Don’t go near the water, love.
Stay away from strand or sea.
You cannot walk on water, love;
The lough will take you away from me.
— W.B Yeats.
The cottage sat perched on a hill.
The greens and yellows of the mountains danced together around it, lullabied by the symphony of the wind. The loch laid at the bottom, a thick fog constantly covering the water, except for a few days a year when the sun decided to cast a glow that reflected the light over it.
He lived alone there — with a sheep or two for company, along with a hen, and his typewriter. Loneliness was no burden. It had become a steady companion, a lifelong friend. He rather enjoyed it.
To be alone with his mind, his thoughts, his stories.
— alone with her voice.
For years he had lived here; rocked by the melodies dancing around him, mesmerizing him, bewitching him. It felt like the folktales he had heard as a child while tucked under his mother’s chin, listening to her talk about selkies and mermaids —legends passed from generation to generation to make children wonder beyond the realms of what was out there.
Sometimes, he wondered: was he truly alone? Was loneliness as bad as people liked to pretend it to be? He didn’t think so; at least, not particularly. He enjoyed the peace. The way his life progressed like a stream— unbothered, doing whatever it wanted, going wherever it wanted, without anchor.
His only love was the sea. Riding in his boat, fishing, taking naps and thinking of the stories he could tell about it. Some days, he felt like an old man, enamoured only by water and what laid underneath; all the secrets of a world he’d never know, one he could only dream of like the way he had since he was a boy, drinking in magical tales about the underworld.
That morning, the weather was too poor to drift on the water. The fish would be hiding, and the wind was too strong to keep the small boat afloat. He decided to stay inside by the fire, perhaps with a book or perhaps not.
That morning, he couldn’t take his eyes away from the loch.
Standing behind a window, he looked down at it. At how calm it seemed. At how the fog appeared to fade, just for a brief moment. He heard that voice again; the call seeping into his consciousness...bringing a haze along with it.
He felt like he was floating, a wave of peacefulness crashing over him as it would crash on the rocks.
Mind blank; he couldn’t think, forgetting everything around him for a moment. He let the mug slip from his palms, shattering on the floor into pieces.
The wind opened the door of the cottage, a loud thud rumbling through the small place. He didn’t pay much attention to it; instead, he made his way outside.
It was pouring now. The rain drenching his hair, his clothes...he was not wearing shoes, but he found he didn’t mind. All he cared to do was to make his way to the loch. The voice calling him.
— To him.
It was different than it used to be. It sounded...wounded, weaker. Yet, it was still too powerful for him to resist.
Suddenly, it stopped. Silence descending upon the hill, upon the lock and upon himself.
He stood in the middle of the field, mud up to his ankles and clothes soaked. His head was pounding and there was a sharp pain coming through his chest — like a needle trying to make its way through the skin. He shook his head, his senses coming back to him little by little. He didn’t understand what had possessed him to come out like this nor what made his body ache this way.
He had no time to dwell on it, either; the fog had lifted completely and something caught his eye. Shining brightly, like a diamond catching the sunlight.
He walked slowly towards the loch, rubbing his eyes once, then twice, wondering if he was truly seeing what he thought he was.
She laid there, stranded. It seemed as if the loch had spit her out. He couldn’t see properly, his eyes being assaulted by a blue and white light, blinding him for a moment.
Frowning, he walked towards the creature — he had no other words to describe what he was witnessing.
She had hair...white like snow. Arms, hands, and back pale as porcelain. Only instead of legs, the lower half of her body was a tail of emerald green. It seemed to sparkle under the light. Actually, her entire self seemed to do so, like a dusty layer of glitter had been rubbed all over her.
It was only when he stood directly above her that he noticed she was wounded. A hook had caught in her fin, which seemed to cause her a great deal of pain. A blue liquid, thick as blood, was seeping from the hole it had left.
He kneeled down without hesitation, turning her over gently. Only then did he realise that her chest was bare, and he was rather glad that her eyes were closed so she wouldn’t witness the way his cheeks turned crimson.
He didn’t know what to do. All he knew was that he couldn’t leave her here.
Slowly, he lifted her up and brought her back to the cottage. A rush of heat radiated from her, warming his bones and his spirit, clinging to his soul, while he held her to him.
