November 17, 2018

SATURDAY TALE - The Salt Pool by Angie Dickinson

There is a small, saltwater pool in the Peak District of Derbyshire.
It is said that a nymph bathes there.

The message said to be there on the night of her birthday. Alone.

Although Mairen turned sixteen on the last fine night that the people of the Peaks would see until spring, there would be no firelit celebration in her name. She had been forgotten her whole life, living sparsely on the outskirts of the little village she had been born into without a family.

Forgotten, that is, until she received the message instructing her to come to the salt pool.

The pool was said to be salt because of an underground passage to the sea, although no one could verify such a thing. It would have to be quite a long passage, as the nearest coastline was many miles west of the Peaks. Mairen rather thought that it was salt because it was an ocean by itself, but she kept that fanciful suspicion quiet.

The pool had to be much deeper than it was wide; it only took five lengths of a row boat to cross it, and legend said that no diver or pole had ever reached the bottom. The dark waters of the pool dipped into the white rock of the cairn quarry, a solitary, wind-swept place. Mairen never saw a soul there, although she visited the place daily. The scent of salt and the pull of the rippling waves felt more like home than her tiny shack ever had.

Mairen visited the pool regularly by day, but had never ventured near it at night. The air was cool as she approached, but the water must have been warm, for steam rose in evanescent curls off of its stirring surface, and fireflies danced above it, reflecting amongst the stars in the water beneath.

Mairen looked around cautiously. The stones that rose jaggedly from the isolated cairn quarry, brilliant white in the moonlight, threw long, concealing shadows. She shivered, viciously angry at her own stupidity, her desperation for human attention.

She turned to leave, and something splashed lightly in the water behind her. She whipped around, and her hands came up, ready to fight. Small waves furrowed the water, but still, she did not see a soul.

“Hello?” Mairen forced her voice through her compressed lungs, past her tight throat.

A dark shape moved at the edge of the pool.

“Oh, you really are mine, aren’t you?” A voice, like a warm wind through rushes, spoke clearly from the pool.

“Who’s there?” Mairen demanded, her voice louder than she’d intended, higher than usual. Against all reason, she took a step closer to the pool, then another.

“Come, daughter,” said the voice. The moon slipped out from behind a cloud, and shone down over the water, illuminating a dark, sleek head and wet, bare shoulders. Mairen gasped, but did not draw back.

“Why do you call me daughter?” she asked, kneeling down to the edge of the water. The figure in the pool did not move, but her dark hair swirled around her shoulders.

“See for yourself.” The figure turned her face up, and the moonlight bathed her features. Mairen had rarely seen her own reflection clearly, but she knew that she might as well be staring at it now. Wilder, perhaps, with ancient, deep eyes, but with her nose and dark brows, her sharp cheekbones, her lips.

“Daughter,” the woman said again, and the water stirred around her. “Your sisters.” Four more dark heads rose from the water. Each face looked like a young version of the one before her. Although their lips were solemn, their eyes danced in excitement as they stared at her.

“Your path will be harder than your sisters’, but you have the strength to follow it.” The gentle voice was louder now.

“What – what do you mean?” Mairen asked. Her eyes darted from one wild face to the next. The joy in her sisters’ eyes began to fade to something else. Something darker.

“Your father was of earth. Now that you are grown, you may join us, but incompletely. You will never be truly of the water until you have claimed your full strength from a human.

The water was liquid diamonds at her fingertips. Warmth and wildness and home. Mairen felt a tug of longing. “How?” she breathed.

“Join your sisters, tonight, when the moon shines over our pool on the night of your birth. Then, lure the young man, Kel, here.”

Mairen froze. She stared into the black eyes of her mother.

“Drag him down into the pool. He will die, and you will be a daughter of the sea, as you always should have been.”

The words knifed through Mairen’s chest. Rarely as she saw him, Kel, the innkeeper’s son, was the only person who had shown her kindness. The only person who seemed to realize she existed. How had her mother known he was the man who might come to her – and the one it pained her to hurt?

“When…when must I do this?” Mairen asked unsteadily.

“Tonight, of course.”

“But – how shall I lure him tonight? The village is a mile away, and it is already late –”

“He has been sent a message just as you were. He will come as surely as you did. But you must join your sisters first.” Her mother slid back from the pool’s edge, and Mairen caught a glimpse of her heavy, shimmering tail. A fin slipped above the surface of the water, elaborately studded with glistening adornment, its detail obscured by shadows.

Mairen’s sisters swam forward. The joy had returned to their eyes, and they reached out to her.

“Come sister, gently. We will keep you safe,” said one, her voice young and sweet. Mairen felt something bright rising within her, and she smiled. She sat at the edge of the pool, and gasped as she slid her bare feet in. The water was hot and abrasive against her skin.

“It’s all right, we will be with you, we will help you,” said her sisters, taking her hands gently in their small, cool ones. The smallest said earnestly, “It will get better!”

Mairen plunged into the pool. The water closed over her head, scalding and tearing at her skin. Her entire body screamed. Then a pair of slim arms wrapped around her, and another. Another, and another. She was sinking, fast. She had been tricked. Her lungs clawed for air, her heart pounded frantically, and the empty darkness of death pressed against her eyes.

“It’s all right, you’re safe,” whispered a voice in her ear. The voice was joined by three others, crooning and soothing. Her sisters’ arms clutched her tighter.

