From the author: A young man selling trinkets in the Paris summer makes an unusual discovery.
Siddiq had been working the river for a few weeks when he started noticing shouts about the robberies. It was pickpockets, targeting the boats that ran up and down the water every ten or fifteen minutes. The tourists would get off the vessels, go to the stalls for trinkets and post cards and then realise that their wallet was gone.
Siddiq didn't exactly mind. Some of the tourists were ugly people, nippy and mean eyed as they went past. He understood that not all of them wanted to buy things, and he understood that he was far from the only person selling trinkets on the street, but they didn't need to be as mean as some of them were. He was lucky, he'd had his growth spurt early so he looked tall for his twelve years and that meant most of them didn't try anything violent. He looked more like a short, angry man than a lost boy and he was fine with that.
He had been in Paris for a few months now. The journey had been horrifying in every sense he knew for the word, death on the seas and on the roads and all around. He had never been particularly afraid of death: he had grown up with the war in his home of Tabit, one of the towns close to Al-Fashir. The war had been going on as long as he was alive and he knew his mother was afraid of him being caught in it. He was tall enough to fight now and she didn't want that to be his future. So he was sent off, and was now in Paris before he could find somewhere else to live and study. He'd thought about the UK. He spoke English and Arabic fluently, and had passable Afrikaans and Zaghawa. The latter two weren't perfect but he could communicate with other refugees. This had been useful. No French though, which made Paris not the friendliest place to be.
It had cost his mother a lot to send him off, more than he cared to stomach, and he phoned home whenever he could so he could hear her voice. He missed her so much sometime he felt like he couldn't breathe. He missed her food and the warmth of their house and the entirely different life he had there. He knew what he was to do though, she had told him he was a smart boy and could get a good education and job. He was to do that and then they could see about her joining him. There was only the two of them: his father had been killed in the cross fire of the war and his mothers' wider family were killed in the chemical attacks.
So now he was in Paris, trying to make enough to help with getting somewhere else and listening to stupid tourists get their money stolen. Not all of them were bad. He saw young women loving their time together, and if he saw them right probably loving each other, in the streets and along the banks. He saw dancing in the evenings, big crowds gathered in the spaces along the river and enjoying the sight and joy of them. He saw families and children his own age learning and exploring and while it made his heart hurt a little he was still happy for them because who could wish destruction when they knew war?
He had begun living with some other children, other refugees who had made it this far but were wary of heading off to Calais and The Jungle. That place could be dangerous for youngsters, getting adopted to help someone else's paperwork process was one of the good options and Saddiq did not plan on getting himself in trouble with that. His best friend was a young Togolese called Samuel who had brought him into the selling business. Samuel was very good company, older than Saddiq and blessed with a winning smile, he could charm the birds from the trees when he tried. Saddiq didn't know for sure if the older men they shared space with were related to Samuel but they'd had no problem with him once they knew his age and it was helpful having the protection of a few others when you were out on the street.
"Did you hear?" Samuel arrived next to him with a hefty thump, his gangly limbs all angles and corners. "Another set of wallets stolen. They can't find who is doing it on the boats, they say they've checked all over to see if it's the same person staying on board but none of the faces stay the same."
"Must be a few of them then," Saddiq said, furrowing his brow. Samuel understood French, spoke it when English wasn’t responded too, and he would get all the gossip from the stall owners and tour guides. He caught Saddiq up on the mornings stories and in exchange Saddiq told him of the ones he had heard, the rich flying in to shop and dance and attend Events. They always said events as if it deserved a special letter.
"I think it's the river," said Samuel, eyeing the waves of the Seine.
"A river can't steal," Saddiq replied, rolling his eyes at his friends smirk.
"Not the river herself, the things in it. Mami Wata, sirens, beautiful women with the thick tails of fish and the power to drag people down to the bottom."
"They'd have no reason to steal a purse or wallet. What are they going to buy? They don't need a trinket for their visit, they live here. And there are no such things anyway." Saddiq had heard of the stories of mermaids. He couldn't believe anything like a human could live in the waters he had experienced. He'd knew humans couldn't. He wouldn't believe stories of half fish women.
"There are, my uncle lost his horse to one back home. They're very beautiful until you anger them, then they turn hideous. Their skin is scales and their eyes are black as coals, big and round. Their hair is beautiful though, floating and curling around them like seaweed in the water and like fine silk in the air."
