By late afternoon, most of the ships had departed. Syrena watched them go from her vantage point on the thin peninsula of rock jutting out into the water. She counted eleven Spanish ships leaving the bay, grim and silent, their gold and scarlet colors flaring against the blue waves before they shrank and vanished into the horizon. Of the Queen Anne's Revenge she saw no sign. The tide had gone out, and the surf was littered with clumps of seaweed and abandoned nets. The sight of them made her shudder, even though they were torn to shreds and effectively useless.
It is too quiet, she thought restlessly. Now that the songs and gunfire were over, there was nothing to listen to except the waves breaking against the sand. There was a time the quiet did not bother her so much, a time when she craved the peace and solitude. It felt oppressive and rather lonely at the moment, though. There was someone she wanted to share it with, but she did not know if he would want to share it with her. The painful uncertainty was almost enough to make her wish she had never left the open sea.
Shivering, she folded her arms inside the sleeves of the missionary's shirt. It had been thoroughly drenched when she first brought it back from the pool of sorrows, but the sun and the brisk ocean breeze had dried the fabric until it was stiff and salty. She pondered her legs, feeling unpleasantly paralyzed. Curiously, she twisted her ankle in the water and watched the clear droplets trickle off her toes. Toes for grasping, a shallow arch in the sole for balance. Mechanically she could see how the pieces fit together, but making them work in practice eluded her. Then again, perhaps she would not need to learn how to walk.
A faint disturbance in the water interrupted her reverie. From several meters beyond the peninsula, a light blue current knifed through the ocean. Gradually it slowed to a stop in front of the rocks where she sat, and a golden head emerged from the waves. The water slid gracefully from the other mermaid's shoulders like the hood of a cloak. "Good afternoon, Tamara," Syrena said politely.
"It is," Tamara agreed. She glanced over at the far side of the cove, where Syrena had seen a few tattered brown robes washed up on the rocks, their owners having no more use for them. "Though perhaps not for some," Tamara conceded. She turned back to Syrena and clicked her tongue sympathetically.
"Your missionary abandoned you," she observed. Her eyes shone with compassion, but behind them Syrena thought she detected a sliver of triumph.
"He sleeps," Syrena answered. She shrugged, and a sleeve of his cotton shirt slipped off her shoulder. Reflexively she pulled it back over her arm.
Tamara narrowed her eyes. "And you will go back to him."
Syrena looked down. The core of her being urged her to return, to let her face be the first thing he saw when he awoke. A part of her sincerely believed that all could be well if affection, and not responsibility, had inspired his behavior towards her. Another part of her feared that if he did see her upon waking, he might feel obligated to repay a life-debt. She could not bear the thought of that. It was very important that he choose her because he wished to, not because he felt he had to. However, she doubted Tamara would understand the distinction. In her ignorance the older mermaid took her silence for assent.
"He has four decades left in him. Five, at most. What will you do when he is gone?"
"I do not know," Syrena replied. I do not know if he will want me even for that long.
Tamara's eyes glistened. She would not cry – Tamara never cried – but the sting of rejection swam beneath her turquoise irises. "I don't understand you," she said softly. "Ten years I watched over you, waiting for you to come open up to me. And then he draws you in after two days...Two days are nothing to us."
She stretched out her fingers for a moment, wistfully, and then retracted them. "There is so much I wanted to teach you, little sister."
"I did not wish to learn what you had to teach," Syrena said. A piece of her regretted that she did not feel sadder about this, but not a very large one.
"You might have, eventually," Tamara replied dully. She looked down in resignation. "It's too late now. I can see it in your eyes. We've lost you."
You never had me to begin with, Syrena thought, but there was no reason to hurt Tamara further by voicing the thought aloud. Though Whitecap Bay was a far cry from anything she would call home, Tamara had given her a refuge and had asked for nothing in return. For that at least she deserved some kindness. Syrena nodded halfheartedly towards the beach decorated with the torn monks' robes. "Congratulations," she offered.
"And you," Tamara said with a curt nod. "Though I suppose I should congratulate the missionary instead. You'll be a widow in a few decades." Syrena bit her lip and lowered her eyes. For a second Tamara glanced up at her hopefully. "You are still very young, you know. You're allowed to make a few mistakes…"
Syrena shook her head. "As you said. I am lost," she said lightly. And I am younger, but I will die sooner, I think.
