The Mermaid’s Eldest Sister

by Keyan Bowes

“The Mermaid’s Eldest Sister” first appeared in Enchanted Conversation in June 2010.

Mermaid. Detail of a street lamp in Paris

Adel the Heir-Presumptive sat cross-legged in the damp sand, beneath the palm trees that edged the narrow beach. The sea already sparkled beneath the rising moon. He’d been delayed by the King his father, who demanded a rare progress report and then took the occasion to inform him that the Queen was again with child. Was he too late?

Then he saw the phosphorescent trail in the water. A few splashes, and his aunt was beaching herself in the shallow water. He braced himself, eager and afraid at the same time. Tonight, she would tell him his story. He was fifteen.

Her pale hair shone in the moonlight as she pulled out onto a rock in the shallows and arranged her tail neatly so it trailed into the water. Nine oysters clung to it, some kind of decoration. He moved as close as he could without getting soaked.

“Aunt Marina?” The message said to call her that, though it wasn’t her real name. Those they didn’t share.

“Nephew.” Her voice sounded affectionate like Rafa-mia’s had, not cold like his father’s. His father, a great King and already a legend, had little time for his wrong-born half-breed son with lanky hair and sandy skin. Adel, with none of his father’s commanding darkness, could not hope to fill his shoes. The Queen’s new child – if it survived – would be named the true heir.

Adel’s mother had died soon after his birth. His father had sent him away to the temple, to be raised by a priestess. That was Rafa-mia. Had it had not been for the way he was found, maybe he wouldn’t have been acknowledged at all. And had any of the Queen’s earlier children lived, he wouldn’t even be the Heir Presumptive.

Looking at his pale aunt, Adel wondered if it was indeed possible he was born of a woman half-fish.  “My mother?” he asked tentatively.

“My youngest sister,” Marina said, “and my favorite. Sweet. Pretty. Loving. Innocent.” She laughed, sadly. “Headstrong. Secretive. Naïve. And that’s what brought her to disaster. Somehow – let’s call her Perdita, your mother – believed one of our fables. She took it literally.”

Something about the way she said it made Adel shiver. “Aunt Marina,” he demanded. “What fable? How literally? What happened?”

His aunt swished her tail at his tone, flicking drops of water at him. He ducked and waited.

“It’s told that eons ago, your people and ours were one. Our folk chose the beauties of the sea and our three-century lives. Yours chose the dry world, and the limbs you walk on. But the oldest among you live only a hundred years. For that, you get immortal souls.”

She stared away over the sea. “Just a foolish fable. Perdita believed it.”

The tide was coming back in. Though he was getting wet, Adel didn’t want to move higher up the beach.

“Perdita disappeared one night, soon after she turned fifteen. Frantic, we looked everywhere for her. Then someone said they saw her visit the Sea-Witch.”

The legendary Sea-Witch. Adel shivered again.

“Yes. My four other sisters and I, we entered her fearsome cave. She spoke to us with our lost Perdita’s voice.” There was a trace of the terror Aunt Marina must have felt, and almost the sound of tears. She jerked her tail convulsively, and an oyster fell off into the water below.

“We confronted her and got the story. Perdita was determined to be human, the witch told us, she wanted legs and a soul. The sea-witch told her she could have legs, but the transformation would be agony. Like being stuck by a swordfish. And when she walked, her feet would hurt and bleed like walking on sharp corals. ‘I was trying to discourage her,’ the sea-witch said. ‘So is it true?’ I asked hoping they were only empty words. ‘Oh yes, it’s true,’ the witch said.”

Adel shuddered. He pictured a girl who looked like his aunt, facing a sea-witch who looked like the Queen, but with a shark’s teeth.

“And the soul, the sea-witch told her that she’d get that when a Prince loved her enough to wed her. If she’d bothered asking, we could have told her: Sea or land, Royalty marries for their kingdoms’ need, not for love. But Perdita already had a prince picked out in her heart, a half-drowned fellow she’d towed to this beach. Your father. She paid the sea-witch with her silver voice. Her voice! Her songs, her words, her reasons.”

Now Aunt Marina had tears in her eyes. “She could have asked us, nephew. We have our sources. We knew this kingdom. But none heard her voiceless screams or saw her leave. By the time we traced her, she, a princess with six oyster-shells, was a dancing-slave in her prince’s  palace. He loved her, but not the way she wanted. He loved her like a pet, a toy,  a concubine. After she’d saved his half-drowned life.”

