This is the second chapter and the second narrative of my mermaid novel in the making that, at a later point, will interlink with the underwater narrative thread, the chapter I shared with you last week. This chapter, Lefornsen Lucky Charms, has already changed a lot since I have handed it in for my dissertaion for Birkbeck University in autumn. It is now two chapters long and looks a lot different. Looking at this chapter now really shows for me how writing and redrafting a longer story is like tying knots, opening them up again, threading other strands together, creating patterns that have not been there before, bringing completely new textures and fabrics into realisation. I hope you enjoy this one as much as the first.
Two thirteen-year-old girls ran along the ancient streets of Venice. One of them was called Alicia, who had brown slightly curly hair and eyes green like a field. She loved the streets and alleys of Venice. There was always something new to discover. There might be a lion statue they had never seen before. There were stone lions hidden everywhere in Venice. It was impossible to know all of them. Sometimes it even felt as if they magically reproduced.
And today they had finished school early and had time to explore their city until they had to return to the orphanage of the merciful nuns where they lived. Alicia hoped to discover something new about her city today. Something like a secret archway leading to a canal street that would abruptly end. And if you took one step further, you would fall into the water.
While Alicia wanted to see something new today, she was also heading for a building she could not wait to see again. There were buildings in Venice so ancient and beautiful it was impossible to overlook them but whenever Alicia strolled through the city, she always found a house she had never seen before, as if it had eluded her watchful eye or did not want to be seen until it allowed the world to be discovered.
Other pathways led to hidden little courtyards. Some of them even had little gardens with beautiful roses and flowers growing in the shade which was rare for Venice. This laguna city was a magical place and Alicia was always curious and adventurous.
Her best friend, a beautiful girl named Helica, shared her excitement for new things. She had luscious blond hair which was a mess most of the time because she didn’t really care about looking pretty. Besides, no one really cared about her messy hair, for when they looked into her light blue eyes, shining like a sunny spring day, they were immediately enchanted.
On this day, the two girls were on their way to a very ancient house. They had just turned right, past Campo dei Gesuiti street and into a side alley no tourist in Venice would ever know. At the beginning of the alley, to their right, they came across a construction site. There, Alicia and Helica remembered, used to stand a very old house from the 17th century. Just a week ago it had stood there. But a couple of days ago a thunderstorm and towering waves had broken its fragile frame and taken the house and its entire history into the sea. This particular building, built in a Baroque style with orange paint long faded, had been dilapidated for decades. Although no citizen of Venice had lived there for over a century, the people of Venice did not want to tear it down or refurbish it. Afterall, it was a part of the city, and better left alone out of respect for its history and perhaps the mysterious magic that resided within.
So, the ultimate demise of the house came in the form of an enemy that used to be Venice’s best friend: the ocean. Over the centuries, Venice had always been at risk of being flooded by the sea. Sometimes there were big storms but only little floods had ever come to the city. But now, within the last few years, the rising ocean which had served as protector, food source and defined the very essence of the Laguna city for so long, was slowly turning against it.
The two girls looked at the remnants of the house for a moment. The walls had crumbled down, water was at its centre, and beneath it, one could make out the wooden columns, which had once carried the weight of the old house. Now they only stood there without purpose. The columns showed signs of corrosion, a consequence of pollution from the sea. The waters had become more acidic over time, and where the salt water once preserved the wood, the sea now began to dissolve it.
Alicia sighed at the sad sight of the ruin in front of her, but quickly followed Helica who was already ahead of her. This was nothing new to her. The sinking city lost a house every now and then to the sea. The rising ocean level had become a part of Venice just like their ancient houses and black shining gondolas have always been part of the city.
And today, their minds were filled with excitement anyway, always in need for the next adventure. With the crumbling city around them there was, however, still a greater force in Venice present. The ancient force of the magic of this city that pulled them on towards a different house on this street. It was hard to detect the sensation of magic. It felt like an ocean breeze and only visible to children like Alicia and Helica.
The girls walked on a little further, stopped and looked at an ancestral house that might have been there since the earliest days of the Middle Ages, inconspicuous to all who did not know about it. Over the door, in golden letters, a sign read: Morfos’ Antiques. The house was dark green, the window frames and the door were bronze and there was a lion head doorknob, bigger than Alicia’s hand.
Helica went up the two stone steps and with both hands, because it was so heavy, knocked on the door with the lion’s head two times. For a moment, nothing happened, but then the heavy door opened and a silver cat with a little shopping bag in her mouth came out and said, ‘Have a good day!’
Then the cat rushed down the alley and disappeared around the corner.
‘Isn’t it wonderful’ Alicia said. ‘You can never tell what magic you will encounter in Venice.’
