I’m off to the shore tomorrow and for most of next week, so my blogging will be spotty, at best. (Although I’m playing around with the idea of using blogger’s timed posts to throw up some beach-themed man-candy, but we’ll see what kind of time I have.)
In the meantime, I thought I’d put up this bit of a short story I wrote last year. It’s rough in places, for sure, but I’m rather fond of it and I’m feeling a little down tonight. As an aside, if you’re not familiar with the original telling of The Little Mermaid, I suggest you take a quick refresher, since this is essentially a slightly alternate ending.
The princess was singing again. Her voice hovered, fragile and shimmering, a hummingbird lifted away by the breeze creeping through the portholes. The words of the song prickled my skin, sweet and brimming with love, tinged with a hint of desperation. I turned away from it, the acrid stench of tar and the brine of the ship filling my nose. My own voice sounded far richer, not made of egg-shells and sugared mortality.
Or it would have been, had I still a tongue with which to command it.
My fingers brushed the edge of my lips, not daring to creep towards the waiting darkness of my mouth. The space within suddenly seemed cavernous, as though I might be able to swallow the moon with my sadness. I shook my head at the thought. The song changed to something softer, soothing. Was she looping those perfectly pale fingers through the silken sprawl of his hair? I imagined him, careless and sated, his head on her lap, face pressed on the flat of her belly.
My throat clicked in answer, a silent vibrato that spoke of the depths below, chambered like the eternal spiral of some ancient nautilus. Fitting, perhaps, and dreadfully unfair.
The ship grew quiet, the crew moving respectfully up and down the rigging with a single-minded efficiency. The creak of the ropes twanged in the wind, but I paid it no mind; my ears pricked towards the royal cabin, hung with its wedding ribbons. They fluttered, silver and white in the looming pall of evening. Even the singing had ended, the tremulous notes replaced by warm murmurs and the slide of silken sheets. Night music of another sort, I supposed.
My own pallet outside his door would remain empty tonight.
I fisted my hand so that it rested against my chin, fire suddenly flaring to life in my belly. For a moment I wished I had my voice back, that I might pay heed to the siren call pulsing in my blood. Could I but summon the storm, the maelstrom, the leviathans of the deep…
I saw it, the ship crushed and battered, reduced to nothing more than shreds of tattered sail and splintered boards, the waves turned red with blood and rendered flesh. My marbled prince, safe in my arms as he was once before. Only, perhaps this time, would I drag him to my hushed garden below? Wrapped in a tangle of seaweed, to sleep forever in a bed of sand and crenulated shells, his bones to be picked clean by chitinous ghost crabs.
My eyes squeezed shut against the vision. I fled the shelter of the awning beside the cabin, escaping the rumbling urgency of their lovemaking, terrified beyond measure at my own sense of vengeance. The fo’c’sle beckoned, the prow held up by a carved mermaid, her painted eyes dully gleaming in the rising moonlight. The irony churned in my stomach like molten lead, but I didn’t have the strength to laugh. I might have inspired the design, but that certainly wasn’t my face gazing out across the ocean.
My feet burned and I knew I’d left a trail of crimson behind me.
I always did.
Like shark’s teeth biting into my soles, the pain never truly ebbed. I gripped the rail, my nails biting into the wood, the slickness of the deck mixing with copper wet of my blood.
This was my last night alive, I thought numbly, staring down at the rolling waves. Come the rosy dawn, I would be nothing more than sea foam. I’d known my doom was upon me from the moment I laid eyes upon the woman, ivory-skinned and golden-haired, shining in the sun as she boarded the ship. And yet, I disbelieved it, pride stung by the thought that he would find her so utterly charming as to forsake his foundling so readily.
After all, wasn’t I a princess too?
A school of flying fish crested the swells below, scales flashing. Fish are notorious gossips, but these were merely laughing to themselves, thrilled with their own cleverness at riding the ship’s wake. They glanced at me curiously, but I only sank to my knees, cupping my face in my hands.
Mermaids cannot cry.
And yet, I wept.
My head jerked up, the tears long since carried away in the wind. It was her, of course. Even here, even now, my feckless prince would not come to me. My lips pressed together tightly, unable to pretend a semblance of happiness for her sake.
I bobbed my head at her, acknowledging her use of my name with a little shrug. Not my real name, of course. The prince had given it to me one afternoon as he lay with his head on my breast, my cheeks still rosy with the heat of his mouth on mine. “Emily,” he’d whispered, his fingers drifting through the ebony sweep of my hair. His eyes had crinkled merrily, and I had kissed him back, my heart bursting with the secret knowledge that he loved me.
