This story emerged from a prompt in my writing group: “A scene without dialogue.”
An idea sparked to do a brief retelling of The Little Mermaid using that concept. I may have skirted the “no dialogue” rule a bit, but I really enjoy the end product and thought I’d share.
Could one steal a heart without words?
Surely it was possible, or else my fate was sealed. A fool’s bargain to deal with a sea witch, but the desperate will seek any escape, after all.
And by the tides, I had been desperate.
My hand lifted to brush the side of my cheek, the cut washed clean in the stinging saltwater. I never thought he’d stoop so low as to harm me, but there was nowhere in the ocean I could hide that he could not find me.
So to the surface I fled, on new legs that stabbed and stung and burned. They were wobbly, painful things, graceless and inelegant.
But I was free.
The witch set me an impossible task; one year to claim the love of the first human I met, or perish. If I accomplished the feat, my pain would cease and my voice would return, though I would remain human and unable to return to the waves.
I stood, wincing as my feet left bloody footprints on the sand. I would have cried out had I still possessed my voice. But only a sharp gasp of air mingled with the monotonous sound of ocean waves and cries of seabirds.
Salt dripped onto my lips, the tang of ocean water. No. Tears. I blinked as my vision blurred, another coughing sob wracking me.
The agony in my new feet hurt so much more than any wound my father could ever deal me. But this was my choice, and that made all the difference.
Still, I struggled to speak, only to make a hollow caw of a sound.
I’d watched humans before, peeking from a safe distance. Only the top of my head had poked above the waves as I observed them on their boats, or building castles of sand on the shore. They were a loud folk. How would they react to a mute, nude woman crawling out of the sea?
I heard a cry and my head twisted to see a human approaching. A man in fine clothing, hair tied back to display a face full of concern.
He rushed toward me, calling out to his companions as I fell into his embrace. His arms circled me almost gently, his hands sliding around my waist to splay against my back.
Warm. So warm, his human skin.
I glanced up into his face as he searched mine, pelting me with questions. My voice would have been useless anyway; his speech was all gibberish.
But his eyes were kind, worried, a clear sparkling green like sea glass.
I opened my mouth, but only air came out, a soft noise almost like a croak.
His hand touched my cheek, his gaze searching mine.
So it’s to be you, then, I thought as the pain in my new feet finally grew too much to bear, and darkness reached out for me.
* * *
I awoke in a lavish bed, clothed in a loose gown of human make. A strange, constricting thing. The air still scratched at my skin, too hot, too dry.
For a moment, I considered removing the dress, but I’d never seen a human without their odd garments before. A feature of their culture, I supposed, and if I was to bewitch that man, it seemed unwise to repulse him.
Something crusted my cheek, and I scraped at it gently. A paste, dried over the cut my father had given me. Something to help it heal?
When I poked my head out of the door, an older human woman lifted her attention from her task of wiping down a bit of furniture. Wood, I realized, just like the ships they set upon the waves.
She gabbled at me, more nonsense words, though their tone felt motherly, reassuring. She shooed me back into my room and followed. Her brows furrowed as her words took on the lilt of a question.
I frowned and pointed at my throat, opening my mouth mutely.
She clucked her tongue and murmured something sympathetic before pointing me toward the middle of the room. I obeyed as she tugged a heavy garment from another piece of wooden furniture. The color of the sky at sunset, of the richest orange anemone, it gleamed like a polished pearl. I lifted a hand. Soft to the touch, the gown hung with a weight, a presence.
I followed the woman’s gestures as she helped me into first a long, loose undergown and then this piece of art. It gathered beneath my breasts, lifting them into a swell of flesh exposed by the scooping neckline. I welcomed the sensation. I hated the way they hung heavy on my chest, here above the waves. Likewise, my hair kept tickling my neck, and I found myself twitching at the touch.
The woman solved that issue too, ushering me into a chair and weaving my hair into a plait which she pinned about my head.
And the entire time, my feet ached and pinched with a sharp agony. I didn’t think the pain had truly lessened, but the feeling was rapidly growing familiar.
When the woman was satisfied with my appearance, she left and gestured me to follow.
She led me to a garden.
Or at least, I assumed this was the human version of our kelp beds and sculpted coral reefs. Everything was brilliantly green, dotted here and there with colors as vibrant as any tropical fish. Vivid yellows, bright pinks, and deepest reds.
