The Lily Speaks
The sea witch, Violante, hides on the Catalonian coast like a knife in its sheath, cloaked but dangerous. I search for weeks, to no effect, until rumors of unusually soft waters make their way to my ears. I track those whispers to the hidden caves near Begur, where villagers offer repeated admonitions not to climb the cliffs.
Heedless of their fear, I scrabble along the tall sheets of rock that brace the sea, searching for an entrance and peer between two large boulders, sweating and swearing, preparing to wedge myself between them when someone speaks softly in my right ear. “Hola.”
I jump back, banging my head on a nearby rock. “Zounds.” I shut my eyes against the pain.
When I open them again, the sea witch stands before me, barely five feet tall, tanned with a long, lined face. Under a mass of uncombed curls, her left eye roams wild, while her right stares directly forward, a fact made more chilling because the orb is almost fully white.
“Violante Aramburu?” I ask.
The witch nods. She wears what can only be called a sack, so old and gray that it’s impossible to determine the fabric, and a necklace of white shells and tiny, bleached starfish.
“You’re a difficult woman to find.”
Violante says nothing in response, stroking the gray wisps of hair that dangle from her chin.
It is no surprise Violante hides far away from the Spanish King and his Catholic army. The Catalonian coast might even be its own kingdom, so far removed as it is from Madrid, and a water witch as powerful as Violante must work to remain unnoticed.
“I have come to ask for your help,” I go on. I try to smooth my brown wool riding dress, worn without a bustle, the stomacher laced loose enough to climb. “I, Marina Mullenheim, witch of the Black Forest, speak on behalf of Madame Mablean and the godmothers of the Strasbourg Hearth.”
“I have heard of your Hearth,” Violante croaks. “What help do you want?”
“Your skill with the waves is unmatched. Even those who know nothing of magic recognize its effects.” I don’t flatter, merely speak the truth. If the sea witch can stop aid from reaching past the Spanish King to the Catholic Emperor, then perhaps all fighting will stop, and our wild places remain untouched.
“Between my home and yours, we witches burn, and at the hands of soldiers, the forests dwindle. The storms of winter come soon. Surely no one will suspect if the water rises up and the ships sink.”
The sea witch ignores my words and strokes her hairy chin, watching the waves break against the unbending shore.
“Will you sink the Spanish fleet?” I ask.
“Why would I do such a stupid thing?”
The answer is obvious. “Between the pyres and the war, no witches will be left if we don’t work together. We owe it to our sisters to protect the source of our magic. Surely in this, we’re united.”
Violante turns her white eye in my direction, and although it must be blind, I still feel watched. “We all die, in the end. Witches. Commoners. Kings. Why should it matter if it’s sooner or later?”
Not even I am such a fatalist.
“If the Catholic nobles decide to burn down all the forests to the East, they can. Their soldiers plunder and pillage without care, but we must protect the Black Forest. It is the last of the wild woods, the source of many remaining witches’ power.” I hope this truth tugs at the sea witch’s salty heart.
“They could cut down the wood. But they won’t.” Violante watches the ocean below. “And if every ship in the Spanish fleet sinks, they’ll surely suspect magic and come looking for me. I care not for your Black Forest, Marina Mullenheim. Below the waves, the sea remains wild as ever. My power, unlike yours, is safe.”
This is how elemental magic works. Witches draw from aether, earth, air, fire, or, as Violante does, water.
“No witch is safe these days,” I argue, carefully weaving the thread so that the sea witch sees our shared interests. “Kings mark trees and land and water as money, Violante. Gold. Opportunity.” I grab at a rock and come away with a handful of sand. “They don’t know that without the wild, we have no magic.”
“Hidden here, I’m safe. Safe enough.” Violante turns to look me in the eye, that is with her good eye. The milky white eye roams now, as if I’ve been judged no longer of interest.
“So you’ll not help us then? You leave your sisters to suffer?” I shouldn’t press her when we’ve only just met. But my legs ache from climbing, and I’ve come so far from the city I call home.
“You think I’ve not suffered too?”
Violante’s humped back forces her to walk slowly, and her fingers appear gnarled, as if broken in several places. Not all witches live such scarred lives.