Curls cascading away from her face, he noticed how beautiful she was, feeling like his breath had all of a sudden been cut short.
She was dead.
He had come to this conclusion based on the fact that she had been lying in his bathtub for the past two days and had not yet woken up. He had dressed her wound, put a top on her, and hoped that the water would do her good, but nothing seemed to help. She had no pulse, which further confirmed his diagnosis.
Running a hand through his curls, he sat down by the bath and sighed. He had barely slept since finding her, too afraid that she would come back to consciousness while he wasn’t watching. His eyelids were heavy...so heavy.
His eyes closed for a moment; or maybe for an hour, he didn’t know. When he opened them again, he looked at her once more and was greeted by wide golden eyes staring straight at him, a mixture of awe and horror floating in them.
She was shaking but not from the cold — from fear. If only she knew he was more terrified of her than she could ever be of him. If only he knew how wrong he was to think so.
“Hello,” he said gently, keeping his voice low so as not to further scare her.
“Can ye understand me?” he added, leaning closer.
She blinked, tilting her head to watch him attentively. He didn’t know if she understood him; quite frankly, he didn’t think she could.
He pointed to his chest with his index finger, “Jamie.”
“Your eyes…” she finally said, reaching to touch his cheek. Her voice was raspy, yet gentle. She sounded English but he wasn’t sure. He was too taken aback by her, by the way it felt to be touched like this, to think about anything else. “They are the colour of my home.”
Jamie melted against her hand, the haze reappearing little by little to surround him once more. Was he drunk?
She noticed and immediately took her hand away, plunging it back into the water. “Home. I have to go home.”
Frowning, Jamie watched her, “Ye canna yet, ye’re hurt,” he pointed to her wounded fin. “I cleaned it and made a bandage, but ye canna move, lass. It must hurt like the devil.”
Looking down at herself, she seemed more confused by the garment she was wearing as a top than by her injury.
“I thought ye might be cold, so I thought I’d give ye a shirt of mine,” he explained quickly, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks at the lingering memory of her body underneath it.
“Do ye have a name?”
“Claire,” she answered softly, bringing her eyes back up to look at him. In the sunlight, they glowed like whisky in a barrel, transfixing his soul.
“Claire.” The name rolled off his tongue like it had been hidden beneath the surface for so many years, just waiting to appear.
“Sorcha,” he whispered, the Gaelic sliding away from his lips in a moment of abandon.
“I have to go home,” she repeated, trying to move from the tub and spilling water onto the wooden floor.
“I can’t stay here…” she looked at him again, hesitating for a moment before continuing, “or you will die.”
Jamie frowned, taken aback by the way she said her warning, “Lass...ye dinna have to fash, I’ll be just fine. However, if I let ye go now, ye will no’ be. Ye’re hurt.”
“You are going to fall in love with me, like all of them. Your heart is going to burst, and then you’ll die.”
Her words rang like a prophecy, sending a shiver down his spine. Were they true? Was any of this possible? After all, a mermaid was currently resting in his bathtub; anything could happen at this point. Or, at the very least, he’d simply wake up from whatever dream this turned out to be.
“My heart burst into pieces a while ago, lass,” he got up from the edge of the bathroom, sadness underlying his voice. “Ye dinna need to fash about me falling for ye, I can assure ye I’m immune.”
“You promise?” Claire asked in a near whisper, watching him. She seemed curious about him, and not too convinced of what he was saying.
Jamie kneeled down by the tub and took her hand, the skin glowing in comparison to his. “I promise ye,” he smiled tenderly in reassurance. “Once ye are healed, I’ll bring ye back to the loch myself.”
The mermaid squeezed his hand, her lip finally flicking up into a shy smile.
“Are ye hungry? Aye, ye must be famished —”
“Fish?” She looked at him in awe, eyes widening.
Nodding, Jamie smiled and got up again, “Let me see what I can find for ye, aye?”
Before he had time to add anything else, Claire had slipped down into the water, her head now completely submerged, curls floating in the limited space around her. Foam had started to rise, reminiscent of a bubble bath, and the water had a greenish glow to it. His eyes travelled along the path from her tail to her fins, each scale a different shade of emerald; some light, some dark, but each one shining like the moonlight.
