Published by Kassandra Alvarado at Shakespir
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The shores of New Haven were beautiful.
Before this great sorrow of mine, I had never known another world beyond quiet drawing rooms, polite tea and my dolls at play. That world seemed another lifetime, another heartbeat away from the holystoned deck of the Maida, a clipper ship in the private hands of a man close enough to almost call himself my kin.
At dusk, I walked with the captain, who with some deference to my recent bereavement, chose a fine black coat over a starched white ruffled shirt. His breeches were black satin and his stockings a pure white. I kept my shawl tight about my shoulders, white linen over a common dress of drub coloring.
“I wish you’d stayed on land, Miss.”
I looked past the docks with the scent of salt lingering in the back of my throat. The wooden buildings of the watering holes lined the docks at a farther distance, music spilled from the flimsy doors and a woman in satins and painted lips leaned against a post watching the footpath. Indignation stirred in my breast for though I respected his counsel, instinctively I also rebelled.
“We’ve both lost someone, Robert.” The clipped tone matched the heavy thud of my gray leather kid shoes, mother of pearl buttons fastened them tightly to my small feet. The top of my carefully coiffed ringlets barely reached the elbow of the man I walked beside, yet I was seventeen years on this earth…Jessamyn, my elder.
“I only meant to keep you from harm’s way, Pippa.”
I bristled at this. Jessamyn had acted as my guardian since the death of our parents. She’d protected me for years, yet also taught me to be wary of the ways of the world. In return, I’d loved her fiercely as any mother that my youngest memories had rubbed raw like a wound. In their place, my sister had been there, soothing my fears during storms, placing cool rags to calm my fevers. Her voice had lulled me to sleep when we’d left our home never to return.
“No, Captain Cathcart, my mind is set. I mean to find her…,”
He sounded strangely foreboding, “if she wished to be found, wouldn’t she have left her trail clear for us to follow?”
I refused to take his words to heart. It was no simple matter of my leave-taking. There was the cat to be left with old Mrs. Goss down the muddy road. My few clothes packed up by the maid in a patched steamer trunk, carried dockside along with my personage by carriage. Everything about it felt a lark, a chance to escape the stifling confines of the Capitol during a humid summer. I’d experienced adventure most of my childhood, living it out through fantasy, books opened my mind to other lands, foreign cultures.
Many days, I’d practiced in our drawing room with the faded Tearose walls; the stance for proper sea legs. A queer sort of walk, actually. One most immodest for a young lady in skirts! These things of course were in the minds of my caretakers, Mrs. Raynott and Mrs. Goss. They were two old widows charged with teaching me needlework, the harp, and other pleasantries that I didn’t subscribe to.
None of it changed my mind.
Not the roughness of the sea, the pitching of the deck that nauseated me so much so that the first two days I had cook brew me a strong cup of herbal tea to soothe my stomach at meal times. Captain Cathcart had been always cordial with his little calling cards sent around to my quarters, always properly addressed with my maiden name, inviting me to sup with him. This evening, I felt well enough to tie a ribbon in my hair, attiring myself in my mourning dress. His personal steward was a man named Howard Jarsdel, a portly balding man with a convivial spirit that never seemed shaken. Jarsdel escorted my reply in the form of my person to the captain’s door, who after a perfunctory knock, spoke his acceptance. Jarsdel turned the brass knob while the sconces flickered and the floor beneath us gently rocked. The voices of the rough men at supper reached us along with the clink of silverware.
“Pippa, my dear.”
The Great Cabin was easily the largest room in the officers quarters, carved wooden arm chairs were bolted down around two small tables. Further seating was provided by the low window seat situated against the back wall of windows. Cathcart was sprawled in one of these chairs beside an unfurled map of ivory colored parchment. Shyly, I swept into a curtsy.
“Come now, no formality needed.” He gestured to the chair opposite. “We are very nearly family.”
“But, not quite.”
I glanced at the map, my hands fidgeting nervously with themselves. Cathcart and I had only ever dined in the presence of an elderly chaperone, Mrs. Raynott, and my sister. Her absence felt a palpable wound when I looked upon the empty chairs around us. “I suppose we shall search the ports where the Seneschal was known to call.”
“Yes, that should be our intended course.” He took great pains to disguise his sea dog accent. I forced my hands to cease their nervous dance across my lap. “But…,” the depths of courage in my heart seemed boundless, I summoned them forth, staring him in the eye. “I should think that our course be set for another location.” Still trembling, my hand slipped inside my shawl where the rustle of paper was heard. My fingertips seized upon the flimsy edge of ratty paper, withdrawing it slowly. Cathcart watched me unevenly, as if not quite sure what to make of my sudden boldness.