That he had been so free with it…had given it to her…
I stared hard across the sea. I didn’t want to see the way her perfectly coiffed hair was now tousled and unkempt, the love bites marking the swan’s grace of her neck, the way she wrapped the blanket loosely around her naked shoulders like a benediction of sex and sacredness.
I wanted to scream at her, but of course, I could not. I settled for swallowing hard, my hand raised in a careless wave of dismissal. Stupid, perhaps, but the end would be the same, even should she clap me in irons for it. The hours grew short and I’d be damned if I should waste the last of them thinking on her.
She blew out softly, the exhalation of her breath suddenly warm in my ear as she crouched beside me. Huddling in her coverlet, she did not meet my eyes when I turned to face her. We sat in silence, the sound of my heart echoed in the slap of the waves against the hull.
She wrapped her arms about her knees, fidgeting beneath the weighted breeze. Her voice stuttered and stopped a moment, as though struggling to find some thread of commonality between us. I eyed her grimly, sure that we had none.
“You like flowers, don’t you, Lady Emily?” She blurted the words, a torrent of language that bumbled past my ears. It was a ridiculous thing to ask.
And yet I perked up at the question. Flowers had no scent beneath the ocean, and their frailty here fascinated me. I touched the empty place behind my ear. The prince had discovered quickly my love of roses, and had taken to making sure I received fresh ones daily.
He had forgotten this morning.
My face burned in response and she averted her gaze. “When I was a child I used to sneak over the garden walls and pluck my mother’s roses. I would take them down to the sea and set them free on the water.” She sighed, her expression bittersweet. “They were like little pink boats, drifting in and out among the tides.”
I stared at her, my mouth moving soundlessly. A gasping hiss escaped my throat as I struggled to find the words I knew I couldn’t say…
…myself, a tiny child of the sea, gilded tail and seaweed hair, alone in my garden of fire-red flowers and pure-white sand, staring longingly at the sunlight drifting through the waves…and there… small, pink rose petals sifting downwards, falling like snowflakes into my waiting palm…
“Lady Emily? You seem distraught. Have I said aught amiss?” The princess laid a soft hand on my shoulder. Trembling, I shook my head, indicating she should continue. Her fingers brushed against my neck and I bowed my head. “I know you love him,” she murmured. “And I’m sorry for all this. Truly, I am.”
I flinched beneath her touch, pulling away to press myself against the rail. What could you know? I let my eyes speak for me, brows drawn tight. My chest eased in this small triumph, watching impassively as she flinched in turn.
“I was not meant for this,” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper. “I was to be Dedicated to the temple.” I ignored the kiss-swollen edges of her lips, my own curled in contempt at her ignorance. “My older sister drowned in a shipwreck on the way to her betrothal ceremony.”
This time I was the one who turned away. How often had my sisters arisen to play in the storms? To drag the sailors to rest upon the sand? To collect the shiny gold baubles, the gemstones, the bits and pieces of treasures the sea could never produce? No sowing farmers, we mermaids. We could only claim that which was not ours.
That I had not been part of this particular incident did nothing to tame the aching wave of guilt that clenched deep in my gut, seeing the anguish written upon her face.
And yet…it was what we were…
Or perhaps I’d become more human than even I realized. I touched the corners of my eyes, remembering the way the tears had fallen and shivered.
The princess wiped away at her own eyes, pushing back a damp tendril of hair. “I am here to take her place.” Her fingers pulled at a golden locket around her neck, undoing the clasp. “This was her most recent portrait.”
I peered at it, struggling to see the details in the passing moonlight. The woman in the painting was unremarkable, save that she bore a close resemblance to the living one beside me. I pointed at the woman’s neck, seeing that she wore a similar locket.
“Yes,” the princess said, her mouth curving into a sad smile. “We had matching ones, gifted to us when we were children. We swore never to take them off.” She pulled the blanket tighter about her shoulders, craning her head to look back at the cabin. “I should go,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean to natter on at you like this.”
I shook my head. Even if I’d had a tongue with which to give voice to my thoughts, the words were swirling through my head like a tempest. I touched my hands to my forehead to show that I understood. Her eyes darted towards me for a moment. “He called your name at the end of it,” she said quietly.
