“But if you take away my voice,” said the little mermaid, “what is left for me?”
“Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.
Well, have you lost your courage? Put out your little tongue that I may cut it off as my payment…”
-Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid”
The mermaid is lovely, even among her kind, with skin as white as surf-bleached bone and a cloud of dark red hair, like the billows of wave-borne blood at a shark attack. Her eyes are dark and shining as mussels.
She is surfacing to watch two sea-birds swoop and dive to tease a young shark – it amuses her, the gambols of air and sea creatures – when she spies something bright and pale and wildly out of place. The head and shoulders of a boy – a human boy – clinging feebly to a broken plank.
The shark has not yet turned its course. Its vision is poor and preoccupied by the swift-splashing bodies of the diving birds, but there is blood on the boy’s head, and the shark will scent it soon. She dives and swims for the boy with all speed.
He is thickly built and heavy to tow, but her tail is sleek and powerful. She turns him about – the shark will not trouble her – and holds him to her, tugging him safely through the perils of crashing surf, wickedly twining kelp, and jagged rocks.
With a great heave she thrusts him upon the sand and examines his body for wounds. His head has suffered the worst – the blow seems to have rendered him unconscious – but his primary enemy is the cold, and she is ill-equipped to aid him in that. She presses her form to his, but her body is as frigid and slippery as the fish whose tail she bears. The boy’s skin is warm, warm as the sun at high summer, and he shivers fiercely at her touch.
It was a pleasure-craft that led to this, she realizes, poorly piloted by an unseasoned sailor. But in so fair a boy, such would be a minor shortcoming.
His hair, drying swiftly in the brisk wind, is spun gold, soft and pale as a chick’s down, and his skin is creamy as the petals of cliff roses. His chest is broad and dusted with fine hairs, as are his long, strong legs. His entire body, despite his youth, is corded with hard muscle.
She has never been so near a human body, let alone a boy’s, and her eyes are drawn to the soft things nestled in the pale curls between his legs. There is a small limb, like a thick finger, about as long as her hand, and a plump sac beneath. Mermen are similarly equipped, she imagines, but not so exposed. She fondles the things curiously, and the boy opens his eyes with a start. They are blue; stormy-sea blue, lashed with wet spikes of gold. Her heart gives a wild lurch.
There comes a cry from just up the beach, and she turns, slipping fluidly into the lapping waves. When she has reached a safe distance, she watches. It is a fisherman’s daughter who comes, a girl with a long black braid and wind-browned skin. She blushes at the boy’s naked body and covers him with her salt-stained coat.
A man follows, tall, dark, and lean – the fisherman himself – and carries the boy to their hut. The mermaid knows he will be well in their care.
It is she who suffers now.
She dreams of dark blue eyes and downy golden hair, of the impossible warmth of his flesh, the glorious breadth of his chest. And she loves him, the yellow-haired boy with skin nearly as pale as her own.
She goes to the witch-king, an ageless ancient with hair like angry billows of seafoam. He offers one trade and one trade only: a tongue for a wish. Any wish, it is said, but the price remains the same.
It’s rumored he eats the tongues, and calls them sweeter than clams.
The white-haired merman laughs at her request, though he is happy enough to trade human legs for her tongue. He makes no guarantee, save in supplying exactly what is asked. The trades are irreversible, and the transaction is more painful than ever she could have dreamed.
Her pretty mouth brims with blood as she flees his gardens of rosy coral, but she swallows mouthful after mouthful, for her body is legged and ungainly now, and sharks will not hesitate to strike at the slightest whisper of a wound.
An excruciating eternity later, she crumples onto the shore and vomits up her own blood. So much blood, a veritable pool of it, spilling from her mouth and nose to stain the sand. She must be dying.
When at last her retching ceases, she struggles to stand on her new-sprung legs and promptly collapses onto the bloody sand with a wordless scream of agony. The witch-king has tricked her, for each step is taken as upon broken shells: sharp piercing pain against every inch of her new feet, and yet she does not bleed. She considers whether she might have no blood left. She lies in the sand and sobs and sobs.
An hour passes, perhaps longer, and she drags herself to the water’s edge to wash the blood from her body. Thus cleaned, she wriggles back up to the safety of the beach, and there contemplates her new form. Her legs are slim and shapely, and between them lies a thatch of hair the same color as that on her head. She wonders at its purpose, for it cradles no such appendages as the boy’s.