Jamie shook his head, rubbing his face with both hands. Surely, he was asleep. There was no other explanation for what was happening to him; or perhaps all those years alone were finally starting to affect his sanity.
All he had to give her was a can of sardines, but she seemed to rather enjoy it, quickly swallowing the food without a second thought.
“More,” she asked, handing him the empty can.
Jamie couldn’t help the amused smile forming on his face at her childlike enthusiasm. He opened a second can and handed it to her, “There ye go, lass.”
Licking her lips, she took it from his hand and started to eat once more. “It tastes better than when they’re raw.”
“I reckon,” he made a face. “Raw fish might no’ be verra tasty.”
“Do ye, uhm...do ye like living in the loch?”
Claire shrugged, licking her fingers, “I don’t like the fishermen.”
“Because they want to hurt ye and yer kind?” Jamie sat back down on the floor by the tub.
He was a writer, a storyteller. He wondered if perhaps his imagination had finally gone overboard, unleashing itself and materialising into the creature in front of him. Or if, perhaps, he could write tales about her — tales of what she would reveal to him about her world.
She nodded, “They want to kill us because they are afraid of us. Afraid of the stories they have heard, of what they believe to be true.”
“We are not dangerous...we simply became that way to protect ourselves.”
“I won’t let them hurt ye.” He reached to stroke a damp curl away from her face. “Aye? Ye dinna need to be scairt of me or anyone else, as long as I’m wi’ ye.”
“I’m not scared.” She looked at him, her eyes locking with his.
“You are not like them.” She cupped his cheeks, her hands wet from the water and oily from the sardines.
Her thumbs ran across his cheeks, across his bottom lip, leaving a salty taste on them. Jamie couldn’t explain what her fingers felt like — except that they were not cold. Her nails, her skin, her body...iridescent. She was a siren’s call personified, the pull too powerful to ignore.
— to refuse.
The sharp pain in his chest came back like a bolt of lightning, prompting him to get up abruptly, to shy away from her touch. He clutched himself for a second, shutting his eyes in the vain hope it would go again. It did.
“It’s starting,” she said softly, clutching her hands tightly. “You said you were immune.”
In his state of confusion, Jamie spat out the words more firmly than he intended, “I am immune, lass.”
“I’m no’ like those other men, I willna fall for ye.”
He took a breath, feeling the pain evaporate, “Do ye fall for them too?”
Claire simply shook her head, resting back into the water, “No.”
“I will leave ye to rest,” he added, changing the subject and ignoring the small feeling of relief blooming inside his heart at the thought she had never loved another man. “Could ye stay here alone for a wee bit? I have to go to the village to stock up on sardines. No one will bother ye, and I’ll be back soon.”
Claire nodded, “I can’t run away, do not worry.”
“I didn’t think ye would,” he smiled once more and extracted himself from the room.
The song started again when Jamie arrived at the bottom of the hill. The wind rose. The voice wrapping around him like a fog, seeping into his body, coursing through his veins…
It came from the cottage — it came from Claire.
Jamie was paralyzed on the spot. His heart was telling him to come back to the house, while his head told him to turn around again and continue on the path towards the village. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think properly. Overcome with the need to submerge himself in water and let himself sink.
It felt like an eternity passed before the voice disappeared from the air; until he could finally move again. It was as if time had stopped for a moment — a very long moment — until she had released him from an invisible grasp.
Jamie cast a glance towards the cottage, shook his aching head, and finally headed towards the village. He still had no explanation for what was happening to him, to this place. Nobody could find a mermaid casually basking in the tub in his bathroom; he knew what would happen to her if someone did.
He knew what the wound on her fin looked like.
He didn’t want anyone to find out. He didn’t want to let her go, which he suddenly realised might become a problem. After all, he had promised her that he would. He had promised he was immune — and he had thought he was. No, he was sure of it.
However, he was powerless against her. Against the effects she had on him, willingly or not. Nor did he think it had anything to do with magic, either.
Jamie had to let her go or he’d die — there was no other way to go about it.
Thoughts swirling, body cold and shaking from the rain, Jamie returned to the cottage an hour later — maybe longer — after leaving. He found Claire just where he had left her — her head resting against the edge of the tub, her eyes glued to the view of the mountains through the window. Her fingers were tapping on the water gently, as if it was a piano.
