A lot of people forget that the Little Mermaid had five older sisters. The youngest girl was the one who went up to the surface and had adventures, so she's the one that matters, right?
Well, her sisters matter too. They may not be nearly as famous as she is, but they were just as brave in their own ways. And if they didn't fall tragically in love with mortal men, they at least loved the sea and each other.
Trina was the baby of the family, totally spoiled and indulged. Yes, the Little Mermaid's real name was Trina. It's a name with an oddly appropriate mix of sweetness, frivolity and hidden strength.
Anyway, Trina was a typical youngest child; she hated to be left out of anything at all. So when her sisters came by age one by one and got to venture out into the dry worlds for the first time, Trina got a little obsessed. She started imagining all kinds of exciting things that her sisters were doing while she was stuck at home for another year waiting until she was old enough, too. Her sisters were sometimes sympathetic but mostly amused by her impatience.
Only Meena, the second oldest and most understanding sibling, always made sure to bring Trina back some treasure or story from above so that she wouldn't feel left out. This meant that Trina quickly accumulated a veritable stockpile of odds and ends from the world above—junk mostly, broken pieces of pottery and rusty scraps of metal, but treasures too, sparkly diamond cups and a looking-glass as long as a mermaid girl. The problem was that instead of alleviating Trina's feelings of isolation these objects only fed her imagination.
The turning point was when Meena bullied Nadia and Amaleeza into helping her bring Trina a marble statue. It was the biggest item Meena had found for Trina yet, being at least sixteen feet high and two tons. It took three of the Sea King's magic daughters working together to move it, but they agreed it was worth it when they saw Trina's face light up at her newest possession. Trina had never seen so noble a countenance before; she fell in love instantly. Nadia and Amaleeza rolled their eyes and even Meena teased a little, but everyone figured that Trina would meet some merman (or merwoman), someone real anyway, and forget all about weird looking land dwellers.
But Trina didn't forget. All the mermen she met were too fat or too thin or too old or too young; none of them matched up to her gigantic ideal. When she finally was old enough, she went straight to the surface and lurked there like some kind of pre-teen stalker at a boy band concert. Amphetria, the oldest sister, had to order her to come down for meals or Trina forgot.
A couple of months in, there was a storm. It wouldn't have been worth remembering, except that Trina was peeping in the porthole of a ship and recognized the model for her beloved statue. She saved the model's life when the ship sank, yadda yadda ya, singing as she swam, blah blah blah, and yes, it was all very romantic. What a lot of people forget was that there was more than just a handsome prince onboard: there were sailors, chefs, servants, noble hangers-on and other assorted specimens of humanity. And they all died, because they hadn't been lucky enough to have a flattering white marble statue made in their image for some undersea kid to dream over.
But enough of that. As the legend goes, Trina hauled her boyfriend back to safety and the shore, then brooded until she came up with the idea of buying legs from the Sea Witch. Now not all witches are evil, but the Sea Witch certainly was. Trina made a very bad bargain when she traded her voice and home beneath the waves for a pair of fleshy limbs and an empty sky.
She wasn't gone for more than half a day before Amphetria did the oceanic equivalent of hitting the panic button and releasing the hounds. Every merperson who swam the water, every dolphin or seal that leapt the waves, every creature that ever breathed through gills was on the look-out for Trina the Sea Princess. With all that help, it took less than four hours to find Trina's scent trail and follow it back to the Sea Witch's lair.
When the fish who had caught Trina's trail reported back to the palace, only Zia, the shy fourth sister, was waiting. Everyone else was out looking for Trina, leaving the most timid of the Sea Princesses at home to organize the search and wait in case Trina came home on her own. Nevertheless, Zia didn't hesitate. She wrote her family a brief note with waterproof chalk and set out to visit one of the scariest people ever to inhabit the Mariana Trench. Alone.
