Originally published in SCHEHEREZADE’S BEQUEST
I dreamt of the knife before I held it; it had been carved from the bone of a great white whale, its hilt the shape of our youngest sister’s face. I kissed the edge. Blood wept from my mouth and drifted through the water. Below me the sea witch collected the red beads with her tongue.
My other sisters were not there.
This is not the way it happened. The knife was plain and silver, a relic from the Land Above the Sea. My four remaining sisters circled me as the sea witch placed the blade into my palm. I closed my fingers around it. My sisters cooed and shivered and peered over my shoulder. They did not know how it burned.
“Now, my payment,” the sea witch said in our sister’s voice.
I poised the knife across my tongue.
“No,” the sea witch said. “I have that. I desire something far more precious.”
I cut the golden hair from my head so close to the scalp blood trickled from the roots.
“Yes,” she said, stretching out her hand. The strands of my hair floated toward her until they twisted, resurrected, around the mangled locks of her hair. “And the rest of my payment?”
One by one, my sisters gave her pieces of their youth: fingernails, scales, breasts, skin. When they were finished, the sea witch peered at herself in a shard of shattered mirror held to the cave’s wall by four stunned starfish. “It is done,” she said. “You may go.”
“What of the terms?” I asked. My sisters did not speak. I could tell from their wide eyes that they had not been ready to give so much.
“Your sister must kill the prince,” said the sea witch, cupping her new breasts with her newly-smooth hands. She gazed at her nails, no longer black but the green of seaweed, rimmed with white crescent moons. Her tail shone in the electric yellow light of her eels emerging from sleep. It was time to flee. “She must slit his throat in his sleep. The bride’s blood is not necessary, but it would not hurt.”
“And then she’ll be free?”
“To return to the sea, until her days are up.” The sea witch swam so that the tips of my hair reached out like fingers to brush against my cheek. “She won’t be happy. And when she cries in the night, I will come to her. I will take all the youth she has, and then some.”
What we gave to the sea witch:
Yvonne ripped away her fingernails and gathered them in her palm. The witch licked away the blood and pressed them atop hers, rotted black as oil. After, as Yvonne worked the soil of her beloved sea garden, as she planted her coral in elaborate patterns of fish and wrecked ships and the features of our lost sister, the soil stung the wounds of each finger.
Lotte peeled the scales from her tail. When the sea witch swallowed them, the scales shifted through her skin until they took over the witch’s dull, grey scales. Once they were gone, Lotte’s tail ached as she swished through the water, and it pained her to swim far enough away to steal a precious silent moment.
Agnethe sliced off her breasts. She had never even felt a man’s lips upon her golden nipples. She never would. Would never feed her own child, either, should she ever choose to lay her eggs and birth one.
Regina, our oldest, shaved away her skin. Destined to be queen after us, she would have ruled like our mother, our grandmother, both beauties. The sea witch pressed Regina’s skin to hers until the witch’s wrinkles evened. Regina would still be queen; there was no denying her that. But she would not be a legacy of the vain sea; ugliness befitted a witch, not a remembered queen.
And me. My hair. It may seem a small price to those from the Land Above the Sea. It may seem like no price. But I was Elin, the prettiest of all my sisters, my hair the longest. Like my mother, I had been born with the magic of beauty, the ability to move the tide with my breath. To shake my hair and make mermen speechless. To bewitch even the most terrible of sea creatures.
These are the things we gave to bring our sister home again.
When we reached the other side of the witch’s wilted garden, unmolested by the stringy arms of the witch’s black seaweeds or the electric caress of her eels, Regina wrapped her arms around her wilted body and shrieked; mermaids cannot cry.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, laying my hand across her shoulder.
“Not even the monsters want me now,” she said. “What kind of queen will I be?”
We all felt that we had given up more than the others. The others watched Regina, their arms crossed, as though in falsified sympathy; Regina would, after all, still be queen. She would still have power-hungry men at her feet. She had not lost everything.
“Come, Regina,” I said. “Remember our sister. Remember Kristin.”
She nodded. “I do,” she said. “Every day I remember her.”
Our sister Kristin was as fragile as the glass that sometimes floated down which we used to line our sand gardens. Everyone said her voice could calm storms. But she gave it away for a man and a soul, neither of which she would possess.
Our sister brought us together in times of need; when she told us her dreams of souls like pearls so large you couldn’t hold them in your hands, we forgot our nightmares. Our grandmother had told her that Above the Sea there was life after life. That a soul meant living forever. This she told Kristin, who could not keep secrets. Who could not swallow her fear of death like rotten clams. Who did not want to die as sea foam on the water’s surface and nothing more.
