He remembered that the girl who rescued him smelled like salt.
(Father said, “It’s because you nearly drowned, and salty ocean water burned into your sinuses. Girls do not smell of salt.”)
The air around her had glowed with silver brightness, and the light had blurred her features until he didn’t know if her skin was ruddy or pale, if her eyes were grey or blue, her hair the color of bark and raven feathers – or was that seaweed?
(“She was an angel,” Mother said, “and you don’t recall the details because her divine beauty overwhelmed your mortal senses.”)
Maybe the blur was, like her smell, the fault of ocean water flooding his eyes.
What he did know is that he did not imagine her gentle fingers pressing against his cheeks or the splashing surf against his bare feet. She leaned over him and said something in a language he’d never heard. Her voice was like the cut of a prow through the tide, like sunlight on the faceted surface of the bay, like sweeping clouds, like thunderous red sea anemones or slick dolphin skin. It was like –
When she kissed him, he tasted the deep waters that had nearly owned him. He couldn’t breathe, but unlike the devastating ocean, her mouth took his breath and returned to him his life. He wanted to reach up his hands to curl his fingers in her hair, but his limbs were deadened and rough with weakness. His brain swelled in his skull and he did not know if the roar was from the crashing waves or his own blood.
And then she was gone.
The sun dried his skin until it tightened like parchment paper and sand sprinkled off him. His chest and face and palms gathered up the warmth, while his back remained damp and cool. He did not move. He wished for her to return, that she might kiss him again and to sing to him in her everything-voice. Oh, how he longed to hear it again.
(“There is music everywhere!” Mother insisted.)
If Barnes had not discovered him, half-dead on the beach, he might have laid waste to the gift she’d given. He might have starved to death while he waited for her, all his life evaporating in the heat.
But he survived. They carried him to a carriage and back to the closest fishing village where the rest of his men awaited. They traveled immediately south to the City, where Mother fretted and fussed and Father wore his best stoic mask. They asked how his travels had been until the last, stormy night, but all he wanted to discuss was his mysterious savior.
And no one believed she even existed.
She sat on the sand while the sun rose over the ocean. Its scarlet and orange and flashing pink turned the scales of her tail into fire. The white foam at the edges of the waves lapped at the oysters clasped onto her fins; each one held a shining pearl. Bending, she reached down and removed them, kissing the grimy shells and tossing them away. As each oyster vanished under the water with a plop, she thought of a thing she was giving up. Her father. Plop. Her sisters and grandmother. Plop, plop. Her friends the dolphins, the diving turtles, the flocks of rainbow fish. Plop, plop, plop.
Soon they were all gone.
Next she removed the strings of pearls and coral from around her neck and shoulders. She combed through her hair with her fingers, finding bits of seaweed and urchins and drying underwater lilies. All of it, she threw back to the sea.
None of the ocean could join her.
“The sea is a jealous creature,” Grandmother had said. “When you leave, you must forget all of its magic and secrets. One word of your life before, one word of the ocean’s embrace, of your father, sisters, or of me, and the sea will rush up and drag you back down to us. But you, who will be of the land, will die. We will eat your flesh when it falls off your bones, as we do all the drowned sailors.”
The mermaid grasped at a sharp rock from the beach and clutched it in both hands. She stared down at the gilded, shining scales that covered her strong, sleek, beautiful tail. She did not move while the sun rose higher and salt tightened her skin, calcified her hair, and crusted in the creases of her eyes. Then, when the sun was so high it cast not a single shadow, she plunged the rock into her tail. Dark, thick blood pooled in her lap and stained her scales. She tore down the length of her body, shrieking into the wind. As she cut, the wound deepened on its own, slicing through her to the sand beneath. The rock tumbled from her shaking fingers and she fell back, hands pressing against her face, while the magic ripped her apart.
