An essay by Mira Delmer, as provided by Caroline von Schmalensee
Art by Shannon Legler
Last night, everything changed. I’d got to the bit where I tell Roland about how I met his father when, out of the deep blue, he said, “But Kraken’s a myth. He’s not real.”
He’s six–it could have happened at any time. I knew one day he’d start to question my stories. There’s no room for Kraken on land; humans don’t believe in such creatures.
My face went cold and tingly, my eyes filled with tears. “He was mythic, alright,” I said, voice too deep in my throat, “but not how you think. No one has caught him on camera, sweetling, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. Mm. Mythic. That’s the word.”
I went on with the story, but Roland wasn’t really listening, and I sank into a sea of memories, quietly mourning the boy he had been and the telling of our tale. I had lost my son to a world I have no place in. “He doesn’t exist”–what a thing to say about your father. The implication is clear: I, as I was when we met, didn’t exist either. I’m a liar.
When Roland was younger, he stuck to the script that proved we belonged not to the world outside, but to each other.
“So how did you meet my father?” he would ask.
No, that’s not where the tale starts. It goes like this:
“Once upon a time,” I’d begin, “there was a mermaid who lived in the deep, deep sea. That was me.”
Roland had the most beautiful smile. Sitting on the side of his bed, I’d stroke his head, marvelling at the heat of him against my much cooler hands. We’d worked out a routine, a way for both of us to tell the tale. The next line was his.
“Were you a princess?”
“No, sweetheart, nothing so fancy. I was just a normal, drop-dead-gorgeous mermaid, one among, oh, hundreds.”
“Did you have long hair?”
“I had very long hair, much longer than now, of a glossier gold.”
I miss the hair. If you had asked me, before, I wouldn’t have guessed that I would. Except the hair I have now is not the same. Back then, my hair was longer, smoother, more gold than straw in colour. Still, some nights, if I’ve had a bad day, I’ll hide Roland and me in a tent of hair. If I close my eyes, I can imagine that it still smells of salt and fish oil. Sitting in a hair tent is like looking out at the world from inside a thicket of pale seaweed. It makes everything look friendlier, less threatening. We’re here, my boy and I, safe, despite the air all around us.
“What did you do all day?” Roland would ask next.
“I did what mermaids do: I combed my hair, gambolled in the breaking waves, and sang to passing sailors. My sisters and I would swim with the dolphins–if they weren’t too frisky, dolphins are naughty animals. Or we’d chase sharks or cruise with whales.”
Here I’d pause, put my hands to my chest, and add “I liked singing to sailors the best” with a coy smile.
“Was that how you met my father?” was Roland’s next question.
“In a way, my wee sprat. But he wasn’t human.”
I’d turn solemn, eyes serious, mouth unsmiling.
“We live like humans now, and you’ll grow up to be one, but that’s not what I wanted when I was young. My lover was Kraken, a majestic creature with a solid, muscular body, and arms that could wrap around and sink a sailing boat. His skin shifted in all the colours of the rainbow, and he had eyes the size of my head.”
Roland’s little blue eyes would be round with amazement.
“Tell me about Kraken!” is what he’d say, the day before yesterday, while he still believed.
“Your wish is my command. Kraken’s squid-like–” I can’t help but smile when talking about Kraken; the very thought of him warms the cockles of my heart. “–only much more handsome, larger, more intelligent, and oh so strong! He is the most amazing creature I have ever encountered. So smooth, so full of life and will.”
“I was charming a sailor, swimming around his boat, singing to him, showing a little bit of shoulder, a little bit of a smile.” I’d give Roland a taste of the smile, famous in my father’s court. There, it sparkled. I still have a great smile, but it’s lost something in the translation to human flesh. It can turn the heads of men and women alike, but I rarely use it for that purpose. What can they give me, other than food? We have nothing in common. I tried making friends with some of the mothers at Roland’s nursery, thinking the burning love of our offspring would help tie a lasting bond. It didn’t. Their chatter bores me; they find me weird.
“The sailor was leaning over the water, holding on to the rigging of his little ship and gazing at me, eyes deep with longing. I knew it was just a question of time before he jumped. I dove under the boat and called to him, making him scamper across the deck to see more of me.”
It doesn’t take much to recall that day: the fresh scent of salt on the air, the smell of plastic and varnish clouding around the boat, the softness of the breeze tickling my skin. It was a golden day.
“I was raising my upper body up out of the water, standing on my tail, draping my golden hair around me, when something moved in the water. The sailor gasped and fell back. Two tentacles flanked me, moving with me, like dancers copying my movements, one on either side. They were pearly white, with just a hint of pink, a perfect match to my skin.”
It had been a beautiful sight. I was deeply flattered by the gesture. Who wouldn’t be?
“I’d seen him around, as a shadow in the deep, far away in the murk, a muscular shape flitting through the water. We danced for a few seconds. Then I dove down to see him. His body was under the boat, and when I came near, he pulled his arms close and flushed a beautiful deep rose. Then, in a second, he was away, changing his skin to all the colours of water. I followed. He led me deeper than I’d ever been, tantalising me with his shape and colour. Then he stopped. I swam close to him, stroked his forehead, lay my body along his. He stroked me with his tentacles, first gently, then more passionately. Our courtship was short but intense.”