“This map…,” I flattened it out across my skirts. The inking was done hastily, the ports of call shaded portions of green surrounded by blue wavy lines. “Shows an island chain to the south from Prolm Cay.” I traced my stubby forefinger from the prominent outcropping of s-shaped rock to the expanse of blue sea. Cathcart’s blue eyes followed my motion; I was intensely aware of his gaze when it flickered to my face. “The sea route here will take us to the doorstep of Nuhl Ait.”
“You must be mad,” he hissed, intake of breath of sharp. He straightened and rubbed at his unshaven jaw vigorously. I swallowed thrice, shaking my head in the negative. “Not at all. I was told this was the place where the Seneschal foundered! Blown off course by a fierce squall….these islands…oh, Robert! I cannot bear the thought that she is there, perhaps waiting for us to discover her whereabouts!”
“What you speak of is madness!” He shouted causing me to flinch, shrinking back against the chair.
“Yes! No sane man would venture near those accursed shores!”
“Then…you are like them? An irrational man guided by foolish fancies?” The map crumpled to the floor as I stood hastily. “We were mistaken, my sister and I! I believed you a rational man not swayed by foolish superstitions!” Our voices raised and warred with one another. Robert rose to his full commanding height and I fully believed he might strike me down were, I a man.
“Where do you get your information from? What reason do you have to think that she might be there?”
I trembled head to foot, sorely frightened. “A-A-A psychic that Mrs. Raynott took me to see before we left London.” Seers were all the rage in fashionable circles of the Capitol. I, myself, had been skeptical of the dark gypsy woman’s supposed visions. She’d been housed in a modest two story townhouse in Mayfair where iron gates separated the districts between affluence and abject poverty. Mrs. Raynott had kept a firm iron grip on my upper arm steering me through the narrow streets until a young boy with a cleft lip and a smart plaid cap let us in through a back way to see the “Madame.”
Under Cathcart’s derision, I felt my cheeks flame with humiliation. “It can’t all be false,” I mumbled.“The things….she knew.”
Robert tried to smile.“You, poor innocent. You’ve been duped like so many.” I blinked back surprising tears for I didn’t like to think myself a fool. “What can seers tell us that isn’t already engraved upon our hearts?”
I looked down at the hard won map and choked back the tears. It felt silly to be crying over something so fragile but deep down, it felt a mountain of hope had crumbled at my fingertips. My sister felt so much farther away from my reach. As if sensing my withdrawal, Robert respected my need for quiet. Ringing the bell pull for the steward, Jarsdel soon came and set about serving our table with goodly victuals. First came trenchers in large white platters, smothered in a specialty of the sea, slumgullion. Jarsdel served wine in crystal goblets. The taste of which made my head quite giddy. A variety of cheeses and musty sunshine scented oranges from Valencia accompanied a fluffy duff sprinkled with brown sugar and pecans.
I overate a great deal, a minor sin Jessamyn accused me of constantly at parties. Twice, I looked up from my pudding bowl to find Cathcart smiling faintly.
“What is it?”
“Forgive me!” He chuckled and using his own napkin, wiped a splotch of sauce from my cheek.
“Oh! The pardon is all mine. I am a terribly clumsy eater. My sister—has always warned me in society.”
He laughed even more, “Consider yourself a fair guest, Pip.”
I warmed at the appellation; doubtless he’d heard Jessamyn refer to me by my nickname in the past. “Why do you say that?”
Cathcart leaned closer to me, his blue eyes twinkling. “Don’t you know, my dear, that seamen are atrocious eaters? Pirates as well.”
I could feel my facial muscles twitch longing to widen. “No, I did not, sir. Pray tell how you came upon this startling piece of information?”
The captain then proceeded to spin a yarn involving brigands, gentlemen pirates and other chicanery he’d gotten himself into at Tortuga, that den of iniquity that good ladies pretended to faint upon hearing the name of.
At the close of the evening, I permitted him to escort me to door of my cabin down the narrow companionway with its swinging light and shadows. “I want to make you smile again, Pippa.”
I sighed, averting my gaze, “you will, Robert. When Jess is restored to us.”
He spoke with little conviction, repeating the words felt a useless gesture of comfort. I went to bed that night with a full stomach soured by the realization that perhaps I was the only one who still had hope.
The ship has held a steady eastern course for the port of Appledore. I’d gotten the hang of my sea legs and took a turn on deck with my white lace parasol shielding my face. Some of the younger tars removed their caps in my presence which I nodded in appreciation. Cathcart was in the wheelhouse, issuing orders to the First Mate, a thin sallow-faced Arab by the name of Jamal. The Arab was a curiosity to mine eyes though he spoke naught but his heathen language. Robert spoke to him in it, syllables seeming to consist of luls and aahs.
