There are kings who live underneath the sea as well as above it. Kings have daughters there too, in the manner of kings everywhere, and fathers there must find something to do with them as well as we do. There is no place so remote that no man can settle and own it. There was a king once, who owned the sea and lived in it, and he filled it with his daughters, and he owned them too.
Each of the young princesses had a little plot of ground in the garden, where she might dig and plant as she pleased. They did not own it, but they could use it. Women own nothing, but may have the use of many things. And the youngest of the princesses built her garden in the shape of the sun, and filled it with flowers as red as the sky at sunset. She was a strange child, and could not keep her eyes or her thoughts to herself.
Nothing gave her so much pleasure as to hear about the world above the sea. She made her old grandmother tell her all she knew of the ships and of the towns, the people and the animals. To her it seemed most wonderful and beautiful to hear that the flowers of the land should have fragrance, and not those below the sea; that the trees of the forest should be green; and that the fishes among the trees could sing so sweetly, that it was quite a pleasure to hear them. Her grandmother called the little birds fishes, or she would not have understood her; for she had never seen birds.
“When you have reached your fifteenth year,” said her grandmother, “you will have permission to rise up out of the sea, to sit on the rocks in the moonlight, while the great ships are sailing by; and then you will see both forests and towns. And then you will come home, and you can think about what you have seen.”
And at last she reached her fifteenth year.
“Well, now, you are grown up,” said the old dowager, her grandmother; “so you must let me adorn you like your other sisters;” and she placed a wreath of white lilies in her hair, and every flower leaf was half a pearl. Then the old lady ordered eight great oysters to attach themselves to the tail of the princess to show her high rank.
“But they hurt me so,” said the little mermaid.
“But now you are grown up, and if it hurts you must be very quiet about it, for no one wishes to hear a woman who suffers,” replied the old lady. “I would not hurt you unless I knew I could bear the same thing.”
The red flowers in her own garden would have suited her better, but she could not help herself: so she said, “Farewell,” and rose as lightly as a bubble to the surface of the water.
The sun had just set as she raised her head above the waves; a large ship, with three masts, lay becalmed on the water, with only one sail set; for not a breeze stiffed, and the sailors sat idle on deck or amongst the rigging. There was music and song on board; and, as darkness came on, a hundred colored lanterns were lighted, as if the flags of all nations waved in the air. The little mermaid swam close to the cabin windows; and now and then, as the waves lifted her up, she could look in through clear glass window-panes, and see a number of well-dressed people within.
Among them was a young prince, the most beautiful of all, with large black eyes; he was sixteen years of age, and his birthday was being kept with much rejoicing. The sailors were dancing on deck, but when the prince came out of the cabin, more than a hundred rockets rose in the air, making it as bright as day. The little mermaid was so startled that she dived under water; and when she again stretched out her head, it appeared as if all the stars of heaven were falling around her, she had never seen such fireworks before. Great suns spurted fire about, splendid fireflies flew into the blue air, and everything was reflected in the clear, calm sea beneath. The ship itself was so brightly illuminated that all the people, and even the smallest rope, could be distinctly and plainly seen. Everyone who saw the prince smiled at him, which is how the princess knew he must be very handsome.
It was very late; yet the little mermaid could not take her eyes from the ship, or from the beautiful prince. The colored lanterns had been extinguished, no more rockets rose in the air, and the cannon had ceased firing; but the sea became restless, and a moaning, grumbling sound could be heard beneath the waves: still the little mermaid remained by the cabin window, rocking up and down on the water, which enabled her to look in. After a while, the sails were quickly unfurled, and the noble ship continued her passage; but soon the waves rose higher, heavy clouds darkened the sky, and lightning appeared in the distance. A dreadful storm was approaching; once more the sails were reefed, and the great ship pursued her flying course over the raging sea. The waves rose mountains high, as if they would have overtopped the mast; but the ship dived like a swan between them, and then rose again on their lofty, foaming crests. To the little mermaid this appeared pleasant sport; not so to the sailors. At length the ship groaned and creaked; the thick planks gave way under the lashing of the sea as it broke over the deck; the mainmast snapped asunder like a reed; the ship lay over on her side; and the water rushed in. The little mermaid now perceived that the crew were in danger; even she herself was obliged to be careful to avoid the beams and planks of the wreck which lay scattered on the water.
At one moment it was so pitch dark that she could not see a single object, but a flash of lightning revealed the whole scene; she could see every one who had been on board excepting the prince; when the ship parted, she had seen him sink into the deep waves, and she was glad, for she thought he would now be with her; and then she remembered that human beings could not live in the water, so that when he got down to her father’s palace he would be quite dead. But he must not die.
