The song begins like this: “Once there was a fishgirl who sacrificed her heart and life and voice for a prince, and her reward was a path to heaven.”
All those stories, about fishgirls yearning for legs... Are human storytellers really so arrogant, believing we are the only enviable ones?
Let’s clear up one thing: that night, the storm didn’t hurl me into the sea.
Ever since I was little, my feet itched. Not from sores or mosquito bites or whatever other people’s feet itch from. Merely from existing, from being mine. It was mild enough that few people noticed. I could walk. I learned to ride, like all princes did. I could even sit still during rhetoric lessons.
Once, when I was six, before a state dinner the itch grew unbearable. Nan told Father I was ill, and the dinner went ahead without me. Father ordered the whipmaster to beat me afterward. That was Father’s best quality: he never found me a whipping boy or any other sort of playmate, so I endured all the punishments myself.
The fishgirl in the song couldn’t gaze upon what she desired until she turned fifteen, but I’d been watching the sea for as long as I could remember. I’d sit on the sand and stretch my toes into the water, while Nan gripped both my arms to keep me from going further. When I did this, the itch went away. So each night before bed I asked for a bucket of seawater. I’d soak my feet in it until it soothed me enough to make sleep possible. The servants looked at me strangely, but my request was hardly burdensome.
Father hated the sea. A shame, really, when our palace lay so close to it. How easy it would be to paint my mother as his opposite, to say she loved the sea, that she walked down the sand with me, our hands intertwined and our sandals discarded. That she told me stories of the Sea King’s palace and his fishgirl daughters and the youngest, prettiest princess, who built a garden of sun-red flowers for the statue of a handsome boy. But in truth, the only stories I had were ones I dug out of the library myself. I never knew my mother. Official records said she took ill and died. Nan told me she’d fled, escaping Father’s clutches and returning to Sun Isle. Sometimes, after I made a particularly grave mistake, Father would lean over my whip-split body and whisper, “Do that again and I’ll kill you, like I killed your mother.” I didn’t know if I should have believed him. You never knew with Father, whether he was telling the truth or trying to scare you.
I wasn’t a demanding child. I wanted to be excused from state dinners. I wanted to avoid the whipmaster and Father, though not in that order. And sometimes, when I stood on tiptoes and peered through my bedroom window at the water, I wanted the sea to sweep past rock and sand and reach where I stood, to drown my world in blue and carry me away on its waves.
I learned to swim, under the supervision of Father’s guards. As my arms and legs cut through the water, I thought: finally. But also: this body is useless. Why wasn’t I able to stay beneath the waves for more than a few minutes? Why did I feel pain when I inhaled the seawater, not contentment and life?
I dreamed of the fishgirl princesses, leaning out from the sea palace and letting fish eat from their hands.
Once I sneaked out and swam, swam, swam until I could no longer see the shore and hadn’t the strength to swim back. I contemplated falling still and letting the sea take me, but a fisherwoman’s boat drew up beside me. She pulled me aboard and rowed me back to shore. That was my first time on a boat, and I could barely remember it because I spent the whole time curled into a ball, shivering. Back in the palace I found Nan before Father found me, and we pretended the whole thing never happened.
When I was nine, Father finally allowed the royal captain to take me out on his ship. I felt the waves rocking beneath my itching feet, and though it didn’t ease me the same way swimming did, I grew to love it nonetheless. I could leave the palace further behind, drift out on the water until I saw nothing but blue. I became a constant fixture on the captain’s ship. Though he probably thought me a nuisance, he couldn’t kick me off.
The night I turned sixteen. Rockets burst in the sky to celebrate my birthday. I’d sailed out on the captain’s ship, weighed down by revellers but free from Father, at least for this one night.
Let me say it again: the storm didn’t throw me into the water.
True, the wind and rain grew fierce. Lightning illuminated the sky like the fireworks had hours earlier, and the thunder sounded eerily like Father’s voice. Everyone had scurried belowdecks. Everyone except me, the captain, and a few of his crew.
I made my request. “Take me to Sun Isle. You don’t have to dock. Just bring me close and I’ll swim ashore.”
The captain wrung his hands. “We have to go back, Your Highness. The storm is picking up, and your father expects you to be back by dawn. I will take you to Sun Isle some other day.”
