In the land of the Sand Riders, where women go veiled from top to toe, there lived a young man who dreamed of love. But he was too young to think of marriage, and according to the customs of his land, he was forbidden even to speak to any of the unmarried women he saw. Instead, he would picture their faces, try to overhear their words as they spoke to each other in their lowered voices. And he dreamed of one day having a woman of his own to love, to cook for him and sing to him, a woman whose face would be veiled to the world and that only he would ever know.
And then one day, in a strange town, in a crowded marketplace, the young man finally fell in love. She was veiled, like all the rest, and yet she seemed very different to him. Slender as a reed beneath her robes, she held her head high, and on her feet she wore slippers of scarlet silk. It was those slippers that moved him. And the slippers were how he followed her through the market-day crowds until he came to her neat little house, set in a tiny walled garden of mango trees and jasmine.
In the land of the Sand Riders, women do not live alone. The woman in the scarlet shoes lived with her mother and father. She cooked for them and cleaned for them and ran their errands and washed their clothes, and the only moments she had to herself were in that tiny garden, with its sleepy jasmine scent and the fountain that sang a three-note song that echoed the song of the nightingale. And yet, she too had dreams. But they were never dreams of love. Instead the woman longed to see beyond her father’s walls, to ride a camel through the desert and to hear the sound of the ocean waves. In her dreams, she sometimes walked barefoot on the sandy shore or swam naked in the water, far away from the gaze of men. But these things were forbidden, and so the woman never spoke of them.
That night, the young man waited for his love to come into the garden. And through the iron bars of the gate, he told her of his great love. She listened in modest silence as the young man spoke of his plans for them, of her life with the Sand Riders, of their future children, of the care he would take to shield her from the eyes of other men. “Come with me,” he told her. “Be mine, and I will protect you. I will love you and cherish you. No man or woman will trouble you, or speak to you with disrespect. You will live at the heart of my tribe, surrounded by camels and warriors. Your body will be mine alone; no other man will see your face. You will drink only the finest wines and taste the most delicate spices. You will be my Queen, my all, the mother of my children, if only you will come with me today and be mine forever.”
Finally, the woman spoke. “I will come with you,” she said, “but only on one condition. I have never seen the sea, or walked on a beach, or heard the waves. Take me to the sea,” she said, “and I will be yours forever.”
And so the young man opened the gate and led the girl to the place where his people had their camp. He stole a pair of camels, and by the time their absence was known, he and his love were far away, riding hard toward the coast. They rode for three nights, resting by day, and every day the young man asked his lady love to show him her face.
But she always said, “Not yet, my love. Only when we are married may you see what no man has ever seen.” And so the young man waited, congratulating himself on having chosen such a virtuous bride.
Finally, they arrived at the sea, a wild and lonely stretch of coast where only the sound of the waves could be heard. No one lived here, but there were stories of mermaids that lived in the sea, luring unwary men to their deaths—proud, and beautiful, and free.
The woman in the red slippers stood for a long time by the shore, looking out to sea. The wind tugged at her robes and veil, showing the young man the gentle curves of her body. Finally, she said, “This is the place,” indicating a tiny beach at the base of the rocky cliff. “This is where I shall take off my veil, stand barefoot on the sand, and be yours. But you must be patient, and wait for me.”
The young man waited on the cliff as the girl climbed down to the beach. “Are you ready yet?” he called. But there was no answer. He waited for a long time, and then, when his love still did not call him, he too climbed down to the little beach. But his lady was not there. Instead, all he found was her slippers, laid neatly on the seashore, the last in a long line of women’s shoes that stretched right across the little beach and disappeared around the base of the cliffs.
And opposite the line of shoes was a line of bare footprints—dozens, maybe hundreds of them, leading to the water’s edge—but none of the footprints ever led back. Because, of course, mermaids have no need of embroidered slippers—or of silken veils, or even men. Mermaids recognize their own—even when they are in disguise
The young man sat by the water’s edge and wondered what he might have done wrong. “I would have kept you safe,” he wept. “I would have watched over you day and night. I would have made sure no other man ever came anywhere near you.”
But there came no answer from the sea, except, maybe, far in the distance, the sound of the mermaids laughing.
ILLUSTRATION BY GUINEVERE VON SNEEDEN