Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Woman on the Pier

It's been a little over a week since I last posted a story and painting from Folk Tales of the Sea People.

As mentioned before, this project works towards two goals from The List:
046. Write 10 original stories of 1000+ words
055. Create 52 paintings in 1 year 
Today's story and illustrative painting are named The Woman on the Pier and incorporates the Näkki of Finnish mythology.

This is a story that I nearly didn't share. There are a few stories I wasn't going to post on this blog for various reasons, and this is the one I originally discounted first:
  1. The main character is referred to using gender neutral pronouns
    They/their/themself, singular form
  2. This story is not suitable for small children.
    Due to certain scenes within

Anyway, here it comes. I hope you enjoy it! :)

The Woman on the Pier, July 2014

The Woman on the Pier

Once upon a time, in an ocean far away, there lived a Näkki. The Näkki-folk are a clever race, for they are able to transform not only their tails to legs, as many races of the sea are able, but they can transform their entire bodies, appearing in a great many forms, without spells or glamour. Most Näkki-folk are known for preferring just a few forms, though each member of the race has a great many choices in how they appear. It is a much-admired ability among all seakind, and although Näkki-folk are solitary souls, they are held in high esteem in all society.

The Näkki of this story went by the name of Maayan, and their favourite forms were that of a handsome Siren man and a curvaceous Human woman. As a Siren, their body was slender and supple and their hair fell in black waves about their shoulders; their scales were blue and their eyes were purple. As a Human, their skin was soft and pale as the moon; their body curved smoothly, as sensual as a calm ocean on midsummer’s night. Their hair was the colour that Humans think of as red and their eyes were green.
Maayan was a happy soul, and lived close to the shore, for on a moonlit night, they liked to go to the land and dance upon the sand.

Then there came a time when more Humans began to live on the land, near where the Näkki dwelt. The Humans liked the sand too, and they built a great long pier out into the sea, for the ladies and gentlemen to walk upon. The pier went right over the place in which Maayan dwelt, though when building the pier, the Humans did not notice the Näkki’s house built into the rock.
At first, Maayan was pleased to have the pier. They liked to float on the water’s surface beneath it, and listen secretly to the conversations of the Humans walking above. Yet that enjoyment came to an end, for Humans are horribly destructive and untidy creatures. They soon began to drop things into the sea from the pier above, so much that Maayan’s garden became littered with their rubbish. All around the pier, the sea was filled with old rags, empty bottles and paper wrapping. Sometimes, Maayan found a ring with a precious stone, or a single earring fallen from its wearer’s ear. When they found those things, they snuck up onto the pier at night and placed them where a Human might find them.

