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Merlin and Company

Álvaro Cunqueiro

Chapter 12 - The Greek Mermaid

I didn’t wake up until it was gone twelve, and breakfast was already on the table: I always loved that sweet pumpkin soup that mistress Marcelina made in autumn, so much so that I generally had a second helping. I stayed on an hour in the kitchen telling them the tale of Don Paris and the prisoner of Thule, and I was going to go on with it when I heard my master calling for me. My problem was that Manoelifia was right there beside me, peeling chestnuts, and with that look she kept giving me she seemed to be encouraging me to go on: I must have sounded like one of those male blackbirds trying to attract the female with the grace-notes of his song … I went off to obey my master’s call, however, and found him with Xose do Cairo putting our big washing-tub, which was half a Valdeorras hogshead that held forty-eight gallons, down right in the middle of the room. The seamstress from Pacios was there too, draping a sort of pleated skirt round the tub, very elegant, with green and red flowers on it. Lady Guinevere came down to see the show and, after Xose and I had half-filled the tub with water, her ladyship poured a little flask of perfume into it, which smelled of cinnamon. Don Merlin was in a cheerful mood: he smiled broadly, scribbled some numbers on his blackboard, and said to Lady Guinevere, who was smiling too, ‘If she hasn’t put on more than two pounds, she’ll be able to get into the tub without slopping a single spoonful over the side.’

I soon learned - well, there was no other subject of conversation in Miranda that evening - that we were expecting a Greek mermaid, by name Lady Theodora: her lover, a Portuguese viscount, had died, and in her grief she wished to enter a convent which these ladies have deep in the lake of Luiserne. She was coming to us so that my master could prepare to give notice of this in the Pont Mathilde Court at Rouen, which is the judicial body that issues rulings concerning these females. She also wanted Merlin to dye the scales of her tail in suitably deep mourning.

‘Be sure you don’t dye her in perpetual deep mourning,’ observed Lady Guinevere to my master, ‘because one fine day she might have second thoughts and go looking for a new lover, right there in Luiserne.’

‘I am aware of that possibility’, replied Merlin, ‘and I know how hard it is for these creatures to give up their whorish habits even when they are duly converted Christians. I knew one once who tried to take poison because her lover had died (he was second soprano in the Pope’s chapel choir, in Rome), saying she couldn’t live bereft of their musical duo, and of the pasta dish he cooked for her on Sundays. She sent me a message, in writing, asking for a resolvent syrup, but by the time 1sent hack word to say “No”, she had already set up house with the coast-inspector of Honfleur, who built a lobster tank for her. From that time until just recently she had at least four foremen in the business, one after the other, and bedded each of them, if you’ll pardon the expression. Can you believe it, she even had a go at me one summer when 1went to Calais beach to bathe my feet!’

My master and Lady Guinevere laughed. Her ladyship told Marcelina to put the hake in the sluice by the well, to keep cool. All of us at Miranda, I think, were on tenterhooks about the outcome of this great affair.

The party of travellers arrived at nightfall, all on big mules: the mermaid as a sorrowing widow with long silken veils, two riders who were afterwards revealed to be relatives and heirs of the deceased Portuguese, and a page-boy aged about fourteen, who rode on the crupper of the mermaid’s mule and held aloft a huge umbrella in such a way as to turn the rain onto the suffering lady. Xose do Cairo lifted Lady Theodora down, took her indoors and sat her in Merlin’s armchair, while one of the Portuguese, Senhor Almeida, a tall man with thick black moustachios, saluted Lady Guinevere and Don Merlin and begged pardon for their late arrival, caused by the fact that as they came from Braga in three days they had to pause at the Mino river so that Lady Theodora could have a good soak for a couple of hours. Theodora, Theodora, sitting comfortably in the armchair, removed her mourning veils with the help of the Pacios seamstress, -and I have to tell you that if the Lord ever created roses few could compare with this one, and her eyes were two green dewdrops. When she leaned back a little in the chair, you could see the end of her tail, a lovely pink crescent, peeping from under her long skirt. If I say I was overcome, that doesn’t really do justice to the state I was in.

‘Madam, Lady Theodora,’ began my master very formally, ‘this house at Miranda is yours while you are in it. We all sympathize with you in your loss of so faithful a love as you enjoyed on the sands of Portugal. This lady you see before you is our mistress Lady Guinevere, Princess of Brittonia, these are my servants, and this is my page Felipe, whom I place at your service for any errand. And this scented tub is your bed. Now 1

propose to write the announcements you desire. The dye for putting your tail into deep mourning is all ready.’

If only you could have heard that lovely lady’s voice! She sang rather than talked. Some birds have a mysterious song, but there’s no possible comparison: if only I could listen to her in the mornings rather than to the dove!

‘I can see how grieved you all are on account of the treasure I’ve lost, and it is true there’s no lover to compare with a Portuguese! My Lady Guinevere, Madam, I kiss your hands, and I salute Don Merlin, and the whole of this household, and the page you have assigned to me. I am indeed in a great hurry, because you know that on St Luke’s day I must be at the Luiserne convent gate with my head shaved.’ As she said this she stroked her long golden hair with both hands: it was like a violin bow lingering over four well-tuned strings.