Panting against her palms, the mermaid concentrated on her memories of the prince. She’d watched him, every evening since that first night she’d dragged him from the sea. She’d watched him laugh with his friends on the balcony of the palace, and then turn suddenly and stare out at the ocean while his face slackened and his lips moved in words she could not quite hear. She’d watched him sit at the edge of the beach and pluck music from a long wooden instrument: plaintive, wistful notes that struck her heart and made her hope he loved her. He walked the beach, kicking stones and writing letters in the sand, searching the horizon when he thought no one saw. So many times, she had nearly approached him, to reach out and say, “I saved you, I kissed you, I love you.” But fear had held her frozen.
Now, her only fear was that she would die before she could walk.
Her own cold blood seeped down her throat as she bit her tongue, as she forced air in and out of her lungs.
Her tail split, her fins fell away, and the scales stripped off of her, falling to the sand like dry ribbons of seaweed.
And it was done. She sat up, slowly climbed to her feet.
Pain slammed up from the soles. The pressure as she stumbled was like each blade of sand had become a tiny dagger, cutting up into her. She held out her arms for balance and swayed as a warm breeze caressed her skin, wicking away the last of the ocean.
She came to the palace to dance.
Her beauty was such that Mother insisted she be offered the chance to prove her skills. So, without any shoes, the girl skipped and twirled over polished marble like a spinning toy. Her tattered red skirts flared, her hair flung out and her lips were parted in a silent cry of ecstasy. The expression frightened him as much as it drew him, and so he never asked what dancing made her feel. Exquisite agony or the pleasure of angels – and he did not want to know the difference.
But he did wish to speak with her. The pale halo of her hair and the grace of her neck reminded him of his sea-spirit-savior. When the music changed, he stood up from his chair for the first time all night, and walked across the ballroom to bow for her. He held out a hand and said, “Would you do me the honor?”
Her eyes lit. They were the color of the sky in the middle of the morning, when birds sing most sweetly. “Thank you, prince,” she said.
Taking her hands, he placed one on his shoulder and gently held the other. When he moved her backwards into the first paces, her eyes fluttered closed and he was unable to speak. So close, he could only think of kissing her, of her smooth skin and lips – did he smell the salt sea air on her breath? He did not notice the courtiers whispering behind feather fans and goblets of wine. He did not see Mother turn to Father and smile.
The song ended, and he led her out to a massive balcony that jutted over the ocean. Crashing waves drowned out the chatter of the feast, the rise and fall of the music. He drew her close to him and asked, “Have I seen you before?”
“Perhaps,” she said. Her gaze trailed out to the dark waters.
The prince sighed, certain he had found her. “Why do you stare at the ocean?” Does it remind you of the same kiss?
“It terrifies me, sir.” She raised her chin. “It is death to me.”
He felt his heart squeeze. To him, the ocean was promise and life and all possibility. He had emerged from it, newly lit with love. It was all he wanted. The ocean, and his ocean girl. “I am sorry.”
Everyone asked her where she’d come from, and all she could say was “I don’t recall.”
“I woke up alone,” she told the King while they watched the prince play tennis.
“I do not know my name,” she said to the Queen as she sat beside her drinking tea.
“Then we shall call you Beatrice, for it was my grandmother’s name, and her eyes were as blue as yours.” The Queen smiled.
The mermaid heard the mutterings that she was under a curse – for surely that caused her memory loss. She heard them say she was a princess – for only a girl of royal birth could be so lovely and dance so well.
And she could not tell them her father was the ruler of a kingdom vaster than any they could imagine. That his subjects swam in numbers greater than all the tribes of humanity together.
Worst of all, when the prince told her, one day as they walked along the cobblestone streets of a village, of the sea girl who’d saved his life, with her salty kisses and strange language, she could not tell him it had been her and that she loved him more than she loved the ocean. She could not utter the sounds of the sea, nor speak of its depths and beauty.