I’d stop there, reel myself back from the memory and take a deep, abridging breath.
“We married. That very night.”
Kids don’t need all the details.
Roland and I would smile at each other and applaud the union. It’s my favourite part of the tale, a moment of pure happiness.
“In the sea, marriage isn’t like it is here. We didn’t set up house, cling limpet-like to each other. We lived at different depths and ate different foods, had our own lives. We simply loved each other.”
Truth is, I still love Kraken. The sweetness has turned to bitterness, but it’s love all the same.
“We’d meet every evening in the mid-depths to talk, hunt, and dance. Some nights I’d sing, and he’d illustrate my songs with his tentacles. It was magical. We enjoyed each other’s company–each other–more than I can say. Our joy was complete. We were happy all day, looking forward to meeting, and blissful all evening, together in the swell of love.”
It was up to Roland to break the mood. “But it couldn’t last.”
With a sorrowful shake of my head, I’d agree. “No, it couldn’t. Kraken is his own lord; he does whatever he wants. I was a mermaid. My life was lived at the whim of my father. And he wanted to use me to form an alliance with a nearby lord. One of my sisters told him I had married, dashing his political plans.”
“She was a snake!” Roland would hiss, scrunching up his face and sticking his tongue out like the cutest little water snake. He always made me laugh.
“Indeed, she was a viper, a serpent, a traitor most foul.”
I had other names for her, names I didn’t share. She’d petitioned our father for marriage to her sweetheart seven times, each time receiving a rejection. Not that I cared: I didn’t like her much either. My sister didn’t like me in the first place, and when she found out about me and Kraken, she exploded. Our mutual antipathy sent her straight to dad, tittle-tattling.
“Oh, he was furious! Beside himself!” I’d screw up my face into a ferocious mask, showing sharp teeth, making claws of my hands. “In a fit of rage, Father sent his men to kill Kraken. My husband and I were chasing orca, diving from warm top waters to chilly depths, herding a pod towards their doom. Suddenly we were surrounded by fierce mermen, poking us with tridents and churning the water to show their displeasure. Kraken grabbed one after one, squeezing and shaking, before dropping them, unconscious or turning to jelly and glass.”
“Glass like this?” Roland would ask and hold up his favourite toy.
His toy is special to both of us. It’s the size of my fist, its surface is smooth with shallow ridges running top to bottom. It’s transparent and cool to the touch. Underneath the surface, four chambers show, each opening out into a tube on the surface. It’s a heart. I’ve told Roland it’s the heart of a sea-serpent, a ferocious foe.
“Exactly like that.”
I haven’t touched it for years. If Roland held it too close to me, I’d nudge his hand away, and he’d tuck under the duvet.
“Many sea creatures melt into jelly and glass when they die, that’s why so few sea-serpents and merfolk wash up on human shores. We become sand: mermaid hearts and bones ground to powder by time and tide.”
It’s a fact. Oh yes, it’s made up of ground down rocks and bits of shell too. If you look closely, through a microscope, you’ll see grains of surpassing clarity. They are tiny pieces of my kind.
“That fight was the last time but one that I saw my husband. My father’s men couldn’t hurt Kraken. But they could hurt me. They caught me and took me back to my father’s court in the city of pearls.”
At this point, my eyes would glisten with tears. Even after all this time, it hurts me to think of what my father did to me.
“The king didn’t bother with a hearing; he summarily banished me to the land. A vile potion was forced down my throat, and the scales fell from my tail, the bones splitting and changing until I had these lumpy things.”
To Roland, and anyone else, these legs of mine look as good as any human legs: strong, long, and softly rounded. To me, they are a hideous disfigurement. I never wear trousers: why would I emphasise the unsightly split? I like my skirts long enough to hide my feet.
“The worst was when my gills closed. I only just made it to the surface, gasping like the fish I had been, unable to swim properly, every breath burning my lungs, strange noises coming from my throat. Luckily, I was picked up by a passing sailboat. It was the sailor I flirted with the day I met your father. He didn’t recognise me. Everything about me had changed: my hair had fallen out, my skin had gone sallow, and I had legs.”
“Poor Mummy,” Roland would say and stroke my hair. My misery was making him sad too; it was time to sing a cheerier tune.
“It wasn’t all bad–” I’d smile and kiss him. “–because I took you with me out of the sea. I arrived on land with a boy in my belly, and that boy was you. The potion I took also changed you. And here we are.”
What happened to me after I reached the surface wasn’t something I included in the tale. There’s a point when honesty turns to cruelty. I have a version ready for when Roland is fully grown, if he asks, and if he wants to listen.
The sailor who found me took me to land, where I got medical treatment. It didn’t take me long to pick up the local language–mermaids are good at mimicry. They didn’t know what to do with me: I didn’t fit the description of any missing person, and I didn’t know who I was. There was no point telling them where I came from, because they couldn’t help me back there. I was in exile. The confusion I showed was real. After a period on a psyche ward, I was released into what they call “the care of the community.” I was on my own, eight months pregnant. I was scared of giving birth–I’d seen whales calf. What an inelegant baby delivery system! That’s not how my species delivered our young.
