The Little Mermaid
An erotic retelling by Redbud
From what I’ve seen, women love mermaid mythology. After searching through hundreds of illustrations one gets a strong sense of the sea and ocean as a feminine realm that’s death to men – sailors, pirates, and, yes, whole fleets of ships. The mermaids – women – swim and breathe freely in this realm. My favorite illustration is of a man submersed in an old pressure suit (the only way he can survive in this realm), while the mermaid, at home in her world, gracefully, playfully and beautifully swims around him. I’ve come to love this whole archetype and discuss a little more at the end of the story.
In another sense, the sea symbolizes a girl’s imaginative world. Boys who enter there are sure to perish but girls swim and breathe easily. With sexual awakening, though, she has to leave that comfortable undersea realm. In exchange for love, she learns to walk. In a sense, the upper world is the world of men – hard and harsh but also, in its way, beautiful and compelling. But no woman ever completely forgets her tail. I also think this is the reason one sees so few illustrations of mermen. We all know, somehow, that they are an oddity. The mermaid may populate her realm, here or there, with a merman, but we’re not fooled. They are her creatures and have nothing to do with men.
If you are an artist or photographer whose work appears in this collection, I’m happy to provide a link (if I couldn’t find one), give credit or, if you prefer, remove the image. The black & white block prints are by Erica Chappuis, a favorite erotic artist of mine.
One day a little boy was born in a small village.
He loved to play and be with the other children, but the other children made fun of him. They said his back was broken and that he limped like an old crow. He stuttered when he spoke and they said his father was the small town’s water wheel that creaked and stuttered all day long. Even so, the little boy played tricks that made them laugh.
One evening, he sat atop the roof of his modest cottage. Before his father called him in, he saw a beautiful shooting star fall into the sea. The light was the most beautiful he had ever seen. The star sparkled and burst when it struck the water. No one else saw it and so he thought it was something just for him. When he went to bed that night, his mother gave him a flute. That night, remembering the beauty of the shooting star, he played the flute and his playing was beautiful and clear.
Far out at sea, the Grey King desired a daughter.
He lives where the ocean water is clear and very, very deep – so deep that no cable can fathom it. Church steeples, one atop the other, could not reach the bottom. There is more than bare yellow sand. The flowers and plants of the ocean grow there. Their leaves and stems are so pliant that the slightest agitation causes them to stir. Fish, both large and small, glide between branches like birds among trees. The Grey King’s castle is coral and the its long Gothic windows are cut from amber. The roof is formed from shells that open and close as the water flows over them.
That night the mermaids collected the most beautiful shooting stars they could find. Any shooting star that falls into the ocean, has inside it a sleeping merchild. The Grey King had already chosen five shooting stars; but when a sixth was brought to him, the most beautiful any mermaid had never seen, the Grey King was delighted.
Six beautiful children were born from the shooting star. The youngest was the prettiest of all; her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose-leaf and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea; but, like all mermaids she had no feet. Her body ended in a fish’s tail.
All day long the princesses played in the great halls of the castle. They darted among the living flowers that grew out of the walls. The large amber windows were open and the fish swam in and out like swallows through the open windows of houses; but unlike swallows, the fishes ate out of the hands of the princesses and allowed themselves to be stroked.
One day, when the boy was older, his mother took him to a monastery.
She encouraged her son to play his flute for the Abbot. “Indeed,” said the Abbot, “though God taketh away, he also giveth. Hardly a prince, but God gives him the the talent of an angel. Let him visit daily and we will instruct him.”
The boy’s mother thanked the Abbot as the Abbott took the boy to meet the monastery’s music master, and when the boy saw the instruments – the organ, the viols, the zithers, flutes and drums – his heart glowed with joy.
Though the monastery was dark and cold, he could see the ocean from almost any window– his other love.
He loved the red fingers of the sun glittering on the sea’s surface and as the day grew dark, Tudse leaned in the small window of the monastery’s highest chamber to better see the distant moon and stars. The lights of the large town nearby were themselves like the twinkling of hundreds of stars. He listened to the sounds of the music, the noise of carriages and the voices of men, women and children. The merry bells peeled from the church steeples; and because he could not go near all those wonderful things, he longed for them all the more.
The six little merchildren became young mermaids. They each had a little plot of ground in the Grey King’s garden where she might dig and plant as she pleased.
One arranged her flower-bed into the form of a whale. Another made her garden like the figure of a little mermaid. The youngest was round like the sun, and contained flowers as red as sunset. She was a strange child, quiet and thoughtful; and while her sisters would be delighted with the wonderful things they found in the wrecks of vessels, the youngest mermaid only cared for her red flowers, like the sun at sunset, and a beautiful marble statue of a young man.
The statue was nude and the little mermaid was entranced by every part unlike herself. She traced his toes, his ankles and felt his calves. She reached round and behind the statue. She liked to close her eyes and understand the proportions solely by touch. Her palms would rise upward until she reached the boy’s muscular buttocks. Then she would slip her hands forward, over his hips, until her thumbs and fingers joined between his thighs. She would slide her hands upward feeling the strange clump and curvature at the place where his marble legs began. Sometimes her lips almost touched. Then her fingers would find the statue’s belly button. The little mermaid thought was a flaw or a piece that had been chipped away as it tumbled to the seabed.
Nothing gave her so much pleasure as to hear about the world above the sea.
As her sisters became old enough to visit the sea’s surface, she made them each tell her all they saw of ships, towns, people and 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 elder sisters called the little birds fishes so that the little mermaid understood them for the little mermaid had never seen birds.
“Just think,” they said to her, “you’ll soon be old enough, yourself, to sit on moonlit rocks while the great ships sail by; then you will see the forests and towns for yourself.”
Tudse became a young man and soon surpassed the music master’s talent.
The monks asked him to join their order, but Tudse yearned for the warm beauty of life outside the monastery. On the very day of his twenty-first birthday, Tudse went to the ocean, his first love, then into the town.
He loved beautiful things – melodies, birds, strong horses, roses, children, boys, girls and especially young women, who were the loveliest mysteries of all. He liked to sit at the town square where a fountain glittered half in the shadow of the town’s cathedral and half in the sun. The water splashed into a round pool where children played. Tudse liked to watch the young women come and go. He studied their faces, the way they walked, so differently from the men he had known all his life, and the way they spoke. Their hips seemed so full of color, their voices so full of song, their gestures so filled with sunlight.
When a girl stumbled, one day, and dropped her basket of tomatoes and apples, Tudse, without thinking, rushed to help her. The girl gasped when she saw the hump-backed young man. His smile, though strong and youthful, was as lop-sided as his gait. She laughed when she saw him. “Why,” she said, “you are like a little toad!”
“I–I– ” he stuttered, having never been so close to such a beautiful creature.
“And you croak like a toad!” she giggled. “And you spy on us. Don’t think we don’t notice you sitting in the shadow of the fountain like a toad. Your eyes follow everything we do. Do you have a long tongue too? Is that why you can’t speak? Do you think you will shoot out your tongue and catch us like flies?” Other girls gathered and laughed.
Tudse, as game to laugh as be laughed at, gave the girl a kiss.
The oldest had fallen out of Virgo, the youngest, the little mermaid, had fallen out of Aquarius. She would have to wait five months before her turn came to rise up from the bottom of the ocean, but that seemed like five years. Each promised to tell the others what she saw and what she thought the most beautiful.
None of them longed so much for her turn to come as the little mermaid. Quiet and thoughtful, she spent many nights by the open window, peering up through the dark blue water, watching the fish as they splashed about with their fins and tails. She could see the moon and stars shining faintly. When something like a black cloud passed between her and them, she knew that it was either a whale swimming or a ship full of human beings who never imagined that a pretty little mermaid was standing beneath them.
