by Paul Willems
translated by Edward Gauvin
from The Delft Vase
Many years ago there was a small fisherman’s house on the dunes of La Panne. Rik-the-Fisherman’s wife Marie sat at the window all day long, spinning thread as she watched the sea. She was tall and thin with a tanned face and blond hair, and her eyes, from watching the sea, took on the color of the waters: blue when it was fair, green when it was cloudy, and black when there was a storm. Now, one day when Marie’s eyes were black, one stormy day, the fishing boat sank and Rik was never seen again. Marie was so sad that her eyes stayed black. As the sea reminded her of her husband, she changed places and sat at the other window, which looked out on the Abbey of the Dunes.
Two months after Rik’s death, a little girl was born in the little house. Marie called her Rika, in memory of her father. Rika grew. She always played alone in the dune and on the beach, for her mother spun from dawn till dusk to provide for them. One evening (Rika had just turned six), Marie began to weep. She wasn’t earning enough money spinning and there wasn’t anything left in the house to eat. She told Rika to go out the next day and keep watch over the sheep for the monks of the Abbey of the Dunes. The monks would surely give her a big jug of milk each day for her trouble.
But Rika replied that she would rather go to the beach. Sometimes the sea tossed up precious objects she would gather and sell.
And so it was decided.
Despite the storm, Rika left the next morning, taking with her a great sack. Day was breaking. Wind chased the sand low over the ground with such speed that it stung the girl’s legs like needles. Seagulls, carried on the gale, cried and turned their heads to see who dared venture onto the beach in such fearsome wind. But the gale swept the gulls away so quickly they hadn’t time to recognize Rika. She struggled against the wind. She could barely stand up straight and the waves made a vast roar.
Then Rika cried out in her clear voice: “Sea wind! Take me where I’ll find fish tossed up by the storm!”
She saw a shell that rolled along and then stopped, rolled some more and stopped again, as though to say: “This way! Follow me!”
Rika began to run, and the shell rolled along before her so quickly that she could barely keep up. Wind and rain buffeted her from behind, and she ran, ran. Gulls kept going by faster than arrows, seafoam flew about her, and the edges of the waves leapt at her feet.
Soon she reached a place where the beach was so broad she could hardly see the end of it. The tide, falling back, had left all sorts of wreckage. It was as though the sea had fled before having enough time to finish packing its bags, leaving hundreds of objects scattered on the sand. There were all sorts of shells (pink and black), crabs, starfish, planks and scraps of wood, wisps of straw and sweet-smelling masses of seaweed. And there were also ten big fish a wave had thrown up on the sand. As Rika filled her sack, the storm died down. The only roar left was the waves.
When Rika got home that night, Marie exclaimed that even Rik-the-Fisherman himself had never brought back such handsome fish. She made a fire, grilled one, and salted the others. Before they ate, she said, “Daughter mine, tell me where you found all these fish.”
“The shell showed me where to go.”
And Rika showed her the shell she hadn’t forgotten to bring back. They put it on the mantel by a bouquet of blue thistles, and when you brought it to your ear you could hear the sound of the ocean. That night, Marie couldn’t sleep. She feared that Rika would start to love the sea, as sometimes happens to the children of sailors who’ve perished in storms. She rose and gazed on her child. Rika was so pretty that Marie smiled and went back to her bed. Happily, she hadn’t seen that Rika’s fingernails were just like little pink shells in every way, which is a sign you are in love with the sea.
Now, two months later, the last salted fish had been eaten. Marie told Rika, “Go keep watch over the monk’s sheep. They’ll give you a pitcher of milk every night for your trouble.”
But Rika began to weep, and said that first she wanted to go down to the water’s edge.
Marie gazed at her daughter with her sad black eyes and said nothing. The next day, the girl left in such good spirits that Marie hadn’t the heart to hold her back.
It was the first day of spring. The sky was even bluer than the sea, and the sun looked like a great yellow flower. The gulls were flying every which way, all white and shining in the sun. Their wild cries rang out. When Rika reached the water’s edge, where the sand was hard, she cried out, “Sea-sun! Sea-sun! Lead me where I’ll find something to fill my sack!”
Then she saw something shining very far away. She walked toward the light along the water’s edge. The waves were so small they barely made a murmur. Only by listening closely could you tell it was the breathing of the sea, asleep beside the beach. Rika had been walking for two hours when she reached the shining thing. It was a crate, fallen from a ship, that the sea had carried there. The crate contained butter and hardtack. It was so heavy Rika could barely drag it over the sand.
That night, when Rika reached the house exhausted, Marie was delighted to see so much food, but her black eyes were sad for she feared that Rika had started loving the sea. Happily, she didn’t see that the child’s eyes were the same color as the water. They were blue and clear like the sea on a spring day, and that was the sign that Rika was now passionately in love with the sea.
“I’ll teach her to spin and weave,” Marie promised herself, and that way she’ll never leave me. And she added loudly, “Just where did you find that crate?”
“The sea-sun showed it to me,” Rika replied.
Now, a few months later, when the last hardtack cracker had been eaten, Marie told Rika, “Tomorrow you’ll go and keep watch over the sheep.”
But Rika begged and pleaded so hard that she allowed her daughter to go down to the water’s edge one last time.
Rika left as soon as it was light. It was a summer’s day, so hot the air was dancing.
But that night, Rika did not come back to the house.
Around six, as the sun was already painting a golden pathway on the waters, Marie approached the window where she’d once kept watch for the Rik-the-Fisherman’s return. The sun was going down and soon only half of it could be seen. It was there, like someone peeping over a garden wall before going on his way.