One night, when Maayan was doing just that – adopting the form of a Human woman so as not to be thought suspicious – they were seen by some young men, who had crept onto the pier after leaving an inn. The men were intoxicated with beer, and laughed raucously when they saw Maayan.
Of course, Maayan, being a soul of the sea, wore no clothing such as the Humans did. It was natural to Maayan to be naked, and this drew the men’s attention.
“Lady, I can see your skin,” one man snickered.
Another stepped forward. “Come here lady,” he leered. “I’ll cover you all over.”
The men hemmed Maayan in and backed them against the railings. For the first time, Maayan felt scared. They did not think to transform into something that would chase the men away.
The men moved closer. One of them tossed his empty bottle into the sea.
“Do not do that,” Maayan said quietly.
“Do what?” another man said. “You do not like this?” He tossed another bottle over the edge of the pier.
“Do not!” Maayan exclaimed.
A third man stepped up close to her, his leering, drunken eyes roving over their body. “We do what we want, lady.” He lifted his hands to their breasts and Maayan screamed.
“Oh, poor little lady!” One of the men laughed. “We shall take great care of you.”
“We shall have great fun together,” another agreed.
“No!” Maayan pushed the man away, startling him with their strength. The men grabbed for them, but Maayan was too fast. They climbed over the railings and leapt back into the sea.
“Come back!” the men cried. From beneath the water, Maayan could see them looking over the edge.
One of the men removed his shirt and trousers, and climbed up onto the railings. “I shall bring her back!” he proclaimed brazenly. He landed into the sea with a splash. The cold water awoke his senses a little, for the man began to struggle and splutter. “I forgot, I cannot swim!” he called out to his friends, who only laughed.
Maayan kept their distance from the man. They almost wanted to help, but when they thought to, they felt a rush of anger: this was the man who had touched them so uncouthly. He deserved to suffer.
The man struggled some more, kept afloat only by the will of the sea. Maayan decided to teach him a lesson. Creeping from below, Maayan grabbed the man’s legs. The man screamed, but the sound was cut off as Maayan dragged him beneath the water.
Instantly, the men on the pier began to pay attention. They had seen their friend disappear, and heard him scream. The men leaned further over the edge of the pier, waiting for him to bob back up again.
Maayan let go once the man was below the water, expecting him to swim back to the surface. But the man struggled further. Suddenly, he clutched his chest. He gaped, shuddered, and then his body became still and started to sink.
Maayan swam back to him, frightened. They had not intended serious harm to the man! Upon bringing him back to the surface, Maayan found that the man was dead. And yet he had not drowned. No, Maayan had seen men drown before: they had seen the mouth gasping, the eyes bulging, the skin slowly changing colour and the final convulsions of the body before the soul fled. It was a terrible, unmistakable sight, and Maayan had not seen it in this man.
“Murderer!” called out one of the men on the pier.
“I did nothing!” Maayan called back. But the men began to pelt them with objects thrown from the pier. Maayan slipped beneath the water with the body of the dead man, and carried him to the shore, out of sight of the man’s friends.
Maayan lamented the man’s passing, despite his wrongdoings towards them. They did not understand how he could have died. Maayan blamed themself for the death.
Before anybody might spot them, Maayan slipped back into the sea, transforming into a Siren man. 

Maayan kept away from the pier for many days after that, cautious of the Humans that walked above. Then one day, they found a poster floating upon the water, bearing their likeness in the form of a Human woman. It had been issued by the Human magistrate, and demanded that Maayan – referred to on the poster as ‘unknown woman’ – be brought to the gaol, under charge of murder. The sketch of Maayan was surprisingly accurate, considering that it had been dark and the witnesses drunk.
Keeping to the shadows beneath the pier, Maayan listened to the conversations above. Most were mundane; a few commented upon the ‘murder’ that had taken place and Maayan wished to shout out to them that it had not been murder, but an accident. But one conversation in particular caught their attention.
“This is where he died?” A woman’s voice, soft and wavering, reached Maayan’s ears.
 “In the water, right below this point.” This voice was vaguely familiar; Maayan realised it was that of one of the young men who had accosted them on the pier.
“Oh…my poor heart!” The woman began to cry. From where they hid, Maayan saw the shadow of the woman come to the edge of the pier.
“Do not go too close. It is dangerous,” warned the man.
“I care not!” The woman exclaimed. “Now my husband is dead, I may as well be dead too, for he has left me bereft and without children.”
Maayan’s heart broke. The poor woman on the pier above knew not of her husband’s wrongdoings, and clearly loved him greatly. Due to Maayan’s actions, the woman’s hopes and dreams had been smashed. Maayan felt terrible.
The woman gasped suddenly, and Maayan saw a small, golden object fall past and land in the water with a splash.
“My ring!” the woman cried out. “My wedding band! Oh cruel fate, that my last link to my departed husband has been taken from me!”
“Come now, dear,” another voice spoke up, gentle and kind: an older woman, Maayan guessed. “The Lord works in mysterious ways. He has a plan for us all and perhaps it is true that His plan for you is soon to unfold.”
The woman was not comforted by the other’s kindly-spoken words, but their footsteps faded as she was led away.
Maayan dived beneath the water and began a search for the ring. They knew the currents of the area and it had not gone far, though it still took them a while to find the small, golden band. Maayan wanted to return it to the dead man’s widow. It was a pitiful compensation for the man’s life, but they hoped it would bring her comfort.
The only problem was, Maayan did not know how to return the ring. They did not want to risk leaving it upon the pier, for they had run into trouble the last time and had begun to suspect the returned jewellery did not always find its way back to the hands of the owners. Maayan was becoming disillusioned with Humans; all they caused was trouble, for everything and everyone about them.
Maayan decided that after returning the ring to the man’s widow, they would move away from the Humans for good.