So Zia went to visit the Sea Witch. It was a very sketchy area; it's unclear whether the old Witch lived there because she didn't want any neighbors, or if she moved there, and then her neighbors didn't want her and fled. Either way, there were no other dwellings for miles in any direction. The water thereabouts had an odd sulfur taste, and the few plants that grew were a scraggly and menacing green. They had fish bones tangled up in them, and as Zia passed them she saw tendrils reach out as if to snatch her.
"Hello?" Zia called out cautiously. "Miss Sea Witch?"
There was a grumbling noise, then a raspy voice answered. "'Miss Sea Witch?' I like that." An enormous merwoman hauled herself into view. Her hair was dirty and coiled around her head like coral snakes. "Well, what do you want, girlie?"
"I'm looking for my sister," Zia said, softly but firmly.
"Little mermaid? About so high? Red hair, blue eyes and a tendency to zone out when you talk to her? Often in trouble?" the Sea Witch asked. Zia nodded eagerly. "Haven't seen her." The Sea Witch's lips quirked up in a nasty smile. Before Zia could really react to that, the Witch continued. "Or maybe I have. What have you got to give me in exchange?"
"What," Zia whispered, then cleared her throat, and tried again a little louder, "what do you want from me?"
"Oh, I don't know, girlie," the Sea Witch said carelessly. "Your first born child?"
"No way," Zia gasped, horrified.
"I suppose that is too steep," the Sea Witch agreed. "Your jewels, then. Everything you're wearing now."
Zia, as a daughter of the Sea King, was allowed to wear six priceless shells on her tail. She also had a net of pearls braided into her hair and beautiful earrings of coral carved into the shape of sea anemones. Most of it was heirlooms from her dead mother. She handed them over without protest.
"She's not here," the Sea Witch said. "Try looking for her in the world above. That's all you paid for, so scram." Her snake-like hair whipped around in currents that Zia couldn't feel and reached out as if to grab her. Zia, finally reaching the end of her courage, fled.
Once the news got back, everyone went to the surface, frantically seeking Trina. After the first week, the undersea kingdom began to lose hope. No one had ever returned from such a long time spent on the dry lands. The second week, the Sea King returned to his royal duties. Five weeks in, the Sea Princesses were the only ones still looking. They continued to lurk in all the spots where the waters touched the shore, and eventually one night Nadia swam by a palace on a cliff and saw her wayward sister.
Nadia summoned her sisters, and there was a joyfully tearful reunion. Then there were just tears, as Meena took out weeks of fear and tension by yelling at her baby sister.
"...and why won't you speak?" Meena finished off her diatribe, before bursting into tears herself. One very long, very complicated game of charades later, everyone understood the situation:
Trina had traded her tail for feet and agony that pierced her to the core every time she took a step, and she had given her lovely voice to the Sea Witch as a bribe to perform the spell. She tried to make light of the clause that said if the prince ever fell in love and married another Trina would perish of a broken heart. Her sisters thought she was miming that if the prince had a heart attack (or possibly indigestion) Trina would bellyflop back into the ocean the following morning. Since Trina was planning to marry her prince and avoid the heartbreak and dropping dead problem altogether, she decided this was a close enough interpretation.
"Ask the Sea Witch to trade back, Trina," Nadia suggested.
Trina made a negative motion.
"She can't," Amphetria said succinctly. "Trina'd drown on the way to the Sea Witch's shack."
"Besides, I don't think the Sea Witch would trade back anyway," Zia added. Her face was grimmer than her sisters were accustomed to seeing it.
Trina scowled, and waved her arms in an exasperated manner. Her older sisters debated what she might mean by that until Amaleeza snorted and rolled her eyes.
"Trina doesn't want to go home," Amaleeza said. "She's made her bargain, and she intends to keep it. Also, she's annoyed that we're talking about her like she's not even here because she's old enough to make her own decisions." Trina bobbed her head up and down in agreement, and her older sisters shared a moment of embarrassed silence.
"Are you sure, Trina?" Amphetria asked eventually. Trina nodded, firmly. "If you ever change your mind, let us know and I swear we will get you home."