I had expected to deliver an egg–one perfect, heart-sized egg, round as an octopus’ eye with two sinuous tendrils, one at either end, that I’d use to fasten it to a rock or seaweed, somewhere warm and safe. I’d visit the egg every day, croon to it and caress it, until, one day, my baby broke the membrane and swam out into my arms.
Instead, I sat on a sofa in a social housing flat, caressing and crooning to my belly. Every day I got a little bigger, and my fear grew a little more urgent. I tried to be calm: I was stuck on land, forever banished from the sea. I had to make the best of the situation, and the best was the safe delivery of my child.
I gave birth in the bathroom, on the floor, with much heaving and groaning, screaming and wailing. After a muscle-ripping push, Roland slid out of me like a pup out of a seal cow, in one smooth motion. I gathered him to me, crying at his human ugliness, and fell asleep suckling him.
The next day, after cleaning up myself and the bathroom, I swaddled Roland in a T-shirt and dressed. I walked down to the harbour, to the very end of the pier, where the water was at its deepest. There I sat down, holding Roland in my arms and calling for his father. All day I called, pitching my voice at a register that would travel far in water.
Some of the fishermen tried to get me to go home. I looked like a mad woman, clutching my baby, keening at the horizon. I think they worried I’d hurt myself or Roland. Deep inside, some of them recognised me for what I was. They were men of the sea, after all. I answered their questions politely, accepted gifts of tea and fish, but refused to move. Eventually they left me alone.
The sun went down and the moon rose. I stayed where I was, calling.
Dark tentacles rose from the water. Outlined in moon silver, they undulated like dancing mermaids in the greeting he had especially for me. It made me cry to see him so close.
My body had changed, but my tastes had not adjusted to its new form. They never will. Kraken remains the most beautiful creature in my world and, that night, I missed him with an intensity that wiped away the aches and pains of my labour. I wanted to dive into the water, into Kraken’s arms. I looked into his big eyes, just visible where they reflected the moonlight from under the green-black water. I’d seen his eyes in moonlight before but never from this side of the surface. I cried harder, anointing our child’s brow with nacreous tears.
I unwrapped Roland and held him out over the water so his father could see him. The moonlight made his skin shine herring-belly white.
All my pain, my sadness, I kept from Roland. How he met his father, and how he got the heart, I was happy to tell.
“Kraken rose closer to the surface, raising a tentative tentacle towards you. He’d brought you a gift. I had to snuggle you into the crook of my arm to receive it in my other hand.”
Roland would bring out the toy again, and we’d look at it. Intricate and strong, it glittered coolly in the light of Roland’s blue reading lamp, the light seeming to pool in its chambers.
I remember lifting the heart so clearly, water drops like roe clinging to its surface. It beat–once, twice. I gasped and looked at Kraken. The movement was a message. Merfolk are magic. Even in my changed form, the heart recognised a direct blood relation, parent or child. There was only one heart it could be.
“Thank you,” I sang to my husband, squeezing the glass heart in triumph. “Thank you!”
I haven’t touched the heart with my bare skin since that day. I know who it is; Roland doesn’t need to. He has to grow up to altogether softer feelings than the rage I brought with me out of the sea. I gave the heart to him, watched him cuddle and gnaw it, like babies do, then play with it as he grew.
In a way, the heart is the end of the story. It is the lesson I want Roland to take with him when goes to his own life. And yet, because of where we live now, it is a lesson I can’t allow myself to teach him. Instead, the tale ends with singing.
“We stayed there, looking into each other’s eyes, me singing, Kraken dancing, until the first ray of the sun touched the bay with gold. It was a sad farewell but it had to be. He loved you so much,” I’d assure Roland, stroking his head to feel his life under my palms. “I know he wished he could be with us.”
We’d hug, and I’d sing him to sleep.
“There is no greater gift of love,” goes the song, “than a gift of life and death.”
I’d repeat those words, varying the melody, until Roland’s eyes closed and his breathing deepened. Every night for six years I’d leave him sleeping, his cheek resting on his grandfather’s still heart, and close the door behind me.
I won’t tell the tale again, not tonight, not tomorrow. That chapter of our lives is closed. But maybe I’ll still sing.
Six years ago, Mira Delmer was banished from the Oyster Court by her father for marrying Kraken. Since her exile, she’s been building a home for herself and her son, Roland, on land. Mira has difficulty fitting into human society but does her best to ensure Roland will grow up a happy, normal boy. She’s currently exploring employment opportunities as a professional story teller.
Caroline von Schmalensee lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. A technical writer by day, she writes fiction in her free time. Caroline writes urban fantasy and makes forays into fairytale and horror. Her short stories can be found in New Writing Scotland, The Seven Wonders of Scotland, The Scotsman, FREAKCircus, and online. She’s working on her first novel.
Caroline writes about writing at carolinevonschmalensee.com.
Shannon’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://shannonlegler.
“A Gift of Life and Death” is © 2017 Caroline von Schmalensee
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Shannon Legler