“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “I am not going back. I never planned on going back when we set sail tonight. Tell Father I fell overboard during the storm. Tell him I died.”
We stared at each other through sheets of rain. The captain was silent for a moment. Then he called to his first mate, “Turn! We’re heading back.”
I placed a hand on the gunwale and gazed at the roiling sea. “You will not obey me?”
“I must obey your father.”
I nodded. “That is your answer? Then this is mine.”
I threw myself into the sea.
I hit the water headfirst. The sea latched onto my clothes and weighed me down like armour and crowns and scepters, all those vestments I had never wanted. I didn’t glance up at the ship. Didn’t care if the captain’s panicked eyes were peering down at me or not, and felt grateful the sea drowned out his calls. I breathed in water and choked on it, feeling my mind and vision slipping away.
Then something wrapped around my waist and began dragging me... up.
I flailed against it, but I was half-drowned and weak. Had the captain ordered someone to dive in after me? Bare skin brushed against me but also hard points, like buttons but in the wrong places.
My face broke the surface, and my body betrayed me by expelling water. Why, why? Though I couldn’t become salmon or shark, at least allow me to sink and rot, melting into the waves.
That was my last coherent thought. I remained aware of the arms carrying me and the waves carrying us both, but it was like watching a stage play with the action happening to someone else.
I heard gulls. Felt the sun shining on my face and the sand under my back. My eyelids seemed weighed down by anchors, but I forced my eyes open.
Leaning over me was a girl with shining hair.
No, let me try again: leaning over me was a girl with pearls in her hair, and those pearls shone like soft white candles in the sun. She bent closer, a necklace of braided seaweed swinging over her breasts. Where there should have been nipples on a human girl, she had two salmon-pink clams. Oysters festooned her sides, and pearls traced an ever-denser pattern down her belly. From the hips down, instead of legs, she had a shimmering fishtail.
Her right hand rested on my shoulder where my shirt had been torn away. Her touch was familiar. I remembered the cold arm around my waist, the press of pearls and seashells I’d mistaken for buttons.
I let my lids fall shut. I couldn’t bear to look upon the fishgirl any longer. I wanted to press myself against her and feel her fish scales scrape against my flesh. I wanted to brush my lips across her shell-pierced skin and taste the brine of the sea.
I wanted to destroy her, to tear out chunks of her waist-length hair and see if they grew brittle as seaweed left in the sun. I wanted to dig my nails beneath those icy pearls, to rip them from her skin and see if she bled. If she did, would her blood be red?
But I was too weak to even raise my head. So I lay on the sand, pretending to fall unconscious. Later, the fishgirl swore she didn’t know if I woke long enough to remember her. How silly. No one would ever forget a sight like her.
I heard a splash. I opened my eyes and saw the fishgirl’s tail disappearing into the water. My insides burned with jealousy at her grace, at the ease with which she vanished. Moments later I heard the soft rustling of human footsteps. A girl bent over me, a human girl in an acolyte’s robe, so clumsy compared to the fishgirl.
I let her call for help. I couldn’t muster up the strength to crawl to the water, and even if I did, the fishgirl would just shove me back onto land.
It takes either a lot of courage or too little courage to commit suicide. I had a hard time rediscovering either of those extremes. So even when the acolyte brought me to the temple and nursed me back to health, even when my legs grew strong enough to run to sea again, I just allowed the priestesses tease out who I was and send messenger ships back to Father.
The captain had told Father my story, the one about falling overboard in the storm. Father had stripped him of his post, but after hearing of my survival, Father sent the captain to fetch me. It was hard to say, whether Father wanted me alive or dead. Why give the task of retrieving me to the person who’d lost me in the first place?
The captain didn’t bother hiding his glare as I stepped onto the deck of his still-familiar ship. He blamed me for his punishment. And he wasn’t wrong.
“I’ll beg Father to reinstate you as royal captain,” I said. “I don’t know if he’ll listen, but maybe he will in light of the circumstances. All I ask for is this: for you to take me out to sea like before.” My mouth didn’t seem to know how to smile anymore, but I gave it my best attempt. “Don’t worry, I won’t throw myself overboard again.”
The captain’s frown said he hardly trusted me to keep this promise, but he agreed to the deal nonetheless.
