It was a dark night. The rain whipped against black windows. Waves as tall as trees leapt over the harbour walls. The wind howled in pain. In between the buildings the lightning betrayed a dark figure moving quickly along the drowning streets.
Inside one of the shaken cottages Robert Green stooped over a candle. The light flitted across the damp walls as he moved back to his sleeping wife. Years out at sea meant he could not sleep when a storm raged. The sound of the thunder groaning and the rain’s persistence reminded him of his many wild nights lost at sea. He looked down at his wife. She really was beautiful. Her long brown hair lay plaited across the pillow and her lips parted in sleep. He kissed the top of her head and thanked God for his happiness. Robert tried to ignore the brief ache at the thought of the crib he had carved after their wedding day. Still it sat in the workshop, littered with mouse droppings and abandoned cobwebs.
Outside the thunder broke over the heads of the sleeping villagers. Lightning struck and the room was filled with white light. The rain grew harder and the wind flung itself against the door. Robert’s wife whimpered in her sleep and reached out beside her. He took her hand gently in his.
‘There there my love. Hush.’
Suddenly the door flew open and the storm entered the house. Rain spat against the walls and the candle blew out.
‘Robert!’ cried his wife as she pulled at the sheets.
Robert stumbled into the wailing wind to try and close the door but as he reached the threshold, he fell to his knees in the pooling water. On the doorstep, wrapped in a basket woven from driftwood and seaweed, lay a beautiful baby girl. Her bright blue eyes shone like sea glass. She was not frightened by the wild weather; as the rain dripped down her rosy cheeks she caught the droplets on her tongue and her eyes widened with amazement every time lightning broke the sky. Transfixed by this treasure left on his doorstep, Robert bent down and cradling the basket, he carried its precious cargo back into the house. He placed the basket in front of his wife. Salty tears rolled from her cheeks as she pulled the baby from her sodden nest. As the rain dampened the sheets and the open door beckoned the wind, the three of them sat perfectly still, Robert and his wife entranced by their good fortune. The baby reached out a small hand and Robert’s heart broke into a thousand pieces.
The baby grew into a handsome child; everyone in the village always remarked what a beauty she was, how her eyes reflected blue spring skies and her golden hair fell like long rivulets of silk. She was good-natured too. Mild mannered and tender, it was difficult not to say yes to her.
Robert and his wife named her Ana and raised her as their own. Robert taught Ana how to fish and watch the spiralling patterns of the tides. She would lean far over the edge of the boat to feed the fish that would swim up to kiss her trembling reflection. But they would fracture it and Ana would watch them disappear back down into the deep calm. Robert would always pull gently at Ana’s coat, fearful that she would lean too far and drop down into the shadowy abyss, like a silver coin falling from a pocket.
The little family would walk along the beach. When the
tide was out, Ana would linger over the rock pools, collecting empty shells and gently pushing her fingers into hungry urchins. Robert and his wife would help Ana carry handfuls of smooth stones back to the house through the pale sunshine, Ana’s tiny wavering shadow always following unnoticed.
Every shaft of light has a shadow. Ana had no words. From the day Robert found her on his doorstep she did not utter a sound. Because she could not talk she seemed to escape into her own world, choosing to spend her time alone. She would meander through curling bracken along the cold cliff tops and sit on the beach to watch the waves roll closer and closer, until Robert would come and call her home.
One day when the sky over the ocean was black with dark promise, Robert went to call Ana home from the shore. She wasn’t there.
‘Ana? Ana!’ With panic thick in his throat, Robert called out his daughter’s name and searched along the shingle. All he found was one of Ana’s small shoes floating in the froth of the tide. He called to his neighbours. They combed the bay. Ana was gone. Bad weather was blowing in and the sea waited patiently. The air was salted with melancholy.
The villagers had collected like the hollow shells of kettle fish at the quay’s edge. Robert and a few of the other fishermen rowed out on the still water. He called and called for Ana. He searched the water’s mirrored surface but as dusk fell and the first raindrops rippled his distraught reflection, the men made their way back to shore. Robert left the quay and slowly crossed the beach. As he fought back great sobs of grief, a little black shape appeared through the grey twilight. There, sitting on the stones, was Ana. She was soaked through to the skin, seaweed matted her blonde curls, her little white foot dug into the shingle. She blinked with bewilderment at her hands. She held a tiny fish, its body writhing in desperation, searching for water between her wet fingers.
Over the years, Ana’s hair grew to an unusual length. It fell in long ringlets past her hips and flowed around her willowy limbs. Everywhere she went, people would turn and gaze as she wandered past, mesmerised by her ethereal grace.
One evening, unsettled waves pushed Robert’s boat ashore early. A storm was coming. When he reached the small cottage, the rain had already begun to fall. Inside, a crackling fire and the familiar smell of his wife’s vegetable stew welcomed him. He kissed his wife and asked after his absent daughter.
‘She took a walk down to the beach. You know what she’s like in this weather. You’d better go fetch her.’
Robert sighed and turned back into the damp dusk.
On the shore, the waves were already tearing at the shingle. The wind blew hard. Fickle in its direction, it forced the rain across the beach in great arcs. Ana stood at the water’s edge, her bare feet bruised by the stones thrown back and forth by the angry sea. Her golden hair was tangled around her outstretched arms, its long locks dancing in the spray. With wide eyes she waited for the black clouds that moved towards her through the dimming light.