“The villagers speak well of you.” I lie. They speak of her not at all.
“Because I’ve taught them to fear what they do not understand.” Violante cuts me off, shaking her head. “They fear me. Even the creatures of the sea fear me, as they should.” She whispers this last to herself.
“Have you ever seen a mermaid, Marina?”
For a moment, I do not believe that I heard the sea witch correctly. Mab warned me not to be drawn into Violante’s orbit, but the sea witch speaks words I waited for my whole life. “Not in the flesh,” I shake my head, disbelieving. “Have you?”
Violante already makes her way down a small path I hadn’t noticed before now.
By the time we arrive at the hidden beach, the sun touches the edge of the horizon. Violante warns me to stay quiet by putting her finger to her whiskered lips, but there’s no need for the warning. To my witch’s sight, the air glitters gold with magic.
Below us, two mermaids swim, their hair long and beautiful. One, dark-haired, wears a shirt woven from lacy seaweed, but the second wears nothing except the finery of her blue-green tail. Her red curls hang heavy over a plump mouth and bare breasts.
“Sisters,” Violante whispers. “They visit the mouth of the river to eat the tender fish who breed in the rocks.”
The dark-haired sister slaps her powerful tail on the top of the water and preens, sluicing sand against her arms, while her sister hunts.
Unable to stop myself, I creep closer, using the sea grass and the downward wind from the dunes to hide my scent. “I thought there were no more,” I whisper. “Will you show me a dragon or a unicorn next?”
“All the dragons died long ago. The old ways pass, and with them, the creatures who belonged to that world,” the sea witch says. “These few may be the last of their kind.”
A movement from the far end of the beach catches my eye. A third mermaid, submerged except for her beautiful face and black curtain of hair, swims near the mouth of the cove, watching a ship anchored off the coast.
She sings, each note pure, and the sound unties my heart. Before I can stop myself, I’m stumbling into the sand on my knees, tears running down my face.
“No!” Violante whispers. She has her fingers in her own ears. “Fool, the song’s not for us.” She drags me back to the rocks, pointing beyond the cove.
I look out at sea and notice for the first time a figure unmoving on the ship’s deck. He faces us, as if he too can hear the song.
“Idiot!” Violante says, and stuffs a wad of linen in my left ear. “Here.” She hands me a second handful for my right.
I can still hear the sound through the fabric, but its effect lessens enough that I remember myself.
“Surely this only makes my point for me. Help us sustain the old ways. Keep the forests wild as the world beneath the waves, so that our magic stays strong. Then these creatures can return to our lands. We can protect them.”
The ship shrinks as it sails toward the horizon. The mermaid brings her song to a close. Eventually she swims back toward her sisters.
I plead. The mermaid is a sign I am in the right place at the right time. “Help us end this war, Violante. If the fleet cannot deliver supplies, then the Catholic war dies. And we can return to this.” I point down to the mermaids.
“No woman, not even a witch, can stop the tide from coming in. And even creatures such as those are no longer content to live and die in the wild as they should.” Violante reaches down to pick up a shell. She holds it out to me. “Beautiful, no?”
The spiral makes a perfect, geometric pattern that repeats in miniature again and again. “Yes,” I nod, hearing a loud splash when it drops in my palm.
In seconds, the mermaids disappear.
“You frightened them.” I frown.
Violante makes a rude noise with her mouth. “The ocean has no mercy, Marina. And neither do I. No one can keep the witches alive when God and the King want them to burn. Certainly not me. Certainly not by sinking a few ships.”
I am not too proud to beg. “Please, Violante, your power is greater than many of the witches who are left, even many of our godmothers cannot claim to rule the elements as you do. If you will help us…”
“You fight against forces so strong you cannot win. Go back to your Madame Mablean and tell her no.”
“But the mermaids…”
“Those beauties become the foam on the sea itself when they die.” Violante climbs up the cliffside path. “They do not have a soul, and so they cannot suffer as we do.”
“Such a song could save us all,” I plead, still feeling the mermaid’s magic moving within me–even the memory of its beauty is too much to bear. But Violante’s gone, scrambled up the mountain quick as an old goat, and I am not fast enough to stop her.
I must find another way to save the wild woods.
