Saturday, 20 February 2016

SS#5: The Song and the Singers

I write this from Santiago, Chile.

Right now the best words I have are beautiful and really really hot. I have, however, taken a lot of pictures, so if you are at all interested I can show them to you.

In other news, I have actually written my Starting Sparks story.


I know, it's a big surprise; normally I am hastily posting on the 29th of the month or whatever (I have even been known to miss the deadline of my own link-up). I'd love to tell you that I've just become amazingly organised, but the truth is that I'm merely between second and third drafts of my novel and therefore have more time for other projects. I actually wrote this story like, last week. (Applaud me.)

It's an interesting area, the question of taking-a-break-from-your-WIP. It's hugely important to do this in order to flex your writing muscles, jump character and genre and person, but I also know that it makes me a lot lazier. When it comes to The Novel, I write every day, but when I'm just drifting through short story projects I'm a lot more likely to sit back and wait for “inspiration" -- whatever that is. My time in Chile has been very busy and I've not had the chance to write daily -- in fact, yesterday I wrote for the first time in an entire week. This is the longest I've gone in probably about two years, which is kind of scary. However, on the other hand it's important not to burn yourself out, so maybe my week off was a good thing. What do you think?

Starting Sparks is a writing link-up hosted by Ashley from [insert title here] and me from this very spot. We post a prompt, and you respond however on earth you'd like. You post your story -- or scene or poem or monologue or snippet or idea or whatever it is -- and add the handy button to your post. You then link up with us and read everyone else's stories, and a good time is had by all.
February 16:
You have until the end of the month to link up, if you'd like! Click here for the original post.
For a long time I've been thinking about mermaids, and so when Ashley sent me the February prompt (we alternate choosing them each month) I knew I had to jump in there. Disney's Little Mermaid is one thing, but the original story is about how mermaids and humans can't be together because humans have eternal souls, whereas mermaids live for three thousand years but have no soul and therefore vanish into oblivion. So when the Little Mermaid (Ariel to you and me) wants to marry her prince, she has to forfeit her long life in favour of brief human life and a soul.

Which raises the questions: what are mermaids?

I wrote a story last year based on the premise that mermaids are the (transformed, obviously) women who are thrown overboard because they're “bad luck" on ships. This is something I've been thinking about; or, are they actually evil soulless creatures (a la Peter Pan film/Pirates of the Caribbean)? Might Jesme, our MC, fall in love with a mermaid? I already have heaps of backstory for him and the other characters, so ... novel, anyone?

~***~

The Song and the Singers

When the moon shimmered on the glassy sea, the sirens came calling.

Their song floated through the still night below deck, sighing with untold longings and half-suppressed hopes. It made the hairs rise on Jesme’s arms. Those were the nights he would toss in his hammock, sweating and fighting the urge to get up and peer overboard. They were beautiful, the stories said, scales flashing in the moonlight, long hair braided with pearls or the fingerbones of those they had taken. They would sing your wildest dreams back to you, a mirror of melodies. Jesme had never pinned down his wildest dreams, flighty shadows that they were, but he knew that the mermaids’ song made them surge within him, like a beast from the depths of the sea.

The morning after one such night he clambered onto deck, blinking in the sun. It was hot, unseasonably. Further north, Champ promised, they’d sail between icebergs that loomed like huge ghosts, but for the now the sea and sky were azure blue and the days were warm.

Brice was leaning against the rail drinking tea.

“Bad night?” he said as Jesme came beside him.

Jesme grinned ruefully. “How’d you know?”

“It was flat calm last night,” Brice said, “and you look terrible.”

“Thanks, mate.”

“You’re welcome,” Brice said, flashing a smile.

Jesme took the mug from his hand and downed it.

“Hey!”

“I need it more than you do,” Jesme said. “Do you honestly not hear them?”

Brice shrugged. “It’s not about hearing. The question is, do I listen?” He tapped Jesme’s forehead. “They bother you because you let them.”

Jesme sighed. “I don’t know, Brice, I just feel … they open something inside me, you know? Like all these thoughts that I don’t really know how to think, dreams and – wishes, I don’t know, that sort of thing, the song threads it all out of me, somehow. All the things I don’t know I want.”

“How poetic,” said a light and sarcastic voice behind him.

Jesme jumped. Silhouetted against the sun, a figure leaned sardonically on the rail.

“That’s who Jesme was, wasn’t it?” he continued. “A poet, singer, all-round swashbuckling romantic type? You have the hair for it, anyway.”

“Morning, Dristan,” said Brice.

“It is morning, Brice, how observant of you.”

Jesme’s face was flaming. It was true the famous Jesme was a poet of legend. His mother had told him the stories: the handsome, noble singer with the flowing russet locks. Jesme was normally more tongue-tied than not, and his locks were neither flowing nor russet. Carrot-coloured was more accurate.

“What do you think about the mermaids?” Brice said.

“I think it’s pathetic, all that soul-speech drivel,” said Dristan. “They’re just human-esque creatures with fishtails that sometimes swim around ships. There’s nothing magical about them. As for men who go mad for them and dive overboard, they’re just lamentably hormonal. First flash of skin and off they go, arms flailing. That’s’ the sort of dreams Jesme, means, I’d wager, not that I imagine he knows how to act on them.”