Of course we all feared the great green unknowing, the black state of no mind and no body, but we did not think on it with Kristin around, she whose power was to consume our fears for us. We did not know how much of our nightmares she had swallowed until the day she disappeared. We did this to her, made her take the drastic steps on new land. And we had to have her back.
The prince should have died for what he did to her. If only I could have killed him myself.
We swam that night up through the water to the place where it heaved and broke upon the anchored ship. Wedding songs spread over the waves. They were nothing compared to what our sister used to sing. The air smelled of smoke from the booming lights that had hours before spread across the sky like flexing jellyfish. We swam to the side of the ship and found our sister. She leaned out the window of her cabin near the lowest deck, peering into the ocean, one hand stretched as if to touch it. The cabin lamps illuminated her in shadow.
“We’ve brought you something,” I called to her.
“Something good,” said Yvonne. “You will not be alone any longer.”
“There is nothing wrong with alone,” said Lotte.
Kristin glanced from sister to sister bobbing in the water below. We knew what she meant to say: it is good to see you, sisters, on this day upon which I have lost my chance at forever.
I held the knife up so that she could take it. She did not try.
“Take it,” I said.
“It’s for the man,” Regina said. “If you slice his throat before the sun rises, you can come back to us.”
I dove under then swam up, faster, faster, until I leapt from the water, the knife hilt extended. The edge cut my fingers. This time Kristin snatched the blade. She weighed it in her palm.
“Do it,” I said.
“Yes,” said Agnethe, cupping the place her breasts used to be. “Or else our sacrifices are for naught.”
The others chimed in, one by one: do it, do it, do it. Kristin disappeared back inside.
She did not do it. There were no screams, no gore until she tossed the blade into the water; it hissed and bubbled blood. I was sure the sharks would flock to the scent, overwhelming. Then our sister, pale in the rising sunlight, propelled herself from the window. Her body burst into foam as she landed.
We clutched at the foam, but it escaped through our fingers. The wind whipped our faces. We pounded against the ship’s sides. Our raw fists burned, soaked with salt water. Our sister was gone.
We could not go a day without remembering. Never, not even after losing our hair and skin and nails and breasts, had we felt as sick. In our dreams her ethereal body floated through our chambers, and she spoke, with her tongue, of the sky that she danced through, seeking her soul.
“It wasn’t real,” I reminded my sisters. “We must not delude ourselves. There is no soul for us. Do not let her death’s lesson go unheeded. It is not for us to seek the impossible.”
A soul. When alone, I scoffed at the word. What was a soul but an abstraction, a blur each woman shaped into her own want? I longed for magic. A soul was a forever magic. It allowed the world to make magic from your body, from your death songs. It granted you entrance into another land. Agnethe saw the soul as suckling babes. Lotte an eternal alone place. Yvonne an experience in a world far richer than any she could sculpt with old driftwood and sea flowers. And Regina – what did Regina want? A kingdom she could usurp. An afterlife body she could make more beautiful than any under the sea or on land.
“Kristin was not pretty enough,” Regina said to me one night over dinner. Our tails curled tight around the seaweed swaying in the current as we tore wriggling octopus arms from their bodies. “Not pretty enough for the prince. That is why he took the other wife.”
“You shouldn’t say such things,” Lotte said. “Our sister was young and innocent and better than all of us combined. She wanted things enough to try for them.”
This made my belly ache. I wanted things. I wanted my sisters to be happy. I wanted to be happy. I wanted it to be like childhood again. We all wanted things, too many things to wrap our tails around. Better yet, we had given some of those things for our sister’s life. And we had failed.
This is not our sister’s story, though it tries hard to be. This is the story of five sisters wading through grief. This story has no ending, as grief has no ending. If you want an ending, you should look elsewhere. This story is true, and the truth does not end but goes on and on forever, a soul immortal.
I found Regina in her clamshell. She looked as though she was of two hundred years, older even than gran. I wrapped my arms around her. She shook me off. “I don’t want to die,” she said. Her gills spasmed with unsteady breaths.
What did it mean, to have lost a sister? I wondered as I watched Regina thrash and claw at the skin of her arms. Losing a sister is losing a part of yourself. It is losing a part of your mother. It is reliving a mother’s death. Is this, I wondered, why we cannot shake it?
Or this: someday we, too, will die.
We woke to find Regina’s clamshell open and empty. After searching the palace, we asked our father, silent these days, if he had seen her. He lifted his fists and screamed into them. We left him alone in his throne room dark. When we asked Gran, she crossed her arms. “I can guess who might know,” she said.
“The sea witch,” I said. “Will you come with us, Gran? The sea witch is frightened of you.”
