Today is International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, a holiday decreed by fantasy author Jo Walton in response to Howard Hendrix, a guy who views people who put their written work online as equivalent to union scabs, or something like that. I, of course, have been putting fiction of mine online for quite a while now; see the links in the sidebar (under “Notable Dispatches”) and, of course, Book One of The Promised King.
Here is a story I wrote a couple of years ago, submitted once, and then forgot about after I stamped all over the rejection slip and cursed the editor who passed on it and vowed eternal vengeance upon him and his children. (Well, not really. But I was disappointed; I rather like the tale.) If you’re a newer reader who hasn’t read any of my fiction, I hope you like it and peruse some of my other stuff.
“Letter to a Mother, Gone to Sea”
Father is gone now, and I can finally come down to the Sea. The Sisters do not know that I have come here. I know that I will have to say extra penance for taking leave, but I had to come down and offer this message to the Sea. It may never reach you, and even if it does, I may never hear your reply. I know that has to be the way of it. You are from the Sea, and Father was from the Land, and there are laws governing such unions. We don’t speak of those laws, we who now serve the One God. But some of us remember them.
I have never told anyone the truth of my birth, of what my mother truly was. Anyone I told, like Father, would wonder if I belong to the Sea, or to the Land, or perhaps both. Maybe that’s the real reason I wrote this letter, and why I have braved the anger of the Sisters to come down and give this message to the receding tide. I wonder myself which is the greater part of my soul, the Water or the Earth.
My last memory of you is probably the last memory you have of me: on the morning I turned nine, you came to the side of my bed, and you kissed me and cried one tear. Then Father carried you down to the Sea, and I never saw you again. The next day Father and I left our little home by the Sea and went to the Mountains. When I asked, he would only tell me that you were gone to your true home. I saw that the question hurt him, and for that reason I didn’t ask him again. But I long wondered why your true home was not with him or with me. Part of me still wonders that.
I watched the Sea disappear behind our wagon, a little bit at a time as the hills surrounded us, until the last bit of blue water vanished behind one more hill. The moment when I will give this message to the water will be the first time in all the days since then that I have laid my gaze upon the Sea. There are times, however, when I keep vigil in the tower chapel and the wind shifts from the north and the west, and I catch the tiniest whisper of salt on the air, and I think of you. I don’t know if any of the Sisters realize if that bit of salt on the air is even there.
Father, it turned out, had cousins up in the high country, kinsmen of whom I had never known until we arrived there. He paid what little gold he had for a tiny parcel of land, and he pledged to them the fruits of his labor for the first two years in exchange for three cattle. Father knew cattle.
The days became routine very quickly, even in the colder months. There was work, always work, and there was prayer. And we read from Father’s books. He only had the eight books to read from, but how we read from them, both of us, by the light of the candles. After three years of such work, when I was twelve, Father and I went to sell our best cattle at market, and he bought two new books. Those books, perhaps even moreso than the provisions we bought, sustained us through a very cold winter. I like to think that you and he read those books together.
But even when we read the books, Father would become very sad whenever the words would speak of the Sea.
I didn’t ask him about the Sea until I turned thirteen. It was the only time he ever became truly angry. He forbade me to ever mention the Sea again, and he made me vow to never journey to the Sea until after he was dead. I feared at first that he might actually strike me, but he didn’t. He never raised a hand to me in the years we had together. I think he was always afraid to show anger toward me, and now I know why: he was afraid that I would leave him and follow you to the Sea. Even though he took me up into the Mountains, he always knew that my way would be clear, if I needed it to be. I would merely need to follow the streams and the rivers down to the Sea. Down to you.
What else of our life up there? Sometimes we gathered with other clans. The stories that we told around their fires were tales of magic, of beasts living in the mists, of mountain hollows where thieves and brigands and outlaws lived. Father knew so many tales. Is that one reason you loved him?
And one time a King’s Man actually came riding up our road. How handsome he was in his finery! But he had come only to give us news that the old King had died, and his son had been crowned the new King. Tidings came slowly to us. Wars were over before we ever learned they had begun.
Our only other connection with an outside world was through the Brothers in the Monastery and the Sisters in their Convent. Father never really trusted them, but how I loved the music that echoed through their halls, music that had been brought here from a place called Rome, on the other side of the world, and that hadn’t been changed in something like a thousand years. In that way their music is much like the song of the Highland folk. Do you have music in your world, out there beneath the waves?