Presently, the captain emerged shaking his head. “Stubborn fellow,” he complained. I swept my skirts aside, loving the salted breeze. The deck pitched and dipped, the bow lowering and falling. “He claims there’s another way to our destination.”
“How?” I asked.
“Through the straits. I’ve told him over and over again, they’re unpredictable at this time of year. Jamal claims his Berber forebears sailed through there in all weather, searching for the promised land.”
“Aye, the infidel will say anything.”
“But, what do you say, missy?” He asked in jest, eyes twinkling.
I knew what I longed to say but held my own counsel. I’d been learning as of late to restrain my willful tongue. “Wherever the captain goes, his crew will follow.”
“Even unto their deaths?”
Jamal had glanced from the wheelhouse porthole window, his dark gaze scrutinized us with an odd intensity. Suddenly, it struck me that he might know more of Nuhl Ait, but even that was futile. I could no more speak his language than sway Cathcart to my wishes. The reminder of my own powerlessness clove my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Rather than speak more to the teasing effect of the captain, I turned around quite haughtily, my skirts swishing.
Without fail, the calling card came on a silver platter, but I begged off with a headache, sending my own folded card in response. When supper came, a thick burgoo of savory oatmeal; a polite knock followed. The ship’s surgeon, Mister Carmichael, peered in. “How’re you, Miss Willamette?”
“Slightly under the weather,” I murmured, stirring the worst of the heat from my spoonful. “I believe I caught a chill taking a turn above.”
“Ah, ah, don’t tell the captain that. He’ll never let you out of this cabin. He feels responsible for your well-being now.”
[_How silly! _]
I didn’t say as much to Mister Carmichael, however lost I’d been before, I refused abjectly to accept another handout.
“With God’s great mercy on our side, the elder Miss Willamette will be returned to the living and I….,” couldn’t stay on her as burden. My chest tightened and I tried to think of other things. Happy things.
Mister Carmichael prescribed a hot toddy which was brought by Jarsdel promptly. He then admonished my tendency to read under the bed covers as damaging to the sight. Patting my head once like a puppy that needed comfort, he left me with a gentle goodnight.
“I will likely be a Governess,” said I to myself. I liked children fairly much…
But, why should I leave her? It bothered me…that, how could I leave her? It wasn’t right or fair at all! Since our parents…I hadn’t had another person to call my own other than Jess. Nobody to care for me or care when I was hurt. It wasn’t fair at all! In moments like this, I despised Robert for taking her away from me.
It was he…the man she glimpsed in the gardens of Lady Morley’s Farthingale Hall, that so entranced her. Older, with a profitable merchant’s business, retired from his long seafaring voyages. My sister was indescribably lovely in the summer of her first season; I’d always been in her shadow, chaperoning her to various balls in plain brown satins, stormy taffeta. I danced none while she lit up every ball with her smile.
I always knew that I’d lose her to one of the handsome swains that flocked around her like many monochromatic birds in tails. Captain Cathcart was different than them. He wasn’t exciting nor young with witty talk. I liked him at first, then grew to dislike him when it was certain, he wouldn’t flitter away after a night’s fancy.
He even gave her a ring with a pearl flat and smooth with a faint color like that of a maiden’s blush. Shades of our arguments hovered phantom-like over my sleep, forcing me to relive every moment of the rupture before the end.
We’d fought terribly while Captain Cathcart waited in the foyer to be received. Our raised voices must’ve caused quite a stir; she struck me and I screamed. [_I hate you…I hate you! I wish you’d go away! _]Had I truly said those things to her? Jessamyn’s bosom heaved, her face was a torrent of emotion. She stormed from the house leaving an awkward silence in her wake. Robert had comforted me in her absence, drying my childish tears, apologizing for his inability to soothe my fears.
It was then that my feelings toward him begun to change. Rather than a threat to my way of life, he’d possibly become our protector. I wished later that I had been able to tell Jessamyn that. I would’ve told her I approved of her betrothal, we’d all live together and somehow be happy. But, then she left. Setting sail on a small passenger ship with the pretense of seeking a contact of father’s. She’d return in a month’s time…together, I thought, Cathcart and I would be there to meet her at the docks.
My sister vanished from the face of the earth, four months ago.
I awoke calling her name, the last vestiges of the nightmare I’d been living every single day torn asunder by the howling of the wind. The ship bucked and bounced, plunging, swooping on massive waves. I knew as much, tumbling from my bed, watching the light die in the wildly swinging lanterns. Frightened men shouted aft, heavy work boots thudded up and down the corridor. Stunned from the blow of landing on the canting floor, I scrambled up, throwing my ruffled robe over my nightdress.