Back at the palace, Father listened. The captain and I sailed out again, time and time again. We never spoke of that night again, but often I caught him staring at me, probably contemplating my sanity.
Haven’t you wondered, when you heard the fishgirl’s story: Why did the prince keep sailing out even after he almost drowned? Why couldn’t he stay away from the water?
There’s a darkly humorous version of the tale, where I throw myself in the sea over and over and the fishgirl keeps dragging me out. In a distant land to the east, they’ve written drinking songs about this, made musicals and puppet shows and storybooks told entirely in pictures.
When I next saw the fishgirl, she wasn’t the fishgirl anymore.
She knelt on the steps of the palace, naked and divested of her pearls and seashells. Instead of her fishtail, a pair of human legs poked out from her hips. But her face I recognized.
I reached out, grasping her shoulder as she had once grasped mine. “What are you doing here? Why are you like this?”
She shook her head, pointed at her throat. Opened her mouth to reveal her tongue had been cut away.
I drew back with a gasp. What the hell happened to her? Who would...? Horror and sympathy fought with my residual anger. I shook my head. No, no. Why was I feeling sorry for her, when she ruined my best chance to join the sea?
“Come with me,” I said. She nodded and rose to her feet. Her legs trembled slightly, but when she took her first step, she was more graceful than any human I had ever seen.
I led her down the corridors toward my room. You could imagine the servants’ fish-eyed stares, seeing the prince leading a naked girl through the palace. I glared at them and they had the sense to stay silent.
We reached my room and I shut the door behind us. “Where?” I said. “Where is your fishtail?”
She pointed at her throat.
“I know you can’t talk. Just lead me there, okay? Or... or point!”
She shook her head and gazed at me with doleful eyes; I demanded and pleaded, and the itch in my feet grew so bad I called for a bucket of seawater. Then, only then, did she raise a hand and point toward the window, past the palace grounds, towards the sparkling sea that seemed to watch us with disdainful eyes.
I was halfway to the door, ready to call the captain, ready to sail out, when she raised her other hand and pointed it at her own heart.
Sighing, I wished I could drown myself in the bucket. “Fine. You can’t give me a straight answer. Or you don’t want to. I’ll figure it out, eventually.”
I let her stay. Fishtail or not, she was my closest link to the sea. At least I could gaze upon her now, because in human form she didn’t fill me with such overwhelming jealousy.
I still hated her. For bringing me back to shore and back to this accursed palace. I hated her because she’d had what I wanted, and she’d thrown it for some reason I couldn’t fathom.
I ordered a page’s outfit for her and brought her riding with me. While others crashed through trees hunting hare and stag, I led the fishgirl to a secluded area and pulled out pens, parchment, a writing tablet. There, I taught her to write.
It was slow going, for she hadn’t even heard of the concept of writing. But I was determined to unearth her story, to understand why she’d crashed into my life and unravelled my one cohesive plan.
In spring, we climbed the mountains. It was her first time seeing snow, and she danced in delight, her steps more quick and graceful than human feet should be. When we reached the cabin at the top, my feet itched so badly I ordered a servant to empty the waterskin of seawater into a bucket—yes, I’d anticipated my feet giving me trouble.
I kicked off my boots and plunged my feet into the water. A sigh escaped me. Then the fishgirl unlaced her boots and I gasped. I’d thought my feet disobliging, but hers were cracked and bleeding.
She stepped toward me, wincing. Her eyes held a question, and when I offered neither welcome nor refusal, she dipped her feet into the same bucket. The water turned red.
“Why?” I asked. “Did you really choose this for yourself?”
“What could be worth this?”
She raised a trembling hand, and pressed it lightly over my heart. Then her eyes flicked upward—the ceiling, the sky?
I intensified her lessons. People talked, of course. They thought I fucked her or ate her or planned to elope with her or whatever else they’re always telling tales about. In truth we never grew closer than sharing a blood-soaked bucket, than my hand wrapping around hers as I taught her the shape of letters.
Even when she wrote well enough to tell me her story, I still couldn’t understand her.
I love you. I love you.
I stared at the words. “Why?” And if she loved me, why did she throw me out of her world?
I love your land and your fireworks and your palace, and how much bigger your world seems than mine.
“But the sea covers...” I was so dumbfounded by her words that I forgot the exact percentage. My tutors would be ashamed.