Helica smiled and went into the house. Alicia followed. It was very dark, but she knew this place and was not afraid. She stepped inside a big room and closed the heavy door behind her. The house was only dimly lit, it felt cool, and the girls knew, this was an old room filled with ancient secrets. Every time they walked through this door, they still got goosebumps. On the left side of the room was a great wooden table with an antique golden cash register sitting on it. The entire room was packed with old shelves full of books and glass vases filled with different colourful dried herbs and flowers.
Some of the objects were known to the two girls. The vases, with the little bronze labels on them, spelling the herbs’ names, contained rose petals, dried sunflowers or tulips. But there were also plants they had never heard of. One of them was called dragonflower. It appeared to radiate a red light. It looked poisonous. There were also sea lilies which were of the deepest indigo shade and catleaves, large and round, glittering silver and green.
On the right side there were long wooden tables on which golden, silver and iron instruments were lined up. Even globes and models of the solar system were among them.
‘Oh look! The books must be new.’ Helica whispered and pointed at a pile of books next to the cash register. ‘I will have a look at them.’
Alicia nodded and walked along the shelves where all the vases stood. The further into the room Alicia went, the darker it became. But it wasn’t the darkness of the room that drew Alicia in. There was something else. Something that seemed to be magnetically pulling her towards the back of the room.
She stopped in front of a portrait that was almost completely covered by a black silk cloth. It had a golden frame and the only thing she could recognise in the painting in the dark was a beautiful woman with green eyes and red hair. She reminded Alicia of someone, but it was only like a fading memory that never found full shape in her mind. And she could not tell who it was. A stone falling into the sea and disappearing in the blue.
Sometimes Alicia experienced these moments of fading memories. The most peculiar thing about her was the way she had come to the orphanage of the Merciful Nuns. She was the youngest of three siblings. Alicia had a brother named Leo who was a year older and a sister called Eleana, two years her senior. One night, eight years ago, they simply stood by the entrance of the orphanage with no idea of who had brought them there or where they had come from, let alone who their parents or their family were. They only remembered their names; Alicia, Leo and Eleana, how old they were, and that they were siblings.
The nuns took them in immediately. Other than their memory loss, their minds seemed to be fine. All three of them were actually very smart and creative. The nuns had assumed that something horrible must have happened to them considering the reason the children could not remember anything from their early childhood. Every time they tried to remember; they experienced the same feeling Alicia had now. A pebble falling into water disappearing in the depths. Alicia looked at the half-covered painting again. She wanted to know what was hidden behind the black silk. She raised her arm and touched the cool fabric. It felt like water in her hand.
‘Alicia! There you are! Come with me.’
Startled, Alicia turned around and recognised the owner of the store. His brilliant white beard was very short and so was his curly silver hair. He had a kind dark brown face with blazing green eyes, which Alicia thought, made him look very extraordinary. The most interesting aspect about his appearance was his clothing. He wore a silver blue shimmering toga. Alicia found that he resembled a scholar of ancient times. His name was Morfos Arensio.
‘I have new Lefornsen Lucky Charms in store. Helica said your old ones had dissolved already?’
‘Yes, they have. I am always in need of some luck.’ she said.
Morfos smiled, turned around and gestured to her to follow him. Alicia looked at the portrait one more time and told herself she would have a closer look later.
‘By the way, I have also received a couple of new books. I think you will be interested in reading them.’
‘I know, Helica has already seen them by the cash register.’
Morfos smiled again and went with her to Helica who was already busy going through the books.
‘Morfos, that new book, The Founding Histories of Merpeople, sounds so fascinating!’ Helica said.
‘Oh, it is. And in the seas, it’s already a bestseller.’ Morfos said.
‘One day you really have to show us the underwater Venice.’ Alicia said.
‘Well, underwater Venice is quite disappointing. The merpeople gave up on it a long time ago when the strange walkers in Venice started polluting the sea. But I will show you the new Venice of the merpeople someday. It is further out in the Adriatic though. The city Serenissima!’
‘That would be wonderful!’ Alicia said enchanted. ‘But how could we as humans, as strange walkers, as you always refer to us, visit an underwater city?’ Helica asked.
‘There are magical ways of doing that. As a merman, I can cast spells and create potions to help you breathe under water.’
Seven weeks ago, when Alicia and Helica had first stumbled upon Morfos’ Antiques shop, he had told them that he was a merman of the Venezea Kingdom. Among humans this secret kingdom was simply called the Mediterranean Sea.
At first, Alicia and Helica did not believe him. They thought him to be a trickster, an old, maybe crazy man. But then he let the golden cash register levitate, made fire appear from his fingertips and bent water through the air. He made it float and glide in the room. There was no doubt he was a merman with magical powers.