Somehow, managing to stand, I pushed the door back on its slider, stumbling out into the pitch black corridor. There was a wetness in the air along with a terrible shrieking…like a woman crying out in pain. “Jess…?” I stared wildly around, my heart slamming hard into my chest. Stumbling toward the ladderway, I wrapped my hands around the rungs propelling myself up into the thick of it all.
Captain Cathcart stood beneath the mainmast, tall with his shirt loosely buttoned over dark blue trousers. He shouted orders, gesturing wildly to be heard. The deck pitched; men cursed, falling to their hands and knees. I slammed hard onto my side, sliding across the pitching deck. The air left my lungs, the cold wet of ocean spray lashed our faces.
For a moment, I felt myself swept backward again, lifting my frightened eyes to the man who clenched a long tethered rope. Our eyes met and Cathcart formed the syllables of my name – that single second lasted an eternity, then my back struck the gunwales, rolling end over end into the sea.
I knew nothing. Only terror, darkness. Sea water filled my lungs, stinging my nostrils. The shadow of the clipper ship fell over me and her massive swell pushed me farther down. Death, life. What worth did anything have? Delirious as I was, drifting down, down…I still felt when arms wrapped around me, comforting, the warmth of someone who loved you, in the deep dark sea.
Interconnected dreams seemed to weave a path of light from the darkness surrounding me. Water parted soundlessly against my arms and legs, the tender brush of seaweed tangled itself in my hair. I felt all these things drifting in a faint dream of sunlight.
Then, I awoke fully, basking in the glow of a magnificent sunrise.
“W-Who…,” my lips were cracked from salt. My nightdress caked with a fine layer of sand, torn from the savage passage into the water. I cried aloud struggling to sit up, my back ached fiercely from where I’d struck myself. For hours, the only thing I could do was shield my eyes from the piercing orange glow of the sun, shivering as the warmth dried my soaked hair and body.
Was it a dream? Had someone truly brought me here? It seemed paradise on earth. Golden sands stretching into a thin curve of coastline surrounded by rocky hills then sloping again into a fringe of palms and long grasses. The sea resembled the surface of an unending sapphire, a pure vibrant blue glistening in the dancing light of the sun.
But, there was nothing in sight. No ship in the distance, no sight of another landmass as far as the eye could see. Pushing myself up to my feet, I stumbled bent-backed to a stout piece of driftwood. Using it as a walking stick, I traversed the small beach from the tangled knots of seawood clogging tiny pools to the overhang of rock on the northeastern end. Despite my thirst, I hadn’t dared touch the mercurial pools of salt water that gathered after the recession of the waves.
Someone watched me. From a distance, from the sea, moving closer, closer. Nothing made sense to me as I retreated into the depths of deep grasses struggling through their voluminous greenery away from the sun into the cool shade. I’ll take a nap there, I thought, conserving my strength with my knotty driftwood stick close at hand. I’d nap and think of a way to survive. Filling my head with those thoughts, I soon drifted off into the depths of exhaustion.
It was nearly dark when I awakened, stiffened, sore. In the gloom, I patted around for my stick, wielding it as my fingers curled around it, across my chest. “W-Who’s there?” I called bravely for something shifted low to the ground, slithering through the grasses.
I caught my breath.
Parting the lush ferns, sliding forward into a patch of dusky twilight, bare skin bronzed to a moonlit sheen, tangled curls of blondish red. My heart quickened as my eyes beheld the face of one dearest in my life. “Jessamyn!” I gasped and stumbled forward as one coming out of a waking dream. Jessamyn…Jess…!” Onto the soft sands I tumbled, my skirts tangled my legs, becoming coated in velveteen grit. Our arms extended to one another as I glimpsed her soft, sad smile. Then, I was embracing her all at once, grasping her cold, slippery flesh, burying my face in her wild, tangled hair that smelt of sea winds.
“Where were you?” I whispered, my palms wet and sliding. “I’ve searched and searched everywhere for you…,” on land, on sea.“Whence did you hide yourself from us?” I couldn’t easily forget Robert as well. We both had loved and lost and now been blessed. I clung onto her helplessly while she sobbed and patted my back. [_If only he knew! If…he and the crew had survived…, _]
“I was here, darling. Here! I’ve always been here.” Jessamyn murmured, the sound of her voice musical to my tired ears. “But, why have you come?” Her tone had a strange, deathly coldness to it that caused my head to rise, questioningly. “Why have you ventured here? This is the place for no man to walk.”
