Blue Dog Notes: “The Mermaid of Black Conch” by Monique Roffey

On the night of April 18, 2021, with Waxing Crescent Moon shining above my bed like a nail clipping in a velvet sky I slipped out on the carpet to reach my charging phone and opened a website where you can calculate a date. I typed in one thousand and one nights from now. January 14, 2024, the screen revealed in an instant.

I have a Sea Library downstairs with so many books I still haven’t read. At first there was only one book, Homer’s The Iliad, which I read from cover to cover and was mesmerised by the rhythm, language and the world of gods, warriors and similes it revealed. The silver-footed Thetis, a sea nymph, a goddess of water, had put a spell on me. Then there were three books, soon ten. When I had seventeen, I started to put away some to be read later, a wiggly pile growing like a tree, and bought some more. When I had a collection of one hundred books about the sea, most of them unread, I decided to open a Sea Library. From that moment on books started to flow in like a river towards the sea. I wasn’t the only reader now. Books didn’t arrive here for just me to be read. It was beautiful. I gathered books about the sea for other readers too. The reason why I became a librarian was my thrill to share stories.

I would have loved to say in a velvety voice that I had read them all. But I hadn’t. I still haven’t. I enjoy being a slow reader, meticulously taking notes with a nice pen, as much as I love being a fast reader, becoming swallowed by a book until dawn. But I have started to notice that after nearly three years of running a Sea Library and putting on shelves around six hundred books, I have almost stopped reading at all. With a few irresistible exceptions. Why?

On the night of April 18 I decided to give it a go. To get back to reading. Will it take one thousand and one nights to read the library dry? That’s a joke, of course. The number of books will grow as I read, I know that perfectly well. I don’t mind. More chances for a reader to find a book after which nothing will ever be as it was before. Impossibility is what drives me. I am obsessed with books as much as I am enchanted by the sea. I just hoped to heal my strange unreading condition which made me restless and a bit unhappy. Some kind of a year-long lockdown side effect, I say with a wise face, but deep down I know – there’s no one to blame.

In no particular order which books to read first, titles themselves will take me by their lovely little hands. I started with the one I hadn’t finished and which was lying next to me on that same carpet where I was balancing on my elbows, half in, half out of my bed under the Waxing Moon that kicked in.

On this voyage from story to story I will also have a companion. A blue dog. Have I told you about him? Ever since I met this dog while standing by one of my dad’s paintings thirteen years ago in his solo show Home Video, it has become a four-legged symbol for my belief in art, in books and imagination.

The art gallery was dim. Lights were out. Dad’s fluorescent paintings glowed in the dark as childhood memories. Mirroring on the polished floors into fantastic puddles. I was in my twenties. I swam from one work to another, mesmerised by all this bioluminescent world that a magician had conjured up on blank canvases. The time pooled by a vertical painting in electric blue and yellow, A Walk With My Blue Dog. The loyal animal was nowhere to be seen. Only a vastness you can experience by the sea where the sky opens up above your head like nearly nowhere else. Maybe it has ran after a stick you just threw at the beach? Standing by that painting I had an irresistible urge to imagine a blue dog. Because it wasn’t there and yet it was. A couple of sky-blue dog poo, made out of plaster, was left on the gallery floor right under the painting as an evidence of his blue existence.

Ever since that day I continue to walk with my blue dog. When I become a bit lost like throughout this pandemics, when Sea Library doors are sealed to visitors and only a postman connects us, I just have to remember to whistle and believe and to have a good stick within arm’s reach. I have to remember to play and to imagine a world that glows in the dark.

So come on blue dog, let’s board on our first boat. It will take us to the Caribbean Sea in 1976, to an island shaped like a lizard. The book I want to finish is The Mermaid of Black Conch by Trinidad-born British writer Monique Roffey. It was published in 2020 and brought the author a Costa Book Award. I have a paperback copy in the Sea Library that I had bought recently. “Not your standard mermaid,” Margaret Atwood is quoted on the back cover. The book has an orange sun on its front cover setting in a red sea and a blue mermaid, Aycayia, as I will later learn, with an enormous muscular tail. This beautiful illustration is done by Harriet Shillito. The mermaid looks like from an ancient tribe with tattoos all over her upper body and sleek black hair. She stares straight at me brave.

