To the French it is La Manche; the English, naturally, call it the English Channel. But what name to they give it, those who dwell deep below its surface? They have a harsh, gloomy word for it in their tongue, which may be translated as the Wracks. There, the seabed is strewn with sunken ships, jumbled together by an ocean indifferent to their builders, their voyages, their wars; sprawling in every direction, some fallen on others, altogether making something like a city left to ruin, grown over with coarse seaweed, where toothsome fish gnaw on sailor’s bones and lawless mermen lay their plans.
Plans for what? For revolt? No; the word does not exist in their language. The ocean has borne witness to its share of great dramas, but revolution has not been among them. We might borrow metaphors from the sea when we talk of the revolutions of men, of tides and swells, currents and storms, but the sea herself would admit no resemblance between them. Underneath the wild tumult that she wears like a skin, ancient order prevails. The children of the sea live long, and live in plenty, if not freedom. To be beholden to the Sea-King and his vagaries is no great price to pay, when it means dwelling in his coral city, where the roofs are tiled with living oysters and the boulevards glow with trees bearing starry golden fruit.
For any who feel otherwise, the ocean is wide. It is easy to drift away until some other habitation catches hold of you. More often than not — whether due to the obscure whims of abyssal currents, or some strange magnetism of the place itself — that habitation is the Wracks, where the souls of the drowned snag in splintered hulls and the mermaids dance with wild lights flashing in their sea-black eyes.
It was from here, in the ruptured wreck of a once-proud warship, that a woman we should rather call mermadam than mermaid once stared up into the dark ocean heights. She cut a monstrous figure in the gloom, vast and barnacled, with her hair knotted into billowing nets and her tail bristling with spines. She possessed the swollen, deadly beauty of the deep.
‘There’ll be a storm this night,’ she said, in a voice full of teeth. ‘I feel it in my fins.’
This got the attention of her husband, a thin merman who, hard and bony, with staring eyes, long clawed hands and a skulking air, could easily be thought to have something of the crab in his genealogy. His wide, smiling mouth, meanwhile, suggested something of the shark.
‘That’s good!’ he came to the prow, and peered into the blackness below, called out: ‘Eponine!’ No reply came. ‘S’bones, I’ll scale the brat!’ he said. ‘Where’s she got to now?’
‘Out hunting treasure, no doubt.’
‘Eh! Why’d you have to go and teach her to read those books? Head full of pirates and pistols, what’s that good for?’
She gave him no reply, only carried on staring up as if she could see the massing clouds above the far surface. The merman cursed and dove over the ship’s edge, into the maze of narrow alleys defined by the hulls of great ships, some of which sat on the pale sand close as courting lovers though they had sunk centuries apart.
From the carcass of a ship almost thoroughly fallen in on itself, he saw the flash of a tail, and swam up close. There, in the shapeless shadows cast by the dim phosphorescence, was a young mermaid even thinner than he, almost a shadow herself, turning solitary circles around the white marble statue of a human girl and humming some tune she had doubtless learned from a dead sailor.
‘Eponine, get out of there,’ the merman said, grasping her by the bony arm. ‘You’ve work to do tonight.’ The mermaid turned pearly eyes on him and gave a dark grimace.
‘Have I now?’ she said.
What was she, the eldest child of this fearsome pair? A ragged sea-flower to outward appearances, a maelstrom within. She had the capricious heart common to all sea-daughters, and the treacherous beauty of the stillness that heralds a storm. When she raised her head above the waves, any who caught sight of her would see hair of shining bronze, floating in soft clouds around her; eyes that gently glowed, as round and faraway as two full moons. But below the surface, out of sight, she was sinew and bone, sharp claws and tattered fins. She swam with the starting, hungry movements of those indistinct predators of the deep that lie in beds of seaweed and strike without warning, a creature of shadow and swiftness propelled on two long, muscular tails.
