• Vol. 05
  • Chapter 11
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The Court At Sea

Also inspired by and referencing Joan Aiken's short story ‘A Harp of Fish Bones' and the Finnish epic folk poem The Kalevala.

The girl I love made a harp of fish bones. She caught the oldest, wiliest pike and as it thrashed for breath on the ground she studied the bend of the spine. When it lay still she plucked its eyes and stripped its flesh and chewed them as she trimmed and softened the shards of its bones, ordering them longest to shortest and fitting them in place as unwilling strings. She boiled the skin to glue and used it to bind the harp’s shape.

I asked what she would do with the fish scales that had scattered like sharp mirrored petals, and she gave them to me and said, 'Do as you please.' No string player, me, but I could keep a beat, so I threaded the scales onto long grass to make bells, and I followed her where she played and rang her into every town.

Her renown grew. When she played she could bring to the listener the sound of a snow-melt swollen torrent washing spring into the fields, or it the light trickle of a summer stream. A single hanging plucked note could cause a listener to forget the drought.

A letter arrived one day from the Court At Sea.

'We understand a distant cousin contributed to the harp,' said the invitation, 'and we would like to hear you play.' My harpist, tone deaf to anything but music, agreed to go. I chimed her into the Coral Crown Room, where a shimmer of gills and fins shimmer watched us enter unblinkingly. My bells faltered to silence but they had eyes only for the harp.

‘Play,’ commanded the Royals, all rainbow colours.


The Court At Sea

But when she played something was wrong. She played as if she could not feel what was under her fingers. As she grew more agitated bubbles floated from her mouth and carried the song she was trying to play to the surface where the seabirds took it. The harp began to twist under her hands, and the bones slid and moved, and by the time she stopped playing she was holding the skeleton of the pike.

‘My harp doesn’t work here,’ said my harpist, boldly. ‘It sees no need to bring the music of the deep to a place it always plays.’

‘We have paid you handsomely, for a show,’ said the Royals. ‘How would you resolve this?’

My harpist sighed, and saw the bubble with her sigh in it drift out into the water with a tone that called to mind green woods and moss and rich dark soil. I saw her consider, her eyes lit on me – a creature of dryland, holding fishscale bells.

My sigh matched hers and through the water it carried the shush of wheat fields rippling under a hot and bright sun.

My hair is long, my back straight, my ribs slender. I love my harpist and I will sing for the Court At Sea for as long as she will touch me.