the girl’s mother waited by the lake
on an evening when the waters
were dark with night and the village lights
were like a hundred malevolent eyes.
the girl’s mother asked what she carried.
the girl replied that she carried
two loaves of bread. her mother said:
you bring no such things. those are stones.
and then no sooner said than the loaves
turned to stone and tumbled into the lake.
what have you done?—demanded the girl.
go to the bottom of the lake, her mother replied,
and see if you can bring them to me.
the girl’s mother left and the girl,
both frightened and determined, took off
her cloak and dress, pursed her lips, and dove
into the waters. she found the stones
but try as she might she could not lift them;
every breath turned to stone in her lungs
until she fell into the water unable
to even cry for help. the water flowed
into her lungs and at last she breathed again.
she could no more leave the water
than the fish, salamanders or the worms.
she hid among the rushes, watching
the villagers, longing to return.
she wept among the rough roots of the cattails
and slept the cold bed of mud.
she stole from the villagers. she ate
the fruit from the neighbors’ trees; she stole
the bread from their window sills
and for as long as she could hold her breath
she took evening’s salted and drying fish.
but one night a child cried thief!
and the girl was chased into the lake.
the winter’s ice crept into the shallows
and each night crept a little further. the girl
saw there soon would be no way out
but a brook that flowed into the lake
and another that flowed out of it. one night
when she was sure no children
played by the brook, she let the current carry her
where it would.
by now her clothes were gone. the water
felt more and more like her home.
she began to explore the pools and eddies.
the icy temperatures had no effect on her.
the fish were like birds and she grew unafraid
of the crawfish that curiously
nipped her toes and fingertips. for many days
she let herself be carried by the brook
that grew into a river. only on the last day,
when she had almost reached the ocean,
was she spotted. a young man gazed
in wonder. then ran to the icy shore
and offered her his hand thinking
that she had been swept into the waters,
but she only moved away. take my hand!—he cried.
no! she dove beneath the waters
only to hear him follow. no!—she cried.
she easily slipped his grasp again.
and again she pushed him away. the ocean
was near and yet she saw the young man’s strength
made listless by the icy waters. she knew
that were he swept into the ocean
he could not swim. she lifted him out
of the river and carried him to the riverbank
and made certain the waters could not touch him.
she took another breath from the river
and held his hands in hers
until at last he coughed up water.
he opened his eyes and for a spellbound moment
she could not turn her gaze away. only
when the river’s breath was gone from her lungs
did she leap into the waters
to finally follow its currents into the ocean.
each day in the ocean was lonelier
than the day before and every night
the winter’s long shadows grew deeper and darker.
one night she found the sunken remains
of a small sailboat. its hull was half-buried
in sand. she lay down on the deck
as if the boat might finally carry her away,
then dreamed that the little boat’s sail
mended itself, lifted itself out
of the sand and carried her
to a beautiful city deep beneath the waves.
she dreamed of a beautiful woman
who touched her lips and woke with a scream.
she saw the boat’s sail was mended.
then saw that the woman was no woman
but a mermaid. the mermaid grasped
the girl’s arm and swam with her to the ocean’s surface.
she fought to escape. she tried to speak
but when her lungs filled with air her cries
were mute. at last she twisted free and breathed
the ocean’s water.
the mermaid peered curiously
I can’t—coughed the girl. I can’t breathe the air!
the mermaid smiled quizzically
then offered the girl her hand and this time
pulled her into the depths of the ocean,
back to the city and its watery luminescence.
in every window the treasures
of a thousand shipwrecks were collected.
and peeking through the treasures
were a hundred curious eyes—merchildren.
then began to swirl from the windows.
and swirled closer and closer
until a little long-haired merboy
brought his nose almost to the girl’s.
what’s your name? he asked, and then girl laughed.
fear, sorrow and loneliness
floated from her like an unwelcome shadow.
I’m Marina—she said. how is it
that you can breathe? asked a mergirl.
I was cursed by my mother, answered Marina.
what mother would curse her child?
asked the merboy. the girl answered,
I carried two loaves of bread that my mother
turned to stone. until I lift them
out of the lake I cannot return to my village.
and you tried? asked the mergirl.