A silent cry lanced through me and I froze, as though my feet had suddenly been nailed to the deck. Unable to move, I watched her turn, hips swaying beneath the tautly drawn blanket, a ghost wisping away into the darkness.
Choking back a sob, I clutched at the rail, the knowledge of what I’d lost thrumming in my chest. A herring gull echoed a mocking cry across the water, my heart shattering beneath it.
And then they were there, my sisters all, rising from the bosom of the sea, dripping with seaweed and salt. I stared at them, uncomprehending as they sang of the bargain they’d made with the Sea Witch, their hair shorn in trade for a silver-bladed knife. It glinted in the remaining moonlight, and yet the edge burned with a shadow I couldn’t quite understand. It was a hungry mouth, this blade, and I stepped away as it clattered to the deck at my feet.
“Thou hast but to pierce his heart, Sister. The moment his blood touches your soles, shalt thou be restored to thy natural form.”
Arm in arm, they sank back beneath the waves, their song imploring, the rolling breakers swallowing them into the depths. False dawn crept over the horizon, taunting me.
I picked up the blade, trembling fingers curled around the hilt. Somehow I found myself walking, moving down the deck, the sweet promise of the dagger whispering its soft secrets in my ears.
Pierce his heart…
…the way he pierced mine? The thought wormed through my brain, twisting this way and that. My leg bumped into something hard. Startled, I glanced down, realizing I was in the royal cabin. Knowing me as they did, the crew had not thought to stop my passage. My mouth was full of sand, dry with it as I crept to the side of their bed, the newlyweds entwined, blissfully unaware of my presence.
I studied the prince, capturing the chiseled edge of his cheekbones, the curve his mouth, the fine hairs on his eyelids, sweeping dark and glossy. I had kissed that mouth. Kissed that brow. Run my fingers through his hair as we lay warm and naked in a distant meadow, cried out in silent pleasure as he took me in a bed of heather, hot and hard and fierce …
I raised the knife, my arms aching with the need to rend, to cause a hurt so grave as to make my own fade. I spared no glance for the princess. If not mine, then let him belong to no-one.
He stirred, shifting the princess in his arms, murmuring her name like a prayer.
Stricken, I fled.
Not you, not you, not you…
The words patterned in my head to the thumping of my feet across the boards of the deck. I hurled the knife into the sea, watched it sink mockingly with a plip. A gush of crimson floated on the surface before dissolving into a hazy foam, disappearing with the last traces of my pride.
It had been all for nothing. My pain, my absolute loyalty, my love. I was nothing more than a faded breeze on his memory, for all that I’d saved him from a watery grave.
And yet, the princess had tried to ease my heart, even if she had lied. I was strangely grateful for her attempt. I could not quite find it in me to wish her well of the prince…somehow I thought she deserved better, now.
I would be gone by the time she awoke and I had no way to thank her.
I glanced back down over the rail. The laughing fish were long gone, but a young dolphin had popped up to breathe, resting in the swell of the ship’s wake. His head bobbed as he saw me, exhaling through the blowhole with a soft puff. Stiff with the morning chill, my fingers moved slowly, outlining my wishes. My apology.
The dolphin sounded out a high pitched whistle, disappearing into the depths like a silver bobbin. The crew stirred behind me, the early morning clatter of buckets and ropes mixing with the flow and the stir of the canvas. Golden light edged at the far end of the horizon, shimmering like the gilded setting of a fiery jewel.
I was out of time.
My eyes stung, but I refused to look away. I could but meet my death as fiercely as any daughter of the ocean might. The burning of my feet lessened, and I limped to the prow, my heart a rabbit in my chest.
The first rays of sun thrust into the morning and I gasped when they struck me, agony searing my skin.
This, then, the final price of vanity.
A streak of silver shot from the waves, the dolphin leaping past the hull. I teetered over the edge of the rail with rubber limbs and ankle bones suddenly grown soft as pudding. He leaped again, closer and higher this time, tossing his head. I felt the clink against my toes, the feather-light press of my beloved garden in my nose, salted and damp and familiar.
I spared one last glimpse for the cabin, but no prince emerged, no princess to see me fall. I smiled into the sun and tumbled, hurtling towards my doom. The chilled water flooded my mouth, my lungs, my belly. I let the weight of it take me, sinking into the eternal embrace of my Mother, my dissipated flesh borne upon the waves as foam upon the sea.
I left the last of myself behind, for her.
On the deck lay a tattered gold locket and a sanguine sea-flower, gleaming in the morning sun like the scales of a fish.