The Copper-Haired Girl

Submitted into Contest #192 in response to: Write about someone finding a treasure in an unexpected place.... view prompt

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Fiction LGBTQ+ Romance

My sea-green eyes marvel at the azure sky, as the sun bronzes my freckled skin. Hot and translucent blue; it is like I am standing at the core of a flame.

Seagulls waft and squawk above, jousting for the product of last night’s rain; wiggling pink worms—I must remember to collect some on my way back for bait.

“Do you smell that?” Burgess is leaning on the weathered signpost at the top of the steps. He tilts up his bulbous nose and takes two audible sniffs. “Fish, brine, and despair—the copper-haired girl must be here...”

His scrawny-limbed ‘henchmen’ on either side of him shake their bellies with laughter, like drunk sailors singing a shanty. I pull my weaved net of fresh oysters closer to my body, and try to look past the boorish boys. The wet ropes brush against my bare midriff; chilling but familiar.

I feel like a fresh carcass in my asymmetric, aquamarine linen skirt and violet bandeau, with their hungry eyes watching me like crows. But I keep on forward, stepping barefoot on the cobblestone stairs up to town.

It’s a short but steep walk from the beach. The closer to the shore, the more cracked and crumbly the road, until it cuts off and turns to sand, where most townspeople don’t dare to go—the water is too rough, the rocks are too sharp. But it is where I call home.

“Go back to the water, fish-girl!” One of them yells, spitting. It hits my cheek near my eye; I can see it in my peripheral. I don’t move to wipe it, I just keep walking, looking down at the stones as they grow more structured and polished. I’m almost into town now.

If I can make it to the market—just past that emerald banner strung between the thatched roofs of the Shellshine Inn and Scuttle’s general store—then I’ll be safe. Enough vendors will want to purchase my oysters to protect me long enough for a sale.

“Just leave me alone, Burgess. I don’t want to get you all soaked...” I gently sway my sodden tote down my shoulder, enough to let a few droplets of water fall in his direction. He looks down at the tiny puddles like they are stained tears. Then he looks up and growls.

“Get ‘er,” he orders. The ‘henchmen’ follow. I spin on my calloused heels and make for the stairs. I leap between them panther-like, cautious in the slippery moss and damp rocks left by my leaky bag.

They’re heading to the left—as always—to cut me off at the dock. For boys who hate the ocean, they sure love throwing me and all of my belongings into it. So, this time, I run zigzag to the right; maybe I can hide in the rocks of the peninsula. The water is rough there; one wrong step and you’d be pulled into a jagged death.

I haven’t been to the point much since I was a kid—never close to the water, anyway. When I was nine, my parents were fishing out there when it started raining. They got swept into the rock peaks and drowned.

I was devastated, at first, but then I was determined to survive. I wouldn’t let their memory be washed away with me and our home. They could only afford this shack back then, and seven years later, I still can only afford this watershed. But at least it’s up and running. I fish sea bass everyday, gather oysters and muscles by the shore. I cook my own food, fetch my own well-water, and sell crabs to the palace chef himself. Yet, these arrogant imps show me no respect.

“There she is!” One of the boys says. They found me. Quick! I run up the peninsula until there’s water on both sides of me. But the gang follows me up until I’m cornered by the base of a rock ledge. I take little steps back, trying to grip the stones with my toes.

Burgess jumps and clobbers me with his big hands. I fall on my hip. Crunch! Oyster shell shards dig into my side. They pin me on my stomach and hold my head over the waters edge, my nose resting on the glassy down-tide. Then the waves flood in and sting my eyes. Burgess hangs me closer until my head is fully submerged. I slowly blow bubbles; I can’t breathe.

I do not panic though.

The thing is, after my parents drowned, I made sure I swam every day. I trained until I was Olympic. Now I can hold my breath for up to six minutes, and I can swim for hours before my limbs give out.

My body is submerged up to my shoulders when something silver catches my eye in the darkness of the ocean floor. I pull myself closer as they push me down farther. Finally, I flop myself off the ledge and dive under. I use my feet like fins and catapult myself to the depths below; a glinting light leads me into a small hole, like a burrow, filled with gleaming, glittering odds and ends. It’s my silver hair brush; I snatch it up. I had been looking for it all week. It was what my mother used to comb my hair with as a young girl.

And hey, that’s my broken flower pot. Those are my fish hooks! Some forks, a thimble, a crushed stopwatch, and a necklace with all the gems missing...