"We'll visit," Meena promised starting to sniffle, which only set everyone else off again.
Things settled down again. The sisters continued to visit Trina; even the Sea King and the Dowager Queen made an appearance, and the Dowager Queen hadn't been to the surface since before the invention of the compass.
This almost-calm ended abruptly the day Nadia exploring a beach and heard Trina's voice singing. Nadia's brief flare of joy that Trina had somehow seen sense and traded it all back died as quickly as it sparked. There was no way that Trina, the most obsessive and headstrong of her siblings, would admit that she was wrong about anything, much less something as hugely important as this. Besides, bizarre as it was, Trina was genuinely happy as the prince's mute. No, this was something else.
Nadia cautiously poked her head above the waves. Her sister's voice was coming from a tall, dark haired woman whom Nadia had never seen before in her life. She was beautiful. Nadia watched her walk up the beach, over a hill of sand and out of sight, singing with a voice that wasn't hers.
"Are you sure you weren't just mistaken?" Meena asked later. "Maybe you just thought it was Trina's voice?"
"Or maybe..." Amaleeza started to say, then trailed off when she couldn't think of anything.
"No," Nadia said firmly. "It was Trina's voice, and it was some stranger using it."
Amphetria nodded, slowly. "The Sea Witch had her voice," she reminded them. "She must have given or traded it away to this girl. But why? It's a terrible thing to do. Trina can never get it back now, and as for this new girl..." She shook her head.
"What about this new girl?" Zia asked, tentatively.
"She bought someone else's voice," Amphetria said. "She will never speak for herself again. Everything she says will come through the filter of another person."
The others contemplated the idea of speaking through Trina for the rest of their lives. They winced.
"Bad as that is," Amaleeza said, "I'm more interested in why the Sea Witch sold Trina's voice. She's had it for months. So why now?"
When they went to visit Trina that evening, they found out. The prince was under pressure to marry. A neighboring kingdom had sent their most beautiful princess to him in the hopes that they would fall in love (or at least lust) and, more importantly, secure the kingdoms an advantageous trade alliance.
Trina was distraught because her prince seemed to be falling for this new girl hook, line and sinker—the wedding was planned for the day after tomorrow. She signed to her sisters that the prince believed the new princess was the girl who had saved his life and, she implied, he loved this interloper out of some twisted form of obligation. Why else would he be running around with such a tramp? Didn't Trina give him everything he needed?
Her sisters ignored Trina's silent rant: they failed to see the significance of this development. Some of them were even secretly glad, because they thought that it meant that Trina would finally give up and come home. Life would go back to normal, albeit a much quieter normal now that Trina was mute. When Trina reluctantly admitted that she would die the morning after the prince's wedding, pandemonium broke out. But before Amphetria and Amaleeza (the unacknowledged reigning champions of winning arguments by shouting loudest) could work up a full head of steam, the prince came out onto Trina's balcony to see what all the noise was about and the sisters were forced to dive back into the sea.
"What do we do?" Zia wailed when they were home again. "She's going to die!"
"She won't," Amphetria said fiercely. "We won't let her die. We will fix this."
"How?" Amaleeza asked.
"We could stop the wedding," Meena suggested. "If there's no wedding, there's no problem."
"That's only a temporary solution," Amaleeza said. "He might just end up marrying someone else."
"Frankly, I'll settle for a temporary solution," Nadia said. "First we deal with the immediate threat, then we'll work on the bigger picture."
"One step at a time," Amphetria agreed. "So how do we stop the wedding?"
Zia unexpectedly had an answer to this. "We go to the Sea Witch. She helped make this mess. She'll know how to fix it."
The Sea Witch laughed and laughed to see all the Sea King's mermaid daughters lined up before her, faces determined and eyes grim.
"Well, my lovelies, what have you come to bother poor old Sea Witchie about?" she gasped out when she got her breath back.
Briefly, Amphetria explained.