She thought, though, that in time the prince would forget his rescuer and turn to her completely. Every day that passed he came to her more quickly, until they spent not only evenings dancing together, but afternoons riding and walking, and soon picnics in a manicured park or lunches in a seaside pub.
The Queen gave her gowns to suit her imagined royal past, in all the fiery sun-colors she wished. It was only the jewels of the ocean she denied; pearls and polished coral could never again caress her skin. The King smiled for her, and patted her hand in a distant sort of way, but which made her feel warm. The ladies asked her to show them her dancing, to lift the hem of her skirts so they might see her steps. Although the pain of walking never faded, she accepted that her dainty grace was as beautiful in its own way as the flick of her fins had been, or the smooth stroke of her scales through the moonlit waves.
And the prince – oh, the prince – she held his hand and stood at his side, smiling at his friends and learning their humor. The prince laughed with her, and danced with her, and he watched the sea less and less.
“You must remain with me always,” he told her, one night as they danced.
“I will,” she said.
If only she were the one, the prince thought. But he knew that the girl he loved was not afraid of the sea. The girl he loved was wild and strong like the cut of a prow through the tide, like sunlight on the faceted surface of the bay, like sweeping clouds, like thunderous red sea anemones and slick dolphin skin.
(Mother said, “You should marry Beatrice.”)
He knew he could only wed the sea girl.
(Father said, “It will make the people happy, for she is obviously a girl of magic and grace. She will bring power to our land.”)
To marry another would end his life, would belie the moment that day on the beach when he had kissed and loved for the first time.
(Barnes said, “You’re a fool, Jonathan. That girl does not exist. Marry the one who does.)
He knew, in his heart, that he should do as his family, as his friends insisted. He knew he could love the secretive Beatrice. But he would not say so. Not out loud.
“I must search for her,” the prince said. “Will you go with me?”
“Go with you?” She frowned. “Over the ocean?”
“I must find her.”
I am right here.
His heart ached as he watched Beatrice climb the plank onto his ship. Her eyes widened when she gazed down at the surf, her skin paled, and her hands shook. When he gripped her arm, she shuddered and looked to him.
“It is well, little Beatrice. I will keep you safe.”
“Nothing is safe from the ocean,” she whispered, and the prince swallowed sorrow. How he wished she were his girl, his sea-angel.
He drew her to the prow of the ship, and held her close when they left the city. They waved at the gathered crowds, and for a moment the prince imagined this was their wedding send-off, and now they would sail the oceans in blissful, salt-sprayed love.
Turning to her, he said, “You love me best, of all the world. I see it whenever you smile at me.”
“I do.” Her eyes were dry, where he had half-expected tears. But she never cried.
She stood alone in the darkness, as the ship lounged peacefully for the night. She leaned over the rail and stared at the black water. It was as black as her blood had been. She thought of her tail, of her sisters and her father, of the undersea palace and all the pearls and lilies and the rainbow fish who had been her friends.
The prince would never love her. He longed for what she had been – the sea girl who had rescued him. He loved what she had thrown off.
It made her laugh – the humor of the sea.
She leaned farther out, and saw down in the deepest shadows beside the hull, her oldest sister.
“You have finally returned to the sea, where I may speak to you!” her sister called. “I have waited and waited – we take turns waiting for you, one of us every night. Here.” She lifted a silver blade out of the water. “Take this knife! If you kill him, and spread his blood over your legs, your scales will find you again, and you can come home to us!” The eldest mermaid lifted herself as far above the waves as she could, so that her seaweed hair stuck to her shoulders and arms and breasts, and flung the knife up to the deck.
It clattered against the wood, and glinted like a sliver of the moon.
He found Beatrice on the deck, as near to the nighttime sea as she could get.
“Beatrice,” he said. She was so near it, and her eyes lit like fire, like she’d never been afraid.
She only looked at the slapping waves below and whispered, “I should have eaten you.”
“I would not taste very good, I think. Stringy and tough.” He touched her hand where it lay on the railing.
