‘…and although her tender feet bled so that even her steps were marked, she only laughed, and followed him…’
The rockpool had long turned crimson when they found me. My skin was dyed from the water in a tideline to my waist. The blood and salt had gathered in the lines of my upturned palms, and the sun had baked away the moisture from my open mouth. They pulled me out, ripped my bare flesh on barnacles and asked me my name. But I would not speak – I remembered that. Better to be a mute than a freak. And of course, she was right.
The blood ran for days. Salt stops blood from clotting, they repeated to each other. They bathed me in fresh water again, and again, telling me that the sea must have seeped into my veins. My stained skin washed back to white but the bleeding wouldn’t stop. Finally the doctor came, and with a blazing rod he cauterised me closed. I was given clothes, allowed to lie on cotton sheets, and told to pray for thanks I had survived. They didn’t tell me who I was to pray to – the doctor, I supposed.
I practised walking in the courtyard with the help of the dry-knuckled women. My new skin quickly healed, leaving lines – like their stocking seams – running up the inside of each of my legs.
The younger, soft-fingered girls brushed my silver hair, told me it shone like the moon at dusk, and asked if they could brush it again. They kept their own locks wrapped tight about their heads, tucked and pinned and trapped so that it had no chance to flow or shimmer. They told me that I was so beautiful that any man would take me. Only a shame that she is dumb, they said.
Each night I peeled the sodden shoes and wrappings from my bloody soles, soothed them in cool water, willed the pain to ease. But each morning I would press my reluctant weight back onto them, and with every step the new bandages would start to fuse with flesh once more. They didn’t understand, they said. I smiled, as though it didn’t hurt at all.
Soon I joined the women on their daily walks, often going close – close enough to catch the flicker of electric light through marbled window panes. The earth was usually dry, blanketed with green hairs and pink-tinged petals, though sometimes strapped down under smooth, square stones. The trees would only sway when the wind came, and the feathered wings of birds would quiver and then neatly fold when they landed on the branches.
My pale skin was unaccustomed to the sun, and I would only venture out when clouds hung thick in the sky. We weren’t to go out at night, and it was forbidden – for our safety – to wander anywhere alone. The House was cradled in the verdant dip of a coastal valley, our cottages and out-buildings tucked just beyond the lawns and out of sight. Far-reaching woods surrounded the estate from the East, and to the West stretched the steely sea.
Nobody cared for long where I had come from. They made their guesses, tried to coax my voice, but nevertheless they quickly made me theirs. I was an orphan, they decided, or another ship-wrecked slave. Most likely both. I was to live with them for now – but not forever. A face like mine belonged elsewhere, voiceless as I was. You belong in silk and gold, they said, not fraying cotton hand-me-downs.
It seemed I had no path but patience, and this I had hoped I’d never need again. My new companions bored me with their dreary tunes and gossip. But as the ground warmed earlier each morning, the working chatter began to change. The women spoke of parties. Visitors. Great men and splendid women. With each conversation the world crept in from beyond the trees. The real world: the world of men.
Soon I began to dance. The younger women taught me, showed me how to move against trickling music. They set-up the brass trumpet-flower on the courtyard in the evenings, cleared the scuttles and crates aside and let the rhythm free. One girl showed me with her hands, guiding my unsure hips, and laughed as I began to soften and sway. Despite the pain in my step I was light on my feet. One woman said that I met the earth with the lightness of a soap bubble.
I practiced after sunset, and let my silver hair fall thick over my face to hide my winces. I imagined my arms were lifted by water, my body drifting with the currents rather than the evening breeze. I was born to dance, they said. Born for it. The Master would adore me. I practised more. I practised alone behind the pig sty, in the orchard, between the many rows of washing lines, twirling in and out amongst the trembling sheets. And as I danced, I clenched my tired lips tight, beating down the urge to sing as I always did before.
One day I was to join the women who took baskets down toward the sea. My nimble legs skipped along the path as the waves whispered closer. Clutching my own woven urn, I followed them, leaving little bloody footprints in my wake.
Onto the beach and the women tucked their skirts up, took stumpy knives from their belts, and began crouching over rocks and wading into rockpools. I’ll show you, someone said to me, and led me by my basket to the nearest crag. Reaching down she dug her blade under the quiet shell of an oyster wedged between two rocks. She dug again, then twisting with the knife and levering her pink thumbs she prised the rippled shell away, wrenching its desperate grip and lifting it up with a smile. There, she said, tossing it to my basket. I caught the creature with a flinch. Now you try. I was given a knife, and spent the rest of the morning at slow murder. Low whimpers gathered in my ears and, as the baskets filled, drowned-out the cheerful working songs of my companions.