Later in the book when the mermaid will slowly transform back into a woman, I will read these words, written by a black fisherman David Baptiste in his journal forty years later: “It was her eyes – they were silvery in the whites, and they gazed at him with such fierceness and, in time, such gentleness, it was hard to endure her gaze. He felt those looks she gave him came from a different time of human consciousness. Her eyes scrutinised his soul. Who are you, they wanted to know. Her hands were still strange, with the remnants of webbing. Her ears had been pierced and hung a little. Everything about her was a mystery and suggested antiquity.”

The story begins with a mermaid seen rising above the water in 1970s by a good-hearted fisherman David Baptiste who is strumming his guitar and singing to himself in his boat. Later she is caught by American fishermen. We bob in our own boat, me and my blue dog, and watch in the distance the horrible fight that lasts for hours and hours to get that mysterious beast out of the sea. Her descriptions are amazing and vivid. Her head is barnacled and clotted with seaweeds. Her hair is like man o’ war tentacles, her arms webbed pink.

Then she is hanged upside down on a hook by a nearby bar in rain and men want to do bad things to her until David steals her to save. He hides the mermaid in his house to bring her back to the sea as soon as possible. He puts her in his bathtub, she is huge and heavy, her enormous tail hanging out of the bath. Blue dog reads air from the distance. The mermaid reads air too, as documented in David’s journal: “She stared at everything like she seemed to be reading everything: the air, the shadows, the floor, the light. She gazed up at the wooden ceiling with curiosity in her face and this made my insides swim with happiness.”

“she knew that parts of the world hadn’t changed. There was still rain. This meant there were still clouds, sky, birds – a world she could read.” 59

*

It is an early Sunday morning. First such warm and beautiful morning this year. I am sitting on my terrace on the east side of the house just outside the Sea Library window in my bright yellow winter jacket and a bee keeps landing on it. I think I’ll have to change soon into another colour for spring. My feet are bare in the sun when I take them out of my untied sneakers. I read a chapter on the mermaid having legs after her tail fell off and she changed into a woman in David’s bathtub over weeks. She sings a song in an ancient language of being a cursed woman thousands of years ago. Birds are singing so loud and beautiful right now in this old oak tree spreading its branches above our house. A pure polyphony while my black cat looks dead in the sun. One character in the book has white peacocks guarding her house. I try to imagine a bird with such a huge tail walking around here. Blue dog would love to chase it but that tail is intimidating even for him. A book of tails and ancient tales.

I go inside to make another cup of coffee while everyone is still asleep and read one of the blurbs on the book: “Who has taken up the mantle of Jean Rhys’s claim to utterance out of a Carribean landscape that she made in 1966 with the publication of Wild Sargasso Sea? Monique Roffey has.” I go online while the kettle is on and order a used copy of Wild Sargasso Sea for 7.77 euros including shipping. Then I stumble upon amazingly beautiful cloth-bond copy and order that too for 17.38 euros that I borrow from my savings. Oh, you books.

*

Afternoon sun is even warmer than the morning sun. I roll the trousers up, these legs haven’t seen the sun for a long time. The book makes me think about legs now. The mermaid re-learns to walk. David thinks while watching her, how much we take for granted. David also starts to fall in love with the mermaid, now a virgin girl from ancient times. This is a sexually charged story too. With different kinds of friendships and loves, passions and fantasies. Even the sea is a dangerous woman in the eyes of fishermen.

“The sea, that expanse of nothingness, could reflect a man back to himself. It had that effect. It was so endless and it moved around underneath that boat. It wasn’t the same thing at all as being on any expanse on earth. The sea shifted. The sea could swallow the boat whole. The sea was a giant woman of the planet, fluid and contrary. All the men shuddered as they gazed at her surface.” 17

We wallow in chairs outside like three lazy cats, me and boys. I read about Reggie, a deaf boy, I read about how ex-mermaid doesn’t talk yet, just hums, later tries to sing, and suddenly my boys start to play a game of silence. There is an old game, where you say at first: who will say the first word, will eat the porridge of ashes. Boys become silent and write questions and answers with a found chalk stone on a wooden wall behind my back: What are you doing? – I am being silent. You?