“I’m back, lass,” he said gently, smiling in reassurance. “I got ye more sardines.”
Claire turned her head, looking up at him, and smiled back.
“How do ye feel?” he asked, pointing to her fin, “Does it still hurt a lot?”
“Are you always alone here?” Claire ignored his inquiry, making her own in return.
“Always.” He sat down on the floor and opened a can of sardines for her. “‘Tis the most peaceful way to be.”
“I’m always alone too.” She took the can from him and started to eat.
“Do ye get lonely?” He watched her, a fondness for her blooming inside his chest. It was an odd feeling — unlike anything he had ever felt before.
“I don’t.” She leaned back, licking her fingers. Jamie realised she had rid herself of the top he had provided; and instead, her hair cascaded down her chest in a modest fashion. He could guess the outline of her breasts but they were partially hidden by the damp curls.
Jamie thought for a moment, his lip flicking up into a smile, “Not really, nay. When I get lonely, I read a book or I take my boat and wander out onto the water.”
“I know,” she said simply, “I see you when you do that. I like your boat, it’s lovelier than the fishermen ones.”
“‘Tis no’ much, nor is it verra big,” he shrugged, yet the idea of her observing him for all this time warmed him to the bone.
“Do you want some?” She presented him with the can.
Shaking his head of curls, Jamie smiled, “Nay, thank ye. They’re all yours.”
“Do ye have a family, lass? Someone waitin’ for ye?” The question escaped him quicker than he had anticipated, casting a dark shadow over her lovely face.
“They killed my mother,” she said softly, looking down. “A long time ago, and I have been alone since.”
“The fishermen?” he asked gently, afraid to upset her.
Claire nodded, her golden eyes holding on to tears for a brief moment until one strolled down her cheek and hit the water of the bath; one after the other, they began to turn into pearls and floated on the surface.
Jamie frowned, reaching to pick up one. He held it towards the light. It looked perfect, covered in nacre; the way pearls would look as described in books.
“I canna keep them, lass.”
The mermaid picked up the other pearls from the water and took his hand. Carefully, she placed them in his palm and closed it. “I have no use for them.”
“Real?” She added before he could. “Yes.”
“Oh,” he opened his hand and looked at the pearls. “Thank ye, lass. I’ll keep them safe.”
“Aye?” He looked up at her again, hypnotized.
“You said you were immune to me,” she frowned. Tentatively, she reached to touch his chest, her wet hand imprinting his shirt. “Why are you immune at all? Your heart beats, I can hear it.”
“My heart’s been broken, lass,” he answered simply, resting his hand on her own and looking down at them.
“It shattered a long time ago, and it hasn’t been there since.”
“What does it feel like?” Her question prompted him to look at her again.
“To love?” she added, her hand still pressed to his chest.
“It stings,” he said simply, smiling gently. “It stings in the most wonderful way, lass.”
“It doesn’t sound wonderful,” she remarked, chuckling softly.
“Aye, perhaps no’, but it feels wonderful.” He stroked a stray curl away from her face.
For a moment, Jamie felt compelled to lean down and capture her lips. It was tantalizing, the want consuming him completely. She was mere inches away, only the tub in between them. She seemed to be calling to him, too, her head leaning towards his slowly.
Licking his lips, his head drew towards hers, closer and closer. His chest was starting to hurt, but he didn’t care.
Claire suddenly stopped and pulled back, retrieving her head away from him too.
— the spell broken.
The days that followed were a repetition of the same as the first. Jamie occupied Claire with books — she knew how to read and rather enjoyed the stories he wrote — while feeding her sardines and delighting her with tales of the human world. He felt the powerful pull of her; like a magnetic force navigating around his being, unable to resist.
The more time passed, the more he realised he would have a difficult time letting her go when he would eventually bring her back to the loch. But as time passed, her wound healed — quicker than he had expected, it seemed. The scales stitched together like a well thought-out pattern.
She sang during the night, her voice rocking him to sleep like he was resting on a cloud and his heart growing more attached to her with each passing second.
Jamie was consumed by the dread of releasing her to the loch and the need of keeping her close to him. If she stayed, he’d die. If she went, he didn’t think the prospect for him would be much more cheerful.
He had been so sure, so certain that he wouldn’t fall.