The eldest came back from her visit to the surface having a hundred things to say. The most beautiful, she said, was to lie in the moonlight, on a sandbank, in the quiet sea, near the coast, and to gaze on a large town nearby, where the lights were twinkling like hundreds of stars; to listen to the sounds of the music, the noise of carriages, and the voices of human beings, and then to hear the merry bells peal out from the church steeples. The second eldest rose just as the sun was setting and that was the most beautiful sight of all. The third sister, the boldest, swam up a broad river. She saw green hills covered with beautiful vines. In a narrow creek she found a troop of little human children, naked and splashing in the water. She wanted to play but they fled in terror. She fondly recalled the children who could swim in the water without fish’s tails. The fourth sister remained in the midst of the sea but she said it was as beautiful as the land. The sky looked like a bell of glass. The fifth sister went in winter when the sea was green and large icebergs floated larger and loftier than the churches of men. She seated herself on one of the largest and let the wind play with her long hair. She remarked that all the ships sailed by rapidly and steered as far away as they could as if they were afraid of both her and the iceberg.
Though each was delighted with the new and beautiful sights, they each also thought the sea was the more beautiful. Sometimes, when they expected a ship would be lost in a storm, they would swim before a vessel and sing of the delights at the bottom of the sea. Their voices were more beautiful than any human’s but the sailors, in their confusion and fear, only heard the evils of the storm’s howling wind.
Then, finally, it was the Little Mermaid’s turn to swim to the surface.
“Tudse,” said the Abbot, “it is ever rain or shine with you.”
“What ails you?”
“You are young; naturally swayed by the merriment of wine, song and, above all, the beauties of girls, but time moves swiftly and the joys of the moment will be the snows of yesteryear.”
“But I should like to taste that snow b-before it melts.”
“They scorn me.”
“A w-woman is God’s design.”
“The beauty of women is the work of nature: fleeting, illusory, subject to the ravages of age and dust.”
“Yes, Abbot, like an o-old monk’s learning.”
“Tudse!” The Abbot sighed. “The world is not for you.”
On the second week of the first month a messenger came to the Abbot. The Prince would be attending a wedding. The finest foods would be served. There would be fireworks and celebration, and the Prince asked that Tudse provide the music. The Abbot warned Tudse that there would be many temptations and that he should politely decline, but Tudse had never seen a Prince, or fireworks, or eaten fine food; and, so, Tudse accepted.
At last it was the Little Mermaid’s turn to swim to the surface of the sea.
“Well, now, you are all grown up,” said the eldest mermaid, keeper of the Grey King’s castle; “so you must let me adorn you like your sisters.” She placed a wreath of white lilies in her hair. Every flower leaf was half a pearl. Then the old lady ordered eight great oysters attached to the tail of the princess to show her rank.
“But they hurt me so,” said the little mermaid.
“Pride must suffer pain.”
“But better if it were my pride than yours if I must suffer for it.”
The red flowers of her own garden, at least, would have suited her better; but since she had no choice she sighed and said, “Farewell,” then 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; but the clouds were tinted with crimson and gold. The sea was calm and the air was fresh and mild. A large ship, with three masts, lay becalmed on the water, with only one sail set. The sailors sat idle on deck or and in the rigging. There was beautiful music, music! – that which she loved above all – and song on board and, as darkness came on, a hundred colored lanterns were lighted. 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 all was a man dressed in a beautiful black frock coat and a young woman dressed in white.
Another man spoke to the couple and the little mermaid heard the words: Cherish, Love, Dust, Man and Wife.
The ceremony ended, the sailors danced on deck as the married couple came out of the cabin. More than a hundred rockets rose in the air, making it bright as day. The little mermaid was so startled that she dived under water. When she again broke the water’s surface, 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. How handsome the newly married young couple were. But the music – how could anyone play so beautifully? And what astonished the Little Mermaid most of all was that it was the Prince who played! The celebrants danced while he played on a violin. The instrument soared. The little, singing wooden box, for that’s what it looked like to the Little Mermaid, sang with a clarity and joy as beautiful as a Mermaid’s voice! But what happened? Why did he stop?
Then she knew. He saw her! The little Mermaid ducked beneath the water before anyone else followed the Prince’s gaze.
Tudse shivered like a leaf as he climbed aboard the Prince’s ship.
The ocean! At last! His heart overflowed. And when the ship weighed anchor and the Prince called for music, he took out his violin and played like never before. All those who had wondered why such a misshapen oddity had been invited, fell quiet with admiration. Never had they heard such beautiful music. But the Prince soon regretted Tudse. All the talk turned from the Prince’s munificence to the strange squat man who played so beautifully. The Prince decided to jest with Tudse. When his playing was finished, the Prince applauded loudest of all. “He is a Prince among musicians!” he shouted. “Let him dress like a Prince!”
With that, the Prince put his crown and blue cape on Tudse .
The audience laughed. How humorous to see such a shrunken man in the clothes of a prince! The revelers congratulated the prince on his jest but Tudse played with such good humor that even the Prince, after all, was charmed. “Tudse,” said the Prince, “If you were only as handsome as I, I would let you keep the cape and crown.”
Tudse’s heart still reveled. He played for the ocean.
He played until he saw something that, for the first time, silenced him. A beautiful girl, or was it a young woman, watched him from the ocean’s waves! – an apparition of red hair and green eyes! – the most beautiful girl he could ever have imagined! Fingers stopped, melody stopped, and even his heart skipped a beat! He was five years old again. He was watching a shooting star fall into the sparkling sea.
But when all the others stopped, mid-dance, to see where he gazed, the lovely apparition had vanished. But Tudse didn’t know what he had seen. If he had cried out, Mermaid! Fear would have struck the hearts of the sailors. They might have unfurled the sails. They might have turned the ship to land, but the revelers turned their curious gaze back to Tudse. He began to play again.
The colored lanterns had been extinguished, no more rockets rose in the air and the cannons had ceased. The young married couple retreated below deck and only the Captain and a few sailors remained. The little mermaid swam to the nearest porthole to catch a last glimpse of the beautiful couple before the ship lights were put out.
Imagine her surprise when she spied the married couple in the very first porthole.
She clung to the brass screwplates and quickly forgot any other thought.
“Undress, my belovèd,” said the young man.
“Belovèd.” His bride smiled. “My breasts are yours.” The young woman smiled at her husband’s expression as her clothes fell away, delighting in his desire and pleasure in her beauty. The little mermaid gasped. She had never seen a human being naked. And there, just as in the marble, was a dark dimple in the middle of her belly- her belly button! The statue was not flawed or damaged! The swell of the woman’s hips, the strange dark patch between her legs were utterly unlike the statue.
“Undress, my belovèd,” said the young woman.
The young man, his back to the mermaid, lifted his shirt over his head. His arms and shoulders were powerful, like the mermen, but his buttocks and legs were beautiful and unlike any merman. They were like her statue.
His brides approached him, one hand gently on his chest, the other at his groin. But the little mermaid could not see what the young woman saw. Her expression endlessly changed and sparkled like the fleeting rays of sunlight through water – wonder, fear, joy, desire, fright, eagerness. What could so bewitch the young woman? What did she hold in her hand? The little mermaid hurriedly slipped into the water.
She swam under the boat.
When the waves lifted her, she peered through a porthole on the other side of the cabin. The young woman was kneeling. Her mouth was at the young man’s groin. She couldn’t see what she did, or what she held in her mouth, but her head moved softly back and forth. Ecstasy transformed the young man’s lips and eyes. The lovers moved languorously as though with the motion of ancient tides.
