Bridging the Divide
Every few months during the last six years, Prudence would find a quiet evening and surface in the Thames to see the progress that had been made on Tower Bridge. She had wanted to watch the bridge's official opening by the Prince and Princess of Wales, but that was not to be, as she could never surface during daylight. The best she was ever able to manage, when the sun was out, was sunset.
On the eve of the 10th of July, 1894, she surfaced again. She had not been quite aware of the date herself, but when she saw the bridge, it was clear to her that she had missed the opening by a few days at least. Rather than let herself become saddened by this realisation, she simply marvelled at the completed construction. It was a sight unlike any other she had encountered previously. The only thing she felt was missing was someone to share it with.
She had to a certain extent made friends with other mermaids, but venturing to the surface was always a solo endeavour. Capturing men, Miranda always said, was easier to do alone. Not that this was the sole reason Prudence would travel to the surface. In fact, it was so rare of her to do that she had often been labelled the least successful mermaid in her community. The days she didn't return to her community with a man in tow, she would wear a social pariah badge until she did.
Prudence was none too concerned about the name-calling, or she might have bothered to change her ways. In this instance, her trip to Tower Bridge had been preceded by two subsequent abduction journeys. She figured that would buy her a bit of time to be away without another one. Yet, marvelling at the structure alone did not bring her as much joy as she'd hoped.
As she began to consider why, Prudence heard a vague scurrying noise coming from the south bank of the Thames. When she looked over, she saw a woman shriek. Prudence admired the woman's long red silk skirt and fashionable black corset. It was certainly not what a woman should be wearing while wandering through London alone at that time of day – that is, unless she wanted to be noticed.
Against her better judgement, Prudence swam closer to the woman, who had managed to calm herself down a little, though continued to stare in one place.
“Are you well?” Prudence called up at her.
The woman only took her eyes off the spot for a moment to look at Prudence, but it was so brief that it didn't seem to even register that she would be responding to a voice in the river.
“I saw a rat,” the woman replied.
Prudence smirked a little before suggesting, “If you joined me in the water, you would not have to concern yourself with rats.”
Those words better got the woman's attention. They drew her to the river and caused her to ask, “What in the world are you doing in there?”
Prudence shrugged, and confidently threw herself backwards, exposing her tail, then dived under the water before surfacing again.
“And to think I'd thought I'd seen everything before,” the woman said. She crouched down at the water's edge and waited for Prudence to swim closer to her. “That does not, however, explain why you're in the Thames.”
“I wanted to see Tower Bridge completed,” Prudence informed her. “Do you know how long it has been since the opening?”
“Hmm,” the woman pondered for a moment, and started counting on her fingers. “Ten days, I believe.”
“Thank you,” Prudence said, looking at the bridge again. “It is quite a sight.” She turned her attention back to the woman. “And what are you doing out so late?”
She smirked, as if the answer should be obvious. Then she whispered, “I am... a lady of the night.”
“Ah,” Prudence said in understanding. “Are you friends with other ladies of your... profession?”
“Some, yes,” she nodded. “When they don't disappear.”
“I am sorry to hear that, though that does lead me to my next question... Did you ever know one by the name of Grace Franklin?”
With a confused expression, the woman responded, “Yes... she disappeared some months ago. How did you know?”
“She is... how do I say this? One of our new recruits.”
“Wait a moment,” the woman said, and changed to a sitting position, presumably out of discomfort from the crouching. “She is a woman of the seas now? Like you?”
“How can that be? Are you not born that way?”
Prudence shook her head this time, and replied, “No. Grace was murdered. We were all murdered.”
The woman gasped. When Prudence did not react, she asked, “How can you be so calm about it?”
“That was many, many years ago for me now. I was murdered in sixteen fifty-one. And yet, I still live. Thus, I bear no ill will toward my murderer. She has paid for her sins.” Then Prudence added with a smile, “Had she not killed me, I would not have lived to see that awe-inspiring bridge.”
“That does sound like a better life for Grace than the one she had up here.” The woman smiled solemnly, and added, “Can I ask a favour?”
The mermaid nodded again.
“Can you tell her I'm glad to know she's alive?” The woman paused to take a deep breath, and said, “And that I miss her... so if it is not too much, could she, too, visit me?”
Inside, Prudence felt a pang of sadness, but on the surface she would not show it. “For whom should I tell her to look?” she asked.
“Mary. Mary Lewis. Thank you.”