Each day, Maayan returned to the surface early in the morning, and lurked beneath the pier, hoping to catch sight or sound of the woman. Maayan was cautious of the form they used when above water. Scared that the Humans would recognise their Human female form, Maayan remained mostly in the form of a Siren man, or occasionally a brown dog.
Early one morning, after much waiting, the widow returned to the pier. She leaned against the railings and gazed down at the sea.
Shyly, Maayan crept out and looked up at her.
“Oh!” exclaimed the woman.
“Pardon me,” Maayan said. “I did not wish to frighten you.”
“Oh...” the woman averted her eyes, blushing, and Maayan realised their state of undress troubled her.
“My apologies,” Maayan said softly. They smiled gently and held up the ring. “I was swimming beneath the water and I found this. Is it yours?”
The woman on the pier gasped. “That is my wedding ring! I lost it two weeks ago!”
“Then fortune has returned it to you,” Maayan smiled. Beneath the water, they allowed their tail to transform into legs. Maayan climbed up the side of the pier and held the ring out to the woman, careful not to let her see too much of themself and cause her further embarrassment.
The woman took the ring cautiously. She stared at it in wonder for a moment, and then tentatively slid it onto her finger. “It really is my ring...” she uttered in amazement. “Thank you so much. It is all I have left to remind myself of my poor husband,” she sighed.
“He died…” Maayan tilted their head. “I am so very sorry.”
“Yes,” the woman nodded. “He was murdered; drowned by a madwoman.”
“Oh dear. I am sure that is not so,” Maayan uttered sympathetically.
The woman took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “Well, that is what his friends say. I never liked them. My poor husband was taken away by the doctors, who told me that his heart had stopped. They say he did not drown.”
“Oh...” Maayan nodded, feeling a little confused. Did the law still seek them for murder? “What do you believe?” they asked.
“Whether drowning or the heart, I am certain that madwoman killed him,” the woman said. She turned her gaze to Maayan. “Please cover yourself if you intend to come onto the pier. Here.” She took off her coat and held it out to him. “You will be in trouble with the law if you are seen in that state.”
“I am sorry.” Maayan clambered over the railings, glad to see the pier was empty today. They took her coat and wrapped it around their slender body. “There,” Maayan said. “I hope my appearance is not startling to you now.”
The woman glanced at him. “Not nearly so much as when you appeared from the water.”
They moved away from the edge of the pier and sat upon a bench.
“I am sorry for the death of your husband,” said Maayan.
“Oh,” the woman sighed. “You need not be. You did not know him.”
“He was certainly a great man, for all you mourn…”
The woman looked away, and Maayan took a moment to study her. She had auburn hair, pinned back from her face and neck and half hidden beneath her hat. The woman’s skin was pale and creamy, and her sad eyes were warm brown. Maayan thought she was quite lovely and felt a brief spark of anger that her husband had chased after them when he had a good woman at home. But mostly, Maayan felt remorse for being the cause of the woman’s sadness.
“My husband drank a lot,” the woman said quietly. “He spent all his nights at the inn with friends I do not much care for, and was rude and forceful whenever he returned home.” She turned her sad gaze to Maayan. “I do not know what he was doing here that night, but I doubt the law would have looked kindly upon it. Despite all this, I still loved him.”
Maayan nodded. “Of course…” They wondered how to admit the truth to the woman. “I am sorry,” they said. “I have not been completely honest… For I saw your husband die.”
The woman gasped, and stared at Maayan in horror. “Why did you not help?!” she demanded. “Why did you not stop that madwoman from killing him?”
“I saw no madwoman,” Maayan said honestly, for they had not seen themself. “I was swimming and saw your husband fall into the water. He struggled and clutched at his chest, but before I could reach him, he became still.”
“Why did you not call for a doctor? You took him to the beach, did you not?” The woman frowned at him suspiciously.
“I called out for help,” Maayan said. They looked away. “I feared my state of undress would cause me much trouble, so I went away before others came.”
The woman sighed. “If only you had waited and told the truth! Then my husband’s silly, drunken friends would not have told the story of the madwoman. But I wonder where they had the idea from, for they are not intelligent men.”
Maayan nodded. “Perhaps they saw a woman upon the pier,” they suggested, a grim tone to their voice as they recalled what had happened upon that night. “And decided she suited their needs.”
“Perhaps,” the woman smiled sadly. “Please, come to the constable’s house with me, so you can tell him what you saw.”
“I cannot do that,” Maayan raised their brows, worried at what might occur should they go onto the land. A constable might ask many more questions than this sad-eyed woman did.
“Why ever not? You are a witness!”
“The people have decided a madwoman caused your husband’s death,” Maayan replied gently. “I doubt my words would be believed.”
The widow sighed. “That is true,” she agreed reluctantly. In the distance, a bell tolled slowly. The woman got to her feet. “I will be late for church,” she said.
“Forgive me for keeping you,” Maayan said humbly, standing.
“Nay. Your words have given me a little comfort, and you returned my ring to me,” the woman replied. “Now I would be grateful if you could also return my coat.” She turned her back to them, not wanting to see Maayan’s nudity.
“But of course.” Maayan removed the coat and placed it carefully over the woman’s shoulders. “Take care of yourself. Do not catch a chill.”
“...will you come here again?” asked the woman. “I would be comforted for talking with you more...”
Maayan had intended to leave the area after returning the ring, but the sad woman’s words were so hopeful that they could not resist. “I pass here every day at the same time,” they said. “I shall look for you on the pier.”
The woman nodded and, without looking at them, walked away, her footsteps lonely on the wooden slats of the pier.