“Wife,” said the young man.
“My Lord,” answered the young woman. The little mermaid was transfixed. The woman held her husband’s hips just as she herself had held the hips of the statue. She could not see the strange curvatures at the young man’s legs. If only the young woman would stand or move aside. Was he like the statue? But the young man gently held his new wife’s head in his hands, fingers disappearing in her hair, twined with May Apple, Spring Cress, Trillium, Yarrow and False Solomon’s Seal. Her lips remained at the place where his legs met. His mouth opened. His eyes grew heavy. He gazed at the ceiling with pleasure.
The young woman’s back moved sinuously with candle-lit shadow. What did she do? She seemed to swallow. The little mermaid quickly dove back into the water, under the boat and peered through the original porthole. She saw the young man’s back. She wanted to see more. She was desperate to understand the mystery. She dove back into the water, back to the other porthole, only to see that they had moved again.
The had gone to the bed. Now the young woman lay on the bed, legs open, as her husband lowered himself between them. She joyfully embraced him with her legs. If only I could do the same! – thought the little mermaid. If only I had legs!
What did her husband do? “Belovèd,” he murmured.
“Take what is yours.” The young woman’s legs spread wider and her ankles crossed at the small of his back..
The little mermaid saw his hips suddenly thrust forward. She heard the musical cry of the young bride. What did he do? Their breathing was deep. They gazed in each others eyes and their gaze was as beautiful and filled with stars as any night sky. Once again the little mermaid frantically dove into the water and swam to the other porthole. The young man’s broad chest and muscular abdomen were like those of the statue. They flexed and sighed as he moved between his wife’s thighs. The little mermaid gazed, wishing it was she who touched and felt the living and powerful thrusts of the young man’s hips. Again and again he thrust.
The young woman clung ever more tightly to her husband’s back. Her husband’s thrusts now lifted her, now drove her legs wider. Her head fell back. Her eyes closed in an agony of pleasure. Her lips were parted and her brow furrowed. Then she abruptly stiffened again and again and sang with the melody of the ocean’s tides.
“I’m yours,” she gasped.
The young man thrust and stiffened one last time. His pleasure was equal to hers.
A flash of lightning startled Tudse.
Just out of site, the little mermaid dove under the water. The sea was becoming restless. A moaning, grumbling sound could be heard beneath the waves. The sails were unfurled and the noble ship began to turn back to land. The waves rose higher and heavy clouds darkened the sky. 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 over-topped 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 avoid the beams and planks of the wreck scattering on the water. At one moment it was so pitch dark that she could not see a single object.
Another flash of lightning revealed the whole scene.
She could see every one who had been on board. Some cried for help. Some were drowning. Some drifted lifelessly to the ocean floor. Humans could not live in water! The prince, in his blue cape and golden crown, was helping helping the few, those still able, to climb into a skiff. She searched. She dove under the water and saw the newly married young man tumbling to the sea bed. She rushed to save him but was startled by his wife. She had pursued him to the depths of the sea and took him in her arms. Now she saw the mermaid, but when the mermaid tried to pull her from her lifeless husband, she refused. The little mermaid was confused. The young woman exhaled, breathed in the dark waters and mouthed the words ‘Belovèd’.
She kissed her husband.
The little mermaid too them both into her arms and pulled them to the surface. In the midst of roaring foam and wind, the sailors never guessed whose hands lifted the young man and woman into their arms and into the little skiff. Where was the Prince? He had been left behind. Little did she know that Tudse had saved the Prince’s life just as she had helped save the couple. But there was not enough room for Tudse. The galleon broke apart and Tudse, with nothing to cling to and failing strength, sank beneath the waves.
The Prince must not die. The little mermaid swam about among the beams and planks strewing the surface of the sea, forgetting they could crush her to pieces. 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 sinking to sands far beneath the roiling waves. His limbs failed, his beautiful eyes were closed and he would have died had not the little mermaid taken him in her arms and lifted him, finally, above the waves. She let the waves drift them where they would.
In the morning the storm had ceased; but of the ship not a single fragment could be seen.
Before the sun rose red and glowing from the water. The little mermaid awkwardly pulled Tudse to shore. In the early morning dark, he seemed to her like the marble statue in her little garden. She kissed him again and wished that he might live. As the sun’s first light touched the earth, she could see the lofty blue mountains on which the white snow rested as if a flock of swans were lying upon them. Near the coast were beautiful green forests and close by stood a large building. She could not tell if it were church or monastery. She took in the mysteriously bright scent of orange and citron trees for the first time.
She laid him in the fine, white sand. She took care to raise his head higher than his body. She kissed his his forehead and stroked back his wet hair. His eyes were open, but he could speak no words. He saw the beautiful girl with the red hair and green eyes. He tried. He wanted to speak but the monastery’s bells sounded and a number of young girls were already coming down to see what the sea had washed ashore. The little mermaid swam into the waters and placed herself between some high rocks. She covered her head and neck with foam so that her little face might not be seen. She watched to see what would become of the poor prince.
She did not wait long. The girls seemed frightened at first, but only for a moment; then they fetched monks from the monastery and the mermaid saw that the prince came to life again. He smiled upon those who stood round him. He turned and searched the horizon, but the little mermaid dared not reveal herself. This made her very unhappy.
When he was led away into the monastery, she dove down sorrowfully into the water and returned to the Grey King’s castle.
Tudse could do nothing but look into the ocean.
When he read the holy texts that the Abbot gave him to read, he draw mermaids between the interstices of text. The Abbot called them accursed creatures and banned him from the library. But Tudse’s heart was with the green eyed, red-haired girl of the ocean. He yearned for her.
Many an evening and morning he returned to the shore but, if the mermaid was there, she never revealed herself. He became quiet and withdrawn. It poured in Tudse’s world. He watched the ocean until, one evening, the Abbot joined him. “You have seen a mermaid?” he asked.
“I was a sailor before I joined the order.” The Abbot placed his hand on Tudse’s shoulder. “I wondered how any man could have survived the sea that night. By rights, you should be dead. A mermaid rescued you, didn’t she? Might have been better had you drowned. I saw a mermaid once, and sure I was that I would perish. Mermaids – half-women creatures of an exotic world. I’ve looked into the eyes of the mermaid – eyes like water, as translucent and as fathomless. I saw beauty, treasure and shipwrack in her gaze. A man looks into eternity who looks into those eyes. Her hair was like trailing seaweed and somehow more beautiful. She spoke. Her words were the depth and breadth of the ocean — an eternity of song. The sea is a dark womb – a man drowns there but not the mermaid. She speaks with the voice every living thing that has ever been born, lived and expired there. She doesn’t age. She’s the ocean’s child, spirit and soul and so long as there’s an ocean the mermaid swims in her heart. Aye, that’s no place for mankind. And though a man may think otherwise, bewitched by her beauty, her coral lips and innocence, her other part is kin to the slippery scale. Her heart beats the cold, salt-blood of her mother. But there’s no forgetting. None. Any man who loves the ocean has looked at the mermaid whether he knows it or not. He’s fallen into the depthless beauty of her youth and that’s a life sentence. He’ll give her his heart, someday; though his blood turn to dust, though he die a thousand mile from shore and sea foam, he’ll hoist the baleful fabric of his soul at the beck and call of that last breath. He’ll give her his heart. So will we all, lovers of the ocean. So will we all.”
After that, Tudse decided to build a cottage for himself so that he could always be near the sea.
