This is the 3rd piece in a series on cooperative storytelling. If you read the second part of the series, you know the plot of the story we told, and a little about Annie. Since one of the consequences of cooperative storytelling is that you don’t always get to reveal the backstories of your characters, I thought I’d share it here.
You might be surprised at how in-depth the background is, but I had several hours to ponder over it that day, and of course in the writing it down, certain details are compelled into concrete-ness.
Annie’s family were divers. Her father had been a diver all his life, and was raising his son to do the same. His wife had died in childbirth with the boy. When the boy was 14, the father’s dreams started to be haunted by a beautiful face, and the sensation of drowning.
Driven to the brink of insanity by the dreams, he dove deeper than he had ever dived before – well beyond the limit set by the shamans. In doing so, he finally found the source of the dreams. A clan of merfolk had settled on the ocean floor under the village. One of the mermaids bore the exact visage of his dreams. Despite the apparent warnings of the dream, he was mesmerized by her. Over the next few days, he returned repeatedly and eventually convinced her to come to the surface and lay with him.
After that, the haunting dreams stopped, and with it vanished all desire of my father’s to dive deeply. In a rage at being abandoned though, the mermaid rose to the shallows and dragged him down with her. His body was never recovered.
My 15 year old half-brother, John, now an orphan, made his way as a diver for almost two years before our father’s folly caught up with him. One night, my mother came to him, with me in her arms. She informed him that I was now his to care for. She explained that while I would always be tied to it, I was not true merfolk, and so could not live under the water. My brother reluctantly accepted responsibility for me.
John had hoped to live a quiet life, and thus not draw the kind of attention that would cause people to wonder where I came from. In a village this small though, that was a longshot at best. It didn’t help that I was a proficient swimmer long before I could walk properly and I didn’t learn to talk until almost 4. The nail in that coffin was when one of the shamans took interest in me. She had noticed that while a quiet child even at the age of 10, I was highly observant, and always fiddling with a pearl. Now pearls are not unheard of in the oysters that settle on the underside of the village, but one as large and perfect as the one I was playing with was more than unusual. She asked me about it, but was not ready for the answer.
“The water gave it to me.” I explained. “I’m part merfolk.”
“Really? Well then, I think you’d better come with me.” The shaman, whose name was Marie, took me back to her home, and performed a couple of tests to verify what she’d seen. I did indeed show every sign of awakened magic. That night she met with my brother and I and discussed her desire to keep this quiet. There is always politics among the shamans, and Marie was banking that my unconventional heritage would result in a strong mage.
When I turned 14, there was a big celebration for me, at which I was officially apprenticed to Marie. My brother, who I was quite close to, missed the ceremony. I was immediately worried, and went looking for him. The last anyone had heard, he had gone diving that morning. Worried, I dove myself, looking for him. Now I can stay under for nearly 20 minutes, and swim twice as fast as anyone else, and that is without use of my magic, but even I was pushing my limit when I found John. He had foolishly gone diving alone (since the age of 10, I’d been his dive partner), gotten himself tangled in some dangling ropes, and drowned.
I was crushed. John was the only family I had ever really known. Marie clearly only cared for how I would advance her rank in the village. I had never known my father, and was too young to remember her when my mother gave me up. I swam off, not really paying attention where. I didn’t care. This was a stupid idea, as I did not pay attention to which way I went. I had never gotten tired of swimming before, but I swam for so long that I did get tired. I got tired well out of sight of anything I could rest on. I forced myself to keep swimming, not realizing how much of my fear was bleeding into the water around me.
Eventually, by chance, I encountered Evers Island. I’d heard stories about it, but never seen it myself. Most people make only one pilgrimage to solid ground in their lives, and I wasn’t old enough to go on one yet. Desperate to get out of the water and rest, I swam toward the island, but I started to feel strange. At first I chalked it up to being so tired, but as I neared the island, the tingling, numbing sensation got worse and worse.
“Annie, wait!” A voice behind me rang out.
Wearily, I turned around and scanned the waves, looking for the source of the voice. Seeing nothing, I assumed I had imagined it, and returned to swimming toward the shore.
“No!” The voice cried again, and suddenly I felt a riptide start to drag me out away from the shore.
I went under. I came up sputtering. I struggled to swim out of the riptide, but I was being carried away from the shore well faster than I could get clear. And then there was my mother. I didn’t remember her face, but something about her presence told me who she was.
“Daughter,” she began. “You are merfolk. You cannot stand on solid ground. If you do so, you will die.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me. “well then can I live with you?” I asked. I didn’t care about going back to the Evers tribe. There was nothing left there for me.
“I’m sorry love, but you can’t do that either. You are human as well, and humans cannot live on the bottom of the ocean.”
I wanted to cry, but I was too tired. I went under again. My mother dove after me, and brought me back to the surface. “I can’t stay long.” She said, “but I can help you.” She then started to swim with me. On that journey back, she warned me about many things, including the risk of not controlling my emotions when I swam. While the trail had led her to me, any number of predators could have easily done the same.
With a lot of her help, I managed to make it back to the village late that night. The whole village was alight. Marie had stirred everyone into a frenzy to try to find me. When i dragged myself onto the dock, I was set on by half a dozen concerned citizens who whisked me off to her. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my mom, who had ducked under the surface as soon as we were near enough to be seen by the villagers.
Marie was furious. She yelled at me for what seemed like hours about how I essentially belonged to her now, and I was never to pull a stupid stunt like that again. On and on her tirade went.
Life went on though. People forgot that night. I started my training as a shaman. And eventually, Marie and the other three shamans decided that it was time to reclaim the astrolabe from the Jarins.