Dryden and Sylvie - Chapter Four

Sylvie was not a singer. The image of all mermaids as sirens and songstresses is a stereotype, far from representative of every individual. But it's generally true that happy people do sing. They don't always sing well, but they often sing.

'Why is it that, when you sing, your vocabulary is reduced to "la"?' Dryden asked.

'Not true, I know "dee" and "da" too,' Sylvie protested. 'Sometimes even "doo." Teach me another song if you don't like these ones.'

'I do like them. I especially like the suspense of seeing if you can stay in one key for a whole verse. You sing like I swim.'

'Meanie. Sometimes I stay in key for two at a time!'

'Yes, your songs are curate's eggs. Parts of them are excellent.'

'An egg is an oval, a perfect shape.'

'May I say you're a perfect shape?' He ran a hand lazily down the line of her waist.

'For swimming, perhaps.'

'Oh, just accept the compliment. I always do!'


What Sylvie found most delightful about the whole arrangement was, the happier she made Dryden, the happier she felt in herself. It was an endlessly reciprocating loop. To delight his eyes, she danced in the water while he watched through the glass belly of the window, and the sense of her beauty reflected back to her from his eyes made her heart dance.

'Of course, in the old days, they thought sight worked by rays emitted from the eyes striking objects, and everything giving out rays of its own that went into the eyes. People actually believed a poisonous thing could be poisonous to look at, because the rays would be the essence of the object's nature, and this, of course, tied in very neatly with the whole idea of the eyes being the windows of the soul. Your essence comes out through your eyes, your light shines out.' Dryden had slipped into lecture mode while they ate their dinner together, at the rim of the aquarium. Sylvie listened with her elbows on either side of her unheeded plate and her chin in her hands. There was something adorable to her in the way passion animated him, and knowledge was a pure passion with Dryden.

'And that's why you wear dark glasses,' she put in, 'so people won't be dazzled by the brilliant rays of your intellect. The windows of your soul need double-glazing.'

'A roof over your head, scintillating company and a mess of real oysters, brought in on ice at immense expense, and still you make fun. Your ingratitude wounds me. It must be true that mermaids have no souls.' Dryden grinned and stole one of the oyster-crackers from Sylvie's plate.

'But then what shines out of my windows?' Sylvie asked, and batted her eyelashes at him.

'If you want to be modern and scientific, nothing much. Light shines into them, and that's how vision really works. Rays do strike your eyes from objects, but they aren't generated by the objects, they're reflected from a source of light, like a flame or the sun. You know how the moons shine? That's just the reflection of the sun, when it's behind the world ... they're the sun's mirrors. It's all done with mirrors. Speaking of which, I keep wanting to get some glasses made up with that two-way mirror glass and I keep forgetting to do it. I think they'd look neat. Remind me next time I'm going out. So that's that. And of course, one day my great-grandson may be telling your great-granddaughter, "Just think, in the old days they believed it all worked by the reflection and refraction of light, whereas of course now we know, blah blah blah."'

'And how will your great-grandson know my great-granddaughter? Do you think she'll go exploring as well? On purpose, I mean.'

'Oh, she might do. It will be the future, of course, and we expect great things of the future. Ships that travel under the water as well as in the air, that would be a good one. Could open up trade, cultural exchange, that sort of thing, benefits for both sides. Maybe mechanical lungs with a bottled air supply, that you could take down with you to breathe underwater - or to help you breathe up top. I hear they can make artificial arms and legs in Zaibach that work better than a real one ... how'd you like mechanical legs, Sylvie, so you could really walk around?'

'But they would have to cut off my tail to put them on, wouldn't they? I would hate that. I could never go back to the sea. I'd be stuck up on land forever. And I'd still have the same weak chest, I'd get just as puffed. And what's the good of legs that aren't real legs, with a skin and muscles? It wouldn't feel good to walk, or run, it would feel like nothing. Just think of touching someone with a metal hand. Ugh, am I right?'

'Ugh indeed,' said Dryden pensively. 'You've put a whole new complexion on it. I was quite enthusiastic about the idea until you said that. I was just about to say you could have artificial lungs too, good strong ones. And then I thought of the scars you would have after they put them in ... I think even you would have scars from something like that.'

'Why not an artificial heart while you're at it?' Sylvie asked. 'And mechanical eyes, that don't need glasses, and just reflect light the way science says, nothing else ... would you want those? Do you think the world would look the same through them?'

