Of all the daughters of the sea king, none was more beautiful than the youngest, and none had a lovelier voice. She was a charming creature, and she wanted one thing above all others: to travel to the surface of the water, to see the sky and the ships and the humans on the shore. But her father would not let her go until she turned fifteen. Until that day, she could only satisfy herself by listening to the tales of her sisters, who told her all about the wonderful things to be seen.
And then, finally, the day came when she, too, could go to the surface of the water. Her father warned her to be careful, and to avoid humans, who could only cause her pain. She barely listened- all she could think of was the glories that awaited her above the water.
When she broke through the surface of the water, the waves whipped her about violently. The sky was black and cloudy, the waters turbulent. Thunder deafened the mermaid, and lightning blinded her. She found herself in the midst of a violent, raging storm, and just as she was about to duck back under the water, a ship came before her, buffetted by the waves and winds, beginning to sink. The mermaid watched as the captain was thrown overboard and began to flail helplessly in the raging sea.
The mermaid made her way determinedly to the captain, who had lost conciousness. She pulled him to shore, and hid herself behind a rock, watching until three ladies happened by and, seeing him, went to help him. Then the mermaid swam back to her undersea home. When the man opened his eyes, he saw the three ladies and believed that they had saved him- and as he looked at the loveliest of them, he lost his heart.
Her sisters anxiously asked her to tell them about her adventures, but she could not. When she thought of the man she had saved, she wept, and she could think of nothing else. For days, she stayed in her chamber, not eating, not drinking, not sleeping. She knew that she, as a mermaid, could never be with a human, but she was in love. Finally, she decided to petition the Witch of the Sea for help.
The witch was scornful. "You want legs like a human, you do? I suppose so that the ship's captain will fall in love with you? Well, I'll tell you this: he's no captain, but a prince. And as for your legs... I'll give them to you, but know that every step you take will be like walking on needles."
"I don't care about that," the mermaid calmly replied. "If I can be with him, I can endure any pain."
The sea witch's lips curved into a cruel smirk. "So be it. I will give you your legs, on the condition that you give me your lovely voice. You will be mute, can you endure that?"
The mermaid nodded, and the witch handed her a small glass vial. "Go to the surface and drink this," the witch commanded. "But remember, you will be in pain always- and if your prince marries another, you cannot turn back into a mermaid. You will dissolve in the water, you will be nothing more than so much sea foam."
Siezing the vial, the mermaid swam away quickly, up to the surface, where she drank the contents of the vial in one swallow. A sudden shock of agony grasped her, and she fainted dead away.
When she awoke, the prince was smiling down at her. He had found her on the beach, and covered her with his coat. He asked her her name, but she could not answer, so he simply led her to his palace.
Suddenly, the mermaid was living the life of a grand courtier- wearing beautiful gowns, going to lavish balls, and always in the company of the prince she loved. And what of it if she was in constant pain? What of it if she could not speak? She bore the pain like a soldier, and the prince was quite fond of her, not caring about her muteness.
But he did not love her. He could not forget the lady he had seen on the beach after he was rescued, and he longed to see her again. The mermaid knew that she was not the one he loved, and it pained her, but she tolerated that along with her other sufferings.
Then one day, she found her world shattered. The lady whom the prince loved had come to the kingdom, and when the prince saw her, he proposed immediately. The lady had been haunted by his image as he had by hers, and agreed to be his wife. The mermaid knew that this was the end of her.
She was a guest at the wedding, and was invited, along with other members of the court, to come on a voyage with the newlyweds soon after on a grand ship. The night they set sail, the mermaid went and stared over the edge of the deck. She had lost the man she loved, lost him utterly, and now all she had to look forward to was death- dissolving in the sea and becoming one with the waves. She was about to throw herself overboard, when her sisters emerged from the waters.
"We know what has happened," they said. "We are here to help you."
The mermaid looked at them in horror. "Sisters, where is your lovely hair?" For indeed, their long curls had been shorn clean off.
"We gave it to the sea witch in return for this knife," they explained, brandishing a silver blade. "Take it and kill the prince and his new wife before dawn, and the witch will allow you to become a mermaid once more."
The mermaid took the knife and crept into the prince's cabin. He and his bride were asleep, defenseless. The mermaid raised the knife, preparing to plunge it into her beloved's heart. But as she looked at his peacefully slumbering countenance, she knew she could not, and let the knife fall to the floor.
Back on the deck of the ship, she began to weep, and with desparate purpose walked to the edge of the deck. There was no recourse now, there was but one thing for her to do. She was ready. With one last look at the sky, in which the dawn had just begun to show, she let herself fall into the sea.
But suddenly she felt herself being lifted, and through her tears asked, "What is happening?"
"Shush, dry your eyes," a gentle voice replied. "We are the spirits of the air. We aid humankind, and let those who showed kindness to humans join our ranks. You are to be one of us now."
The mermaid could not hold back her tears, but she tried to quell her despair. She flew up into the clouds, higher and higher, her gaze ever downward, and the last thing she saw before a veil of clouds obscured her vision of the earth was a ray of sunlight, hitting the ship cabin where the man she loved slept peacefully at the side of his beloved.
Myths, Legends, Folklore & Faery Tales