Prudence stretched a smile across her face and closed her eyes, attempting to hide the feeling she got from the knowledge that she would not deliver Mary's message to Grace. The awareness of the fact she knew it was not possible to talk to the others about her dalliances on the surface that were not as part of an obligatory endeavour.
“It is time I go now,” Prudence said. “Thank you for sharing your time with me. If we meet again, may it not be under the sea.”
Prudence did not wait for a response from Mary. She felt too guilty, even though she technically did not promise her anything. The only way she thought she might alleviate the guilt was to find Grace's murderer, and seduce him into the sea. Perhaps, she thought, if she returned with him, maybe then she could relay Mary's message.
As Prudence swam east, thoughts filled her mind about why she had never before thought to use her power for a noble cause such as bringing a murderer to justice. Had any others of her kind attempted such a feat?
She supposed it had never occurred to her before as her murderer had been a woman, and her power works differently on the female kind. Never mind that had she been able to lure Jacqueline to the sea, it would not have been for noble reasons. It would have been out of revenge, and she managed that just fine with the power she did possess.
With that revenge came regret, as it led to Prudence losing her only love, Katherine – again. It took her many more years to comprehend how Jacqueline could justify killing her. Unlike Prue, Jacqueline could not stand the idea of sharing her beloved Katherine. For Jacqueline, getting rid of Prudence permanently probably seemed like the only way of accomplishing that.
Was that what Prudence herself had done? She still understood the necessity of sharing Katherine, for a human could never completely be with a mermaid. Jacqueline was different, though. For a long time Prudence thought Jacqueline deserved the revenge she took on her. It wasn't worth it in the end.
Closing her eyes to shed the memory of what she had done to Jacqueline, Prudence instead focused on wondering how hard it would be to locate someone else's murderer. After the initial shock of her circumstance, Grace had talked a little about what happened to her, but the description of the man was not a lot to go on. He wore a large brown cloak, and had both dark hair and eyes.
The only other thing Prudence could remember Grace saying about him was how he rejoiced in the number of prostitutes he'd killed. Considering how many mermaids had been added to their number in the last few years, who had engaged in such activities when they were human, this man had probably murdered most of the ones that originated in London, if not all of England.
Realising this helped Prudence formulate her plan to track him down. First, though, she would need clothes.
Breaching the surface, Prue saw that she had travelled too far. There were no houses around, just plains. That would not do. Heading west again, she swam below the surface of the Thames, checking every little while to see if she had reached a town, or even London again.
Before she met either, her body overcame her. Prue's tail stiffened first, dragging her down to the sand below, before freezing the rest of her body so that time could not penetrate it.
Hours passed before Prue was free to move again. Some called it a curse, others a rejuvenating shell, but in reality being frozen in time was a defence mechanism to prevent mermaids from seeing the harsh daylight, for the sun could not forgive a mermaid's sins. The only safe rays they could expose themselves to were as the sun had already begun to set.
The brief glimpses of pinks and purples radiating from the remaining sunlight that penetrated the water – visible to only a mermaid's eye – told Prudence that it was still too early for her to breach if she wanted to avoid being seen. She swam a little farther, but did not want to risk bypassing her destination, and so she settled down on a rock below her and waited for the moon.
Prudence found it hard to stop thinking about how many men she might have to meet before she would encounter Grace's murderer. It would perhaps be both a blessing and curse to find him on her first try. Having never physically been with a man, she was not particularly looking forward to it.
As the shades of colour faded and were replaced by black sky and white moonlight, Prue followed her intuition – or, rather, the thoughts of a woman locking up her store. Lifting herself up onto the bank, Prue's eyes closed and brow furrowed. The blue scales of her tail began to fade away and blend into her peach-coloured skin. Legs replaced the tail, and feet devoured her fins.
It had been some time since Prudence had last walked on land, and so she stumbled a lot as she tried to walk. The crisp air lapped at her naked body, and she let out a whimper, causing the woman whose thoughts she'd been hearing to look at her.
“Oh my goodness,” the old woman said, rushing over to Prudence. “Girl, you had better come with me or you'll catch a death of cold.”
Though Prue was twenty-two when she died, and over two-hundred and fifty now, she couldn't help but smile at being called a girl. She knew she did not look a day over eighteen.
The old woman threw her shawl over Prudence's shoulders and led her to the store.
After unlocking the door and inviting Prudence in, the old woman lit a candle in a lantern and introduced herself, “I'm Caroline.”
“Prue,” said the mermaid.
“Whatever were you doing undressed out there?” Caroline asked, looking through the skirts she had on display.