"That sounds awful, why would you want to see one?"
"If you're nice to them then they grant you riches, and some will be your wife. But you must stay faithful to her, if you cheat she'll take all her gold back and you'll have bad luck follow you round."
"This does not sound like a good bargain," Saddiq frowned again.
"I get rich and I get a beautiful wife, I see no problem," shrugged Samuel with a laugh. His laugh was always infectious, impossible not to pick up once you heard it.
"That still doesn’t explain why they would be stealing wallets," Saddiq said after they had calmed.
"Maybe it's for their hoard. They must get the riches from somewhere and this river isn't full of shipwrecks like the ocean is."
"Wouldn't the water damage the money?"
"They're fish women Saddiq, I'm sure they have some magic that keeps the money ok," Samuel sighed as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Saddiq nodded for a minute, considering.
"My imam said magic was forbidden."
"Of course it is to humans, we're not meant to use it. For beings that are already made of it, they'll have it. It's like your fire people, they are made of light so they can hide in it. That's magical to us but normal to them."
"The djinn do have powers," nodded Saddiq sagely, remembering the stories about them his mother had told him. "And I suppose that if they were water creatures it would not be wrong for them to be able to use it."
"Exactly," agreed Samuel with an air of knowing what he was talking about. He didn't at all, but he loved sharing stories with Saddiq and making him smile.
"Have you seen one?" Saddiq asked quietly.
"Not yet, but I'm going to look out for them. I wouldn't mind a beautiful wife."
"Aren't you a bit young?" Saddiq quirked a brow at him.
"I'm seventeen remember, not just passing for it like you are," Samuel elbowed him in the ribs, winking to lessen the sting. "And you'll want one once you've got your learning in and got yourself settled. You'll not want to be just you and your mother forever."
"I'd settle for just now," Saddiq muttered, kicking his feet in the dust. His shoes were heavier than he'd like in the heat but sandals feel apart too easily
"Come on, enough talking, lets catch some of them on the way past," Samuel said, eyeing up the crowd coming down the side of the river.
Saddiq thought about Samuel's words as he went back to selling his trinkets and hats. He didn't want a wife like Samuel said the merwomen could be. He didn't want to be rich just for the fact he married someone, be they magical or not. He wanted to earn his own way and bring his mother home to be with him. He could find a wife later, when he'd got himself into his own way and could provide himself. His mother always said there was pride in finding your own path and he was doing that now, he could continue to do that until he was where he needed to be. The rest of the afternoon passed in the usual glaring heat of the Parisian summer and groups of camera wielding tourists gaggling around his little square, buying presents for nieces and nephews back home.
It was quiet for the rest of the week, until the Friday evening. Shout after shout had gone up the boats, each of them having someone missing a purse or wallet or even a camera. Saddiq wondered how long it would take before the boat drivers started blaming him but was glad to see the tourists shouting was solely directed at boat crew. The tourist knew he had his wallet on the boat because he had bought a drink on it, there was no way he had done that without money. Saddiq had to agree the man's logic was sound.
He was all set to ignore the shouting and go back to his little rectangle of wares when he heard a giggle from the back of the boat. Giggling was not something he heard often now. The barking laughs of the men, yes, his camp had a lot of that during the nights around the fire. And a lot of music and some fighting too. But he hadn't heard giggling since he'd arrived in Paris. He crept forward, up to the edge of the bank, trying to spot who it was. He thought it must be a stowaway on the boat, someone small hiding under the seats or in the cupboards so not to be caught.
To his surprise he was met with a pair of deep, black eyes looking at him from the lapping water. He froze, his mouth open in a surprised grin. A seal, he thought, he had heard of these! They were like dogs of the water, sleek and clever animals that could interact with humans. He had never read of them in the river though. His joy was knocked away from him quickly when the eyes moved up and breached the surface, attached not to a seal but to a face that looked almost like his.
She was taller than him, her upper body strong and well defined. Her torso showed brightly coloured scales, pale and shimmery as a pearl. Her hair was a wild tangle of curls, bouncing and swaying around her head. Her face wasn't human, it was close but her nose more flattened and her eyes round and black. Her breasts were close enough to human to make Saddiq look away. What he could see of her lower half was thick and strong, reminding him of the pointy nosed fish he had seen on sale at markets, dark stripes lining over the deep, mottled green skin.