He finds her far sooner than she expects, riding a horse the blazing copper of sunset along the shoreline. He is arrayed head to foot in fine blue silk, heavily worked in gold. When he sees her he springs from his mount’s back.
“You are hurt!” he cries, touching the corners of her mouth, where little dried pools of blood still linger, but she shakes her head, her dark eyes shining. No pain matters now.
He looks at her properly then, only to blush and quickly turn away, stripping off his coat for her to cover herself with. She cannot understand, for at home all went about as she does now, and she was considered fair to look on, her breasts high and full and proud, white peaks tipped with pink.
She hobbles to her feet with his aid, biting her lip against the blinding pain, and the golden boy lifts her onto his horse. He climbs up behind her and wraps her in his arms, and she weeps tears of bliss against his broad chest.
He takes her through a city and into a palace, and she realizes he is a king’s son – a prince among these seafaring men. Once dismounted, he carries her to his own chambers and sends for maidens to bathe and healers to tend her. Afterward he lays her in his own vast marble bed and wraps her in feather-soft coverlets. He does not know that the clammy chill of her pale body is her natural state, and she does not refuse his comforts.
He coaxes her to take rich soups and warm goat’s milk, but her stomach rejects such heavy human fare, so instead he brings her a little sea-broth: saltwater and seaweed, gently simmered and soothing to her violated mouth. She drinks it gladly, cup after cup from the prince’s strong hands, and quickly regains her strength.
He makes a favorite of her, they say. She is his shadow, always at his elbow, and he seems content to keep her close. They give her soft, plain gowns, and she slumbers on a little pallet in his bedchamber. Her mouth heals, and soon she barely notices the brutal pain in every step she takes. Or so she assures herself.
A fortnight passes, and the prince tells her eagerly that they are going to pay a visit, and an important one. Musicians and dancers are to join them, and half a dozen people simply to carry rich presents. “You will love her,” he promises.
Her? the mermaid wonders, frowning. Who is her?
The prince mounts behind her on his copper-coated mare, and their jeweled entourage rides from the palace, through the city, and comes to a stop outside the fisherman’s hut. The fisherman’s daughter answers the herald’s knock, and blinks at the company in surprise.
The prince slips from his mare’s back at once and goes to the fisherman’s daughter, his face radiant. From a pouch at his belt he produces a ring of dark gold, encrusted with gemstones as blue as his eyes. He falls to one knee, the ring held aloft in his palm, and the fisherman’s daughter scowls before stepping inside and closing the door in his face.
A crack opens in the mermaid’s heart.
The fisherman himself emerges some moments later, deeply flushed, and offers the company his humblest apologies. A merry feast is arranged on the beach, and entertainments aplenty, and the fisherman’s scowling daughter emerges after a time to weave among the pipers and seek for food. The prince offers her bread, a small golden loaf, and she takes it willingly. But she does not take the ring, though the prince offers it twice more, and at length she breaks from the company to aid a fair-haired man mending nets.
The mermaid does not understand this behavior from the fisherman’s daughter, but she is glad of it.
When all are subdued with drink and weariness, the fisherman sings, and his daughter too. Their voices are exquisite, beyond anything the mermaid has ever heard before, for their singing can, and does, silence the screams of gulls. The mermaid’s eyes fill with tears, as do the prince’s, at the beauty of their song. He returns the ring to its pouch and quietly orders the company home.
The prince sleeps poorly, and eats little, while the mermaid frets wordlessly and sighs and struggles to comfort him with pretty gestures and eloquent looks. The royal jeweler is sent for, and the following day another foray is made to the fisherman’s hut. The company is smaller this time: no musicians, no dancers, not even those bearing rich gifts. The prince and the mermaid ride his copper mare, accompanied by a single footman and two shaggy ponies, burdened with sacks of flour and baskets of apples.
The fisherman’s daughter answers the door, and this time the prince offers the food first. Her father accepts it on her behalf and invites the small company inside to sit around his driftwood fire. The prince speaks gently and lovingly to the fisherman’s daughter, and again takes a ring from his belt pouch. This one is a band of finest silver, circled with smooth, moon-colored stones.
