I’ve missed writing short fic to prompts (as I did for this lockdown fiction series) so I asked my Twitter followers to provide some prompts and I’d write a story!
That was so much fun I think I’ll make it a weekly even. If you want to play, follow me on Twitter and look out for the prompt requests!
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Hannah carefully picked a path along the rocky shoreline, ensuring her sneakered feet had good enough grip on the wet basalt before taking another step. The conch shell she approached was resting next to something altogether less expected at one lip of rock overhanging the surging sea. An elegant brass telephone, the slender handpiece resting on the brackets, the body underneath it decorated in swirls and florals down to its dainty feet. The only part of it not pristine was the dial, the holes of which were filled with coral.
Waves crashed against the underside of the rocks, periodically spraying sea water over shell and telephone.
‘This salt water is terrible for my feet, you know, Mistress,’ croaked Hannah’s companion, tucked comfortably in the pouch woven into the end of her scarf.
Hannah touched the frog on the head with her fingertip. ‘Then pull your head in, Hector, and quit sticking your tongue into it.’
Hector ducked slightly, his yellow-webbed front feet, bulbous black eyes and grey-green nose visible over the edge of the thick grey wool. ‘Should be home. It gets dark too quickly this time of year,’ he said, voice deep and gruff, throat stretching out with the sound. He only croaked of course, but a witch always understands her familiar. And, of course, vice versa.
‘You could’ve stayed at home in your tank,’ Hannah countered. ‘I’d’ve left the telly on fer you an’ all. But no. I need to go out and you, ye nosy frog, have to come with.’ She patted the pocket, though, so Hector didn’t doubt her affection. ‘Tuck down, Heck. That spray’d no good on her eyes.’
Hector shifted further into the warm, woolly scarf pouch as Hannah reached her destination. Conch shell and telephone, washed up with such geometric precision on the basalt shore. She sat on the edge of the basalt shelf, feet dangling over the drop (getting wet from the waves and foam). She lifted the shell and – after first checking for indignant crabs occupying the curved space – she lifted the shell to her ear.
‘I can hear the sea,’ she declared with a laugh.
‘But can it hear you too?’ Hector’s muffled voice rose above the sound of the waves and rocks and gulls crying out above.
A witch doesn’t only always understand her familiar. She always hears it.
Hannah moved the shell to her lips. ‘Come on then,’ she shouted into it. ‘I haven’t got all day.’
The sea below her surged, beyond even its restless crashing against the rock. And there she was. The late sunlight glinted from bright fins, long weeds that looked like hair and skin that looked human but was made of a million tiny scales that grew larger and darker as they covered the powerful shape of her tail.
A great flex of that strong body and the mermaid burst out of the sea, like a dolphin breaching the surface; or more like a great white shark leaping to take down a bird in flight. Her leap took the mermaid into the air, twisting, and she landed sinuously on what passed for her backside on the rock beside Hannah. She smiled, triangular teeth serrated and sharp and nothing at all human, whatever the legends said.
Hector cowered lower in his pocket.
‘Do I have to talk you out of eating me again today, Ariel?’
‘Don’t call me that,’ the mermaid scowled.
‘I’ll stop when you give me another to call you by.’
The mermaid folded her arms, spread her webbed hands against her shoulders in sulky resistance. ‘You know I don’t have one any more.’
‘I’m not like him,’ Hannah said. ‘With all his, leave all this behind baby, come with me and I’ll get you a shiny new soul.’
‘You told him to offer that to me,’ said the mermaid.
‘Yes. But I never said for you to give the him your name.’
‘I didn’t know when he asked for it that he meant to keep it.’
Hannah sighed. ‘Eating him didn’t give back, either.’
‘No,’ sighed the mermaid. ‘Worth a try, though.’
‘Doubt it,’ croaked a tiny, grumpy voice from Hannah’s scarf.