And the aroma.
The new scent was overpowering. So sharp, so sweet, without the tang of salt to soften it.
And in the middle of that abundance, beside a small silvery pond, he stood.
The man who unknowingly held the key to my survival.
By the tides, his smile was devastating. Warm, genuine, and just a little shy.
He babbled something to the woman, who bowed and left us. Again, he tried to speak to me. And again, I shook my head and gestured to my throat.
Another question, to which I furrowed a brow.
He sighed, running a hand through waves of auburn hair, trapped beneath a gold circlet.
I shivered. Did an adornment like that mean the same thing above the waves as below? Home, my coral crown gleamed with pearls and polished seashells. The marker of a princess.
No. Surely the fashion meant something else for humans. If the first human I met was a prince, I was doomed.
Unaware of my internal dilemma, the man gave me a rueful smile and took my hand, lifting it to his lips. A gentle press of his mouth to my knuckles.
He sat in a bench beside the pond, and for the first time I noticed the water was populated with fish. Pretty things, all speckled in white and orange and black. My heart ached for them, trapped here in this miniature ocean.
The man gestured for me to sit beside him. After a moment’s hesitation, I did. His eyes met mine, a sorrow swimming in their depths. He sighed something, barely audible, then leaned back and cast his gaze up at the clouds.
I shifted my feet in the hope that would make the pain cease. It didn’t.
Instead, I joined him in watching the sky. The sun beat down on my skin, unbearably warm. I grew uncomfortably damp, and a few moment later I realized the moisture was coming from my own skin.
Alarmed, I glanced at the man, only to see beads of water forming on his forehead as well.
Another odd human thing, then.
A pale imitation of true water. I missed the kiss of the ocean, the feel of the currents against my skin, the way my breasts and hair floated free under the water. I missed my tail, the power and elegance of it. How it cut through the waves effortlessly. Not this fumbling, ungainly waddling.
But I knew what lurked under the sea. My father. Seething. Waiting.
The human man turned and caught my eye. With worry clinging to his features, he gestured to my cheek.
My gaze flitted downward as my hand lifted to touch the injury. It would bruise, certainly. In a few days, my face would be repugnant to look upon. A poor start to stealing his heart.
Again, something damp dripped down my face. Tears. Merfolk could weep, but our tears were lost to the salty currents of the ocean. Like tasting home. I buried my face in my hands and let the silent sobs wrack my body. Even if I succeeded, the world beneath the waves was lost to me.
A gentle hand tugged mine away from my face and tipped my chin up to meet his eyes. Green like the ocean waves just after a storm. Puzzlement creased his brow, and he tucked a stray strand of hair out of my face. A frisson rippled through me.
At home, merfolk shuddered at the thought of invoking my father’s wrath. So though I’d held hands with my sisters as we led each other in merry games of chase, and been embraced by my mother, I’d never felt a touch that left me trembling inside.
A call from behind made the man jump and yank his hand away as his face flushed deep red. The blush accented the tiny darker flecks that dotted his pale nose and cheeks. Guilt washed over his features as he stood and replied to the speaker, then bowed and mumbled something to me before scuttling away.
* * *
Soon enough, I was certain. The man whose heart I must claim was a prince, and I a guest in his palace.
Wherever I went, whispers followed. I knew none of the words, but the tone was clear.
The elderly maid who’d dressed me on my first day continued to tend me. She would help me select my clothing, style my hair, and even cleaned and dabbed some sort of paste onto my cheek every day. As predicted, my entire left cheek purpled within days, then turned an unsightly array of browns and yellows until it faded.
The prince came to call on me frequently. I supposed I was his pet curiosity, this strange, mute woman found naked on the beach with bloody feet. A woman who did not speak their language and fumbled the simplest of things. It took much careful observation to learn their ways. To eat food the way they did, stabbing at it with tiny tridents. To curtsy when I met someone new.
But dancing, that I could do. Part of my curse, my gift. My new feet felt clumsy and heavy when I walked or ran, but when I danced, it was almost like swimming again. Like riding the waves and swirling in currents of water. The witch had sworn my new legs would dance like no human before me, and it had not been a lie. I knew all the steps, and performed them without flaw.
The humans danced frequently. It seemed like every other night, there was some sort of event in which everyone congregated in an immense, ornate room and paired each other.