The crack in the mermaid’s heart yawns wider.
The fisherman’s daughter seems to hesitate, but once more she sends the prince away rejected. And the mermaid weeps, this time for another’s sorrow.
The footman and ponies return to the palace, but the prince remains to wander the shore, much downcast. “How shall I win her?” he laments to the mermaid. “I love her with all my being, but when I speak to her of it, she is as unyielding as these very cliffs. This maid who tended me – who saved my life when I was near-drowned, and whose healing hands restored me to health – surely she cannot be without feeling?”
At this the mermaid’s heart splits in two, for she realizes that her own act of saving the prince from the sea will never be known, and might as well never have happened. He loves the fisherman’s daughter, who found him on the beach and tended his wounds. Like as not, he never knew the mermaid was there, let alone that she played a role in his rescue.
The mermaid looks at him, her broken heart heavy in her chest, and dives into the surf. She can no longer stay under for more than a few moments, but it is time aplenty for what she seeks, and as always, the saltwater soothes her burning feet.
She brings the prince an oyster, its twin shells disfigured and unlovely.
“With this?” he wonders. “How shall I win my love with this?”
The mermaid kisses the oyster in silent apology and bids the prince strike it against a rock. He is strong, her golden boy, his hands large and warm and powerful.
They find a pearl within, the size of the mermaid’s thumbnail. “Beauty in the rudest trappings,” the prince breathes. “Of course.”
Her broken heart bleeds as she pierces the pearl and threads it on a strand of her own dark red hair. This gift must endure a lifetime at the least, and a mermaid’s hair is strong as fishing line.
The prince returns to the hut alone, the mermaid watching from a shadow. The fisherman’s daughter answers his knock, a lantern in hand, and the prince sinks to his knees, proffering the pearl on its fey string.
The fisherman’s daughter takes the pearl between her thumb and forefinger, as though caressing it, and brings it to her lips. Her eyes are bright with tears as she nods to the prince. He gets at once to his feet and embraces the fisherman’s daughter, who winds her own arms about his broad back and weeps with joy against his shoulder.
What remains of the mermaid’s heart crumbles to dust.
Much revelry follows on the heels of the prince’s betrothal, and the mermaid, as the prince’s companion, is at the center of the wedding preparations. She tends the fisherman’s daughter as lady’s maid and soothes her own shattered heart by silently dismissing the girl as plain. Between her eel-slender body, strong brown hands, and small dark breasts, no merman would look at this one twice. Never mind her silver eyes – her lashes are short and sooty as guttered candle wicks.
The fisherman’s daughter does not look for affection from the mermaid – she is far too fierce and independent to be so bothered – yet she is never anything but kind. “Someone hurt you,” she says once, sadly, and touches the mermaid’s mute lips with one callused finger.
She will not care for this girl, the mermaid resolves.
And yet she does, almost at once. She loves the fisherman’s daughter for her scowls and her strength, and for the prince’s blinding love for her. And oh, how the fisherman’s daughter loves the golden prince. She is stubborn and proud to his face, but she melts whenever he turns away. Her eyes follow him like a flower does the sun; her body contours to his when they dance.
And the mermaid discovers, with a wrenching ache in the hollow where her heart used to be, that this would have happened anyway. The witch-king is only too happy to trade tongues for wishes, but his bargains are cruelly shrewd. The prince, she learns, loved the fisherman’s daughter long before the mermaid found him in the sea. He had seen her on the shore, singing, a hundred times before. He has loved her since childhood, he says, as he kisses her small dark hands on the eve before their wedding. It was for her that he had attempted to learn sea-craft: the little pleasure-boat that set him in the mermaid’s path had been launched in hopes of catching the eye and the good opinion of the fisherman’s daughter.
There had never been a chance for the mermaid to win his heart, and the witch-king had known it.
On the morning of the nuptials, the mermaid bathes the fisherman’s daughter in a steaming marble tub, heady with rosemary and cliff roses, and polishes her dusky skin with rich seaweeds and salt. Then she dresses her in a bridal gown lapped about with wavelets of pale green lace, with the prince’s single pearl between her small breasts.