The mermaid bent low to whisper hissingly into the wool surrounding the frog, ‘Splendid to see you, froggy.’ Then she made a slurping noise.
‘Don’t you go spooking my familiar,’ Hannah admonished her. ‘You’re not here to eat him, or me. You’re here for your name.’
The mermaid bared her many, many teeth at the witch. ‘You don’t really have my name. All this time looking and you haven’t found it.’
‘You live in hope, though, eh? ‘S why you meet me.’
The mermaid sulked again. Looked at the strange telephone sitting by the conch shell.
‘What is this thing?’
‘I called it out of the sea for you. We need it.’
‘But what does it do?’
‘It’s like the shell. Lift that part at the top. Have a listen,’ said Hannah.
The mermaid picked the receiver up and stared at it. Bumped her chin against it, tasting it with her skin.
‘Yer ear, Ariel,’ said Hannah.
The mermaid scowled again and pressed the receiver against the curl of bone and cartilage.
Her terrifying mouth stretched wide in a laugh. ‘I can hear the land.’ She held it out to Hannah, who could hear it too. Wind in the trees and the creak of forests bending in it.
‘See that circle on the front, with the numbers behind the coral? Dial this number.’ The witch held out her hand, on which she’d scrawled a telephone number in black biro. The number was beginning to smudge in the damp air.
The mermaid pressed her fingers into the coral and turned the dial, breaking the coral to pieces. The dial ticked slowly back into place.
‘Who am I calling?’
‘His phone number.’
‘I ate him, remember?’
‘Can’t forget. The table manners of you, ugh.’
The mermaid, not hopeful, pressed the receiver to her ear again and although the cord connecting phone to service had long since given itself up to salt and sea, she could hear it ringing, and then a click, and then a voice.
‘Hello, Ed Collins’ phone, Al Collins speaking.’
The mermaid smothered a gasp. Hannah nodded for her to continue. ‘Hello. Mr Collins.’
‘Yes. Who’s this?’
‘I’m…’ without a name to give, and refusing to use Ariel, the mermaid had to content herself with, ‘I’m a friend of Edward’s.’
‘You know Ed?’ Al Collins’ tone was urgent and eager. ‘Have you seen him? Tell me you’ve seen him. He’s been missing for weeks. He went out on the yacht by himself, to meet someone, he said, and since then, nothing. The yacht was found adrift. He left his phone on board. I’ve been hoping someone would call. Nobody knows what happened.’
The mermaid knew what happened. She’d met Ed Collins at sea in his pretty boat, and that comely lad had been captivated by the strange creature who saved him when he fell off the damned thing. Beautiful in her monstrous way. He said he wanted to be with her, but they could only do that on land. Only human, he could hardly change to live in the sea but she, being fey, perhaps could change to live with him.
The mermaid led Ed to Hannah the Witch for a solution. Hannah had suggested the correct exchange for changing herself so utterly was the reward of gaining an immortal human soul.
The mermaid had been only too eager to explore this alternative to a long but soulless life.
But then Ed’s second thoughts had become third and fourth and fifth thoughts. He’d stayed away for heartbreaking weeks. Finally he had come out to see his pet sea monster; to tell her that while he was fond of her, they were two very different people, with very different paths in life, and that it wasn’t her, it was him, or maybe it was a little bit her, and all those teeth. He wasn’t prepared to spend a life married to a woman who’d once been a mermaid no matter what promises they’d made because, well. The teeth. Not when there was all those lovely willing women with not so many teeth out there, happy to share his bed and not getting all peculiar over giving him their names.
He’d worked it out by then. That for the creatures of the fey world, rules were different and difficult, and governed by things other than human intent. The rules applied whether you understood them or wished them. Words meant something to those creatures. Names meant everything.
She’d given him hers in a rush of optimism. A small thing to give in exchange for a soul.
So, sorry love, he said. This was farewell, but oh, he’d be keeping her name. Something to remember her by. He was keeping it somewhere safe.