He put stone on stone, stripped trees for rafters and made a roof of thatched straw. Tudse kissed the Abbot’s hand in gratitude, then left the monastery to live in his new home by the sea.
The little mermaid was silent and thoughtful, now more than ever. Her sisters asked her what she had seen during her first visit to the surface of the water; but she would tell them nothing. She had seen something more beautiful than any garden, castle or mountain peak. She had seen love and a man and woman making love; and she saw that the bond of love was stronger than life. Many an evening and morning did she rise to the place where she had left the prince, but she never saw him. She saw the fruits in the garden ripen till they were gathered, the snow on the tops of the mountains melt away; but she never saw the prince, and therefore she returned home, always more sorrowful than before.
Her only comfort was to sit in her own little garden. She flung her arm round the beautiful marble statue which was like the prince. She touched the little dimple in the statue’s belly, and closed her palm around the mysterious shapes that hung beneath. What strange pleasures were there? But for all she touched and curiously stroked, the only answer was the lifeless cold of marble.
She gave up tending her flowers, and they grew in wild confusion over the paths, twining their long leaves and stems round the branches of the trees so that the whole place became dark and gloomy. At length she could bear it no longer, and told one of her sisters all about it. Then the others heard the secret and very soon it became known to two mermaids whose intimate friend happened to know who the prince was. She had also seen the marriage on board ship. She told them where the prince came from, that the newly married young man had been a dear friend, and that the bride had been the prince’s younger sister – a princess.
“Come, little sister,” said the other princesses.
They entwined their arms and rose up in a long row to the surface of the water where they knew the prince’s palace stood. It was built of bright yellow shining stone, with long flights of marble steps, one of which reached quite down to the sea. Splendid gilded cupolas rose over the roof, and between the pillars that surrounded the whole building stood life-like statues of marble. Through the clear crystal of the lofty windows could be seen noble rooms with costly silk curtains and hangings of tapestry. The walls were covered with beautiful paintings which were a pleasure to look at.
In the center of the largest saloon a fountain threw its sparkling jets high into the ceiling’s sun-filled cupola. Now that she knew where he lived, she spent many an evening and night in the water near the palace. She would swim much nearer the shore than any other mermaid. Indeed, she once hid beneath the shadow of the prince’s marble balcony. She sat and watched him. The breeze gently lifted his blue cape and the moonlight glittered in his crown.
She recalled how his head had rested on her bosom. She yearned to kiss him again. All the while, she grew more and more fond of human beings. She wished more and more to be able to wander about with those whose world seemed to be so much larger than her own. They could fly over the sea in ships and mount the high hills far above the clouds. The lands they possessed, their woods and their fields stretched far away beyond the reach of her sight. There was so much that she wished to know. At last, she questioned the old mermaid, who knew all about the upper world, her name for the lands above the sea.
Tudse wrote a song, a melody and poem. He put it into a bottle. Ah me, he cried, I am in love.
He took the bottle, threw into the waves and watched as the waters carried it. He watched until he could see it no more.
“If human beings are not drowned,” asked the little mermaid, “can they live forever? Are they like sea folk?”
“No,” replied the old mermaid, “they must die. Their term of life is short.”
“Then life must be precious to them?”
“And yet I saved a woman who preferred death.”
“Saved who, my child?”
The little mermaid confessed all that she had done. When she described how the young wife chose death rather than be parted from her newly wedded husband, the older mermaid sagely nodded. “I see,” she said. “Love. The answer is love my dear.”
“What is love?”
“Love is a mystery,” she sighed. “It is not for sea-folk to understand.”
“But I will.”
“But why would you ever want to suffer from a sorrow that prefers death to life?”
“But what is death?”
“For us? Death is the end of all. If by some accident we cease to exist, we become foam on the surface of the water. No grave marks our lives. We shall never live again but, like the green sea-weed, never flourish more once we have been cut. But I have been told that human beings have a soul which lives forever, lives after the body has turned to dust. It rises through the clear, pure air beyond the glittering stars. Just as we rise out of the water to behold land and earth, so do they rise to unknown and glorious regions which we shall never see.”
“But how is this possible?”
“Like love,” mused the little mermaid. “Perhaps love is the mystery. I would gladly trade all the hundreds or thousands of years that I have to live to be human for only one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that other world beyond the stars.”
“You must not think of that. We feel ourselves to be much happier and much better off than human beings.”
“And there is nothing you would die for?”
“What is worth having more than life itself?”
“But what if I perish?” asked the little mermaid, “I shall be like the foam of the sea, driven about, never again to hear the music of the waves. Never again to see the pretty flowers nor the red sun. Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”
“No,” said the old mermaid, “unless you can unravel the mystery of love. Perhaps if there were one human to whom you were more than father or mother; if all his thoughts were fixed on you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul might glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you and retain his own as well; but this can never happen. Your fish’s tail, which amongst us is considered so beautiful, is thought on earth to be quite ugly; they do not know any better, and they think it necessary to have two stout props, which they call legs, in order to be handsome.”
“What of my father and mother?”
“You have none,” answered the old mermaid.
“Then where do I come from?”
“A mermaid is born where a shooting star falls into the sea.”
“And what of humans?”
“Women give birth to all children – boy or girl.”
“A woman contains such magic that she can create life?” asked the little mermaid.
“Whenever she wishes?”
“You ask many questions, my dear.”
In answer, the little mermaid sighed and looked sorrowfully at her fish’s tail. Next time, she thought, I shall ask the last question first. “Let us be happy,” said the old mermaid, “and dart and spring about however long we live, which is really quite long enough; after that we can rest ourselves all the better. This evening we are going to have a court ball.”
In the upper world, the Prince celebrated his birthday.
Tudse played in honor of the Prince and to the pleasure of all those present, but his music was happy, and then sorrowful, and than happy until the Prince sighed, “Tudse! Really.” When Tudse went home to his little cottage by the sea, he set aside his violin and flute, and watched the moon glitter among the sea’s endless waves.
Far beneath the waves, there was another celebration – one of those splendid sights which we will never see on earth. The walls and the ceiling of the large ball-room were transparent crystal. Hundreds of colossal shells, some deep red, others grass green, stood on each side in rows. They were lit with a blue fire that illuminated the sea around them.
Innumerable fish swam past the crystal walls. Their scales glowed with purple, silver and gold. Mermen and the mermaids flowed through the hall like a broad stream. They danced to music of their own sweet singing. No one on earth has such a lovely voice as theirs. The little mermaid sang more sweetly than them all. The whole court applauded her with hands and tails; and for a moment her heart felt quite gay, for she knew she had the loveliest voice of any on earth or in the sea. The Grey King summoned the little mermaid.
“Most precious of precious daughters, your song is beautiful but sorrowful.”
“Why do you call me daughter?” she asked.
“Why, because I chose you among all the shooting stars that fall into the waters.”
“Did you love me?”
“I chose you.”
“But do you love me?”
“I see what troubles you.”
“I want to live with the humans!” blurted the little mermaid. “Only for a day. Grant me just one day!”
“Never! Do not ask again.” The Grey King’s face darkened. “You are the King’s daughter. The ways of mortals are beneath you. Never! I would as soon see my palaces turned to foam and all kingdom made sand. Never!”
The little mermaid cringed. “Then was it you who stirred the waves that crushed the boat?”
“No,” answered the King gently. “Though we are immortal, we are forbidden. We cannot interfere in the affairs of human beings. Were I to raise my trident against just one human man, woman or child, my magic would break, my trident fail and I myself dissolve to foam. The ways of mermen and humans are decided by a greater power than my own. Leave what is human to humans.”
But the little mermaid could not.