Since there was such urgency, the two Portuguese gentlemen went to sup at Lady Guinevere’s table, and her page and I sat in the outer room while my master put the final touches to his dyeing preparations. Lady Theodora said all she wanted for supper was a bit of raw hake, from the upper part of the fish, and for dessert just a spoonful of salt and a small cup of coffee liqueur. Her page, whose name was Theophilos (he was Greek) and I served her this on a silver tray. Every so often she gave me a sweet smile which tugged at my heart. When she had finished supper she suggested that she might be more comfortable in the tub: I didn’t know which way to look when she took her long skirt and tight-fitting blouse off and her ladyship displayed herself with all those lovely attributes depicted in story-books. Well … I’d never seen a woman naked before, and although I tried to stop them, my eyes kept going towards those white breasts, so beautifully shaped, with their little pink buds and the blue veins that furrowed the snowy whiteness. I suppose Theophilos was used to all this, but for me the display was part merry but part awesome too. I even had to get close to her, following Theophilos, since she had to put her arms round our necks; and she wiggled her long shiny tail a bit as we popped her into the tub to rest. Whenever I recall this incident, I can still feel my body caressed by the gentle warmth that flowed from her. I think it was just as well that as soon as she was in the tub she put an astrakhan cape on which covered up these delightful sights.

My master then came along with the documents he had composed: the announcement for the Pont Mathilde Court, compensation for the nephews of a Genoese apothecary, and a profession of Christian faith; all that was lacking was Lady Theodora’s signature, which she added with a series of great flourishes, together with some Latin which Don Merlin dictated to her. ‘We mermaids’, she said to my master with a smile, ‘all

have the same handwriting, since we all learned it together at the School of Penmanship at Iturzaeta.’

The moment for the dyeing had now arrived. We put a stool in the tub so that when Lady Theodora sat on it, the liquid should cover only her pink tail. In the midst of these preparations I noticed - my gaze may have been sinful but was genuinely curious too - that the lady had no navel. Don Merlin did a bit of chanting and addressed the water in a language I couldn’t understand, then poured a concoction in: sulphate of gold in powder form, four different mixtures of walnut bark, extract of Campeachy wood, and cream of tartar. He stirred away for an hour with a little silver rod, then threw in a handful of salt, and declared the process over.

‘Your tail will come out’, he said to Lady Theodora, ‘a shiny black colour, the one they call “Neapolitan raven” in Italy, and all round the edge of each scale there’ll be a bright gold thread. Ever since Don Amadís died, and Lady Oriana went into perpetual mourning, there’s not been a more dignified expression of grief seen in the world. You should spend all night in the dye, and you can go off to Luiserne at first light.’

Lady Theodora ordered Theophilos to hand over to my master a purse full of tinkling coins. ‘I know full well that I cannot repay all the favours I have received in this house, but there in the purse you have, in the form of florins, all that is left of my former fortune; not earned by any attractions of my body when made available, but inherited from a sister of mine, the mistress of a Roman cardinal, a girl you’ll have heard of, because he secured permission for her to live in the river that runs through the city; each year she put together two sackfuls of the various coins dropped by the pilgrims as they crossed the bridge.’

My master thanked her for the gift, Theophilos stretched out on the chest to have a snooze, and Don Merlin and I went off to our beds, not forgetting to bow deep to her ladyship the mermaid. I should tell a lie if I were to say that I got to sleep that night, since my body was wracked by a continual fever of restlessness. It gnawed at me for days on end, and even though I’m an old man now, at times I go into a sort of daydream, turning round suddenly because I seem to hear, within the music of the water as it runs past my boat, that soft singing speech of hers, and then I ask myself - half in verse, part-mad, part in jest - Can you really still want anything of me, Lord Love?

I was ready while it was still dark, in my new cap, and Lady Theodora was up and dressed, but she had donned an open skirt of merino wool which exposed her beautiful tail all the way from waist to crescent tip, now dyed for deep mourning, and just as my master had said, each scale was edged with a bright gold thread which suited her splendidly. Senhor Almeida and His, Excellency Novas had already mounted; Xose do Cairo and my master helped Lady Theodora on to her mule, with a blanket wrapped round her tail, and Theophilos climbed up on to the crupper with the umbrella, since it was still raining. The Portuguese gentlemen uttered the usual Portuguese courtesies, Lady Theodora warbled her thanks and sad farewell, and on the balcony there appeared Lady Guinevere to wave goodbye with an embroidered hankie. Merlin realized, as they departed, that I was feeling pretty downcast, that I had some thread of the mermaid’s seductiveness still draped around my neck.

‘Easy, easy, young Felipe,’ he said, patting me on the back. You can’t catch trout if you want to keep your breeches dry. Anyway, what could such an other-worldly being want of a well-set-up lad like you except life itself? I wouldn’t want to see you appear one day on the Arousa beach eaten up by the fish.’

‘Also, you know,’ added Xose do Cairo, who always talked very sound sense, ‘also, to judge by the rather chubby tip of her tail, I guess that if she were a normal sort of woman, she’d have fat legs.’

That was all he said. Then he spat in disgust. I burst into tears.