Two months later, after visiting several more abbeys and covens, I stop in the small Spanish city of Tossa de Mar. The city’s Moorish tower watches over the sea here, while several pre-Romanesque shrines dot the silver-leafed hills behind the city, reminding me that the King’s control over this land feels relatively new.
Prince Domingo passes along the Wild Coast too, on his way to be appointed viceroy of Catalonia in place of his older brother, Ferdinand, and gossip about a silent, beautiful girl flies alongside him, faster than the wings of a termagant.
The castle here appears small by royal standards, but easily houses the many servants and courtiers with whom Domingo travels, including the unknown girl to whom he’s taken a liking. The unmarried prince gives the young woman leave to sleep outside the door of his bedroom, a privilege that should be salacious but is described to me with awe instead.
I resolve to meet this girl before I continue back home, thinking she may be another Spanish witch who can offer aid. I find an apartment near the castle through one of Madame Mablean’s many high-born contacts, but at first glance I recognize the same little mermaid who sang her song of love, a creature of the sea no more.
Even on land, Amalia moves with the languid sensuality of water, her heart-shaped face surrounded by curls of jet-black hair, features almost identical to her mermaid sisters. Everyone who stands nearby senses the power of the sea rising within her, though they cannot name it.
Amalia’s fixation with the prince never wavers. I daren’t call it love. The girl accompanies him everywhere.
I finally manage to separate the pair when the women are invited to visit a nearby convent. After an hour of hand gestures and silent communication, I pull the girl from the group of courtiers into a quiet corridor.
“I know your true nature, child, but I don’t understand how you come to be here. And more, why you no longer sing?” I put a hand on the girl’s thin wrist and smile encouragingly at her.
Amalia frowns and pulls away. Her face flushes, and she shakes her head no, preparing to follow the others away.
I put up my hands in entreaty. “No, don’t go. I’m a witch, yes, but I mean you no harm. Let me show you. Sit. There.”
Suspecting that the girl’s silence is not by her own design, I point to a low-slung couch near a large stained-glass window, looking for something that will help me work the magic I need. On the table nearby, a vase full of lilies stands, the flowers deep-throated and white.
I pull one from the bunch and push it into Amalia’s hand. Then I take a length of green ribbon from a hidden pocket and unravel it, binding it three times around the flower’s stalk and then three more loosely around the girl’s throat.
“Go ahead. Speak through the flower. Tell me who has done this to you.”
The voice of the lily is so small and whispering that I have to bend close to hear through its sobs.
I pull back and stare into Amalia’s liquid brown eyes. “The sea witch? What did she do?”
This answer needs no speaking at all. Amalia opens her mouth to show me that her tongue has been cut from her mouth.
Sacrificial magic works a spell powered by the girl’s pain.
“If I can convince my prince of our love, then I become human, just like you.” Amalia smiles, her eyes so full of hope that I feel my stomach squeeze.
“But you’re already…” I point down to Amalia’s perfect, tiny feet.
“Illusion,” the flower whispers.
I shake my head no. “More than an illusion. You walk. You dance. To hold such a spell in place for so long must be painful. Not even losing your voice can compensate for this.” There’s more I don’t say: how can your prince fall in love if he cannot hear your voice, if he cannot see your true form?
Amalia nods. “It hurts,” the flower admits. And now tears glisten and fall on Amalia’s plump cheeks.
Every step the little mermaid takes feels as though she walks on cut glass.
“This is dangerous,” I tell her, brushing the tears away. “And not because it’s painful, but because the very essence of love is freedom, and yet you are already bound.”
“Violante should never have mutilated you in such a way. She is older and presumably wiser.” I take the little mermaid’s small, shaking hand. “Do not worry though. I will help you before I turn toward home. I must.”
Amalia nods and squeezes my hand.
In the days that follow, I devise a plan to reach the little mermaid’s goal, and in the way of a godmother, I craft it to serve both the girl and the wild from whence she came.
“There’s a stream which wends its way into the mountains behind the city. Take the prince there and dip your feet in the water. Encourage him to take off his boots and wash his feet. While you are both in the water, you must kiss him so that the knowledge of your value may nourish the root of love that grows in his heart.”