“I still young
lonely like Reggie
No one to talk to
I lived in the kingdom of the sea for long long time
World of silence” 65

In the book there are tides of different voices. There is a narrator, then there is David Baptiste’s journal from 2015 and 2016 and also the voice of a mermaid, she is talking in poetry lines and I love that it is hard to tell when she has said it. Maybe hundreds of years from now. The silence of the underwater world transforms on land into a beautiful friendship between the ex-mermaid and a deaf ten-year-old boy Reggie. Sign language is described by mermaid as “the language of the time before time” 73. There’s also a beautiful sentence about Reggie that “he wanted to be himself, a group of one, a tiny minority of just him” 68.

Mermaid tells us that her life is an eternal exile from home. She was cursed thousands of years ago by other women of her tribe because she was too beautiful and made men go crazy about her. It is a lonely life she leads. She doesn’t belong to land and she doesn’t belong to the sea either. Half-women, half-fish. “The kingdom of the sea is big big and it have own ways / And so the life of a mermaid is the life of a visitor / I watch and keep to myself.”

I read the book for hours and then I started to browse a bit about the book. Author Monique Roffey reveals that the catch scene owes partial homage to Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. I go into the Sea Library and find a copy right away. I have a Latvian translation, but will try to get somewhere the original too. Author also tells, that “I began imagining my mermaid while staying in Charlottesville, Tobago, in 2013. She came to me after a fishing competition, when I saw a large fish, a marlin, lynched above the jetty. That night, I dreamt the fish was  a woman, a mermaid, who’d been dragged from the sea. Later, I learnt of the legend of Aycayia. The legend and the dream merged in my imagination and lived there for some time before I settled to write my novel much later, in early 2016.”

Monique Roffey mentions The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, a short story by Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez in 1968. I found it online and printed out. I also printed another short story written the same year A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, both quirky and beautiful tales that I consumed right away, and then I found something that struck me. A short story by Márquez from 1947 titled Eyes of a Blue Dog. I read right away. It is about a man and a woman and how they meet in their dreams and forget each other as soon as awake till the next night when they see each other again. Eyes of a blue dog becomes a code phrase to say so they could remember that they are not strangers. My blue dog looks at me with his questioning eyes, as if reading mine.

“Eyes of a blue dog. I’ve written it everywhere.”

At page 67 David has a dream which, I think, is where the inspiration for the cover comes from: “At night he dreamt of her dancing on the cliffs of a neighbouring island in the archipelago. The sky was green and the yellow sun bled into the blood-orange sea.”

By the end of the chapter about legs Aycayia learns to walk. She stands outside on the porch and watches the setting sun together with the man who saved her. But can you be saved if you are cursed by a tribe of jealous women centuries ago? “They watched as the sun flooded the sky with hues of ochre and violet and red. The sea looked far away and everywh’ere. Quietly enormous, it was a kingdom onto itself, one they both understood, where they’d come across one another.” 79

After re-learning to walk, the mermaid learns to talk. “Aycayia drank in the new languages she was being given, American Sign Language, Black Conch parlance and the type of English written in books. She soaked it all up like a sea sponge; she had been so long dry in her mouth for language, thirsty for conversation. Slow slow, it all began to come together.” 91

*

Its 7 pm now after a very warm Sunday, even +16 C. A day spent mostly reading. I have reached page 98. I am right in the middle of the book. The mermaid has transformed into a young woman. She has re-learnd to walk and has learned her first words on land. “The sea was a silent but sentient world.” 106

*

It is 23:32 and I am in bed with the book. Finished page 113 and will drift away in my dreams now. There was a fish-rain in the story as a sign of a curse still strong. And mermaid was swimming in the sea as a woman with two legs.

