Deep down, far below the sea, where creatures unknown or unimaginable to man live, there was a kingdom. As with all kingdoms in that time of once upon a time, it was ruled by a king who had beautiful daughters; in this case five: each more beautiful than the other so that the youngest was unimaginatively beautiful. These sisters, incapable of jealousy, loved and cared for each other. But then the kingdom was remarkable.
The king’s wife had long since died leaving only her trace in the foam on the edge of a wave. This is what happened to merpeople when they die. It is said that they have no soul and therefore no hope of life hereafter. One is curious about how the mother of the five princesses died because the life expectancy of the average merperson is 300 years. At the beginning of our story none of the princesses were yet 21 and the youngest was 15. But I have heard this story told by someone who knows the way of the merpeople and I must bow to his superior knowledge on that count. I am simply retelling it as I know how.
The kingdom of the Undersea was ruled well. There was no anxiety. Fish swam around the kingdom and into the palace with no fear of being killed or punished. The king’s mother cared for the princesses who loved each other, kept their promises to each other and trusted each other, confident in their ability to support each other under any circumstances.
The four older sisters were bemused by their youngest sister, who was never quite satisfied. She was a dreamer and dreamed beyond anything that the others thought of dreaming about. The focus of her dreaming was a statue of a human male she had found lying on the seabed. The marble was smooth and glinted in the shafts of light that penetrated the depths of the ocean. He stood on two stumps with flattened platforms at their end to keep him upright. Grandmother, who knew a lot about landpeople, called the stumps legs and feet. The statue was wonderfully proportioned and thrilled the heart and mind of the princess. She placed it in the centre of her garden and took care that barnacles and other molluscs did not attach themselves to its beautiful body. At the feet of the statue she cultivated multi-coloured seaweed and anemones cropped so none would obscure any of the beauty of the figure. She dreamed of it coming alive and of being able to breathe and live underwater; of them becoming man and wife. But she knew this was a dream because landspeople dragged down to the depths in their drowned state had not been able to breathe.
The princesses were biddable, even the youngest who was so keen to learn about landspeople. The rule in the family was that they had to wait until they were 21 before breaking the surface of the water and riding the waves, enabling them to observe the lives and activities of the landspeople.
The youngest princess waited, her dreams and images fed by each of her sisters who described what they had seen when they had been allowed to swim to the surface of the ocean. Each returned home and described palaces, strange four-legged creatures that ate the landweeds, of women walking, their bodies covered in richly covered fabrics that swirled around their legs. The men, not so ashamed, wore tight fitting fabrics on their legs and loose fitting shirts. No merperson understood why they had to cover themselves in this way. Merpeople are proud of their bodies and in particular of their sweeping tails and the fine spread of their tail fins.
“No fabric worn by the landfolk,” said the oldest princess, “can possibly capture the light or sparkle of the myriad of colours of our scales. These legs must be very ugly.”
Another princess wondered about the skin of landspeople. She had seen skin of different colours. “Those people with white skin paint it different colours. It must be very dull without paint and they must be ashamed of it. Even those people with brown or black skin seem to add colour, although not as much as those with white skin.”
The princesses looked at their skin: fine, pearl coloured with a hint of green. “Why, they agreed, although the youngest only agreed hesitantly, would you want to colour your skin?”
Another princess noticed that some of the landsmen and women seemed not to share the same privileges as others. There were those who were not so finely dressed, who were more stooped and danced less, had less music in their lives and did not live in such fine buildings. This seemed strange to all the princesses, including the youngest. All merpeople are the same: each has their own job and there is little to distinguish one from the other, except for the status of royalty.
“And,” said another princess, “how odd that their hair is pinned and cut close to their faces or hidden by head cloths.”
The princesses stroked their hair that floated in soft strands like fine water vermicelli, waving about their heads to the movement of the water in colours of gold, blue and green.
These stories only provoked the youngest princess’s curiosity even further. How she longed to break surface and see for herself. She sat close to her statue and stroked it as she dreamed.
Finally the day of her 21st birthday arrived. She wound coral strings around her head and through her hair. Her grandmother pressed pearls just above the neck of her tail fin, a mark of adulthood. It was painful but growing up no matter where you live, is painful.
At last she was free to go. She swam upwards to the sky and headed towards the land. Bravely she swam as close to the beach as she could and heaved herself and slithered onto a rock to observe the landspeople. Some saw her and shrieked in fear. The princess was renowned for her sweet, fluid voice and sang to calm them, but this frightened them even more. When a mob of men brandishing long, pointed sticks at her appeared, she took fright and slipped into the water.
But still she wanted to know more. The princess found a lagoon and followed the river upstream for a short distance. Not far up the river she came upon a grand palace, with stairs of gleaming marble that led from the palace to a pavilion overlooking the river. Nearer the palace she could see gardens of richly perfumed roses, lavender, honeysuckle, jasmine and other scented flowers. She had never smelt anything so sweet and wanted to enter the garden.