Adel shifted uncomfortably. But he kept quiet, because he wanted his aunt to finish her tale.

“There was no going back. We tried to save my sister. The sea-witch said the only thing that would reverse the spell would be human blood, the prince’s human blood. We gave her a magic knife, but the stubborn fool threw it back.

“The prince’s marriage was arranged to a neighboring princess. On the wedding night, we swam in with the tide and waited for one last glimpse our sister. She came, she called to us, we embraced for the last time. In her arms there were two infants. She laid them on the beach and told us their names. Then, as the Prince said his marriage vows at midnight, and the celebratory drums sounded from the palace, our little Perdita collapsed onto the sand, leaving only sea-foam.”

They were both silent for a while.

“And the babies?” asked Adel. He’d never known there was more than one. He’d never known he wasn’t alone.

“The girl was born with a tail. Black eyes like yours, skin like yours, and a tail. She could breathe and live in our kingdom, and we took her. She is my beloved daughter. She wears the six oysters of a princess. I call her Sea-Foam in my sister’s memory.”

“But that’s not her real name,” said Adel.

“No,” said his aunt, smiling through her tears. “Nor is Adel the real name of her brother. You had legs, and we left you above the tide mark, wrapped in our sister’s cloak. In the sand we wrote in your own language, This is the Prince’s son. We waited offshore until dawn broke and a crowd gathered, and someone told the King. They came, a woman lifted you from the sand and took you away.”

Adel nodded. “Rafa-mia cared for me until she died. No one else did. They call me Adel Half-breed because I am fair. They call me Adel the Soulless.” He wondered when he’d learn his real name.

“We know,” Aunt Marina said. “We have our sources.”

“They whisper that my mother died a suicide, and cursed my father’s unborn heirs. Does my father know the true story?” he asked.

“No,” said Aunt Marina, and she almost spat out the words. “He believes the whispers.” Then she paused. “Children by slaves are seldom identified by their fathers, but at least he’s claimed you.”

“Yes,” said Adel rather bitterly. “But I do not claim him. The words in the sand forced him to acknowledge me. Can I meet my sister?”

His aunt seemed to expect that. “I’ll call her,” she said. “But she cannot stay.” She sang a low, pure note. A fiery line of phosphorescence appeared in the sea, and a girl splashed into the shallows. Adel ran down to the water. For the first time, he saw someone who looked like himself, though in a graceful feminine version, and with a tail.

“She resembles our Perdita,” said Aunt Marina. “Look. In her you will see the likeness of the mother you never knew, the mother you must avenge. Daughter, give him the dagger.”

His sister stretched out her hand, and he took the glittering thing. It had a long thin blade lit by blue sparkles like the moonlight on the waves. The haft was elaborately worked.

“Kill him,” his aunt continued. “His death is fifteen years overdue. You have only to touch him with it.”

The dagger fit perfectly in Adel’s hand, seeming almost to vibrate with energy.

“If you kill him before the Queen’s child is born, you will be king. Otherwise he will disown you. If this child lives.”

Adel looked up, startled. Something in her tone when she said, if this child lives made him wonder what she knew of the deaths of his half-siblings.

“This will get you the magic you need to change, to grow a tail. There is beauty under the sea that you cannot imagine, a glorious palace where you will be welcomed as kin.”

His sister splashed in the shallow water. “Don’t you want to learn your real name? And mine? And our mother’s?”

His real name. Kin that welcomed him, his mother’s people. For a minute, his heart yearned toward them, and he longed to dive into the sea. Then he squared his shoulders, drew back his arm, and flung the dagger far into the waves.

“My mother had more to lose than I, but still she did not fall to murder,” Adel said. “Nor will I. And this new child of my father’s will be under my protection so it comes to no harm.” He looked with longing at his aunt and his sister. “I would come with you if I could, but I will not do this thing.”

“It’s the sea-witch,” whispered Sea Foam. “It’s the price she demands for your tail.”

His aunt, who had dived at the moment he threw the knife, surfaced with it her hand. “Take it, nephew,” she said handing it back. “Don’t make your mother’s mistake.”

Adel thrust it into the sash around his waist. Then he watched, distracted, as the mermaids made their farewells and swam out to sea in trails of fire that vanished when they dived.

He drew the dagger from his sash. Mesmerized, he studied the shimmer of light on its blade. He felt as though the moon was looking on as he turned it this way and that. “Mother,” he said to the watching moon, “I am your true son. Even if I never know your name.”

He flung it in a graceful arc into the sea again, and turned from the beach with a firm step and an air of command.

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