Day Six – “The Mermaid of Marden”
-Marcel Herms (from “Belly Laughs”, a children’s poetry book he did with Chelsea Bergeron.)
Everywhere I look, there are fish. In the plaster decoration of the columns, woven silkily into tapestries on the walls, cunningly carved into the oaken backs of chairs, painted boldly onto earthenware jugs of ale. Fish, too, on the trestle tables. Trout and tench lie on platters, salmon in kettles, perch and carp on pewter plates. Sprinkled with samphire, salt cod and mackerel swim in green sauce. In the centre, a giant dish of lampreys.
At the head of the table, presiding over everything, the Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers sits, looking for all the world like a lamprey himself. Those flat eyes, the grey chinless face, that gaping mouth with yellow snaggle teeth. He looks across with what he thinks is a smile. I see it for what it really is. He wishes to clamp that funnel mouth on me, rub his clammy body against mine. I have been instructed to be polite so I suppress a shudder, nod then look away.
I fix my eyes on a great tapestry which shows the coat of arms of this respected guild. In the centre, there’s a crown with leaping dolphins. To the left, an armoured merman bears a falchion, to the right, a mermaid holds a mirror. This is how he would have me, I think – a mermaid upon land, unable to run. Her hair is unloosed in a coppery curtain, swept back from naked breasts between which rests a heavy jewel on a golden chain. I touch the smooth ruby at my neck, a gift bought with salty coins and given to my father as bait. I am in the wicker trap already, waiting for the hand to reach in and grasp me round the gills.
TRYST WITH A SELKIE
She straddles the hull of an upturned fishing boat
Sunburnt tail dipped carelessly in the indigo rock pool below
Early morning haze clings to the halo of mermaid curls
Framing a face wise before its time; flicking the wayward
strands behind her ears, her focus travels across the Sound
to the far shore, framed by an outcrop of stark lewisian gneiss
looming mysteriously, its edges glinting through lifting mist,
evoking the gentle mood of watercolours by Peploe or Caddell
On the incoming tide a silent rip current curls furtively ashore,
white spume pulling back fiercely from the rock-strewn beach.
Far across the Sound a boatman is launching his weathered craft;
snaked coils of rope securing the rusty lobster cages to the bulwarks.
She sees him, but as yet he cannot see her; only the chug chug
of the reluctant motor is audible, groaning as it toils across the inlet.
He waves across to her, shielding his brow with youthful hand;
the allure of her beauty hot in his head, lips plump with promise.
She carves a love-heart in the bleached sand, mindful of the time…
They have but a scant hour of Cupid’s grace before the tide turns.
A frisson of sweet anticipation courses through her scaly skin……..
The lilt of her Silkie song luring him innocently in on the dawn tide.
-Margaret Royall (This is an adaptation from an original poem called Love on a Hebridean beach ( published in my Hedgehog Press Stickleback)
Cloudy With a Chance of Mermaids
She’s long from the sea,
solidified in arched yearning,
elbows to the sky,
tail twisted fetchingly
When it rains, there are still
no fish and no salt.
Nothing of that remains,
if ever she knew it,
mythic creature that she is,
become garden ornament
in her old age.
Why she reminds me
of that diner in Baltimore
I cannot fathom.
Those unsmiling women,
their white uniformed backs
alien as whales,
their grey heads netted,
only turned to serve
in that cool white refuge
from the street’s sweat.
No mermaids in their lives,
though it’s true I never saw
beneath the counter level
where no doubt
bound fishy parts worked
for something less
Mermaid on the number 3
I know she is a mermaid because her hair
is the exact blue of a chromis fish
and is lit with yellowy-green streaks
like sunlight reaching down to a reef.
If I dove my face into its depths it would,
I know, smell of ozone and drying nets.
Her coat is sand-bank brown. Her nails, I note,
are coral coloured. Watching from behind
as she rolls a cigarette, I’m still sure
(in spite of nicotine stained fingers)
that should I turn to look as I alight
her tail will be coiled, thick and muscular
between the frowsy bus seats, and my eyes
will meet the full on glimmer of her scales.