Most of all I wish I could have your immortal soul. I want to rise to heaven, but I cannot for I have a fishgirl’s soul.
Her story came to me in pieces, based on what she could write. She told me about her life in the Sea King’s palace, which seemed greater than any heaven I could imagine. She wrote about swimming to the surface when she turned fifteen. She saw the ship and the celebrations for my sixteenth birthday. She thought I’d fallen overboard, so she picked me up and brought me to Kelpin Isle. Many nights thereafter she’d watched me as I sailed out again. Then she begged the sea witch to give her legs, for she could not be with me as a fishgirl.
She was my mirror and my opposite. She too desired to be what she was not. Except she pursued that desire with more determination than I’d ever done, outside of that one impulsive night.
“What will happen if I don’t marry you?” I smiled Father’s smile. “What if I marry someone else?”
My heart will break the very next morning, and I would become foam upon the sea.
Foam! Not bones piled in the sea witch’s forest, not rotting meat in fish bellies. Instead she’d truly become part of the sea.
Why couldn’t I have this?
“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “You’ve probably figured it out already. That night, you weren’t exactly saving me.”
Father called me to his study and told me he’d betrothed me to a princess of Kelpin Isle. I would set sail in a week and marry her. Judging by the glint in his eyes, he expected me to refuse and give him an excuse to call the whipmaster. But I shrugged and said, sure, why not?
I took the fishgirl onto the ship with me. She stared at me with baleful eyes and pressed notes in my hand saying, Why are you doing this? and Do you hate me so? and Do you wish to kill me?
I didn’t plan on marrying any Kelpin princess. My plans consisted of getting drunk and smashing up the Kelpin king’s palace, because maybe then the loss of face would convince Father to hang me and throw my body into the sea. But I didn’t tell the fishgirl this.
That night on the ship, something changed my plans. Everyone had fallen asleep, but my feet kept me awake no matter how I soaked them. I stepped onto the deck, where even the man at the helm slept as if he’d been placed under a spell.
A woman rose from the water, toads on her shoulders and watersnakes crawling over her breasts. Her hair was dark as the sea in storm, framing a face neither young nor old. Before she even spoke, I recognized her as the sea witch from the fishgirl’s story.
“Evening, prince.” She extended her tongue, allowing her toads to feed from it. “Does my appearance frighten you? Am I the most hideous thing you’ve ever seen?”
“No,” I said. “You are of the sea, so you can only be beautiful.”
She cackled, loud and sharp, but still the man at the helm did not wake. “You really are as addled as the fishgirl, aren’t you?”
I couldn’t argue with that.
“I have a proposal for you,” she said. “It’ll get you what you want, or a decent approximation of it. It’ll get the fishgirl what she wants too.”
“I’m listening,” I said, though it sounded too merciful from the woman who’d cut off the fishgirl’s tongue.
“The fishgirl’s sisters already came to me. They think you’ll marry the Kelpin princess, and they begged me to save their sister.”
“But I’m not going to marry the—”
“The first thing you must do,” the sea witch said, “is marry that princess.”
The air grew thin and cold, like it had on the mountaintop. “But then the fishgirl would become sea foam.”
The sea witch snorted. “Let me finish. Didn’t I say she’ll get what she wants? Though... why do you care about her anyway? There was a time when you wanted to rip her to pieces.”
An image of the fishgirl as she’d been flashed through my mind, all festooned seashells and shimmering pearls. I shifted from foot to foot; the itch hadn’t gone away. “I don’t... care about her. I just—I mean, I don’t see the point of hurting her unnecessarily.”
“Oh, you’ll need to hurt her. But only briefly, and she’ll return the favour.” The sea witch reached into the water and pulled out a knife. “This is my gift to you, prince.” And she told me what I must do.
The princess of Kelpin Isle gasped when she saw me. “It’s him!” she cried. “The man I saved that day on the shore!”
In truth, I didn’t remember her at all. I dragged out hazy memories of a temple by the sea and some girl in an acolyte’s robe. Was that her?
I pretended to remember, pretended I’d always loved her and was looking for her this whole time. The fishgirl trembled in the corner, but she didn’t cry. When we were alone she grabbed my shoulders and shook me until I felt my brains rattling. Her notes said, Why, why, why? I’ll be doomed to become sea foam, never to rise to the heavens... For her, there was a better path. But for me, there was only one hope.