“Thief!” Says a beautiful voice, clear and melodically as if spoken from a stage. From behind a rock swims a woman—no, a fish... a girl with purple iridescent fins... a mermaid! My mouth gapes and bubbles escape. I shut it quickly and dodge the creature as she snatches at my hair brush.

I kick my legs at sonic speed and swim out from the burrow and away from the peninsula, back towards my dock. I’m underwater long enough for the boys to have given up.

I reach for the rotten wooden ladder that descends into the water, and begin to climb with the silver brush in between my teeth. The merlady grabs the back of my skirt and tugs it, pulling me down under. A head of golden blonde hair emerges then, and I send a wave of water towards her face with the palm of my hand.

“What the hell?” I yell.

“You stole my thing-a-ma-jiggy!”

“This? This is mine! All that stuff back in your little ‘stockpile’ is mine.”

“But I found it, it was washed into sea.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s yours,” I snap.

She pouts. I wave the silver brush in the air away from her. “Why do you want my junk anyway?”

“Junk? Didn’t you look at that stuff? Isn’t it neat!”

“No... It’s not.”

She frowns. “Well, it will be when my collection’s complete.”

I sigh. “You can have all that crap if it means that much to you. But not this one.”

“Oh, why is that one real treasure?”

“Yes... Well, no; not like gold and diamonds and stuff. But it’s special—to me.”

She scrunches up her perfect tiny nose. “Gold and diamonds? Why would you want that junk? It’s everywhere down there...” She motions below. “... so tacky.”

“Huh?” I pause, then have an idea. “Okay, well then why don’t you trade me some of your ‘tacky’ jewels, for some of my... ‘neat’ junk?”

“Hmm, maybe. Actually—” she ponders. “There is a land treasure I desire... It doesn’t belong to you, however... but, perhaps? Yes! Brilliant!”

I cling to the edge of the dock still, reddish hair sticking to my cheeks. I look back at the mermaid and await her request. “I am in love with the princess,” she says flatly. “You see, I saved her from drowning in that bad storm on Monday. She was swimming out from the castle’s private beach, when the wind picked up and the waves grew too strong for her to fight. I carried her ashore and swam away as a castle guard shouted nearby. I told her my name, and she gazed into my eyes, cypress flecked with gold. But I should have kissed her. I should have shown her what I am. I got scared and missed my shot, and it’s not like I can just walk up to the palace doors and knock. And I’ve tried hanging around the castle lagoon, but it’s far too shallow... listen, Red—”

 “—My name is Elle.”

“Oh. I’m Aries.” She smiles. “Elle, if you could get the princess to come see me, down here by the shore, I will make sure you want for nothing ever again.”

I consider her offer. It’s not a simple task. But I’ve never been one to give up before trying. We shake on it and seal it with a gulp of salty seawater: fisherman’s oath. Then I dry off, change into a dry navy skirt, and comb my rusty-gold hair back into a blue ribbon.

The walk up to town is easy this time, Burgess and his pals aren’t expecting me to try again until the busyness of late afternoon. But once I cross the emerald-banner threshold, I keep my eyes open.

The townsfolk walk past me like I am fish chum. Few look me up and down and scrunch their noses, but nobody says anything. They’re afraid of me, but not because I am penniless. The truth is, very few of them know how to swim. In contrast, I am a frightening enigma.

Just then, I hear two things: the horses of the royal carriage ‘clip-clopping’ in the distance, and the sniggering laugh of Burgess and company.

I dart into one of the alleys between a pastry shop and a sword-sharpening place. But their footsteps become louder.

“Well, well, well...” Burgess says. “Back again already, and empty handed. Do you have a death wish, fish-freak?”

I back up, edging towards the parallel street. I hear hooves, wheels on slate. Burgess reaches out to grab me.

The carriage swerves around the corner and on instinct, I jump out in front. My skirt tears as my knees scrape the granite. The charcoal horses stop abruptly, centimetres from my face, and a woman in a lavender lace gown exits. Delicate pale pink heels tap towards me. I look up. She’s wearing a large pastel hat with feathers that shield most of her face. But I see pale skin and rosy lips and tufts of golden brown hair.

“Princess Erika,” I whisper. The sun illuminates her silhouette like a halo. I don’t see the boys scatter, but I hear their heavy boot-thuds and frantic blubbering as they hurry away from the carriage.

