Today's post is a guest post by Ariel Allison from our sister blog, She Reads!
“I think of an author as somebody who goes into the marketplace and puts down his rug and says, I will tell you a story, and then he passes the hat.”
– Robertson Davies
The above quote is scratched on a Post-It and pressed to the top of a notebook that I drag around the house. I am a writer in transit, my office moves depending on the needs of my family. One moment I’m banished to the bedroom, the next the dining room table. But the notebook moves with me, as does the reminder that as a writer I’m nothing more than a busker in the marketplace, hawking my wares to the passerby. Sort of like this fellow:
“I am a liar, see, and you’re not to believe a word of what I tells you.” The old man flicks a piece of straw from the edge of his rug. Grins. “Even if it is true.”
Off to the side, a crone plucks at the strings of a lyre. Her knuckles bulge with arthritis, but still the melody is hypnotic. The small crowd leans in to hear her music and his story.
“Most don’t believe me anyhow, sez my tale can’t be true what with the mermaid and all. But I knows what happened that day, just before the storm.” He pushes a tattered hat closer to the onlookers with one toe and continues in a sing-song voice, “Billy Gray took her by the milk-white hand, and he threw her in the main; since then a full-five-and-twenty-hundred ships have sunk along the coast of Spain.”
“Rubbish!” The voice rises from the back, a young man, not old enough for a proper beard. “That’s a fleet, old timer. Such a thing never happened in my lifetime. Or yours.”
“Get on with you, then. You’ve no knowledge of the times of my life. And no stomach to hear of Poseidon’s wrath upon losing his daughter. Run along home, little boy. These fine folk want to hear a story.”
A few scattered nods bob through the crowd and the old woman laughs, melodic, fingers never leaving her lyre. She sways to the rhythm of her own making, cords of silver hair dangling at her waist.
“See, this Billy was a shrewd one. The sea ran through his veins eight generations deep. Saltwater for blood. And he paid attention as a lad when the old men whispered over fires and too many pints, knew that when a white squall bears down on a ship, the only way to gain safe passage is with a mermaid on board. She’s duty bound to protect the ones in her care. If you can catch her.”
A tiny sprite of a girl inches from her mother’s side toward the rug where the old man sits cross-legged. Her voice little more than a whisper, “How do you catch a mermaid?”
“Ah, now, that’s a trade secret. Alls I can tell you is that to catch a mermaid you has the have the one thing she wants. And then she comes to you.”
“Surely no one believes this old codger? He’ll take your money and drink it at the pub. Mark my words.” The heckler pushes his way to the front and waves a finger in the storyteller’s face. “The merrow-folk are nothing more than legend.”
The old couple laughs, their voices blending like sea and sand. “Such are the words of the young and foolish. Isn’t that right, Maran?”
In answer she plucks a lonesome tune from the lyre while she sings:
I am the star that rises from the sea, the twilight sea.Even before her song has faded, hands are thrust deep in pockets, searching for stray coins. They clink like tiny bells as they fall into the hat.
I bring men dreams that rule their destiny.
I bring the dream-tides to the souls of men;
The tides that ebb and flow and ebb again –
These are my secrets, these belong to me. *
“Thank you kindly, but remember, I am a liar, and you’re not to believe a word of what I say.”
The child steps onto his rug and drops a single coin into the hat. “Even if it’s true?”
The old man retrieves it from the dark fold, winks, and presses it into her palm. He folds her little fingers around the coin. “Especially then.”
“And your name, sir? You never said.”
“I was born a William. But my friends call me Gray.”
* Lyrics by Dion Fortune (1890 – 1946)