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This is the third chapter of my mermaid novel in the making. Before reading this one, you might want to remind yourself of chapter two:

The orphanage of the Merciful Nuns was one of the few houses in Venice that had a garden. Gardens have always been a rarity in Venice, as since the medieval times, fresh water had to be brought all the way from the mainland or it had to rain more than usual for the green to grow. But the nuns of the orphanage had a long tradition of tending to their garden. It was their pride and joy.

There was enough space for a flowerbed where dark red roses grew and lavender sprouted out of the ground. Bees hummed in the garden and butterflies with wings as bright as lemons were busy pollinating the flowers. Next to it there was a bed of herbs and the scent of thyme and rosemary was in the air. It was a beautiful and quiet place. Further on towards the canal were patches of green gras and there three little olive trees stood in terracotta pots, their silver leaves glittering in the sun. And by the canal stood a big ancient oak tree, carrying fresh leaves. Spring had come and the taste of summer was in the air.

Underneath it was a marble bench in the shade. There sat a girl with eyes as green as the lagoon. She was Alicia’s older sister. Behind Eleana and the oak tree stood a wooden  landing stage in the water that opened to a broad canal unfolding into the south of the shimmering ocean green lagoon.

The white marble bench under the oak tree was Eleana’s favourite spot. She always came here to think, to read or, as she did today, to sketch. She brushed her hair, red like the sunset, out of her face. She focused on her sketch book, resting in her lap as did a pencil in her right hand. She loved drawing and sketching. It was one of the few things she and her siblings had in common.

Very often Eleana was annoyed by Alicia’s wild spirit and constant curiosity. It resulted in Alicia asking so many questions when at times she could just be quiet. They fought very often. It was Leo, Eleana’s younger brother, who often tried to mediate between his sisters. But then again it was logical that they disagreed so much. Eleana was protective, careful and always wanted to do the right thing, whereas Alicia was much more impulsive. The same was true for Eleana’s drawings.

Before she started any sketch, she always thought about it first, how to draw it, and completed it within her mind. Then she began sketching. But today she was not sure she could focus. She had wanted to draw an ancient Venetian house for weeks. She didn’t know whether she had dreamed about it or had seen it somewhere before, but it was stuck in her mind. By sketching it, she thought she could clear her head.

It was a similar feeling to when she tried to remember anything from before the time she came to the orphanage. But there was nothing there, only the surface of a clear blue ocean, impenetrable. There were moments though, when she could feel a memory surface. Like a creature rising from the sea, its shadow visible for a second but then returning to the depths again.

Eleana turned around and looked at the orphanage for inspiration. It was an ancient house of Venice too. It used to be a villa, a Venetian one, flamboyant and colourful but all its splendour had been washed away by history, its shimmering brilliancy long forgotten.

Hundreds of years ago, when Venice was the strength of the Mediterranean, the villa belonged to a wealthy merchant family, traders sailing the seas. Back then it glistened under the sun, home to feasts and masquerades. But that was a long time ago and since then the city has lost all its power, its wealth gone and the family that had lived here had faded into distant memory.

But even with the family gone the house continued to stand strong in the Laguna city and soon new owners had found their way into its empty rooms. It was an order of nuns who devoted themselves to the caretaking of orphans.

The halls of the ground floor had been turned into a kitchen, a dining hall, and a spacious common room. While the garden was Eleana’s favourite place in summer, during winter, it was the common room with its two fireplaces, brown leather chairs and all its books she could read during the cold days.

The grand chambers of the first and second floor had been turned into bedrooms for the orphans and on the second floor were the nuns’ quarters. There also was an attic which was filled with the remains of the long dead merchant family, ancient furniture, centuries old, covered in cobwebs and dust. No one really liked to go there. One always had to sneeze because of the dust, and one had to be careful not to run into a cobweb, or worse, a spider!

In this big villa twenty-six children lived here now. Eleana shared a room with her best friend Penelopa. Living here meant sharing a lot of space but it was also a welcoming and a good place to live. Even though, some of the nuns were very strict, they were all caring and good at heart.

Eleana looked down again, at the sketches she had made so far. The house she had drawn had a doorknob shaped like a lion head. It was a two-story building but definitely not as big as the orphanage. It simply looked like it could be in any street or alleyway. This was the reason that made it so difficult to put it together in her mind. It was a house Eleana had either dreamed about or could have seen anywhere in Venice.

‘You look exhausted.’

Eleana was pulled out of her thoughts and looked up. It was Alexander. He had olive skin and dark marron hair, a shade almost the colour of red wine. He was her brother’s best friend.

