(c) Copyright, Renee Carter Hall, 2001
rose with the sun, as always. There was always work to be done. Today, the
laundry, waiting to be scrubbed clean and bright as the sun glittering on the
Martino had already left. He never lingered in the morning anymore. He liked to,
in the beginning; he had loved the early combination of dark, aromatic coffee
and the new sunlight on her breasts. He even used to say that, then.
But now he was off to his work hours before sunrise, off to the boat and the
docks, to the day's wind and the day's catch. She reminded herself that the sea
was part of him, that it always had been. Once a sailor, always one--she'd known
that long before their wedding.
sailor's blood was easier to forgive, though, when it didn't keep him out long
past sunset. She knew the kinds of women who worked by the harbor. Perhaps he
visited one. Perhaps more than one.
Other women, she knew, would let him leave, would not want him back if he were
unfaithful. She wished it were that simple.
How she'd loved the romance of those earliest days... that sweet, slow
lovemaking, when there was yet no question of his devotion. And sometimes in his
afterglow, he'd tell her the story again...
ship sliced through the gray-green water, sails full and tight.
Martino stood on deck, lightly leaning on the wooden rail, enjoying the
salt-misted spray on his face. Each moment brought the crew closer to their
home--and brought Martino closer to the port where Orsetta waited to be his
He watched for land every free moment, waiting to see the familiar coast of his
birth. He would be married the day after he returned from sea. Everything was
planned and perfect.
Martino looked into the distance, and a thrill went through him--there was land!
An instant later, though, disappointment followed. It was only a speck of land,
an island so small it had eluded the map-makers. No doubt the captain would want
them to stop; the fresh water barrels below decks were nearly dry.
He was right--a few minutes later, the captain appeared and ordered the
change in course. The next thing Martino knew, they were dropping anchor and
heading for shore, searching for fresh water and supplies.
He was the one who first heard the sound--a high, sweet singing, like a child
and yet a woman. When the others heard it, they began to search for the source,
murmuring among themselves about the strangeness of the tune, and at last they
reached a lagoon draped in lush, feathery ferns and hanging vines. When the
entire crew had gathered by the clear pool, the singers appeared.
"Mermaids!" said Martino.
"What voices," said his shipmates. "Beautiful..."
The mermaids sang as they went about their slow work--coyly combing their long
hair, arranging pretty shells on the shore, or tending to the
lilies and water-plants that grew all around. The sailors stood and
As day turned into night, Martino grew worried. No one--not even the
captain--wanted to leave. Even those sailors who had loves at home, as he did,
seemed to have forgotten everything. Martino left them and went to the shore,
and as he lay down to sleep, he thought only of Orsetta and how to break this
enchantment to get back to her.
The next morning, he tried to talk to the mermaids, but none seemed to be able
to hear. His shipmates were no better. Each sailor had chosen a maid and was
idly combing her hair, or gathering flowers for her, or polishing shells until
Then, just when he had given up, a bright foam rose from the water, and another
mermaid appeared, even more beautiful than the others, with pearls woven in her
"Martino," she said, "you do not like the song of my
"Please," said Martino, "you must set them free. We have to
The mermaid queen gestured to the sailors. "They are happy. They will never
know cold or hunger again."
"Many have families. Wives--children--who wait for them. Please, think of
The queen thought of this for a moment, then said, "Who are you, that our
song does not reach you?"
"If you know my name, you must know more of me. I'm to be married as soon
as we return. I won't stay here."
The queen's eyes glimmered, and again she waved at her mermaids. "But they
"Yes--but they are not her. I tell you, I must leave--I will leave. If
you won't release them, I'll go alone."
The queen shook her head, puzzled. "You are the first mortal man who has
not been touched by our song."
"I love her," said Martino. "I hear and see no others. You may
The queen stopped him. "For a man who so forsakes any other, and for the
sake of she who will be your wife, I will release them. First,
The queen spun a sheet of delicate foam in her hands, and this she presented to
Martino. "A gift from us," she said. "Such love calls for
this, at least."