"Well, what do you want me to do about it?" the Sea Witch asked, snickering at the end. "She knew the rules when she made the bargain. It isn't my fault the fine print has come back to bite her in the tail. Only it's ass now, isn't it?" She laughed some more.
"Then we need to change the rules," Amphetria said.
"It'll cost you, dearies," the Sea Witch smiled. "It'll cost you dearly."
The girls exchanged uneasy glances. "Tell us," Amphetria ordered.
"Your hair. In return for the spell you want, you must give me all of that pretty, pretty hair."
Soft gasps met her words. In the undersea kingdom, a mermaid's most treasured possession is her hair. Potential suitors measure health by the length and silkiness of a girl's tresses, and no mermaid is considered beautiful unless her hair is longer than a foot and a half. Furthermore, a mermaid stores her magic in her hair. All of the small charms she needs for life in the sea, from speaking to fish to calling up storms, can be released by the careful combing and parting of her hair.
"That isn't fair," Nadia whispered after a moment. "You'll gain far more power than your spell will cost you. This is not value given for value received."
"I know," the Sea Witch laughed. "But you certainly can't stop the wedding and rescue your sister all by yourselves. It's this or watch your sister die of a broken heart."
"You," Amphetria faltered, then tried again, "you swear that you will help our sister? If we give you our hair?"
"Yes, my lovelies. Of course I will."
"I'm not completely without compassion," the Sea Witch lied. "You may keep an inch or two. Just enough to talk to the fish and other sea creatures." Actually, if she'd forced the girls to shave themselves bald, it could have killed them. In that event, the wrath of the Sea King would fall on her then like a shark on a steak served tartare and she would never be safe, no matter where she fled.
"Give me a knife," Meena said. The Sea Witch grinned, and stretched out a knife made of a dead sailor's shinbone. It was surprisingly sharp for a blade made from somebody's leg.
"Meena..." Nadia started.
"I know," she replied. "But this is the only way to be sure that Trina will be safe. And if Trina dies and we haven't done everything in our power to help her, I will never forgive myself." With that, Meena took the knife and sliced through her hair. Her sisters stared in horror at her short haircut as the Sea Witch gleefully gathered up all the pieces.
"It will grow back," Meena said. One by one, the sisters nodded and followed suit.
"Give the knife to Trina," the Sea Witch said, gloating over her new pile of hair. "Tell her to use it to kill the prince's bride. She'll regain her tail and return to her home under the waves."
"That's blood magic," Nadia said, not so much accusing as shocked. "You're powering the spell with the death of the woman. You didn't need our hair at all."
"No, my dearies, I didn't. But it will make such a lovely addition to my stores." She smiled. "Now swim along, or you'll be too late for the wedding and your little sister will perish tragically anyway. Wouldn't that be ironic?"
As it was, the girls almost didn't make it in time. With most of the magic from their hair gone, it was much harder to control the currents that made them swim faster. The Sea Witch lived far from civilized waters to begin with, and on top of that the girls also had to ascend to the surface waters. When they finally did reach the world above, it was already nearing nightfall and the wedding party was in full swing on board a floating war galleon. To the sisters' surprise, Trina was dancing with a grace and happiness that made her the life of the party, outshone only by the bride and groom.
The Sea Princesses studied the new wife intently. Only Nadia had seen her before, and then she hadn't been paying much attention to anything except the woman's voice. The bride was tall and statuesque, with long black hair that made some of the mermaid sisters tear up a bit in envy. She looked radiant with joy.
"This isn't right," Nadia said. "Trina shouldn't have to kill someone just to come home. Look at them. They're so happy. It's not right."
"But she'll die," Zia whispered.
No one replied.
The party gradually retreated inside as the torches blew out, one at a time. It was almost morning when the last person except Trina left the ship's deck. Her sisters bobbed to the surface and called her.
What the oceans happened to your hair? Trina gestured in shock. Those are the worst haircuts I've seen, ever, and living on land has shown me some new lows in fashion.
The funny thing is Trina was serious about her question. Not even impending doom was enough to totally suppress her gut reaction to her older siblings' hairstyles.
