The mermaid was gone from the icehouse and the Dowager declared the tenants had all been lying, or else their minds had been touched by the cold and too much whisky. Being their only gentle-born witness, I was summoned to the Bighouse to defend their tale. My father was angry; he couldn’t say so openly, as a Minister of the Kirk, but he wanted me to lie to the Dowager, to say it was all fancy and nonsense. This I could not do, for he’d taught me to tell the truth.
When I stood before her ladyship and swore I’d seen the mermaid cut from the ice with my own eyes, she glared at me. ‘I have already sent a letter to my son, promising him a mermaid on his dinner table at Candlemass. What do you suppose I should say to him now?’
I was shaking with fever and could not answer her.
Then her expression grew hard and bright. ‘This girl will do just as well,’ she announced. ‘When the Laird arrives, find a platter large enough to hold her and make a fish tail to cover her legs. She can be the centrepiece on my son’s table.’
Her steward was horrified. ‘But remember you, ma’am, she’s daughter to the Minister,’ he protested, ‘a respectable lass. We cannae expect her to…’ – he lowered his voice – ‘to bare her bosom in company. Before the Laird and his gentlemen guests.’
‘Oh, tush,’ retorted the Dowager, ‘cover her bosom up with fish scales and seaweed, she’ll look decent enough – for a girl who sees mermaids.’
There was no arguing with the dame. The common people call her moonstruck, mad as a blue hare. It’s certainly true she is strange, but whether she was already so when her son banished her to this lonely place or whether the dark winter days, the bitter cold and the isolation have eaten at my lady’s wits like moths at a blanket, I cannot say. I’ve heard tell she was gay and high-spirited in her youth – a magnificent horsewoman, she followed the hounds as boldly as any man. Hunting on horseback is impossible up here on the north coast; the country is mostly peat bogs and such roads as exist are narrow and treacherous.
Rumour has it my lady orders her servants to put a saddle upon the largest towel horse in the laundry. She clambers aboard with her horn and her riding crop, hallooing while the footmen push her around that vast, echoing tiled chamber. If this gossip be true, I would love to see the sight with my own eyes.
The Laird visits only twice a year; in February for the Candlemass feast and again in autumn for the shooting. He takes little interest in the estate – nor in his tenants. It was the Dowager’s father who had the icehouse built, to the astonishment of all hereabouts. It looks like a small round tower set into the cliff, with its head in the Bighouse garden and its feet almost touching the burn at high tide. There is a narrow door at its foot, and inside there are steps spiralling up, leading to a dark, chill room deep within the hill. Every winter when the burn freezes over, the estate’s tenants are employed at chipping out blocks of ice for storing. The ice keeps like magic in that dank cavern all through the winter and the spring, even until our Laird visits the Dowager in September. There’s another door in the Bighouse grounds so that the servants can collect ice to chill the Laird’s wine and the sweet fools and flummeries made in the kitchen to please his guests.
Yes, it’s surely a great wonder, this icehouse – and it was in the icehouse they put the mermaid.
I did see her, I tell you. It was late in January, the first sunny morning after a week of freezing storms, and I was walking along the burn with Kirsty, our servant, down to the shore to watch the cutting of the ice.
The Bighouse Burn flows through a flat, sandy meadow, making a wide loop about the hill on which the Bighouse sits, separating the mansion from the dunes and the bay. In winter, the burn’s a swiftly flowing river by the time it reaches the beach, and it forms a deep pool where it flows into the sea. At high tide the waves sweep into this pool, mixing both salt water and fresh into a turbulent whirl of angry foam.
Most often the snows pass over us here on the coast, falling in heavy drifts inland, but at least once every winter we get a freezing storm and the Bighouse Burn is turned to solid ice. This winter has been a hard one and we suffered blizzards for days, so on that first clear morning the Dowager gave the order for the ice to be cut. All the local working people gathered on the shore, carrying axes, picks and shovels. The ford across the burn was frozen and they hammered nails into their boots to give them footing. The men broke up the ice while the women and the bairns collected the jagged lumps in creels, then carried them through the narrow door in the hill. It was a vivid scene and one I always enjoyed, for it made a welcome change to my dull winter routine. The cold was bitter; the children’s hands were red and raw and their noses ran continuously. I didn’t fancy eating those flummeries and fools of my Laird’s, kept chill on the frozen snot of the village brats.