“I never want to see the witch’s face again,” Gran said. “Go on. Find your sister. Solve this problem before it is all of you gone.”
We swam darker and deeper, our tails thrashing the inky black of the sand floor. The fish in the deep sea are sharp-toothed and fin-clawed; they eat of mermaid and human flesh alike. They trail you until you lose yourself.
But they did not follow us to the witch’s cave; she had commanded them so. She expected us. This frightened us more.
When we arrived, we were struck by the sight of the witch’s new beauty.
“You’ve come to give me more,” she said as we entered.
“We came for Regina,” I said.
The sea witch scratched at her flawless skin. “I haven’t seen any of your sisters.” A fleck of skin floated away into the water. In its place, a sliver of grey wrinkles remained. Her tenuous beauty would be lost in three hundred years. The witch would make more bargains. This was the way of the sea. “You’re better without her. You’re better without any sisters at all.”
“You’re a liar!” cried Agnethe. “Tell us where she is.”
“Where else would she be, girls? Where do all mermaids go who want for more than they deserve?”
Our stomachs coiled within us like sea snakes. We propelled ourselves from her cave and through the forest, which grabbed lazily at our fins, resigned to hunger since the witch had commanded it to keep its whipping limbs down. We rushed to the surface, our hands clasped so tight they were cold as the deep when our heads broke into the air. In the distance we spotted the gleaming white sails of a ship. We swam to it.
Our sister lazed over the deck’s side, her skin still wrinkled, her back hunched, her hair the grey of a storm sky. But she sang into the air a song more lovely than any Kristin had ever freed. When we called up to her, she did not stop singing. A man stood beside her, upon his head a crown of red jewels and gold that splintered the light and sent it crawling back into the water. His gaze landed upon us. We dove back down, down, wailing into the echoless blue.
I suspected that I knew the terms of the witch’s bargain; more of our sister’s youth for a voice crafted of the sea’s magic. A love bargain, the same, almost, as Kristin’s. If she wooed a man before his marriage day, she would gain a soul, a name to be remembered in this world and the world beyond.
Had our sister been so desperate that she would take a bargain so sure to fail?
When we returned to our castle, we dined on thick raw fish with our silent father. He was too fragile to hear then of Regina’s misfortune — he had been too fragile for years — and so we did not speak of it until we were alone, drifting through the palace halls.
“We will bargain for her,” Agnethe said. “Whatever we have left.”
“Which is what?” I said. “What else do we have to offer?”
“I have my imagination,” said Yvonne. “I do not want to rule. I never wanted to rule.”
“You can’t,” I said. “If our bargain fails, you will have to rule, whether you wish to or not. And we cannot have you on our throne absent an imagination. I will give my eyes. The sea witch is in want of new eyes.”
“You will give your lives.” Gran swam up behind us. She wore a black weed ribbon in her hair, a sign of mourning. “Regina is as good as gone, my darlings. Mourn your sister her early death, for she will be no more than foam upon the water when that prince finds himself a princess to marry. Prepare to take your vows, Yvonne dear, for your king father is withering under his grief. And think no more of souls. There is beauty in becoming part of the ocean, in giving yourself to the water, full of your ancestors in whom we swim each and every day.”
I waved my hand through the water. Was our sister Kristin here? Did I breathe her in through my gills as I slept? It was a brief comfort, but I no more thought it true than that this was the last we would see from the sea witch.
The next morning Yvonne was gone. The sea witch spoke in poetry.
“Sisters,” she said, “are like eels, slippery as river stones thick with algae. A shock of light which singes the skin to ash, to ash.”
“Yvonne,” I said. “We asked for Yvonne, not for some useless words.”
“Gone,” said the sea witch.
“My eyes,” I said. “Take my eyes for our sisters.”
“Save them.” The sea witch traced shapes upon the wall of her cave, her back turned to us. “You will need them for your own chance at immortal beauty. It is you, after all, who has the best chance of succeeding up there.”
Next in line to the throne was Agnethe, who shook herself to sleep that night. “How can I nurse a kingdom when I cannot nurse a child?”
“They haven’t failed yet.” I stroked Agnethe’s hair. “Our sisters are not without their charms.”
But inside, my blood boiled. I hated these men, these royal jokes who would choose a woman of the land over a woman of the sea. These men who would play life and death with their vows. What was the point of it all? A soul. What did that mean, and how was it known that we sisters of the sea did not deserve one, did not have one within us after all?
Then Regina’s prince married. We watched the fireworks, watched the sun rise, watched as our oldest sister dove and burst into the green and blue. The violins wept their wedding songs. We wished that we could cry.
