I: Datter af havet (Daughter of the Ocean)
What she remembered most vividly from the blue world were her childhood days—the gardens of flower and shell, the solid comfort of her father the Sea King, the kind wrinkled eyes of her regal Grandmother, the swirling hair of her five sisters and how, when she wondered where shall I swim today? the fishes would wriggle here here here and when she wondered what shall I sing today? the ocean would bubble this this this and when her sisters asked who will play with us today? she would swim around them laughing me me me.
Of what came after, as she approached womanhood—the longings brought on by stories her older sisters told of the mysteries of the land above water, her own first sight of that world above the waves—only one memory was still clear: the moment of her bargain with sea witch.
Before you make this choice, make sure you answer truly to yourself: do you want to have a soul so that you can be with the Prince? Or do you want to be with the Prince because you are afraid of dying without a soul?
She had clutched the glowing bottle in her hand, and had been sure, so sure, that if only she changed he would love her, if only she left herself behind she would become who she was meant to be.
~ ::: ~
II. Datter af tavs kval (Daughter of Silent Anguish)
The red world of the land had been pain. The merciless sun pulling the water from her body, lashing her with thirst. The frightening roar and hiss of the human world, like the sounds where the womb of the sea gave birth to glowing rock and deadly steam. The humiliation of having women who were not her sisters dress her, first in heavy robes that tangled around her new feet like stranglekelp, or in stiff brocade pants that rubbed her new legs raw with every movement and a tight jacket that flattened her breasts. The final insult came when they twisted and pushed her hair under a boy's cap—if she could have shed tears at that moment a new ocean would have been born.
But when the Prince arrived, smiling in delight and taking her hand, she vowed to persevere for the sake of her love and the pride of the family she had left behind.
She taught herself to pull water up from a well and drink from a cup when she was thirsty. She strove to understand the roaring sounds that the humans made instead of speaking, and what fire was, and how to spread a piece of cloth across her lap before eating, and the names of strange new foods. She slept on a cushion outside the Prince's room at night, and during the day followed him throughout the castle, across woodland and battlefield, hiding the agony each step on her new feet brought her, because if he were to turn and look at her she did not want him to be sad. He brought her flowers, red ones with thorns that brought blood from her hands, but she knew he had not meant to hurt her. He had a red velvet stool made for her to sit on when the court musicians played; and if he did not notice that holding her hand while they listened to music filled her with longing for him, making her as sad as she was happy—well, he was a Prince, and not expected to notice such things.
She might have gone on forever, bearing the pain in order to feed on the scraps of his affection, but one day they traveled to a neighboring kingdom, and when he led a beautiful princess into the room, she knew that her life was over. She understood enough of human speech by then to comprehend the words "shipwreck" and "rescue" and "love" and "bride" and "Queen"—and even if she had not, the song that glowed between the eyes and heart of the Prince and the princess told the mermaid all she needed to know.
She had given up everything to become a woman the Prince could love, only to find that he had found the image of her in someone else.
She wore red shoes beneath her golden gown at their joining ceremony, red shoes that filled with blood as she danced at the celebration that followed, red shoes that made no sound as she crept into the nuptial chamber and watched them sleeping blissfully in each other's arms, red shoes that she left on the deck of the ship after she threw away the blessed knife that would have saved her life, if only she had taken the Prince's.
The foam on the waves had been red with the first rays of dawn.
III. Datter af luften (Daughter of the Air)
She hated her third life at first. The air was too open, too empty, too bright; it did not wrap around her like water had, or even the thick blankets of her bed in the castle; and even if it had, her ethereal body could feel neither comfort nor warmth. What she could feel, did feel, was an ache for those things that she could never experience again: her father's wisdom, the warmth that shone through her grandmother's regal vanity, her sisters' companionship ... She missed the Prince too, of course, but also the small joys she had found in his castle: the taste of strawberries, the scent of birch logs burning in the fireplace, even the simple pleasure of combing her hair. As a Daughter of the Air all this was lost to her, as she could only see and hear, could only take action as a breeze.