The more I tried, said Marina, the heavier
they became. where is your tail?—asked another.
and then a hundred questions followed.
the girl’s little sailboat that she now called Seadrift
was brought into the city. the girl
was given a place to live and every day
a merchild visited her with questions
she was called to babysit the merchildren,
to school them and to tell them about the world
above the waves. the merpeople
brought her delicious foods, weeds, plants,
and undersea fruits in return for her kindness.
though Marina had become a strong,
swift and skilled swimmer, she was no match
for even the smallest merchild. they
laughed to tears to see the girl kicking with legs.
as the winter’s days at last grew longer,
Seadrift took Marina to all the ocean’s
beautiful places and unerringly
returned her at nightfall. the little boat
had been stirred from its undersea loneliness.
it sailed Marina beneath the waves
as effortlessly as it had once sailed the surface.
instead of wind the sheets filled with the water’s currents.
by spring Marina was a young woman
and was filled with an unexpected gratitude.
the ocean was no longer a vast
and lonely place but a world
of inexpressible beauty, color, shells,
and ghostly luminescences; she loved
the dolphins and the whales that glided
hugely over the city wing to wing and nose to tail.
one day Seadrift took her back to the river
that flowed from her village. Marina
could taste the river’s fresh water flowing
into the salt. when Seadrift slowed
so close to the shore she knew
there was something there to see.
she floated atop the waves and saw him—
the same young man who had tried to save her.
he ran half ran into the water when
he saw her. she didn’t flee. words hung
at his lips. who are you?—he finally asked.
but Marina could no more speak to him
than he could have in the water.
she dove and having taken a deep breath,
she lead him to the sands of the shore. once there
she knelt and as one wave receded and before
the next could wash her name away
she wrote—Marina. are you a witch?
—he asked. no, she wrote, but I cannot breathe
the air. then were you cursed by a witch? —he asked.
yes, she would have said, and no,
I do not think so now she would have said;
but even as another wave receded
she wrote—No more than any man or woman.
and then because the last of her breath
had gone from her lungs, she dove beneath
but the young man followed her.
he lifted her in the waist deep waves
and by the small of her back
he drew her into a kiss. her eyes
grew wide. she had never kissed before,
and when he let her go it was more
than air that made her speechless.
he kissed her again and this time
she returned his kiss until she palmed
his shoulder, needing to breathe, needing
to be let go, she slipped beneath the waves,
then once more into the air some distance away.
his gaze was the sea she wanted
to swim in. she leapt, kissed him tenderly,
and slipped away as quickly. he said
My name is Aaron.
when she returned to Seadrift.
the boat returned her to the undersea
city of the mermen. but now all that Marina
could think of was Aaron. the merchildren wondered
what had made their companion so moody
but the mermaids knew. they knew well
the heart of a lovesick girl and they said to her,
come with us. with soothing words
and wily gestures the mermaids tugged
from Marina the silver thread of her sorrows.
poor child, said the mermaids,
you’re in love. there is no cure for that.
what will you do? you cannot live on land
and he cannot live in the sea. Marina
wept and resolved that she would not return
to the shore lest her heart break.
but Marina’s little boat, Seadrift, was steered
by Marina’s heart. the next time
Marina climbed aboard, the sailboat
carried her to the open sea where, without
breaching the surface, Seadrift sailed
beside a fishing boat so that Marina
could stand waist deep in the waves. Aaron
let go of his own boat’s rudder. he laughed.
he threw off his clothes and dove into the water
until he found his footing on Seadrift.
he marvelled at the little sailboat
whose hull floated beneath the waves. then he took
Marina in both his arms and kissed her.
and because love is also a desire
for the body, he kissed her throat, shoulders,
breasts. she slipped out of his arms to breathe again
he followed her beneath the waters,
following her breasts, abdomen, the skin inside
her thighs, and when it was his turn
to breathe, when he stood in the water
and she clung to him, he lowered her
as if to bed, as if she lay on her back, until her lips
lie just beneath the waters and his
just above. then he lifted her hips
and kissed until his mouth had moved between
her open legs. he didn’t let go or cease
until her spine had curled like a wave’s,
until he’d brought her tumbling like the tide
to shore. and when it was her turn,
moving beneath the waters where he stood
she took him in her mouth and did not let him go
until his salt flooded her mouth.
the lovers parted but knew
they would find each other again.
