I first felt her spirit’s breeze shortly after the honeymoon, a whiff of brine and caress of ice. We’d returned to the kingdom and castle in that glorious parade, the one with the rose petals like confetti, with music and laughter in every direction. The air was scented with sizzling meat, strong and welcoming, rather than the stench of emptied chamber pots and poverty that had pervaded my home. This was a prosperous, happy village, ruled by my new husband’s father. I remember the heat of the sun- it was high summer, glorious– and in truth, I was beginning to wilt a bit under its heavy attentions. I had been standing for a long time, and my legs were tired, and my face ached from smiling for the last several hours.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I was deliriously happy. This marriage was going to benefit my grandfather’s kingdom, which had suffered during his tumultuous reign. The man had no spine. He lived, but he was weak, bedridden and as incontinent as he was incompetent. My mother had stepped in as acting sovereign. This marriage to my handsome prince was one of her first attempts at restoring something close to dignity. I was radiant.
I was also terribly hot and perhaps teetering toward irritability. That first touch of breeze was a welcome relief, a gift from the gods. The chill that ran along my skin may have caused actual faint steam to rise from the sheen of sweat I’d been trying to ignore and I felt like I could breathe. Honestly, I would have followed that breeze anywhere, but it trailed away like a sigh, or maybe that was my sigh, because I missed it instantly.
I had no idea it was trying to kill me, even then.
When the Sea Witch heard that the “little silent trollop” ended up as sea foam, she laughed for days. Not constantly- she’s surprisingly sane—but whenever there was a silent moment, it would burble out of her like smoke from her cauldron, light bursts of swirling mirth followed by heavy, spilling plumes of malicious glee. She now had a mermaid voice shining from its golden, stoppered bottle and a chest spilling over with the shorn, shining hair of her idiot sisters. They were vain, silly girls who suddenly grew a single heart between them and sacrificed their precious locks for a deadly knife, a dagger that would restore their wayward sister to them. The Sea Witch has gained everything, and it cost her so little.
I was the only person in the world who knew how pathetically little it cost her.
I was an “acquisition” from some previous bargain that I don’t even know anything about. I don’t care what my parents wanted. Apparently, it wasn’t me. Whatever. All I know is that maybe once I wasn’t completely human (it’s rare that humans make it here, but it’s not unheard of) but I certainly am now, and I have been raised in this cavern beneath the sea since infancy. My first memories are human. A little girl who had only heard of sunlight when another supplicant came begging for a chance to have legs and lungs. I’ve been the Sea Witch’s servant and student my whole life, keeping this dark cave clean and gleaming in its fire light, the flames of the sconces shining over the dark surfaces of the water that meets our floor and keeps me trapped.
Really, everything I really knew about the World Out There was because of a gift from that “little silent trollop.” I actually really liked her. I thought she was kind. I cried myself to sleep after she sang her final song and I had to watch as that sweet, haunting voice drifted away from her into the Sea Witch’s greedy possession. She had found a human book of stories, miraculously preserved by some transparent bag that had kept the ocean from destroying the delicate pages. The cover is leather. Soft. The book is illustrated, and the stories filled with magic and heroes and wonder. I don’t know if the stories are true. I do know magic is real.
When the girl sang, the Sea Witch thought it would be amusing to make me watch. “Humans can’t resist the song of a mermaid voice,” she taunted me. “Not even little magical humans like you.” She’d bound me to a chair, so securely I could barely twitch, and yet with the strange consideration she sometimes paid me—I could breathe easily and I was comfortable. I’m going to tell you something strange but true: sometimes I could almost love her. When I didn’t hate her.
The mermaid’s voice was the most beautiful and horrible sound I have ever experienced. She watched me as she sang, a hint of sadness in her beautiful eyes as she regarded me, the way I strained uselessly to go to her, and when the song was over, she winked as though I would understand something wonderful. She was so happy. She was in love and her dreams were coming true and at this moment, this sacrifice of hers meant absolutely nothing to her. She had no idea at the time the ultimate sacrifice would be her life. To this day, I desperately hope she had been happy, at least for a little while.
The night after her bargain, I lay in my bed and I listened to her song in my heart. The more it replayed, the more I started to understand that wink.
I’m going to be free, her song told me. Someday, sweet girl, you’ll find your way to the sky.
From then, I paid close attention to my lessons. I watched the Sea Witch carefully, and she taught me some of her magic. Her true trick—transporting her new little human-fae into the World Out There—she wouldn’t teach me. She was no fool. But neither am I.
It turns out, there’s a hidden door. Of course there is. She would slip me a potion that would knock me out for days and she would perform a ritual and the door opens and she’d accompany her newest Best Friend through the dark and winding tunnels that opened, finally, into the sun. I know this, because I made myself an antidote to her potion. The potion she had no idea I was aware of. I fell asleep like always, but I woke up a few hours later. The door to the tunnels was still open. I had been so close to freedom so many times before, dreaming instead.
I gathered up a few things extremely quickly—I couldn’t have risked packing ahead of time. I gave myself bread and water and cheese and the least worn of my clothing. I grabbed supplies and herbs that I thought might be useful Out There. I unearthed my precious book, and right before I left, I snatched the stoppered bottle with Her voice, and I cautiously fled.
I don’t know if the Sea Witch is looking for me. Maybe. Probably. After all, she really doesn’t like to lose.