‘You should be the one feeling exhausted! How was your history exam?’ Eleana asked with a smile.

‘Yeah… History is not my thing. I mean it’s interesting, but I always confuse dates and places and names. I am just so bad at remembering them.’

‘Oh, I am sorry to hear that. So, studying with Leo didn’t help?’

Alexander shook his head. He simply wasn’t good at studying. He was smart but he mixed things up very often, especially when it came to language and history. In contrast, he was incredibly good with numbers.

His most defining quality though, which everyone admired about him, was that he always stood up for his friends. At school there was a bully called Antonio. His family was one of the wealthier ones in Venice. He always had the best of everything. Every day he brought the biggest lunch box to school but that did not stop him from stealing the orphans’ food- particularly Alicia’s.

One morning, the nuns made cookies for All Saints Day, the Christian solemnity to celebrate all saints. Alicia had kept her one until the break when all the other children had eaten theirs already. Antonio saw her delicious cookie, and standing tall in front of her, he demanded it. When Alicia held out the cookie to him, Alexander stepped in between them and simply told Antonio to leave her alone. Alexander was not afraid of bullies. And when one was not afraid of bullies, they had no power because fear was their only weapon. But for Alexander it was also a bit different. He did not have to be afraid of children like Antonio because everyone knew how he came to the orphanage. They were afraid of him. It was a legendary story and he wore it like armour.

Alexander arrived at the orphanage when he was just a baby in the middle of the night. He was left by the landing stage of the canal during a full moon and he was not wrapped in a blanket, but in seagrass. For weeks he smelled of the ocean. A lot of other stories were whispered and made up about him back then. Some nonnas said that he was the son of a siren. Others said that his parents were great sailors and were killed battling a sea monster. The craziest story about him was that at full moon he could turn into a werefish, which supposedly was half fish and half wolf. Then he would join all the other spirits, the devil under the Torcello bridge and the mermaids in the canals to roam the streets and waterways of Venice. Of course, all these stories were complete rubbish. Alexander was just a boy like Eleana was just a girl.

He sat down next to Eleana, and to change the subject asked, ‘What are you drawing?’

‘Oh, just sketches.’

Alexander took the sketchbook out of her hand and looked with his dark green eyes, the colour of a thick forest, at the drawing of the house. ‘Interesting.’

‘The interesting thing about it is that it comes back into my mind all the time, but I can’t recall where I know it from.’

‘Creepy.’ Alexander said.

Leo came walking over from the house. His hands were wet, and he wiped them off his jeans. Then he tamed his messy brown hair with them and sat next to Eleana. He was a bit paler than Eleana and Alicia, as he always preferred to sit in the cool shade. He had wonderful eyes, blue like the ocean.

‘Alicia, Helica and Penelopa are still busy with washing up and-’

But Leo broke off in the middle of the sentence and startled he looked at Eleana’s drawing.

‘What is it?’ Eleana and Alexander asked immediately.

‘Where do you know that house from?’

‘No idea. Do you know it?’ Eleana asked curiously.

Leo shook his head. Eleana watched him run back into the house where he nearly ran into Helica, Alicia and Penelopa who came over to them.

‘Sister Miervetta is so annoying! Blind centaurs, she is never happy with how we wash up!’ Helica started and Alicia continued ‘Toothless goblins!’

‘Where did you get these weird swearwords from?’ Penelopa asked, Helica’s sister, three years older than her, and Eleana’s best friend.

Penelopa was tall, had brown curly hair, kind chocolate- brown eyes and brown skin. She was the exact opposite of Helica and the two sisters usually had to tell people that they really were siblings because no one would believe them. That was quite annoying. Sometimes, even they wondered if maybe they were half-sisters. But every time someone doubted them, they remembered their parents, who died in a car accident in the woods. Their dad had brown skin and his hair was just like Penelopa’s. And they could never forget their mum’s very pale skin, white like the moon, her deep blue eyes and her hair had shone golden like Helica’s. In appearance they were opposites, like fire and water, but kindred souls, made for each other. And the two sisters remembered the love between their parents that brought them into this world. Their children were opposites too, in character and appearance, like land and sea.

‘They are not weird swearwords.’ Helica said.

‘They kind of are.’ Alexander countered.

‘So where did you get them from?’ Penelopa asked again.

‘Well…’ Alicia said.

But suddenly the young girls froze. They looked at Eleana’s drawing.

‘What is going on? What’s wrong with my drawing? Why are you all acting so weird about it?’

Just then Leo came running back.

‘Eleana, look.’

