Featured Story • March 2016

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Three Hundred Years

 

Jeannette Ng

 
 

anchorite [ˈæŋkəˌraɪt]
noun
(archaic) a bride of Christ, who lives in religious seclusion, usually walled into a cell built against a wall of a church

 

The mermaid can only see a handspan of sky from the anchorhold. She can only do so when she is lying on the floor, but that is where she sleeps, so she doesn’t mind as she wakes each day to the patch of glorious, grey sky. The church bells sound. She crosses herself and tries to see only sky. She pours her heart out in prayer, raising her arms upward. Without a tongue, she can only hum her praises and petitions to the Father Above, repeating the tunes of the hymns her confessor has taught her, sounding the words in her mind.

The narrow anchorhold is built leaning against the north wall of the Church of Saint Mary in Chains, so as to never directly catch sunlight, one of the many things she is meant to forgo as an anchorite. Barely a room, it contains no furniture but a shelf and a bench by the two windows, one looking into the painted church, and one into the world outside. Her first confessor—almost two hundred years ago, now—had explained to her that it was because an anchorite is balanced between Lord Above and rabble of humanity. The shelf holds a book of hours, a tallow lamp, an unweighted scourge and a small rosewood box.

She hears a tap on the tiny door, too small for her to fit through. It is followed by the sound of the latch. She hums a greeting, but there is no response. She pushes out her fetid bucket of night soil and it is taken by weathered hands. There is a murmur approximating a prayer, but she is distracted. By her count, it is a minor feast day—the Feast of the First Martyrs of Rome—and that means that there will be seawater from the coast. Her hands clasp and unclasp, impatient at the promise of the indulgence. She imagines its salty, heady scent and its bitter-salt taste on her lips.

When it is finally pushed through, she presses her shaking hands into its lukewarm depths and gasps. She imagines it cool and enveloping her. She wants to summon in her mind undulating fronds of weed, cascades of shimmering fish and a landscape bright with coral, but all she can think of is the cacophonies of gulls and creaking masts. She has been on the surface too long. Her memory of seas and ships has been crowded with white sails and rolling floors; she no longer thinks first of dark, ominous glide of their shadows.

Biting her lip, she catches these vain thoughts and hums the refrain from Take Away the Dark Night, Lord, and Wash Away Our Sin.

She cups the soothing water to her face and pats a damp hand against her dark, matted hair. Each drop falls as a blessing and she breathes in salt and sea. Sighing, she tips the bucket over her tail, twisting it so that the water trickles into the dip in the floor, where it forms a small muddy puddle. She keeps the tips of her fins against it.

She gives herself a moment before pulling on the feast day clothes left at the door. The plain shift is coarse against her skin and the faded black gown that follows is no softer, but both are warm and the weight gives a measure of comfort. She prays as she dresses, mouthing the prescribed words over and over. Her hair she binds back with a cloth and tucks it all under a simple cap. After loosely tying on her plain belt, she sprinkles herself with the last droplets of blessed seawater and draws a cross in the floor. She kisses it reverently, focusing her thoughts on blood; red blood, spilt for her own salvation.

Voices chatter outside her window, distant and familiar. Laughter soars. Footsteps dance against the paving, chasing, skipping and wandering. Folk are gathering in the churchyard and in the market square beyond in the bustle before the feast day celebrations begin in earnest. The church will be selling ale when the bells ring again. She can hear the chatter of children and the hissing whisper of the gossips. They sometimes even tell a shadow of her story.

Once upon a time, a Mermaid rescued a Prince. She loved him with all her soulless heart, but he could not love her as she did him. She traded her fish tail and three hundred years as a mermaid for human legs, but still he could not love her. On the eve of his marriage to another, she was given a knife by the sea witch and told that she could trade his life for her three hundred years as a mermaid again. Or perish as the foam of the sea.

They do not know it to be her story, though. Like faraway islands of talking beasts and solid walls of flying snakes, the stories were but passing curiosities. And so, too, did they not know the bargain she struck with the sea witch. Her tongue for a chance at human love and an immortal soul. A mermaid could only win a soul if a man were to love her as his bride and promise to be true to her here and hereafter.

A soft knock on her church-side window summons her. She hears wood rasp against wood as it slides open. She hears the voice of her confessor.

She groans as she hauls herself from the muddy dip in the floor. Her hands find familiar holds in the stone walls both sides of her and her tail thrashes, throwing her weight against the solid wall for leverage. She winces as the dry scales scrape and chip. Cracked skin bleeds. Her thin, bone-white fingers hook themselves onto the window’s wooden edge and she pulls herself to the bench beside it. The stone has been worn smooth to her shape and she settles into it.

Her wax tablet and stylus wait for her on the ledge and she hesitates only a moment before taking them. She unfolds the tablet and her fingers play against surface of the dark wine-red wax, smooth and unbroken by the words of the days before.

