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Underwater Light

My brother used to say that if you looked deep enough into the ocean on a dark night -- a truly dark night, when the moon was no more than a sliver hidden behind a cloud, when the stars flickered feebly on and off, if you looked deep enough into the ocean, you’d see a light. He said that it was the light of Fiddler’s Green, where all the sailors went, where our father was. He’d whisper about the light, saying that that was the lamp that led all the sailors there, to the perfect village, where the fiddlers never stopped playing and the drink never stopped coming and the barmaids were always beautiful and the dancers never tired… he called it paradise. I knew others who would call it hell.

My brother used to say lots of things. He called the sea his lady-love, like every other sailor, and had a wife in every port, or maybe more than one. My brother… he was beautiful. More than beautiful. People used to compare him to Adonis, all the women in the inn where I worked envying me for having him for a brother, with his charming manner and golden curls and bright, mischevious blue eyes. They didn’t know the times that I got yelled at, because my brother had another child. They didn’t know how many nieces and nephews I had, how many angry sister-in-laws blamed me and yelled at me in lieu of my brother. So if you want to know what kind of person my brother was, well, he was a sailor, and that didn’t make him good or bad, but it made him different than the rest of us, because he’d only ever love the sea and no one else really mattered to him, not his lady-loves in the ports or me. Maybe mother did. But mother fell into Fiddler’s Green before I was two, and if she ever mattered to him… well, he was barely six.

People said it was bound to happen. That no one as beautiful as he was could be left unscathed. But I know that wasn’t true. I know that he was smarter than that. That he wouldn’t just… but maybe he did. Because one day… one day, he went out, the same as he always did, leaving me a golden necklace, the same as he always did. He’d always get a different one. This one, he swore, was forged by the hands of the makers of Toledo steel, the greatest blacksmiths in all of Spain. And just before he left, he placed it around my neck, letting the single pearl fall to rest around my neck. The gem of the sea, he said. To remind me of him. He swore he’d get me one from the American savages, this time, from the City of Gold, with the strange pale yellow gem that they used there -- a gem like the rays of the sun, he said. Or an opal, for they had plenty, opals which showed all the colors of the beautiful sea. And one day, he’d find me a necklace made my mermaid hands, for made magic necklaces, that changed and shifted as you touched them, and they were the most beautiful things in the world, for they were forged in the heart of the sea… All his conversations came back to the sea, eventually. And he’d put it around his beautiful sister’s neck, to remind her of him, and did she promise never ever to forget him, and to pray for him every night, because every poor sailor needed prayers to keep the sea from swallowing him up. I did. I never forgot a prayer.

And then, and then, and then Tyler came. First mate Tyler, right to my front door, with a golden necklace with an opal in one hand and a letter in the other, and I didn’t have to ask, because I knew. I knew what it meant when the first mate came. I’d seen it happen to my friends, to my coworkers. I’d seen the hysterics. I’d seen that apologetic expression. I’d heard those sweet, condescending words, that offer to become another wife. I knew what it meant. So I didn’t ask, and I didn’t let him speak. I told him to sit down, and I gave him tea, and I thanked him very kindly for the necklace and put it around my neck, to remind myself of him, and I went upstairs and got my ruby necklace and my emerald and my sapphire necklace (ruby for your lips, sister, ruby for the blood that we both share, for my love for you and for my hearts-blood, so it stays in my veins, emerald for your rich, dark eyes, for the forests from whence they came, for Fiddler’s Green and pray that I don’t go there any time soon, sister of mine, sapphire for the sea and for my eyes, remember these eyes so they don’t fall into the sea so soon, sapphire for a promise that I’ll come back home, for an apology if I am late, sister, blood of my blood…) and lay them beside my pearl and my opal. (pearl for your pretty pale skin, sister, and for the white of the wedding dress I don’t doubt you’ll have soon enough, and save a spot for your wandering brother…) And I went back downstairs and thanked him once again, and asked if he’d like to stay the night, and the next morning, over breakfast, asked what had happened to the body.

