Seven Tears (shortlisted)

Nuala O’Connor

Credit: Free Images

To call the merrow-man to the shore, you must shed seven drops of eye-brine into the sea. This is what lonely fisherwives do, when their men are away after swordfish and beluga, away for year-halves and more.

The merrow swims through your dreams, his body offering rare comfort and, on waking, you long for the caress of webbed hands, the meat of an emerald tail. So you go to the seaboard and think of melancholical things: the corpse of your mother; the unformed babes who fell from you; the cold back of your husband on the nights you share a pallet.

‘Come, Merrow,’ you call.

 And the first tear arrives – a salty splash. One.

Two more run behind and drip to the water. Three.

You conjure, then, your long-gone father, the dry feel of his huge palm against your own, his swift death in a cliff fall. You sob and another drop leaves your eye. Four.

Slyly you raise your gaze to the horizon – is that flotsam beyond the rocks, or the head of the merrow you hope to ravage? You mean to lure him from his water-home and wrap your legs about him on the sand; you will let his fins flick and his scales buck until you are both sated. But you need three more tears to give to the sea and they will not come easy.

You bring to your recall the night of the great wind, the howl and madness of it, the strand littered with the dead in the morning. Generations of men drowned; women and children left destitute; the raw moans of keening; sorry smoke from pyres.

A tear slides down your cheek to join the sea. Another pursues it. Six.

You shudder and pull your cloak tighter, though your skin wants to burst from your gown with longing, with lust. Chin dropped, you steady your mind and summon sadness, you let it leech through your veins, flood your heart-rooms. But the seventh tear is a malingerer – no sombre memory, no rage against an empty house or a dusty womb, will bring it forth.

‘Come, Merrow,’ you whisper, lifting your head to the sea. ‘Come, sorrow,’

You call up Verity Johnson – the kelpy hair; her square, cordial face, sieved with beauty marks. She clears the tavern bench of tankards and laughs with the men. Verity sings like a bawd and smiles like an angel – she has ever been so. How can she be always merry, you wonder? In your vision, your husband leans in to speak with Verity and his hand settles in the dainty curve of her back; his fingers, long and strong, stroke up and down. Verity Johnson does not pull away from him, as she should, rather that girl arches her spine into the cup of your husband’s hand and, as she does so, you can almost feel the spark to the soft, wet part between her thighs.

Betrayers, both. But still no seventh tear falls from you to the sea.

‘Come, Merrow,’ you whisper, staring across the blue, but there is nothing but wave-sparkle and water-churn. ‘Merrow-man, I need you,’ you wheedle, in the voice of a genial girl, the carnal cry of sweet Verity.

Something scrims across water, a dark shape cutting through the tags and rags of waves. You shield your eyes, but there is only blur. You undo the ties of your cloak and step into the sea; you drag your gown over your head and toss it to the tide. You will be this merrow’s sea-maid, let him take you under. Squint again and you are blinded by sun. You pinch your flesh, hoping pain might make the seventh tear roll. But it refuses to come.

The brine is cold, it washes and pulls; the merrow is nowhere about, all you see now is Atlantic green and blue. You dive further down, thrash through the salt to find him, until your chest burns. The merrow-man is not to be found. Up you push and up, but the water thrusts you back below like great hands, it will not let you rise. There is thunder in your ears, an unwelcome siren song, and fronds tug you down and down. All air has bellowed out of you. You flail and pitch against shadows, against the marine grasp.

Above you now there is boat bow, oar dip, stern. But your tongue is water-washed, your lungs are glutted, and you cannot call, you cannot reach.

Below you there is only sea.

Nuala O’Connor lives in Galway, Ireland. NORA, her novel about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce, is out in 2021 in the USA, Ireland, UK, Estonia, and Germany. Her chapbook of historical flash, Birdie, was recently published by Arlen House. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk. Web: Twitter: @NualaNiC