The Ghost of Duntulm Castle
You will I’m sure have heard of the ghost of Duntulm Castle. I’ll specify which I mean, as there are a few keeping one another company. If each of them wailing can be classed as companionship.
The one I mean is the nursemaid who was set adrift in a boat, as punishment for the death of her young charge, who fell from the window of the castle and was killed.
This is what really happened that night and beyond.
She was indeed put on a boat to be dashed to death on the rocks, or starve, whichever came first. The chance she would go mad is not an impossible one either.
And yet, she was not killed. Nor did she drown or any other gruesome thing hoped at the time.
In that boat, on that night, she learned that stories were true. That dreams she’d long had were not just dreams. The images in her mind last night existed.
As the boat drifted away she sat there, calmly accepting of her fate. Spiteful voices on the shore came on the wind, desperate to see her panic set in.
Once she realises there’s no food, or water she’s going to panic. Once she notices that she’s adrift with no oars, and no way of getting home, she’s headed into a storm and certain death
On and on the gleeful voices went, happy to watch another suffer. It meant that today they were safe from the wrath of the masters. The blame was apportioned elsewhere. Joining the mob meant safety. And the boat sailed out of view. It was dark early that night and the baying crowd were disappointed that they could not watch longer. The sun set, blood red in the sky and the near darkness plunged straight after it.
‘What was that noise?’ One of the villagers said, knowing what he’d heard wasn’t human.
‘Ach, it’s the dogs, the foxes maybe. What’s wrong with you?’ Laughed his wife, still wishing she’d seen the girl panic at least. A new song to waulk the tweed with tomorrow. Yet, the wilful girl denied them that.
He looked back towards the sea but saw nothing there, as he expected. The noise lay ahead. At the edge of the copse of trees, that led to the home they shared.
They hurried along, for who wants to walk in the dark?
Stepping into the copse he stopped as he came face to face with the noise he’d heard. A wolf. It looked balefully towards him, or so he thought. He tried to push his wife behind him, but she was too busy complaining about this and that. As quickly as the animal appeared, it was gone. Not an apparition, it just slunk quietly away. Lifting it’s top lip in a silent snarl, and it’s eyes flashing red, terrifying the man.
When he tried to explain to his wife what he’d seen she laughed.
‘You’re afraid, husband. We were not sending out some demon there, just a stupid girl. But, if you keep saying ridiculous things, we’ll be the next on a boat to nowhere. Do you hear me?’ She hissed in his face. He felt her spittle spray his cheeks like a mild sea fret. He looked back towards the water and as expected he saw nothing. Except on the shore what appeared to be a pair of shoes. But, of course, could be the kelp that dragged under the boat. He would check tomorrow.
They carried on home. She feeling her husband was afraid of shadows and filled with anger at him. He sure she couldn’t see what was in front of her, but resigned to it.
The next morning dawned cold and bright. The air was fresh and crisp. Winter was on the way.
On his way to the shore to check on the shoes that haunted his dreams, the man crossed again through the patch of woodland and looked carefully for the wolf, of which there was no sign.
His feet carried him a little faster to the shore, and he licked the salt from his lips. Felt it pulling his skin tightly. He loved this feeling.
Looking out to sea there was a seal playing. His eyes must be playing tricks. It appeared to be waving at him. Much as he knew it was foolish, he returned the wave. The seal disappeared from view.
For eight days the man returned, each day the seal appeared to wave and on his return wave, disappeared. On the ninth day he waited and seeing nothing, was about to leave. However, he heard a voice beside him that told him something he’d long suspected was true.
The shoes he’d found on that first day. He’d moved them and hidden them within the rocks.
‘Thank you for putting my shoes in a safe place. You are indeed a friend of the seal women. Do not be afraid, but never decide to swim out to me. You will surely drown. They will say when you’re old and beyond, that I haunt the castle. I’m not dead. I will return on the night they set me free, every year. My wolf is of no harm to you. He merely howls at the injustice of men. However, I am free and happy’
He made to turn, but feeling the wind pushing him forward heard her. ‘Please do not look at me. I wish you no harm or torment.’
