I didn’t take her voice for myself. I want to set the record straight on that, right up front. People got a lot of crazy notions in their heads, the way the story got around, and that was one of them.
I’m not saying I never did an evil deed—anyone who says they haven’t is lying through their teeth—but I didn’t take her voice for myself. I didn’t need it. I’ve got a perfectly fine voice, thank you, trained by whale divas, and it’s mine.
Seriously, you start stealing people’s voices and using them yourself and pretty soon you don’t know which voice is yours and which one’s an echo and then you’re mad and howling and people are standing around in caves during low tide asking where the screaming’s coming from and someone else is saying “Oh, it’s just some trick of the acoustics.”
Go ahead, laugh. That trick of the acoustics is my Great-Aunt Meryl and you don’t want to wait for high tide. I’ve seen her tear the head off an elephant seal. With her nails.
Best not to start down that channel at all, really.
No, I took her voice for two simple reasons—she was a twit and she was in love. I took one look at her and knew that she’d spill everything she knew in the pretty human boy’s ear, and then where would we be?
It doesn’t go so well when humans know about us, have you noticed? Ask one selkie if she’s feeling happier now that she spent a decade on shore with some jerk who stole her hide off the rocks. (Sure, some of them think it’ll be romantic—bull selkies aren’t anybody’s notion of charming, though they do have a certain over-muscled appeal—but it’s not so romantic when you’re spending your youth cooking and cleaning for an illiterate fisherman and bearing his brats through a pelvis that isn’t nearly so accommodating as it used to be.)
I’d say “ask a Stellar’s sea cow” but you can’t, because they’re all dead. And just try to find a sea mink. I was very fond of sea mink. They were inquisitive little devils and they made chirpy noises when you stroked them. I haven’t forgiven humans for the sea mink. Or the sea cows, for that matter.
Do not get me started on the great auk.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure that the minute somebody in a position of authority—like, oh, I don’t know, a prince—figures out that there’s a whole underwater civilization, we’re in the deep muck. It might start out civilized at first, but it won’t stay that way. Somebody’s bound to figure out that there’s a lot of very useful things in the ocean.
Rare things. Hidden things. Things of power.
You want to hide something from the prying hands of mortals, you drop it in the sea. It’s been going on for years. I’ve got things in my pantry that could unmake continents if you could find them and get them into the right hands. Or wrong hands, as the case may be.
And it doesn’t even have to be the magic rings and the enchanted swords and the world-breakers and the leftover ansible. Let the humans start mucking about with our people on a purely practical level and it still won’t end well.
Hell, they could keep sirens in cages on whaling ships to call the whales in–fish-speakers to drive the king-of-herring’s subjects into the nets–and you don’t even want to know what they’ll do for mineral rights. Gold’s the least of it. There’s a place down around the edge of the cape where you can find diamonds the size of an eel’s skull. Pray the humans never find out about it.
Plus, of course, there’s our women. No, not me. I’m not saying I’m not attractive, but at my age, I’m more interested in a good meal and a good nap. You find me a man who wants both those things, maybe with a conversation about the finer points of mantis shrimp breeding thrown in, then we’ll talk.
But you have two cultures breaking against each other, it’s the young women who are going to come out the losers. Any two cultures. Pick two. The tide goes in, the tide goes out. Somethings don’t change.
I’ve got nieces, you know.
So yes, I did take the little fool’s voice. Her prince wasn’t going to find about us on my watch.
(But Ursula, you say, she could just have written it all down! Taking her voice wouldn’t stop that! To which I say—did you ever meet her? It took her three tries to write her own name. Our contract was a verbal agreement because otherwise she’d still be reading it and the prince would be dead of old age.)
Anyway I gave her voice to an albatross, if you must know. She was tired of endless gliding, had ambitions to be an opera singer. I made her dream come true.
Made the poor fool of a mermaid’s dream come true too, for that matter. Gave her legs and brought her to the prince’s attention. That last was included free of charge and was never part of the original contract.
It’s not my fault the prince wasn’t much interested. I imagine you meet a lot of beautiful women when you’re a prince.
He wasn’t a bad sort, really. He was very polite. He could see she was a few grunions short of a run and he made sure they took good care of her.
Good thing he was a decent sort. The kind of prince who sees a beautiful girl staggering along the beach, half-naked, unable to talk, with a scarred throat (look, nobody can fix gill slits all the way, I did my best and I’d like to see you do better) moving like she’s drunk and falling down a lot—anyway, the kind of prince who sees a girl like that and says “Oh yeah, I gotta get me some of that!”?
Yeah, not a nice person. Probably bashes great auks over the head for fun. You don’t want to deal with a prince like that.
(And yes, I would have stopped him. I don’t like to see creatures suffer, even stupid young ones in love. Maybe especially stupid young ones in love. He wouldn’t have gotten very far. I’ve got some very interesting stuff in the pantry and the King of Gulls owes me a favor.)
It was a long time ago now. Not by my standards—I’m more or less immortal, just like Great-Aunt Meryl—but by hers. The prince became the king in due time, and he married a smart, good-natured young woman who came with a dowry and a very expedient political alliance.
But he didn’t forget the young woman on the beach. He was a good king. He took care of her. Even after he died, he made sure of it.
The girl who used to be a mermaid is old now. She walks on the beach—very slowly these days, for the stones are small and turn underfoot—and she picks her way carefully. They send a strapping young man to walk beside her, to make sure she doesn’t fall.
Sometimes she smiles up at that young man, the way she smiled up at her prince. I think perhaps she doesn’t remember the difference anymore.
That’s a happy ending if you like. I see them sometimes, the old woman and the young servant, looking out over the ocean. The tide comes in, the tide goes out.
Anyway. The story got around a bit differently. Stories always do. Turning your back on a story is like turning your back on the ocean. Everybody adding details, everybody adding lines that fall on the ear like music and never mind where the truth falls by the wayside.
Everybody wants a hero so they know who to cheer for.
That’s fine. I don’t expect cheering.
She doesn’t look unhappy when she walks along the shore. But perhaps some day that young man will look the other way—distracted by a pretty girl’s smile, say—and she’ll make her way down to the water.
And if she wants—and if she still remembers–she’ll be welcome back here. You can always reverse engineer a gill slit. Who knows, all those mortal years might have been enough to learn wisdom.
We’ll still be here, under the waves. Nothing much has changed.
The tide comes in, the tide goes out.
All the same in the end.
Author’s Note: This story first appeared on the blog at Red Wombat Studio, under the name Ursula Vernon. It is included in the Toad Words anthology.