday, then its celebrants wore an inappropriately grim facade.

It is somewhat amusing how certain aspects of these rituals remain in practice today, though I believe I am the last to understand their meaning.

There were six of us in total, though Caeruchel Hall was fully capable of quartering a platoon. Our household included Mother and Father, the maid, the cook, father’s valet, and myself. My family also employed an elderly groundskeeper, but he resided in a shack closer to the water and intentionally hidden from the manor’s view. It could at times feel empty, even outright abandoned, depending on which section you resided.

I would spend my days exploring the coast, maintaining a wary distance from the locals. I did not care for how they looked at me; it was disdain for the privileges I enjoyed, all because of who birthed me. Perhaps they would have regarded me differently had they known how much I hated it. Not that I was ever so naive as to envy their lot in life, for though Craigwen retained its proletarian character, it cannot compare to the level of destitution that existed before the mills arrived.

At dusk, I liked to ascend to the widow’s walk and watch the stars; they were so much clearer here than in the smog-choked city. One night, a week before that fateful day, I witnessed a band of locals loading a large sack into a skiff. I promptly turned father’s spyglass upon the furtive group who indeed believed themselves unseen. As they rowed out to sea, I could not help but notice how the bag seemed to writhe. The three would return, lit by the light of a lone lantern, with one carrying the now empty sack over their shoulder. I would ultimately observe this covert exercise repeated an additional four times throughout the Summer. During each instance, something stirred beneath the burlap.

My life would change one dismal night in the Summer of 1867, an event that I recollect with impeccable clarity, despite having occurred nigh seven decades ago. Sleep had come easy that night thanks to the sedating patter of rain against the windows. The rain presaged a mighty storm, and I was later roused from bed by a blast of thunder that shook the very foundation of our manor. Unable to return to sleep, I listened to the storm and began to notice something strange, an inexplicable sound that had no place in nature’s cacophony. I focused my attention on the quiet interludes between each roaring cannonade. Therein I encountered harmony – a song, beautiful and inhuman, that came from outside.

Clouds obscured the moon and stars, yet something glimmered across the glass of the seaside window. At first, the light was soft, almost unnoticeable, and resembled the living fluorescence of lightning bugs and foxfire. I pulled myself out of bed and crept through empty hallways, my steps careful and deliberate, trying not to alert the household. Following a shortcut through the kitchen, I arrived at the southern terrace overlooking the water.

I chased the melody, running barefoot through the wet grass and towards the headland. The horizon opened wide as I neared the cliff, revealing milky blue-green lights dotted across the ocean’s dark expanse. The song, now a chorus, overwhelmed and extinguished whatever apprehensions I should have felt. There I watched the waves roll in and out, the strange lights unmoved by the ocean’s churning.

Then, devoid of thought or hesitation, I dove into the water.

The sea was black, cold, and seemingly infinite. Though conscious of my environment, I had been rendered senseless and made no effort to breach the surface. As the darkness pulled me under, I remained oblivious to my drowning and slowly succumbed to a death-like sleep.

I lingered in a state of unconsciousness; I cannot say for how long, but I remember waking with a spastic jerk. Rolling to my side, I coughed and heaved until purging every last drop of seawater from my body. Choking, gasping, I struggled for air and blindly reached for some surface to clutch and regain my composure. Too dark to see, I had to depend on my other senses. I heard nothing; neither wind nor rain nor thunder reached this place. The damp air reeked of the tides; it tasted stale, recycled. I lifted myself to my feet and stumbled across the barnacle-encrusted floor, leaning against the rightward wall and waving blindly ahead with my left hand.

Despite her neglect, I did what any child would do and instinctively called out for my mother, despite her neglect. When my voice echoed back, I began to piece together the truth. I knew not how, but it was evident that I had become trapped within one of the many sea caves that dotted the lower cliffs. Escape was conceivable and emboldened my steps. That fleeting hope died the moment I felt the undeniable sensation of flesh on flesh.

A scream had barely escaped my lips before something grabbed me from behind and muzzled my mouth. Never before had I known such fear, such sheer, bloody panic. I kicked and screamed and thrashed about to no avail. My captor was undeterred and responded by singing softly into my ear, lulling me into a state of limp surrender. As my head rolled back, I saw by a pair of yellow eyes, which gazed deep into my own, gleaming with intelligence and literal fluorescence, before blinking through two distinct sets of eyelids.

I wrestled with the unnatural calm and soon slipped free of my captor’s grasp. In desperation, I crawled into the darkness, only to find my egress denied by the solid rock in every direction. Trembling in terror and with my back against a cavern wall, I slowly turned to face my pursuer and was granted my first full and unobstructed view of the creature.