"Siren," he eventually said, surprised to see her grin. Her teeth were sharplooking but the smile was not unkind. She said something to him and he blinked, unable to understand. She quirked her head to one side and then tried again, this time in something very close to what he knew.
"You saw me," she purred, bobbing back low, her head above the water and her arms tracing back and forth under the water.
"I did, my lady," he said, overjoyed that she knew Arabic. "Surely one such as you is often seen, your beauty is clear even in the murky water."
"We're not seen often. Not unless someone is meant to see us," she said, smiling at him again. "Are you looking for some pretty girl?"
"No my lady, I was actually looking for laughter. I heard a giggling, and I have not heard that in a long time. It was very beautiful."
"That was me," she laughed, a wonderful noise Saddiq thought should be heard more often.
"And what was making you laugh?"
"Those silly men. Running up and down the water in their big boats like cattle in a slaughter cart. So what if a wallet goes missing now and then? So what if ten do? They're stealing my peace and that of my sisters, we should get some reparations."
"You stole the wallets?" Saddiq gasped. She nodded with a conspiratorial wink.
"Me and my sisters. These people barrel around here like they own the place. The city owns itself and the river has always been the heart of the city. So we take a little here and there and if it upsets them then I have no issue with that either."
"I can see my lady's point," he agreed, glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was stealing from him. "I often wish I could do the same; some of them are cruel."
"You could. You have quick eyes and quick hands, you could sneak."
"I could, but I need to be here so I can go somewhere else. If I do that and they catch me then I will be sent back home and my mothers work will be for nothing."
"She sent you away?"
"For my safety. Men with guns come past all the time in my home, it was only time before they wanted me to fight."
"A hard thing for a mother," the woman, if he should call her that, agreed. "Would your mother like it if you came to her with riches and a wife?"
"I'm not age for that yet," Saddiq said bashfully.
"You look like a handsome man," she teased, a hand slipping up to stroke along his jaw. The fingers ended in sharp little hooks of claws and she dragged one under his chin, bringing his eyes to hers. "I can be a very beautiful human woman and a wife. I could bring you wonderful things, if you were mine."
"Truthfully lady, I am only twelve," he confessed. "Though I know a young man who would be a good husband to you, if one was what you were looking for. He is older than me, closer to the age for such things, and he would be very earnest in his love for you."
"And how would you know that?" she purred, looking over his face.
"Samuel has a very good heart. He took me into his camp when I was lost in Paris and he's let me help with selling his items. He didn't need to, food is scarce and we're moved a lot by the police, but he did. He helped me stay safe and knew that I was young. The young can be in danger here, there are predators. And the police don't like us very much. Samuel knows all of this. He pretends he is my age but he is really seventeen."
"Why does he lie then?"
"Because it is easier for children, once they're somewhere safe, to stay. It's just hard to get to the safe place."
"And Paris is not safe for you?"
"No. They don’t like us here. And if I go to school in the UK I can get a good job and bring my mother over so she is safe as well."
"A bold wish for one so young."
"I think everyone wants to help those they love. I love my mother. You seek one to love."
"I do," she agreed, nodding slowly. "Alright, bring me your friend and I'll meet him. I will see if he is as kind as you say."
"Thank you, lady. Should I bring him back here?"
Saddiq ran from the waters edge, trying to find Samuel amongst the crowd. He spotted him up ahead, convincing a tired looking woman that she should buy a hat to protect her from the sun. Saddiq stood at the edge of the stall, eyeing Samuel and nodding back towards his patch.
"What is it, are you in trouble?" Samuel asked in Arabic, smiling to another one of the women looking over his wares.
"I found you a wife," he grinned, nodding over to the river.
"You found me a wife in the water?" Samuel asked with a raised brow, looking over Saddiq. "Are you sure you haven't just gotten silly with the heat?"
"Samuel, come look, I found you one."
"If this is a fish I will slap you with it," said Samuel with a shake of his head, whistling to one of the older men and nodding to his stall. The man picked up his buckets of water bottles in ice and moved them next to Samuel's patch, slipping into selling both.