Church bells, scented oils, and ear-splitting heralds marked my wedding day. I selected the fishgirl to hold the princess’s bridal train, my last little revenge for how she’d ruined my sixteenth birthday.
That night, we boarded the ship. The Kelpin king asked us to stay longer, but I said Father wanted us back immediately after the wedding. Knowing Father, it was probably true.
The princess and I stepped into our ship cabin. She pawed at me, her hand wandering dangerously close to where I’d hidden the sea witch’s knife. I feigned drunkenness, tottering around a bit before collapsing on the bed and snoring. The princess sniffed in disgust, believing me asleep, though how could anyone sleep with those booming cannons still celebrating?
The racket finally died down after midnight. The princess fell asleep, though not before muttering about idiot men who washed up ashore half-drowned and couldn’t finish on their wedding nights. I lay in the dark and waited. Just when I wondered if I should seek out the fishgirl instead of always letting it be the other way around, the door creaked.
I opened my eyes. The fishgirl stood in the doorway, hands behind her back. She jumped when she saw me awake.
“It’s okay,” I whispered, disentangling myself from the princess. “I have one too.” I pulled out the sea witch’s knife.
The fishgirl’s inky eyes only grew wider. I stepped outside, shut the door behind us, and led her up to the deck. Like the night when I met the sea witch, everyone was asleep. The sky blushed a faint pink. It wasn’t long until dawn.
“You want to rise to the heavens, don’t you?” I said.
The fishgirl blinked. Then nodded.
“As you’ve probably figured out by now, I want to be part of the sea. I want to be what you were.” I stared out at the darkness of the sea, then back at her. “The storm didn’t hurl me into the water that night. I jumped.”
She leaned her forearms against the gunwale, examining the knife. She must’ve known we couldn’t love each other, not when we understood the other so little. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t help each other.
“Before the sun rises, cut my left palm with your knife,” I said. “I’ll cut your right palm with mine. When dawn comes, we’ll leap into the sea hand in hand, and we’ll both have what we want. Trust me, okay?”
She stared at me like I’d told her to chew off her own arm. I amended, “I admit, I haven’t given you much reason to trust me. But do you see any other way at this point?”
After a moment, she nodded. She extended her hand, inviting me to make the first cut, and didn’t flinch when her skin broke and blood flowed. The knife was startlingly cold when she cut me in return. The pain was a faint nip at first, then grew to a blaze. But we’d both endured worse: me from Father’s beatings, her from her every tread on land.
“You never really wanted me, did you?” I said. “You wanted an immortal soul.”
She dipped a finger onto her bleeding palm, as if she wished to write a reply in blood. But then she stopped and looked at me. Her eyes held the only answer I needed.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Immortal souls are valuable. Far more valuable than I am.”
I stared at my own palm. “Perhaps I should apologize. I’m making you wait longer this way. I guess I could’ve married you, but... what’s in it for me that way?”
I didn’t know if her gaze held understanding or accusation, but when dawn broke she reached for me. Hand in hand, we leapt into the sea.
Why did the little fishgirl rise to the sky? Is it because of her good heart, her sacrifice? Ha. No, it’s because I took her place.
Our blood mingled that morning. She gave me her curse and I gave her mine. I fell into the water and became sea foam, while she floated into the air. After three hundred years of good deeds, she will earn her place in heaven.
I lie in a sea of endless blue. Sometimes the sun warms my face and sometimes the waves pull me below. I’m carried by water and wind, but there’s a kind of freedom in having no choices at all.
Sometimes the fishgirl passes by, her airy body brushing against me. I’ve long forgiven her for bringing me back to land that night. I don’t know if she’s forgiven me for condemning her to three hundred years of toil. Our conversations are often childish, all “Why couldn’t you marry me?” and “I didn’t love you” and “Why not?” and “Because you carelessly discarded the one thing I desired.” Sometimes she asks about her sisters and father and aging grandmother, and I tell her about their lives in the sea palace. In return I ask about her journeys, the cool breezes she carries and plants she coaxes to life. And I hope she finds good children who’ll earn their parents’ love, not children like me who will only extend her trial.
The musical begins like this: “Once there was a prince who gave up his immortal soul for a fishtail...”