Sapphire and Weld
by Holly Stacey
In a small coastal village somewhere in Cornwall, a storyteller sat down on an ancient oak overlooking the sea. He then pulled out an old pipe, smiled at his audience of twenty or so children and began to tell an ancient tale…
Sapphire lived in a small house near the sea, and she was named after the deep blue colors of her eyes. Sapphire used to sit by the shore and sing songs to the waves, knowing that some day, she too would explore the sea and its mysteries. She was happy living with her parents, but when her mother died, she and her father were left with only each other for company. It was hard, but it was even harder when her father fell in love with another woman.
“But why can’t it just be us, Papa?” she asked him one evening after the woman had left. Her name was Jade, but Sapphire could never bring herself to say it.
Her father was angry at first. “I have found love again, Sapphire, can’t you just accept that and leave me be?” But when he saw how unhappy his daughter was, his tone softened. “You need a mother. It can’t just be the two of us. It’s always better with three.”
It wasn’t just three of them once Sapphire’s father had married Jade, though. She had a daughter, an unpleasant girl named Weld who was always flinging stones at birds when they sang too early in the morning.
Weld was the same age as Sapphire, so Sapphire’s father assumed the girls would get along beautifully. Yet, Weld and Sapphire were as different as day and night. Weld would torment every animal she could find and take joy in their suffering. She especially seemed to like how it affected Sapphire, who would cry when even a small insect was hurt. Her mother also seemed to enjoy Sapphire’s suffering, but would treat both girls like gold whenever Sapphire’s father was near.
“I wish it was like it used to be,” whispered Sapphire to a sparrow one spring morning. The sparrow hopped toward her, its head cocked to the side as if it was listening. “Today Jade and Weld made me eat bread they had thrown on the ground.” It was a new hobby of theirs,to find the grossest thing for Sapphire to eat after starving her for half the day. They had aimed the bread at the pig sty, but missed. “Papa doesn’t see how they really are.”
The bird hopped onto her shoulder and nudged her ear. For the first time that day, Sapphire smiled.
“Go to the sea and take these buckets with you,” said Jade one morning. “And make sure they are filled with oysters. I want you to make oyster stew tonight, and we’re having guests.”
Sapphire was more than happy to get away from the house and go to the sea. It was a small hike to the shore, but she enjoyed it. The sea always made her happy. She sang a sea shanty as she walked down the steep path to the rocky cove below.
“Sea and wake
for me to make
thy fine ale and wine…
“For oft I’ve roved
to find a love divine.”
She’d heard sailors singing it and liked the tune, but never knew what it meant. But as she neared the cove, she heard another voice echoing her own.
“For you to make
a seaweed cake
and a drink from the heather…
“Come down now
be you man or cow
and be joyous in any weather.”
Sapphire was intrigued. The voice was beautiful and as clear as a ringing Sunday bell. She’d heard tales of the mer-women who lived in the caves below, but she’d never believed them. Until now. She followed the sound of the voice until she was standing inside a small grotto. The mermaid there was beautiful in a way only mer-people can be. She sat on a rock inside her little cave, with the lower half of her tail dipped into the rock pool below.
“Hello, Sapphire. Won’t you help me untangle my hair?” the mermaid asked. She had lovely long green hair, the same color as the seaweed that grew on the rocks. But it was in a terrible tangle.
Sapphire didn’t want to be rude. She knew she would get into trouble for being late, but she wanted to help the mermaid, too.
“What shall I comb it with?” Sapphire asked, still wondering how the mermaid knew her name.
The mermaid handed her a beautiful comb made of mother-of-pearl. It took a long time to work out all the knots, and Sapphire could hear the sea crashing closer to the shore. The tide was coming in and she had collected no oysters.
“How does my hair look now?” asked the beautiful mermaid.
Sapphire could answer honestly. “It’s sleek, smooth, and shiny without a tangle in it.”
“Thank you,” said the mermaid, smiling. “For your efforts, I shall reward you. Take your bucket. It’s filled with oysters.”
When Sapphire made it back out of the grotto and up the steep path toward home, it had grown very dark.
“Where have you been?” shouted Jade. “Our visitors came and went away hungry!” She had a switch in her hand and was about to beat Sapphire with it when she dropped it suddenly. “Oh! Where did you get those?”
Sapphire turned to where Jade was looking and gasped. There were no oysters in the bucket. Only hundreds and hundreds of glistening pearls.
Jade seemed very happy. She called out to Weld. “Look at what this good-for-nothing Sapphire brought back. I’m sure you could do better. Here,” she thrust two buckets at her daughter. “Take these down to the cave at first light and make sure you bring back only the best pearls.”