She soon thought again of the upper world. She could not forget the prince. She could not forget the mystery of love. She swam silently out of the Grey King’s palace and while everything within was gladness and song, she sat in her own little garden sorrowful and alone. Then she heard the bugle sounding through the water, and thought—“He is certainly sailing above, he on whom my wishes depend, and in whose hands I should like to place the happiness of my life. I will venture all for him, and to win an immortal soul while my sisters are dancing in the Grey King’s palace, I will go to the sea witch, of whom I have always been so much afraid. She can give me counsel and help.”
The little mermaid went out of her garden. She took the road to the foaming whirlpools where the sorceress lived. She had never been that way before: neither flowers nor grass grew there; nothing but bare, gray, sandy ground stretched out to the whirlpool where the water, like foaming mill-wheels, whirled round everything that it seized. Beyond the whirlpools, in the center of a strange forest, stood the house of the sea-witch. The forest’s branches were long slimy arms with fingers like flexible worms. They moved from root to top. All that could be reached in the sea they seized upon, and held fast, so that it never escaped from their clutches. The little mermaid was so alarmed at what she saw that she stood still. Her heart beat with fear. More than once she nearly turned back; but she thought of the prince, and of love, gave her the courage to endure.
The little mermaid fastened her long flowing hair round her head so that nothing might seize it. She laid her hands together across her bosom and dodged and darted between the supple arms and fingers of the ugly polypi. She saw that each held in its grasp something it had seized as if with iron bands: the white skeletons of human beings, skeletons of land animals, oars, rudders, and chests of ships, even another mermaid, whom they had caught and strangled; and this seemed the most shocking of all to the little princess.
At last she came to marshy ground and the house of the sea-witch. Large, fat water-snakes were rolling in the mire. They showing their ugly, drab-colored bodies. The house was built with the bones of shipwrecked humans. There sat the sea witch, allowing a toad to eat from her mouth, just as people will feed a canary with a piece of sugar. She called to the ugly water-snakes and allowed them to crawl over her bosom.
“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 legs so that you may pursue the young prince and understand love. You wish to have an immortal soul.” Then the witch laughed so loud and disgustingly, that the toad and the snakes fell wriggling to the ground. “You are but just in time, for after sunrise to-morrow I should not be able to help you till the end of another year. 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. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what humans call legs. 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 they have ever seen. 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. You will think that blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.”
“But think again,” said the witch; “for once your shape has become like a human being, you can no more be a mermaid. You will never return through the water to your sisters, or to the Grey King’s palace; 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, to love you with his whole soul, and to 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, pale as death.
“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 in the depths of the sea, and you believe that you will be able to charm the prince with it, but this voice you must give to me; the best thing you possess. 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?”
“Your beauty, your graceful walk and your expressive eyes; surely you can win a man’s heart with these. Well, have you lost your courage? Put out your little tongue that I may cut it off as my payment; then you shall have the powerful draught.”
“If I fail then I lose all and you, nothing, ” she said, plucking up her courage.
“Yes,” laughed the witch.
“And if I succeed then I still lose my tongue and what do you lose? Nothing at all.”
“If I succeed,” said the little mermaid, “return my tongue.”
The witch laughed darkly. “Very well. Then we have a bargain.”
“It shall be,” said the little mermaid.
Then the witch placed her cauldron on the fire to prepare the magic draught.
“Cleanliness is a good thing,” said she, scouring the vessel with snakes, tied together in a large knot. Then she pricked herself in the breast and let the black blood drop into it. The steam that rose formed itself into horrible shapes. The mermaid was too fearful to look. Every moment the witch threw something else into the vessel and when it began to boil, the sound was like the weeping of a crocodile. When the magic draught was ready, it looked like the clearest water. “There it is for you,” said the witch. Then she cut off the mermaid’s tongue so that she became dumb. She would never again speak or sing. “If anything should seize you as you return through the wood,” said the witch, “throw over them a few drops of the potion and their fingers will be torn into a thousand pieces.” But the little mermaid had no occasion to do this. The polypi shrank back in terror at the sight of the draught that twinkled like a star between her fingers.
The little mermaid passed quickly through the wood and marsh. In her father’s palace the torches were extinguished. All within were asleep. She did not venture to go to them. She could no longer speak and would be leaving them forever. She felt as if her heart would break. She stole into the garden, took a flower from the garden of each of her sisters, and then rose up through the dark blue waters. The sun had not risen when she came in sight of the prince’s palace and approached the beautiful marble steps, but the moon shone clear and bright. Then the little mermaid drank the magic draught and it seemed as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body: she fell into a swoon, and lay like one dead. When the sun arose and shone over the sea, she recovered, and felt a sharp pain. Just before her stood a strange young man, his gaze filled with wonder.
Tudse stood dumbly above the girl or, more so, a young woman.
He recognized the eyes. Her hair was red and her eyes were the translucent green of the ocean. He fixed his eyes upon her so earnestly that she cast down her own and then became aware that her fish’s tail was gone. She had as pretty a pair of white legs and feet as tiny as any little maiden; but she had no clothes so she tried to wrap herself in her long, thick hair.
She was beautiful. Tudse had never seen a naked woman. For a moment, absorbing her beauty: her young breasts, hips, legs and delicate belly, he forgot himself. Then, with trembling fingers, Tudse hurriedly removed his brown cloak and threw it over the little mermaid. Where was her tail? Was she or was she not the apparition he had seen in the ocean?
“W-” He swallowed, determined not to let her hear his stutter. “Where are you from?”
The little mermaid looked at him mildly and sorrowfully with her sea-green eyes; but she could not speak. Tudse helped her to her feet but every step she took was just as the witch had said it would be. She felt as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives. Tudse saw that she was in pain though she seemed to bear the pain willingly and stepped as lightly as a soap-bubble. He swept her into his strong arms carried her, light as a flower’s petal, to his house.
He retrieved clean linens. He lay her down in his bed.
Then he held up his finger to say, I’ll return. He hurried out of his house and when he returned in the evening his little home was filled with flowers, sea-shells and the most beautiful assortment of simple treasures that Tudse had ever seen. The little Mermaid smiled when she saw Tudse. What did she know of his misshapen form or face? He was kind. She sat on his bed, feet carefully lifted from the earth, legs askance and knees together. She had draped one of his linens over her shoulder and her sandy nose and forehead were sunburned.
Tudse’s heart leapt.
He hurried to her side and unwrapped colorful clothes. He had bought them all with what little money he possessed. But she was filthy. What does a mermaid know of sand or mud? Her knees were covered with soil. The thin white cotton sheet only half covered her breast and a nipple. Her breasts were soiled too, as though she had swatted at mosquitoes.
But the evening was already late. Tudse gently leaned her back into his bed, smiled, and covered her.
She was said, by those who had seen her picking flowers and searching the shoals for shells, that she was the most beautiful young woman in this land or the next. The Prince vowed that he would bring her to his palace to see her for himself.
The little mermaid peered out at the beautiful sunrise when she heard Tudse waken.
She loved the beautiful red fingers of the sun’s rays as they first fluttered over the tops of the waves.
Tudse saw only the little mermaid’s silhouette, her back turned to him. She wore nothing. What use does a mermaid have for clothes? His hand fell between his legs. He worried that she would turn, that she would see him, he, the toad, who had never seen a young woman’s nudity. But then he saw something else! There, at the base of her spine, at the very dimple was a little swirl of scales. She was the mermaid! She was the little mermaid!