Saddiq led him back to the water, towards where he had found the siren. They reached the back of the boat but there was no sign of anything but the lapping waves in the water.
"Am I to marry the boat Saddiq?" Samuel said with a dry smile.
"No, she was just here." Saddiq frowned, worrying his lower lip again.
"Is this your friend, young one?" came a clear voice behind them. Saddiq turned and his mouth dropped open again. It was unmistakably the same woman, her eyes fathomless and black and slightly large for her face. She stood on the bank of the river as a human in a dark green dress, the colour bringing out the shine in her deeply tanned skin. Her hair poured down around her back and the dress hugged her thick hips and nipped waist.
"Yes, I'm his friend, aren't I Saddiq?" Samuel said thickly, nudging Saddiq into nodding.
"Saddiq tells me you have a good heart, Samuel. He also says you would make a fine husband and stay true to me." Her voice was musical, like a singer he had been hearing all his life but could never find.
"Who wouldn't stay true to you?" Samuel asked, looking her over.
"Young men are so certain of the world." She laughed with a smile. "Saddiq tells me you did him kindness, taking him into your family and helping him."
"He is family," Samuel said proudly, pulling himself up to his full height, "He's a smart boy, a good brain, he'll go far when get to his school. He's working for that now." Saddiq felt his face warm at the praise, Samuel knew how much he wanted to do well.
"And you took him in with no benefit?"
"The benefit is knowing him. He'll be a great man one day and I can say that I knew him when he was young and great then too. What should I call you?"
"Isabelle is what most of your kind called me."
"You did not tell him, Saddiq?" she asked with a quirked brow.
"I expected you to be in the water lady," Saddiq answered.
"What do you mean?" Samuel asked, glancing between the two of them.
"She's a siren," Saddiq said, quietly, "I met her in the water."
"Yes. She was the one stealing the wallets, like you said. Her and her sisters, they live in the river."
"And you found her how?"
"I heard her laughing."
"Doesn't that usually get you drowned?" Samuel asked, brows up high on his forehead.
"It would if I wanted it to, but he was too sweet to kill," Isabelle answered making both boys turn to face her. "It would be easy for me to drag you both to the bottom of the river but I have no interest in killing children and I want to find a lover."
"You know what, even if you're crazy it's worth it. May I take you on a date, Isabelle?" Samuel asked, holding his arm out for her to take. She smiled bright and nodded, looping her arm in his. She was the same height as him so fell into easy pace as they walked up the steps from the riverbank onto the larger street.
Saddiq didn't see Samuel for nearly six weeks. He didn't come back to camp after his date and for a long time Saddiq hated himself, thinking he had fed Samuel to some terrible creature.
When Samuel did come back he looked entirely different – his clothes were fine quality, clean and looked after, his shoes new and his hair freshly cut. He looked like any of the young businessmen in Paris. Saddiq spotted him walking along the river bank, laughing with some of the older men and getting pointed towards his spot.
"Samuel, I was so worried for you," he called as he saw his friend, pulling him into a tight hug.
"No need to worry for me, I am so happy. I came to say thank you," Samuel smiled, a bright and wild thing.
"For finding you a wife in the water?"
"Eventually yes. We're dating just now but I want to marry her. She is amazing, Saddiq, funny and smart and challenging. I don't need to go anywhere else but here if I have her."
"I'm so pleased for you," Saddiq said honestly, beaming at his friend.
"Isabelle also has friends," Samuel began and Saddiq held his hands up.
"Still too young for a wife," he reminded Samuel.
"No you idiot, friends in other places. I have a ticket for you. To get you into the UK and to a school." Saddiq shook his head, sure he was wrong in what he heard.
"How? I'm not even documented."
"You're documented enough to get to this place and it is very good. Someone will meet you at the ferry and take you all the way there."
"Samuel, that must have cost a lot of money," Saddiq said quietly, looking with concern at his friend.
"Saddiq, I have a woman who can pick pockets like a bird and produce gold from water. Take it and go be an engineer or doctor or change the world however you will. My address is in this envelope as well as the ticket, stay in touch ok?"
"Of course," he said in a thick voice, hugging Samuel again.
"And keep an eye out on the English rivers, you seem to have an eye for spotting the good women," Samuel laughed, winking at him. They parted ways and Saddiq gathered his bag, packing everything up and finding a train to get him to the port.