Sapphire spent the next day mucking out the pigs. She hadn’t been rewarded for bringing a bucket of pearls home and her father, away on business, was not around to help.
When Weld came back, it was very dark, and Jade was in a rage about having to wait so long. “What kept you?”
“These buckets are very heavy. I told the mer-woman that only the best pearls would do, and she gave me these.” Weld tried to hold the buckets up, but they slipped out of her hands. Only rocks tumbled out, not a pearl to be seen.
“What did you do?” Jade screamed at her daughter.
“I did what you said!” Weld screamed back. “I took down the buckets and told the mer-woman what you wanted. Then she said I had to brush her hair. It was so knotted, and I expected she had no idea what good hair looks like anyway. It was green!”
Jade was furious. “Both of you! Go down to that cave and make sure you don’t come back empty handed.”
Sapphire was more than happy to go down to the grotto, but she would have preferred to not have Weld with her. “I don’t see why you got the pearls,” said Weld on their way down. She kept grabbing Sapphire’s hair to help balance. There was just enough moonlight to show Sapphire the path.
Sapphire didn’t answer. It was very dark and almost pitch-black at the cave.
“Welcome back, Sapphire. Weld, you should have combed my hair.” As the mermaid spoke, the cave slowly lit up with a thousand glowing micro-lights. Sapphire had seen lights like this on the sea some nights, but never in a cave. This time, there were two mermaids.
“We need your help,” the mermaid said. “Each of us needs help in repairing our purses.”
Sapphire saw what looked like two lumps of seaweed. But when she looked closer, she noticed they were like sealskins with many small pearls and shell beads covered with moss.
Sapphire picked up the one closest to her and began cleaning it. She had a needle and thread in her own purse in case of emergencies, and she sat down to sew.
Weld, on the other hand, looked around, bored. “I’m not a servant,” she said. “I don’t know how to sew. Sorry.” She didn’t look sorry at all.
“Can you sing?” asked the other mermaid. “There is a sick seal pup that needs soothing.” She pointed out of the cave to the sea.
“It’s too cold for me to go out there,” complained Weld. Maybe I could do something here.” She looked around. “Ah, look, you’ve got a pile of gold over there. That needs dusting, I’m sure.” She went to the pile and began dusting haphazardly, then put some coins in her pockets when she thought the mermaids were not looking.
It was sunup when Sapphire finished the two purses. Weld was curled up on the gold, asleep.
“Well done, Sapphire!” said the mermaid. Her friend was watching Weld sleep with some interest. “Please, take this as payment.” She handed Sapphire an enormous pearl the size of her fist. She was about to protest, when the mermaid pushed her out of the cave. Something cool landed on her forehead, but when she tried to wipe it off, there was nothing there.
Sapphire looked around for the sick seal pup, but could only find floating seaweed. Behind her, Weld ran to catch up. “They gave me something wrapped in a packet,” she said, yawning. “But look,” she opened her pocket, “I grabbed some gold, too.” But all that was in her pocket was sand.
Weld turned to go back into the cave, but the entrance was gone. She opened the packet in a hurry. Out jumped a toad, which landed on her head and wouldn’t budge. Every time Weld tried to push it off, it croaked loudly.
When the girls reached the top of the cliffs, they saw they had a visitor. A young prince had come to the cottage because he’d heard rumours of a girl with eyes the color of sapphires. Yet Jade was trying to convince him to marry Weld, instead. Even the huge bucket of pearls could not sway him, when he saw the two girls headed his way.
The storyteller stretched his old back and winked at the children. “After all, who would you want to take back to your castle? A beautiful, kind girl with a mermaid’s blessing, or an unkind, selfish girl with a toad on her head?”
“But storyteller,” said one of the children, “what was the thing that landed on Sapphire’s head?”
The storyteller inclined his head. “Oh, gracious me! Have I left something out again? That, my lovely, was a golden star, the mark of the mermaid blessing and the luckiest gift any human can be given.”
“And did Sapphire get to explore the sea?” asked another child.
The storyteller nodded. “The prince had a fleet of ships, and he and Sapphire had many adventures. But those are stories for another day.” He winked, swished his travelling cloak around his body, and vanished. The boys and girls gasped. Behind them on the wind, they heard the soft singing of voices…
“Sea and wake
for me to make
thy fine ale and wine…
“For oft I’ve roved
to find a love divine.”
1. What did the mermaid ask Sapphire to do for her?
2. What did the mermaid give Sapphire?
3. What did Weld get when she tried to get pearls from the mermaid?
4. What did the mermaids ask Sapphire and Weld to do next?
5. Who was at their home when Sapphire and Weld went back?