But gradually she adjusted. There was a sparse beauty in the world of the air: the wispy cirrus veils, the altocumulus that mimicked sea-waves, the towering cumulus that turned into saffron castles at sunset. There were high strong wind currents to ride—even as high as the aurora itself—and of course, there was her work. She learned how, when people sighed deeply their despair or anger rose into the sky like wisps of smoke, a trail to lead her to someone she could try to help. For those who were sad, often all it took was sending the scent of flowers their way, or making the music of a tree leaves' rustling, or urging a bird to land near then. For lover's quarrels she blew strands of hair into their eyes, and as often as not when one would reach out to brush the stands away that tenderness would melt the anger or hurt between them. The sparkle of accomplishment she felt when she saw someone smile or laugh as a result of her actions—that joy was almost as good as singing had been.
One day, early in her service, she was visiting one of her favorite cities, one bordered on two sides by the sea and threaded through with a river. As she soared high above buildings almost as beautiful as her sea home, she suddenly became certain that her father the Sea King was calling to her from the river below. She could not say what it was that made her think so, but still she dove eagerly down through the branches of the tall trees that lined the riverbank, half expecting to see her father's crown of shells and regal beard above the water. What she found instead was a—human (for a moment she had thought "split tail"). Thin and beardless, with curly dark hair and a high forehead, he was hunched forward as if the weight of the threadbare coat he wore dragged him down. She was so disappointed and confused not to find her father that she began to turn away from this ugly awkward man—but then she noticed his eyes. Deep-set and small as they were, they held a love-song so powerful she was stunned. And then she saw what he sang at: across the river, past a delicate iron fence, in the midst of a garden, was a wedding (she knew weddings very well). The ugly man was singing at the groom, and she suddenly recalled something she had been told after she had found her middle sister in the Grotto of Pearls, twined around and kissing one of their friends: It's not always about mating. Sometimes it's about swimming together. When she saw that the shining youth in the garden had eyes only for his bride (she knew that song very well too) she was suddenly desperate to comfort the ugly man. She tossed clouds aside so that he might be warmed by the sun, she blew the perfume and laughter and music of the wedding away from him, but it was all of no use. Tears ran down his ugly face and he jammed his hands deep in his coat and ran away from the river, biting his cheeks to keep from sobbing.
She followed him, hovering above the streets he walked, perching outside the window of the tiny room where he wrote by candlelight far into that night, swooping in as a gust when he went to a party at a grand house. He was like a crow among peacocks there, his tall, somberly-dressed form standing awkwardly in a corner until, with much sleeve-tugging and pleading several ladies led him to a chair near the piano. The room became silent. He pulled some papers from his coat and began to read aloud, an act that seemed to transform him, making him confident and almost handsome (his pain and loneliness completely hidden, a mask also she knew). People smiled and brushed away tears and clapped for long minutes when he was done. He bowed and blushed, but she could see that he felt awkward, a crow on the far side of the river, gazing with longing at what he could never have.
A score of winters came and went before she sensed him again, this time in a city of churches and light. She floated down through the snowy air to find him walking past the crowds in front of a massive cathedral. At the center of one of the groups at the bottom of the steps was a beautiful curly-haired young man, laughing and smiling but shivering in thin dancer's clothes. Far above, she spied a tourist with a green scarf leaning over a balcony: she swirled the scarf off and dropped it down through the swirling white into the ugly man's hands. Without missing a beat he stepped boldly to the young man and draped the scarf around his neck, and then gave him his coat. (No longer shabby: she could see it was the finest wool shaped by court tailors.) The dancer smiled at the ugly old man with the soulful eyes, who stood like a raven among sparrows, and the two began to talk. After the rest of the group drifted away the two ascended the steps of the cathedral. When the now-coatless ugly man shivered, the young dancer took off the green scarf and wound it around his neck with surprising care.
Her joy was better than singing had been.
IV. Datter af æteren (Daughter of the Ether)
And so a thousand seasons and more passed. From time to time a Daughter would complete her service and be seen no more; from time to time another would join the ranks. The ugly man grew even older, and finally she could no longer sense him anywhere. From time to time she thought of her family, and the Prince that she had loved, and strawberries, and combing her hair, but these were now so far in the past that they seemed to have happened to someone else. The world became noisier, shinier, more crowded, with more factories and less sailors (or perhaps they were all on the bird-shaped ships of the air?); but everywhere she went people still exhaled their sadness and anger, and it still rose into the air as a beacon to mark those who the Daughters of the Air might help. And so her work went on. If the little mermaid (for so she still thought of herself, even after so long) was not truly happy, at least she was content. She had seen many lands, met many people she never would have known if she had not left her ocean home; she was doing good, and even though it would some day earn her a soul it was also satisfying in itself. She rode the winds up to the aurora and beyond, into the black ocean of night, and if sometimes she asked herself where shall I fly today? no longer did she expect an answer.