She was back again the next day, then every morning for months after that, each time armed with a blanket for Maayan to wrap themself in, which the Näkki did gratefully. Each time, they sat on the bench, and the woman told Maayan more of her husband. Maayan discovered that the man had been violent, and had often beaten his wife. They tried to raise her spirits with made-up tales of swimming within the sea, and sometimes Maayan brought her things they had found beneath the water, lost long ago by visitors to the pier. Sometimes, the woman smiled. Sometimes, she even laughed. She gradually became less sad as she came to terms with her husband’s death, and whilst Maayan still carried a great guilt for being the cause, they were glad that the widow no longer suffered so. Maayan became greatly fond of her, for her heart was so pure and her mind thoughtful.
Then, one day, the woman surprised Maayan.
“I have realised that my husband was no good for me,” she said. “I am certain he would have killed me over time, for he was so violent when drunk. So I do not need this wedding band any longer.” She took the ring from her finger and held it out to him. “As you were the one who found it, please take it. Do with it what you will, for I no longer wish to see it.”
Maayan shook their head. “I cannot do that.”
“Please.” The woman continued to hold it out. “Take it. Keep it if you will, and give it back to me one day, should you wish to marry me.” Upon seeing Maayan’s surprise, she smiled. “I see that you are a kind man, honest and just. You are handsome, and you do not speak of a wife, nor do you wear a wedding band. I am but a lonely widower, and though the church may not like for me to take another husband, I do not want to live a lonely life. You are gentle, and for that I have grown fond of you.”
Maayan looked away. “I am sorry, my lady. I cannot marry you.”
“Why?” the woman looked sad. “Do you not care for me?”
“It is my caring for you that has kept me here,” Maayan replied quietly. They realised the time for truth-telling had come. “I care greatly for you, but we could never make a pair. There waits, somewhere on the land, a gentleman who shall love you greatly, and treat you as a queen.”
“Yes, you.”
“Not I, my lady,” Maayan shook their head. “For I am not of the land.”
The woman looked confused. “Not of the land?”
“Not of the land, but the sea...” Maayan confessed softly. They glanced left and right, to be sure no others were about, and stepped up to the edge of the pier. “I do not wish to scare you,” they said, climbing onto the railings. “But please look at me.”
The woman gasped. “Do not jump! Oh, please do not fall and die like my husband.”
“I will not die. Please, do not be afraid.” Maayan let the blanket fall from about themself as they transformed into full Siren form.
The woman shrieked at the sight of Maayan’s tail. “What devil-magic is this?” she cried.
“It is none, my lady,” Maayan spoke gently, trying to remain calm. “I am a Näkki, of the sea. It is my ability to do this, such as it is yours to live upon the land and walk on two feet.”
The woman started to cry. “Why did you come to me?”
“I came because I wished to return your ring,” said Maayan. “And because I know what happened upon the pier that night.”
“What happened? How do you know?”
“I know because I was there...” Cautious and scared, Maayan transformed into the Human woman they had avoided becoming since the death.
This time, the widow screamed. “You!” she said. “You killed my husband!”
“Please, my lady!” exclaimed Maayan. Tears started to spill from their eyes. “Let me tell you what happened. Then I shall leave you alone.”
The woman frowned and nodded sharply. Maayan wrapped the blanket around themself again and told of how, in the form of a woman, they had climbed onto the pier to place an earring that had been dropped into the sea. They told of how the drunken men had approached and mishandled them, and that when the man chased them into the sea, they had tugged upon his legs to scare him.
But the woman was not calmed by Maayan’s story, only angered further. “I knew they had done wrong!” she exclaimed. “But you did not need to have killed him.”
“I did not expect him to die,” Maayan uttered remorsefully. “I am sorry, my lady.”
“I am not your lady,” the woman said. “Now come with me, for you must be gaoled for what you have done.”
“I am sorry,” Maayan said. “Though I greatly repent what has occurred, I cannot allow that. Now I shall leave you, for though I have become so very fond of you, I must no longer grieve you with my presence.”
Maayan dropped the blanket and dived into the water.
“No, wait!” the woman shouted and rushed forward. She stared into the water, but Maayan was long gone.