“I think that’s a little unfair,” said Brice pleasantly.

“Do you now?” Dristan fixed his eye on Jesme. “What do you have to say?”

“Um,” said Jesme.

“Articulate as ever,” Dristan said. “Let me know if your musings are ever published, I’d be fascinated.”

He turned on his heel and walked away.

“What is his problem?” Jesme said, when he was sure he was out of earshot. 

Brice shrugged. “Jealousy, and awkwardness. He wants to be our friend but he doesn’t know how.”

“Or he’s a nasty git?”

“Don’t be unkind. We’re lucky, after all.” He smiled. “Not everyone has a best friend.”

Grudgingly Jesme smiled back. “Do you always have to be so annoyingly reasonable?”

“Morning, lads,” Champ said, crossing the deck towards them. He was the first mate, a bear of a man with eyes like stars in his huge, leathered face.

“Rough night, Jesme? You look terrible.”

“I wish everyone’d stop saying that.”

Champ barked a laugh. “I heard them too, lad. That’s the curse of the sea, it makes you dream, and the sirens are dreams given shape and form. Some say they come because there’s no women onboard, to try and lure sailors. But some—” he looked around, and grinned as if divulging a great secret – “some say women onboard makes them worse, because they’re jealous.”

“And what do you say?” said Brice.

“I was on a voyage years ago where the captain brought his wife with him. I’ve never known sirens to sing so loud. There’s other tales, too … some hold that the women who get thrown overboard, because they’re bad luck, they become sirens, and hunt sailors as payback.”

“Is that possible?” Jesme asked.

Champ grinned, eyes twinkling. “If it is,” he said, “then my name isn’t Champ Matthews.” He winked and walked away.

It was a joke onboard: his true name was not Champ, and it was unknown to him, like his true parents. Yet, reflected Jesme, did the birth name matter? A name was a soubriquet, an accolade or an insult, important only on the lips of those who used it. Were Champ to discover the name his mother had given him, it would, arguably, be of no use. But perhaps the name did carry an indelible stamp, to mark its owner from birth. Could he drop Jesme, the name he hated, if he chose? Was it part of him?

“Penny for them?” said Brice.

Jesme blinked. “Sorry,” he said. “Not important.”

His friend regarded him for a moment. “All right,” he said. “But don’t get hung up on the mermaids, all right?” He tapped his forehead. “Banish them up here.”

Jesme summoned a smile. “Will do.” He looked across the ocean, gently rolling under a cloudless sky, and thought its blue looked friendly and freeing. It was hard to picture it by night, with white-limbed creatures scything through the water, singing songs of death. The sea had its secrets.

~***~

Three nights later they came again.

The wordless song slipped over the starboard side and around Jesme’s sleeping body. His eyes snapped open in the dark, skin covered in goosebumps. The hairs on his neck prickled, as if they too were standing up to listen to the voices. The song danced under and above him, weaving like ocean waves, and sweat broke out on his skin. The music made him think of vastness, a void too big to comprehend, and of the smallest pinprick of feeling, atoms dancing over themselves, waves of light oscillating out like constellations. He rolled over. Brice was asleep in the next hammock. Jesme squeezed his eyes shut, grasping the tune of a sailor’s ditty to sing in his mind. The sirens’ song looped through the cracks, glistening.

It was very hot below deck. Jesme’s throat was parched. He thought of the water barrels, fresh water rolling in time with the ocean, and swung his legs out of the hammock. The sounds of the sleeping crew smothered him. I need a breath of fresh air.

He drank the water hunched over his cup, sweat trickling between his shoulderblades, pretending that it satisfied the longing welling inside him. 

Go back to your hammock, Jesme.

But the song whispered on, a voice from a side street beckoning to him, and with three steps he found his hand on the rope ladder up to the deck.

Cool air floated to him from the hatch above his head. Jesme shut his eyes. He was drenched in sweat. The breeze traced his skin – but it was not a breeze at all, rather the song, murmuring through his hair. He gripped the ladder and pulled himself up.

Banish them, Brice’s voice said.

The song overpowered it.

On deck, the smell of the sea hit Jesme in a burst of the familiar: an honest smell, known. He breathed it in, telling himself to go back to bed, but the song was shimmering in the moonlight. The moon watched him like an eye, burning amidst cold stars. On the sea’s flat surface its watery twin rippled, a splash of silver on a black sheet.

The sea lapped at the ship’s sides like liquid glass, and the song intertwined with its melody, drawing Jesme to gaze over the side.

Beneath him the water shone with promises and half-flashed suggestions.

Would it be cold?

As he watched the blackness separated itself into hues, shades of silver and grey with white flashes of light like the scales of a fish. Among them a shape was appearing, long like a musical note, light gleaming like stars in the darkness.

Jesme leant, transfixed, as her face rose below him.

Her lips were not moving, but the song thundered in his head.

He stretched out his arms, unknowingly.

