Friday, 8 August 2014

The Clam Keeper and the Sailor

Here comes story number five in Folk Tales of the Sea People. This was actually the first one I wrote, but when I came to putting them together as a set, I juggled them around a little.

For anyone new to this blog, Folk Tales of the Sea People is a project I started in order to work towards two goals from The List: to write 10 stories of over 1000 words, and to paint 52 paintings in one year (goals number 046 and 055 respectively). Click the link above to read more about the project. It will open in a new window so you can still read this story...

The Clam Keeper and the Sailor, July 2014

The Clam Keeper and the Sailor

Long ago, when land-walkers still sailed the seas in wooden ships with sails, there lived a clam keeper. Her name was Maya, and she dwelt in a house of shells at the edge of the clam fields. Upon her birth, the gods gifted her with great beauty. Her hair was a deep green and fanned about her like a cloak, and her scales were a flawless, iridescent grey which shone like armour. Maya’s eyes were black as the abyss and her tail strong and supple, and she was very much sought after by the men of her tribe. Yet Maya cared little for their promises of countless children and grand houses in the centre of the kingdom’s biggest cities. When she came of age, she left her family and went to tend the clam fields on the outskirts of the kingdom.
Like many of her people, Maya was blessed with a beautiful voice, and she sang as she worked in the fields. The clams opened and closed in pleasure when she sang, as though smiling and laughing. Each day she spent hours within the fields, clearing away weeds and ensuring the clams grew grand and strong for the days they would be plucked away and taken into the city.
Often, men from the nearest village would pay visits to Maya in her house and beg of her to court them. Rich or poor, young or old, Maya turned each away. It was true that she longed for a companion, but she wished for one whom would not brag of his conquests or make grandiose promises, who would not wish to carry her to his house and keep her there to bear his children. Maya longed to find a companion who would allow her to be free and equal to him, who would love and respect her.
Maya grew tired of the persistence of the men and their repeated promises. When she saw them from the distance, she swam purposefully for the surface to escape them.

Maya liked the surface. The air was different out of the water and the sun was warm on her scales. She favoured a particular outcrop of rocks on an uninhabited island, and liked to sit there and sing idly as she braided her hair.
The island was half-sunk into the sea and there were a great many dangerous rocks surrounding it, so Maya knew she was safe from land-walkers there. As time went on, and visits from the men of the village increased, Maya went to the surface more and more.
One day, as she surfaced from the water, she saw a boat. It was smaller than the great ships she had often seen glide across the water, and held only one land-walker: a man with two legs. Before she could dive beneath the water once more, the sailor called out to her.
“Ahoy!” The sailor called out. “Did you fall overboard?” He leaned over the edge of the boat and held out a hand. “Let me help you.”
Afraid, Maya shook her head. The land-walker’s words were foreign to her and she struggled to understand. From the shipwrecks she had witnessed, she understood ‘overboard’ and ‘help’, but the sailor was not in trouble like the poor land-walkers whose limp bodies had sometimes sunk into the depths of the ocean.
The sailor smiled and called out again, and Maya realised he wished to help her.
She swam a little closer, curious to see what a living land-walker looked like. The sailor was handsome, she realised, and young. His skin was brown like a nut and his eyes blue as the sky. Soft dark curls stuck out from beneath the cloth on the sailor’s hat, and his outreached hand looked firm and strong.
As Maya swam closer, the sailor’s eyes widened. “Sirène!” he cried out in surprise. He pointed at her.
Sirène?” Maya repeated. She understood the sailor. ‘Sirène’ was his people’s word for her kind. “Sirène,” she confirmed, nodding. Then she pointed at the sailor. “Land-walker.”
The sailor looked confused, so Maya said it again, finger still raised in his direction.
“Oh!” The sailor began to laugh. He pointed to himself. “Human.”
“Human…” Maya smiled. She liked this handsome sailor. His face spoke of adventures and kindness. “Land-walker,” she said playfully, nodding. “My name is Maya.”
The sailor tried to repeat what she said, but Maya shook her head. Pointing to herself, she repeated her name. She looked at the land-walker. “Human name is...?”
Though her words were mostly foreign to him, the sailor understood her question. “Etienne,” he smiled. Though Maya’s appearance had shocked him, the sailor had become curious at her visage. He had only heard stories of Maya’s people and knew that to see one was bad luck, but Etienne knew not why such a woman would cause ill fate to seek him. Maya appeared to be harmless. He thought her to be beautiful. “You are very pretty,” he told her.
His words were beyond Maya’s comprehension, but she recognised the expression upon his face: she had seen similar on the faces of the men who would court her.
Maya swam to the edge of the boat and smiled up at the sailor. “Etienne.” She tried to remember the sounds that the sailor had made. “You are very pretty.”
Etienne laughed and shook his head. “No, I tried to say that you are very pretty. Maya, Beautiful.”
Maya nodded. “Maya beautiful.” She searched through the words he had said. “Etienne beautiful. Beautiful human.” The land-walker’s words were strange in her mouth, so she repeated herself in her own language too. Maya’s own words were far more melodic than the sailor’s language and Etienne quickly became enamoured by her.
They talked – using her words and his – until the sun became low in the sky. Etienne looked up suddenly, his expression one of worry. “I must go!” he exclaimed. He motioned in the direction he had sailed from, all sea but with land and the safety of the harbour just beyond the horizon. He began to pull up the anchor, and Maya understood his meaning.
“You must go,” she held out her hand. “Goodbye, Etienne.”
Etienne took her hand and kissed it. “Goodbye, Maya. I wish I could see you again.” He looked sad.
Maya held his hand tightly. “Tomorrow. When the sun is high.” She traced the sun’s path through the sky with her finger, stopping at the point where they should meet.
“Tomorrow at noon,” Etienne kissed her hand once more before he let go, and smiled. “Goodbye.”
As Maya swam away, Etienne hoisted the sail of his boat and turned for home. His heart felt warm as he thought of tomorrow’s meeting with the enchanting woman.
Maya dived beneath the surface as the sun sank below the horizon. The sailor had thrilled her and whilst their languages were different, little could be lost in expression and body language. She knew that he found her attractive. Maya felt the same way for him.