The wedding is a royal affair, full of silver trumpets and joyous song. The mermaid follows the fisherman’s daughter up the aisle of the sanctuary, her feet a welter of agony as she presents to the prince the newly crafted crown: a simple, stunning wreath of woven silver and pearls. He places it upon the head of the fisherman’s daughter, nesting it upon her coils of heavy black braids, and the cathedral erupts in whoops and cheers.
Their honeymoon is to be a sea voyage, shared by musicians and dancers and the finest cooks in the kingdom, but the first part of their journey is the wedding night, and all withdraw to their own cabins, save for the mermaid, who has no chamber of her own. She stands outside the bridal bower: a canopy of fine silver fishing nets, threaded with pearls, and a broad bed beneath, sheeted with silks.
She watches as the prince carefully removes his new wife’s gown, the lace billowing like seafoam as it cascades down her slender body. He strokes the pearl where it lies between her breasts, then he brings his mouth to one dark peak; lovingly at first, then hungrily, his broad hand spanning her narrow back as he suckles like a whale calf. His hips jerk wildly, punctuated by wet, throaty grunts, and the fisherman’s daughter arches with pleasure and tangles her fingers in his soft curls, pressing his face tightly against her.
He draws back to shed his clothing, and the soft limb between his legs is suddenly crimson and rampant, the tip of it beaded with a milky pearl of its own. The fisherman’s daughter blushes at the sight and lies back on the silvery sheets, bending her slim legs and spreading them wide. The prince trembles as he spreads them wider still, then he settles between his wife’s legs, his strange red limb pointed at the mossy juncture of her thighs, and slowly pushes forward.
The fisherman’s daughter gasps and cries out, and the prince stills for an eternity, kissing her lips, her breasts, her throat, even the tears from her eyes. His arms, braced on either side of her, are rigid, the muscles quivering with restraint. Finally the fisherman’s daughter gives a little nod, and the prince begins to pump his lean hips, down and up and down – or rather, in and out and in again. He begins cautiously and a little uncertain, but the fisherman’s daughter’s gasps ease into moans, and her dark hands guide his mouth to her breast again, and before long both their movements are vigorous and euphoric.
They mate like dolphins, belly to belly. The mermaid watches their bodies, pale and dusky, tossing and rising like waves. Now the white crest above, now the dark water, and all the while their mingled breath coming quicker and more frantic, paced to the rhythmic thrust of the prince’s hips. The fisherman’s daughter curls her slim legs around his waist, making them both groan.
Suddenly the prince gives a broken cry and stills, his back bowed sharply, and the fisherman’s daughter gasps beneath him, her silvery eyes wide. The prince sinks over her, his face buried in her neck, and she strokes his sweaty hair, leaning up a little to press a kiss to his brow.
And the mermaid weeps, with both grief and joy, and at last turns away from the bridal bower. The sunset is glorious, but she can find little pleasure in it. She walks to the railing, thinking to find some small consolation in gazing at the sea, and catches her breath at what waits below.
Her brother, his thick hair the same dark red as her own, his skin as bone-white, gazes up at her with an agony that mirrors her own. Blood trickles from both sides of his mouth.
He extends one pale arm, the hand bearing something sharp and bright, and she reaches instinctively to take it from him.
It is a dagger, one of the witch-king’s own, with its hilt of twin fishes. Her brother chokes down mouthfuls of blood as he mimes what she must do.
The dagger is meant for the prince. She is to pierce his heart with it, and the spray of his blood will restore her fish’s tail. She can return to the sea, still mute, of course, but free of the prince, and of the agony that pierces her feet at every step. She shakes her head wildly, but her brother only beckons, beseeching her with pain-filled eyes, before swimming away.
She turns back toward the bridal bower, looking at the dagger in her hands. Her brother gave his tongue for this. Could he not see that another bargain with the witch-king would help no one? She cannot kill the prince. She loves him, and his new bride.
But can she walk on broken shells for the rest of her life, watching their bliss, knowing what her brother paid?
She hears a splash then, but from the side they call starboard – opposite to where she saw her brother. She turns, thinking he might have returned with another message or further instructions, and sees a man at the railing there, his back to her.
A man on deck cannot splash. She comes closer and he turns.
The man is a stranger, and at the same time oddly familiar. He has thick fair hair, the dull gold of the beach where she once laid the injured prince, and his jaw is shadowed by a thick, ruddy beard. His eyes are the blue-gray of the sea in winter, and his skin is pale as bleached bone.