We walked back up the valley, handles creaking; by the time we had returned those cries had dwindled into silence. The women behaved as though they hadn’t heard a thing. After lunch they set about scrubbing slime and clay from the cracks of each oyster. Laughing and talking as they went, they threw them into a barrel of brine – ready, they said, to be taken to the House for the banquet.
We were to be dressed in silk and gold. My stomach and breasts were boarded up, laced into a glittering cage they called a corset. They agreed it felt like metal rods at first, reading the questions in my eyes, but promised I would soon be comfortable. They assured me it was beauty. Pride must suffer pain. They told me the rigid splints which held me poised were made of whale bone, thin slivers sewn in place. That’s why they call it boning.
They gave me satin slippers to tie with ribbons to my feet, and led me to the great House with the other younger girls. A shiver of fish swam in my nervous stomach. Show him the moonlight of your hair, they urged.
We tiptoed down the hallway and into the eyes of forty men. The music announced itself. We danced as one, making each practiced movement with perfection, all of us shifting our bodies in more sultry ways than we ever had before. Then we knelt, heads bowed, below the canopy of cigar smoke which hung heavy in the room.
I heard his voice when the music stopped. It was thick and full of love. Love, he told us, for his beautiful girls. We did so well, he said, and he was so proud. And now he wished to see his favourite treasures dance, to show his guests the most precious of his possessions, the greatest pearls of his humble heart.
Head ducked and hidden in my silver shroud, I saw the tiny feet of each favourite as they danced. His golden voice would call her name; she would rustle as she rose, silk fluttering around ankles, and the music would begin again. The men in the room didn’t make a sound, apart from the occasional tinkle of whisky-slicked ice against crystal. I imagined their eyes fixed on each wavering limb. I could feel the gaze of the room. The fish swam in faster circles. He called us his possessions.
This had been the deal the Sea Witch made: belong to him, and to his world, and you will have your sweet eternity. I gave my past to her, and in return I had my chance of freedom.
Before the next name could be called, I rose. He didn’t know my name. Nobody did. They called me Foundling, Girl, Strange Child, and sometimes Sweetheart. So I rose anyway, kept my head gently bowed, and before anyone could stop the music I began to dance. I moved like the foam on the surface of a valley stream. I drank the observations of those forty pairs of eyes and swallowed down my silent pain. And when the music trickled into silence, he announced his favourite girl – his little Foundling. I was his to keep.
I didn’t go back with the women after that. I was to stay in the great House. I was chosen, taken out of threadbare pinafores and given gowns to wear instead. He gifted me gold to wrap around my wrists and throat. He said I should remain with him always. He granted me permission to sleep at his door, on a velvet cushion. An act of love, I thought, a respectful measure. Already he wanted me close.
Everything in the House glittered with an edge of possibility – even the silverware at dinner shone with life. Music played through the hallways after dark, and fatty candles burned in every room throughout the night. And when morning came, each fresh and rising dawn, my job began. I was to follow his every step, eat at his table and sit at his feet when he worked. He would stroke my silver hair, and watch me when I combed it through. Some afternoons he would sleep a while and I would wait, watching glints of dust swim up from thin spillages of sun, until he woke into my silence with a smile. His dumb and precious beauty.
Time passed, days were stitched loosely together by sleepless nights. I made secret dashes to the stores for bandages in early hours. My feet still bled, but my face had hardened to a perfect smile. I soothed my soles in salted water, bound them up, and each morning met my Master with steps as light as soap bubbles.
Summer came and nights were hot. We often sat out late, and in the dark, through the jasmine air I could hear the hush of breaking waves. One night, melting closer, he took my hands and said: You love me better than anybody else. His words fell like rubies into my palm, and as he gently kissed my temple all I wanted was to speak my own reply.
He led me to his bedroom then, and made his mark. He held my hair in his fist and called me his greatest treasure, his beautiful dumb bitch. Afterwards he sent me with a kiss to my velvet couch – to sleep, he said, you must be tired. This was not what she had spoken of. It couldn’t be. This was not what the Sea Witch meant when she bid me to belong.