They met the next day, and the next, and every day after that. The days became longer as what Etienne called ‘Summer’ came along, and Maya slowly learnt to speak in the words of the land-walker. Etienne brought her things from the land every day: a wild flower, a feather, a scrap of silken ribbon and a tiny picture of what Etienne called a ‘cat’. Maya brought items from the sea: old shells from long-departed creatures, seaweed and silver scales as big as her hand.
At times Etienne begged her to sing for him, for his people had a legend that the Sirène’s voices were enchanting beyond imagination. Her voice was surely as beautiful as her soul, he said.
But Maya always refused, for she knew that the legend was true. A Sirène’s voice was a human’s weakness and could only bring destruction. She told him so, sad that she could never share her music with the one she loved—for love him she did. It was a secret she kept close to her heart. Maya realised too late that she should never have met with Etienne again. It would be impossible for her kind and his to become companions. They were too different. But Maya could not stop herself from meeting with Etienne. He was interesting and lovely and he did not boast or treat her as though she was less than him.

When alone, tending to the clam fields or late at night on the rocks, Maya sang mournfully of her hopeless love. The clams still opened and closed to her voice, it was no longer as if they smiled but that they cried silently in wake of her sad song.

“I wish to sail around the world in this boat,” Etienne proclaimed one day. Maya, who had pulled herself onto the edge of the boat, tilted her head. “Around the world?” It sounded like a wonderful adventure to one who had never left her own kingdom. Etienne had told her much about the different kingdoms he had travelled to and she now longed to explore the seas.
“You could come with me,” he told her. “You can swim and I will sail, and we can explore above and below the sea! Every evening we’ll sup upon fish and share our new findings.” His eyes shone with excitement.
“I…” Sadly, Maya turned her head away. “No. I cannot go.”
“Is it improper?” Etienne took her hand. “If it is improper, marry me. Become my wife. We can explore the world.”
“It’s a wonderful dream,” Maya held Etienne’s hand tightly, but could not bear to look at him.
Etienne tilted Maya’s chin with work-roughened fingers and kissed her softly on the lips. “I love you, Maya,” he said. “Whether you love me or not, please consider my invitation. I wish to see the world with you. I wish you would consent to wed me.”
Yearning for more of his touch, Maya circled her arms around Etienne and he held her against his strong chest. She could not speak: her answer would only harm him. She could not express her love for him, for denying him would be even more painful.
As Etienne stroked her hair and murmured words of apology for being too forceful, Maya knew that she must put an end to their friendship. She would return to the clam fields and Etienne could marry a beautiful land-walker who would sail upon the seas with him in his little wooden boat.
“I must go,” Maya said, barely comforted by Etienne’s hands and words when she knew that she must break his heart. “Tomorrow,” she told him. “Tomorrow, I will answer.” Maya needed the dark hours to think of how she could bear to deny him. “Goodbye.”
She leapt into the water before Etienne could respond, but watched him secretly from beneath the surface as he sailed away. Etienne looked sad.