I clung to my remaining sisters like starfish to algae. At the end of every day, it was hard to let them disappear into their clams. I kept mine open so that I might see if they tried to disappear in the night, but sleep always claimed me. Then one morning, Agnethe’s shell lay empty.
This time the witch had unaged ten years at least; she looked as young as Kristin when first she disappeared. We begged her to give Agnethe back, but the witch refused.
“There is more I want from you yet,” she said. “And your Agnethe has a chance to be a mother up there. They have ways to make a mother of the barren upon the shore. They have orphan children in want.”
The way out from the sea witch’s cave was familiar, but still my hands shook as we fled.
Yvonne failed. Then Agnethe. I shared Lotte’s clamshell and held her at night when she too shook.
“I cannot be a queen,” she whispered into my ear. “A queen is never alone.”
“A queen is always alone,” said Gran, passing in the dark, ever watchful. “That is the definition of queen.”
“I’ll help you.” I stroked her hair, her cheek, keeping her close, my last sister. I needed her. Needed her to be there for me when our father and Gran passed, when they were no more than green foam, no more than water and memory. Needed her for nights like those.
But she found a way.
I do not know even now the true reason behind all their leavings. I can only guess at the way grief gripped each of them as it gripped me, too, the way a hunger for something you can never have consumes rational thought.
The sea witch laughed when she saw me and my tangled hair, my tail unadorned with pearls. Anger boiled in my belly. I envisioned the faces of princes and imagined sinking a knife into their skin. I wanted revenge. My fingers itched. I closed my eyes. “Give me what you gave them,” I said. “Give me legs and a blade and the will to slit their ugly throats.” But I felt no knife. When I opened my eyes, the sea witch was coiled around a rock, her head in her hands.
“Do I look different to you?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Is your magic failing?”
“Failing? No. It is stronger than ever.” She pulled a vial of black liquid from behind her ear. “This is what your last sister gave me. I have not used it. Do you know why?”
“So that you might save it, for a day of dry?” Gran said, beside me. I did not notice her come in, did not hear her following me. “You were always practical, my sister.”
Cold crept through my veins. I did not know.
“We both know that isn’t true.” The witch held out the vial. “This is for you,” she said. “We are now even.” She came closer. Gran backed away. “I forgive you,” the witch said.
Gran shook her head. “There is no need.”
“What is this about?” I asked.
“I didn’t ask for your forgiveness,” said Gran. “And what you have done to our family does not compare.”
“I saved you.” The sea witch’s voice cracked. “I gave my beauty to buy your life.” The sea witch turned to me. “Your Gran was ill. We were just girls. I made a deal, like your sisters, only the old witch was not as fair as I. To save your grandmother’s life, the old witch demanded I not only shed my youth, but that I take her place in this dark cave.”
“And what else?” said Gran. “What else did you give for one life?”
The witch looked away. “It had to be done. You were all that I had.”
“Our souls. The souls of every mermaid. Were so many souls worth one life? Because it seems to me that she swindled you like a fool. And once I had my life, what did you want me to do with it but remain in your cave and keep you company? I couldn’t squander the life that was paid for in so much loss. But you thought I owed you this. You thought I owed you my life.” Gran’s voice shook the cave walls. The eels flashed in the deep dark like frightened thunderbolts.
“You should go, Elin,” Gran said. “You are free of your sisters.”
“But you could have stopped her,” I said. “Did you even come to plead for them?”
“You do not understand the will of evil,” Gran said. “There is no place for pleading, for reason.”
“I wanted you to come back to me,” said the sea witch. “It’s all I ever wanted.”
Gran placed her hand upon my shoulder. “I wanted more than that.”
The witch turned, but I glimpsed her face before she did; bubbles drifted from her eyes.
“I want my sisters back,” I said.
“It’s impossible,” said the witch.
“Our souls, then. Give our souls back, so I can see them after life,” I said. “I’ll trade anything.”
The sea witch yanked a knife from the dark. “What do I want most of all?” she said. “What could I possibly ask for?” She sprang forward, slashing at Gran’s fin.
“You won’t.” Gran surged backwards. “You could never.”
I closed my eyes. I closed my eyes.
“Stay with me,” said the sea witch, “forever.”
I thought of death and sisters and love, and love, and love. “Take me,” I said. “I will be the sister you lost. Take me instead.” The sea witch stopped, knife poised to cut. She nodded. And as I doubled over, my fin splitting into eight searing wounds, tears sprang to my eyes and flowed with the water of ancestors, the water of my future, the water of souls.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in over over fifty magazines and anthologies both literary and speculative including The Toast, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Hobart, and Everyman’s Library’s Monster Verse. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program and created and curates the annual Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas. She is active on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle and can be visited at her website http://www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.