Tamara let out a short, irritated sigh. "That you are," she agreed. As they had never been particularly close, there was little more either of them could think of to say to each other. After another minute or so of silence, Tamara departed for the other side of the cove. She did not offer an explanation or even a word of farewell. But then, she probably did not think she needed to. Tamara did not answer to anyone, and neither, thought Syrena, did she.
The light sound of dripping water greeted him when he came to. For a moment Philip wondered where he was, and then he looked up and saw the stalactites clinging to the ceiling and remembered. He was inside a cathedral, but not one designed by human architects. This one was older and far more beautiful. And there had been singing, he remembered that too. Three songs he had heard before blacking out, a deep song and a wild song and a broken song. It was the broken one he recalled most clearly. That had been her song, though he could not understand any of the words.
Philip raised himself onto his elbows, feeling stiff. His eyes wandered to his stomach, surprised at the absence of the gut-wrenching pain he had felt earlier. The ugly gash had disappeared, and only a thin white stripe marked that it had ever been there at all. He fingered the unbroken skin in bewilderment. Syrena, my Syrena, what on earth did you do? Dazed and lightheaded, he fell back onto the cold floor and stretched out his arms. A laugh began to erupt from his lungs that grew louder as it echoed off the ceiling and walls. It was wrong to fear death, yet he was happier than he had felt in ages. It did not matter what she had done; this was air and that was limestone and he was alive.
He sat up again and turned to the emerald pool where they had emerged earlier. He could appreciate the grandeur of his surroundings more fully now that he wasn't fighting for his life. The cavern was cool and spacious, with a ceiling high enough for seven men to stand on each other's shoulders and still have room to spare. A few rays of light danced on the far end of the water. They seemed to come from a source beyond the chamber, where the cave bent to an unseen corridor. Where there was light, there was probably an exit.
"Syrena?" he called uncertainly. His voice echoed ominously off the limestone, but it did not bother him just yet. He called out her name a few more times, waiting for any disturbance in the water. There was nothing. Perplexed but not worried, he got to his feet and made his way towards the light.
Philip walked out of the cavern into a narrow passageway. The walls pressed so close against him he was forced to scramble sideways, earning a few more scrapes on his arms and chest where the rock nicked his skin. Syrena would not have been able to come this way, but as long as he emerged somewhere along the coast, she was bound to be nearby. She knew this island; she would know where to find him.
The corridor came to an abrupt end less than three feet from the water. A curtain of vines dangled over the exit. Philip shouldered through them and found himself standing on a white shore. A few shreds of coarse brown cloth had washed up on the sand. Looking back at the rock face, he had to appreciate her skill at choosing a hiding place. The crevice was so thin, and the tangle of vines and tree roots so concealing, he would have walked right past it.
"Syrena?" he called out again, this time nearly losing the sound of his voice to the wind and the waves. The sun was low on the horizon, turning the sky into a canvas of violet and crimson and rose. Sunrise or sunset? he wondered. As he waited, he wandered around the sand and rocks by the ocean, scanning them for a sign. There was nothing to show she was there, and nothing to show she ever had been there. A sinking feeling began to take hold in his chest.
She's gone, he thought as another wave crashed against the surf. So that was it, then. In his mind he could hear the quartermaster's gruff voice, asking why he would have expected anything else. It hurt, because a part of him had honestly believed she would choose to stay with him. He had thought, back in the cave, that she had felt the same heart-accelerating, intoxicating thrill he had felt when her lips met his. It seemed rather naïve now. Her kiss had kept him from drowning so she could heal him, that was all. That she wanted him to live did not mean she wanted him to live with her. Perhaps I am more of a boy than I thought.
His shoulders felt heavy again. For the first time in weeks he was free to go and do as he wished, yet the appeal had faded. He did not know exactly how long he had been asleep. It could not have been more than a couple days, if the scratchiness of his jaw was any indication. Still, most or all of the ships could have left by now. And he had no desire to fall in with the Spaniards or Blackbeard again, which left only the English. Philip looked inland. There was fresh water, and there was fruit. He supposed he could survive here for a while if he had to.
The broken lighthouse was still visible on the crest of the mountain, even more of a ruin now than it had been before. It overlooked the spot where he had first locked eyes with Syrena. That place had turned his life upside-down once; perhaps it would show him how to turn it right again. Without any clear goal in mind, he headed towards it.
He had not gone far, no more than half a mile, when he stumbled across a strange sight. The Queen Anne's Revenge sat beached in the tiny inlet where Blackbeard had anchored it after the mermaid hunt. At its helm, with Blackbeard's sword on his belt, stood the one-legged Englishman who had interrupted them at the Fountain. Beneath him more than a dozen of Blackbeard's former crew scrambled to unfasten the ropes and unfurl the mast, waiting for the tide to return.
