The Sea Witch’s Song, Part 5
“Hey boss lady,” Flotsam called one day, using an affectionate term, “there’s a kid here to see you.”
“Well, send them in,” I said eagerly. It had been awhile since my last job and I was getting bored. “He or she, fish or what?”
“Oh goody.” I hadn’t had a mervisitor in a few years and they were always interesting. Lots of revenge, plenty of love stories.
Jetsam came in then with a young mermaid. I turned impressively from where I’d been at the back of the cave, near the ribs of the great beast. There was a cauldron with a bubbling potion by me, all theatrics, of course, but I knew how important appearances were. I began gathering myself up, but stopped short when I caught sight of the girl.
For a minute, I was thirteen years old again, quavering under the icy eyes of the King, shamed and furious.
The mermaid hovering there had his eyes. She was young, slender, and beautiful, a full head of red hair floating around her slim face.
I blinked, and realized that her blue eyes had none of the fury of the King. They were young, innocent, and soft. But the resemblance was so strong, she could only be his daughter.
I turned away suddenly. “I don’t want to see her.”
I had stood in front of the King, bound and defiant, because I wanted to sing. And now here I was, an overweight spinster, grey hair and I was no closer to being a singer than I had been then.
“But Madame!” the girl protested.
The melodies of the operas were filling my head. How long had it been since I’d been to the opera, anyway? The songs were covering my eyes. The nautilus shell was heavy on my chest. I was somewhat tempted to rip it off.
“Hey, Ursula? Can we talk for a second?” Flotsam asked, nudging me with his head, like he did when he really wanted my attention.
Numb, I followed him from the chamber.
“Listen, I think you want to help this girl,” Flotsam said, his voice serious. It’s hard for moray eels to look serious, but he managed that too. “Jetsam and I found her.”
“I don’t –“
“She wants to be human,” Flotsam said, taking a dramatic pause before adding, “and she can sing, Ursula.”
I stared. Flotsam looked incredibly pleased with himself.
“She’s got the most enchanting voice in the ocean. That’s what people say, at least.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You — you’re sure?”
“Sure enough. Just wait till you hear her story. I think this is it, my friend, I think this is what you’ve been waiting for!” Flotsam burst into an excited laugh, wiggling his tail and dancing up in front of my eyes, and despite myself, I smiled too.
“At last,” I breathed, the melodies strong in my head, and not a moment too soon. “The exchange spell.”
Flotsam nodded eagerly. “To change her, something of hers will have to be exchanged. The potion said clearly, to change what is of you, you must give something of you in return. Then just a little bottling, and…”
I shook the haunting harmonies from my head. “But what about that stupid clause?”
“We’ll make sure it’s not a problem.”
There was a long pause and I saw myself in the opera theater, thousands of faces beaming down upon me. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
Flotsam cackled. “Let’s go get your voice.”
I nodded and smiled at him, then wiped the smile from my face and swept back into the main cave, where the girl was waiting with Jetsam.
“Good thing for you I’m feeling helpful today,” I said with a fake, oily sweetness. “But of course I always am, aren’t I, Flotsam? So tell me dear, what is it that old Ursula can do for you?”
The mermaid girl met my eyes steadily. “I want,” she said, with no hint of uncertainty, “to be human.”
The story I heard was this:
The humans had always fascinated Ariel, ever since she was very small. The idea that there was a whole world waiting above her was intoxicating — especially since no one could tell her anything about it. She heard from her father that the humans were awful, evil creatures, but of their lives, their daily goings-on, nobody could tell her anything at all.
She used to gather artifacts, trinkets that fell down from above, or those she gathered from the wrecks, the strange material rotting in the sea and these alien things left behind.
Her father’s stubbornness and warnings only served to pique her curiosity further. She obsessively gathered objects, spending all of her time trying to figure out what they might be used for. She spent hours trying to imagine a life beyond the waters. Even her own sisters thought she was crazy, and she found no friendship among the merpeople, instead befriending a flounder fish and the effusive palace butler.
As the human and merfolk realms did co-exist side by side, though mostly unaware of each other, there was a tradition dating back centuries that young mer royalty, on the occasion of their fifteenth birthday, were allowed to swim up to the surface and observe the human world from a safe distance. It was supposed to honor the ancient brotherhood of Poseidon and Zeus, or something of the sort.
In any case, knowing his daughter’s obsession, the King had been leery about honoring the tradition, but knew he couldn’t get around it, and so the date approached with intense anticipation.
They had to time it with the ships going by above — apparently the humans, somewhat allergic to water, encased themselves in some material to traverse on top of it, but preferred to make their homes on land, where the merpeople couldn’t venture. There weren’t always ships going by, as Atlantis had to be safely hidden away from the busy channels, and so it was months past the actual date when at last a ship anchored in the waters above the great city. At last, Ariel could make the long swim to the surface.
It was longer than she thought, but at last the weight of the water began to lift, making her feel strangely light. The sun was too bright during the day, and so she came up in the evening, but even then the light was blinding. The sky was blue, and there was a vast empty space stretching between the odd flat surface of the water and the heavens above.
The air was cool on her skin, and the ship, this one whole, was frighteningly big and tall. She could breathe the air, but it felt strange and harsh on her throat, and for a moment, she only wanted to dive back into the comforting weight of the ocean.
But remembering her fascination, she looked up and found a small round window above her, and pulled herself up to look.
Inside were the humans. They must have been having some kind of celebration, unless humans dance about and shout and make music all the time, but she didn’t think so. They were technically not so different from the merpeople, but to her eyes, they were so alien, the two odd things they called legs in place of her tail, ungainly and awkward, but somehow so perfect.