‘Ana!’ Robert slipped across the beach as he called for his daughter. The storm was almost with them but she would not turn to him. ‘Ana! Come away girl! It’s dangerous!’ He reached out a hand but she didn’t take it. ‘Ana please! You’ll die! Come to me! Come away!’
Ana closed her eyes and leant towards the thrashing waves. Robert lurched as the sky above him broke. Thunder roared and lightning flashed its forked tongue as a huge wave consumed Ana. It pulled her towards the black water but Robert was quicker. He grabbed hold of Ana’s wrist and pulled with all his force. She tumbled back from the ocean’s white hand. As she fell, she screamed in pain, as if her skin was being torn from her bones. Her screech sliced the wailing wind and punctured Robert’s ears like shards of splintered glass. Robert howled and fell to the ground,
his hands clasped around his head.
The spell was broken. Ana lay limp on the wet shingle. She opened her eyes. Through the steady rain she saw the body of her father lying close to her. Ana crawled across the jagged ground. Robert lay whimpering with his hands covering his ears. Blood oozed through his fingers and dripped steadily onto the stones. When he saw Ana approaching his eyes widened in fear as if he no longer recognised her.
‘Go,’ he whispered. ‘Go. And don’t come back.’
‘Roll up! Roll up! Come and see the beau’iful Mermaid Morwenna! She can ’old ’er breath underwater for over ten minutes!’
Children with wide eyes and sticky fingers pulled at their parents. Close by a man with no eyes juggled oranges. A woman dressed like an Arabian princess breathed fire. Coloured lanterns hung among the trees and the cyclic music of the merry-go-round snaked through the excited crowd.
Ana sat on the hillside gazing down at the overwrought throng. She dried her damp hair on an old cloth and her gaze wondered out over the river that curled past their tents. She longed to feel the sea breeze on her face and smell the salt in the air. Ana remembered the long hours she spent on the beach with her parents; their smiles reflected in the rock pools, their long shadows always close to hers. Somewhere below her a child screamed. Ana remembered the fear in Robert’s eyes and the blood staining his hands. She placed a hand on her throat.
‘Excuse me Miss. Is this you?’
Ana turned with a start. Behind her stood a tall, slender man in a neat, black coat. Although half his face was concealed by a well trimmed beard, Ana could tell he was young. He was holding one of the circus posters. Ana’s blank face stared back at her from the crumpled piece of paper.
The end of her sequined mermaid tail was ripped at the
corner. She nodded.
‘How do you do?’
Ana’s voice rasped as she tried to reply. ‘I cannot really talk. My name is Ana. Morwenna is for the show only.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry. Please to make your acquaintance Ana.’
Ana shook his hand. The man hesitated before speaking again. ‘I watched your show earlier and I must say I was deeply impressed.’
Ana smiled and turned away. Her gaze seemed to follow a young boy eddying through the crowd, carrying a prize goldfish in a glass bowl. Cautiously the man moved closer and sat beside her. ‘How do you do it?’
Ana smiled again but shook her head.
‘Ah, I see. Tricks of the trade.’ He tapped the side of his nose with a long finger. Ana continued to gaze below. She was perfect. The faraway look. Those long limbs but natural curves, like the hollows in the hills. The waves of golden hair that curled perfectly to shape her face. Her blood red lips. Those sapphire eyes. The man sighed and looked down at his hands. He pulled at the corner of the fraying poster. ‘Miss Morwenna. I have a rather odd proposition for you.’
A balloon floated past them, disappearing up into the dusk.
‘I, I’m a painter, Miss Morwenna. I am looking for a new model.’ He scratched his beard. ‘I have seen several of your shows now and I, I think you would be perfect.’
Ana turned towards him with a wary expression on her face.
‘I understand why you would be guarded my dear. I’m sure most young women would be. I can assure you that any relationship we would have would be strictly professional.’ He indicated his wedding ring. ‘There is a certain something about you, your ease in the water, that lends you in particular to my new project.’ He pulled a small notebook from his pocket and handed it to Ana. Detailed contours of nude women filled the pages. Their legs faded into long tails but there the lines became agitated. At the back of the book, a
pencil copy of Ana’s blank expression from the poster stared back at her. She traced the shape of her face with her fingers. Ana looked out over the fair again.
‘How can I trust you?’ she wheezed.
‘I promise. I would never lay a hand on you, I–’
‘Ana! Where the bloody hell are you, you fishy whore, you’re on in ten!’ The grating voice of the ringmaster resonated below them. They both stood up.
‘Ana, I could take you away from here. I could protect you from men like him. I would pay you too, and provide you with good food and a roof over your head.’
‘Ana! Come on you little slut!’
Ana’s gaze was once again fixed below her. The man sighed. He turned to leave but stopped to pull a calling card from his pocket. ‘Take this. If you ever change your mind, you know where to find me. Good evening Miss Morwenna. I’m sorry for taking up so much of your time.’ With his black coat pulled around him, he disappeared into the purple twilight. Ana looked down at the curled black letters:
J. W. Waterhouse, Elm Tree Road, St. John’s Wood, London, NW8.