Martino took the foam carefully, but it stayed whole and beautiful, and it
drifted in his hands like the soft rippling of the pool. "Thank you,"
The queen nodded and was gone, taking her maids with her. Martino and the
sailors were alone.
They found water on the island, sweeter and clearer than any they'd ever tasted.
Martino kept the foam in his trunk, safe and secret. None of the other sailors
remembered the maids, but Martino could see in their eyes that they would be
haunted by the song forever. Again he watched for land and waited, and soon the
waves brought him home.
On their wedding day, Martino took the foam from his trunk and placed it in
Orsetta's hands. It was no longer misty water but the finest lace, woven into
delicate patterns that made him think of the mermaids'
gathered the day's wash, thinking of his story. Perhaps he'd only invented it--a
charming little tale to make his new bride blush and think how lucky she was.
He'd not been one to think up stories, though... She smiled, remembering his
clumsy attempts at love poetry.
Orsetta sighed and set her mind on scrubbing the bed-linens. As much as she
wanted to give up, to tell herself it didn't matter, she knew she couldn't
abandon what they'd shared--what they could still share, if only...
She put the linens in the rinse water and reached for the next item--her ivory
sleeping-shift, worn soft and smooth from so many washings. The fabric always
felt so cool and light against her skin, even in this summer's heat.
Perhaps it was too plain for him, she thought, plunging the simple dress into
the warm water. She'd seen things in the town shops like what those women no
doubt wore--garments cut low and high in all the right places, to reveal the
swells of breasts, the slow curve of inner thigh.
She still had that lace, in the trunk with their wedding things... Worn alone,
it would reveal her body in teasing patterns, delicate sprays of shadow and
light. She could cover only what was essential. The rest of the morning, Orsetta
scrubbed and rinsed automatically, all the time devising patterns to cup her
breasts, to barely hide the cleft between her legs. Once all the wash was
billowing in the salty wind, Orsetta went to their bedroom, lifted the small
bundle of lace from the trunk, and began to cut and sew.
In the end, there was just enough. She paused before the full-length mirror,
turning to admire the delicate panties, so much like what Martino wore under his
breeches. She'd decided to make the top half as the tightest, shortest bodice
she could contrive, creating a garment that barely contained her breasts while
also exposing her belly and shoulders.
Orsetta laughed and ran down to the shore, feeling as if her bare skin were
begging for the touch of sunlight. She knelt in the wet sand, letting the waves
rush over her, letting the ocean roar out its secrets into every part of her,
letting the world bathe her in light and water. She stayed out so long that her
skin tanned deeply, leaving only the lace-pattern fair. As the sun set, she
returned home to wait for Martino.
Hours passed, and still he did not come. Orsetta viewed the darkening sky with
dismay. Any other day, she would have eaten alone and gone to bed, but this
evening the waves whispered a new idea. She slipped on her linen dress, added a
light cloak to ward off the seaside chill, and walked to the harbor.
A few boats were still out, but most had come in for the evening, their sails
rolled tight and decks deserted. Martino's fishing boat was at its place in
line, slowly rising and falling with the calm waves, so she turned her attention
to the taverns that lined the nearby streets.
The first one she tried glowed with ruddy light and was louder than the
storm-tossed sea. Men paused when she entered, some staring openly, and when
they returned to their drinks, she could hear them sharing illicit whispers with
each other. Scantily-dressed women eyed her suspiciously. Martino was not there,
and she sighed with relief.
The second tavern was dark and drafty, and she shivered under her cloak.
The men there made her feel far too aware of the revealing lace under her dress,
as if they could see through the loose fabric to her creation underneath. Others
stayed keenly focused on their cards or dice. The air bristled with knife-sharp
tension. She scanned the tables for Martino, then left quickly.
Once she pushed open the door of the third tavern, she knew she should have
looked there first. The floor was clean-swept, and the table games were marked
with good-natured laughter. Most of the patrons looked much like her
husband--young men relaxing from their day's work before returning home to their
Martino was at the bar at the far end of the room, and she had to pass by each
table before she reached him. Conversation stilled. By now she had learned to
walk as though she carried a secret that everyone wanted to hear. A slight smile
crossed her lips at the feel of the lace on her skin. Only she knew it was
there, but every man who saw her watched and guessed.