"Never mind that," Amphetria said. "We've brought you a way back." Amphetria gulped, then continued, trying to keep her doubts from her voice. "If you take this dagger and kill the prince's new bride, your feet will fuse back into a tail and you can come home again as a mermaid."
Amphetria pressed the blade into Trina's hand.
"Please," Amphetria said.
Trina looked slowly around at the circle of her sisters' faces, then closed her fingers around the handle. She stepped slowly through the door the newlywed couple had used the previous evening. The Sea Princesses waited, holding their breath.
Just as the sun touched the far horizon, Trina stumbled out of the prince's cabin and flung the bone knife into the sea. Where it struck the water, the sea turned red as blood. Trina climbed up on the ship's rail and perched there a moment with her arms raised as if to conduct an unseen orchestra. Then she rolled up her sleeves, smiled and bowed while doffing an imaginary hat.
See? Trina gestured. Nothing hidden here, folks!
She hoped her sisters could look back on this one day and laugh. They weren't laughing yet, but perhaps in time they would.
"We love you," Meena said, and Trina nodded and smiled again.
I love you, too, she signed. And now, for my next trick...
Trina launched herself into the air and hit the waves with a splash. And the sun came up. But instead of revealing a sad, heartbroken corpse, it showed that Trina had vanished.
It was Nadia who figured out what happened.
"We paid the Sea Witch for help for Trina," she said slowly. "Since Trina wouldn't use the knife, the magic had to work a different way. We all knew she didn't really want to return to the sea, so she didn't come home. I don't think she died, though. I think she turned into one of the sprites of air."
Everyone looked at the sky to see if they could spot a sprite. Since sprites are invisible, they couldn't.
"Talk to us, Trina," Amphetria ordered.
"I don't think she can," Nadia replied. "If she's a new sprite, she won't have the skill yet to affect the air currents. It will probably be a couple of days, or even months, before she has the control to speak." In reply, a breeze patted them gently on the cheek.
The girls lingered on the surface until the humans began to wake, but that was the only sign they got that maybe their baby sister wasn't dead after all.
Later, Nadia ventured back to the lair of the Sea Witch, hoping for confirmation of her theory. It was a changed place. The tang of sulfur was still there, but it was no longer an unpleasant taste. The vegetation looked healthier, and not a single creeper tried to snare Nadia as she passed.
When she reached the Sea Witch's home, Nadia discovered the reason for this: the Sea Witch had turned into stone. The Witch had been frozen just as she held a lock of Zia's hair up to the light to examine it.
Nadia gently pulled the strands of hair from the Sea Witch's stone fingers. Nadia opened her hand, releasing Zia's hair into the water. The hair floated an instant, then sparkled once and dissolved into bubbles which raced towards the surface.
With a sigh, Nadia turned back to work. The Sea Witch may have suffered the consequences of magical backlash, but her books were still there and maybe the information Nadia was looking for was in one of them.
Surprisingly, Zia handled the loss of her hair best. The other mermaids cried about it sometimes when they thought no one was watching, but Zia never so much as sniffled. And when the creatures of the sea stared aghast at the shorn locks of the princesses, Zia was the only one who didn't have to fight to keep her chin held high.
But Zia was shy; she hated to be noticed. How could she take all the disbelieving, pitying eyes so serenely? her sisters asked.
"I have faced the old Sea Witch alone," she replied. "I have been to the surface world and back more times than I can count. I traded beauty and magic for the sake of my sister. And I have nothing to be ashamed of."
And in spite of her hair, Zia seemed to glow with a self-confidence and poise that made her more attractive and amazing than she had ever been before.
About a month after Nadia found evidence in the Sea Witch's books that Trina had indeed turned into an air sprite, Amaleeza went to the surface again. She swam up and down the waters near the prince's castle for two days before she finally caught the prince's beautiful bride on the beach alone.
"Hey," she called. The land woman startled, looked around, then shrugged it off.