The sun seemed to say, “How beautiful the garden of the world is! Everything there is green, everything fair, everything joyful. No one ever weeps there, there is no such thing as sorrow. Oh, happy world! How pleasant it is to gaze on your prairies and towns. I shall certainly return!”
And then the sun disappeared and soon the sky itself closed its doors. But then a thousand windows set to shining.
Marie saw none of these marvels. She awaited her daughter. The spinning wheel had fallen silent, the clock had stopped, and you could hear the gentle sounds of the sea. But for Marie they weren’t gentle. Nor did she see the moon there, like a friend who comes to bid you good evening and murmurs, “Can I sit down beside you for a bit? It’s so beautiful out we could sit on the doorstep without saying a word, just sitting side by side.”
But Marie didn’t hear, and her beautiful black eyes were even sadder than usual.
She left the house then and followed the trail of tiny footprints Rika had left in the sand. They led her onto the beach, and Marie followed the edge of the water for hours. She feared Rika had drowned, for the footprints disappeared into the water. The night was so clear and beautiful that no one could seriously believe in bad luck.
Marie searched for several days and nights without finding any trace of her child.
Now, on the ninth day, toward evening, as the sun was painting a splendid golden pathway on the waters, Marie heard a marvelous song in the distance and saw, where the golden pathway reached the edge of the waves, a mermaid lying at the water’s edge. She sang of her seaweed castle in the depths of the sea, and of the child playing in its largest hall.
“Mermaid, is that my little girl?”
“Yes, it is your little girl, she’s in my castle at the bottom of the sea.”
“Mermaid, take me there!”
She begged and pleaded so hard that the mermaid said, “Climb on my back!”
And the mermaid followed the golden pathway across the sea. Never once did Marie turn back to look at the shore.
When they’d reached the horizon, where sea touches sky, the mermaid dove down into the water and ushered Marie into the seaweed castle. They passed through a hundred rooms, opened a hndred doors, and at last the mermaid lifted a seaweed curtain and showed her a great hall. Marie saw her daughter playing with shells.
The mermaid told Marie that it was forbidden to enter the hall and speak to her child.
“Mermaid,” said Marie, “Let me live here. If you will have me, I will be your slave.”
She begged and pleaded so hard that the mermaid gave in and, from that day on, Marie worked night and day, and every day she was allowed to watch Rika from a distance.
Now Marie remembered the colors of the earth—green trees, golden sun, the dark sea on stormy days, white clouds, and the thousand hues light casts upon the world. She thought of these colors so much that her hair stayed blond at the bottom of the sea, and her lips red. And the mermaid often admired Marie’s hair, which seemed to remember the color of the world.
One day, Marie remembered a rainbow she’d seen over the ocean, recalling that all the colors shone in it, each in its place, in an exquisite order.
And she thought, “So does the spirit of God move over the waters.”
She went looking for the mermaid, and said, “Mermaid, let me take my child back to the little house on the dunes. True, I see Rika every day, and you never promised me any more than that, but Rika has become blue at the bottom of the sea. She almost no longer looks like a little girl. For a little girl has red lips and white teeth; she has a face tanned by the sun and eyes whose brown it brightens. Here, she will forget that colors exist.”
She begged and pleaded so hard that the mermaid promised to give her back her child if Marie would weave her a cloak of her hair.
Marie set to work right away. She spun for days and days on end, and when she’d used up all her hair weaving, a third of the cloak was finished.
She had to wait two years for her hair to grow back. Then she wove the second part of the cloak. She waited another two years, and then she wove the final third of the cloak.
Now one day the cloak was done. The mermaid was delighted with it, for it was very fine and very long and there were three colors to it—something quite rare under the sea. The top was blond, the middle gray (a gray sown with white strands), and the bottom was completely white.
The mermaid was quite happy.
“Leave now, since it is your wish,” she said, and opened the door of the great hall where Rika was imprisoned. She put Marie’s hand in Rika’s.
The next day, the fishermen found the bodies of two women at the water’s edge.
One was old, with white hair. On her face was a smile as though she’d seen a rainbow.
The other was a young girl so beautiful that no one had ever seen the like. Her face was bright as the most radiant colors but—a curious thing—her hair was blue, which only added to her strange beauty. Soon she woke, as though from a long slumber, and smiled.
But no one managed to revive the old woman. An aged fisherman recognized Marie, who’d disappeared long ago. She was buried before the little house on the dunes, and soon a white blossom called cottongrass grew on her grave.
Rika-of-the-Blue-Hair went there every day, and when the sky was gray, the dunes blonde, and the blossom white, Rika wept for she remembered vaguely, as from the bottom of a dream, that Marie had saved her.
Later, Rika lived a very happy life, and it was said that she brought happiness to all who knew her. Everyone admired her blue hair. She never went back to the water’s edge, for she was afraid.
Paul Willems (1912-1997) belongs to the final generation of great Francophone Belgian fantasists of Flemish descent. He published his first novel, Everything Here is Real, in 1941. Three more novels and toward the end of his life, two collections of short stories bracket his career as a playwright, for which he was best known in his lifetime. Donald Friedman’s translation of his late novella The Drowned Land was nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award and published with Suzanne Burgoyne’s translation of his play La Vita Brève (Peter Lang, 1994).
The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Other publications have appeared in F&SF, Podcastle, LCRW, Postscripts, Tin House, PEN America, and Pseudopod. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he is currently a Fulbright scholar studying Belgian literature in Brussels. He translates comics for BOOM! Studios and Archaia.