Miss Mori has been watching the woman opposite her since the first round of bridge. Her name is Miss Holst, and they’ve played as partners twice now: Miss Mori badly, and Miss Holst brilliantly. Miss Mori is more concerned about the strange planes of her partner’s face than whether either of their opponents still holds the King of Spades.
Miss Holst occupies a strange no-man’s-land between handsome and pretty. The delicate curve of her nose is at war with her strong, dark brows; broad, mannish hands seem to have been mistakenly attached to her fine-boned wrists. She would not be lovely to the untrained eye, but Miss Mori is a connoisseur of beauty.
Miss Mori says, “I can’t stand card games.” She is astounded at her own bravery.
Miss Holst turns. Her eyes, even when they catch the lamplight, are inky dark. One could call both Miss Holst and Miss Mori’s eyes brown, but Miss Holst’s are missing the warm honeyed tones of Miss Mori’s.
“Oh,” somebody says, mildly affronted. “I shan’t deal you in again, then?”
Miss Mori shakes her head. “No, thank you. Miss Holst and I” —she meets the ink-black stare again— “are going to take some air on the balcony.”
There is a sense of tension in looking at Miss Holst: the uncomfortable feeling of studying a sculpture and being uncertain of the artist’s intent. Miss Mori has stepped off the precipice, and it is up to Miss Holst to catch her, or to let her drop. She watches Miss Holst watching her. The other woman tastes Miss Mori’s vulnerability and smiles.
“Yes,” says Miss Holst. Miss Mori realises she has been holding her breath. “It is a little stuffy in here. I’m sorry, ladies, you’ll have to find another pair for the next game.”
On the balcony, the air is cold. It’s not raining yet, but the wind is from the south, carrying the twin scents of electricity and salt, a storm over the sea. It raises the hairs on Miss Mori’s arms, and the bare nape of her neck; the potential of it coils tight just below her ribs. There is a blister on Miss Mori’s left heel. She slides her feet out of her shoes, testing the waters.
“You have the upper hand here, my dear.” Miss Holst’s voice is low and somehow sinuous. It makes Miss Mori draw her shoulders down, lift her chin a little - not out of pride, but to expose the fragile hollow of her throat to the other woman.
Miss Holst’s eyes slide over Miss Mori’s face and down over the pale yellow dress Miss Mori had chosen, artfully tailored to create the illusion of a waist and hips on her narrow, androgynous figure. There is a cold weight to Miss Holst’s gaze; it’s like being pinned to a corkboard, trapped and treasured. She doesn’t stop until she has reached Miss Mori’s bare, pale feet.
“You seem to know who I am," says Miss Holst.
“Miss Mori.” Miss Mori hopes one day to offer her given name instead. “I’ve seen your botanical drawings. I like them very much.”
She doesn’t quite know how to explain that Miss Holst’s diagram of the chamomile flower had looked somehow more true than the plants in Miss Mori’s own half-wild herb garden.
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Mori.” The phrase sounds sincere and, to Miss Mori’s ears, faintly illicit. “Are you a botanist, then?”
“Hardly.” Botany is tangentially related to Miss Mori’s field of interest. “An amateur.”
“How do you spend your time?”
Miss Mori hesitates. Miss Holst’s bluntness is interrogative. Miss Mori feels tested, assessed for suitability, though for what purpose remains unclear. “I study.”
“Where do you study?”
“Oh, no, self-educated.” Her grandfather had not approved of women in universities. She had managed to persuade him that finishing school would not go amiss, but that was hardly an academic pursuit.
“You read, then?”
Miss Mori tilts her head, neither yes or no. Books flatten, they soften, they tame.
Miss Holst raises both her eyebrows.
“There is much to be seen in the world that hasn’t yet been captured by words.” Miss Mori hopes this will do for an explanation.
“I agree.” Miss Holst’s mouth curves, lips together. The upper one is thin and sculpted, an exaggerated bow; the lower is so full as to look slightly pouted. “The scope of natural philosophy is unimaginably vast.”
“Too vast,” says Miss Mori. “I’m afraid one must narrow oneself to make progress.”
“Perhaps. What field of study have you narrowed yourself to, then?”
Miss Mori, artful, lifts her head to look directly at Miss Holst again. “Beauty.”
Miss Mori next hears from Miss Holst in the form of a handwritten note. It reads: I am embarking on a project which will interest you. Meet me by the wharf at 10am. Miss Mori enjoys its presumptuous directness. The wharf is an odd choice of meeting place for two young women on a social outing. She stares at her strange mix-and-match face in the mirror as she dresses her hair, and wonders if Miss Holst, too, seeks to understand beauty.
Miss Holst is waiting already when she arrives. She is holding a flask from which a tendril of steam curls gently. The mersongs are distantly audible already; Miss Mori feels it more than she hears it; it tangles around her, like she is caught in a silken net. She has always been small; the eerie music makes her feel fragile.
As though listening to Miss Mori’s thoughts, Miss Holst says, “Are you aware of how little research has been done into the classification of mermaid songs?”
“I had one,” says Miss Mori, “on a necklace. Only a scrap of melody. A suitor gave it to me as a gift.”
Miss Holst gives her an enquiring look, head tilted, eyes narrow.
“I cracked it open,” says Miss Mori, “after he joined the army.” She does not mention that the voice of the sea-woman within was sweeter than anything her suitor had offered her. She hopes that Miss Holst knows.
Miss Holst carefully composes her face before she speaks again. “I see.”
Miss Mori wonders if Miss Holst thinks destroying the orb was petulant and childish. She wonders if anyone Miss Holst cares for has ever gone away to war.
“I have purchased a boat.” Miss Holst hands the flask of tea to Miss Mori, and leads the way onto the wharf.
The boat is beautiful, in the same way that Miss Holst is beautiful. An old fishing boat, repurposed, it has that same unsettling combination of strength and elegance. The hull is a beautiful curve that captures the eyes at one end and doesn’t release them until the other. It smells faintly of tar and fresh paint. Miss Holst smells of warmth and salt and rosewater.
“What’s its name?”
“Her name,” Miss Holst corrects. “Something so lovely must surely be a woman.”
Is there a faintly flirtatious tone to Miss Holst’s voice? Miss Mori wonders if Miss Holst is trying to tell her something.
“I am afraid I’m a woman of little imagination,” Miss Holst goes on. Miss Mori is only half listening. She is still enraptured by the boat; the sunlight on the water casts strange dappled patterns on the fresh-painted wood. “I was hoping you could name her for me.”
It takes a few seconds for this question to filter through to Miss Mori. She says, “Are you asking me to accompany you?”
Miss Holst blinks. It is one of those blinks which is a gesture, not merely an instinct. For a moment her impenetrable eyes soften. “I assumed you - I had hoped…” For the first time, she looks self-conscious. The close-lipped smile, Miss Mori realises, is a way of concealing a gap between her two bottom front teeth. “I mean, I can find someone else, if you like.”
Miss Mori thinks of women and love and beauty. “Aphrodite.”
“The boat,” she says. “Aphrodite.”
“Shall we buy provisions before we head out?”
But the wind is against their faces, salt-scented and cool, and it brings a faint echo of music to their ears.
“It’s only for an afternoon.”
Miss Holst smiles. Reflected sunlight plays across her cheeks. Miss Mori offers her hand to stabilise Miss Holst as she climbs down into the boat. It is smooth and warm, and Miss Mori’s small fingers fit neatly within it.
Before she has a chance to feel apprehensive, Miss Mori follows, stepping cautiously onto the unsteady deck. And there they are, she thinks, as Miss Holst casts them off from the wharf: three beautiful women in search of kindred spirits.