ON THE LEFT-HAND SIDE of the Western wall, painted waves roll towards us in swells of green and grayish blue. A lattice lace of foam breaks across the surface, while underneath, the ocean’s inhabitants coexist in harmony. It is the Beginning of Time, a mythological construct which defies logical reason, and yet, despite a lack of evidence, might very well have occurred.
As you can see, the Octopus is relishing a moment of solitude in a kelp forest. The pale green sickle of the Moray Eel, curling around a coral pillar, is joined just underneath by the Smooth-Hound Shark, whose curved gray body is reminiscent of a classic car. The tiger-striped scoop of the Nautilus’s shell drifts in open water above the rest, the big-headed Grouper lumbers at the sandy bottom, and the red bristles of the Rockfish’s fin emerge from behind a convoluted structure of the multicolored reef. All things underwater belong unconditionally to the vast, volatile ocean. They thrive off of its vitality as the ocean thrives from theirs.
Now let’s turn to the right-hand side of the Western wall, which transitions from the left with a change in the sky, a sunset gradient, to indicate a shift in perspective.
A lone woman is perched on the sea cliffs, bent over and draped in a dark blue fabric that shimmers with bronze, like the rust of shipwrecks accenting her clothes. This is the so-called sea witch who lives in caves along the rocky shoreline. There is a degree of self-righteousness in the way she stands alone, although the cliffs look bleak in comparison to the ocean’s abundance and diversity of life. Taken as a whole, the Western wall is a stunningly detailed, panoramic view from ocean to coast. It goes without saying that the artist has done a spectacular job.
During my tours, I am often concerned with the level of appreciation I might expect from all of you, you with your sun-baked faces and bellies full of clams. You are not ocean people. You are beach people. You have spent the better part of the day flat on your backs, roasting, while the hyperactive children currently running figure-eights around your legs were left to drink blue slushie and build their sloppy sandcastles unattended. Still, I hold out faith. I believe in your potential.
If you were familiar with the town and its oral histories, you would know that this wall of the Merari Public Library is actually a one-sided love story. Note how the painted waves fall, the
down-curves like greedy and possessive claws.
The ocean is emotional and unpredictable. It is constantly shifting, intricate and deep, glowing aquamarine in the sun. The shore, on the other hand, is rigid and unspontaneous with unlovable rock structures. You might think that, for the shore, the ocean would be a catch. But the land here has always been mysteriously resistant to erosion. The waves pull endlessly at the rocks and beaches, tormented by unrequited feelings, disrupting the natural patterns of tidal movement.
I see that a few of you are chuckling behind your hands. It’s regrettable that I witness such behavior frequently, and yet I am encouraged by the fact that you’re trying to conceal your amusement. Apparently, you understand I take my tours very seriously.
It is no laughing matter that the sea has fallen in love with the land, and that the land does not return the sea’s affections. It has wide-ranging implications for the ecosystem. We will explore this further as we turn the corner, but first, I’d like to pause for questions.
Are there any questions regarding this first wall of the mural?
HOW LONG HAVE I BEEN A TOUR GUIDE? This question has nothing to do with the mural. But I will tell you: seven years. Any more questions?
DO I DO THIS FOR A LIVING? Of course not. I am merely a dedicated volunteer, striving to bring one of the most cherished stories of our community to life for those passing through. Often it seems that I am met at every turn of these library walls with nothing more than the glassy-eyed stares of the tourists who, after barely five minutes of introduction, are curious about little else aside from where their next meal is coming from. I am driven on, nonetheless, by the undying conviction that someone, one day, will step away from my tour and see this place and its people in a different light, just as I did when I first began to investigate historical evidence that speaks to the validity of the legend.
DO I . . . HAVE ANY restaurant recommendations? Hahhh. Alessandro’s on Main street is the best. Tell the server that Christopher was your tour guide today, they’ll send out a free
Moving on. No more questions, people! Contain yourselves. There will be time later.
The posterior wall of the Merari Public Library is the largest and most eventful section of wall-canvas. On the left-hand side, we see that the sea creatures have absorbed the sea’s yearning and find themselves drawn to the shore. It would be impossible for the fraught land-sea dynamic not to affect marine life, after all.
Octopus leads the way with the vine-like ends of her tentacles outstretched. Nautilus, Moray Eel, Rockfish, Smooth-Hound Shark, and Grouper follow behind her. Most of the children (and, indeed, adults) of Merari will claim this section of the mural as their favorite, as the artist has done an exquisite job of depicting the personality of each creature.
Note how Octopus assertively extends her many arms towards the water’s surface, the cerebral yet commanding look in her horizontal-slitted eye. Nautilus speeds after her, a whimsical dream-frill of tentacles propelling it forward. The lines of Moray Eel’s body call to mind a sarcastic smirk, while the bristling of Rockfish’s fins conveys impatience, frustration. Smooth-Hound Shark weaves his way around the others with a dignified and detached expression, while Grouper’s expression is sheepish and slightly hopeful as he drifts at the back of the pack.
Each of our main characters is in the midst of something that they have never before experienced: a relentless desire for a world that is not their own, a world that they cannot even breathe in. They converge at the feet of the sea witch, beneath the wide windows of the Library’s upper floor. She leans forward to address the orange bulb of Octopus’s head as it breaks the surface, her abundant hair falling to hide her face.
The witch, Meraria, is a complicated figure in our town’s history. Some historical accounts go to great descriptive lengths to have us believe she was loved by all, exceptionally talented, tremendously intelligent, the center of attention at every party, and very, um . . . physically . . . well-endowed. But knowing that the author of these accounts is most likely Meraria herself does call their validity into question.