At the moment he had taken the form and appearance of a human, a strange walker. Once in the sea, the children were now convinced, he would be able to transform into a merman with a fin instead of legs. Alicia and Helica looked at all the new books. In addition to the book The Founding Histories of Merpeople there was also An Atlas of the Seven World Seas, How to Seduce a Merman or An Encyclopaedia of Sea Plants.
‘I think we should just take the Lefornsen Lucky Charms. We can’t afford anything else. The books are very expensive.’ Alicia said to Helica.
Helica nodded sadly and looked at the books with wonder. She especially liked the book on sea plants.
‘You know, you can come any time and read the books. You are always welcome at Morfos Antiques.’ Morfos said cheerfully.
‘Thank you. We will probably come back on the weekend. Alicia, I think we have to leave. It’s time to go home.’
Alicia frowned but nodded. Morfos took a great vase from one of the shelves. On it, was a label reading Lefornsen Lucky Charms. It was filled with small, long fish scales and they shimmered in all the colours of the rainbow. Alicia and Helica each took seven out of it and paid with the little pocket money they had. They were about to leave when Morfos said. ‘And you still haven’t told your siblings about me?’
Alicia and Helica looked at each other. Helica, like Alicia, had one older sister named Penelopa. She was Eleana’s best friend and sixteen years old. They had not told their siblings about Morfos, merpeople or magic. They wouldn’t know where to start, and quite frankly, their older siblings would probably not believe them. They enjoyed that it was their secret, just Helica’s and Alicia’s. Every time they had come here, they told their siblings and the enquiring nuns that they were out on the streets playing and exploring Venice like most local children.
‘No, we haven’t yet.’ Alicia said. ‘We don’t really know how, or where to start.’
‘I understand.’ Morfos said and a silver pearl appeared out of thin air in his right palm. ‘I have a feeling though, that they will understand eventually. Soon the two of you will know when to tell your siblings about me. When that is the case, take them to the attic of your orphanage and put this pearl into a glass of sea water at midnight. I am certain your siblings will believe you then. Trust me.’
Alicia and Helica looked at each other confused but nodded, said thank you and left the store. Outside, Alicia looked at the silver pearl in the fading sunlight. She held it up in her fingertips. In the setting sun, it shimmered silver and a golden sparkle radiated from its centre. There was no doubt, magic lived inside the pearl. She was certain she had never been given anything so precious. Carefully, she put it in her pocket. Suddenly, the door of the store opened and Morfos came out.
‘The next time when you look for me, you will find me and my store around the Piazza di San Marco. I wish you a good night!’
‘Goodbye Morfos!’ Both called out and went on their way.
One other magical aspect of Morfos and his store was its appearance and disappearance. Each time it could only be found in a different location in Venice. Sometimes, the girls had difficulty finding it, but eventually it would always present itself.
‘We better run Alicia! Sister Miervetta will close the gate soon! If we are too late, we will be in serious trouble!’ Helica called out.
‘We have the lucky charms. We will be there on time.’ Alicia said relaxed.
‘But she always closes the gates by sunset.’ Helica said nervously and looked at the Laguna City dipped in golden light.
Sister Miervetta was the nun who ran the orphanage. She was a kind but strict woman. The children had to obey all her rules. And one of them was to be at the orphanage by sunset. That was the time when they closed and locked the gate. The two of them ran as fast as they could through the little alleys of Venice, their shadows expanding as the sun set on the horizon, where the sea glittered purple and orange. They turned into the street where the orphanage stood and ran to the gate. It was still open. Quickly, they sprinted through it and saw sister Klea coming towards them.
‘You are just on time!’ She said out of breath.
Sister Klea was one of the youngest nuns at the orphanage. She was very short, just a little bit taller than Alicia and she always had a smile on her face.
‘We burnt dinner, so Sister Miervetta was too busy organising a new dinner for tonight. She almost forgot to lock the gates. If she were here in one of her moods right now, you would be in trouble. Two young girls out that late. You are lucky she sent me.’
Alicia gave Helica a meaningful look. Sister Klea closed the gate and locked it with a big black key.
‘We don’t want the devil under the Torcello bridge to steal our orphans, do we?’
Alicia and Helica laughed. The sisters always told the younger orphans about a devil that lived under the famous ancient bridge on the island of Torcello. At night, he would leave his lair and hunt for children in Venice. He liked orphans best. Or that’s how the nuns tell the story, so the children would take the closing of the gates seriously.
‘So what did Sister Miervetta organise for dinner then?’ Alicia asked.
‘Oh, we are having pizza. That’s always easy to make.’
‘See, we are in luck tonight.’
Alica smiled at Helica and looked at the Lefornsen Lucky Charms she was holding in her hand. As she had expected, a turquoise one had dissolved into saltwater. They had got lucky indeed. It was the kind of magic that was able to save them from precarious situations.
To be continued…