Yet, he had fallen.
— too quickly, deep-diving head first into the ocean of foreign feelings he had been too familiar with once in a past life. His immunity had been a thinly-veiled shield that cracked as soon as his eyes landed on her near the loch, stranded and hurt.
That morning, it didn’t rain.
It was grey, gloomy, and cold, but the sky was clear beneath the white clouds. The air was as heavy as his heart, feeling like a piece of steel in his ribcage.
That morning, he’d give her back to the loch.
Her wound healed, his wound only beginning to form.
“Are ye ready to go home, lass?” he asked, looking at her.
He stood by the loch as Claire laid in his arms, holding him close. She did not seem to be cold, nor afraid. Her silence was not imperative of anything; she simply did not speak very much, he had noticed. If only he knew what was going through her mind, perhaps it would soothe him.
“Yes,” she said gently, her arms wrapped around his neck.
Without another word, Jamie started to walk into the water with her, each step bringing him deeper and deeper until he was submerged to the shoulders. He wasn’t too sure how far away from the grass they were now, but he did not care. To be in the water with her felt like the most natural thing in the world.
He could feel the sediments under his bare feet, the sorrow rising above the water to grip him like seaweed.
Slowly, he released her from his grip; eyes closed. He was cold, so cold. Shivers, tears threatening to spill. His chest hurt so much that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to say anything to her. Maybe dying here and now was not such a burden after all. He’d never see her again. What did he have to lose, save, maybe, his life?
When Jamie finally gathered enough courage to look at her, he realised she was still there, watching him.
Claire’s hand rose to touch his cheek, her thumb stroking it with the uttermost care, as if she was afraid he’d disappear. Her face leaned to his magnetically, slowly. She let him decide if he wanted to close that gap or not; if he wanted to be imprinted by her for the rest of his days. He already was, there was no need to deny himself this kiss.
— he did not.
Their lips touched as gradually as the seagrass swaying underwater. For a long moment, they stayed attached like this, his arms coming to wrap around her waist.
“Jamie,” she whispered against his lips, golden eyes inquisitive.
She rested his hand on her breast, against her heartbeat, “It stings.”
A smile broke on his face, along with a giddy feeling inside his belly, “Aye, it does. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“It is,” she nodded, capturing his lips again.
Before Jamie knew it, the water was surrounding them, both sinking deeper together. He did not understand how he could be breathing like this; how his eyes could stay open for so long, registering all the wonders that the underworld had to offer.
It was so much brighter down here than on land, he could see so clearly. He could see her so well.
She swam around him, her locks floating in the water and her skin glowing, capturing what seemed to be sunlight coming from above.
He had never seen anything so beautiful. He had never felt so peaceful, so well in his own skin. Even years later, as an old man, he would remember this moment, how wonderful he felt. A childlike amazement engulfed him.
For a moment, nothing hurt, nothing ached, nothing pained him.
Only for a brief moment, until the pain came back in his chest. Suffocation clutching at his throat. He had let go of Claire’s hand, his eyes closed tight. He saw nothing, heard nothing. He felt nothing; no more pain, no more ache.
— he was dead.
Everything around him was blinding white. There was the soft rushing sound, like the wings of angels. He felt peaceful and bodiless. Free of terror, free of rage, filled with a quiet happiness.
Jamie opened his eyes some moments — minutes, perhaps hours or days — later. He lay drenched, stranded by the loch. His body seemed heavier than it should have been. His lids were unable to stay open for another second.
When finally he managed to open his eyes again and sit up, he looked around, completely lost.
Claire was gone, the sun shone like it never had before.
— had it all been a dream?
At least, that was what he thought, until he felt something in his pocket. Inquisitively, he pulled whatever was in there, retrieving three perfectly round and shiny pearls.
He closed his fist, feeling the nacre against his wet palm. Feeling life breathing back into his lungs.
Jamie wasn’t sure that the dampness of his cheeks was completely due to the water. All he knew was that it had not been a dream at all.
He stood slowly, his eyes still dizzy. His eyes cast out onto the water, on what was underneath.
He thought he had been alone for so many years when it had never been the case at all. Nor would it ever be again.
Slowly, he touched his chest and smiled. His heart had been there all along; only now, it didn’t burst. It healed.