Yet she was enamoured, as all mermaids are, of laughter and song and play, and the Wracks provided a playground exquisitely suited to her whimsies, furnished with ships to plunder and ghosts to taunt, ghosts who would rave about their homelands and their loves and the sweetness of the sun. What a strange world it sounded, endless and bright; she dreamed of it often, of waterless cities and burning light.
She had slipped away to see for herself on countless occasions, swimming as close as she dared to the towns that sat on the lip of the land, with their rows of shining houses all yellow and white. To see the people going about with their heavy, halting gait, free from the clutching of the ocean but tethered to the ground by their feet! She had seen feet on dead — on dying — men; how small, how impractical they were. Little wonder the men drowned so easily.
We have learned how she occupied her time, this sea-child; how, then, did her mother and father employ her? As a weapon, and a lure.
A soul swallowed by the sea is a sad thing, sickly and salted; dwindling to coral and weeds and, in time, to nothing at all. One that willingly descends, wrapped in the ecstasy of a mermaid’s embrace, is another matter: all that a soul contains — the fire of the mind and the forest of the heart, the strange constellations we call dreams and the deep wells we call fears — all this is preserved, half-living, half-knowing, all lost.
To save men from the former fate, and draw them down to meet the latter: such was the nature of Eponine’s work.
And so we see her now as she was on that night, gliding and leaping through waters that bucked and boiled, her moon-wide eyes keenly seeking for any poor ship in distress. From the towering crest of a wave she saw it, lit by a bolt of lightning that tore from the roiling clouds: a distant vessel, tossing on the furious sea. It was no effort at all for her to race the waves, diving into their bulging backs and rising again on their heights, until she could see the ship up close. A brave little thing, that ship seemed to her - so much smaller than many the sea had defeated before, yet still it set its groaning timbers against the hungry waves, the men on board crying out to one another. She could not hear their words, only their fear.
Had any spared a moment to glance down a the water, they would have seen a pair of shining eyes, circling closer. But none did; they were lost in their desperation, as if their voices were any match for the wind and waves. And, indeed, for a moment it seemed as though the frenzy of those shouting shadows had breathed a frantic kind of life into the ship herself. She dashed over the angry sea with stubborn animal spirit, escaping as if by sheer force of will the multitude of foaming mouths formed by the wind-lashed billows.
But she was one small vessel against the immense havoc of the sea. She pitched wildly as the waves kept up their assualt, and Eponine saw the form of a sailor flung from the rigging into the hungry black waves. He was immediately swept from the sight of those above, but Eponine would have no trouble finding him below. She prepared to dive — but as she did, a burst of lightning flooded the desperate scene, and in that moment all thought of the drowning sailor was struck from her mind.
There was a girl on deck, gripping the side, dark hair streaming about her face. In the instant of illumination, every detail of her was delineated in harsh white and plack, and in the soaked dress that clung to her skn she looked just like Eponine’s marble statue — except for her eyes, which fixed on Eponine’s with a queer intensity. She stood as if indifferent to the tearing wind and the clashing waves, as if the sea had caught her in some trance.
Eponine wanted, as she had never wanted anything in the great wide ocean before, to take that girl by the hand and lead her down, down to the dark passages of the Wracks, to have her as a playmate, to wreathe her in seaweed and dance with her among the old ship’s bones. It would be like having her sweet pretty statue come to life, to have it smile and join her conversations, to show it the secret places she knew and see its blank white eyes turn wide and lively at all the things Eponine had to tell and show it.
The sea, as if in tune with her thoughts, slammed again into the ship, breaking over the deck, and with a sudden cry — the first sign of fear she had shown — the girl was lifted off her feet and thrown to the waiting chaos.
Eponine plunged after her through the roaring gloom, saw her struggle against the inexorable swells, her dress billowing up about her and tangling in her limbs. Her reverie broken by the cold dark sea, the girl lashed back against the water, but she was losing the fight quickly. Eponine chased her down into the black, but by the time she clasped strong arms around the sinking form the girl’s flesh was already pale and cool, her eyes starting to flutter closed. A moment more and she’d be lost; now was the time to enchant her, invite her to the deathless world deep beneath the waves, to kiss the life out of her as they sank together.