So she swam about among the beams and planks which strewed the surface of the sea, forgetting that they could crush her to pieces. Then she dived deeply under the dark waters, rising and falling with the waves, till at length she managed to reach the young prince, who was fast losing the power of swimming in that stormy sea. His limbs were failing him, his beautiful eyes were closed, and he would have died had not the little mermaid come to his assistance. She held his head above the water, and swam them towards shore, and she was grateful to him for letting her be useful.
In the morning the storm and the ship had both gone. The prince’s eyes did not open. The mermaid kissed his forehead, and she pushed back his damp hair, and she kissed him again.
She had never seen a man so quiet and still before, and she loved him for it, and she wished that he would never open his eyes again. The mermaid dove back into the sea and concealed herself behind a high rock so that she might not have to see him wake up.
In the bay they had settled on was a large white building, and a number of girls came out onto the sand, and bells rang to announce their arrival. One of them approached the prince lying in the sand, and quickly fetched a number of her fellows, who soon roused him, and before long they were all smiling at one another and this was how the little mermaid knew the girls were very beautiful. And no one smiled at her, and she existed to no one but herself.
This made her quite unhappy, and when she saw the prince disappear behind the great doors of the white building, she swam further out into the waves and return to her father’s home. And she kept her thoughts to herself, but still her eyes wandered and gave her away.
She had kissed him, and she had saved him, and his eyes had opened because of her. This made him more hers than anything else.
“If human beings are not drowned,” asked the little mermaid of her grandmother, “can they live forever? Do they never die as we do?”
“Humans die,” said the grandmother, “and humans suffer too, and they lead even shorter lives than do we. You and I may live many hundreds of years yet, and when we die we cease, like foam or like sea-grass. We have no souls, and we do not live again. Human beings all own a soul, unlike us, and once their bodies are used up, the souls rise to unknown heights that we shall never see.”
“I should like to own a soul,” said the little mermaid.
“Getting a soul takes suffering,” said her grandmother. “We are much happier, and much better off, than they are.”
“I suffer now,” said the little mermaid. “I should like to get something for my suffering.”
“You could get something for it,” said the old woman. “If a man were to love you so much that his father and mother were as nothing to him, and if all his thoughts were of you, and if he were wed to you with all of his heart, then something of his soul would become something in you, and you would gain a share in his eternity.”
The little princess thought of the prince, quiet and unmoving on the dark sand, and she thought about him quiet and unmoving forever, and she thought about gaining something of his, and she felt herself in pain from the wanting of it.
That next night the little mermaid swam silently from her father’s palace, and she went to the home of the sea-witch, which she owned herself. She owned it because it was bounded by whirlpools and blistering-hot vents and silent, struggling worms that danced over them and no one else wanted it, but she owned it just the same.
The worms struggled beneath her as she swam, and she felt them pulsing with want, just as she did; only the worms had no mouths to ask and no hands to take with. She swam faster until she came to a house built with bones, and this was where the witch lived.
“I know what you want,” said the sea witch; “it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess. You want to get rid of your fish’s tail, and to have two supports instead of it, like human beings on earth, so that the young prince may fall in love with you, and that you may have an immortal soul.”
And then the witch laughed so loud that she fell to the ground and wriggled about. “I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.”
“Yes, I will,” said the princess.
“But think again,” said the witch; “for when once your shape has become like a human being, you will never return through the water to your sisters, or to your father’s palace again; and if you do not win the love of the prince, so that he is willing to forget his father and mother for your sake, and to love you with his whole soul, and allow the priest to join your hands that you may be man and wife, then you will never have an immortal soul. The first morning after he marries another your heart will break, and you will become foam on the crest of the waves.”
“I will do it,” said the little mermaid.
“But I must be paid also,” said the witch, “and it is not a trifle that I ask. You have the sweetest voice of any who dwell here in the depths of the sea, and you believe that you will be able to charm the prince with it also, but this voice you must give to me; the best thing you possess will I have for the price of my draught. My own blood must be mixed with it, that it may be as sharp as a two-edged sword.”
“But if you take away my voice,” said the little mermaid, “what is left for me?”
“Suffering,” said the witch.
“It shall be,” said the little mermaid. Then she said nothing else, for the witch had cut out her tongue.
When the little mermaid drank the magic draught, it seemed as if a knife passed over her and as if a knife passed through her; she fell into a kind of sleep and lay as if dead for a long time. When the sun rose over the beach she returned to herself, and herself was pain, but just before her stood the prince, and that was a better pain than the one she had felt before.
His eyes were fixed upon her so determinedly that she looked down and realized that her grass-green tail was gone, and that she had as pretty a pair of legs and feet as anyone could wish. The Prince asked her who she was and where she came from, and she looked at him with disappointment in her eyes, that he did not know her. If you suffer for a man who has not asked you to suffer for him, the witch had told her, you cannot expect him to thank you for it, when men have grown so skilled in not recognizing a woman’s pain.