What I next describe, I do with the benefit of intimate knowledge, for at the time of our first encounter, it is likely that many of the following details eluded me.

The creature was not as large as I had initially anticipated and only eclipsed 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 fingers attached by a thin membrane and tipped with bony claws. A pair of whip-like appendages extended from the waist down, appearing similar (if somewhat more delicate) to its sinuous tail, but displaying the prehensility of tentacles.

An osseous crest spread from its brow to the top of its skull, where it separated into six sharp points. Its Medusan mane of bioluminescent tendrils coiled and writhed as if by their own volition. The creature’s light bathed the cavern with a pale, spectral glow, and I realized that this monstrous, possibly hostile entity was also my solitary source of light. It continued to stare in my direction, its gray lips parting to reveal a gaping maw lined with three rows of shark-like teeth.

Strangely, it was not its monstrous aspect that was most astounding – at least not when compared to just how human it appeared, for the creature bore a visage of youthful femininity.

These traits were undeniable; my captor was a girl, like myself, but from a world utterly alien to the one I thought I knew. She reminded me of the merrows – the sea-folk of Celtic legend. Among my family’s servants was an elderly Irishwoman, the widow Mrs. Kelly, who, acting as a surrogate to my mother, regaled me with tales of these fantastic creatures 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. Sirens and finfolk, naga and lamia, and a full bestiary of others; every culture with an affinity for the sea had tales of mythic species bearing these singular traits and the very reason as to why was right before me.

Through the sidewinding slither of her serpentine body, the merrow came nearer. Frozen with fright, I was too uncertain of her intentions to act. At various times she would retreat, disappearing as she dimmed her light-bearing flesh. After several minutes of playing this “game”, the merrow wrapped herself around me. She opened her mouth, widening until the jaws parted far beyond its lips and eventually separated from ear to ear. Slowly, deliberately, she engulfed my entire head within her gaping maw. I remained perfectly still; too consumed with horror to scream, I merely whimpered. The ordeal lasted only a few seconds before she pulled away and returned her mouth to its original size and shape.

It made no 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 originated to express a similar intent or lack thereof.

Like an excited child on her first playdate, she took my hand into hers and dragged me off. At first, I stumbled, for though her light allowed me to see her, I was otherwise blind to my surroundings. She had the strength to take me by force but instead showed patience, perhaps even empathy, and slowed her pace in response to my struggles.

She brought me before a briny pool and slithered into the water, where she waited half-submerged and watched me expectantly. My mind was racing, leaving me dizzy and dumb. It was a potential death trap, and I knew that there would be no possibility of escape once I entered. Untangling my thoughts, I realized that the merrow had many opportunities to kill me yet never attempted so; if killing me was her intent, she would have already done so.

Accepting my choice, I climbed down into the water. The merrow looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back; unable to contain my anxiety, I fell into a fit of nervous laughter. My noises seemed 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, but revealed an understanding of my aim with her following actions.

She lay both of her 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 capture. In later years, I would endeavor 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”. It was the Christened name bestowed by St. Comgall to the legendary mermaid Lí Ban as part of her baptism. Though it ended with the mermaid’s death and ascension to heaven, it was her aquatic adaptation and angelic voice that stuck with me most over the years.

It was a flawed, all too human name for such a magnificent being. It would have to suffice, for even lingering on the memory of her true name excites my mind with the anguished longing of a dipsomaniac for the bottle. I sweat and shiver even now, failing to hold it back. If you heard what I have listened to, you would do the same.

I let go of the edge and drifted towards Muirgein and into the pool’s center. I remember the curious way in which her gray 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 made no resistance and heedlessly capitulated to her whims.

Muirgein was, in what should come as no surprise, a phenomenal swimmer. 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. 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, built 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 rushed home, quickly bathed and dried myself, and returned to bed. Exhausted, I feigned illness to catch up on sleep.

Muirgein abhorred the daylight, a trait emblematic of her species, and so we came together exclusively under cover of darkness. Mother and Father would remain ignorant to my nightly departures. 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 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.

That was when I heard a mournful dirge from across the bay, drawing my attention back to the sea. The song belonged, not to the merrows but their quarry. A great whale had been lured into shallow water, stranding and bloodying itself upon a reef. Pelagic hunters 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 finish off, and knowing this, I can say that the beast’s lament was mercifully short. Merrows were, if anything, efficient killers.

This wild hunt was horrifying, but it was even more fascinating to behold. Though I pity 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, that this was the way of all living things.

I learned this lesson well.

Alas, these nights of joy and adventure could not last. Though I dreaded my family’s return to the city, it would be the merrows who were first to leave. 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 six years before I saw her again.