The bones of their faces were heavier, their eyes smaller, their build stronger. The ship here was only filled with men, and strong men. Many had faces covered in wiry hair, others with black designs on their skin.
Ariel’s eyes were drawn to the man at the center of everything. The more she watched, it seemed clear the celebration was for him, and she strained to hear through the porthole. The men were drinking, their faces flushed and their eyes glistening, and somewhere along the way, she deduced from the odd, guttural version of language they were using that it was the man’s birthday.
He was young and strong, jet-black hair, grey eyes, and a quick, brilliant smile that covered his whole face with joy (I had to stop Ariel here from going on too long; she probably would have talked for hours about him if I let her).
To Ariel, he was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen, a far-cry from the fine-boned mermen in Atlantis, with their slender frames and wild, huge eyes. This one was different. He was alive, like life crackled around his skin.
She couldn’t say how many hours she stayed, entranced, watching them celebrate, the young man getting redder and redder in the face the more he drank and danced, until she was shocked back to the world by a cold droplet on her shoulder.
She looked up, astonished, to find the sky had turned black and was leaking water in little drops. Not so far away, crashes of white light, like spears from heaven, were splitting apart the gathering night.
With a cry of fright, she dove back into the water, not understanding what was happening. The spears of light brought huge, rumbling waves of sound with them, and a stiff burst of air was blowing the water into angry waves.
The celebration had suddenly stopped, men appearing on the main deck far above her and swearing with slurred words. Someone was shouting orders; the ropes begin to creak and the anchor was lifted. The ship was rocking and rolling, men swearing and stumbling on the main deck. The waves were growing larger now, and Ariel watched in horror.
The world was tearing itself apart, she thought, and suddenly understood the wrecked ships at the bottom of the sea.
She dove down, thinking of swimming as fast as she could back to the safe haven of Atlantis, but something stopped her, and she returned to the surface, the waves almost blocking the ship from her sight.
On the deck above, the men’s voices were lost in the wind and the driving water, raining down from the heavens, floating to her in terrified gasps. The young man was on the deck, fighting with the ropes, unsteady on his feet and slipping.
One spear of light from heaven descended faster than the eye could follow, but to Ariel it seemed agonizingly slow, and she tried to shout a warning, but it was too late. There was an almighty crack and the main mast broke in two, falling from the sky and bringing the other two with it.
A huge wall of water rose up from the wind and smacked the already wobbling ship, and more cracks signified the hull was breaking. Men were screaming now in terror and jumping from the deck, grasping for barrels or bits of wood, thrashing in the water.
The droplets were blinding Ariel and the wind was biting, but she swam desperately, looking for the young man whose birthday had gone so terribly wrong. The ship was falling apart now and sinking under the waves, what was left of it, and there were many men, screaming for aid, but no sign of the man, until — there, on the far side, clinging desperately to a piece of wood.
She couldn’t swim directly there; the falling ship was in her way and the waves were pushing her small body around, but she dove under the surface and swam around as fast as possible, just in time to see the young man fighting for grip on the wood, hands scrabbling and eyes panicked, and just as she arrived, his hand slipped and he sank under the waves.
For a long moment she was frozen, watching him, his eyes open but unseeing, mouth opening and closing, and then she realized with a sudden lurching in her stomach — humans could not breathe water.
The men’s panic suddenly made sense. The shipwrecks she loved so much were not artifacts but graveyards. Horror filled her, watching the bodies sink with the ship, but at last her paralysis was lifted as she realized that if she didn’t act, the young man would surely die. If he hadn’t already.
In desperation, she swam to his falling body and dragged him to the surface. He was heavy and she fought to keep his head above water. He was coughing and choking, heaving up water with each time they sank beneath the waves.
She had no way of knowing where to take him and so instead just swam blindly, trying desperately to keep his head above the surface. Her body was aching with the effort and just when she thought she couldn’t possibly continue, she saw a strip of land on the horizon, a block of something stretching from one side of the earth to the other.
The young man was long since unconscious, and she wearily dragged him to the shore, flopping her tail helplessly to drag him onto the patch of land. The white material was irritating, little grains digging into her skin, but she didn’t care. Here, at least, he was safe.
The beach was abandoned, and she worried that he would die there alone, from hunger if not from the water, and so decided to stay until someone of his own kind came to help. To pass the time, she began to sing, an absent-minded habit she had, “nothing really special.” (I quote.)
For whatever reason, her voice seemed to revive the poor water-logged soul next to her, and he began to stir. A bit worried he would wake and see her, Ariel glanced up beyond the beach and saw a far-away figure walking closer. A human girl, dressed entirely in white robes, a white scarf wrapped around her head. She seemed to stop, then began to run.
Ariel glanced back at the young man and found with a start his eyes were open, foggy and unseeing.
At that point, she took her leave, pulling herself quickly back into the sea and retreating as quickly as possible. She didn’t dare to look back, or let her head break the surface, and made the very, very long swim back to Atlantis, following the schools of fish, her body aching badly.
Since that fateful day, perhaps a week or two previously, she had been completely unable to forget the young man. He captured her thoughts, waking and sleeping.
“I must go be with him,” she finished, hands folded in her lap. “I have always felt that the human world is more right for me, and now I know why. We were meant to be together, there’s no other explanation.”
I was tempted to laugh. “You’re not even sixteen,” I said, playing the devil’s advocate. “How should you know what you want?”
Ariel said nothing. She only looked at me, with those innocent, wide blue eyes, and I had the impression briefly she knew everything about me, and her eyes were asking, and you didn’t know what you wanted when you were sixteen? Or younger?
I shook my head. She couldn’t know that. No one did.
“Fine. So what do you want?”
“I said already,” Ariel said calmly. “I want to be human.”