Nights would go like this more often. My feet grew heavy with my sleeplessness. I began to wander through the halls in the early hours, growing even more accustomed to the throbbing of my feet. It wasn’t long before I ventured further, beyond the bandage stores. I climbed the lowest garden wall and down the rocks until I met the sea, and there I soaked my aching feet. The seam running up my inside leg would tingle at the water’s touch. I would close my eyes. I would think of home, blue as the flame of burning sulphur. This – all of this – it was not the dream I’d thought I wanted.
One night, as the rose-fingered dawn began to bleed into the sky, I tried to swim. I stood at the bottom of the carved-out steps, listening to the lap of each small swell at my feet. I felt his hot shadow trickle slowly down the inside of my right thigh. I knelt, watched the lilac light begin to dance on the surface of the water. I lowered my feet in and shuffled forwards. The water kissed my knees. It was deep, full of bottomless temptation. Soon I had twisted my body around, sunk further, all the way until only my fingertips stayed planted on my Master’s land. My nightdress rose and wrapped around me. I felt heavy. I was aware of the depths below and suddenly they scared me. I felt no buoyancy or comfort. Though the cold swells cleansed me of the filthy night, they also pushed my knees against the ragged rock. My nails would not release the ledge and my legs didn’t know how best to move in this strange state. Eventually I scrambled out, and in the early morning air I felt heavier still – heavy with the weight of all I had given away.
When he left I did not weep. I did not wait at the window like I knew he hoped I would. He would be gone for one cycle of the moon, he said, and I must be a patient girl and wait. Stay in the house. Do not stray, or when I return you’ll soon be scrubbing oysters again.
But the House was big, and suddenly I had no particular shadow tethering my step, and no particular voice to fill my ears. And so I wandered, and I listened.
In the long corridors I heard the women who polish the floors talk about their families. They couldn’t keep their children. They were better off in someone else’s house, one said. Even so, heaven hope their Master would be kind to them.
Then I followed where the laundry went. I watched the women squelch and swirl, use bleach to make the many sheets turn white. They talked a lot, of nothing in particular. A simple series of agreements: the sun was warm, the day was long, their backs were sore, the world was not a fair one. Chemical steam unfurled from vats, and when all the sheets were dragged from their juices, I watched the women pour sour clouds of dirty blue into the nearby stream. They washed it down the branchless bank – they must have done it every day – and all that hot, dead water met the living stream.
In the kitchen, I heard the screams. I heard the cockles cry, saw silver eyes stare blankly out from beds of ice, and on a copper tray in the centre of the table, a smooth pink dorsal fin gaping open to the flies. From where I quietly stood, I heard the laughing conversation of two chefs, and watched two thrashing lobsters turn blood red.
One day I heard a young girl – the one who lights the fires in the early morning – crying softly at the hearth. Tears rolled as she snapped her twigs. I peered unseen from the hallway as she leant forward to place them in the grate; I glimpsed dappled purple hues blooming out from underneath her collar. I looked down at my wrists, at his golden generosity wrapped around them, and with my fingers traced the polished kindness which snaked around my throat.
When my Master returned he brought a bride who was, by all accounts, a Princess. He called for me that night. And as he traced his clammy fingers down my spine, he told me he was in love. She came from somewhere far, like a goddess from a strange and shimmering world. She’s like the sun, he breathed.
I listened with dull and distant ears. My fondest hopes are all fulfilled, he said. You will rejoice at my happiness; for your devotion to me is great and sincere. He lay his head heavy on my chest. Perhaps, if you hadn’t been a slave, he whispered, I would have married you. Perhaps I would have put a band around that pretty finger and named you mine.
The wedding is tomorrow, he said. We couldn’t wait another day.
My master shut his door and I left at once. I ran. I went out into the moon-soaked night and ran to the sea. My bandages, unravelling as I went, trailed behind my tattered feet. I went to the bloodied rockpool, now renewed many times by the tide, and under starlight crawled into the inky water. I breathed. I stroked the scars along my legs, dug my nails into the pale new skin of my thighs, cursed my stupid self for wanting them at all. I sank under the surface and wept, unleashing in my mind the memory of that sound – the sound wrenched from my dry lungs as I cut my tail in two, tearing apart the life I had been given for the one I wanted more. The sound was not my voice, it was like nothing my world or theirs had heard before. And she had warned me of this. Better use this knife for your tongue as well, the Sea Witch said.