I was at a loss, striving to find my powers of speech. “We’re here to find you! To bring you back with us!” As I leaned back into the sands, something struck me as wrong. There she sat beside me, but her body was contorted, angling away from me. I started to fear paralyzation, an accident perhaps rendering her body immobile. “Robert…,”
Jessamyn’s eyes flickered, a strange sort of third flicker of flesh. “All that is gone now…,” her tones were hollow, so unlike the warmth I knew. Frightened, I held onto her, shaking none so gently. “What account can you give of yourself? Where have you been these past months!”
A flash of pain went across her face and I knew it pained her greatly to relate her story. “When I boarded the Seneschal, I wasn’t sure of its destination. Its ports were those where strange men walked and the minarets of distant spires dominated the landscape. I was seeing it all for the first time. My joy knew no bounds and for a time, I forgot the woes that plagued my heart.”
She paused before continuing: “After leaving the port of Appledore, we were blown off course by several degrees. The sun shone queerly during the daylight hours and at night, a darkness cloaked the stars. All of the seamen’s trusted navigation failed and our ship was left in becalmed waters without sight of land. We as the passengers were told, the large nets carried for trade in other lands, would be used to harvest fish for our consumption.”
“Within a sennight, wild screams overtook the night watch. Everyone rushed topside, some still clad in their nightshirts. We were told a grievous tale by the ship’s mate. Not three days before we were blown to land by that fearsome storm, one of the crew members spied a strange fish swimming fast alongside our vessel. Upon taking up a harpoon, he speared it, piercing its side. A horrible wailing erupted from the creature and it surfaced, mortally wounded. Dearly afraid now for he had never seen the likes of it, he cast aside the net which he had thought to pull his haul aboard and went below decks.” Jessamyn hung her head in despair. “Not a single man laughed when the story was told and much whispering went around for those creatures were said to be the children of the sea god.”
“It was days…before a storm came up, rocking our little ship to and fro. The crew tried valiantly to sail through it, but it was all for naught. We wrecked on the rocky shoals of Nuhl Ait on the eastern side of the island. If you go there now, you’ll find the timbers of a fine ship crashed against the rocks.”
Imagination failed me. I remembered the horror of the storm that had overtaken the Maida, the viciousness of the sea winds and storm-tossed waves that had buffeted my form. I remember being swept sideways into the surf and being plunged down into the chaos.
“How many survived?”
She grew evasive. “At first, almost all…but the inhospitableness of the weather drove many to seek the solace of death. We were marooned on an island that sailors feared,” she smiled in the darkness. “The captain was a brave man, he was not so unlike…,” then she stopped, shook her head slightly as if ridding it of a bad memory, and went on. “The men began fishing from a grotto with a deep inner pool. It was there…,”
“What? What was it?”
She bit her lip. I’d noticed before they were stained a dark hue, almost a crimson. Blood. But, no, that couldn’t be. She was my sister, [_she couldn’t have…, _]
“…one of the men discovered a fish with unusual flesh that was tender and sweet. Its scales were hard and shiny like diamonds in the sun, nearly impervious to the cuts made by our knives. God forgive us!” She sobbed suddenly. “We were ravenous, we’d been starving slowly for days…we tore the flesh with our teeth and cracked the bones with large stones. It wasn’t until…,”
“You can tell me,” I could forgive her that. Desperation bled desperate choices. I couldn’t blame her desire to live.
“One night passed, then two…,” Jessamyn’s voice was a hollow whisper. “I was the one who discovered the terrible secret of Nuhl Ait, the forbidden Isle! It was an old seaman, a cabin steward who hadn’t partaken of our feast. He sat away from us, staring into his tiny campfire. “You too, Missy?” His face was weathered, ancient when it lifted up to me. “You’ll be cursed as well as they…,” I shivered and drew my tattered shawl closer around my body. “Speak clearly, old man, and not in riddles.” He looked at me for a long time then up to the clouded moon above. “This place, Nuhl Ait, is known as the forbidden Isle…those who consume the flesh of the Naiad are doomed to become that which they devour.”
The passing clouds unveiled the luminosity of the moon, washing the sleeping forms of my friends and fellow passengers into something hideous by the shadows cast upon the sands. I shrank from the sight, my scream throttling my throat.”
The Naiad...dimly from the cradle, stories of the mysterious half-human, half-fish creatures that lived in the subterranean waters of the world, floated before my mind’s eye. I was almost afraid to ask what happened next. The question hovered over us, buzzing with angry recriminations, horror and disbelief.
Jessamyn released me and crawled forward into the moonlight. Where her knees should’ve been, scales gleamed from the width of her hips down to her slim legs and feet that ended in a twin tail like the fin of an angelfish. Flecks of sand dusted the scales, barnacles grew in a rough patch of green calcium. Hesitantly, I reached out, touching her hip. It was cold and slimy to the touch. My eyes filled at her sad state. “But, why, Jessamyn, did you set sail aboard the Seneschal?”