“Are you okay?” She asks, voice like butter. I stare at her in shock, utter speechlessness. “Can you speak?” She asks after a moment. I stare at her mutely; I’ve lost my voice momentarily.

“Oh, yeah...um... actually... No! I’m not okay. I don’t think I’ll be able to walk back to my house.” I pretend to writhe in pain. “I live on the docks by the west. You must help me get down there,” I plead.

 “Oh, of course, dear girl,” The princess coos. She helps me to my feet. I pretend to limp towards her carriage as she helps me in. Inside, it is fuscia velvet and a wreath of fresh pink roses. I suddenly feel wary of my torn clothes and fishy scent.

“Listen...” I begin, as the carriage takes off. The horses trot the long way down to the beach, avoiding the steep drop-off steps. “...my name is Elle. I wanted to talk to you about the woman who saved you the other day...”

“Aries?” Her eyes light up.

“Yes, she wants to see you. But just to prepare you, she is a—”

“Oh joy!” She cheers, cutting me off. I try to speak once more, but she begins to sing a silly little tune about love and dancing on the ocean floor.

I decide to wait and let her figure it out for herself...which doesn’t take long.

We arrive in front of my docks and I lead princess Erika over to the back of the house where the waves crash loudly, and the rocks stick out like ocean fangs.

I am not sure what I expected. A shriek? A harpoon? A scrunched-up nose and a ‘fish-freak’ joke?

Something. But not an embrace between land and water.

“My darling, if only there was a way I could be with you all the time.” The princess holds the mermaid's hands.

“Perhaps there is...” Aries begins. “What if you lived here?”

Erika looks around at my shabby hut. To my surprise, she smiles. “Brilliant!”

You wanna live in this shack?” I ask, not at all convinced.

“Well, to you it’s a shack... but to me... it’s a portal to my beloved.”

I roll my eyes. It’s still a shack. “What about me? Where will I live?”

Princess Erika pauses. “The castle! You can pretend to be me, and I’ll live here. You won’t have to do anything, just wave from a balcony occasionally in a pretty dress. You’d never have to leave the castle, and you would have access to your own beach on the south end of the island, where the sea-foam licks the sand in gentle sweeps. Besides, the palace staff will keep our secret... rather than admit I've run off with a....”

“Won’t the townspeople recognize me?”

“With your hair pulled back and some makeup on, you’ll play it off no problem. Plus, when I stand in the sun, my hair almost looks a little copper like yours.”

I pretend I’m not immediately sold. I take my time.

“Okay,” I agree. “But under one condition...”

She nods encouragingly. “...You make a new law stating that everyone in your kingdom must learn how to swim.”

The princess smiles. “Done. You can announce it tomorrow morning...your highness.”

April 07, 2023 23:40

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4 comments

Amanda Lieser
06:06 Apr 25, 2023

Hi Laura! What a fun spend on the prompt! I completely agree with some of the other comments that the best part about the story was the twist on classic fairytale, and I also really liked this. Left the door open for a sequel. I think that you did a really good job of creating outstanding characters who felt rich and soul. I also really liked that the piece was able to transport with such imaginative language!

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Emory Pearson
11:18 Apr 13, 2023

Hi Laura, You have some descriptive powers! I really enjoyed the scene you laid out, it involved all the senses and I felt like I was standing barefoot on a salty dock. I’m on the fence about your decision to use character names paralleling those of “The Little Mermaid”; on the one hand it pays homage to the classic tale you turned on its head but it also takes away from your unique voice. I loved that the love birds in this were two women and that the ending was reminiscent of another classic fairy tale. I felt this was a great mash-up of t...

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Russell Mickler
14:56 Apr 09, 2023

Hey there, Laura - Your voice in this piece is haunting, and I loved the abuse of semi-colons - I’m a fan! “I feel like a fresh carcass in my asymmetric, aquamarine linen skirt and violet bandeau, with their hungry eyes watching me like crows.” Gasp (hand to heart), this was beautiful. The “thing-a-ma-jiggy” sounded like Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid, but you started real a real Hans Christian Andersen somberness - to me, this detracts from that haunting voice I was feeling earlier … just a thought. Okay, I have to say th...

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Delbert Griffith
10:40 Apr 09, 2023

A delightful fantasy tale with a decent resolution. I would have liked to have seen the bullies get their due, but it was a fun tale nonetheless. Well written and enjoyable, Laura. Cheers!

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