Better use it for your heart, and save the trouble.
My body no longer belonged to water. My hands searched blindly, fingers tangling in weeds, palms tearing on the barnacles. My chest began to burn. I grew panicked. At once brine shuddered in through my nose and mouth and down my throat and I surfaced, gulping in the cold night air. Clenched tight in my fist was the gleaming amber blade: her gift to me. This blade was now the final deal – the deal I never thought I’d make. When the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together again.
Dripping crystal beads of my lost home, I made my way back to the great House followed by the laughter of the Witch.
When the sun rose, I was told to keep to myself until called for. And when they called for me I went with a painted smile, eyes bright as algae ponds.
The Princess’ skin was golden brown, her hair was golden blonde, even her eyes were golden bronze. She told me I would take her train, follow in her glowing wake. Tread her shadow down the aisle.
She will dance too, said my proud Master. When the wine and music flows, she will move like a nymph as long as we wish her to.
The Princess ran her hand along the string of dead oysters’ pearls which rested on her collarbone. Then she will stay, she said, with a sunlit smile. I demand it.
And so, that day, I did as I was told. I embroidered my face with loyalty. I followed her steps with my colourless grace. I celebrated her triumph, his joy, and the waste of all my sacrifice. I danced and danced, until the endless pain had turned to vengeful bliss. I danced until my thoughts swam cold for blood.
My Master and his Mistress were in their bridal bed when I took the amber blade from underneath my robe and went to wage my war. They’ll say they were in love – sleeping like a god and goddess, entwined in sacred unity. I say there is no human love, only human selfishness.
Quiet as a sinking stone, I slid the knife into the heart of the hero. I did it slowly, let him wake in time to realise what became of him, to meet my eyes, to understand the debt he owed to me. I twisted the knife – the knife that had cut me from the sea and given me to him – twisted it deep into my Master’s chest – let the river run hot, let his bride lie soaking in the sodden velvet. And when she roused I used the knife to cut away her scream. I replaced it with a mermaid’s laugh. My voice tore the air between us into ragged pieces. I stuffed her golden locks into her empty mouth, freed the pearls from her slender neck and let them roll and jump in all directions.
As I left I paddled my raw feet through pools of his spent life, mixing it with the pus of mine. I danced in bloody puddles, leaving footprints down the corridor.
All I knew were songs and ancient stories—As we rise out of the water—I had seen the ships fly heavy overhead and dreamt it all. I had watched the children playing in the estuary and mistaken their brief laughter for endless joy—And behold all the land of the earth—No one told me to love or laugh or grow. They only told me to belong belong belong to unknown and glorious regions which we shall never see. I have seen this earth, I have seen its life and all its everlasting which we shall never see, I had seen enough I had seen enough—I had seen too much.
I stopped my dance and got to work. I wasn’t done here yet.
I sang then. And with my song brought storms up from the sea. I ran through the House, singing everything I knew and more. I sang rivers over rocks after heavy rains, I sang branches torn from trees in the night, and I sang the thunder of the rolling waves as they greet the tired old cliffs.
I sang, charging the night with human panic. I flooded the gilded rooms and marble halls, shattered all the glass with salted gusts and left the wretched place in ruins. Then I left them with the pieces and went limping to the beach.
As I met the shallows, the pull of retreating waves dragged my ankles deeper. Pain dissolved in branching hands of froth and spray.
I did not turn into the foam upon the waves.
I walked on, wading to my waist and letting my beloved home crash over me, into me – and into my exhausted lungs.
I belong to the sea.
I will have my eternity, and it will be in my revenge.
They call me Siren, mostly. Their human ears can’t place my voice, can’t store it away with their useless little language. When we were young, my sisters and I, we used to sing to drowning sailors – of the delights to be found in the depths of the sea. We told them not to be afraid, but they took our song for the howling of the storm. They thrashed and struggled, gulping down their own unpleasant ends, and only ever reached our palace as corpses – dead and bloated.
I’m a siren for the rocks, a warning of the land. I don’t sing of my home’s deep treasures: these things were never to be beautiful for them. I sing in blissful anger, of land made sick by men. I conjure storms and send ships to our beloved seabed. Better to sink now into those peaceful depths than to live on land, enslaved.
All text given in italics is quoted from The Little Mermaid, trans. by Henry H. B. Paull (1872), from the original Den lille Havfrue by Hans Christian Andersen (1837).