Marina could think of nothing else.
the beds of pearl, the sunlight of reefs,
the fish like many-colored birds were all
when she once more boarded Seadrift,
the little boat was as sure of her heart as the sun
is of morning. the boat took her to her lover
who waited by the gunnels as though
he’d been searching the waters all the while.
when he saw her he joyfully leapt into the waves
until he stood with Marina in the waist-deep waters
of Seadrift’s deck. he kissed her and then
before her breath ran short, he once more
lowered her into the water as if to bed.
she lay on her back and they kissed, her lips
beneath the waters and his above.
she once more opened her legs, then felt her lover
enter her for the first time. his motion
was like the motion of the sea, an endless rising
and falling at the shores of her womb until
the salt of his pleasure flowed into her and his waters
foamed at her thighs. then like lovers
they wanted nothing more than to fall asleep
in each others arms. he sat against Seadrift’s mast
and Marina lay her head in his lap.
they slept like that until the sudden thunder
of a midsummer’s storm woke them. Aaron swam
to his boat but it was too late.
a mighty wave broke Aaron’s boat in two
and though Seadrift sailed beneath the waves
she and her little boat were too late finding him.
he floated to the ocean floor, the breath
gone out of him. she took him in her arms
and though the waves that still foamed and crashed,
returned him to the surface.
her lover did not stir.
then without needing to be told, Seadrift
plunged into the ocean’s depth and carried them
to the mermaids. the mermaid’s rushed to meet her
and swirled round the lifeless man, but none
could help. Marina could only think
of one thing to do. she inhaled deeply,
brought her lips to his and exhaled her breath
into his lungs. his eyes opened wide
and he breathed deeply of the ocean’s waters,
but now Marina’s own breath faltered.
the Mermaids saw at once what had happened.
they raced with her to the ocean’s surface
just in time for her to deeply breathe
the salty air. then the mermaids brought Marina
to shore. she stumbled to dry sand.
the mermaids followed with sorrowful gazes,
rising and falling with the waves, then when they saw
that Marina was safe, they disappeared
beneath the surface. Marina, who had wept
when she first fell into the water,
now wept to leave it. she shivered. she saw
that she had been brought to the mouth of the river
that led to her village, so she went
to the river to clean the salt from her skin and hair.
she was astonished to see
the two stones that were like loaves
of bread, washed out and soon to be lost
to the sea. she knelt in the water
and was surprised by how easily she stirred them.
she lifted the first out of the water
and in an instant saw that she held
a newborn baby. she lifted the other stone
out of the river and saw that it too
was a newborn, a girl in her left arm
and a boy in her right. their faces were like hers
and like the fisherman’s. and seeing them
she couldn’t help but love them with all her heart.
but the summer’s sky is no blanket
to a newborn baby.
she nursed her children then found
a nearby village where she stole clothes
and small towels with which to bundle her babies.
she pinned yarrow, sweet fennel, and thimbleberry
to the line as a way to apologize
and as a promise that she would someday
return what she had stolen. her journey
by foot was more difficult than when
she had been swept downstream. yet all the while
her children grew ever more flush with milk
and warmth. they watched their mother and world
go by. at last Marina reached the village.
she found her mother’s house and knocked at the door,
and when her mother answered she saw
that she had aged beyond the years
she’d spent in the seas. her mother’s hair
was gray and her back was stooped.
yet how happy she was to see Marina!
she embraced her daughter and smiled joyfully
to see her grandchildren.
after Marina was warm
and fed her mother tearfully apologized.
no, said Marina, I saw so many
wonderful things, I lived in such
wonderful places, I dreamed such dreams
that I would never trade a single joy
or sorrow. where is the father?—asked her mother.
he was a fisherman, said Marina,
and I have lost him to the sea. then stay
said her mother and you will never suffer want.
and so Marina raised her children
with her mother. when they asked who
their father was she answered
that he was a brave and beautiful
fisherman but that only the mermaids knew
where he lived.
one day Marina’s mother kissed
Marina on the forehead and said her work
was done. she embraced her grandchildren,
a beautiful girl and boy as strong
and stout as his father, and returned
to the woods into which her own mother
once made her go. and then one day
Marina made her own children go into the world
and she wept for that more than she’d ever
wept for herself. but when her son and daughter
one day returned with children of their own, her joy
it need only to be said that when
Marina’s own hair was long and gray
she returned to the river’s mouth,
fell asleep on the sand, and dreamed—
a little sailboat named Seadrift
rose out of the water. Aaron was at its mast
for Seadrift had always known her heart’s desire.
her lover had aged but his desire for her
was ageless. he held out his hand and she took it.
she joyfully stood once more
on Seadrift’s little deck. her lover kissed her
and exhaled the tidings of the ocean
into her breath. they returned to the sea together,
hand in hand.
February 17th | by William Crimson