As she lay across a fallen tree trunk, she saw a landsman, not unlike her statue, but clothed, coming down towards the river. His legs were long and well-shaped, just like her statue and he moved at an even pace. He was accompanied by others, male and female, but none matched his beauty and refinement. The little mermaid felt her heart lurch and quicken and every fibre of her body tingled and pulsed.
A woman looked across to the tree trunk and putting a lace handkerchief to her nose said in a shrill voice: “What a smell. There is a very large, dead fish caught on the tree trunk. It must be removed.”
Immediately the prince, for that is who had touched the princess’s heart, called to someone to remove the odious fish. When men in waders and carrying nets started splashing through the water towards the princess, she realised that she was in danger and, with a sore heart and flick of her tail that sparkled like so many cascading diamonds, leaving the landspeople gasping, she sank into the water.
One day while playing in the waves she saw a ship. People were partying on its decks. She spotted her prince amongst the crowd. She heard music such that she had never heard before and voices singing and though the notes were sweet, they were not nearly as sweet as those of mermaids. Entranced she swam around and close to the ship. She rode the waves to carry her high so that she could peek through the portholes and see what was happening within. How she longed to be among the throng and to have the prince notice her. She knew that she was beautiful with her fine tail, small breasts and pearly skin and hair of light aquamarine waves. Despite what her grandmother said, she hoped that he would love her and come to her so they could be together, their different bodies entwined.
The princess was so entranced that she hardly noticed the sea change colour, the deep rumble of thunder and the heaviness of the air that warned of an approaching storm. The waves quickened and the breeze became a wind. The ship rolled and rocked and creaked. The crew ran about attending to ropes and sails and the people in the stateroom clung to each other. The storm rolled and the whipping waves crashed against the side of the ship and washed the decks. Eventually the ship rolled over. In desperation the passengers jumped into the heaving ocean and clung to whatever debris they could find. The prince was one of the last to jump the ship and once in the water, there was little for him to cling to.Desperately he tried to keep afloat and swim toward where he thought the land would be. Luckily the princess saw his plight and swam towards him. On reaching him she realised that she must get him to land as soon as possible. He was exhausted and had no strength. She took him in her arms. His eyes flickered briefly before closing. She kissed his cold face and carried him to the beach and pushed him up onto it, head first. Then she raised her voice, and in clear, carrying notes attracted people to the prince. She had placed him in front of a columned building where she knew maidens lived and tended the surrounding land. They came down to the beach and carried the prince to the temple where they nursed him.
For days the princess hovered about, unsure whether she had saved him or not, all the time wishing that he had gills around his ears.
The prince recovered and returned to his palace. The princess continued to watch from the fallen tree. She learned that if she remained too long out of the water the landspeople detected her by her smell. She knew this because they would wrinkle their noses and complain about dead fish. She remained undeterred in her love.
Finally she could bear the ache of love no longer and visited the sea witch who lived in a deeper and darker part of the ocean, surrounded by creatures that were black and writhing but whom she loved as pets. It was a dangerous route where strange polyps reached out as if to grab the passer-by and suck their juices. But the princess, for all her refined delicacy, was brave and clever and she avoided them, wrapping her hair close to her head and keeping her arms close to her body and moving her tail fin as little as possible. Like a torpedo she found her way, unscathed, to the witch.
“I know why you have come. I am ugly but not cold-hearted and must warn you against what you desire. You will regret it. You are of the water and carry scents and body humors of water. He is of the land and earth. The two may feed each other but do not mix.”
“But I love him”, cried the princess.
“That is the call and reason of so many but does not mean anything more.”
“Please help me.”
For a while the witch struggled against the princess’s pleas.
“I want to live with him forever. I want to share his immortal soul.” She remembered a conversation with her grandmother when she had learned that although landsmen had shorter lives than mermen, they lived beyond their life on earth as immortal souls. Mermen, on the other hand, when they died became the foam on the crest of a wave with no future. The princess imagined a life without ending.
“You do not know whether he loves you. You can only win a soul if he marries you. I can help you. I can give you legs and feet but you will be in such pain, as if you were walking on blades of knives or shattered glass.”
The princess did not understand what this meant so she could easily accept the offer. She, after all, had no idea what it meant to have legs and feet and certainly did not know about knives and glass, these not being household objects in the deep oceans.
“I’ll accept whatever the consequences are for having legs and feet instead of a tail.”
“It will hurt you when you drink my potion and your tail shrivels and splits into two legs and feet.”
“I can suffer pain.”
“I can do all this, but can promise nothing regarding the prince. I have no love potion.”
The witch was wise and not interested in doing evil or promising what was not hers to promise. She did not want to mislead the princess.
“And finally there is a price. It breaks my heart to ask the price because you need all the advantages in this foolish quest of yours.”
“I’ll pay whatever price is asked.”
“Foolish girl! Don’t agree until I tell you. I am bound to ask for your tongue.”
“But without my tongue I cannot talk.”
“Nor sing and your voice is truly beautiful.”
“How will I tell him of my love?”
“You have eyes and your gait will be light and fluid so you will dance like no other.”