The quartermaster looked pleased. The rest of the crew looked a little dazed. The zombification seemed to have worn off, and now they were blinking at the sun and the surf as though they weren't quite sure how they had gotten there. The cabin boy had made it back as well, Philip was relieved to see. And Scrum, the poor, simple sailor who had been unlucky enough to almost kiss a mermaid. Of Blackbeard, Angelica and their friend with the dreadlocks and impractical eyeliner there was no sign at all.
Philip knew looking at their faces that he had nothing to fear from them. It would be safe, and downright easy, to walk down to the Revenge, help them untie the rigging and climb aboard. He could sail with them to Barbados, or Tortuga, or wherever its new captain chose to lead them. Chances were it would be a place full of lost souls needing God's word. He could bring hope to thieves and drunkards and prostitutes, and after that...Home. I could go home.
From the bottom of the hill, Scrum glanced in his direction. His honest face lit up when he caught sight of Philip. The sailor dropped the rope he was untying and waved him over with an excited hallo. Philip smiled and waved back. Then he turned around and walked down the other side of the hill.
"Oy! Where d'you reckon the missionary's going?"
Behind him, Philip heard the quartermaster snort derisively. "Off to kiss a mermaid, like as not. Let the poor idiot go."
Philip descended the rest of the hill at a sprint. His body felt lighter now that the burden of deciding was gone. She would never go back to the lighthouse. She knows it's too dangerous. If she had returned to the sea, she was lost. But if there was even the smallest chance she had not...He needed to know if the last two days had meant anything at all to her, or if in her eyes he was only a kind stranger she wanted to help and forget.
To his left, the red sun was sinking. Philip guessed he had at best an hour before it disappeared. He did not want to imagine how much more difficult it would be to find her in the dark. He wondered where she would go, and how long she would wait for him, if indeed she was waiting for him. Suddenly time felt like a luxury he did not have. He knew at least she could not go very far inland, so circling the coast seemed like the most logical course of action. As he walked past the cavern entrance again, he tried not to think about why, if she truly wanted to see him again, she wouldn't have simply stayed there. The answer did not seem likely to encourage him.
He passed another cluster of heliconias and a thin peninsula of basalt that jutted out into the west. As he clambered down the other side of the rocks, another strange sight greeted him in the wet sand. A pair of footprints, oddly splayed. A second right footprint appeared just barely ahead of its predecessor – a small, mincing step, followed by what looked to be a giant lunge from the left foot. And just ahead of that, a pair of handprints. Not walking. Stumbling. Philip raised his head and looked down the eccentric trail as it continued along the shore beyond his sight. Shaking his head in bewilderment, he started to laugh.
The sun was half-gone by the time he caught up with her. She was not difficult to spot, with her dark hair contrasted against the immaculate white of her shirt. He had no idea how she had found it again, but the sight of his old shirt sent an immediate surge of relief through his chest. As trivial as it seemed compared to everything else they had been through, he had not wanted to picture how much more awkward a conversation would be had he found her naked.
She was walking away from him, though her version of walking was unlike any he had seen before. Her arms stretched out beside her in a straight line, tilting now and then for balance. Instead of bending her legs, she swept them forward in awkward semicircles. Still she was walking, and he could not suppress a vicarious sense of pride.
"Syrena-" It was a mistake, he realized too late. She turned at the sound of his voice. As she did her precarious balance failed. Feeling alarmed and a little guilty, he sprinted over to her side. For a moment he considered helping her to feet; then he decided it would probably be kinder to join her on the ground. She looked up from her half-kneeling position, her legs sprawled inelegantly behind her.
"It's getting easier now," she told him. "The falling." She held out one of her hands. Concerned, he brushed the wet sand off her palm and noticed the skin looked red and slightly chafed.
"How far were you planning to go?" he asked her.
"I had not decided," she answered, glancing back down. "I did not know if you would look for me." She shifted her legs beneath her until she was sitting properly, with her elbows resting across her knees.
"I didn't want to leave without you," he said. She kept her eyes fixed on the ground, the color in her cheeks growing deeper. A smile she seemed half-embarrassed to own appeared to be playing with the corners of her mouth. Along the side of her face, he could faintly make out thin, dried tracks winding towards her neck. "You were crying," he observed, his hand moving instinctively forward.