Caroline's unsaid thoughts, to which Prue continued to listen, told her, Probably another one of those streetwalkers. This girl is lucky I found her before Jack did.
Though she didn't know what Jack Caroline's thoughts were about, Prudence couldn't help being reminded of Jacqueline. She, too, went by that name. Is this the time period to where she had been sent? It seemed unlikely that it was the same one.
Her thoughts having revealed her sympathy toward prostitutes, Prudence decided it was easiest for her to identify as such. “I had been enjoying the company of a man, though he threw me out without a thing to wear when I accidentally bit him.”
Caroline nodded solemnly. “You are too young for this life,” she said. “Have you not heard of Jack? He especially likes the young, blonde ones like you.”
An image of Grace entered Prue's mind, with her long blonde hair and blue eyes that looked like death had touched them. Could it be this Jack who took her life?
“Pray tell, do you know this… Jack?”
“Only whispers of stories,” Caroline said, and handed her a pretty blue skirt. “Here, put this on.”
Caroline moved on to rummaging through the corsets she stocked while Prudence did as she was instructed.
“I have not heard them myself.” Prudence tightened the skirt with the ribbon at the back of it. “If he is someone I need to be wary of, then please, explain your warning.”
Choosing a fine blue satin corset covered with black flower print lace – which nicely matched the skirt Prudence donned – Caroline brought it around to her and began fitting Prudence inside it before she began to spin the tale.
“It has been said that often a lady of the night goes missing once she has met with Jack. No one knows to where they disappear, as no body has ever returned. Neither living, nor dead.”
“How does one identify him if she should see him?” Prudence asked, trying not to squeak as Caroline pulled the corset ever tighter.
Caroline seemed deep in thought as she finished tying the corset behind Prudence. She didn't respond until she turned Prudence around to face her. Though the old woman was about half a foot shorter than Prue, and had to look up to meet her eyes, she spoke with an air of such authority that Prudence couldn't help feeling like she was being mothered.
“They say his eyes are void of life, as dark as the devil himself. Yet his true colours are not revealed until it is too late to escape.”
“Then how could one know he has such eyes if none have ever lived to tell of it?” It was a valid question, but Caroline didn't seem to appreciate the mocking. It didn't show on her face, but Prudence could read it in her mind.
“You may jest now, but if you go back out there tonight, you had still best beware.”
Having no undergarments in the store, the final items Caroline provided Prudence with were a pair of stockings, and shoes.
“You are most gracious,” Prudence said, thanking Caroline with a bow of her head. “I had best be off now, but I will take care not to allow Jack to be gone with me.”
Caroline shook her head, not believing Prudence could leave after hearing her words. Naturally, Prudence could not explain why she was not afraid. She would hunt him down and she would win. That is, unless Jack was the devil himself.
Prudence had been walking the alleys for hours, reading the thoughts of every man she passed, but not one spared a moment to consider what she'd look like dead. The few who were immediately enchanted by her appearance were brushed away as only wanting her in bed with them.
She wished there were an easier way to lock on to Jack's mind, like she could do with Katherine. That was moderately simple primarily because she knew Katherine's mind. Jack was a man she had never previously encountered. If she did not find him tonight, she would have to find somewhere to leave her new clothes and return to the Thames to try again another day. She could not stay on land for much longer, as dawn would be there before she knew it.
Suddenly, Prue felt a hand grab her buttocks and twirl her around. The man – whose only identifying feature was that he wore a top hat – pulled her in close to him and licked his tongue up the side of her face. Prue cringed, shutting her eyes.
The shock of it all rendered her temporarily unable to act, until her mermaid defences kicked in. Her mouth opened and out spilled her haunting siren song, mesmerising the man into inaction. As he stood frozen in the street, while she continued to sing, Prue analysed his features. There was no cloak, let alone a brown one, and the man had green eyes. This was not Jack.
Sighing in her head so as not to interrupt her song, Prudence wandered off and made sure she was far enough away that he could not chase her before she was comfortable closing her mouth again.
Turning down another street, a man in a brown cloak, clearly shaking himself out of a mesmerised daze caught her eye. Could this be Jack?
Prudence adjusted her walk, swinging her hips more than usual, and upturning her lips as she walked toward him. The man's thoughts began to penetrate her own mind.
What a supple body. Mmm, what I could do with her. Those lips. That flesh. His eyes opened wide. They were dark, but not yet devoid of life. And those blonde curls would be the perfect addition to my collection.
This had to be the man Prudence was looking for. This had to be Jack. Assuming his previous daze had been caused by her, and not wanting to risk danger to herself, she immediately began her siren song again. To her horror, the man continued to walk toward her.
