Close to midnight a mermaid came ashore at the bustling resort town of Brighton on the south coast of England. Swimming strongly, she entered the half-mile of water between the town’s two piers. The one to the east blazed with light, life, and fairground music. The other was a storm-battered and fire-wracked skeleton of bare girders, the post-apocalyptic roost for a thousand starlings.
Drifting on a lazy swell she listened to the surf push and suck at the shingle beach. The waters of the English Channel were cold but they lacked the chill of the distant Atlantic swells, and their wild dangers.
Weary from her days-long swim she coasted under the ruined west pier and looked up past the limpet-encrusted legs into clear night sky. She had made it, she had escaped and now she was free. A pang of intense sadness welled inside her. She was alone, but she was free.
Light from a quarter moon glinted on her bare skin as she knelt at the waterline. She hesitated and touched the shell-crusted purse on the kelp-string tied around her waist. It contained everything she possessed: her comb, a handful of pearls, a handful of octagonal gold coins.
No turning back. She reached across the collapsing wavelets and placed her hand palm down on the shingle beach. Her body formed a conduit between the elements of sea and land. She felt their power, the eternal tension. She spoke the shoreline words her mother taught her long ago:
This child of oceans is not changing sides,
Not abandoning one for the other.
I know my origin, gifts, and graces.
Land and sea, you agreed
We may cross your war grounds
In our own times of need.
I know, I am asking for a strange thing.
I do not expect you to understand
I wish to walk as a child of the land.
The waters behind her flattened and the wind died. The mermaid shivered. Neither of these were calm things, they were the stillness of sudden attention, of great strength held in check.
Out of the flat water six heavy waves rolled towards the shore one by one. As they broke they pushed up the shingle into a platform of sea-built land. At the same time an angry wind came off the shore, tore spindrift from the wave tops and flung it away into the night.
This far, the wind said. This far, and no further.
No turning back. With her heart in her mouth the mermaid hauled herself onto the shingle mound.
A seventh wave came. Power thrummed up from the water through the skeleton of the old pier. A thousand starlings shrieked up into the night air as the sea surged forwards.
The wave roared across the platform and lifted the mermaid up. A staggering wind shoved back. The wave could not break. The mermaid hung inside the water behind a glassy salt-water wall, her long fair hair fanned about her.
Wind-snatched shingle flew off the beach, land hurled into the sea. Each stone slammed into the wave-wall and carved bubble-streaked trails deep into the water.
Her but not you, land told the sea.
This far and no further.
You and your tricks.
The sea briefly held, but water like wind cannot stay still for long. The land-wind whirled and roared and shoved. The wave burst apart in spume and spray and crashed down to nothing.
Salt spray swirled, the wind died. A simmering mist settled to reveal a barefoot woman dressed in a sky-blue blouse, a knee-length green skirt, a matching jacket. A pair of flat shoes lay at her feet beside a small shoulder bag. Strange things, she would get used to them.
Her own purse was already starting to dry and crack. She emptied the contents into the new one and saw the front was decorated with a cat face in silver sequins.
The Elements had kept their word, but the Land had a dry sense of humour and the Sea’s was rather salty. Only later did it occur to her that the image was a warning.
She picked up the shoes and crossed the shared ground, the littoral that turn and turn about was land then sea. Further up the slope of the beach a scattered row of dried seaweed, scruffy feathers and frayed rope formed a ragged and wavy tide-line. She took a deep breath and stepped across the tide line.
Bright sounds from the other pier ebbed and surged on the night wind, the air tinged with the aromas of chip oil, candy floss, curry and beer.
Those gangs of mermen could not reach her here. Her old life was gone and along with it her old name. One night she had surfaced behind a South American cargo tramp. High on the stern was the ship’s name, below it the country of registration. She liked what she saw and took it for herself. Now, for the first time in her life, she felt safe. She could fit in. She must.
Up on the boardwalk she slipped on her shoes and climbed the wide concrete steps to the King’s Road. She crossed the deserted neon-lit street and entered the winding side streets of Brighton town.
Some yards behind her a rather beautiful cat dropped soundlessly out of the shadows. Tail held high it trotted after her.
To be continued…