"Martino." She spoke softly, but in the silence, the word had the
power of a summons.
turned and, for a moment, didn't seem to recognize her, though she wore the same
style as always. "Orsetta?"
At first, his expression made it clear that he wasn't sure whether to be proud,
embarrassed, or angry about her appearance at the tavern. Then he softened.
"I'm sorry you had to come here. I'm seeking help with repairs--that last
storm near finished the mast, you know, and any man does his best bargaining
over ale, so I came here, and I've just been...
She wondered why he sounded so uncomfortable--until she looked down. The
breeches he wore were loose, but not loose enough to hide the slight bulge that
grew as she watched.
Face reddening, Martino turned to the barkeep. "Your upstairs rooms?"
The man smiled knowingly. "First at the stair-top's open, if you
Martino fumbled with the cloth bag at his waist, produced a few coins, and slid
them across the bar. The man pocketed them with a nod, then turned back to his
The room was coarse--a roughly-carved bed, scratched table, bare window, low
fire--but neither noticed. Martino embraced her with a passion unlike him, then
slid his hands under her dress, cupping her buttocks with a firm, savoring
"What do you wear underneath?" he murmured, and she stripped off the
linen and showed him.
His fingers wandered over the lace, touching cloth and skin in fluttering
strokes. He shed his tunic, then his breeches, groaning when she reached to
grasp the member now jutting freely at his hips.
"Where do they make such things that enchant men?" he asked, tracing
a finger along the curve of one breast.
"I made it. Today. From that lace... I thought..." She couldn't find
any other words; his hands were rapidly stealing them from her.
He brushed his fingertips over the lace at her hips; it seemed to waft away like
mist. "You've been in the sun."
"At the shore," she said, pulling him onto the bed. "The ocean...
I never understood before--why you loved it--more than me sometimes--"
"Never more than you." He pulled away enough to look down at her, and
she saw sudden pain in his eyes. "I never meant for it to seem that way.
They say the sea's a mistress--I didn't think it could be for us, but seeing you
down there... I felt like I hadn't seen you in months, and the truth is I
He kissed her mouth, her throat, her breasts; the lace slipped away easily.
"Orsetta, I've had no other but the sea--and from this night I'll have her
no longer, not before you, never before you..."
Here, at last, was the man she'd wed; here was the promise that what they'd had
could be restored. The ocean would belong to both of them now, a love to share
and be filled by anew.
She tasted salt on her tongue as his heat moved in her. They could never stop
the waves that rushed at them, the demands of time and coin; she couldn't keep
him with her every moment, but in the sweet clarity of their joining, she felt
the love of the shore for the tide--the knowing, deeper than thought, that told
her he would always be hers, would always come back, no matter what else pulled
She arched her back, moving her hips in time with his. The lace was no longer
lace, but a flowing mist that caressed them, drenched them, took their breath,
pulled them deeper. Below them, the tavern rang with song and laughter, sounding
more and more distant as her gasps grew closer.
He kissed her, breathed her name, urged her on. "They'll hear," she
"Let them," he said, laughing. "Let them hear how a man should
love his wife."
They moved toward it together, their bodies striving to somehow be even closer,
until she could resist no longer, until a low, ecstatic cry welled in her
throat, until climax shook them both and the last wave bathed her in warmth.
A light breeze cooled their skin as they rested, and Martino brushed her damp
hair from her forehead. "I feel as though we were just wed," he
Orsetta smiled. "I think we were, again."
She rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes, drifting into satisfied
sleep. Far away from their bed, far from the room and the tavern, beyond the
shore and across the sea, she could hear the queen of the mermaids singing
quietly for joy.
Carter Hall's speculative erotica has appeared in *Clean Sheets* and *Blue Food*
and is forthcoming in *Matriarch's Way* and *Best Women's Erotica 2002*. She
lives in Virginia with her husband.