And then, it seemed she found one.
One day, after after leading two children lost in a park back to their parents using a stray balloon as bait, she was flying in lazy circles above buildings near the center of the city when a strong something pushed her straight up into the sky, far faster than an air thermal or a high sky wind. She was curious to see where it would take her and so rode along with it, up and up and up towards a huge dragonfly of glass and metal. She had never been so high above the earth before and for a moment worried that she would be stranded far past the limits of flyable air, but then she noticed that the stream carrying her was faintly visible against the black of the sky: a ghostly ribbon like a train track without rails—and there were other ribbons, flowing to and from the dragonfly.
She followed one back down to earth and stayed on it even when it sped her right into a wall and down a dark tunnel and then into a fourth world, filled with towering buildings and empty streets. All around, lights flickered and small darting creatures (like glowing fish!) sped past her in a blur. She called out, but no one answered. She moved towards where the lights were brighter, and where most of the small creatures seemed to be schooling, stopping every few minutes to call and listen. Finally, she thought heard something—faint, and perhaps not an answer, and yet … someone was talking, or singing, or simply playing music, and it beckoned her. Through narrower and less brightly lit streets she followed the sound, though a city that began to look more and more like the grottoes and sea-caves of her childhood, until the inky water (she only realized then that she had been swimming instead of flying) brightened to turquoise above a vast white coral reef that sloped up and out of sight ahead of her.
It was like no reef she had seen. The coral was geometric, chalky white bricks of varying heights set in neat rows. The small creatures she had seen in the city were here too, racing along the rows, some speeding away from her up the slope and out of sight. She gave a flip of her tail (Her tail? Her TAIL!) and glided forward to where the reef turned to fine white sand. She poked her head above the water wonderingly, and saw a group of five people on the beach. One of them waved at her, beckoning, and she rose from the water and walked towards them …
(and out of the water she had feet, but they no longer felt as though she was treading on knives with every step, and then she realized that miraculously she had a body again, feet and hands and hair, hair the color of the water of the reef, flowing over her shoulders, swirling around her hips, so long the ends tickled the tops of her feet)
… not realizing at first, as one of the boys grinned at her and held out a bouquet of tulips, and the other boy (with hair as blue as the trim on his jacket!) blushed and looked away from her, that she was entirely nude. She quickly pulled bits of her hair over her nakedness, embarrassed, but the three girls in the group quickly stood between her and the boys, shielding her from their stares. One of the girls, a brunette dressed all in red, shook her fist at the boys, and they quickly turned their backs. Another of the girls rummaged in a large black bag she carried, pulled out a lipstick, shook her head and tossed it back, then pulled out some black and green clothes (the fabric was soft, so soft!) which she handed to the grateful mermaid. All of them were smiling at her and once she was dressed the silver-haired girl offered with gestures to comb her hair. The sensation of the comb sliding through her hair was intense, almost sensual, and with that thought the mermaid had an image of herself and the other girls swimming together as mermaids, and she suddenly felt quite happy. A moment later they all crowded around her, and the boy with the blue hair silently handed her a large brown shell with a soft pink ball on top. After a moment the third girl pantomimed licking it, and the mermaid nervously obeyed—but then she smiled, for even though the pink ball was very cold it tasted of strawberries.
They took her hand and led her up a small hill to a well surrounded by benches. The girl in red pointed into it. The mermaid looked down and saw, not water but a window. Through the window she saw a dark-haired young man sitting at a table with his head in his hands. His whole posture radiated weariness and defeat, so much that she almost cried in frustration that she could not reach down the well and through the window to comfort him. He glanced up then as if he knew she was there and he seemed to see her, really see her the way her Prince never had, and she knew that one day soon, when the others would ask who will play with us today? she would dance around them laughing me me me and when they would wonder where shall we go today? the river of light would beckon them here here here and when they would ask what shall we sing today? she would lead them to the white coral reef and point to the bubbles saying that that that …
... because she knew that soon, very soon, the man down the well would find a way to give her her voice back—and when he did, her soul could pour out in song.
~ The end ~