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The Skin Beneath the Skin

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"What makes exile the pernicious thing it is is not really the state of being away, as much as the impossibility of ever not being away – not just being absent, but never being able to redeem this absence.” - André Aciman 


The winter court is far from water, and it is the first time that Ariel sees snow. She understands the necessity of movement that follows in the wake of the seasons. Fish travel in schools from one part of the world to the other, following tides and currents. Mermaids do too, though Ariel has never joined them. Ariel and her sisters have always remained with their father in Atlantica, as is their duty as the royal family. Winter did not bother them, deep underwater. Their skin was thick.

Ariel no longer has that comfort. Her human skin is thin and easily bruised, so soft without the salt. And the winter court is in the north of Eric's kingdom, with so much grass and snow. She sees meadows and she sees fields. They are beautiful in their way, even the dead trees with their naked branches, but the castle is carved into a mountain where there is no water, hardly a stream. The northerners draw their water from wells, and even the taste of it makes Ariel shudder into her dinner.

So Eric, beloved Eric, sends servants to bottle southern water for her. It is an extravagance that earns him the anger of the peasants, who do not like their foreign queen, and the rumours are already circulating about how just foreign she is. The winter that year is colder and bitterer than all the winters preceding it, and there are people starving. Yet still Ariel thirsts for the clear sparkling water of her native ocean, the water with the touch of salt and the occasional trace of blood from where fish hunt other fish, and mermaids comb their hair until they bleed.

There is plenty in the winter court to delight her. Courtiers are eager to please the new princess, and they bring her coffers of dresses and jewels. Trusted handmaids patiently teach her the etiquette of the land walkers, and Ariel learns the proper uses of a brush, a perfume bottle, a stocking.

She and her ladies go sledding in the snow. They go shopping in the boutiques that line the fashionable avenues of the northern cities. They buy little dogs and feed them treats. They play card games, and Ariel learns how to bluff. They host glittering parties to ward away the growing darkness, and Ariel learns the sweet, smoky taste of wine.

She doesn't see Eric as often as she would like. He has matters of the state to attend to, but he comes to her boudoir every night and slides under the furs with her. "Ariel," he says, and her name on his tongue is the only music she could ever want. He smiles as he trails his fingers down her thighs, and she gasps and writhes for him. I gave up everything for you, Ariel thinks as she crests on his fingers, her hair in her mouth and her eyes full of his beauty. My husband, my prince, my friend.

Nevertheless, she is overjoyed when the winter is over and they return to the spring court by the sea. Ariel rushes towards the beaches, barefoot, ignoring the indulgent amusement of the court. She is young still, barely seventeen. She runs towards the water, where she sees a red crab on the rock. "Sebastian!" she shouts. "Sebastian!"

He is quiet when he sees her. 

Ariel's heart stops in her chest. "Sebastian, what is the matter?" she asks, falling to her knees. She scoops him into her hands, and he sighs like a ghost on the wind.

"Princess, your father," he begins.


Childbirth is painful. Very painful.

Ariel is twenty when she gives birth to her first child, and anguish traps her in her human body as she pushes and pushes, bearing down on the child within her. This is not right, she thinks. Mermaids are born in eggs that are cultivated in the high towers of Atlantica. The eggs are beautiful to look at, soft and gel-like to the touch, full of iridescent colour. Children are not supposed to be born like this. 

She has a daughter. The child is black-haired like Eric, and she makes almost no sound when she is born, which terrifies Ariel. The midwives put the girl in Ariel's arms, but Ariel is afraid, so afraid. "Does she have scales?" Ariel croaks, and when she is assured that her daughter has two legs and all flesh, Ariel does not know if she should be relieved. 

Two years after she has her daughter, she has a son.

Then she has another.

Ariel grows paunch around the stomach, and Eric grows lines around his eyes. There is a summer where his own father dies and he becomes king. There is a coronation, followed by numerous parades. Ariel is sick throughout most of them. Giving birth to her third child has drained her, though she smiles and puts on her crown for Eric because she loves him, and she soothes him when he is tired after a long day of kingship. Ariel understands. She is the daughter of a king; she is well practiced in these matters of deception.

She tries not to think about her own father. She mostly fails. The thought of his death is like the thrust of a ship into her chest. There is civil war in Atlantica, Sebastian has told her. Her sisters have fled in exile to other underwater cities, and the empty throne her father has left behind is currently the prize in a struggle between three mermen of the high houses. There is fighting every day, and the sharks circle Atlantica permanently, waiting to be fed. 

And there is no more music, Sebastian says sadly. No one cares for music anymore.

Ariel could change this, is what goes unsaid. Ariel was her father's favourite, and she was a favourite of the mer court as well. If she would return to Atlantica, she could turn the tide of the battle. Just the sound of her voice would be enough to make the warring factions put down their spears. She is much loved by everyone. 

But Ariel is human now. She has Eric and her three children. She is queen. She has responsibilities on the land. Besides, if her father is dead and Ursula is no more, there is no magic left to change her back. Even if Ariel were to want to return to the sea, even if memories of shells and coral overshadow her restless nights, even if she were to look at her children, who speak only of land matters and never of the water -- even then, she cannot.