Instead of smiling, she nodded absently. She turned fully away from him to lean both palms against the rail and bent over so that all her long hair fell toward the sea. It was ashen and listless in the breeze. Her face was hidden.
The smile dropped off his face. He propped himself on his elbows and slanted a look at her long back. Her thin nightgown billowed around her equally thin body and he remembered how she danced the first night.
She angled her head so that hair streamed over her cheeks and her eyes appeared. They reflected the lights and colors of the paper-lamps lining the deck.
“Why are you afraid of the sea?” he asked.
“It swallows people forever. Not only people, but hearts, too.”
“So it does.” He let his head fall back and stared up at the wispy grey clouds obscuring parts of the night sky. Stars twinkled. The ship rocked beneath him and he felt her cool presence against his arm. Her head rested gently on his shoulder, and he could smell salt and brine in her hair as though the ocean had run its fingers through every strand.
“This feels like a dream,” she whispered. “All of it has.”
“All what?” he asked, though he knew what she meant.
She rolled her eyes up to meet his without removing her head from his shoulder. They were huge and black and churning. “I can’t stay here,” she finally said, taking one of his hands.
His palm felt too hot in her fingers. “Why?”
She lifted her shoulders and glanced behind him at the quiet sea. “I simply cannot.”
Pulling away from him, she stepped to the rail and crouched. When she rose she held a left-hand dagger that gleamed silver. Golden eels wrapped about the hilt and crosspiece, and a pearl as large as an acorn filled the pommel.
He shivered, as though he could feel the point pricking his skin and washing itself in his blood. “What were you doing when I found you here?” He wanted to grip her arm, shake her, to demand all the answers she’d never given. But he could not touch her now. Could not smell her over the tang of the ocean.
“Dreaming.” A ghostly smile teased at her lips and she tightened her hand around the dagger hilt. “Of you.” She put her arm out over the sea and released the dagger. It vanished with hardly a splash. “Oh,” she whispered, lengthening the sound until it was nearly a moan. Almost a song. “Dance with me!” she whirled to him, and held out her hands.
His voice caught in his throat, but he took her into the proper stance and heard silent music when her swaying began. A simple waltz, tight and close, drew them around and around in a spiral.
Her mouth pinched and he saw past her ecstasy. It was no pleasure of angels. But her bones were so light in his arms and her footsteps more graceful than swans in flight. He slowed, and still could say nothing. His words had been stolen away. She stopped and stepped in to press herself to him. With her cheek against his bare collar, she said, “I used to be able to sing. I had a voice to drown men, or to lift them into heaven. You remember.”
But he had never heard her sing, never even heard her laugh until tonight. No, he said with his voiceless lips.
She laughed. It was like a chorus of rain and the song of seashells, garbled and salty and sweet. “You heard me, when you were drowning. I am the sea, oh prince. I am the sea and the daughter of the sea. Salt kisses are my kisses, and I grew up with oysters clasped on my fins, and lilies made of pearls in my hair.”
“My sea girl,” he said, leaning closer to catch her lips with his own.
But she leaned away and touched his bottom lip with one cool finger. “Go back to bed, highness. And dream well.”
“Come with me.”
Her lips parted. And then she nodded.
In his quarters, he removed his robe and sank back into the warm blankets, pulling her down with him. She kissed him, and he tasted the ocean on her tongue. He wrapped his arms around her. Her breathing was long and deep, and her hand rested over his heart. The prince slept, and he dreamed of a time when he’d been a boy, playing on the beach beneath the palace, and had heard the most glorious music in the world. He’d run into the water, chasing after the sound, and the salt and brine had ruined his clothes.
The song echoed in him as he woke alone, pushed out of the bed and ran to the deck. It was black and empty, but for the dim glow from the paper lanterns and the line of pastel dawn stretching along the horizon.
The ocean licked at the sides of the ship. It was a hollow, empty sound.