The prince had many partners. Gaggles of women flocked him.
And yet, so often when he stood ringed by admirers batting their lashes and fluttering fans, his eyes would lift to meet mine halfway across the room. His lips would curl into a soft smile, and he would give me the slightest of nods.
I would blush and turn away until he found me later, offering his hand in invitation. I would take it and the dance would begin.
Dancing with him felt like coming home. I lost myself in the movement and imagined that the swish of skirts about my legs was the brush of waves. My feet always stung, a never-ending agony. But I grew almost accustomed to the pain, most of the time.
And perhaps I imagined it, but it felt like the prince held a flicker of something warm in his expression just for me. Like we shared in some private jest, or as if we built a secluded world around the two of us.
Inevitably, some maiden would interrupt us, demanding her turn. The prince would turn to me with that fetching blush in his cheeks and mutter something that sounded like an apology, then leave me with a single, longing backward glance.
* * *
He spoke to me often, though I could say nothing back. The prince visited me in my rooms and offered his arm with that innocent smile. I would take it to wander the garden as he spoke to me in a voice like the rumble of faraway thunder.
One day, we were caught in a sudden downpour, and I grinned madly at the feel of water coursing over my skin again. This was even better than the warm baths my maid would draw for me. The rain trickled over my shoulders, down my throat, between my breasts. It cooled my skin and drenched my hair. I spun and grinned madly, tossing my head back in a silent laugh.
When I turned, I caught the prince watching me with his own smile, unguarded and free as I never saw him among his courtiers.
* * *
I didn’t know what he was asking, the day the prince took me to the orchard.
The tone of his garbled words lifted in a tremulous question, unlike his usual casual cheer. His cheeks were redder than the belly of a dartfish, and he barely met my eyes. His hand shook as he lifted it in invitation.
My stomach a tempest of crashing waves, I took it.
He placed my arm around his and led me out of the palace gates. Curious, I listened to the pleasant cadence of his voice as he spoke. Like a song played on a strange instrument, I could listen for hours despite understanding not a word.
We walked and walked, farther and farther away from the palace. Trails led into a grove of trees heavy with some sort of fruit, their sweet, ripe scent hanging heavy in the air.
Beneath the branches of one of those trees, he stopped. The prince turned to me, took both my hands in his, and said something. Earnest, soft. His eyes shimmered. Tears? His grasp was tenuous, his hands trembling around mine.
I merely shook my head softly, desperate to know what he asked.
His eyes darted down to my lips.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and bent forward.
I lifted my chin all too willingly. The brush of his lips was so delicate, a question. My stomach roiled pleasantly, a pebble tossed in a current.
I didn’t need words to understand the sound he made, half sigh and half plea. When his tongue parted my lips, a ripple shuddered through my body, from my lips to my fingers and toes, settling in the new space between my legs.
Breathless, we came up for air some minutes later.
I’m certain my grin was equal to his own as our hands entwined and we made our way back.
* * *
The sound was unmistakable, even if the meaning of the words was lost to me. I didn’t intend to overhear; I’d merely been walking back to my room from the garden. But I heard the prince’s voice, shouted down by the older man. The king, I surmised.
A murmur from the queen, a placating tone, before the disagreement erupted again.
Worried at being caught eavesdropping, I hurried away with my ears burning.
* * *
The next time I saw the prince, he barely met my eye.
He mumbled something, an excuse perhaps, and scurried away. I would have thought it an anomaly, a mere day of ill temper, until it happened again. And a third time.
Then I saw him walking arm-in-arm with one of his courtier ladies. My heart twisted in my chest.
But perhaps it was just a pleasantry. I convinced myself it must be so.
Until the day I caught them in the garden, her head upon his shoulder as he stroked her hair and spoke softly.
I stopped in my tracks, tears blurring my vision. He met my gaze and a dozen things flickered in his eyes. Shock, apology, sorrow, shame. He shuddered in a breath, opened his mouth as if to say something, then clenched his jaw and turned aside.
I couldn’t breathe. The jagged bits of glass that always pierced my feet had crept into my lungs.
In my room, I wept. If I’d had a voice, it would have wailed and sobbed and screamed.
An hour later, I remembered the curse. It seemed of little matter now. My heart lay dashed to pieces, a boat torn apart by the waves crashing against a rocky shore.
My curse had demanded I steal his heart, but he’d claimed mine instead, then crushed it in his fist.