*

April 19, a Monday evening. I am on a page 125 after a long day of homeschooling and writing. Aycayia goes to the seaside early in the morning when everyone in the village is still asleep. She is confused after David asks to marry him. What follows is a very beautiful passage about her and the sea:

“She missed the sea, though. She missed the hiding she could do in it. She missed her tail. She had been a tremendous mermaid. But there was something in her old power that hadn’t come with her, that had fallen off with her tail. On land she was a small woman. In the sea, she had swum alongside whales. As a woman she knew she was a little strange looking, what with her hands and feet; but she was getting by, getting to ‘pass’ again as a woman. She jad Reggie and Miss Rain as friends. She had been a graceful fish and now she was an awkward woman. Some of her woman was still fish, though: her small teeth, her salt smell. She couldn’t stomach meat. She couldn’t eat fish, either; it felt like eating fellow creatures. In the sea she had fed on seaweed and plankton, conch, squid and small crabs. Even squid she rarely touched because they were so intelligent. Once, an octopus had been her close friend, a massive creature, a female, big as a carpet, muscly legs and mouth that could crunch coral up into chunks. That octopus had lived a long time too, in the depths, under rocks. So all she ate on land was fruit and vegetables, some starch. It was enough. She wasn’t the young Taino woman she had been before. She was the same age, a thousand or more years later, but there was the sea inside her; that was the main difference.” 125

*

It is nearly Monday midnight now, I have reached page 139, where a new chapter will start with a title Paradise. Will go to sleep now. Last night I saw in my dream a starry black sea.

*

It’s a sunny warm afternoon, April 20, Tuesday, things done for today, no writing today, just reading in sun with a cat on my sneakers and boys running around on loose. I have watered the flower bulbs and am on page 143. Here’s a bit about a forty year old Arcadia Rain, a good-hearted white woman who owns all of the land on Black Conch, inherited from her family: “But for her, Black Conch was yesterday, today and tomorrow. In a room full of books, in a house up in the hills, near a forest where she knew the howlers were harmless, she would live till her death.” 143

And here are both of them, love of her life named Life who came back after ten years of absence for reason mentioned in the book, her friend from childhood and father of her son, and Arcadia: “He felt himself surrender to his want, his twin, his only real friend in the world. Home was her fingers, her elbows and her ribcage; home was her face, her eyes, her gaze, the way she said things, anything.” 143

“a lifetime of liking” 143

The Paradise chapter is certainly a paradise, an Eden of true love. Between David and Aycayia, between Arcadia and Life. But then “next morning was the beginning of end of things,” 145 David writes in his journal. Aycayia wakes up with scales on her feet spreading like rash, like some kind of an allergy. She runs away scared, David lets her in hope that she will be back soon.

“I will live until there is no more water in the sea
I am now and forever
I will be here for the whole time
I, Aycayia Sweet Voice
Heart feeling was my knowing on land once
In the island of Black Conch
I was the mermaid who lived there once
I was the mermaid of Black Conch.” 147

“It was aeons ago and yet their faces emerged from her memory. Her people were not the first people of the archipelago. They came from them, born from a long line that had arrived by canoa from the centre of the Americas. They had adapted to island life, though there had been great killings even before the Spanish Admiral arrived with his guns and lust for gold. These islands had been peopled and re-peopled more than once. Her people knew how to live mostly at peace with the great kingdoms of the world around them.” 149

“Even long-ago people could be bad. They could be jealous.” 149

“Woman had sealed her off, thrown her into the sea, and cursed her with perpetual virginhood. Stay in the sea. Stay away from man. No heart feeling in her chest.” 149

Her exile was for eternity; that had been their intention. Go away forever, until the planet burn to dust, like other planets had, or the ocean dried up. David had told her there were many stories of mermaids in the world, but for people now they were just stories. No one believed these stories came from real life.” 149

Mermaid and David is in jail waiting for American fishermen to come and take her back. She was their legal catch of the day, stolen by David. She is a fish after all, or that’s what they think. Try to think. Meanwhile Aycyia is slowly turning back into a sea creature. Sweet and melancholy voice, eyes silver stars. In the cell David sees how a dorsal fin is coming, all up her spine. But the real ending is still to come. An ending that will untie all the knots in the book in the most wonderful way.

*

19:24, April 20, I finished the beautiful book and climbed back on land after the storm. Later that night after putting my boys to bed with a kiss and goodnight, and curling up next to Emīls, I open Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream just out of curiosity. It starts with a description of orcans and storms on the island of Bimini.

Weather takes me to the next book. Blue dog is already there looking back at me, waiting.

“The sea is a strong pull
but I want to stay human” 97

Kristaps Ģelzis. A Walk With My Blue Dog. 2008

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