Every step she took was as the witch had said it would be, as if she stepped upon a bed of needles and teeth. She grimaced, and she stumbled, and the lines in her face shuddered deeply, but the prince did not hear her cry out in pain, and so he did not look for any signs of it.
Never suffer for a man who has not asked you to suffer, the witch had told her. He will take every offering you bring him without thanks for the giving of it, and expect more. If he did not ask for it, he will not think of it as a gift but his birthright. He will ask for more and more pain and expect you to bear it more and more gracefully, until you are nothing but a mask of calm and a throb of hurt.
But no woman ever got anywhere by listening to another woman, and the little mermaid had done it anyway. Not all women can be witches.
The prince bore her away to his castle, and she was soon arrayed in costly robes of silk and muslin. Beautiful female slaves, dressed in silk and gold, stepped forward and sang before the prince and his royal parents: one sang better than all the others, and the prince clapped his hands and smiled at her. This was great sorrow to the little mermaid; she knew how much more sweetly she herself could sing once, and she saw that fathers owned daughters above the sea as well as below it.
The slaves next performed some pretty fairy-like dances, to the sound of beautiful music. Then the little mermaid raised her lovely white arms, stood on the tips of her toes, and glided over the floor, and danced as no one yet had been able to dance. At each moment her beauty became more revealed, and her expressive eyes appealed more directly to the heart than the songs of the slaves. Every one was enchanted, especially the prince, who called her his little foundling; and she danced again quite readily, to please him, though each time her foot touched the floor it seemed as if she trod on sharp knives, and he smiled as if her suffering were a birthday-present to him.
The princess thought to herself that she had liked him better when he was drowned.
The prince said she should remain with him always, as he liked to keep his favorite things near him at all times. She slept at his door, on a velvet cushion, like a beloved dog. He had a page’s dress made for her, that she might accompany him on horseback. They rode together through the sweet-scented woods, where the green boughs touched their shoulders, and the little birds sang among the fresh leaves. She climbed with the prince to the tops of high mountains; and although her tender feet bled so that even her steps were marked, she only laughed, and followed him till they could see the clouds beneath them. He had never learned to look for blood, and so he never saw it.
He will permit your suffering, the witch had said, as long as it is silent. I have done you a favor by keeping your tongue. I will talk all the more loudly, and laugh the longer, in the keeping of it. Other women keep silent, but I laugh, and I take possession.
At the prince’s palace, when everyone else was asleep, she would go and sit on the cool marble steps that led down to the sea, and bathed her feet in the water, and thought of everything that she did could see but did not own.
Once during the night her sisters came up arm-in-arm, singing sorrowfully, as they floated on the water. She beckoned to them, and they recognized her, and told her how she had grieved them. After that, they came to the same place every night; and once she saw in the distance her old grandmother, who had not been to the surface of the sea for many years, and the old Sea King, her father, with his crown on his head. They stretched out their hands towards her, but they did not venture so near the land as her sisters did. And she saw that her father the king grew old, and she remembered that people under the sea do not live forever, and that her father had no soul. Men take possession, but men die, too; and sometimes men die without heirs.
As the days passed, she clung to the prince more fondly, and he loved her as he would love a little child, but it never came into his head to make her his wife, because it never came into his head to give in exchange for what he had received.
“Do you not love me the best of them all?” the eyes of the little mermaid seemed to say, and they burned into his when he took her in his arms, and kissed her.
“You are dear to me,” said the prince; “for you have the best heart, and you are the most devoted to me; you are like a young maiden whom I once saw, but whom I shall never meet again. I was in a ship that was wrecked, and the waves cast me ashore near a holy temple, where several young maidens performed the service. The youngest of them found me on the shore, and saved my life. I saw her but once, and she is the only one in the world whom I could love; but you are like her, and you have almost driven her image out of my mind. She belongs to the holy temple, and my good fortune has sent you to me instead of her; and we will never part.”
And the mermaid knew she had loved him best when his lips did not move to speak, and when his eyes did not open to sea, and when he did not move to take possession. She loved him best when he was drowned.
Very soon it was said that the prince must marry, and that the beautiful daughter of a neighboring king would be his wife, for a fine ship was being fitted out. Although the prince gave out that he merely intended to pay a visit to the king, it was generally supposed that he really went to see his daughter. A great company were to go with him. The little mermaid smiled, and shook her head. She knew the prince’s thoughts better than any of the others.
“I must travel,” he had said to her; “I must see this beautiful princess; my parents desire it; but they will not oblige me to bring her home as my bride. I cannot love her; she is not like the beautiful maiden in the temple, whom you resemble. If I were forced to choose a bride, I would rather choose you, my dumb foundling, with those expressive eyes.” And then he kissed her rosy mouth, played with her long waving hair, and laid his head on her heart, because he had always given himself permission to touch her.