The sea must have felt Maya’s unhappiness the next morning, for the waters were rough. She swam to the surface early and watched the storm from her favourite rocks. The sun was obscured by black clouds but Maya knew that Etienne would not arrive at their meeting place for some time. As the storm continued to rage, Maya hoped Etienne would not come. She hoped the gods would keep him at home and make him forget about her, so she did not have to break his heart.
Maya lifted her voice amidst the whistling wind and roaring waves, and sang of her pain and her wretchedness: an opera of a love that could never be. The thunder was the pounding of her heart and the lightning became every moment their eyes had met; the waves at her tail were his hands and the wind his breath against her cheek. But she was alone. Alone she resolved to remain, until she died. She could not have her love and would not take a companion she had no space in her heart for. Maya’s heart was filled to the brim with Etienne.
Maya wept as she sang, pouring the feelings of her heart into her song.
“Maya!” The voice was almost lost upon the waves, but it shocked her into silence. Etienne was there! Maya looked for him and realised with horror that Etienne’s boat sailed towards her, uncontrolled upon the sea as Etienne stood as though hypnotised at the prow.
“Danger, stop!” Maya cried out.
Etienne smiled and held out his hands to her. “You do love me...” His smile was one of intoxication: he had heard her song, learnt of her feelings, but become enchanted.
“Stop!” Maya shouted again, wishing he would awaken from his trance. But it was too late. The rocks that lurked beneath the water ripped into the hull of Etienne’s boat with a sickening crack. Etienne was thrown overboard, his body swallowed by the waves.
Maya leapt into the water and swam toward where her love fell. She searched for him beneath the waves, batting shards of wood aside with her hands until she found him, body unmoving as it slowly sank. Maya wrapped her arms around him and swam toward the surface, but the currents were too strong and tugged them both deeper. Etienne’s body convulsed as his lungs fought for air and then he became limp and heavy.
Tears melting into the water around her, Maya carried Etienne’s body back to the clam fields. She knew that the vessel in which his soul resided was now dead, and that the dull, staring blue eyes would never shine with life again. It did not console Maya that her love had died in a trance, and would not have known any pain. Nor did it console her that Etienne’s eternal expression was that of a smile, or that he had died knowing of her love for him. Had she not loved him, had she never gone to meet him upon that day, Etienne would be alive. He would have been heartbroken, but a land-walking woman could have healed him. Maya would not forgive herself for causing Etienne’s death.
Though she could no longer help his body, Maya took his soul before the sea could sweep it away, and saved it inside a clam, which she kept close to her.

Maya never accepted another companion, and spent her life alone, tending to the clam fields. Each time a land-walker’s body drifted down from the surface, the grieving clam keeper was reminded of her love. Maya caught the soul from every one, storing them within the clams in the hope that one day the people who loved those souls would somehow become reunited with them. She knew not how, but thought it was better than those poor souls being lost within the sea.
And over time, unseen by anyone, Etienne’s soul became a beautiful pearl, shining secretly with its love in the darkness of the clam.

Folk tales are not always happy ones, are they? Last year, I painted an image based on the pearls idea, but never properly put it to writing until I wrote this story. Here it is--just a quick sketch in acrylics (to be honest I was using up leftover paint!)

Siren's Secret, 2013

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