Although the woman knew the truth, Maayan could not part themself from the home they had known so long, or the pier upon which the lovely widow walked.
The woman, too, seemed unable to abandon the wretched pier, for early every morning Maayan watched her walk its length and stop, at that very point where her husband had died, and she and Maayan had parted company for the final time.
Sometimes, if they were feeling brave, Maayan crept onto the pier a little before she arrived, and left a little trinket in that place for her to find. They would watch her find it, watch the pain and sadness flicker across her face as she stared at the new gift, and the longing expression that appeared as she put the gift in her pocket and stared out to sea.
“Come back,” she would sometimes call.
Maayan heard, but could not allow themself to return, even as the years passed and the widow’s cry became more desperate.

The Näkki once again became solitary, and avoided contact with any more Humans. Maayan planned to one day depart the area, and live in repentance far from any shore.
But Maayan would not – and did not – leave, until the day the church bells tolled grimly, and woman on the pier ceased to be there.

Writing a character with gender neutral pronouns was a challenge. Originally I planned to refer to Maayan as 'he' when in their Siren male form, and 'she' when in their Human female form, but realised it would become too confusing. A gender neutral pronoun seemed far more appropriate, particularly as the Näkki in my head are free from any fixed gender. The alternative was xe/xir/xirself but I decided they/their/themself would be more familiar to the majority of readers :)  
I hope it wasn't too challenging to read!

Check the Folk Tales of the Sea People tag for more stories and illustrations from this series.

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