"I was not." Rather hastily, she wiped the side of her face with her wrist. "I…am not," she corrected. Philip let his hand drop. Wishing to change the subject to something she wouldn't find upsetting, he fished around for something ordinary and harmless.
"What was that song you sang, back in the cave?"
She rubbed her face with his sleeve again. "My name," she said.
"I thought names were for family."
"They are," she replied, as though she saw no contradiction between the two ideas. She pulled his shirt closer around her, even though it was not cold. "It was…part of my name. The part I remember. I haven't used it for a while. And some parts I never learned." As though sensing the unspoken question in his eyes, she explained, "We grow into our names. Our elders teach us, slowly, over our first hundred years. But they were gone before I finished learning mine."
He watched as her fingers played absentmindedly with a few loose threads on his sleeve. She did not appear sad. He supposed after four centuries she had gotten used to living anonymously. Still, it must be a very lonely feeling, to wander four hundred years knowing only part of one's name.
"You can have mine, if you like," he offered.
She looked at him curiously. "You already gave me a name. Why would I need two?"
"No reason," he said with a shrug. She turned back to the horizon, clearly missing the implication of his words. He debated phrasing it again in a more concrete way, but he did not want to ruin the moment. Any relationship they could have would be temporary, at least on her end. Even if they had forty or fifty years together, he would be at most a brief flicker in the long centuries of her life. "It was beautiful," he said.
She closed her eyes and breathed in the crisp, salt-flavored air. "Syrena is beautiful too. I would like to keep it."
They watched the waves in silence for several minutes. She sat with her arms crossed over her knees while he reclined backwards on the soles of his hands, letting the sand seep between his knuckles. He was surprised how easy it felt with her, just to sit and say nothing. After a while she dug her foot into the sand, observing how it spilled off her toes as she flexed them upwards.
"You did want to leave eventually, though, didn't you? To go home."
His thoughts drifted for a moment to Cornwall, and his mother, and a small grey church on the cliffs. "My home is a long way from here. And I imagine it would feel very different, going back there now."
"But…" She drew in a sharp breath, as though the words were difficult to say. She locked her fingers together and set her shoulders. "But homes are important," she continued firmly. "So are people. Waiting for you."
Without thinking, he reached over and brushed a wisp of dark hair behind her ear. His fingers tarried unnecessarily on the curve of her neck. Searching for a way to justify the sudden closeness, he reached for the collar of his shirt and straightened it over her shoulder. "There is someone who waited for me here." He withdrew his hand, and she shivered. "Syrena," he said carefully. "Do you want me to go?"
She pulled her knees closer into her chest. For a few alternating seconds she looked like a very young girl, and then a very old woman, and he could not for the life of him decide which was nearer to the truth. Staring at her knees, she shook her head.
"And is there nowhere else you wish to go?" he asked.
Her eyes remained on the ground. "Not…without you."
Something in his chest relaxed. He wondered if she had any idea how terrified he had been, upon leaving the cave, that she had gone beyond recall. But then, perhaps she did understand. In the soft struggle for words, and the careful way she avoided his gaze, perhaps there lingered the same fear of rejection. "You didn't have to wander off so far. You might have stayed closer to the cave and spared us both the anxiety," he told her.
"I did not wish to impose, or…assume," she said in a low voice, twisting the folds of his shirt above her ankles. "You are a very kind person, Philip."
Philip heard both the compliment and the critique behind her words. That was the second time someone had pointed out to him the drawbacks of kindness. Nothing had ever made him second guess treating others with compassion, but it did make him more aware of his actions and the various ways they could be interpreted. In her case, though, he did not mind if she wanted to read something deeper into his behavior.
"I would rather be with you than anywhere else in the world," he said honestly. "But I would not wish to cause you pain, Syrena. Whatever time we could have would pass like mere days, to you. I'll grow old. Then I would leave you again, only that time it would be more painful, not less. Would you truly want that?" he asked. She averted her eyes.
"No. I would not," she answered quietly. Her cheeks colored again as she contemplated her toes. "That outcome is…not probable now." Philip started to open his mouth, but she pressed two fingers to his lips, cutting him off mid-breath. "Philip, please understand," she began quickly. "I would never have done this without asking you first, it was not something I wanted to burden you with, or…or use as leverage, but, Philip, you were lying there dying, and I didn't know what else-"
"Syrena," he interrupted, placing his hands over hers. The contact seemed to ease some of the tension in her face. He rolled his thumbs over her wrists and spoke again, more slowly. "How exactly did you save me?"