Perhaps he is the devil himself, she thought. The only thing she could do now was go along with him and hope to lead him to the Thames.
The man pressed his body against Prudence, pushing her against a stone wall.
“Jack,” she whispered, wanting him to know she knew his identity.
“Mmm,” he groaned, nuzzling his face into her hair next to her ear. He, too, whispered, though in a Liverpool accent. “So you know who I am.”
“I've been looking for you.”
“Have you, my dear?” He pressed a hand upon her breast, flicking his thumb under the top of her corset. “And why might you have been doing that?”
Prudence took Jack's hand away from her corset, holding it firmly in her own. “Let me show you,” she said.
There was hunger in his eyes, but the longer Prudence stared into them, the less forceful he was with her. The space between Jack's body and her own grew, until he said, “OK.”
Being unfamiliar with the streets, it took Prudence a little while to get her bearings right, but eventually she was able to lead Jack to the bank of the Thames without the help of her siren's song.
When she got a glimpse of Tower Bridge, she couldn't help leading him up there. This could be her last chance to bask in its sight, and what better way to enjoy its majesty than to set foot on it?
Jack's thoughts continued as they walked. I can't wait to lift up that skirt and taste her flesh. How delicious it will be to savour one who has asked for it above all others. She better show me what she wants soon or I'm going to have to fetch my knife before she has the chance…
Once in the middle of the bridge, Prudence leaned against the railing and removed her shoes. Slightly stunned that he had not attacked her along the way, given how his mind strayed, she closed her eyes and held her breath while she kissed him lightly on his lips. She needed him to follow her just a little further.
Prudence flaunted her breast by fingering her cleavage, then whispered in Jack's ear, “Are you ready?”
Licking his lips, Jack nodded.
Placing an arm on the railing, Prudence said, “Lift me up here.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, “I like the danger.”
Jack's mind went crazy. She is begging for it. I like the way this girl thinks. He took her by her waist and lifted her onto the railing. Prudence spread her legs and raised her skirt, revealing her smooth prize.
Savouring the sight a moment, Jack's mind fell silent. Then he undid his trousers, grabbed one hand around Prue's waist, and the other her hair. Before he could get inside her, Prudence fell backwards into the Thames, pulling Jack with her.
Prudence was careful when she brought Jack back to her community. She made sure that the first mermaid she encountered was Grace. It was important for her to see Grace's reaction and know she had the right man.
When Grace caught sight of Jack, her eyes were wide with fear, and she immediately swam in the opposite direction, before coming to her senses. Prudence was sure Grace realised he could not hurt her there.
Upon swimming back to Prudence, Grace cocked her head, surveying Prue. “You know who he is, don't you?”
Prue nodded. “It is my gift to you.”
“Thank you,” Grace said. As mermaids could not read each other's minds, Grace followed on instinct instead, and added, “There's something more, isn't there?”
“I…” Prudence wasn't sure if she could tell Grace the rest, but the pleading in her eyes prevented her from doing otherwise. “I met your friend, Mary Lewis.”
Grace was taken aback. She placed a hand on her naked chest, clearly holding a memory in her heart. “Mary was more than a friend.”
Propping a hand on Grace's shoulder, Prudence smiled sweetly at her and said, “I thought she might have been.”
Memories of her time with Katherine flooded Prue's mind. Though she had not been honest with anyone about how she had spent her early years as a mermaid, and though she had to give Katherine up in the end, she would not have changed those memories if given the option.
“Go to her,” Prue prompted. “She misses you.”
Grace's salty tears blended immediately with the ocean. “Thank you,” she said again, and swam away.
In the months that passed, Prudence wondered what became of Grace, for she never returned to the mermaid community. She could only hope that she was enjoying the time she had left with her lover. It was better than assuming worse. The alternative was that she stayed on land too long, and the sun took her.
Sometimes Prudence herself dreamed of letting the sun take her. But the thought of perhaps one day seeing her beloved Katherine again had too strong a hold on her.
Dominica Malcolm has university qualifications in Media Production and Internet Computing. When she writes, she leans toward screenwriting, speculative fiction, and blogging about her travels. Whilst she currently lives and raises her two children in Malaysia, she's originally from Australia, and was born to Americans. Her story for Plunge, Bridging the Divide, is a glimpse into the world of her upcoming novel, Adrift, which follows Jacqueline and includes both Katherine and Prudence. You can find out more about Dominica on her web site, or follow her on Facebook.