“I…I was running away. You must understand! When I was at sea, regrets overwhelmed me,” she touched my cheek gently. “How could I leave you behind at his…mercy?”
I shuddered at the word. Who could she mean? Not Robert with his many kindnesses toward us. He desired her return as much as I did. Didn’t he? My fears rose and wouldn’t leave me be. Jessamyn spoke none for a time, seeming wrapped in her own thoughts. At last, she ventured cautiously. “Aren’t you afraid?”
She continued quite somberly. “When the passengers glimpsed their true appearance in moon water, they couldn’t abide themselves. Most sought ways of destruction, their blood polluting the deep grotto pool. Am I not a monster to you?”
The warm wind dried the tears on my face, warming my cold body wrapped in the tatters of my nightdress. “I could no more be afraid of a shade of our dear, departed mother.” I shook my head slightly. “Silly creature! How could I fear you? As long as you’re you, then why should I be frightened?”
Jessamyn’s scaly body coiled back into shadow. She was far closer to a serpent of the sea than a siren from my old picture books. I had the sense that my answer surprised her. Back home, people always talked about me. How strange I was, how child-like…how burdensome to the man my sister would one day marry, when two came for the price of one. I’d tried to ignore them, truthfully, formulating some kind of plan for my future.
A simpleton…, that’s what they said behind my back. All those hurtful, ugly feelings I’d carried in my heart rose up to the surface. I bit my lip and looked at Jessamyn silhouetted in the moonlight. “I’ve missed you so, sister.”
She reached behind her ear where her flowing mane curled in mysterious ends. From there, she procured a rough comb of shell, motioning for me to turn. I did so carefully, sliding deeper into the soft warmth of the grasses. It was almost like the old days, before Robert. Before we’d left our home on Land’s End. Tears threatened to well up again in my tired eyes. Even though fate had dealt her a severe blow, my eyelids fluttered shut.
Gently with practiced care, Jessamyn drew the tiny shell comb through my tangled and snarled hair, drawing knots of seaweed and gritty sand from the long strands. She began to hum too, a familiar tune, that of a gray goose.
I slept that night on the sands, in the shelter of a large, swaying palm tree. Massive fallen leaves were my blanket, shielding me from the wind that blew off the surf. Jessamyn returned to the ocean, bidding me not to watch her descent. I closed my eyes, listening to the faint splashing sounds her powerful tail made as it slapped the water.
Somehow, I had to believe that everything would be alright…it would be, with time.
There was fish left on a palm leaf in the morning, and a gourd of sweet water nearby. In the sand were strange tracks made from something dragged across the sand. Running my fingers through the powdery grains, I smiled and shouted my thanks. The remainder of the day, I spent, building a small shelter within sight of the ocean.
On another day, I began exploring the island, always careful to bring a pocketful of multicolored pebbles worn smooth by the water’s erosion, these I’d scatter on my path to always find my way back to the small sheltered stretch of coastline.
Sometimes, Jessamyn accompanied me on walks. If I was near the coastline, she would swim alongside, pointing out various fauna and flora to which her former interest as a naturalist, allowed her to identify. She would disappear for long periods of time. When I asked her about it, she’d become evasive, the sharpness of her teeth occasionally glimpsed, reminded me of her inhumanity.
“You know I love you dearly, Pippa.” She said suddenly one night.
Surprised, I let the fish bone needle I’d fashioned from the spines of an Acanthocybium, slip from my fingers. “I know and I, you. What’s brought this on all of a sudden?”
Jessamyn had pillowed her head on her supple arms, her expression dismal. “It’s…nothing. Nothing at all. Only sometimes it helps for me to remember that, little one.”
My ears pricked up. She’d rarely called me little one since my childhood days. Something was up. “What’s wrong? You’re not going away, are you?” The note of alarm present in my voice rose to a shrill accusation. I wouldn’t be abandoned again! It wasn’t fair…weren’t we happy?
The next day, I discovered the grotto.
Bodies, the flesh gnawed from them, lied in scattered piles. Blood streaked bare rock in dull black patches. The water itself remained a deep blue hue reflecting a myriad of dark rainbows on the domed ceiling of the cavern. I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Carefully, edging around the piles of discarded remains, I drew closer to the water.
Unlike clear water, my face wasn’t reflected within. Only Jessamyn’s…her sorrow and the spreading taint of blood. I blinked twice and the image vanished. She’d said the water was tainted, the blood of the Naiad had run like rivulets into the deep pool, corrupting its purity. Trembling now, I knelt at the edge, hesitantly scooping my palm into the water. Its coolness caressed my cupped fingers.