Tudse stumbled noisily to his feet. He could not speak. He must tell no one! Oh, but what a world of fear and mistrust there was among men! But why didn’t she recognize him? Why else did she come here? Why didn’t she speak to him? He covered himself so she would not see his horrible disfigurement. Then he went to her. He covered her with a sheet. She smiled and he might have lost himself in those eyes.
Instead, he opened the front door and gently lead her to a little tide pool where he bathed in the mornings.
He held her hand as she stepped into the water. The little mermaid could not tell him that the searing pain of her every step vanished so soon as she stepped into the familiar waters of the sea. She felt his hand on her shoulder, then her shoulder blades as he bathed her. His fingertips traced her spine and she closed her eyes with the pleasure of his touch. When his hands gently scrubbed her buttocks she opened her legs. Her legs! She felt a pleasure in her belly that was as mysterious and new as the first rays of the morning’s sun.
She turned. She smiled.
Them she pulled poor Tudse into the basin. He had been so careful to stay out of the water. What could he do or say? He wanted to run, to hide, but something like a string tied his heart to her breast. Hardly more than the thought of being away from her more filled his racing heart with an ache and agony. She undressed him. First his robe, then his shirt and woolen trousers. And then she saw what she had never seen before – a man. She smiled at him. She pressed her palms against his chest, warm and living and nothing like the marble statue. Tudse shook. She moved her hands to his hips and then to his legs. But now she only one thing.
She glanced, upward, at Tudse before her hand closed around his warm length.
So this is what the statue had hidden for so long!- she thought to herself. He was nothing like what she had expected. He was both hard and soft. He was alive. He was warm. His skin was silky and smooth. She pushed and pulled just to feel the delicate slide of the skin. With the palm of her other hand, she weighed the soft heaviness that hung between his thighs. Strangest of all, her own belly and thighs felt heavy and thick with pleasure.
He gripped her wrists, as if to prevent her hands from moving, or perhaps to prevent her from letting go. His eyes grew heavy and a liquor, the color of pearl, leapt from his body again and again. His pleasure coated her belly and thighs and she was captivated by the beauty of his expression. Then, when it was over, she laughed joyously. This, her laughter, which needed no tongue, was the one thing the sea-witch could not take away. To Tudse, her laughter was like the joyful peel of a thousand church bells.
She trailed her finger curiously through the wetness at her belly.
She peered that part of him that fell and softened.
Shaking but emboldened, Tudse resumed cleaning her, now cleaning his own pleasure from her belly and thighs. He cleaned her legs. She closed her eyes. She stretched and laid the palm of her hands softly atop his own as he neared the place where her legs parted. Without a thought of shyness or embarrassment she guided his fingers over her belly, thighs, hips and breasts, lost in the pleasure of his touch. She never guessed what other delight his fingertips might have brought her.
All the same, she smiled dreamily.
But where was the Prince in the blue cape and crown?
Little did she know that she had found him, that it was he who brought her flowers on that first day, who brought her shells, who decorated her beautiful red hair with eglantine and white yarrow. He covered her when she slept in the evening and kept watch over her at night. And little did she know that she broke his heart on the day she saw the Prince, his blue cape and golden crown. There was no hiding the glowing joy of her smile.
The Prince invited the little mermaid to stay at his palace.
Tudse gave the little mermaid a parting gift. He gave her a wooden flute that he had made during her short visit. The flute was wrapped in purple paper and tied with a golden string.
The little mermaid burst with joy.
On the first day, the Prince escorted the little mermaid through all the parts of his palace. At every turn there was some new unimagined beauty – paintings, sculpture, mosaic, airy galleries filled with sunlight. The Prince’s crown glittered and she happily held his hand. He asked her about her own home, her birth and her parents and she ached to tell him but, of course, could say nothing at all!
Her silence only fired his imagination.
What does she hide from me? – he wondered. What perfection?
When he finally took her to the marble balcony under which she had so often hidden, she stood on tip-toe to peer out over the sea. Then, reminded of Tudse, she took the wrapped flute from the sleeve of her dress, unwrapping it. She smiled broadly, eyes sparkling and offered it to the Prince.
“I will add this to my collection.” The Prince smiled broadly. “I own many beautiful instruments.”
But no, that’s not what she wanted. She folded her hands around his and lifted the flute to his lips. She nodded brightly. Play! – she wanted to say. Play! Play for me! The Prince smiled uncomfortably and lifted the little instrument to his lips. He blew but the sound was nothing like what she expected. The Prince put down the instrument on the ledge of the balcony and quickly led the little mermaid back into palace. She turned, glancing back at the little flute, worried that a breeze might be enough to tumble the instrument into the tide.
That night Tudse played his flute.
How beautiful! – said all those who heard his music, all save the little mermaid, who didn’t hear his music that first night.
How admirable to have her at my side, thought the Prince.
On the second day, he took the little mermaid so see all the lands he owned. He took through the sweet-scented woods, where green boughs touched their shoulders and little birds sang among the fresh leaves. He took her 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, and beneath the clouds, all the little hamlets and villages belonging to the Prince.
They returned to the palace in the evening.
The Prince provided her a silk dress, not unlike the dresses of his beautiful slave girls. They sang for him and his guests that evening. One sang better than all the others. The Prince clapped and smiled at her. This was to the great sorrow to the little mermaid. She knew how much more sweetly she herself could sing. ‘Oh if he could only know that! I have given away my voice to be with him.’
The slavegirls next performed pretty fairy-like dances. At this, the little mermaid raised her lovely white arms, stood on the tips of her toes and glided over the floor. She 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. 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. After the mermaid danced again, the prince said she should remain with him always, and she received permission to sleep at his door, on a velvet cushion.
Then, to one of the slavegirls, the most talented, he said, “Come to me!”
The Prince took her hand and, as the rest left the hall, led her to his chamber. The little mermaid followed as far as his door. The Prince had put a velvet cushion just outside and, tonight, permitted the little mermaid to sleep there.
When she heard the slave girl sing, she peered through the keyhole. The Prince’s room was beautiful and filled, like the little mermaid’s garden, with his favorite possessions. A great curtained bed sat against one wall. Tapestries hung on either side. Near the window was a statue of a nude woman. Around the window itself were yellow silk curtains and, at the window which overlooked the sea was the Prince and the slave girl.
“Dance for me,” he said.
The slave girl danced and this time her dress parted to reveal her fairy-like nipples and taut belly. The Prince smiled and moved to the center of the room where he took the slave girl’s hands and danced with her, touching her hip, waist, and breasts. Her eyes closed and her legs began to part.
“Sing for me.”
He stood behind her as she sang. They faced the sea. He kissed her neck. He kissed her bare shoulder. Her song wavered when he pinched her nipple. Once again the little mermaid found that she was unable to see all that she wished to see. The Prince lifted the back of the slave girl’s dress. Since their backs were to the mermaid, she could not see what he undid at his hips, but only saw that the ties of his breeches were loosened.
“Do not quit singing my little favorite!” said the Prince.
He bent his slave girl forward with one hand in her hair, at the nape of her nack, his other hand at her hip. Her song wavered again as she rose to her toes, then changed into another kind of song as she sank again. The Prince took his slave girl from behind, enjoying her until her song finally ended in tiny gasps, each as clear as a little bell, in time with the Prince’s own quick pleasure.
The night Tudse played his violin.
The little mermaid woke and thought that the Prince played his violin. If only she could sing. If he could hear her, then he wouldn’t want a slave girl! How beautifully their music would sound together! But when she peered through the keyhole, she saw darkness. Both the prince and the slave girl slept in each other’s embrace.
On the third night, the Prince set sail with three galleons.
