Linda McMullen

Seasickness overtook me on my first voyage, a pleasure-cruise to baptize the Queen’s new ship. I heaved over the side. My bile formed the shape of a mermaid’s tail on the water.

A tall, bearded man in uniform offered me a handkerchief. I looked up; I caught my breath; my heart strings thrummed.

The captain appeared at court that evening. I – like the other debutantes – had curtsied to the Queen in white satin, and, I, like them, took my turn to perform. I caught the captain’s eye… smiled… and glowed as I sang the aria of the queen of the night, imparting her dying wish that her lover would claim her before daybreak. Afterward: golden silence, then rapturous applause.

“You stole the voice of a siren,” the captain murmured in my ear.

You stole my heart from my breast.

The Queen congratulated me, saying she hoped to hear me sing again. My giddy ears could only follow the sounds of the captain’s footsteps as he approached to kiss my hand.

The next day he sought my parents’ permission to squire me about town, to picnics, parties, and balls. They reasoned that his distinguished career atoned amply for his birth, so off we went: he took me everywhere. (Indeed, one night he took me to a discreet hotel, and I joyfully relinquished my maidenhood. After that, as I say, he took me everywhere.)

Except on his ship: the merest rocking rendered me queasy.

Meanwhile, the Queen had not forgotten me.

The Opera Director called on my parents to convey her command. They protested, saying I was a lady, not some mere stage-strumpet. The man returned pointedly that it was the Queen’s particular wish.

Naturally my captain had had to go to sea again. Amidst endless rehearsals, I missed him tenderly. I felt the full force of his absence during my arias, voicing my fathomless longing. But when the applause began… when the Opera’s rafters trembled with the crowd’s adoration… I floated beyond the moon and stars…

My captain returned in time for the final performance, and crowned me with water lilies.

We resumed our previous engagements – chaste and otherwise – in a season of delight. But the weather turned, and the Queen’s thoughts drifted toward her winter residence.

The captain and I sat on the pier, our legs dangling vainly. He was due to leave again on the morrow. The Queen had ordered me to attend her – a thousand miles inland.

“Daphne – marry me, my darling.”

My heart broke upon the waves.

“I love you,” I said, “but you are a marine creature, and I, a terrestrial animal. It is not fair for either of us to pretend otherwise.”

We parted. I surrendered to my anguish.

At the Queen’s court, my grief transfigured my music, giving it a resonant, glorious cadence.

I alternated between the capital and the winter palace, occasionally returning to the opera for public performances.

Once in every great while, I found water lilies in my dressing room.

Linda McMullen