As Kirsty and I approached the burn, we heard the men shouting in startled excitement, their voices loud in the sharp, still air. They were collected about the pool where the burn joins the sea, and they called so urgently that we made our way across the snow-frosted dunes towards them. When we reached the pool, they fell back to let us pass, as if afraid.
I stared down in shocked amazement – for there, deep in the water, I could see a mermaid. The ice was inches thick above her, yet her form was clearly visible as I peered through the translucent, frosty surface. She was lying with her green hair cast about her like seaweed and one pale arm thrown up as if to shield her face. Her thick fish tail was curved beneath her, the fins splayed out like a phosphorescent fan. She must have been washed in by the storm at high tide, and then been caught by the creeping ice as the freshwater of the burn froze above her, the chill fingers of the river holding her in a bitter embrace, trapping her before the tide turned and she could escape.
I could tell she was not warm-blooded as we are but cold-blooded like the fish, for her skin was white as alabaster in the frozen water, not red and purple as ours would be. I wondered whether, like a fish, she was in a state of suspended animation. My father is an educated man and he takes a great interest in the new science of biology: he has explained to me how reptiles and fish can survive in extreme cold, when we would believe it impossible, by slowing their blood to a thick, barely perceptible flow.
That was what I hoped for the mermaid – that she was still alive, waiting for the thaw. But I knew she might be an air-breathing creature, like the dolphins and the seals, in which case she would have suffocated. I prayed not: I longed for her to be alive, though I knew not why.
Kirsty was also gazing transfixed at the monster, and she began to wail. To see a mermaid always meant disaster, she cried, it would bring a death to us, for sure. I laughed at her gently, trying to shame her out of her superstitious dread, but nothing could shake her fixed belief that the seamaid meant doom.
The Dowager, watching from her battlemented windows, had seen the excitement and sent a servant to discover the cause. I was agog to know whether her ladyship would come down herself to gaze on the wonder, but it seemed the cold defeated her. Having put her nose out of doors and had it pinched by the frost, she decided to return to her drawing-room fire.
Instead, she sent orders that the mermaid was to be carefully chipped from the pool, without damaging her in the least, as my lady thought she would make a fine ornament for the Laird’s Candlemass table. It was his custom to come here with a party of friends for the feast – an old tradition at the Bighouse. The creature was to be placed frozen in the icehouse, upon the packed ice, which would surely keep her fresh until the Laird’s coming.
Kirsty looked even more alarmed. ‘Do you think they will eat her, Miss Mary?’ she asked me.
I considered this idea with horror. It was true that roast mermaid would make a novel dish for the Laird’s guests – but surely she would not keep fresh enough for that, even in the icehouse. I said as much to Kirsty, who looked relieved.
‘I can see how they might eat the creature’s tail,’ she confessed, ‘but not her upper parts. They are so human-like. I know she has no immortal soul like us, but even so, she is too near woman-looking. Think you no, Miss Mary?’
I shuddered, feeling in my heart that she was right – it seemed nothing short of cannibalism to eat the mermaid. ‘They talk as if the Dowager means her for a decoration, nothing more,’ I said, to comfort us both.
The men set to work breaking up the hard ice above the creature. Then smaller hammers and chisels were brought out, and the men began tapping with delicate care to free her frozen body from the pool.
‘You’re cold, Miss,’ Kirsty said. ‘We’d best go home now.’
I could see she wanted to get well away from the monster.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘You may go on if you wish, but I shall stay awhile.’
I stood in the biting air watching as the men chipped the mermaid out of the solid ice, her body gleaming in the pale sunlight. Once they had her free, they cheered and lifted her up above their heads in triumph, then bore her away to the icehouse door to lay her upon the shards hidden deep within.
That night I was sleepless, thinking of the mermaid lying there. What if she woke up to find herself alone in that dank, dark cellar? No water, no ocean near her. Nothing but sharp ice beneath her soft, smooth back and her glittering tail. I couldn’t bear to think of it – I knew I had to get her out. In spite of the Dowager, no matter what the Laird might say, I had to set her free. Alive or dead, I did not want her in that cold, bleak place.
I went to my window; the stars were burning fiercely in the clear sky. I pulled on my warmest clothes and crept down the manse staircase. At the back door I put on heavy boots and a thick hooded cloak, and, taking the lamp, I set off down the bridleway across the meadow. The Bighouse stood tall and black on the clifftop above me. At first I was unsure how to cross the frozen burn, so I walked upstream to the stepping stones. They too were covered with a treacherous sheet, but it was broken in places by firm rock. Crouching down on my hands and knees, I made my way inch by inch across the slippery surface.