Lied to, betrayed, heartbroken, enraged, she reached for Ed’s hand and wrapped her arms and fins around him. She pulled him into the depths and ate him, searching for herself inside his skin, but not finding her name anywhere.
‘Hello?’ said Al into the silence.
‘Sorry,’ said the mermaid. ‘Thinking. He had something of mine. Has, I mean.’
At the other end of the call, it was Al’s turn to fall into silence. He broke it with a hoarse whisper.
‘Are you… that woman? That mystery woman he was seeing?’
‘Might be,’ she said, because if anything was clear at that last meeting, it was that Ed was seeing quite a lot of people.
‘You vanished when he did.’
‘I went home,’ she said. ‘But they wouldn’t let me in. He didn’t give me back the thing he took. I need it. I can’t go home without it.’
All these weeks and weeks and weeks living near the surface, unable to reach the deeps, bargaining with Hannah. Find my name again or I’ll eat you too, after what you did.
You asked me to help you find a way to be with him. I didn’t tell you to give up your name.
You tricked both of us. Find it. Or be eaten.
On the bewitched phone, Al was still talking. ‘If you want it, you’ll have to come here and answer my questions. You know what happened to Ed.’
‘I know,’ she admitted.
‘What happened to my brother?!’
‘He stole from me.’
‘He told me was seeing some crazy bitch. He had a lot of crazy bitches in his life but you were the one, weren’t you? The craziest bitch. Weren’t you, Ulali? Weren’t you?’
The word speared down the ensorcelled line, lightning in a word. The name struck her ear and filled her throat and then her chest. Her heart beat with it.
Ulali. Ulali. Her name, her self. Her soul. Ulali. Ulali.
Her body coiled with elation. Ulali pushed away from the basalt ledge, uncoiling again with the kinetic energy of the entire sea. Midair she twirled and spun then dived into the sea. Surged out of it again, water streaming behind her, a trailing veil of joy.
‘Thank you!’ she cried to the witch. ‘Thank you! I shall not eat you today!’
She pushed high out of the water, pirouetted in the foam of the sea, then dived down deep.
In minutes she was gone. With her name in her heart, sitting behind her many sharp teeth, Ulali swam home to the darkest depths of the ocean. Her name would open the gates for her. Her name would take her home.
Hannah sat on the edge of the rock, watching the shifting of the ocean surface, even though she wasn’t sure if it marked the mermaid’s passage or just the movement of the tide.
She lifted up the phone receiver. At the other end a man was crying. ‘Tell me. Was it you? What’s your name? What’s your name? I had it a minute ago and now it’s gone. What did you do to my brother.’
Hannah gently hung up the phone. It was a bad business all round, and she’d done her best. Foolish mermaid, insisting on giving up everything she was for him. Even if he’d been worthy, it was a rash act.
Hannah patted her little pocket. Hector emerged carefully. The sun was almost down, the molten gold light of it staining the clouds and the stretch of the horizon.
‘Did you hear the name?’ Hector asked.
‘No. I don’t need it. I have one of my own.’
‘Hmph,’ said Hector. ‘Not the one you tell her.’
‘Not that one, no.’ Even Hector didn’t know Hannah’s true name. It didn’t do to keep it anywhere except behind your own teeth and in your own heart.
‘Does she know she never actually needed to bargain anything away for a soul?’
‘But she did, Hector. She needed to get her soul back again.’
‘I mean, that she didn’t need one from outside.’
‘I know what you mean. And she understands it now.’
Hannah rose to her feet. She threw the conch and the telephone over the edge of the rocks, back into the sea. In the growing darkness, she began to pick her way back to dry land.
‘Mistress,’ said Hector. Also not his real name. ‘Do I have a soul?’
‘It’s possible, Heck. Why don’t you give me your true name and we’ll find out.’
‘I’d rather not. Mistress.’
‘Good frog,’ she said, and kept walking.