That door is closed now, that passage blocked.

She can never go home.


Except that there is a woman who lives in a house at the foot of the palace mount, and everyone who passes her house calls her a witch. When Ariel hears of her, she mulls over her own thoughts for a long time. Eric asks her what is on her mind, and she tells him that there's nothing. She kisses his head and smooths the grey from his hair. They celebrate their twentieth anniversary in the north, and when Ariel drinks the underground water, she does not even remember to choke.

This is what drives her to seek out the witch.

This part is familiar. This part she has done before. However, Ariel is no longer sixteen and naive, spinning grandeur in her head. Though she is still in love. That does not change. She is still desperately in love with her kind, royal husband, and she aches at the hurt she will cause Eric when she asks the witch, "Do you know of a spell that will turn a human into a mermaid?"

"Why, my queen?" replies the witch, whose name Ariel never learns. Her eyelids are thick folds of skin and her voice is a shipwreck rasp. "Do you yearn to leave what you have on land?"

"Just for a while," Ariel says. "I would come back."

"Would you?" the witch says. 

Ariel swallows. "Tell me," she pleads.

"I know no such spell," the witch says. "But I could learn it, perhaps."

"What price?" Ariel asks, because she has learned her lesson painfully.

"I am lonely," the witch says simply, answer enough.

Ariel begins spending her afternoons by the witch's side. The court murmurs of her acquired eccentricity. Of course the court murmurs. But Eric indulges her and her children are near full grown, and they wave languidly with their soft pink hands as Ariel slips down to the witch's house and picks herbs for her, sings songs, reads books. "Everything there is to be known about the world is written in books," says the witch, who is so old that she cannot begin to count her years. 

"That isn't true," Ariel says. "We never read books in Atlantica, and still we had knowledge."

The witch acknowledges that point. "The ways of land and sea are vastly different."

"They are countries with no shared border," Ariel says quietly. She looks up at the winter sun, which hurts her eyes. "And there is no one on land who knows the way I do." And then, for the first time, she weeps. She weeps for her father, for her sisters, for her friends, for her childhood, and for the shimmering beauty of Atlantica. And for the memory of her tail, her body, for what is no longer there.


They practice magic for five years. Ariel and the witch leave Eric's kingdom and they travel together, going to distant countries and foreign empires, where there are sorcerers and mages and those possessed of great power. Ariel talks to them, and they listen, and then they open their books and pass on their arcane knowledge. Most of the spells have never been successfully attempted, Ariel is warned. She and the witch perform their own attempts, and until the fifth year, the most any of the spells ever do is give Ariel scales on her legs.

Eric laughs when he sees. "What are you doing?" he asks, cheerfully ignorant as he lies down with her in their great silken bed. "No matter," he adds. "Do whatever you like, as long as it makes you happy."

In the fifth year, Ariel finds the magic.

In the fifth year, the witch falls ill and dies. She wasn't immortal after all. Ariel gives her friend the funeral that she deserves, and silver trumpets play the three-note mourning call all over the city.

In the fifth year, there are rebels in the eastern outposts of Eric's kingdom. Their oldest son goes to lead the retaliation forces. Eric stops laughing and he takes to pacing the turrets in the late hours of the night, until Ariel has to climb out of bed and go search for him. She has to take him gently and lead him to their bedroom, where she sings to him mariner's lullabies so that he will sleep, his arms wrapped around her, tense and anxious.

In the fifth year, Ariel takes the spell, writes it down, and buries it deep the earth behind the witch's house. Her hands tremble as she digs with her shovel, and when she returns to the castle, her dress is caked in dirt and there is salt on her face and in her wrinkles.

"Mother?" her daughter asks when she finds Ariel in the conservatory. "Are you well?"

"I am fine, my dear," Ariel lies. "Tell me about your day." She beckons her daughter to sit down beside her, and she runs a seashell comb through her daughter's tangleweed hair. 


There is a girl at court. She is brazen and bold and in love. 

She catches Ariel alone during one of her walks. She goes up to her, skirts rustling around her young legs, and she looks the queen in the face, unafraid, when she says, "There is a man I love. He is a merman."

"Ah," says Ariel, who clutches her walking stick. 

"I want to be with him," the girl says. She leans in closer, and Ariel can count the darkness of her lashes. "I am willing to change. For him. I am willing to be a...a mermaid. They say you alone know the magic that will do this. The other girls talk. They call you the sea witch."

Ariel can hear the pounding of the ocean in her ears. 

"Are you sure?" she asks. "Are you very sure?"

The girl nods.

"How old are you?" Ariel asks.

"I'll be turning seventeen in the spring," the girl announces.

"Ah," Ariel says again. She looks out at the path through the garden she is taking. It is winter once more. The cobbled path is littered with dead leaves, dead grass, dead flowers. The careful cultivation of the gardeners have done little against the changing of the seasons. She looks at the girl again. There is mist in the air coming in from the direction of the shore, down past the rocks and the gate where Ariel no longer goes. She is quiet for a long moment. Then she grasps her cane tighter and starts walking. The girl is astonished, but she does not follow. Ariel walks and walks and walks.