When the aquatic creatures describe their land-longing to Meraria in this section of mural, she offers them a deal. She promises to provide each with a human form capable of walking on land in exchange for their knowledge of the ocean’s riches. It seemed to be a straight-forward transaction: Octopus and the others must have been aware of the value that humans place on certain minerals and various curative or poisonous substances from the sea. But they had no way of knowing what the witch really wanted.
If we take a look at history, witches are not generally popular. Meraria was no exception. Having been cast out of society on account of countless exploitative schemes involving sorcery, she was ultimately forced into a life of solitude on the sea cliffs. What the witch wanted most was not wealth or power, but a community and a sense of belonging. Although she wouldn’t turn down wealth and power either, given the opportunity.
As we turn to the mural’s next scene, a couple years have passed. The town of Merari is in the process of being built, with its first inhabitants setting up their shops and homes.
Take this man, standing outside the establishment that seems to recall the town’s present-day Café Coral. What do you notice about him? Pale green eyes. Something fluid in the painted lines of his arms as he sweeps the entranceway. The trademark smirk, a hint of irony, as if he’s about to make a sarcastic comment. This is the Moray Eel from the previous ocean scenes.
This one is Grouper, with his recognizable hopeful expression, giving out small business loans at the bank. Moray Eel was likely the recipient of one of them, as was Rockfish, with her fiery hair and red-tinged skin, shown here in the process of establishing the town tavern. Here is the dreamy-eyed Nautilus, opening an art gallery. And here is Smooth-Hound Shark, dressed in gray, with new scholarly glasses, establishing the town’s first school.
Octopus is featured prominently at the top of the wall: a woman with long tendrils of hair that curl vine-like at the ends. She is speaking urgently with Meraria, doubtlessly in an endeavor to gain support for her next scientific venture. This relentless pursuit of knowledge and funding is said to have led to the foundation of the Marine Research Center associated with Merari University.
The town on this wall is painted in more subdued tones compared with the rest of the artwork. It looks almost pastoral after the intense, saturated colors we encountered early on. You may be wondering which of our aquatic ancestors established the Merari Public Library—I wish I could tell you. It is lost to history, as is the identity of the artist behind the mural.
In any case, we can see now that each town member has been transformed as Meraria had promised. But the sea witch did more than provide them with legs and lungs to satisfy their longing for the land. She also erased their memories of the ocean. Wiped blank, dependent upon the witch for survival, the sea creatures-turned-humans were pliable servants, susceptible to whatever she told them.
Meraria’s first order of business was to have her subjects build the town, which they named after her. They also built her a castle on the high cliffs, the seat of power during her reign, of which today nothing remains but the wave-battered remnants of old stone walls. According to historical accounts, Meraria was a generous ruler, extremely popular with the people due to festivities she sponsored and hosted. Again, we have to take bias into consideration, owing
to the fact that all such accounts originated from her own royal court. But even while reliable evidence of Merari’s economic and political situation during this period can be hard to come by, there is enough to suggest that the townspeople had given rise to a fairly self-sufficient community. It’s possible that they instinctively developed networks of interdependencies that bore similarity to their former, flourishing underwater ecosystem.
Before we move on to the Eastern wall, I’ll pause for questions again. Questions related to the mural. Ok? Yes, you.
WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING. Didn’t I answer this before? I see—all I said was that being a tour guide for the public library mural was not my occupation. In actuality, I teach history at Merari Public High School, where the head of the department has not yet given in to my requests for a unit on the town’s history and legends in the syllabus. Other questions?
I SEE. So Alessandro’s does not have enough five-star reviews for you. And you’re looking for a view of the ocean? In that case, how about the local ferry, headed to one of our neighboring towns? I have been informed that they have food on board.
As we turn the corner to the Eastern-facing wall, the picture darkens. Shadows sweep down from the cliffs against which the tormented ocean repeatedly crashes, forming a circular frame around the image that depicts the untimely death of Meraria. The sea witch is lying on her bed in her castle, bloated to four times her size on the previous two walls. Candied fruits and other delicacies from around the world crowd her room. A huge, deflated wine skin rests in her lap.
How exactly Meraria met her end is unknown, although suspected causes include heart failure and cirrhosis of the liver. Having grown accustomed to a life of deprivation, she hurried to embody the opposite extreme—excess—from the moment her fortunes changed. Accounts from those present at her nightly feasts and twice-monthly festivals are surely just a sampling of what had become commonplace for the witch-ruler.
Due to the lavish lifestyle that decimated her health, Meraria died earlier than might have been expected. From the moment that her eyelids shut and the last of the life energy ebbed from her body, the townspeople began to recall memories of their ocean lives.
The next scene of the mural depicts the sky split open and the town stopped in its tracks. The artist has layered images on top of each other like stripes of sediment. Octopus stands beneath the pouring rain on the cliffs with her long hair drenched and her back turned to the viewer. Underneath, Smooth-Hound Shark and Moray Eel mutely stare into glasses of amber liquor at Rockfish’s tavern, while she leans towards the window, watching rain ricochet off the awning. Grouper is having a smoke outside the door and staring at the pipe in his hands, probably wondering if this is doing irreparable damage to his gills. Below this, Nautilus is in a darkened studio, surrounded by the torn canvases of underwater scenes they always felt so strongly compelled to paint without knowing why, their face pressed into their hands.
It is the scene of a community-wide identity crisis. You can imagine the level of chaos and despair. Are we people? Are we fish? Are we both, or neither? With the death of the sea witch, the spell weakens just enough to allow for some flexibility of form. Here and there, the artist has painted glimpses of people waking up with fins instead of arms. Scales, shells, and spines take the place of skin and hair. When people get tired or lazy, maybe they find themselves reverting back, gills surfacing beneath their clothes.