For many years, the man returned to the shore. Sometimes there was a seal and sometimes not. He never confided in anyone, not even his wife.
Just before his own death, and long after his wife had passed on, he returned to the shore. Knowing that this would be the last visit here, and certain that the seal or the woman or whatever she was, would be long dead or moved on. Yet, he hoped that he might see it once more. There further away than usual, or it may have been his aged eyes was a seal and he was certain a hand raised in the surf. Long after she was gone he sat on the shingle beach, a huge stone his seat. His eyes drifted to the castle as darkness fell. He knew he should go home, but he felt rooted to the beach. Soon he would go home. Soon.
There at the window from where the boy fell, little changed, was the girl who had been set adrift. Next to her, the wolf. Her head was thrown back and she emitted an ecstatic howl. The wolf joined her in pace and she stroked it happily. They both looked directly at the old man.
He was found the next morning, by local fishermen on their way to sea for a catch in their small boat. He had a small satisfied smile on his face. In his hand he held a pair of shoes.
Yet, to this day on a calm night you might hear her, wailing for the loss of her friend, if you listen carefully. Listen more carefully still and you might hear the old man sigh on the wind.
The Mermaid of Marden
Run, rush, trickle, gush, ripple, dribble, flow,
I am a river-nymph and this I know:
he wasn’t the purest, neither the least
but he often gazed at me, that church priest.
Out in the shade of the sacred stone well,
he’d gaze on me, and he’d tug his bell.
Now I’ve seen smaller and I’ve seen bigger
but never was bell rung with more vigour.
On a night so cold it made fish shiver,
he carried his bell across my river.
Right over my silver tail he shook it,
he’d have given it to me – but I took it.
I took it and buried it with the rest:
it wasn’t the worst, but it wasn’t the best.
The Marden Mermaid
Bell banging, clattering keeps me awake.
so rope that held it snaps and it rolls here.
Sunk into my home this bright stream’s intake.
I wrap myself inside it, searchers near.
I sleep while twelve white freemartins with yokes
of sacred yew and mountain ash bands dredge
and men bind rope to bell, drawn out by folk
in needful silence. Raised to river’s edge,
I asleep inside. Excited driver
calls out, “In spite of all the devil’s in
hell, now we’ll land Marden’s great bell.”, diver
with bell I announce “If it had not been
for your wittern bands and your yew tree pin,
I’d have had your twelve freemartins in!”
*Freemartin was a sterile cow
Bios And Links
has been writing stories, poems and verses since she was a child.
It’s not always what is considered poetry by some, as she isn’t a lover of sweet, schmaltzy rhymes!
She is currently writing her first novel. A psychological thriller with a paranormal element, and she hopes to bring out a poetry collection one day!
She lives on the Isle of Skye. While some of her poetry is written from personal experience, others are written from her slightly dark and twisted imagination.
is currently Poet Laureate for the City of Wolverhampton. Her debut novel ‘Dogged’ was published by Ignite Books early in 2021.
–Margaret Jean Royall
is a poet with four published poetry books: a poetry pamphlet, Earth Magicke, (2021 Impspired Press), two poetry collections, Fording The Stream (2017, independently published), Where Flora Sings (2020, Hedgehog Press) and a memoir in prose and verse, The Road To Cleethorpes Pier (2020, Crumps Barn Studio). She has been shortlisted for several poetry prizes, won the Hedgehog Press’ collection competition (May 2020) and her collection Where Flora Sings was nominated for the Laurel Prize. She has been widely published in journals and online, most recently Impspired, Blue Nib, Open Door, Flights ( Dragonfly) and Dreich. She has a new poetry collection, Aquamarine due out Nov 2021 from Impspired Press.
Margaret leads a poetry group in Nottinghamshire and is a regular performer at open mic events. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a third poetry collection.
Author blog page:Facebook.com/margaretbrowningroyall