The girl struggled once more, weakly, and Eponine found herself kicking against the tow, breaking the surface and holding her head above the water.
She could not say what had made her heart rebel — an unthought-of, reckless rebellion, when the endless sea itself had seemed so bent on taking this one down. She laughed suddenly at the thought. What could the waves do against her? The storm raged, tossing them where it would, but she kept them afloat, singing a jaunty tune she’d learned off a sailor.
They passed the night thus, Eponine putting all her resolve into this rash task that instinct had dictated to her, keeping her unconscious castaway from slipping under. She sang to pass the hours, and to drive from her ears the jealous roaring of the waves, which diminished with time to sullen mutterings.
Having nothing else to do, in this time, but to kick her tails in measured rhythm, with nothing to look at save for the girl and the endless waves — the ship, if it survived, was long gone from sight — Eponine’s thoughts began to turn contemplative. A mind that was so often busy chasing diversions, a being that seemed oftentimes to be composed of songs, chatter, wiles, whims and adventures, all light and fleeting things — none of this is to signify a being without vast depths. The teeming life at the reef’s edge might draw the eye away from the bottomless fathoms below, but whoso ignores the fathoms does so at their peril. Eponine, carried on that grim and featureless expanse of billows, rising and falling and rising and falling, felt her thoughts trembling on the brink of that steep gradient of the mind.
She would fall, periodically, into profound silences, and then burst into song again, mixing words and tunes from the chanteys she had sung earlier in the night. Sometimes she spoke to the cold, pale body in her arms, for all the girl heard nothing.
‘You mustn’t think me good,’ she warned. ‘I am wicked, but it’s all the same to me. No, it amused me to save you, that’s all it is. I’ve read tales — I can read, you know, and I speak French too, as you’d see if you were awake — most books go to pulp, but some are tough enough to hold their stories at the ocean’s bottom, and I’ve read tales where mermaids are kind. Ha! But I’m up for trying anything once, so why not, I thought, why not! Ah, I wonder which we’ll see first, land or daybreak?’
Then she would drop back into silence, and look from the blank sky to the ceaseless waves to the girl’s face, and in her mind’s eye perceive once more that sharp precipice beyond which swam great shoals of murky ideas.
‘There! It’s growing lighter, look!’ she said, and glancing down again, ‘and you’ve colour in your cheeks, too, which I’m led to believe is a sign of health among your lot.’
The ocean was almost calm again, and with the clearing sky and the first glimmers of dawn, it was possible to see the horizon — and there, distant but indisputable, was the low shadow of land. ‘Shall we race to shore?’ she asked; ‘No, it would hardly be a fair contest, would it? Come on, then.’
She closed the distance slowly, by her reckoning — although you or I would think it swift — and saw the land ahead resolve itself into pale cliffs. ‘That’s good,’ she told the girl, pausing to watch the cliff-faces turn from grey to gold in the sunrise. ‘I think your ship was bound this way. I know the port where they come in, isn’t that a bit of luck? Good thing I caught you, eh? Oh, there, you’re smiling. You look —'
But she did not know what she had meant to say.
There was not much distance left to swim, now, and Eponine soon had the port in sight, although she stayed wide of it to avoid the ships that came and went. She came to shore as close to the harbour wall as she dared, carrying her strange burden gently to the water’s edge, where the surf rolled sunlit and sibilant into the stony beach, placing her on a flat stretch of shingle among the rocks and the seaweed. Laid out there, in the morning blaze, the girl now looked nothing like a marble statue. She was pure radiance, a beacon; surely she would be easily found.
Eponine slid backwards in the water to a safe distance and kept silent watch, until one, then two, then a whole clamour of voices were raised; the shapes of men appeared on the beach. The girl was lifted and carried, amid cries of wonder and confusion from those who bore her, towards the long zig-zag track cut into the high white cliff-face.
But even when she was gone, the golden image of that shining figure lingered in Eponine’s vision, even as she turned, even as she dove back down into the deeps.