The palace staff had been abuzz with gossip about the stranger that Prince Eric had married since the day she had first set foot over the marble threshold, but that was not surprising. Eric had been a bachelor for far too long, and a royal wedding was always cause for a great rush of excited speculation and kitchen chatter. As time went on, though, the whispers began to carry a note of unease, and though no one would say it outright it became increasingly clear: rumors were to be expected, but the rumors about this new princess were strange.
The princess insisted on bathing in seawater. At least, the servants assumed that she insisted on this. They knew that Prince Eric had ordered buckets of seawater brought back from the shore each day, and they knew that Princess Ariel refused to bathe in the hot baths so carefully prepared for her by her maids. When she had first arrived they’d prepared these in the traditional manner, with scented oils and flower petals, but the princess had barely stuck one foot in before she’d pulled it out with what seemed a genuinely frightened cry. The maids had asked what was wrong, but Ariel hadn’t been able to explain. All she could ask was whether they had any “normal” water that she could bathe in. They had dutifully drawn her another tub full of plain fresh water, but although she was able to bathe this time, she still seemed confused and out-of-sorts. The water was “too thin”. Didn’t it bother them that their bathwater was so thin? she asked, and seemed to mean it. Didn’t they ever want to bathe in normal water?
After a week or so Prince Eric instructed his servants to bring a small bag of sand and small pebbles back with the seawater several times a week. No one quite understood this instruction, but one of the maids had a guess: “She puts it in the sponge. She’s scrubbing with it, I tell you. She doesn’t like the soap. I find the sand in the bathtub. Terrible to clean, that, all that grit and grime in a rim on the bottom. A princess, washing herself with dirt! I’ve seen it all now.”
Another thing: the new princess seasoned her food at every meal with an astonishing amount of salt.
The rumors that went around about the princess weren’t ill-meant; she was actually quite well-liked. When she arrived it was happily conceded by all that she was a lovely wife for the prince, charming and sweet and very pretty indeed. But as time went by, a shadow seemed to creep over her, subtle and unnamable, but felt by all. Something wasn’t quite right. Around this time, Eric asked his servants not to sift the small pieces of seaweed out of the sand they brought back, as they had been doing, and to try to gather seafoam at the top of the buckets. The staff thought this was becoming ridiculous: the royal couple spent hours at the beach every day. Didn’t the girl get enough of seafoam and sand and seaweed then? After so many hours spent swimming, what possible need could she have to bathe in salt water again?
Eric would have explained to them if he could have, but he couldn’t. He knew Ariel needed the seawater near her when she was at the palace -- though he couldn't fully articulate the reason to himself, he thought of the standing tub of seawater as the "just in case" water, or even the "emergency" water. But in any case, the problem wasn’t even really that the time at the shore wasn't enough. The bigger problem was that despite her best efforts to learn, Ariel did not know how to swim.
But no one would have believed it, just as no one would have believed it if he tried to explain about the sleeping arrangements. The staff found it strange that they were never called to the royal bedchamber from the time that the prince and princess retired until the following morning, but the fact was that Eric and Ariel did not sleep in the same bed. They kissed and laughed on the bed, talked and held one another, tickled each other and made love there; but when it came time for them to sleep Ariel tucked Eric under the covers with a light, loving touch, and then she went out to the balcony to sleep on the rope hammock that they had had strung up there. The scent of salt off the water wafted to her on the breezes there, and with a toe she could set the hammock rocking in a way that took away the uncomfortable stillness and rigidity of flat land and reminded her of the gentle wash of the waves.
Those who knew the royal couple assumed that Ariel seemed thinner and quieter these days because she was homesick, and in a sense they were right. No one, however, would believe she was a mermaid. Some of the people on the wedding boat claimed to have seen an entire family of merpeople waving at the ship after the ceremony. They told people about this and people laughed outright: how many barrels of ale had they gone through at this wedding? Some of those who had spread the tale blushed at this and began to wonder whether they hadn’t had a few more drinks than they’d thought, and some others staunchly kept to their story and began to be thought of among the townspeople as slightly lunatic. In any case, there was no such thing as a mermaid. But the new princess certainly was strange.
When Ariel had married Eric her father had given her a magic mirror, one half of a pair: he kept the other half and they could use it to communicate. Eric was awestruck by it, but Ariel laughed at him: “Magic mirrors are the most boring present, Eric, every princess has one! And this is the third one Daddy’s given me. He gave me one for my sixth birthday and one for my ninth birthday. He never remembers what he gives me for presents. The mirrors are terrible, all my sisters hate them. Daddy used to use them to make sure we were in bed after curfew.”
“Oh… he can look at us all the time in that thing?” Eric asked, disconcerted.
Ariel giggled and knocked lightly on the side of his head. “Not if we hide it somewhere.”
They put it in the third parlor, the one with the yellowed collection of antique Bibles and an endless series of ships-in-bottles on the opposing shelves. After that day, the cleaning rotation was changed such that each maid thought another of the maids was assigned to clean that room. Under the sea a magic mirror might be a trite present, but here it would not be wise to allow the domestic staff to experiment with it.