Father first became sick two winters ago, and he was never truly strong again. I think he knew from the first night of coughing that he was going to die, but he never let me see the fear in his eyes or hear the sadness in his voice. That is, he didn’t think I saw those things. But I did. He tried to hide it from me, but I always saw the pain in his body and in his heart. Sometimes he would spend a long while just gazing off into the distance. I know now that he was really looking down the Mountains, down toward the Sea.
Father became weaker and weaker as the days and months went on. He called it “the Fever”, but I think he started getting truly sick when he took you back to the Sea. I could see that Father was wasting away, and I finally knew that he was never going to get stronger when he sat down beside my bed one night and, before blowing out the candle, spoke to me of you.
I think that we both wanted to speak of you many times before that, and maybe if we had, Father’s heart might have been stronger when the Fever came, and maybe I would have found my place between the Waters and the Earth. But I was afraid that speaking of you would cause Father too much pain, and he was afraid that speaking of you would kindle in me an unquenchable yearning for the Sea. And thus he would lose me, as he lost you.
He told me how on a stormier day than the other fishermen would brave, he took his nets to sea anyway, and how he was caught in a terrible squall within sight of land. He told me how his boat sank from beneath him, and how when he himself was swamped by the waves, you came to him. He told me of the strength he felt in your arms and in your tail as you propelled him forward, toward the shore; he told me that fighting the seas and the tides and the waves and the winds nearly killed you. When he pulled himself up onto the shore at last, and took air into his lungs again, he found you beside him, near death. And though he had been told throughout his childhood that mermaids are dangerous creatures – “To care for a mermaid is to lose your heart to her forever,” the fishermen say – he brought you to his cottage and to his hearth, where he brought you back to health.
He told me how you soon took the form of a human woman and exacted that fabled price from him: you laid claim to his heart. But what the legends didn’t reveal was that a man could lay claim to the heart of a mermaid in equal measure, and that you thus became his wife, and that you bore him a child…a daughter. Me.
Father began to weep when he told how you became weaker and weaker with each passing winter that you spent on the land, within sight of the Sea but never returning to it, and he told me how he finally realized that you would have to return to the waters if you were to live. Thus he sacrificed a life with his love that she might live, though it meant that he could never see her again. Even so, the memory was too painful for him at first, and that was why he brought me to the Mountains. That, and the fear that I would be more mermaid than maiden and that I would follow you into whatever realm lies beneath the waves.
It never occurred to me, until after Father told me all this, how it must have hurt you as well. If you had decided to stay, you would have died. If you had decided to stay, you and Father would have no more been together than if you left. I suppose that Father’s choice was between you living and you dying, but to still be with you was forbidden. That is the true law of unions between man and mermaid.
Father died on the first day of Spring, as we reckoned it up there in a place where the snow still falls and ice still forms on the pools in the streams in the heights of summer. The Sisters came to us in his final hours, that he might not die unshriven, and they took me in after they buried him in the yard within their walls. They gave me sanctuary, and have asked me to become one of them. I have not yet decided. I am not certain if that is my way, or even if I shall return. I do not know what I shall feel, when I stand once more at the side of the Sea.
Father knew that I would come to the Sea, though, for his last words to me told me something that you had told him. “If you wish to speak to the mermaids,” he said, “you can only wait until one of them comes unbidden to you. But it is also said that the mermaids read the messages that are written by those true at heart, who then seal their words within a bottle and throw the bottle into the Sea. Do that, sweet Daughter. She will find your message, so long as you are true at heart.”
Father’s words are all I have now, Mother. I do not know if I am true at heart, but I hope that I am and that these words find their way to you. But you are just one mermaid, and I am just one girl, and the Sea is so very wide.
I hope that when I stand beside the waters, I realize my place. Perhaps it is beneath the waves with you, or perhaps it is amongst the hills of the Highlands. Soon I shall know. I set out for the Sea as soon as I write these last words. Perhaps you will be there, waiting for me. Perhaps.
(This is the text of a letter found inside a corked bottle on a beach near Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1957. Scientific analysis suggests that the paper on which the letter is written is over two hundred years old. It has been hypothesized that the two spots of water damage on the paper are tearmarks, but residue in one of the spots suggests that this spot may not be the tear of a human.)