I locked my door and wept. I didn’t emerge that day, nor the next. I drank the pitcher of water left for me, but felt no hunger, not with my stomach tied in tangles. My maid pounded on the door and shouted, but I ignored her.
The third day, she got a locksmith to pick the lock.
She dashed into my room and alternated between scolding and fussing over me. My eyes scratched and burned, my nose red and rubbed raw.
My maid cooed and stroked my hair. She called out orders to someone in the hall, who brought me soup a few minutes later. At the smell, my stomach rumbled. I sat and sipped the broth, my painful feet curled beneath me.
She drew me a bath, helped me wash, and put me to bed, all while a new numbness settled into my chest, my heart, my limbs.
A hollow emptiness had been carved out of me, and I didn’t know what could fill it.
How much time was left in my curse? Perhaps two months remained, if my guess was right.
I was left here in a world where I didn’t belong, my true home forever forbidden to me. My heart found a new place to nest, but that was gone too. In a matter of weeks, I’d be dead.
So I slept. I woke intermittently, ate whatever my maid brought me, and returned to slumber. A bleak emptiness swallowed me.
Until the day he came.
* * *
I ignored the knock, expecting my maid to barge in again.
But then the sound echoed again, followed by a voice I would have known a hundred years from now. The lilting melody of the prince’s words.
It hurt worse than my feet ever had, worse than anything my father could have done.
Still, those cursed feet led me to the door. My traitorous hand lifted to turn the knob.
Those eyes, so turbulently green. The mouth that had brushed my lips so tenderly was parted, almost forming words but not quite.
He stepped through the door and shut it behind him, then pulled me close.
If he’d tried to kiss me, I’d have slapped him. But he didn’t. All he did was hold me, his face buried in my hair.
A shudder wracked him and I realized he wept.
It broke me. I pressed my forehead to his shoulder and let my tears fall, too.
He didn’t speak, didn’t apologize. And then I understood. The argument. The guilty glances.
My prince had fought for me, but I was a fool. He was royalty. How could a nameless, titleless, speechless woman claim a throne?
But I didn’t want a throne.
I wasn’t thinking when I tilted my face up to meet his, when our tears mingled on my tongue. When his hands gripped my hips, or when I led him back to my bed.
My stomach quivered with nerves, but I guided his hands up beneath my sleeping gown, let him slide it up over my stomach, past my shoulders, and toss it aside on the floor. My hands tangled in his hair as his lips wandered my skin.
Everything after that seemed inevitable, one caress leading into another, a new sort of dance. We built our own silent song, a melody and rhythm of bodies entwined.
And when it was done, we lay in a heap on my bed as I wept once more.
I would perish in less than a month, and he would move on with his future queen. But I would steal this one precious memory for myself before I died.
The prince lifted my hand to his lips, murmuring a single word. Earnest, almost a plea. I glanced up to find his eyes filled with something soft, gentle, and painfully intimate.
He stroked my cheek and uttered three unintelligible words, but my heart understood.
I gasped as a spasm took me, every muscle tensing as the curse broke. Invisible flames crawled along my skin.
My lungs sucked in air in great heaving breaths as the prince sat up and cried something over and over again.
I huddled on the bed, tears filling my eyes as the pain in my feet vanished.
A moan slipped from my throat.
I froze at the sound. My voice.
And then I realized his words made sense to me, too. Not a mismatched language after all, but another, insidious part of the curse.
Beloved, he called me.
I laughed, rolling on my back and taking the prince’s face in my own.
And then I told him everything.
* * *
The wedding took place at the end of summer, a year after the curse.
As it turned out, royalty was royalty, whether beneath the waves or above. The king and queen had understandably been skeptical, but I’d managed to coax a porpoise to carry a message to my sisters. They were rather convincing when they met us at the shoreline.
Thelessa had even brought me my coral crown, dotted with pearls and shimmering shells. She warned me not to approach the coast again, however, for fear of Father’s wrath.
I mourned the sea, but as a bridal gift, my prince gave me a large conch shell. If I held it up to my ear, I could hear the waves once more. A clever trick, nothing more, but still the sound soothed me.
The ocean would always be a part of me, but a greater love had claimed my heart on the dry, dry land.
Still, I wore my seashell crown as I stared into my beloved’s eyes and spoke my vows, speechless no more.