"Hey," Amaleeza called a second time. "Over here, stupid!" The woman looked around again, and this time she spotted Amaleeza, who had dragged herself up the sands to where the waves crash.
"Stop," Amaleeza ordered, as the woman began to back away in fear. "I have some things to say to you.
"I don't know how you did it or what you paid, but not too long ago you bought my sister's voice. You may remember her. She was the mute who disappeared the night you married her boyfriend."
"I..." the woman said in Trina's voice. "I didn't..."
"I don't care what you have to say," Amaleeza interrupted. "You took Trina's voice and you used it to snare her prince. Do you love him?"
The woman nodded as silently as Trina would have.
"Good," Amaleeza said. "That will make this more painful:
"He will never love only you. He may think he does, but you will know better. You tricked him into marrying you by pretending to be the woman who rescued him from the storm, and no matter how much he grows to love you as you are now, you will know that you gained his trust under false pretences and that what he sees in you is another woman and another woman's voice. A part of him will always love my sister, and there's nothing you can do about it."
The woman paled as if Amaleeza had slapped her. Her head drooped and tears pooled at the corner of her eyes.
Seeing this, Amaleeza softened. Her long-held anger at this woman who had taken her sister's place faded. "It's not that bad," she said. "He may still love pieces of my sister, but I'd bet he loves you too. And as for Trina..." Amaleeza shook her head. "She forgave you. She had the chance to kill you and save herself but she didn't take it. So she must have liked you in spite of herself."
"What happened to her?" the woman whispered, and this time hearing her sister through another's mouth didn't enrage Amaleeza.
Amaleeza shrugged. "At dawn the day after your wedding, she jumped into the sea and disappeared."
"She's dead, then?"
"We're not sure," Amaleeza replied. "But we don't think so. Trina may have become one of the sprites of air."
A hopeful expression crossed the woman's face as she suddenly recalled several unusual incidents in the palace caused by what everyone had assumed was a freak wind.
"But even if she did die," Amaleeza continued, "it was the way she wanted to go. No one could tell her what to do in life, and certainly no one managed in death." She paused. "You have a bit of my sister in you," she added slowly. "If you are ever in need, come down to the ocean and sing Greensleeves. It was Trina's favorite song. Someone will hear you and send word back to me or my family."
The woman wiped her eyes and nodded. Amaleeza slipped back into the surf.
When, less than a year after Trina's disappearance, Amphetria began to take on the duties of a Sea Monarch, the kingdom was astonished at her dedication. What a good daughter, they thought, what a chip off the ol' block! And what a leader for one so young! Why, she commanded the respect of creatures three and four times her age!
None of this praise meant much to Amphetria. She didn't respect her father as much as she once had. She knew that if her father had used the power of his position instead of letting himself be a figurehead, the old Sea Witch would not have been able to gain the influence she had enjoyed—there were laws to regulate the practice of magic, but laws are useless if they aren't enforced. Or maybe if he had paid more attention to his family, Trina might not have run quite as wild as she did.
Amphetria was not going to allow herself to be just another rubber-stamper. Amphetria was going to rule the oceans with strength and justice and compassion.
But she wasn't going to go overboard with responsibility, either: the hardest lesson Amphetria had learned was that she couldn't fix everything by being in charge. Sometimes people make the wrong choices, and you have to let them. After all, you can only lead people for as long as they'll follow you.
Eventually, Trina learned to talk again. She didn't sound exactly like her old self since her new voice was made of wind, but it was close enough that the Sea Princesses knew it was really her. They would meet up at least once a month to share the gossip from the sea and hear Trina tell stories of the exotic dry lands.
"Why did you do it?" Meena asked one day, years later. "Why did you give up your tail and your voice and the sea for some prince you hardly knew?"
"I had to," Trina said in her whispery, breathy new voice. "It was the right thing for me to do. Can you understand that?"
"No," Meena replied. "No, I don't understand at all." She grinned. "But I guess we don't have to understand you to love you."
The breeze echoed Trina's laughter.