Tudse was brought aboard to provide music while the little mermaid accompanied him on the largest of the three galleons. “These are the seas that I command,” he said. As far as you can see, from north to south, the shore is mine. “But you are not afraid of the sea, my silent child?” He asked, seeing how happily the little mermaid peered into the waves. 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 wonders were at the bottom of the sea. She had breathed in the nooks and crannies that had drowned a thousand men. Even as he spoke, they passed over ship wrecks and treasures beyond his imagining.
Before nightfall, they weighed anchor within site of the prince’s palace.
The Prince provided the little mermaid with another dress, this time just like the costumes of his slave girls. Beautiful paper lanterns were strung from mast to mast. A table was set with food and drink and Tudse played his violin while the slave girls sang.
This time, when the mermaid stood and danced, just as she had before, the Prince joined her. His hand brushed her belly, then her hip. He moved behind her. A flight of feathers lifted in the little mermaid’s belly when a finger’s tip brushed her nipple. She closed her eyes without thinking. When another finger’s tip just pressed at the divide between her legs, as though by accident, the little mermaid widened her legs just as the slave girl had done the night before. Yes, she thought, tonight the Prince will fall in love with me.
Was it the Prince? She opened her eyes. No.
The melody was the same as on that night when the Prince had almost drowned! Imagine her astonishment when she saw that it was Tudse who played the Prince’s melody! She had stopped dancing.
“Come to me,” said the Prince, hand held out. “Be mine, forever.”
But the little mermaid didn’t go to him. She stood, confused. Then she shook her head, no. Tudse had stopped playing. Instead of taking the Prince’s hand, she took his crown. She undid the clasp that held his blue cape. Then, holding the crown and cape, she went to Tudse. Carefully, her gaze full of surmise, she clasped the blue cape around his shoulders. She placed the crown on his head. Then she lifted his violin, her hands on his, back to his shoulder. Play!
Yes, she thought.
Then, Yes! He is my Prince! He is the prince I saved all those weeks ago!
All of the messengers but the last had returned without an answer. The last messenger met an old woman fishing by the sea. The old woman had stopped the messenger who had been hurrying back to the Prince.“I know what your master seeks to know.”
“What business is it of yours?”
“She is beautiful, she is graceful, and do you know her name?”
“How do you know?”
“I know what I know.”
“Then what is her name?”
“No human could ever speak her name.”
“She is a mermaid,” laughed the old woman with a witch’s laugh. “Tell your Prince that she is a mermaid and tell him, above all, that she is the daughter of a King more powerful than your wildest imagining – a ruler of the ocean. Tell him she is a Princess. ”
“This is her tongue!” The old woman opened the palm of her hand. “Tell the little beauty to show you her tongue; and you shall see.” The messenger recoiled in fear and horror. “Tell your master that she has made a bargain! If he marries anyone but the little mermaid, she will be forever lost to the foam of the sea and, aye, so too his chances to marry a Sea King’s daughter.”
The Prince again offered her his hand.
But what did the little mermaid care for bargains, the sea-witch or fate?
She shook her head. The sea-witch had been right. She had been a fool. She had been stupid. She had given away everything to be with the Prince. Though he beckoned, she would not go to him. She had made a terrible mistake. She held her hands over her eyes and she wept for everything she would lose at sunrise.
“You plunge a dagger into my heart,” said the Prince.
But the little mermaid refused. The lights were put out. The Prince returned to his quarters to sleep without the little mermaid.
Tudse lowered a skiff to leave the ship and be done with the sea forever.
The little mermaid leapt into the skiff just as it touched water. She pushed the skiff away from the galleon’s hull. The little boat floated free. Then she kissed Tudse and that kiss was more beautiful than any of the riches in the palace of a Prince. Her’s was a mermaid’s kiss; and in that kiss was the salt of the sea, the warm white sands of starlit beaches and the never-tiring ablution of the waves.
What would Tudse do?
They kissed again. His was a lover’s kiss; and that too was the salt of the sea, sun in the golden sand and a thousand glittering waves. The little mermaid once again felt that strange gift of desire warmly in her belly – the same as when Tudse had touched and bathed her.
Her breasts heaved with the same unaccountable desire to feel his living body. She parted his robe, shirt and trunks. What did deformity mean to her? Nothing. To her, he was like any other man and even more so. He was beautiful. He undid the slight buttons of her dress until her bare breasts pressed against his chest and their heartbeats mingled. How much better to wear nothing at all! What need does a mermaid have for clothes?
She felt his mystery stir between his legs.
She felt a warm inviting moisture between her own.
How she wanted to open her legs. How strange and natural when his hand moved between them. She closed her eyes and felt her moisture, the tide of an inner ocean, on the back and forth of his fingers. When he lifted his hand she smelled sea and sand. Then her hand closed around him, what pressed against her belly as they embraced. She recalled the statue, the lovers on whom she had spied, and all that she had seen them do.
She fell to her knees. At her lips was the mystery.
She tasted salt, a man and desire. He dug his fingers into her streaming red hair as lips and tongue bathed him. His hips shuddered with pleasure. She wanted to give him more and receive more without knowing what to give or receive. She was only a mermaid.
She pulled his lips to hers. How would a mermaid know what her newly human, newly woman’s heart, wanted? She pulled Tudse until she fell backward onto the bottom of the skiff. She pulled him on top of her. Her need was as mysterious as walking on two legs – closeness, skin against skin, lips on lips, and something else. She smelled. She tasted him.
She needed his weight.
She was sure she would float into the sky as light as a soap bubble. But his weight was not enough.
Her palms pressed at his shoulder blades. She crossed her ankles at his back and pulled and pulled at him with her legs. Her thighs were stretched as wide as they could go. She half closed her eyes with the pleasurable ache. How good it felt to open her human legs so completely. Then the little mermaid’s mouth opened wide. She dug her fingers sharply into his back. He tried to pull away. Was he hurting her? She shook her head. Please! Then her shoulders rose off the bed. She bit Tudse’s shoulder as he smoothly slid inside her. This is what she wanted!
The pleasure! She felt him inside her! – large, stretching, full.
She had all of him! He was around her. He was on top of her. He was inside her.
And then what is left to say? He was like the oarsmen; and she was like the water that received his powerful strokes. She came. Her cry was a song. Oh, to be human! She remained beneath him. She came again. She remained, thighs spread and ankles crossed at the base of his spine until his pleasure was like the soft lapping of waves spilling and spilling inside her. Then he fell asleep in her arms.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
And then her eyes widened; she had spoken!
She had won, or had she?
Tudse slept as the little skiff rocked in the waves.
In the moonlight, gazing down through the clear water. The little mermaid thought she could distinguish the Grey King’s castle, and upon it the aged mermaid with the silver crown on her head. Then her sisters came up on the waves and gazed at her, wringing their white hands. She beckoned to them and smiled and wanted to tell them how happy she was; but they were as pale as death, “The Sea-Witch comes! In a few minutes the sun will rise and you must die.” And then they sighed deeply and mournfully. They sank down beneath the waves. ”
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 life or death.
A dark wave rose before her. The Sea-Witch!
“You have won an immortal soul,” said the dark wave, as motionless as a mountain. “But you have not won your life. Like the bride you rescued, who was willing to trade her life for love, you have traded yours and that has won you your soul. But you failed to marry the Prince. Our bargain is unchanged! At sunrise, you turn to foam!”
“But I can speak!” answered the little mermaid. “I have my Prince! You have lost! It was him, though I didn’t know it!”
But the only answer from the sea-wtich was the dark wave breaking over the skiff. Tudse woke! He choked and gasped. The skiff was already sinking under the flood of water. Then he saw the little mermaid. Her legs were gone! She gazed at him, tears streaking her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she cried. “I’m so sorry!”