Amalia smiles, and her eyes shine like light over water.
I don’t tell the little mermaid that with the help of the castle’s laundress I’ve finagled a strip of fabric from the clothing of each of the lovers, knotting the cloth together along with the dried rind of an orange the two shared. Another hefty bag of coins ensures that the love spell is secretly placed under the prince’s bed.
“I will come along as your chaperone,” I promise, and Amalia nods.
There’s a pang of guilt at the words. Mab wants me to return quickly, already more than the month we planned for has passed, but Violante’s ruthless spell promises only pain to the mermaid. I feel bound to offer aid to the creature, by my calling, and even without that, I know how dangerous this world is for those made of magic.
And once Amalia and the Prince are married, I can ask for any favor. A royal favor is something Mab will want to have.
The knotwork begins to release its power as soon as the bowl-shaped hills capture us in their palm. Olive trees dot the hillside here. The land feels protected. Private. Domingo ties both his and Amalia’s horses, allowing the beasts a drink, and just as we planned, the mermaid takes her boots off and wades into the nearby stream.
She gestures to the Prince to join her.
Domingo hesitates. He knows such behavior signifies courtship. If the two are discovered, such play is tantamount to a declaration of love.
Amalia begins to dance. Each step cuts the girl to the bone, but she smiles and moves in a rhythm perfectly in tune with the water’s gentle burble.
The magic begins to take hold.
“Come play in the water with me.”
Domingo sits, transfixed. He pulls off one boot and puts a toe into the cool water.
Amalia beckons to her love again.
The Prince responds by removing his second boot. He slips deeper into the stream, and the two grasp hands.
I crook my index finger, directing the water to push the two lovers together. The current twirls suddenly, and Amalia is thrown against the Prince, her dark hair mixing with his lighter locks.
The Prince falls back in surprise, losing his footing, and slides thigh deep into the pool. Water splashes up onto his shirt and face.
But instead of laughing and loosening, Domingo frowns and wipes water off his dripping nose. He pushes Amalia away and scans the horizon. “Amalia, you do your virtue a disservice by playing like a child. No child looks as you do, with those…those…”
The pious, Christian prince cannot bring himself to say breasts. He moves away and climbs back to shore.
Amalia follows, and the two silently mount their horses, Amalia sidesaddle as is the custom of the land.
When we return, I discover that the Prince’s manservant found my knot. My attempt at protection makes the situation worse. Now, the courtiers and servants whisper about a witch in the household, and Amalia is cast in suspicion.
That night the mermaid is not permitted to sleep outside of her Prince’s door. Unsettled, I walk the hills near the castle and find a blood offering in a crumbling Roman shrine. I trace the mermaid’s path down to the sea, where her body washes up against the sand, her false legs covered with the slimy sheen of fish scales. Amalia’s halfway transformed back to the creature she once was, beautiful in death no more.
With my witch’s sight, I see something move above me, a dark shimmering of moonlight over fish scales, surely a trick of the air.
“Marina….” Amalia’s angry voice whispers. “I hear the sea, but I cannot return to it. Why am I not where I belong?”
I nearly jump out of my skin. “No,” I argue against Amalia’s misery, as if it were my own. I’d hoped to help the girl. Even if all the forests burn and the witches’ power wanes, I wanted one girl in the world to have the thing her heart most desires. I lost such a chance long ago, and I thought the mermaid offered me a chance to make my loss less. “How can this be?”
The hidden part of Violante’s spell locks into place. The little mermaid, caught between the animal and the human world, joins the realm of air.
“I am trapped,” the mermaid shrieks. “You did this to me.”
“No. I would never do this.” I nearly trip trying to walk back along the beach path, trying to get away from the memories that threaten to spill out of me.
The mermaid’s death stacks another consequence on top of Violante’s refusal to help the Hearth and the witches of Strasbourg. Now I’ve found no favor from Domingo or his father—twice I am unable to keep the Black Forest free.
Worse, I have gone against the godmother’s code and caused more harm than good for this poor creature. She is not even as protected as an apprentice of mine would be.
As if she hears my thoughts, Amalia’s voice comes again, full of suffering, empty of song. “Ma-ri-na, you failed me.”
My haunting begins.