Slowly, the water trickled through my fingers like a sieve. Catching a single droplet on the tip of my finger, I placed it on my tongue and soon spat aside onto the hard ground. The water was sour like blood. That night, Jessamyn hovered above the water, her curtain of strawberry blonde hair floated on the water’s surface, her milky white skin glowed a faintly pearlescent light. Less and less, the clumsy yet graceful traits of a human were fading before my eyes.
“Why did you go there?” Her voice had altered its tones, becoming thin and reed-like, faint on the wind. I sat on the rocks, breaking open clamshells. Indifferent to her censure, I countered with a question of my own. “Is it so terrible?”
Jessamyn’s eyes flickered. “Terrible beyond imagining.”
She was terrible to look upon, my sister. Gradually changing, less and less like a woman and instead something else. Despite her censure, I returned to the cave, crouching down beneath the glittering stalactites. There were things in the cave, broken hand mirrors, bottles of rose water, men’s hats, torn linen handkerchiefs. Behind a glittering boulder I discovered a canvas bag with a water-stained book of fairytales inside.
With the waning light of day splashing across the page, I soon became engrossed in the tales of castles, brave knights and beautiful princesses. When the light had quite disappeared over the horizon, I trudged back to my small camp. The sea was smooth, a glassy mirror with fragmented starlight dancing on its surface.
I nibbled on dried fish, lying down in my nest of leaves and woven grasses. Time seemed to stand still in this place. There was no censuring on my behavior, no time which I was forced to rise nor pleasantries to exchange with frivolous girls. I was…liberated, free. With those thoughts in mind, I tucked my legs close to my chest and slept with my head full of fantasy.
Days passed, my supply of dried filets began to run low. But, I wasn’t worried. I’d fashioned my own net, casting it in the shallows. The nights were clear, blazing with stars, the days hot. I busied myself forming a more permanent shelter. Four sunsets after I’d last seen my sister, I’d fallen asleep as always yet as sleep left me, I had the sense that someone watched over me. “Jes…,” my eyelids fluttered
A soft warmth had settled over me, it smelt of the sea with an underlying musky scent reminiscent of pipe smoke. my dreams fled. I started awake, “Robert!” The sea captain sat across from me on a hollowed log. A wan smile formed on his lips. I scrambled up on all fours, his navy blue coat slid off my shoulders. “You’re—,” words failed the relief brimming in my heart. I wholeheartedly embraced him
“Alive, yes,” he laughed gruffly, holding me at arm’s length to look me over. I felt more than glimpsed his eyes linger on my sunburnt legs peeking out from the tattering ends of my dress. “Are you quite alone?”
He nodded, “I made landfall alone. None of the men would set foot here,” his gaze roved over the sand dotted with my bare footprints, the trees and pile of broken clam shells and fish scales.
“They think the island’s cursed. In the language of the sea, Nuhl Ait is a feared name known as a no man’s land.”
“No man.” I reminded. “Not woman. What? Did they think this was home to Odysseus’s giants?”
“I’m afraid not. It’s a far different legend associated with this place. The sirens dwell here, luring men from far out at sea to their deaths on the treacherous reefs not two leagues distant from land. Those unlucky enough not to perish in the sea are otherwise taken down into the depths where they’re savagely torn apart limb by limb. These creatures are bloodthirsty monsters, consuming the flesh of man.” Jessamyn’s blood red lips flashed across my mind’s eye. I shuddered. Her strange words as if it was getting harder and harder to remember me as her flesh and blood. I couldn’t contemplate this fresh horror any longer, huddling in his shadow for comfort.
“Then, how did you, sir, come here, with so brave and stout of heart?”
“If there was the slightest possibility you’d been swept here by a fickle current…I couldn’t live with myself knowing I’d abandoned you to a horrifying death.” Said he with utmost sincerity. “I…not three days ago as our prow was bent toward a return to familiar waters, the first mate espied a strange fish swimming alongside us. Being of superstitious mind, he thought it an ill omen. The fish was most peculiar, cutting across our forward progress, darting to the side as if to lead us on. I knew not whether this was some new devilry or a sign from God himself, but I bade our course changed and a fair wind came along to hasten our arrival.”
Robert touched my face, my cheek crusted with sand. “Truthfully, when I set foot on this island, I had little hope remaining of ever seeing you again.” Emotion thickened his voice. “I should never have allowed in good conscience for you to board my ship. Landlocked and safe, that’s where you belong, my lassie. Could you ever forgive an old sea dog for his foolishness?”