“There is no sorrow except for in sin, my child,” comes the gentle voice of her confessor. He sits, as he always does, very close to the window, where he is but a jumble of features: an unblinking eye, a thick-palmed hand, a tight-lipped smile, a hooked nose. He is the first to call her his child, though she is far older than he is. She and her sisters used to mock humanity for their brief, fleeting lives, relishing their own three hundred years as mermaids. But even then, her laughter had been bitter, for humans possessed an immortal soul and the promise of a glorious world above the stars; mermaids are soulless and shall never live again. Nothing but an eternal night, without thought or dream, awaits her: she had no soul and now she could never win one.

She nods and, though she knows he can see her, taps twice.

“It has been three days since your last confession. Are you ready to write again?” He says this slowly, as though to a child. She glimpses his hand again as he scratches his nose. He has not always been her confessor; the previous one was sterner, and the one before less patient, but with a greater love for song.

She feels his scrutiny, though she does not look beyond the stylus and red wax of the tablet. Her shoulders ache and her torn scales feel dry again. She cannot see the sky from where she now sits. The constant knot she carries in her breast tightens, but she says nothing. She closes sore eyes, but there are no tears because there are never tears. Mermaids cannot cry.

“Confession will make a person as they were before they sinned, as pure and as lovely and as rich in all the goodness that belongs to the soul.”

It is a line from her book, though not from the hours. She has read it many times, fingers tracing each of the arching black letters on vellum. It advises that an anchorite should give confession as often as possible and that no vain thought or loose words should be left to fester upon the soul. It is a sacrament and a blessing, part of the life she has chosen to lead. She wonders again how confession applies to one who never had a soul, but she dares not ask.

“My child . . .” he stops, swallows; she can see his throat tremble. “Confession must be many things. It must be accusing and bitter with sorrow, naked and humble, fearful and hopeful, long considered and true. But most of all, it must be willing. I cannot and will not drag the words from you, not as my predecessors have.”

The mermaid shudders, not looking up, but hums the first lines from I am a Free Woman, but God’s Slave. She sets stylus to tablet, gouging words into the wax, crimson flakes curling around the grooves of the letters. Her heart pounds in her ears. She tries to start with trivialities: careless stitches in her embroidery for the church and drinking between meals. Counter to the outer rule laid down to govern her behaviour, she fasted when she shouldn’t and let blood without leave. Though the church holds that the flesh is but a torture chamber that imprisons the soul, it must not be destroyed altogether and any grief she intends to cause it must be done with leave of her confessor. He cares for her flesh more than she does, but he does not know what she has done. For all her careful detailing of her sins, there is one she cannot write.

He bids her to think on the Lord Above’s love for her, how bitterly He has bought her with His blood. Her confessor slips into one of his favourite allegories. He likens the soul bound in its sordid flesh to a lady inside an earthen castle, destitute and surrounded by her enemies. He speaks of how the soul, sublime and precious, is most beloved by Christ.

Yet she is only too aware that her barren, beating heart contains no soul. As an anchorite, she fled the world and has sworn herself as bride of Christ, giving herself over to His redemptive love, but each day she is reminded of how He loves not the weak, mortal vessel but the soul within.

She is nothing but sea foam.

With eloquent words, her confessor describes Christ as the most beautiful of princes who vanquishes the enemies of the soul and woos her with missives of love. His words echo the love songs of old, ones she used to hear as she lingered by the shores of a very different kingdom. He likens Christ to a number of names that mean nothing to her, only that He is more lovely, more swift, more strong, more vigorous. His face is a thousand times more shining than the sun and His voice is sweeter than honey. He beseeches only that He be loved in return.

And yet in her eyes, Christ has only ever worn one, imperfect face.

Her breathing falters and she chokes back her whimpering. Her grip on the stylus almost numbingly firm, she tries to keep writing but unsteady hands and shattered thoughts stall her.

Her confessor continues with his tale and she tries to focus on the calming cadence of his voice, rather than the substance of his words. She does not want to think about the blood of her Saviour, beading from His wounds, as red and as dark as wine. Her salvation is in His blood and He forgives her.

The bells toll and her confessor coughs. “That’s enough for today. I think we have made progress.” He does not understand why she reacts so to the tale of Christ. Perhaps he simply thinks her a fallen child of their mythical heaven. “Remember to read your hours.”

She has dropped the tablet and stylus, having wrapped her arms tightly around herself; her cursed tail. She tries to smooth her breath. Bowing her head, she passes him the tablet and stylus through the small window. She glimpses a gloved hand, a jewelled crucifix, the church’s stone floor awash with colour from the stained glass windows. And then, it is shut again.

Her entire body shakes, as she does every day after confession. His footsteps fade, but her heart refuses to quiet, still beating loudly in her ears. Her fingers crawl up the bare stone to her book of hours and pulls it from the shelf.