Lost at sea, he said. But they’d have a funeral on land, for those who are left behind. Because funerals are for the living, not for the dead, and if I needed retribution, well, the crew were but more men and could only pay for a funeral, but I was a very pretty girl and perhaps they could find her a good husband in a port, for they had done the same for others before me… and I thanked him, yet again -- that seemed to be all I was doing, and asked him to stay for the funeral, but not for the wedding, thank you all the same.

And people came, for everyone knew the look of a first mate, and they offered their condolences, and even his wives stopped bothering me, so concerned were they with crying and sobbing and asking what would become of them to their other husbands, who promised them they would be fine, of course. And if some came to me to gossip, to see me and call me mad, they were disappointed, for I didn’t shed a tear. I loved my brother. And I knew he was where he’d always wanted to be. Fiddler’s Green. Heaven or hell, it didn’t matter.

It wasn’t until after the funeral that I cried. Because there was a man there, a man I’d never seen before. A man with hair darker than the night and eyes as pale and as beautiful as an underwater light, and if my brother was Adonis, he was more than that. He was the madness of the sea in that hair darker than a moonless, starless night, he was the beauty of the sea with eyes that glowed with the underwater light, he was the hate and love of the sea in skin burnt deep brown, he was the mystery of the sea in his quiet, calm smile. He didn’t speak to anyone, and no one spoke to him. Some whispered, asking who he was, but the crew shushed them. Oh, Tyler knew. Tyler snuck glances, but never seemed quite satisfied… and as for I? I didn’t know. Whether he was a captain or a murderer or a pirate or a king… all things were possible, and nothing was known.

He stopped me before I left, and, smiling with his little, calm sea-smile, asked if I wanted to know what had happened to my brother.

And I said yes, because the sea never leaves your blood, and the only reason people sail is madness and curiosity, and that’s why I said yes. Because Fiddler’s Green burnt in his eyes, and sailor’s blood rose in my heart.

And he smiled his sea’s-smile, and placed a necklace in my palm. But it wasn’t gold, and it wasn’t silver, and it wasn’t copper. It shifted and changed under my fingers, one part gold suddenly silver, one part copper now shining diamond… and I knew what it meant, for I had heard of the Fae, and I knew mermaid make from the brother’s stories.

The man smiled. “He kept his promise.”

I didn’t ask what it had cost. Tyler told me that. He told me what he knew of the man. He was no merman, but he was a warlock. He said that… that the man had given something to a mermaid, and that…that my brother had followed the mermaid into the sea. That they’d all tried to hold him back, but he’d escaped with a strength that wasn’t his own, and he’d plunged into the sea… that they’d seen his corpse bob up an hour later, and heard the tinkling silver laugh of the merpeople, before he was pulled back into the deep.

He didn’t know what the warlock had done. But though the warlock was no merman, he was not mortal, either. And they held a secret sailor’s wake for my brother, and they cast his belongings into the sea, and prayed for his deliverance to Fiddler’s Green.

And every starless, moonless night, I walk out to the inky-black sea, and stare into it, for hours, until I see the underwater light, until I see Fiddler’s Green. And I pray.

And I wear the mermaid’s chain around my neck, and I will throw it into the sea tonight, the tenth anniversary of his death, to guide him to Fiddler’s Green, and to revoke his obligation to the mermaid. For these things have rules.

And as it falls into the inky-black sea, on this moonless, starless light, I see the underwater light. I see eyes of madness, and the sea’s smile, and I see perfect golden curls and a smile so charming it had a wife in every port.

And for the first time in years, I smile.

Because my brother used to tell stories about Fiddler’s Green. And it was heaven. Or maybe it was hell.

But sometimes… sometimes that’s the same thing.

I finger the pearl around my neck, and I smile, and I walk back to where Tyler waits, and I nod.





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