The princess thought for a while. Even she could see that this was a huge price. But she knew she was beautiful and her eyes were expressive. She could talk and sing with her eyes. “I want to have legs and win his love so I can live with him forever.”
“Poor girl,” said the witch, softly, “poor, foolish girl. I’ll add something extra: you will be able to understand their language even though you will be unable to speak or sing it. You will also learn to hum from your diaphragm so he can hear something of you.”
“You are kind.”
“Hmmm,” replied the witch and set to making the potion, using a nick of the princess’s tongue which she had removed leaving the princess wordless. “Take it carefully,” she said, handing the princess a covered, silver chalice. “When you arrive at the beach, drink it in one gulp. It will be like a fire that burns through the centre of your being. I suggest that you find a rock pool to keep cool in. Your tail will shrivel and lose its grace and sparkle. Slowly it will turn as pale as your skin as it shrivels and splits. The pain will be intense and leave you exhausted but there is little I can do about that.”
The princess left the witch’s lair and for the last time swam through the water breaking free from the ocean in a swirl of hair and glinting drops. She swam up the river and found a clear, shallow pool close to the pavilion. She drank the burning liquid and closed her eyes as her body struggled against itself. She suffered intense, cutting pain and felt her tail split and reshape itself. Her body screamed out in agony but she had no voice. She lost consciousness.
She awoke and found herself gazing into the faces of the prince and the healers he had called when he saw her body lying in the pool. Gently they lifted her and covered her nakedness with soft silks. They bombarded her with questions but she could only nod and shake her head.
“Poor creature, she is dumb but happily neither deaf nor unintelligent. And what strange skin tones and hair! How strange and peculiar!” To her horror, she saw that they did not think her beautiful.
The prince, however, was fascinated saying that she reminded him of something – a dream, perhaps. He saw that his courtiers were somewhat repelled by this peculiarly beautiful creature so he ordered her to be dressed in fine clothes and to be found a bed near his chamber.
The princess was a quick learner and soon understood the rituals, the manners and the requirements of the court. She entranced them with her grace and, in particular, her dance. She learnt to use her diaphragm to hum and the prince loved her music.
“There is something fishy about her,” he declared to his best friend, “and her skin, though fine, is cold. Her hair is wild and reminds me of coloured sea worms. That said, she is gracious, kind, attentive and I die for her eyes whose language is, unfortunately, clear. She loves me but I do not love her. She can only be a true friend.”
Now all princes must marry. They must marry well to ensure peace between potential enemies and to ensure that they have heirs to the throne. The princess could see how things lay. Even if he did love her she could bring nothing but herself and her wondrous chalice into the marriage. This was not something she could have known about since it is not the way with the sea. But she also realised that while the prince was her protector and was fond of her, he was repulsed by her. Her dream, she was beginning to accept, was but a dream regardless of how much she hid the pain of each minute she moved on her feet to glide and dance across the marble floor that sparkled in the sunlight and reminded her of her statue and her garden deep in the ocean; reminding her of her beautiful tail that she had so willingly given up.
She redoubled her efforts, taming her hair, painting her face, offering up her chalice which was not like anything that he had seen before. To no avail! The prince found a suitable princess and the wedding and various treaties were arranged.
The princess had developed the habit of bathing her painful feet in the waves at night after everyone had retired. She would take her clothes off and lie in the waves and feel them lap soothingly around her, reminding her of those happier times in her father’s kingdom. On one of these nights her faithful, loving sisters found her. From then on they kept company even though they were never able to join hands and swim and sing as in the past. One night they arrived, their beautiful hair cut short. They held a chalice and a dagger.
“We have spoken to the witch. With our hair she has concocted a brew that you must drink. Before drinking you must stab the prince dead on his wedding night. Only then will your tail be restored, your tongue grow and once more we will be united.” The princess was horrified and refused to take the chalice, sparkling and even more beautiful than the first. “And bring the chalice back to the witch”, said her oldest sister. When they realised that she would not take the chalice, they hid it under a rock in a pool.
In the days before the wedding the princess renewed her attempts to win over the prince. She tried to explain how priceless her chalice was and how it was worth any kingdom. She tried to explain that his kingdom would be blessed with safe seas and ample fish to feed his people. She sat close to him and hummed the most beautiful notes she could muster which floated in the air and entranced everyone.
She also noticed how he recoiled from her physical presence even though he was kind and thoughtful. She grew angry, realising that her sacrifice and resentful of his happiness. She also knew that she would no longer be able to sleep close to him and hear his gentle breathing and murmurs. Once he was married, everything would be lost: there would be no everlasting soul; she would be but foam on the water.
The wedding day arrived. Together with the courtiers she made sure that everything was prepared and made right. She danced the night away, listening through the music to the calls of her anxious sisters.
With dread she waited for midnight, knowing that without the love of the prince she would die.
Midnight came. The music and dancing stopped and the prince took his wife to his chamber. Shortly afterwards an eerie cry filled the air, a splash was heard and the lanterns sparkled the refracted colours and lights of the tail of a fish as it leapt above and into the water. And then a hauntingly sad siren song filled the air but the prince and his bride did not hear it.