When I was a child, my father gave me three great treasures. He gave me an education, and he gave me a family to look after me, and he gave me the voice of a mermaiden. It was a lot more than other little girls got and I should have been thankful, yet I would have have traded it all in and more for a father less absent from my world. I idolised the very ground he walked on and I wasted countless days of my childhood staring out to sea, watching for a rare glimpse of his ship coming to land.
My father was a traveller – a successful merchant no less. Bold, brash, lavishly dressed, and ever so slightly plump from the excesses of his middle age, he always wore a knowing smile whenever he saw me running up to the docks. He would ruffle my hair with his ringed fingers and call me “little empress” to make me laugh. That last was a joke, for I, in my modest, mud and salt-stained shift dresses was a far cry from the exotic and beautiful ladies who inhabited his tales. Whenever he arrived ashore, after months and sometimes years since his last visit, I would creep out to the grotty dockside tavern the Sea Serpent, which was ever the first port of call for him and his entourage once the cargoes had been unloaded. There I would listen from the rafters with the owner’s son as my father and his men raucously filled the place with their wild and fabulous stories. With my eyes closed I would sit enraptured, drinking in every detail with delight and for month on month afterwards I would try to bully any young companion I could find into half-remembered re-enactments where I was to play the part of the beautiful queen of some far flung land, and they were to be my slaves.
His visits were always fleeting, like the winds that brought him, and as I grew older I slowly shed any delusions I had entertained that I was the focus. My father came for business and he would be gone again as quickly as he arrived; carried away once more by the winds that were his trade, perhaps to some other daughter in some other port (for on those drink fuelled nights he certainly boasted of many women). And yet I wasn’t nothing to him, for he might have left me in the gutter like so many other urchins who crept like wasting spectres round the city walls, and instead he always took it upon himself to check upon my tutoring; to reward Serena, the brothel’s matron who was my keeper; to ruffle my hair and and often to give me some sweet treat from his travels. A handful of sticky rice balls, a trinket box of powdery sugar, sometimes even a heavy, battered coconut; small pleasures, gratefully received and rapidly consumed before any other children could find out about them and swipe them from me or demand a share. But once, when I was about ten years old, with as much ceremony as I had ever been treated (and by that I mean he arranged to speak with me alone and asked, with an uncustomary graveness that I didn’t question at the time, if I would accept this small and inadequate gift along with the love it symbolised), he gave me the voice of a mermaiden.
It was contained in a little box crafted so expertly from an amethyst clam shell that it was impossible to see a hinge even when it was opened. Inside was a huge white pearl that shone with iridescent grandeur, sat upon a soft, red cushion that lay like a tongue in the base. But it was the sound that made me cry out with joy and surprise when I first opened it – a haunting voice that rung out as clear as birdsong in the morning. I couldn’t possibly imagine a gift more beautiful, and yet I was awfully afraid that the mermaiden would want her voice back, and would come searching for me with vengeance in her heart (for, like all children, I knew from stories that the Mer people were fierce and wicked and delighted in the sight of drowning men). My father laughed when I told him, and stroked my hair fondly.
“I don’t think you need worry little empress. The mermaid shall not come here, for we are very far from her home and she does not know the way.”
“Are you very sure?”
“I am as sure as the sea is blue.”
“Sometimes the sea is grey, not blue.”
“Ha! I see your tutors are schooling you well. But in the East the sea is always blue my precious, like the jewel for which you are named. I shall take you there to see it when you are older.”
Though kindly intended, that thought would bring me little comfort, as surely if I travelled closer to the mermaiden’s home she would come for me there, but satisfied that at least at home I was safe I bit my tongue for fear that I would seem ungrateful and my treasure would be taken away. Besides, a time when I was older seemed a long way off.
“Why do you always leave just before the wind changes?”
“Because, my beauty, I am a man of the ocean. I must follow the good winds, else I may become stranded. For if you dally in a place too long you may well end up there forever.”
“Would that be so bad?”
“It would for a man like me.”
“I am an explorer and a trader, young Sapphire. To chase the good things in this world, as I do, I must be as changeable as the wind itself, and so we get along, the wind and I. She is good to me.”
But the wind was not always good to my father, and when he finally breathed his last breath of her and drowned in a stormy sea, the amethyst shell that hid the mermaiden’s voice was all I had left of him. He was right – the mermaiden never came to find me and claim it back. But somebody else did.
Part Two on Monday 9th August.