'I don't think I want to find out,' said Dryden. 'It's such a creepy thought, that I might look at you and not be able to see that you're beautiful. Although I think seeing you in soft focus all the time helps.'

Sylvie stuck her tongue out at him. Where, before, Dryden had worn his glasses habitually, looking over the tops of them when he did not really need them, he now put them on only if there was something he had to read. His hair hung loosely about his shoulders, which were in shirtsleeves; everything was minimal, to please Sylvie. She had asked how he would like her to decorate herself, and he had asked her to do nothing at all, because she was already exactly as he liked her. She was not a display object for him to show off to other people; he would give her jewellery only if it was something she would like to have for herself. Sylvie was not remotely interested in decorations of cold metal and stone. Now that she was feeling herself again, it seemed a little odd to have her hair loose and arms bare, but again, his happiness was her happiness, and there was something she really liked in the notion that there was no artifice between them.

'Why, the two of us are just so gorgeous that we simply don't need it,' Dryden would say as he dressed to go to some meeting or occasion of trade. 'Here I go uglifying myself, so as not to blind people with my glory.' He had adopted her joke and used it to tease her in return.

'You couldn't be ugly,' Sylvie assured him. 'A little weird-looking, perhaps, but ugly is not a possibility.' She lay comfortably on his bed, getting the whole thing damp and salty, but Dryden did not mind. She was trying to acclimatise herself to longer periods out of the water, in the hope that this would strengthen her lungs. Certainly her arms were getting stronger, and she was working on her crawling, so that it was easy for her to move from the bath to the bed in his stateroom, or vice-versa. When he had gone to his meeting, or whatever it was, it occurred to her to wonder why she was doing that. In a few days they would be at Beidurl, and he would set her free. She would not need to be able to breathe air well. Life would be easy again. No more peculiar food, no more needing to be carried over moderate distances, no more tightness in her chest and blue lights in her head.

And, of course, no more warm kisses to make her head spin, no more dreadful jokes back and forth all day, no more exploring the various pleasures his rangy body could offer her. Naturally she would miss all that. She would miss his comfortable company, his unfailing repertoire of stories and ideas, the way he helped her to think things that she would not otherwise have dreamed of, and the way he seemed to find all these fascinations in her too.

They talked their heads off, there were no two ways about it. Sylvie gave in and told Dryden the story of her life, or rather the stories; the edited highlights. Then they got into the bits that were not stories at all, hardly even narratives, just things that happened with no cause and effect or particular significance, but he wanted to know because they had happened to her. She told him her dreams; not her aspirations but the strange little slideshows her mind put together for her at night.

'It was the strangest dream,' she told him seriously over breakfast, sitting up as best she could in a basket chair with a deep bucket seat that she should not slide out of. 'Not at all a nightmare, but still with an eerie, just-before-a-thunderstorm sort of feeling. I dreamed I was watching myself from the outside, like you watching me through the window. And I was trying on one pair of glasses after another, with different coloured lenses and different shaped frames, and every one gave me a whole different view of the world, as though it were a different mind to think with, and I was looking for the exactly perfect one. And a voice spoke in my dream, and said to me, "What you want is a spotted sausage."'

Dryden was somewhat overcome by that mental image, and almost lost a quantity of the tea he was drinking through his nose. 'You didn't tell me at the start that this dream was going to be indecent,' he said, when he had recovered a little.

'It wasn't! It meant "something that doesn't exist in the real world." Like an impossible combination.'

'You're really sure about that?'

'Yes, I'm sure that's what it meant. It was my dream and I ought to know.'

'Because from what I've read about dream interpretation, that isn't the first significance most practictioners would put on a sausage.'

'If you mean what I think you mean, firstly shame on you, and secondly, who would want a spotted one?'

'That's a point,' Dryden admitted. 'Oh well ... I suppose sometimes a sausage is just a sausage.'

'Or a symbol of an unattainable heart's desire, which sounds more impressive.'

'Your subconscious is even more interesting than I thought.'

'It's not bad for someone with no soul.'

'Do you think you've really got an unattainable heart's desire?' he asked, cocking his head to one side quizzically. 'I wouldn't like to think so. I'm providing for all your immediate needs, I hope, and working towards giving you what you want most. Is there still something left over?'