“You are not afraid of the sea, my dumb child,” said he, as they stood on the deck of the noble ship which was to carry them to the country of the neighboring king. And then he told her of storm and of calm, of strange fishes in the deep beneath them, and of what the divers had seen there; and she smiled at his descriptions, for she knew better than any one what was at the bottom of the sea, and that he did not deserve to own it.
In the moonlight, when all on board were asleep, excepting the man at the helm, who was steering, she sat on the deck, gazing down through the clear water. Then her sisters came up on the waves, and gazed at her mournfully, wringing their hands. She beckoned to them, and smiled, and wanted to tell them how happy and well off she was; but the prince approached, and when her sisters dived down he thought it was only the foam of the sea which he saw.
The next morning the ship sailed into the harbor of a beautiful town belonging to the king whom the prince was going to visit. The church bells were ringing, and from the high towers sounded a flourish of trumpets; and soldiers, with flying colors and glittering bayonets, lined the rocks through which they passed. Every day was a festival; balls and entertainments followed one another.
But the princess had not yet appeared. People said that she was being brought up and educated in a religious house, where she was learning every royal virtue. At last she came. Then the little mermaid, who was very anxious to see whether she was really beautiful, saw everyone smiling at the princess, and she had to acknowledge that she must have been beautiful.
“It was you,” said the prince, “who saved my life when I lay dead on the beach,” and he folded his blushing bride in his arms. “Oh, I am too happy,” said he to the little mermaid; “my fondest hopes are all fulfilled. You will rejoice at my happiness; for your devotion to me is great and sincere.”
The little mermaid kissed his hand, and felt as if she were already dead.
The priests waved the censers, while the bride and bridegroom joined their hands and received the blessing of the bishop. The little mermaid, dressed in silk and gold, held up the bride’s train; but her ears heard nothing of the festive music, and her eyes saw not the holy ceremony; she thought of the night of death which was coming to her, and of all she had lost in the world. On the same evening the bride and bridegroom went on board ship; cannons were roaring, flags waving, and in the centre of the ship a costly tent of purple and gold had been erected. It contained elegant couches, for the reception of the bridal pair during the night. The ship, with swelling sails and a favorable wind, glided away smoothly and lightly over the calm sea. When it grew dark a number of colored lamps were lit, and the sailors danced merrily on the deck.
All was joy and gayety on board ship till long after midnight; she laughed and danced with the rest, while the thoughts of death were in her heart. The prince kissed his beautiful bride, while she played with his raven hair, till they went arm-in-arm to rest in the splendid tent. Then all became still on board the ship; the helmsman, alone awake, stood at the helm. The little mermaid leaned her white arms on the edge of the vessel, and looked towards the east for the first blush of morning, for that first ray of dawn that would bring her death. She saw her sisters rising out of the flood: they were as pale as herself; but their long beautiful hair waved no more in the wind, and had been cut off.
“We have given our hair to the witch,” said they, “to obtain help for you, that you may not die to-night. She has given us a knife: here it is, see it is very sharp. Before the sun rises you must plunge it into the heart of the prince; when the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together again, and form into a fish’s tail, and you will be once more a mermaid, and return to us to live out your three hundred years before you die and change into the salt sea foam. Haste, then; he or you must die before sunrise. Our old grandmother moans so for you, that her white hair is falling off from sorrow, as ours fell under the witch’s scissors. Kill the prince and come back; hasten: do you not see the first red streaks in the sky? In a few minutes the sun will rise, and you must die.” And then they sighed deeply and mournfully, and sank down beneath the waves.
The little mermaid drew back the curtain covering the prince’s nuptial bed, and saw the fair bride sleeping against the prince’s chest. She bent down and kissed his brow, then hers, and she traded her pain for theirs. She had traded pain before, and this time was no different. (You must remember that mermaids have no souls). The knife trembled in her hand, and then it trembled first in the prince’s throat, then his bride’s, and a red line trailed after it. Then she flung the knife far away from her, into the sea, and the water turned red where it fell.
And the mermaid found that she had a tail again, bright red as the sun where it had once been grass-green, and she found that she had a voice again in her throat, and she found that she did not suffer. And she loved the prince better than she ever had before.
“I’m coming, sisters,” she said, and she felt three voices humming at once in her throat – her own, and the prince’s, and the prince’s wife (her prince, now, and her wife too). And she had two souls inside her, and they both belonged to her, and neither one of them was her, and she smiled to herself, and that was how she knew that she was beautiful. And she slipped into the sea, and the sea was hers too.
[Images via Edmund Dulac]
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.