Then, fate be cursed, I fell, dropping the lamp heavily on the ice so that the flame went out. Having got myself across the burn, I considered my predicament. How could I continue with no light? But how could I return having failed so? I decided I had best go on, for I feared if I retreated I would never find the courage to try again. I hid the lamp behind a large stone and made my way to the icehouse. Inside it seemed pitch black, but I left the door ajar to throw a little starlight upon the first steps and began climbing the spiralling stairs into the darkness.
I had thought it bitter outside, but the cold in that place was of a different kind. It was the cold of the tomb, the petrifying cold of death itself, which turns all soft, warm creatures to rigid, inanimate things. Painfully feeling my way, I reached the top of the steps, then, crawling once more on my hands and knees, I found a path round the edge of the ice-filled chamber.
I knew I had to stand up and explore the pile of shards, for she would be laid among them to keep her chilled. The ice was sharp and burnt my hands, but I soon discovered her – the feel of her breast gave me a physical shock that ran throughout my frame. Her skin was clammy beneath my fingers; she was beginning to thaw. Touching her strange flesh made me shudder. She was big – nearly as tall as I, had we lain back to back – and she was far heavier than I had reckoned. I got both her hands in mine and tried to pull her off the ice, but it was useless. Then I struggled to heave her fish tail off the pile, and finally it came, its weight bringing the rest of her body down. Elated by my success, I pulled her to the stairs and, by getting on the steps beneath her with her form resting on my back, I managed a tortuous descent. It was with relief that I reached the starlight by the doorway and heaved the mermaid out into the freezing night.
I was exhausted, yet my work wasn’t over, for I still had to pull or carry the monster down the burn out to sea. The ice helped me now – once I had her moving, I found I could slide her along the frozen water. We reached the wide pool and I nervously edged her across the glassy surface towards the free-moving waves washing over the rocks. The tide was almost in; soon it would be on the turn and I hoped this would make my task easier. With a final effort, I dragged the mermaid over the icy rocks stretching out into the bay, and there I rested on a large craggy outcrop with her body lying beside me. I examined her anxiously but could see no sign of life. It seemed a long wait, there in the cold, lonely night, but at last I heard a change in the suck and pull of the current and knew the tide had begun to retreat. I heaved the mermaid down into the waves, letting the tide take her from me.
But just as I thought she was free, she turned swiftly in the water, grasping me with her cold, moist arms. They adhered to my skin as the tentacles of an octopus grasp its prey, pulling me with her into the freezing sea. The cold stabbed my heart. I struggled and fought, both with the clammy clutching limbs of the seamaid and with my heavy garments that dragged me downwards. She wound her arms more firmly about me, one round my neck, the other round my waist, and thrust her thick, scaly tail between my legs. Her eyes were full open and fixed on mine with an intense gaze like none I’d ever encountered. Our eyes met and held each other for one long moment, and I felt sure I saw an awareness, a recognition in hers. She was pulling me with her out towards the open sea.
‘No,’ I cried. ‘Let me go! Let me go; I will die.’
My mouth filled with salt as she pulled me under and I could see the ocean bed below me. Then the air trapped in my wide skirts pushed me up again, and with a mighty effort I freed my neck from her embrace, my head bursting through the surface of the water.
Gasping for breath, I cried out again, ‘I will die – it’s too cold. I will die.’
As suddenly as she had seized me, she released her hold. Whether she decided I was too much trouble to take with her, or maybe that I’d not be good to eat, I cannot say, but I was abandoned at the stacks in deep water, whirled and dragged by the swift, strong currents of the tide. I desperately gripped the rocks and clambered up onto a massive crag, then clung there shivering. I had escaped drowning in a mermaid’s arms, only, it seemed now, to die of exposure.
God is good and I was fortunate: it was the first calm night for a week and the fishermen were out. A returning boat passed near the stacks and the watchful crew caught sight of me. In amazement, they helped me off the rocks and took me safely home.
Today the estate workers escorted me to the Bighouse, their faces full of silent reproach. They knew it was I who’d freed the mermaid – the fishermen had already told their tale. And now my lady has ordered that I must appear on the Laird’s table, that I must take the place of the mermaid I saw trapped beneath the ice. But I am shivering in an icy fever. Kirsty has put me to bed and lit a fire in my chamber. As I lie here, my body both blazing and freezing, I can no longer tell if I have indeed become the mermaid or if the mermaid is me.
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