Do You Not Hear The Sea? (King Lear, Act 4 Scene 6)
“someone always ends up holding something mangled”
– Yasmin Belkhyr
Before their fins come in full, young mermaids are left to bob
in bubbles just below the surface, guarded by Nurse Sharks
in return for squid and shrimp. Since she was not much more
Than a pearl, the young mermaid had seen the occasional ship
bobbing beside her. Every summer, the little mermaid watched
the girl and a man joyride the waves in what the mermaid’s mother
called a ‘boat?’. She watched the man backflip off the side
and clapped her hands in time with the small girl.
Every summer she waited
for them to return, seaweed hair styled like the girl’s.
You would think they were twins.
When she reached her teenage years, the mermaid dared to swim
right up against the boat. The girl took the mermaid’s water away.
She got close enough to see the girl’s sortofarmsbutnot where fins
should be. Her own tail had always been praised
by her sister; jewel green with a hint of blue deep, laced with orange,
but watching the girl balance on the side of the boat
she longed to reach out, touch those strange pink fin-fingers
that helped the girl stand upright. She watched her tightrope
the edge, occasionally dipping her fin-fingers in. When the girl
peered into the water, the mermaid swam sharply under
the boat to hide, took water into her mouth
and counted slowly, letting a bit of ocean pass through her gills
until she calmed herself. She had almost reached twenty
when a dreadful rumbling sent her panicking.
The mermaid dived down, narrowly avoiding the propellers
spinning. The boat sputtered oil behind it, a sea snake
morphing, before spreading out wider to slow dance
with the little mermaid, clotting
her hair and face. The oil forced its way into her mouth,
clogged her gills as she sped in the direction of home.
Her grandmother scrubbed the spill from her face
with a sea urchin until the mermaid was raw,
but nothing could be done to save the mermaid’s hair.
They cut it off, shorn close to the scalp. Her mother
howled when she saw it; seaweed hair cannot grow back.
The grandmother chastised them both, she is lucky
to still have eyes, lucky to still be able to breathe water.
In the years that followed, the mermaids had to migrate deeper
as oil spills continued, that wildfire of the ocean, destroying
home after home. Many of the smaller fish who had tended
to the mermaid’s gardens had been eaten by the Nurse Sharks,
their sea mountain hideouts scraped away,
leaving them exposed. The Nurse Sharks gorged until
the food supply was demolished. Those that did not starve
left to seek a safer corner of sea. Young mermaids no longer grew up
watching the toing and froing of the surface world;
it was too dangerous now their shark nannies had abandoned them.
The whales, once greeted as beloved cousins,
stopped their seasonal visits. Each new boat travelling overhead
shouted its own name into the deep,
stole the whale’s homecoming song.
Now, young mermaids grew up on the story
of a mermaid whose hair caught in the propellers
of a passing boat, her neck cracked in an instant.
The little mermaid’s grandmother had seen that mermaid
swim close to a trawler, had called a warning
the mermaid could not hear,
had screamed so violently her gills had cracked.
Her voice was lost forever. From that point on,
mermaids did not sing or speak,
and the ocean could no longer hear itself.
In silence, the mermaids began to forge armour
from crab shells, filed their teeth sharper than sharks.
The little mermaid carved herself a spear, laced it
with man-of-war venom. Even the other mermaids
were afraid when she would swim out of the shadows.
They didn’t follow her when she swam into the wide ocean,
and she did not tell them of the whale calf she found, a floating
sacrifice, poisoned by its mother’s plastic infused milk.
Mermaids cannot cry, having lived their entire lives in saltwater,
but her sorrow dance mimicked the movement of tears.
She held the calf, tried to remember the whale songs
she had heard in her youth to sing it a final lullaby,
found her voice had faded from disuse.
In her grief, the little mermaid embarked on a final journey
to the surface.When she reached the edge of the pier,
she saw the girl she’d seen in her childhood, grown up now,
hair flowing sunlight. In a group of teens, the girl’s laughter
was punctuated by mouthfuls of fish and chips.
The mermaid swam closer,
her eyes just above the surface of the waves.
Yeah, I saw one of those little turtles on TV,
You know with its shell all messed up?
It made me wanna cry.
The group stood up to leave. The girl kicked the remains
of her dinner and its polystyrene container
over the edge of the pier. It floated alone
for a moment, a white flag in the water,
before joining the islands of rubbish surrounding
the dock. The girl peered over, pouted at herself
looking back from the water. Her friends already
halfway down the pier, the girl paused. Her
reflection seemed to move without her.
The girl froze just long enough
for the mermaid to launch herself out of the water,
grab the girl by the hair and tug her into the ocean
and under the waves.
In the hours that followed, friends and strangers
shouted the girl’s name from the waters edge
until their voices cracked. Beneath,
the girl could not hear them.
The mermaid dived deeper and deeper trailing
the limp body behind her.
When interviewed, the youngest of the group of teens
swore she had seen a tail flick in the water
just before the girl disappeared.
The police blamed the sighting on the shock.
Nothing could survive in those toxic waters
now, they said, nothing but jellyfish.
Laurie Ogden is a Barbican Young Poet, a playwright, and an actor in the current cohort of the National Youth Theatre REP programme. She’s a Jerwood/Arvon Mentee for 2017/18 and an alumnus of The Actors Class.