The water cooled against her skin. Her body flooded with light, utter relief, as if a balm had been poured over her, as if her lungs were full of fresh air. The arms held her, but she was no longer sinking.

Then, four sets of soft lips brushed against her cheeks, her forehead. Four voices, as soft and nearly inaudible as a distant wave, whispered against her healing skin, “She lies.”
When Mairen broke the surface of the water, she felt as if she were waking from the heavy cloud of a dream. The sky had lightened to violet, but the stars still shone brightly over the pool. The water was pleasant against her skin, and she felt no fatigue in her muscles. Dipping under the water, she found that she had no need of air. It had been no dream.

Down, through water as clear as green glass, she could see the figures of her sisters and mother. Waiting for her.

She wanted to join them. When she looked at her sisters, a keen sense of home and family roared, and gripped the deepest parts of her. She would do whatever she had to do.

Mairen surfaced again, and saw him: Kel, the innkeeper’s son, standing at the edge of the pool, gazing down at her with sheer amazement in his eyes. Fierceness thrummed through her, and she stared back, holding his gaze until she knew that he couldn’t look away if he wanted to.

“Mairen?” he said. He knew her name. The thought was enough to cut through the raging emotion, but only slightly. She would not let it weaken her. She threw up her arms, as her sisters had done.

“Let me help you,” he said gently. She shook her head. No. He mustn’t be kind. He knelt, and reached for her. Their hands touched, and indecision shivered through her. But she pulled anyway.

She wrapped her arms firmly around him, and they sank together. His arms tightened around her as well, and she knew he could not swim. He kicked his legs madly, panic rippling through his tense body; he knew he was going to die. She held him, her thoughts focused downward, and they plummeted. Something swirled around them, beating the water powerfully. His arms clenched, and then he let go and desperately tried to push her up. He was trying to save her. His heart beat wildly against hers. Then, his body relaxed.

Mairen looked up into Kel’s face. It had gone slack, and his eyes were closed. His head lolled against his shoulder. Something like poison darted through her and she knew herself, starkly.

As desperately as she wanted her family, she could never have them at such a price.

She swam up with a ferocity of speed, although her legs were still human, and shoved Kel above the water. Hauling him to the edge, she pushed his limp body onto the stone lip of the pool. She rolled him to his side.

A long moment passed, and a devastation heavier than the weight of the ocean began to fill her. What had she done? The pale autumn sun broke over the horizon, and the wind gently ruffled Kel’s dark curls. Then he coughed.

Relief coursed through Mairen as Kel coughed up salt water and his chest began to move up and down. His eyes remained closed, he didn’t try to sit up – but he was alive. The sky lightened to pink. Mairen pulled herself out of the pool and sat next to Kel.

With a rush of waves, four heads broke the surface of the water and blinked in the rising sun. Mairen’s sisters swam toward her, their eyes shining. Her mother was not there.

“I’m sorry,” Mairen whispered. “I couldn’t do it.”

“But you did do it,” said the oldest, her voice vibrating with contained emotion. “You saved a human life.”

“But – our mother said that I must take one.”

“Yes – she lied,” said a sister with a streak of lighter hair playing through the dark, and eyes more amber than brown. “She did not want you to challenge her strength. As a half-human, you could become one who dwells in water by night and land by day. If you had taken a human life, you would have been bound to the water, forever. But because you have instead saved a life, you are a nymph, free to dwell on land or in sea as you please. This also means you are stronger than she, and she owes you her allegiance.”

“Which would be why she is gone,” said the youngest, her eyes dancing with pleasure.

“Gone?” asked Mairen, peering down into the pool.

“We can access any sea we choose from this pool. Who knows where she went.”

“Will she be back?” Mairen asked. She slipped back into the gentle water beside her sisters, excitement stirring her blood.

“Yes – but you will be ready.”

Mairen followed her sisters into the fathoms-deep salt pool to explore her new home, where the sunshine followed them endlessly downward. When she returned later that evening, just to check, Kel had gone, and only the gleaming stars remained.
Check out another story of Angie's, "Knight of the Sun, Moon, and Stars," by clicking on the cover below:

Angie Dickinson is a busy mother, and an avid reader and writer. Her writing has been greatly influenced by fairy tales, folklore, and myth, and their deep well of renderings. She is grateful for every opportunity add to that well by expanding on old tales that capture her imagination. Her short story, "Knight of the Sun, Moon, and Stars," has been previously published in Enchanted Conversation Magazine. You can learn more about Angie and her writing by visiting her blog, Telling Tales. Follow her on Twitter @AngieSDickinson

Cover: Amanda Bergloff



Lindsay said...

Absolutely stunning, inspired work. So enthralled to read it!

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Bravo!

Angie Dickinson said...

Thank you so much! :)

Angie Dickinson said...

Thank you! :)

Guy S. Ricketts said...

I really enjoyed Mairen's story, and appreciate the decision she must make in this tale with so much depth to it (no pun intended). It was fun and a bit suspenseful reading her situation unfold.

Angie Dickinson said...

Thank you for reading!

AMOffenwanger said...

I love this so much... It brought me to tears. What a beautiful ending. I'm seeing a whole novel coming from this - Mairen's life in and out of the sea, the final confrontation with her mother... Beautifully told.

Angie Dickinson said...

Thank you so much! That's just lovely to hear. I also think there's a lot more to this story to tell!

Owlfoot Press said...

An Old English lunisolar diary: