The Sea Hag
Melissa Lee Shaw
I felt the currents move to the rhythm of her tail long before she arrived. She was the loveliest of his daughters, and the most contemplative -- as contemplative as vain creatures like mermaids can be. While her sisters asked me for creams for their milky skin, or polish for their lovely blue-green scales, or a lure to catch the most delectable fish, Coral had never come to me before. I thought perhaps she simply hated me more than the others did.
She swept into my prison -- what he calls my "fortress," the broken carcass of a galleon in a deep ocean trench. Luminescent jellyfish floated nearby, trapped by my spells to light my work. I kept each only for a short time, releasing them before they wilted and died.
Coral must have thought I would not hear the mumbled incantation he told them would protect them. But the currents brought me her whispers. Huddled over my cauldron, clad in barnacles and eelskins and loops of kelp, I kept my back stiff as a long iron nail while the soft words flayed my ears.
From balmy rollers to storm-tossed seas,
From tropical bath to arctic freeze,
From tidal waves to gentle swells...
Keep me safe from the Sea Hag's spells.
She cleared her throat.
I did not turn around. Age had not been kind to me. He had seen to that, with his stolen spells. My hair, once long and lush, had grown thin and ropy and gray as driftwood. My body was a jumble of sticks wrapped in rags of skin. I feared I would crumble like rotten wood if I looked in her eyes and saw her disgust.
She came around the side of the cauldron I was stirring, where I could not help but see her from the corner of my eye. "My father says you have power," she said, twining a lock of lustrous brown hair around one finger. Like her sisters before her, she tried to appear nonchalant.
"Oh?" Is that all he says? My mouth, like the thought, tasted bitter as bile.
"He says you can... transform things," she went on, a little more doggedly.
Going to change one of your sisters into a parrot-fish? I wondered. Did she steal your favorite whalebone comb? With a piece of the galleon's smallest mast, I stirred the cauldron, a heavy cast-iron thing I'd found in the broken ship's galley. My spells heated it and kept its contents from commingling with the water. They also kept it from rusting.
"You'll have to be more specific," I said, holding a ball of ice in my belly so the words would come out cold and dangerous. I did not like the flush on her face, the way she tapped restlessly at her arms. It was too familiar.
She glanced to the side and pursed her lips. "It was during a storm two days ago. He stood on a ship, and the sun sparkled in his black hair. His eyes were bluer than a tropical sea, his bare arms were a perfect golden brown -- and the way he stood there, those amazing feet perfectly balanced against the swaying of the ship -- it was as if he was attuned to the ocean's heartbeat. I... I cannot tell you how it moved me."
I understood in a flash. My hands gripped the cauldron's edge; the pain helped me hold on to my resolve.
"A storm shattered his ship -- but instead of hopping into the lifeboat, he leaped overboard after a crewmate. He tried so valiantly, but the storm was too much for both of them. He started to drown. I... my father says we are not to interfere, but he was so brave, and it took so little from me. I pushed his face into the air and dragged him to the beach. I couldn't warm him -- his blood is so hot compared to mine -- and so I made three sea lions drape themselves around him and warm him with their fur. I lay near his head, though, and stroked his salt-crusted hair -- and I shaded his face from the blistering sun all that day. He never woke."
Her voice warmed as she spoke. I tried to keep my spine frozen against her, but each word was like a gout of lava. I knew that I could refuse her nothing, and I hated myself in that moment.
She went on. "That night, under the light of half a moon, his eyes opened. The sea lions were grumbling that they were hungry, they wanted to hunt, but I held them fast. And he saw me in the moonlight, perched above his head. He reached up and touched my face, and he murmured something I could not hear. But his voice was music. I am not much of a singer myself, but I know music when I hear it -- and without even holding a pitch, the timbre of his voice thrilled through me like the sweetest, saddest song.
"The next day --"
"Enough," I snapped. "What is it you want from me?"
"Three men chased away my sea lions and carried my sailor up the beach. I have to see what happened to him," Coral said, a little breathlessly. "I have to know he's all right. I... I must have him. He's all I think about. He needs me."
"And what am I supposed to do about this?" I braced myself for what was coming: a spell to lure him back to the water, and then another to pull him into the ocean, to give him gills and fins and a mermaid's immortality.
"I must become a landswoman," Coral said. "I want to spend my life with him, in his world."
A cold shock burned through me like a jellyfish's stinging venom. I stared at her. Never had one of her sisters asked for such a thing.
"Will you help me?" she asked, her eyes wide and anxious now, all pretense gone. I could deny her nothing.
"No," I said. The word amazed me.
"But you must! You don't understand! The men who took my sailor -- they may have hurt him. He may be a prisoner now."
"I'll do anything. I'll give you anything. Do you want my hair? I've been told it's lovely." She held a long lock out to me. It was a light, luminous brown, like wood with sunlight shining on it. "It's yours."
"No," I said. "Nothing you have could make me do this thing. Go home to your father, to your sisters. Forget about this landsman. He is only a passing fancy."
She opened her mouth to object. Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes.
I held up a hand. "You're vain creatures, all of you, you mermaids. And fickle. You will soon find something else that tickles your thoughts. Go sing with the humpbacks, or hunt with the barracuda. Don't bother me with childish requests."
"It is true what he says," she whispered. "You have no heart. You have no idea what love is."
My mouth opened, but no words came out. I could not stand to look at her eyes, at the condemnation and the indifferent pity.
She turned to leave.
A word welled up from the pit of my stomach, trailing acid. "Coral...."
She swiveled toward me, her face cold and hard as the moon. "How do you know my name?"
"I know all your names," I said. "Yours and your sisters'." And before she read too much into that, I hastened to add, "I know all that goes on in the sea for hundreds of miles, in all directions. There's a reason your father sent you to me."
She looked down. "My father did not send me here. He has spoken of your power, of your... bargaining wiles. But he wouldn't have wanted me to come, not for this. When I mentioned my sailor to him, he flew into a rage."
"Coral, what you ask is no trifling spell. You can never be a landswoman, not really. You could assume the outer form of one, but --"
"Then you'll help me!"
And I would have died happy, right then, at the joy in her face, the excitement sparkling in her eyes. "I will tell you what is possible," I said, "then you must decide for yourself."
"Go on." Her air was supremely confident.
"First, you must gather some things for me. A starfish, a man-o'-war jellyfish, a seagull, and a chunk of coral the size of your fist."
"What will you do with them?"
"Kill them. Any spell of transformation involves a certain amount of death."
Her eyes widened; mermaids love starfish and seabirds, the former to wear like jewelry, the latter to watch wheel and dip in the sky. "What else?"
"I will concoct three potent brews for you. You must beach yourself at sunset, somewhere the landsmen won't find you till morning. Smear the first brew down the very center of your tail, where it will burn into your flesh until it cuts your tail in two. Then drink the second brew, which will cut your innards like knives sharp as eels' teeth. And when the first brew has finished its work, you must pour the third brew over every inch of your split tail. It will smooth away your scales and give your legs the appearance of human skin and feet."
Her eyes narrowed. "Only the appearance?"
I nodded. "You will have no bones in your legs. They'll be useless; you won't even be able to stand. The second potion will start nubs of bones growing down from your hips, but it will take months for the bones to reach your feet."
"I won't be able to walk? How am I to find him if I can't walk?"
I shrugged. "It is a fool's path. For that matter, there is no guarantee your sailor will even recognize you, much less fall in love with you."
"He will recognize me. And as for love -- he loves me already, as I love him. You don't know the magic of that night, under the moon. The caress of his hand on my cheek was love so profound it could never fade."
"You don't know anything about the land! You don't know how to dress, how to behave -- and if you do this thing, you will never be able to return to the sea. You will be trapped on the land, forever. And so if -- if -- something goes wrong with your sailor, you will be stranded. Alone. Permanently."
"You can't scare me," she said defiantly. "I won't be denied."
The words stung, so much like her father's. In desperation, I turned to lies. "It will kill you. Three days after you use the potions, you'll be dead."
She paled, but drew herself up like a princess. "Then I'll die. I will live a lifetime with him in those three days."
"Is there anything else I need to bring you? Besides the starfish, man-o'-war, seagull, and coral?"
I slumped. "No."
She licked her lips slowly, covering her face with a blank expression. "And what price do you ask for these potions?"
The price? I thought. My heart. "You will lose everything," I whispered. "Your father, your sisters, your tail, your starfish, your sea lions. And, in becoming a landswoman, you will relinquish your immortality." Those were all things that would happen anyway, though. A price, something that I could keep and cherish.... Something drastic that might change her mind. "Your voice."
"My voice?" She was startled; her voice was nowhere near as lovely as her sisters'. I had watched them for years with my scrying glass; I had seen them laugh when she tried to sing.
"I will take that as my fee. Consider carefully what this will mean. You'll be a mute cripple, in a completely alien world, and you will only have three days to live. Is that what you really want?"
She lifted her chin and said, "I will return with the things you asked for by tonight."
* * * * *
It took very little time, really. She returned with everything but the seagull, then shot up to the surface and returned a few minutes later with a struggling, drowning bird. I took it from her and wrung its neck; there was no need for it to suffer.
She could not watch me tear the seagull apart and pull out its bones, nor could she bear to see me pull the tentacles off the jellyfish, one by one, and squeeze the venom from their stingers into my cauldron. And I saw her wince when I cracked open the starfish.
When the potions were ready, I picked up a battered old music box I had found in one of the rooms of my sunken galleon. "The price," I said ominously, rattling the box. It wasn't too late for her to change her mind.
She kept her mouth very tight. "What do I need to do?"
"Touch this to your lips."
She took the box from me and looked at it for a moment. Then, eyes on me, she set her lips against it.
I put my hand on the music box and chanted an incantation, then took the box. Her voice belonged to me.
"Take these," I said, handing her three stoppered jars. "This green one is the first. This brown one is the second. And this clear glass one is the third. Do you remember what you are to do?"
"Do you have any questions?"
A dozen lit her eyes, but she touched a hand to her silenced lips.
"You can still whisper," I said impatiently. "I only have your voice, not your teeth and lips and tongue."
Relief flooded her face. "Thank you," she whispered.
"For not taking everything."
My throat felt like it was filled with sand. "When you are done with the jars, toss them into the sea so they can find their way back to me."
"Because I require it." Because I cannot afford to lose what little I still have.
* * * * *
I watched through my scrying glass as Coral crawled up onto the beach at sundown, the three jars clutched tightly in her arms. She took a deep breath, then unstoppered the green jar and poured its thick liquid down the exact center of her tail. Her face clenched with pain. Smoke rose from the blackened line that marked where her legs would divide.
Then she drank down the contents of the brown jar and doubled over in agony. Hours passed while she hunched and gasped -- my own gut wrenched in sympathy -- but not once did she try to crawl back toward the sea. Finally her tail was seared into two long pieces that flopped around on the sand. She smoothed the thick unguent in the glass jar over both halves. It cooled the burning in her tail; relief lit her eyes. From where she lay, a few feet up the shore, she rolled the jars back into the water.
The next morning, her new body was complete. Her long brown hair stretched down to her new knees, covering all the areas human decency demanded. Before noon, a troupe of fishermen spotted her while she slept. In great excitement, they ran up to her and prodded her awake. They tried to help her stand, but of course, her boneless legs would not take her weight. So they carried her, talking to each other in a lively chatter, up and over the sand dune that separated beach from fishing village.
It was done. I lifted the music box and opened its lid. Her pure sweet voice hummed at me, its tone without malice or suspicion.
I closed my eyes and listened to my daughter sing.
* * * * *
They came to me the next day, their eyes filled with accusation and dread.
I had spent the morning staring into my largest scrying-glass, one I'd made from a silver-backed mirror. I watched Coral in that fishing village, a small, dirty town. She wore a patched green dress and sat in a chair, a gray woolen blanket tucked over her legs and another wrapped round her shoulders. Her hair had been brushed and coiled into a large bun, but strands of it rebelled and struggled free to frame her lovely face. Surrounded as she was by fishwives with raw faces and salt-chapped hands, she shone like a pearl among lumps of sand.
Her eyes fluttered back and forth, evidence of her distraction. Women and a few men gathered close by to stroke her hair or pat her shoulder, like she was a fool or an invalid. She looked up, her face like a child's, and tugged the sleeve of a woman who gently rested a reddened, scaly hand on her shoulder. The woman bent close and listened to her whispers, then smiled and shook her head.
"My poor dear, I am so sorry," the fishwife said. "I've told you, he's gone to the palace. He's royalty, you know. You're not the only girl to swoon for him. That won't bring him back."
Coral pulled her down again and whispered.
"Yes, of course, you poor moppet, we've sent word to the palace. It takes time, that's all. It's half a day's hard ride each way. He won't come before nightfall, if he's coming at all."
Poor Coral looked exhausted. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes luminous and moist.
The currents whispered to me that someone was coming. No, not just someone, a whole swarm of someones. I tore my eyes from my glass in time to see them descend upon me, scales flashing, eyes bright, arms long and slender, tails graceful: Foam, eldest and most severe, with her white hair and ice-blue eyes; Pearl, second-born, vain as a cat, with shimmering eyes and tresses green as kelp; Sand, our bubbling child, full of mischief, hair of sunlight gold; Anemone, quieter and sometimes as sullen as her father, with a flashing temper and red locks; and Storm, penultimate daughter, given to fits of fury, hair black as the nighttime sky, eyes bright as stars.
Their soft chant came to me:
From balmy rollers to storm-tossed seas,
From tropical bath to arctic freeze,
From tidal waves to gentle swells...
Keep us safe from the Sea Hag's spells.
Foam pushed forward. "Coral is missing. The last time we saw her, she was swimming up toward the beach, with three of your jars clutched in her arms. What have you done?"
It was nearly more than my heart could stand. I said, "She came to me with a request, as all of you have done."
"What request?" Foam demanded.
"Coral has fallen in love with a landsman. She asked me to transform her to a landswoman. I told her she shouldn't, but she wouldn't listen to me. None of you ever has."
Foam glared at me. "You didn't have to do it! Just because she asked...."
"She is as vain as the rest of you! More vain, perhaps. You come here when you want something from me, when he sends you to me. What do you want this time? More creams to polish your scales? More perfumes and lotions to smooth your skin?"
With a glance at the others, Foam said, "We want you to change her back."
"We will give you anything you ask. Please."
"You don't understand," I said frostily. "I would do it, if I could. I can't. It isn't possible."
Foam stared at me. "Why not?"
Suddenly, the iceberg of my heart cracked and shattered into a million melting fragments. "Why not?" I cried. "You stupid, thoughtless creatures! What has he told you of me?"
The gathered mermaids rustled uneasily. Storm and Pearl glanced up.
"You are the Sea Hag," Foam said cautiously, selecting her words with care. "You have existed since time began. While he is a force of life, of good, you are a force... of death."
She nodded, eyes locked on me. She believed what she said.
"And what has he told you of your mother?"
With a startled frown, Foam said, "I don't..."
"Has he told you that you, unlike every other creature in the world, have no mother? That he created you whole and perfect from his own body? What has he told you?"
Fear lit Foam's eyes. "Our mother is dead. She died when Coral was born."
Pearl piped up, "But he told me she was beached during a terrible storm. He scoured the oceans to find her, but he was too late. She died on the land, from the burning sun."
Defiantly, Anemone said, "No. She vanished one day, that's all. She could return."
I pushed the rage back down inside, away from my throat, so my words would come out calm. I had to pick my way carefully; they knew nothing but his word. "He has filled your heads with stories. Now I will tell you a story."
The mermaids all exchanged a look of trepidation. At last, at long last, I had them arranged in front of me, attentive, listening.
"Once, the Spirit of the Sea roamed the water freely, playing with the sharks, riding the bow waves of ships with the dolphins, watching the landsfolk fish and laugh and love. She hadn't a care in the world, until one day, she chanced to spy a man fishing in the shallows near a village. She could take two forms: that of an enormous fish, and that of a woman. So enraptured was she by this man, with his low, crooning songs and the clean lines of his muscles as he cast his nets, that she transformed into a woman and crept closer.
"He saw her crouched underwater and was afraid. But curiosity soon overcame fear, and he beckoned her closer. 'I have never seen anything like you,' he said.
"The glint in his eye made her uneasy, but his face was handsome and lively, and she was lonely for someone to talk to.
"'I am the Spirit of the Sea,' she said. 'I command the waters and all things that live in them.'
"His eyes grew greedy, but she mistook it for desire. 'You command the fish?' he asked. 'And the porpoises, and the stinging anemones?'
"'And everything else,' she said.
"He flashed a dazzling smile and murmured, 'And do you command me, because I am standing in the water?'
"'No. You are not of the water. You command yourself.'
"'And if I were to command you to come here and kiss me?' he asked.
"'No man can command me,' she said, but she swam forward into his arms and laid her cold lips against his.
"He shrank back from her chilly embrace, but only for an instant, and then he returned it with all the fire of the sun. 'I have never seen any woman so beautiful,' he said, though he would not meet her eyes. 'I wish I could see your world, learn what you know. The ocean is enchanting -- but not so enchanting as you.'
"'I have cast no spells,' she said, puzzled.
"'You have bespelled my heart,' he said, scooping her up into his arms. 'I am yours. I want to be with you forever. And I will not rest until I hear you tell me that you love me, as I love you. I will not be denied.'
"The Spirit of the Sea knew nothing of trickery; no creature in her dominion had ever tried to deceive her. She made him a powerful potion of transformation, to give him the gills and tail of a fish. After he drank it, he dove into the water and said, 'Now I will always be by your side.'
"It seemed odd that he was so intent on learning her spells and magicks, but she loved him with a clear heart and was sure his love for her was as true, so she lent him more and more of her power. The more he learned, the more distracted he seemed, and the more distant. In an effort to regain his attention, she showed him ever more astounding spells, including, finally, the spells of transformation.
"After a few months, he told her that he was growing lonely for more companionship. He wanted a family, creatures brought to life by his union with her. While she didn't understand, she loved the earnestness in his face as he begged her for children. When she agreed, he told her that he wanted not just any children, but beautiful girls with fishtails, so they would know they were his. And she, the Spirit of the Sea, could deny him nothing."
The mermaids' lips tightened. They exchanged angry glances, but I bore on.
"She brought them into life from her own body, one by one, spaced a few months apart. To her surprise, she loved them deeply, fiercely, within moments of their birth. The moment the sixth was born, he smiled and nodded and told her that he loved her, and now he was happy. And to show her how grateful he was, he had a surprise for her. He led her to a deep ocean trench that held the wreckage of a huge galleon. Fascinated, she swam down into the remains.
"He chanted a few words and sprung his trap. 'You stupid creature!' he crowed. 'You'd better get used to that broken old ship, because it will be your home forever. Now I am the King of the Sea. I am rich beyond measure! And you ‑‑" he pointed down at her, and she felt her body clutch and spasm "-- you are a hag, an old Sea Hag! You have always been ugly, with your fish lips and your webbed hands. Now your body will reflect your spirit, your true soul.'
"Her body contorted and shriveled, and her hair turned gray and ragged. She tried to become a fish, to swim away, but her form was frozen. Trapped by his spell, she could not regain the power he had stolen, nor could she prevent him from drawing more at his whim. 'But my daughters!' she wailed. 'What about my daughters? I must see them!' She had never even held the youngest, her newborn infant, to her breast.
"'They are my daughters, not yours. If you sit here quietly, I'll send them to you now and then. You can do little favors for them. But if you ever tell them that you are their mother, or try to escape, you will never see them again. If you think you suffer now, betray me and you will know suffering a thousand times worse. They belong to me, my mermaids.'"
The mermaids stared at me in shock and disbelief.
"You're lying," Foam hissed. "We should have known you would never help us."
I stared at her, my firstborn. Her hair was white as wavecaps. I remembered tangling it in my fingers when she was an infant. "I have never denied any of you anything," I said. "All this time, you gave me only your suspicion and your disgust, your caution and your fear. And I gave you everything you asked for." I could feel cold, gelid tears slide down my face. "You are my daughters," I said, spreading my arms wide to encompass all of them. "Mine and his. Did you never wonder why there were no other creatures like you in the whole of the sea? Why you looked part human, and part fish? You are a blending of two worlds."
Foam stared at me, gathering her thoughts, calculating. Her father stared at me through her eyes. "We are not here to discuss our parentage," she said, maintaining an even voice with an effort. "We are here for Coral. You haven't explained why you can't change her back."
"She is out of my reach," I whispered. "I am trapped here."
"By your father. There is only one way to break the spell."
Foam, watching me with her canny eyes, asked, "And what is that?"
I could hardly form the words. "You must break it." The tears crawled down my throat and tried to stop my voice. "You must join hands and form a circle around me. With one voice, you must say, 'You are our beloved mother.'"
The blood trembled in my veins. He had laughed at me, on that day long ago, and told me that when he got through with his mermaids, not one would ever feel more than cold disgust for me. Not one.
They exchanged dark looks, some angry, some puzzled, some merely suspicious. But then Foam sighed and said, "It's clearly the only way she'll help us. What can it really cost?"
The others mumbled their protests, but they formed a circle around me and clasped hands. "You are our beloved mother," they said, their eyes impatient.
"Nothing happened," said Foam.
"I have rarely heard words spoken with such malice and disbelief," I said. "You must find a kernel of love in your hearts. Remember the trinkets I have given you. Remember the spells I have cast for you. Then try again."
Their faces softened, and they looked puzzled. The doubt creeping into their eyes gladdened me.
Once again, Foam led them. "You are our beloved mother."
Still, nothing happened.
"Foam, come here," I said.
Foam detached herself from the circle and approached slowly.
I took her hands in my old, wrinkled ones. She shrank back. "You were almost two when Coral was born. When you were an infant, I used to hold you tight against me and sing to you. You played with my hair while you suckled. I sang:
From balmy rollers to storm-tossed seas,
From tropical bath to arctic freeze,
The sea protect you with this charm:
Keep my baby safe from harm."
Foam's mouth opened in a perfect circle that matched her widened eyes.
"You remember, don't you?" I asked.
She nodded. "The song -- I remember the song." Her sisters stared at her in shock.
Softly, I said, "Join with your sisters and try again."
Tears slipped down Foam's cheeks and dissipated into the water. Trembling, she took her place. "Mother," she whispered.
Then, together, all of them. "You are our beloved mother."
The water around us quaked and shook. My heart swelled to hear them, and then I realized my body swelled too, filling out its wrinkles with smooth skin, straightening my spine. The ropes of my hair transformed to soft shining locks green as moss. The bonds that held me in my prison melted away, like ice under the hot sun, and my power, stolen for so many years, flowed back into me.
I was free.
"He will be very angry," I said. "But he has no power without mine, and he cannot harm you any longer. Now, we must see about Coral. There are things I will need -- a seagull, a strand of kelp, a bag of coins, a young eel --"
"Wait a minute," Foam said. "Coral wasn't here. You said it would take all your daughters. But it still worked."
My heart squeezed. "It would only have taken one of you to break the spell," I admitted. "But I'd waited so long. I needed to hear it from all of you. For myself."
* * * * *
I counseled my daughters to flee to the far reaches of the ocean and hide from their father until I returned and had time to deal with him. With his magic gone, I did not know why I should fear his rage, and yet I worried that he might try to harm the mermaids for betraying him. But they insisted on staying in my old prison, the ship, so they could watch Coral, and me, through my scrying glasses. I warned them also to watch for their father, just in case. He would soon notice his missing power.
"I won't be long," I said. "I know where she is." I gathered up the new potions I had made for Coral and a few other things into a package wrapped in seaweed.
I transformed into a fish, held my supplies in my mouth, and swam for the surface, feeling the delicious power of my muscular tail. I wanted to swim the whole ocean round and glory in it, but I had to move quickly, before he found out and tried to interfere.
With a last flick of my tail, I shot up onto the beach. Before I touched the sand, I transformed to my human shape and opened my seaweed package. I laid loops of kelp over my shoulders and chanted them into a lovely green velvet dress. My hair turned from moss green to black, and my skin lost its greenish hue and became rosy as any human girl's. Shoes I conjured from white gull feathers scattered on the beach.
I rewrapped the rest of the package in seaweed, and changed the seaweed to a canvas sack.
It was near sundown, but the village was only a ten-minute walk from the beach. I marched in and found the small marketplace, with only half a dozen stalls. Fish, fowl, and vegetables crowded the tables. Sacks of grain lay in neat piles.
I went to a vegetable vendor and said, "There was a cripple brought here yesterday, a young girl. Where is she?"
The fat old woman rubbed her chin. "Lady like you," she said, "could appreciate this fine exotic squash. Melt in your mouth." She lifted a stunted yellow-green vegetable. "For you, a special price."
My time with him had inured me to manipulation -- but I understood that a purchase was the price of information, so I bought the squash. "Now, the cripple? She could only speak in whispers. Do you know where I can find her?"
With a jerk and jiggle of her doubled chin, the vendor said, "The tavern there. She's been sleeping in the back, waiting for her handsome prince to whisk her away to a palace, where she will dine on pheasant and truffles, and sleep on satin sheets. You ask me, she'll be waiting a long, long time."
I tossed a small coin her way and headed for the tavern.
Inside, men gathered in small murmuring groups at tables. I walked up to the kitchen door and rapped on it. "Who runs this place?"
An old, white-haired man with a thousand creases in his face poked his head through the door. "Who's asking?"
"I'm looking for a young girl, a cripple who was found on the beach yesterday. I must speak with her. Is she still here?"
He snorted. "Nowhere else. Come back and speak with her, if you like. Take her somewhere else to stay. Won't break my heart, and her eating all my food and paying nothing."
I pushed through the door and followed him to a small storeroom in the back. He rapped on the doorframe. "Coral? Coral, love, you awake?" His gruff voice softened. "Someone here to see you." He motioned me in. Sacks of flour and barrels of ale lined the walls.
With delirious expectation, Coral gazed up from a chair, hands on the chair's arms, pushing herself half up out of it. When she saw me, though, she deflated and fell back into the chair. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I was waiting for someone else."
"I know, Coral," I said. She looked so haggard and sad. I could see that she had been crying.
"Did he send you?" she asked.
"No, he didn't send me." I moved inside, shut the door, and lowered my voice. "I was sent here by your sisters, to try to persuade you to return to the sea."
Her eyes grew huge. "Who are you?"
I didn't want to say the words, but they were the only ones she would recognize. "I am the Sea Hag."
"But you -- you can't be. My father said you couldn't leave your old sunken ship. And besides, you look..."
I unwrapped the canvas package under my arm and held it out to her.
It was the music box that held her voice.
I lifted the lid. Her own voice hummed a lullaby.
Her eyes filled; in annoyance, she wiped at them with the back of her hand. "I won't go! You can't make me --"
I held my hand out in a pacifying gesture. "Your sisters want you home again. They miss you." I looked around the dingy storeroom. It smelled musky, like rats. "He hasn't come yet, has he?"
She shook her head, glaring at me. "Not yet, but he will. I'm sure he will. And I will wait for him. Even if I die here, I will wait for him."
I remembered that she believed she would die after three days on the land. "You won't die tomorrow. I only said that to stop you from leaving. You'll live a natural lifespan for a human girl, if you stay -- but if you return to the sea with me, you'll live forever. What if he can't come? What if he doesn't know where to find you, or if --" I swallowed "-- if he's already married? Love is not the only force that shapes human destiny."
"What do you care?" she snarled. "Just go away, leave me alone! He'll come! You're just trying to fill my head with doubts."
"I'm only trying to help."
"If you want to help me, then find him and bring him here! I must speak to him now, today!"
"But I just told you, you won't die tomorrow..."
"But I will, inside. Tomorrow, he's to be married. To a princess. It turns out he's a prince, and this is where he was sailing all along. They're to marry, and then he'll bring her back to his mountain home, far from the ocean." She started crying. "I can't live without him."
How well I remembered that feeling. I knew, also, that nothing I could say would change her mind. I opened my mouth to tell her the truth, but I could not bring myself to add to her turmoil. "Coral, you must come home. The sea is where you belong."
"Not even if your sailor marries someone else?"
Her resolve started to crumble, but she shook her head.
The old man, the tavern proprietor, stuck his head in. "Coral! You won't believe it! It's the prince, your sailor! He's coming down the main street right now. He'll be here soon. Oh, Coral, you were right!"
I looked down at her, wasted little thing in that chair. Mute, crippled -- would he recognize her, or would he doubt his eyes? Was he a good man?
I left the tavern and looked down the street, watching the procession of riders and tired horses. At its head rode a handsome black-haired man on a lathered buckskin horse. His face was flushed with concern and hope. He turned to speak to someone riding near him. His bright, ringing laugh told me all I needed to know.
Hastening back to the storeroom, I pondered my choices.
Coral struggled to raise herself upright in the chair. She ran her fingers through her hair.
"This is no way for you to greet him," I said, pulling the stopper from one of my jars. "Give me your hand."
Warily, she allowed me to take her hand.
I pulled a wriggling young eel from the jar.
Coral's eyes widened. "What are you doing?"
"Do you truly love him? Are you sure you want to spend your life with him, on the land, weighted down like an ox, instead of swimming freely in the ocean with your sisters?"
Through her tears, she nodded. "Yes."
I bit through the eel's neck. Coral gasped. I rubbed the dead creature's blood where our hands joined, then pulled back her lap blanket and touched our bloodied hands to her legs.
"What are you --"
I smeared the eel's blood on my own legs and started chanting. The power in my voice lulled her and glazed her eyes in trance. There was so little time; he would be here within moments.
I pulled Coral up out of her chair and seated myself, drawing her into my lap. Her face was lax as an infant's. To hold her, finally -- I pressed my forehead to hers while I chanted. My legs began to burn and tremble, sagging beneath her slight weight.
Every transformation required a little death.
The last word of the spell rang out, and Coral came to herself with a start. She leaped from my lap.
"What --" she panted, reaching out a hand to steady herself. Then she realized she was upright, standing on her own two feet. The eel blood was gone. She stared down at her clean legs, touched them in amazement. When she looked at me again, she had no words.
I had so much more now than when first she'd come to me. My daughters -- most of them -- had returned to me. I came to a decision. "There is one more thing you will need," I said briskly, reaching for the music box. "Come here." I held the music box up and motioned to her mouth.
Staring at me, she pressed her lips against the music box. I closed my eyes and chanted, then put the empty box in my lap.
She touched a hand to her throat. "Can I..." she began, with full voice, and stopped because her question was answered.
"Have someone bring me down to the beach," I said, touching my useless legs. "And if it doesn't turn out as you expect, with him -- then come down to the beach yourself. I still have the potions."
From balmy rollers to storm-tossed seas. . .
"He and I will be together," she said softly. "Forever."
From tropical bath to arctic freeze. . .
I nodded; from her sailor's clean, joyful laugh, I believed they would.
The sea protect you with this charm. . .
Her eyes filled with questions. Mine filled with tears. I wanted so to tell her everything; I would never have another chance. But I held up my hand to forestall her.
Keep my baby safe from harm.
I heard excited voices out in the hallway. "Go to him," I said, my voice breaking with the weight of words unspoken. "He's waiting."