Before he could answer. Before he could forgive her.
Before he could cry out that he loved her, another wave broke over the skiff, washing them both into the sea. He dove under the water, but he was no match for a sea-witch and, if not for the sea-witch, the little mermaid would have needed little help. What could he do? The sea-witch was like a black malignant shape, like an inky cloud, that twisted in the water and swirled around the little mermaid. The first rays of the morning sun struck the tops of the waves. Tudse dove under them, striving to reach the mermaid, but a black tentacle of smoke lifted him above the waves and dashed him back into the water. Tudse was no match. He was drowning.
He peered into the dark water.
He saw the black morass of the sea witch swirl and take form around the struggling little mermaid. The little mermaid fought but, like Tudse, was no match. The sea-witch took shape. She was huge and malevolent. In her hand, as though out of the black smoke, a dagger formed. She took hold of the little mermaid with one giant hand, holding her by the waist. In her other hand she drew back the dagger, then plunged it straight at the little mermaid’s heart. Tudse screamed under the water. But then another scream, more horrific than any he could have imagined, shocked the waters.
The sea-witch dissolved in a sudden cry of despair. In the little mermaid’s belly, in her womb, a little human light briefly glowed. The sea witch’s magic cracked. Her dagger failed. She and all her kingdom dissolved to foam. The ways of mermen and humans are decided by a greater power than even the sea-witch or the Grey King.
Tudse caught up the motionless mermaid in his arms.
He swam with her. He struggled to return to the surface. And then other hands, he dared not look at who’s, helped him. They lifted him gently to the surface. He coughed up water. He inhaled. He kicked mightily.
Though the little mermaid would not have drowned, he wouldn’t let her go.
He had found his shooting star and would never let her go again. He swam and swam toward the shore. Every so often, as his muscles began to slow with exhaustion, hands came to his aid, lifting and keeping him on the water’s surface. He saw the splash of an emerald tail beside him. No, several, but he paid no attention. When his breath returned, he kicked and swam with one arm, the littler mermaid in the other, until all the hands let go and he reached the shore.
The sun was already warming the sands when the little mermaid’s eyes opened.
Once again, those same coal-black eyes peered down at her. Tudse smiled. He held her. Waves bathed her emerald tail.
“Oh, Tudse, my Prince.”
“I am so s-sorry,” said Tudse.
“Don’t be,” said the little Mermaid. “I have lost my legs but I have won a soul and I will never lose that.”
“Or my love,” said Tudse.
“And something else,” smiled the little mermaid, placing her hand on her womb. “That will be both yours and mine.”
☼ Will Crimson October 30 2011
Rewriting The Little Mermaid was suggested by Elizabeth Belanger, who you otherwise know as Ewoman88. She forwarded an insightful essay on the Little Mermaid that you can read here, by Virginia Borges. What’s interesting about the essay is that it presents two conflicting interpretations of the Little Mermaid – the original by Andersen and Disney’s rewrite. Andersen’s tale is interpreted by some as misogynistic.
“To modern readers, the tale is distasteful as well as moving: sentimental, misogynistic and moralizing, it shows Andersen enjoying the Mermaid’s suffering and offering an oppressive mix of self–sacrifice, silence and expiation as ideals of female behavior.”
“Like ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Snow White,’ and ‘Rapunzel,’ it is a coming–of–age fairy tale in which a young girl at fifteen or sixteen is suddenly forced to cope with her own sexuality and the responses her beauty arouses. Like ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ it has images of blood which may symbolize the onset of menstruation, and it is imbued with an adolescent fear of sex which the 32–year–old Andersen shared.”
Borges tidily sums up by writing:
“According to Andersen, it seems that the correct answer for the little mermaid is not to pursue sex at all; rather, as in some sort of Madonna complex, she is to become a pure “daughter of the air,” clean and light as foam, and no longer bound by the physical and emotional pain she endured during her pursuit of sexual pleasure and romance on earth.”
On the other hand, we have Disney’s version but, as the saying goes, damned if you do and damned if you don’t. While Andersen is accused of turning the Little Mermaid into a sexless but virtuous Madonna, the Disney version is conversely criticized for giving the Little Mermaid what she wants – marriage (and presumably sex). Borges quotes Chris Richards:
“Ariel…can be understood as a fantasy sexual self for young girls, a figure through which the relation between the self as experienced in the present, with the body of a small child, to the self as imagined and projected into the future, with the sexual body of a woman, can be played at, perhaps rehearsed, perhaps learned.”
Borges also quotes Jack Zipes
“A coming of age story about a feisty ‘American’ mermaid, who pouts and pushes until she gets her way: she is the charming, adorable, spoiled and talented princess, Daddy’s pet, who demonstrates that she deserves to move up into the real world by dint of her perseverance and silence. Ariel must learn to channel her sexual desires and suffer for a man before she can win him as a prize. …Ariel’s curiosity and desire to be part of another world almost causes her death as well as her father’s; the prince saves Ariel by piercing the witch with the phallic bow of his ship; thanks to him Ariel is retransformed from mermaid into a beautiful bride.”
Borges then concludes:
“In this way, the Disney movie puts Ariel into a restrictive compartment just as much as Andersen does; except, while Andersen’s is one of chastity, the Disney movie box is one of encouraged premature sexuality.”
So, I ask, what’s a little mermaid to do? The Little Mermaid is damned if she is chaste and damned if she gets what she wants, ‘premature sexuality and marriage’. Such is the schizophrenia that surrounds girls, young women and sexuality – not just among men but women too. I find Borges’ characterization just a little off kilter. At no point does Disney say or imply that Ariel is sixteen. Borges would be a bit more accurate if she wrote: “…the Disney movie box is one of encouraged sexuality”. Also, sixteen wasn’t premature in Andersen’s day. Andersen, in fact, makes a point of saying that the Little Mermaid was “all grown up”. To me, there’s a whiff of prudish anachronism in Borges’ (and others) summation. Anyway, rewriting the story puzzled me. I’m not sure where my little mermaid will fall in this spectrum. I try to let all my female characters be captains of their own fate. Additionally, unlike true fairy tales (Andersen’s would be a literary fairy tale) Andersen’s story is less archetypal. This makes an erotic rewrite more difficult. The one thing I wanted to do was retain some of the depth and complexity of the original. I made lots of changes but also used many passages straight from Andersen’s original.
All along, I wanted to emphasize the littler mermaid’s interest in not just the vague notion of a Prince and immortal soul, but human love and lovemaking. (That’s all but implied in Andersen’s story.) I thought of having the little mermaid rescue the Prince, as in the original, then seek him out at his palace. In Andersen’s original, the Prince allows her sleep outside his door on a velvet cushion. (Andersen’s idea of a good prince is a little dated.) In the rewrite I thought of having him include the little mermaid in his collection of “slave girls”. (The slaves are also in Andersen’s original). In my rewrite the slave girls naturally did more than dance and sing. The little mermaid, in this rewrite, would have become his favorite slave girl but, as in the original, he would have gone off to find and marry a princess. This would have made for a lot of sex but, in the end, I decided the little mermaid was smarter than that. Would she really chase after a man who treated her like this?
Most of the pictures come from one blog, Flippin’ Your Fins. Of all the mermaid blogs I enjoyed this one the most – not really a blog but a tumblr. I leafed through every single page. If you go there and you’re the least bit mermaid-obsessed (and you know who you are), don’t expect to surface until the next day. You’ve been warned. Lastly, I avoided Disney illustrations like the plague, not because I don’t like them but if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.