'Not that I know of,' Sylvie said, shrugging. 'That was why I thought it was such an odd dream. It might not actually mean anything at all. I probably just dreamed about glasses because you wear them, and about seeing myself from the outside because I like you watching me.'

'Which I think makes the whole thing indecent again.' Dryden slipped his arm around Sylvie's waist and kissed her on the cheek. 'I know what you want.'

'And happily, so do I.'


Time was melting away like blue coils of smoke in the air. One day Sylvie woke and thought 'Three days to go.' Then it was two. Then it was one. She was counting down. Only one day until she would get to Beidurl, until she could get back into the real, natural, right sea and head for home. Only one day away from the hugs and kisses of her family, and the tears and laughter and jumbled explanations of a reunion. Only one day until Dryden would say goodbye with a smile.

He told her that he could not accompany her to the actual cove, that she would be taken on the last leg of the journey in a small yacht by a couple of trustworthy staff. It was better, after all, to say goodbye like this, with both of them moving off in their own proper directions, not getting into any dead ends. Through the double-glazed aquarium porthole, Sylvie could see the long dark tongue of the Firth of Rhince, lapping deep inland.

Through the single layer of strong glass in the viewing room, Dryden watched her dance on the last day. There was a smile on his face that was almost too gentle, a little vague, as though he were beginning to detach from her before they were really parted. Sylvie flew within the limited heaven of her aquarium, full of the joy of anticipation and wondering at the ache she felt, as though she were missing him already. It shouldn't be this strong. It must just be an overreaction because she was so keyed up about going home to her family, to Melamy, to Tanamil, to everything that was familiar and friendly.

She let herself sink to the bottom, hovering at the level where he sat at his ease, brown hair curling like kelp on his shoulders, arms spread over the back of the seat, looking back at her over his shoulder. Sylvie pressed her palms against the chilly glass. These were the last moments, the very last, and she would not see him, probably, for the rest of her life. She had kissed him goodbye already, but somehow she wanted to try to make a good last impression. Impulsively, she pressed her lips to the glass, and as her eyes flickered closed, she saw that he had understood and returned the kiss.

It was right for this, a divided kiss, given by both and received by neither. It was probably just because of the sentimental romance of it that Sylvie's heart stung her, she knew. When she opened her eyes again, she could see Dryden was speaking, but there was too much water and air between them for her to make out the words. She really could not read lips, even lips she knew so well. She thought she caught her own name, and 'goodbye.' He smiled again, a familiar smile, and she knew he was making fun of her for making a face. She realised with a flicker of surprise that she was wearing a mask of sadness, and that it was oddly hard to convert it to a smile. Her smile pleased him, and he returned it to her in its original condition. She was a free agent now, and so was he. He rose and left. Sylvie knew she should swim away from the window, not linger there watching him go. He was pulling on the heavy outer coat he wore before the rest of the world. As he went through the door his hands went to his hair, gathering it at the back of his head, and then the door swung shut and he was out of her world.


Sylvie re-entered her native ocean at Beidurl Cove, by moonlight. She had been so long out of natural salt water that its minerals and sediments smelt strange to her, making her skin tingle in half-forgotten ways. The cove was deserted by all but small sealife; probably no-one felt safe there after what had happened to her. There was a sad, scared feeling to the place even now. She sped down through the water, seeing her faint moon-shadow race over a real, uneven seabed, one that got deeper and deeper and had never been landscaped by workmen.

She felt a shock of amazement, and then of fear, when she saw the outline of a hammerhead shark far off in the cold, as she drew near to the phosphorescent lights of her family's home, to the garden of grottoes and coral. It could probably smell her, but she was at a safe enough distance, and with an extra burst of speed she quickly reached the well-known white stone that indicated the start of the home range.

Her father answered the door and burst into tears at the sight of her. The water in the family room almost ran fresh that night, so many happy tears were shed. They stayed up ridiculously late, and the whole story was told again and again from both sides.

Eventually, Sylvie was back in her own bed, her soft cocoon of weed, tucked in with kisses and embraces. Home was wrapped around her as surely and warmly as a blanket. The stone was rolled off the little thermal vent in the corner so that she would be extra snug. Tomorrow would be a new day, fresh and untouched, and her life would go on as if it had never been interrupted.

For a long time she could not stop the tears, which was odd, because the elation, she felt, was beginning to wear off.

Next Chapter

Back to Dryden & Sylvie index -- Back to Merchant Prince index

'Water Jewels' page décor from Moyra's Web Jewels