The song wrapped itself around his consciousness, a tapestry of wishful stars. Its music was the sea’s music and its poetry was Jesme’s heartbeat and he had never wanted anything so much as to fall to the song’s embrace.

He pulled himself onto the railing, pushing a leg over the side.

The face was not human, but it had a star’s ethereal beauty, the glory of the distant and unknowable. Jesme was enthralled; he was in its thrall. 

The song gathered strength, a silver future swimming through the present.

Somebody shouted his name.

With a crack the song’s chords shattered, wailing like a frenzied storm, and Jesme cried out, falling backwards. Hands were grabbing him, yanking him onto the deck, and his mind fell with him, ricocheting into confusion. He lashed out, foot hitting the ship’s side with a pain that made him gasp, and sat up, shoulders heaving, soaked in sweat, his hair falling in his face.

“Brice,” he gasped.

“No such luck,” said the figure in front of him, letting go of his arms.

It was Dristan.

“You!” Jesme exclaimed.

“Me!” Dristan snapped. “You are a prize idiot, Jesme, what the hell were you doing?”

“I was – I don’t know—” He stumbled to his feet, lurching to the side. The sea rustled black. A wind was picking up.

“Where—?” Jesme’s head jerked back and forth, searching for the silver gleam, but the moon’s reflection was breaking up, and the only sound was that of the wind.

“It’s gone,” Dristan said. “We need to get below deck, now.”

“I – I—”

“Save it for the morning, poet!” Dristan pulled him to his feet and stalked off towards the hatch.

Jesme gaped after him, trying to fit him into place, but he could not think. The song still echoed somewhere in his mind. He looked back over the water, its unrevealing black surface, the moon’s candid reflection. What had happened? The song had sunk, swimming away in the depths. What was its secret? The sea said nothing.

~***~

10 comments:

  1. I loved it! The descriptions, characters, settings. Just everything, you really brought the sea to life for me, and Dristan, oh Dristan the sarcasm is very strong with this one <3

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    1. Thank you so much, Skye! I am so so glad I “brought the sea to life for you", that is a lovely thing to say and makes me so so happy! I love the sea A LOT and I was really trying to convey what it means to me/Jesme, and also, of course, its danger.
      I love Dristan already <3

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  2. This was awesome!! I loved the description and the sarcasm and the characters and everything! (Although I would like to know what would have happened if Jesme fell in...)

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    1. Thank you, Victoria!

      Ha, that is the million dollar question. Would the mermaid have eaten him? Sucked his soul? Would he definitely have died? ARE all the mermaids evil? What even are mermaids?

      ???

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  3. Having been to Santiago, Chile, I'm totally there with you. :D I loved being there!

    Also. This story. o.o Dristan and his sass make me very happy. Your writing is lovely, as usual. I have allll the love.

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    1. It was so great! I just got back today <3 <3 <3 Dristan's sass makes me happy too!

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  4. Gosh! I love this. It's very beautiful. I also like the explanation of mermaids being the souls of women who were thrown overboard as bad luck, and their singing being revenge. It adds a ring of historical truth to the myth, and it makes the singing-people-to-their-death actually make sense.

    Also, ships. I love ships.

    I love the characters too. I love how you show Jesme being able to actually talk to his friend Brice, but whenever anyone else is around words just fail him. Anyhow, I love it all! It's very lyrical, and it was great getting to read Jesme's character.

    Now I'm more excited to beta read!

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    1. Thank you! I like that too, sad to say it came from Tumblr and not from my (not-so) illustrious brain, but we can work with it ...

      I LOVE SHIPS TO. MY OTP IS BLUE/GANSEY--

      Wait, you mean the other kind?

      Yes, I love those ships. The thing about this book, though (oops, I'm already referring to it as a book in my head ... SWIM BACK SWIM BACK I'M IN TOO FAR) is that I'd have to do a heck ton of research because I know NOTHING about ships. And I can't have them running round saying "hoist the mainsail!" for the whole book. At least my more perceptive readers would smell a rat ...

      Bless him, I love his/Brice's relationship so much already :')

      Good! (But do you mean TCATT? Because this baby is not getting a book for a long time. I have a trilogy to write and then the Ruskins are banging on my door ... However this one is currently ahead of Aithne-Kit-and-Leo in the List Of Books I Want To Write so obviously it's got something going for it.)

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    2. Well, you know. We can run with their ideas. XD

      OH! Those ships are good too. My current OTP (*coughs* Em, you MUST read the Lunar Chronicles) is Scarlet and Wolf.

      Ships are the best! I have to write a ship book one day. But ugh, I know very little of sailing vernacular also. I'd probably be hopping around like Vizzini from The Princess Bride yelling "Move the thing! And that OTHER THING!"

      Yes, I mean TCATT.

      Why must all the books be so demanding though? We only have two hands. Come now. We can't write them all at once.

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    3. I know, I will! I feel guilty every time I see it (because you read TRB such a long time ago and I am not holding up my side of the deal ... BUT I WILL I SO WILL ...)

      I wish I could understand that reference but again, I've not got there yet. BUT I WILL!

      Good, I'm excited too!

      Right? They need to calm themselves right down. ~looks hard at Dristan~

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Thanks for commenting! :)