In his hand he was holding his own sketchbook with a drawing identical to Eleana’s.

‘This house comes back into my mind constantly. Only the writing above the door… That, I can never remember.’ Leo said concerned.

‘Same here. It all seems so far away. As if it’s just beneath the surface of the water. Visible but not really there.’ Eleana explained.

Both siblings wondered if they were going insane. Helica and Alicia looked at each other again. Now they understood Morfos’ words. Alicia took Leo’s sketch and Eleana’s pencil and wrote above the sketched door: Morfos’ Antiques.

‘That’s it! Yes! Exactly! That’s what I could not remember! Morfos’ Antiques!’ Eleana said amazed, suddenly remembering, as if the water had given way and revealed a treasure at the sandy bottom of the sea.

‘How do you know this?’

Leo, Eleana, Penelopa and Alexander looked at the younger children with curiosity but also suspicion.

‘I think we have to explain something to you.’ Alicia started.

‘We have been going to this store for a couple of weeks now. It belongs to Morfos Arensio. But it’s not a normal store. You can buy books about magic, ancient and enchanted objects and all possible ingredients for potions, spells and rituals there.’

‘When did you discover this?’ Leo asked astounded.

‘Well, it was the day our teachers had food poisoning from the oysters they had for lunch. When we went back home early, we discovered the store. So that was about seven weeks ago.’ Helica answered.

‘You were keeping a secret like that from us for seven weeks?’ Eleana shouted.

‘Seven weeks ago, I think I started dreaming about this house.’ Leo whispered, and Eleana worriedly agreed.

‘By the way the store is owned by a real merman! Morfos Arensio!’ Alicia said excited. ‘A merman of the Venezea Kingdom!’

Penelopa and Alexander only grinned. Eleana looked very angry. Leo was thinking it all through. Magic? Merpeople? The pictures of the house? Eleana’s and his dreams of the same house? There was something very off about all of this but somehow it felt like it was true.

‘Alicia, I think you have met a crazy old man telling you fairy tales.’ Penelopa said.

‘Not to mention that you didn’t tell us!’ Eleana said outraged. ‘Alicia this man could be dangerous!’

‘No one is crazy.’ Alicia said.

‘And no one is dangerous!’ Helica continued.

‘We have seen him perform actual magic. No tricks! Actual magic! His Inner Power is the power to bend water at his will. We saw him move it through the air.’

‘What is an Inner Power?’ Alexander asked very confused.

He did not know what to think about this. Helica wanted to explain but Leo started talking ‘Let’s just say they are crazy.’ Alicia and Helica looked at him angrily. ‘What about Eleana’s and my drawings?’

‘Leo, that could be a coincidence.’ Eleana responded.

‘Both of us, dreaming about the same house that is stuck in our minds. That we cannot shake off? A house that Alicia has been going to. Besides, I don’t really believe in coincidences.’ Leo said and Alexander agreed. ‘There must be more to the story.’

‘Oh, stop it! This is crazy!’ Penelopa said annoyed.

‘There is something else.’ Alicia said. ‘Morfos was sure that you wouldn’t believe us if we just told you. You are older than us and there is no proof that magic exists. So, he told us to show you.’

‘How? Did he teach you some spells?’ Eleana laughed.

‘No.’ Helica said dead serious.

‘We can’t show you.’ Alicia said earnestly. ‘But he gave us a silver pearl that can.’

‘At midnight.’ Helica added in a mysterious voice.

‘And what then? Is Alexander going to turn into a werewolf?’ Penelopa said mockingly. She laughed and Eleana and Alexander began to laugh too.

‘Hey, I could never turn into a werewolf! Remember, I am known to be a werefish!’

Penelopa and Eleana laughed again. Leo had to smile too.

‘The pearl will prove you wrong. We will put it in salt water, and you will see magic happen!’ Alicia said, as if she was talking about science.

‘Okay then.’ Eleana agreed. ‘Show us and prove us wrong if you are so sure. Maybe there is something behind our drawings.’

‘Agreed.’ Leo said.

‘We can’t be out of bed at midnight.’ Penelopa said.

‘Oh, come on.’ Alexander frowned.

‘If we get caught by the nuns, we will take the blame.’ Alicia said and Helica looked at her worried.

‘We will take the Lefornsen Lucky charms with us.’ Alicia said to her.

Helica nodded knowingly, while the others looked confused. The two girls enjoyed this. For the first time, it felt like, that they knew so much more than their older siblings did.

Alicia looked at her friends and siblings and said ‘Tonight, the attic, ten minutes before midnight.’

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