At first Ariel visited the mirror infrequently. She had wanted for so long to be part of Eric’s world, and now here she was, with so much to experience and so much to learn. Eric took her to a bustling shopping center, where he was both delighted and mystified to be able to buy her everything she begged for: a box of wrapping paper ribbons, a pack of golf balls, a small sewing kit, a boater hat. They went to a children’s playground where Ariel became enchanted with the teeter-totter, then went to watch the sunset over the lake until the first shy stars began to peep through the twilight. In the palace she had so many rooms to explore and so many lessons to learn. She walked through the halls frowning in concentration as she tried to remember what was the difference between the sitting room and the morning room, not to mention the drawing room and the parlor and the salon, and when Eric whispered to her that they were all the same thing really she burst out laughing, then moved on to something else. She learned why a fork wasn’t ideal for use as a hair comb, but she never accepted it, and eventually Eric had a silversmith devise a slightly broader, wider-pronged fork with the word DINGLEHOPPER engraved on the handle and placed it on Ariel’s dressing-table. They were happy days, those early ones, and those were the days when the household staff looked on her bright, fresh-scrubbed face each morning and were proud of their prince’s choice. In those days there was hardly ever time for Ariel to visit the mirror. The undersea mirror cast a faint opalescent glow in the small coral-studded cove adjacent to Triton’s bedchamber, an unnatural light in a marine world, and one that Triton came increasingly to associate with loneliness.
Then days went on, and there were fewer new things to learn, and Ariel found that the air was beginning to feel heavy and oppressive, as though she were breathing in dust. When the feeling got too bad she would steal away to the mirror, and now it was more often she who was staring into an empty glass, watching the colors of another world slowly coalesce in front of her. As the mirror under the sea carried a white luminosity alien to its surroundings, so this mirror swirled with aquamarine and teal green light that was completely foreign here. The difficulty for Ariel was that, more and more, the mirror was beginning to seem not like the only foreign thing in her new home, but like the only homelike thing in a foreign world.
One day Eric came into the room and watched her from behind, silently. Triton was not in the mirror, but Ariel was staring into the mirror as if lost in a trance. She was swaying slightly. Eric doubted that she realized it. He knew he hadn’t realized the half of it – he knew that now, anyway, as he watched her body undulating to the rhythm of some far-off undersea current. He had known that she was becoming unhappy, had known that she was beginning to pine for her home, but he had never fully appreciated the impossibility of plucking a girl from the sea, placing her on the land, and counting on love to make it all well.
After a moment he went in to stand by her, and she started but then smiled at him – her smile still open and sincere, still full of love. He slid an arm around her and looked into the mirror with her, and as he looked he wondered how much longer her smiles would stay that way if things went on the way they had been. He looked at her sidewise. The green light cast her cheekbones into sharp contrast, and he knew they had not been that prominent a month before.
So later that night, when Ariel had gone to sleep, Eric went back to the mirror. After banging the sides of it repeatedly and making a rather unholy amount of noise, he managed to wake King Triton up.
The next morning he was waiting for her, not in his bed, but on the balcony next to her. He wore loose-fitting pants and was barefoot and bare-chested, and as she awoke, he leapt nimbly to his feet and extended a hand to her. “Come on,” he said to her, and she could hear the repressed eagerness in his voice. “Let’s go.”
“Go where?” She was up and following him, but drew back as he began to lead her out of the bedroom. “Eric, I’m not dressed!” she said, half-laughing. “Are you trying to trick me? I haven’t mixed up dresses and nightgowns in weeks. Give me a minute –“
He caught at her hand again. “Never mind that,” he said. “You don’t need a dress where we’re going. Come on!”
“Eric, what --!”
And he explained.
She grew paler as he spoke, and her mouth began to tremble. “Eric –“ she broke in, once she understood, “I can’t do this. I made my choice, I can’t go back. This is my home now, don’t you see?”
“I do see.” He gave her hand a strong squeeze. “That’s why I’m asking you to come with me.”
She thought about it.
And when her eyes overflowed her tears were salt, and in the moment she felt it to be a sign: humans might cry fresh water, but the salt water was her essence, and now it was calling her home. If Eric had known what she was thinking he would have been able to explain her error to her, to tell her that when he cried his tears were salt as well. But then, he was going with her.
So they left the palace, Ariel still in her nightgown, and they brushed by servants who turned their heads to stare at this newest evidence of their princess’s oddness. And then the two of them were standing knee-deep in the water, staring at the rock from which Ariel had first sung her love for the man now standing by her side.
“You’re sure you want to do this?” she asked him, wondering if he understood all of what it meant.
“Ariel,” he said, and when he turned her to him his face was that of a little boy who’s been waiting for this adventure all his life. “I’ve never been so excited.”
The smile broke across both of their faces at the same moment, and just then Triton rose up from behind the rock. He called out to them, but the wind was blowing away from the pair on the beach, and his words were lost. No matter, he thought. He was very happy as he placed his trident against the water, and the silver trail lanced across the surface to them.
As the light exploded around them, Eric took one last breath of air in a gasp: he didn't know if it was to be his last breath forever or only for a time, but he wanted to remember it, the air of his last second as a one-world creature. Then a wall of a wave broke over them, and everything dissolved into blue-green hues, and Ariel’s confident arms were guiding him down to her world.