“A-Anything, Robert.” Inside, I quailed for Jessamyn had lured him here. For what purpose I could not divine though my heart sought the goodness of her intentions; I worried too, for the sea only knew how vast her hunger might be. “Robert, I thank you for your care during the long voyage…also for the dedication to my sister, but she…,” I tore at my lip, drawing blood. Some of it seeped inside my mouth, moistening my thick tongue. “Oh, Robert! It’s terrible….but, you must understand, I can’t leave here! Not now! Not ever!” The longer I stared into the boundless depths of his blue eyes, I knew I could no more explain the bond my sister and I shared than destroy it with careless words. As a final motion of severing my ties with our England, I bowed my head, brushing my rough lips over his folded hand.
Somewhere above me, Robert exhaled a resigned breath. “I was afraid you’d say this. Blaming yourself for Jessa…it was, I, Pippa. I, who should shoulder the blame.”
Wordlessly, my head lifted, not quite able to comprehend his words. Some coldness in his gaze caused me to draw back against my bower of leaves. He scowled at my withdrawal as if it displeased him. “I was the one who drove her away.”
“But,” my fingers dug painfully into my thighs. “Why?” My voice had become a plaintive whisper, a child’s whimper so low and soft, it was easily lost in the roaring tide of my heart.
“Because, …I love you.”
“No.” As if that simple denial encapsulated my horror at the lie he lived.
“You, Pip. So young and vibrant. You made my old heart yearn again for the days of my youth.”
Robert’s words made no sense to me. I, who had languished with my toys and children’s games when other girls my age were seeking matches, talking of roses and their hair done as proper young ladies would. I cared not for those things, they were my sister’s world…she, the one who had seemingly grown up past the age when a spinning top might delight the senses.
He had not finished his soliloquy. “Watching you sprawled on the floor, your skirts spread out over your striped stockings. Toes wiggling while you played nine pins with the cat. You wore your hair in ribbons and I thought you quite a child still! How blind I was when the thought of you so childlike and innocent clouded my very existence.”
“-oh! Jessamyn…she aged me with her talk of household, burdening me with her sorrow of no children.”
The wind whipped my skirts into a frenzy, tearing my hair loose of its lily binding. I watched him splay his hands open palmed to me, the look in his eyes pleading for me to understand. “Can’t you see, Pippa? I am old…yes, but how could I think of building a life with someone who thought of me as one almost dead?”
It was…true. I went numb all over recalling Jessamyn’s words to me after her final wave to Robert had vanished. She had whispered to me of his cargo, his worth and the fine house he was building on the Cape. The house that one day might be ours….if my sister had been guilty of anything, it had been her fierce love for me and her need to provide for our futures in a time when society wasn’t kind to women alone.
“I…I can’t forgive you.”
“Even when…Jessamyn is dead?” Robert’s voice echoed with the utter hollowness of the forlorn. He stared at me with an expression of misery. “We’re both freed with her death…now,” he extended his open palm to me as if it were a lifeline. “Come to me.”
Robert was wrong. I couldn’t forgive myself; with my very existence, I’d driven my sister to flee from the sight of her former love, to cast everything aside…the sob caught in my throat. It was all so monstrous that I could hardly bear myself. “Don’t…,” I blubbered, thrusting my hand out. “Don’t come near me.” The powdery grains of sand clung to my bare feet as unsteadily, I backed away. “I don’t…love you. I can never love you!” I turned in a single violent motion, running against the wind. The shredded tatters of my nightdress slapped against my legs. I knew he’d follow. He was no more a victim than I, snared in our emotions, trapped in a useless cycle.
Jessamyn had taken herself away to give me a shot at happiness when she hadn’t understood my feelings at all. Without her…, I ran along the sand bars, splashing through wet spray that soaked my body. Robert was nearly upon me, seemingly possessed of a young man’s strength this night; he caught me ‘round the waist and held me thrashing against his broad form. For a moment, he had secured me beneath his arm, then I twisted around and sunk my teeth into the wet matted hair of his forearm. Robert howled and his grip slackened momentarily. Leveraging with my arms, I kicked and punched my way free, falling to the sand. In another moment, he’d be upon me…he’d force me back to the Maida where the surgeon would put me under. His madness had spread thus far, he’d marry me in their company, taking me back to his house on the Cape, where I’d spend my days locked away until he tired of me…or I escaped. He’d…take me from her.
One last surge of energy flowed to my limbs and I pushed up to my feet, not running from the surf and the Maida _]in the distance at anchor, but running into the water. My legs instantly slogged down, the soles of my feet tore with the jagged edges of broken shells. Still, I pressed on disregarding Robert’s useless splashing. He was a man of the sea, but [_she was of the sea. I closed my eyes as arms snaked around me, they were wet and slippery like the seaweed that washed up on the shore, they smelt of brine and their embrace fastened tight around me, drawing me deeper into the depths of the sea.
AN: Happy Late Birthday to me \(• ◡ •)/ ! No flames, onegai, reviews are love =D