She tries to focus, but her ears stray to the voices drifting in from the churchyard. They are gossiping, laughing, teasing. A fiddle, mostly in tune, strikes up and there is clapping. She used to watch them dance among the graves from her window, but she does not do that any longer. Their simple, graceless steps do not fascinate so much as they remind her of what she has lost. She once danced with all the grace of a darting swallow, even as each step hurt as though she stood on blades. But no longer. It is only another thing she would need to confess.

Part of her relishes the sins she can confess, the sins she has words for, ones that can be contained upon red wax and melted away.

She turns page after page, each crowded with words. She comes to the only illumination in her book, a page devoted to the wounds of Christ. Her confessor had given her the page to sew in to remind her how Christ had loved: He let His side be open to show His heart, to show her openly how deeply He loved her, and to draw out her heart. She is meant to kiss each lurid red wound every day. Blotchy and oddly symmetrical, she knows the depictions of each of Christ’s wounds are nothing like true wounds; they are too clean, the colours too simple, too bright. Each of Christ’s gashes weep perfect crimson teardrops across the page. And yet, of her duties as an anchorite, it is this she finds most unbearable.

She crosses herself, closes her eyes and presses her lips to the page, the paint uneven and bitter against her cracked lips.

She remembers hands slick with warm, red blood and the cold, hard hilt of the sharpest knife in her hand. She remembers the metallic scent and the way the red simply bloomed against the white of his linen shirt. She remembers his last breath against her skin and the expression of his welkin blue eyes.

The ancient sea witch had told her forever ago that she could never win an immortal soul, unless a man were to love her so much that she were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon her, and the priest placed his right hand in hers, and he promised to be true to her here and hereafter. Then his soul would glide into her body and she would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to her and retain his own as well.

She allows herself the brief indulgence of her memories. She thinks on the feeling of his cloak around her naked shoulders as she sat on the marble steps of his seaside palace. She was as a plaything to him and he allowed her to sleep at his door, on a velvet cushion so that she would remain with him always. He took her everywhere with him and she followed, through woods and mountains, until her tender feet bled so that even her steps were marked. He often called her his little foundling and told her that she reminded him of a maiden who was lost to him, who belonged to a holy temple. Then he kissed her rosy mouth, played with her long waving hair, and laid his head on her heart, while she dreamed of human happiness and an immortal soul.

There are days she hopes that being here is enough, that somehow she could earn the love of Christ and with it, an immortal soul after all.

But those days are few and far between. Just as the prince could not love her without legs, Christ could not love her without a soul. There is no sea witch who trades mermaid tails for immortal souls. A voice, perhaps, for human legs. And mermaid hair for a second chance.

Most days, she wants only to beg for atonement, forcing her body through the devotions, even as she knows her heart is too heavy, too broken to love another, even one as glorious as Christ. She believes with the desperation of one drowning, yet she cannot bring herself to confess. During her earlier days at the anchorhold, when she had first crawled onto shore and begged the monks by the sea with her hands to take her in, she had hoped deprivation and penance would wear her down and that she could simply break herself into confession. Yet the words would not come. Later, she thought the kindness of her confessor would coax it from her, and still she could not.

But she has had so very many confessors.

She remembers his hands on hers, grasping together the sharpest knife and plunging it into his chest. She remembers the warm, royal blood falling upon her feet and the blinding pain as they grew together again into a fish’s tail. She remembers collapsing in the pool of his blood and hauling herself into the sea.

That was the sea witch’s promise, after all, that she could have again her three hundred soulless mermaid years if she were to use the knife.

She should never have told him. Her hands danced the tale to him as he found her crying. He was silent for a long time before he said to her: As you pulled me from the waves, I shall save you from becoming sea foam. I cannot give you forever; I cannot love you as you need. But I can give you three hundred years.

It was with those words that he put his hand on hers and unsheathed the dagger.

Clutching tight the closed book and pressing it to her heart, the little mermaid huddles on the muddy ground. She is soiling her feast day clothes, but she does not care. She mouths words, but has neither tongue nor breath to give them voice, choking on her own dry sobs. Her chest heaves and pain knots inside her. One day she will have the courage to etch her confession into wax. And then it will all melt away.

One day.

 
 

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Jeannette_Ng_smallHere are five facts about Jeannette Ng:

1) She grew up on the slopes of a dead volcano she believed would sink if a certain stone tortoise ever reached the top. This island is more commonly known as Hong Kong.

2) She wanted to change her name to Cinderella when she was six, but her parents wouldn’t let her.

3) Her teenage obsessions were: Old Norse, Wuxia, Harry Potter and overly elaborate soap opera plots. Not necessarily in that order.

4) She now lives in Durham (the one in the UK), atop a coal seam that doesn’t belong to her and surrounded by books she’s yet to read.

5) Her hobbies include arguing about the theology of religions that don’t exist and pretending to be a battle librarian. Some people call the hobby “cross country pantomime,” but this is a profoundly unhelpful description.

 

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