She swallowed and took a deep breath. "A mermaid's tear is a very powerful thing," she said. "And more powerful when given freely." She looked up at him, apprehensive and, he thought, a little sad. "You have a mermaid's tear in your blood, Philip. It means you will have to live longer now."
"I see," he replied. That answer did not sound nearly as bad as what he had been afraid of, given the distress in her voice. He rolled his shoulders backwards, wondering if he ought to feel any different. "How much longer?"
"Half, I think," she replied with a frown.
He looked at her askance. "Half," he repeated.
"Yes. Half," she told him. "Half of the years I would have lived after today are now yours."
She studied his face carefully, and Philip suddenly understood why she had been uneasy about telling him this. He felt his chest grow cold, and the joy he had experienced upon waking seemed to drain from the sky even before his mind could process what she had said. "I took…half the years of your life," he said slowly.
"I gave you half the years of my life. There is a difference," she said.
"Half your life," he repeated again, partly to himself. He had some difficulty wrapping his mind around the idea, and the part of his mind that could understand it recoiled. "You might just as well say I murdered you."
Syrena rolled her eyes. "No, you might not say that," she said patiently. "Philip, you know that."
Philip ran his fingers through his hair. She was right, he did know that. And she did look happy in the sunlight, an emotion he had rarely seen on her face. If she had chosen to sacrifice half her life for his, it could only mean she was happier with him than without him. Still, it felt like a bitter price to pay. "I would not have wanted you to do that," he said.
"I know," she answered. She looked down at her ankles again. Her behavior made much more sense to him now. She had not wished him to stay with her out of obligation, so she had put off telling him the full truth until she was certain he wanted her as much as she wanted him. There was a certain thoughtfulness behind it, but there was also a great risk. If he had gone back and tried to live as a normal clergyman, twenty or thirty years might have passed before he realized anything was odd. Perhaps then he might have suspected the cause and sought her out, but there was no guarantee he would have found her, even if he had a thousand years to search.
She shrugged and leaned sideways against his shoulder. "It's only seven or eight centuries," she murmured.
He draped his arm around her back. "You should have stayed closer to the cave," he growled softly into her ear. "I almost spent seven or eight centuries believing I'd lost you."
He looked down at the top of her head as another thought occurred to him. "There was the other tear. The one Blackbeard stole from you. What did that cost you?"
"Nothing," she replied. "That was not given. It was taken. Different rules."
Philip exhaled slowly, relieved. In a way, he supposed it was good they could never have children. It would be sad to watch them age and die while their parents remained young. He wondered if they too would grow old when their time began to run out, or if one day their hearts would simply stop beating at the same time.
"We won't be able to stay in one place very long. Ten or fifteen years at most," he said. "I'm afraid it would mean a life of wandering for you. I could never offer you a real home."
Syrena turned to him. Her eyes glowed implausibly as her face broke into the third real smile he had ever seen on her. Without any warning whatsoever, she threw her arms around his neck and knocked him to the ground. He thought just then she looked more like a giddy sixteen-year-old girl than a four-hundred-year-old water sprite. She is not ageless, he realized. She is every age in the world wrapped into one. Then she pressed her mouth against his and for the next few minutes he stopped thinking about anything at all, except her lips and her tongue and her hair.
"That's all right," she told him when she broke away, her cheeks slightly flushed. "I really don't mind."
Philip sat up, laughing. "We'll just have to carry home with us, like snails," he said. Rolling his shoulders again, he stretched and stood. Then he turned and offered her a hand up.
"What," she asked, as he pulled her to her feet, "is a snail?"
"I'll show you next time I see one," he promised.
When they were both standing, he wrapped one arm around her waist while his other hand laced through her fingers. They made slow progress down the beach, but he did not mind. There would be time, he thought. Time enough to court her properly, and time enough to propose to her the way a man ought to propose to a woman. Thinking about all the places they would visit out of necessity made him feel suddenly exhilarated. They would have to keep to the coasts, but the coasts were long and many, and places could change. How much good could a man do in eight hundred years?
"It will be dark soon," Syrena said, in case he had forgotten. He could not help feeling a little sad at how quickly the day had slipped away from him. There will be time, he reminded himself. She bit her lip as her eyes scanned the cliffs and the sea, presumably thinking about shelter for the night. She glanced at him over her shoulder.
"May I?" she asked.
Philip nodded, and she slipped her arm inside his elbow. With unsteady feet they waded into the surging water, until the waves were deep enough for her to brush her lips against his and pull him under.