She has seen him before, she realizes, the man with the sandy hair, seen him mending nets at the fisherman’s hut – with the fisherman’s daughter, the night the prince first asked her to be his wife.
In his hand he holds a dagger with a hilt of twin fishes, identical to the one her brother gave her just moments ago.
Oh, she thinks. OH.
She reads the rest in his eyes, in the eloquent silence of merfolk. A merman loved a fisherman’s daughter, enough to give up his tongue and walk on broken shells to live near her, to work at her side and share her confidences. How could he have known he would lose her to a prince?
She wonders who traded their tongue to bring him home.
He looks briefly at the bridal bower, at the net winking with pearls in the sunset. At the fisherman’s daughter, her small breasts peaked sharply, her dusky legs splayed to accommodate the prince’s golden head.
He drops the dagger over the side of the ship.
The mermaid stares at him for a long moment, very thoughtful, then lets her own dagger fall into the sea. The merman gives a tiny smile and brings a hand to her face, a question in his eyes.
And for the first time since the prince’s betrothal, she thinks, Perhaps.
She follows him to his own narrow bunk and they lie beneath a rough quilt, clothing shed as is their natural state. His skin is as clammy and pale as hers, and they touch each other lightly, eager for the feel of another like them – of the memory of their lives before. She fondles the soft things between his legs and he blushes deeply, giving a quiet chuckle.
Mermen are not accustomed to being so exposed.
He unabashedly caresses her breasts in turn, and she smiles.
Their first kiss is an awkward thing, for mer-kisses are full of tongues like slippery fish, and neither of them is thus equipped, but the wedding voyage is long, and they learn the shape of each other’s mouth, and how they can alter to cause new sensations. They learn the secret places of each other’s body, and she discovers that the strange thatch of hair between her legs conceals delicate little epicenters of pleasure. His curious, questing fingertips make her writhe and gasp and part her legs in invitation, and one lazy morning he obliges, slipping a long finger inside her.
She gives a throaty shriek of surprise as her hips buck against him, perplexed and delighted, both by his action and her body’s response to it. He does it again and again and again, till her body tremors and tightens and her thighs grow slick. Mating follows soon after, though their bodies merge front-to-back, as befits their kind. He sucks at the skin of her neck, his fingers dancing between her legs till they grow numb with pleasure and she collapses onto the bunk with a groan.
He pumps his hips twice more, then something wet and hot spurts from the tip of him deep inside her. It’s a peculiar, delicious sensation, and she wonders if this is what so startled the fisherman’s daughter in her lovemaking.
She falls asleep, happily spent, and he does it again, an exquisitely gentle pulsing, quite slow and deep, as his body nestles behind hers. One hand drifts lazily over her breasts, now stroking, now squeezing, till she interrupts its caresses to raise his beloved fingers to her lips.
Drowsy and contented, she wonders if this would have happened anyway.
The fisherman’s daughter is laughing and round with child when the bridal boat returns at last, though neither she nor her prince can think what happened to their mute companion in the months since they set sail.
The mermaid and her lover slip away quietly at the docks. The fisherman has himself long since moved to the palace to join his daughter, and they make their home in his abandoned hut. The merman knows nets, of course, and they live upon the bounty of the sea, trading for small goods as they need.
They swim often and walk rarely, and always afterward they lie together on their cot, kissing and caressing each other’s burning feet. They do not speak, of course, but both know the eloquence of a gaze, and they discover the power of single words, written in the sand or in the fog of warm breath on glass. At night they sit around the driftwood fire for an hour or so, long fingers interwoven and here and there a kiss exchanged, before retiring to their bed and the more intimate pleasures of each other’s company.
It is, all in all, a good life.
Now and again they see the prince and his dark wife on the beach, but the sight of them – blissful and eager for the birth of their baby – brings no pain.
For the mermaid’s own belly is swollen with child, and in due course she births a baby girl, with skin as white as surf-bleached bone and a cloud of dark red hair, though her eyes are the wintry blue of her red-bearded father. She is, by all appearances, a human child, with short chubby legs and a laughing pink tongue, though she shares her parents’ passion for the sea and can swim almost from birth. Her first steps, and all those that follow, are taken without pain.
And the mermaid and her husband know true joy at last.