The Youngest Daughter
Land and sea, weakness and decline are great separators, but death is the great divorcer forever.
~ John Keats
Once upon a time, in a kingdom forgotten by history – a kingdom so peaceful that no one cared to report its histories – there lived a widowed king and his three daughters: Catherine, Marie, and Veronique.
The king, who was very wealthy but very bored, had little to do but appease his daughters. He gave them fine clothing, beautiful rooms, doting maids, shelves filled with big old tomes about Arthurian legends and history and daring novels.
The one rule that the king set, and that each girl obeyed, was that the wild, gray ocean-shore a few miles away never be swum in, looked at, or sailed upon. The king’s wife, as lovely a creature as ever there was, had drowned soon after Veronique’s birth, in a terrible shipwreck off the coast.
Since that day, the king had not looked at the sea again, and if anyone even mentioned it he would cease speaking for several sorrowful days.
As the girls approached adulthood, their wealthy and impractical father gave them wonderful news. At age 16, he said, each girl could have one thing – anything, any wish that they desired – to celebrate their maturity.
Catherine was first, and with a toss of her sun-drenched ringlets, she requested a golden carriage with six gray stallions, a handsome driver, and the finest harnesses in the kingdom.
Two years later, the king asked Marie what she wanted for her birthday. After a bit of deep thinking and blushing, she requested her mother’s wedding dress and crown – and, as soon as she received those sacred items, Catherine regretted her beloved carriage with its dashing driver and six proud horses.
Several years went by before it was Veronique’s turn, and the king was beginning to feel old age settling in. Without his wife the years had seen him grow increasingly lonely. His daughters became the axis on which his world turned. Catherine had her mother’s lips and hair; Marie had her rosy cheeks and pointed nose; Veronique had her beautiful, wide gray eyes. And it was Veronique who, unlike the other sisters, had pondered her gift for many years, wondering exactly how she was going to tell her father, and thinking out all the many ways she could say it.
In the end, though, she simply said, “I wish to go to the sea,” and there was nothing her father could do: he had made a promise, anything, anything at all … and Veronique’s wish was to visit the sea, the wide and glorious sea she had read so much about in books.
With a deep sigh and heavy eyes, the king nodded and watched as his youngest daughter ran the direction to the shore, her long black hair floating behind her like a veil. He went to his rooms and drank, hoping to sleep away his worry and wake up with his daughter home and safe. He soon fell into a dreamless slumber.
Veronique had never seen a body of water larger than a pond or large fountain. For all the luxuries she had been given, travel was not one of them. She had, in fact, rarely ventured out of the castle walls: and while those were wide, huge walls that stretched for miles, sometimes it could feel rather like a prison.
Veronique had read poems of the sea, fairy tales, and plays such as The Tempest – all of which enthralled her and awoke in her the desire to see water. She had read about mermaids and wanted to know if they existed. She had read about coral reefs and longed to wade about one. She had seen sketches of wild waves and sinking boats and felt drawn by the power of the ocean.
It took several hours, but Veronique was drawn by the sudden stillness in the air, interrupted only by a gentle lapping sound: the sound of waves pulling back, and then rushing forward ever so gently against the sand.
When she arrived at the shore, her intention was to look, sit for a time, and then return to her father. Perhaps she would be allowed to return, even. She took a seat on a rock, dipping her toes into the icy water, and in a matter of minutes she was no longer human: she belonged to the sea, she knew this with her whole heart – everything within her belonged to the water, and she never wanted to be anywhere else. The sea can do that to young girls with romantic imaginations; it can also do that to old men who long to fish or sail, or to young men with a fancy of being a pirate or navy soldier. The sea can pull, and draw, and call until it has you in its arms … and by the time you’re in them, there is little hope for returning.
Hours went by. Hours of sitting beneath a mild sun, with the water rushing against Veronique’s feet, calves, and thighs. Gulls soared above her, ships bobbed gently in the distance, and tiny fish caused little bubbles to burst at the shore’s edge.
It was not enough. Veronique needed to be inside the water, held by it, protected by it. She knew nothing of swimming, or that one must learn to swim, so imagine her surprise when she splashed into the water and came up with a noseful of water and a mouthful of salt! She coughed, sputtered, gasped for air – and then tried again. Let us not be so fanciful as to say she learned to swim that day: she did not. But, each day she woke very early, crept out of the castle, and returned to the sea, testing her limits a little more each time, until at last she had learned to float, and even to swim a bit.
The king knew nothing of these exploits. He had been so relieved when his youngest had returned home that first day, he could scarce contain his tears. If he had known that she was sneaking to the water almost every day, he might have locked the castle walls or given her a lecture. Catherine noticed the smell of salt on her sister’s skin, and Marie saw how those long black locks were turning dull and dry from the water. Neither sister said a word. They protected the secret and each, in their own gentle way, was envious of it.
Spring turned into summer, and summer left sun-bruises on Veronique’s shoulders and legs, and her skin was dry and cracked from the salt of the sea. She did not mind, and the king did not notice.
Now, none of this should have been particularly dangerous. Veronique had learned to swim, she knew not to go out on foggy or stormy days, and she never went out farther than the water was safe. It was the siren’s song that did it – that dangerous music that no mortal can resist.
“I want to be a mermaid,” Veronique whispered to the pretty women clustered around her rock, early one autumn morning. “I want to be a mermaid like you.”
These mermaids were a particular kind of mermaid: kind, soft, naïve. They listened to Veronique’s woes and desires, and they told her of life beneath the waves – how they could see the underside of boats, and they all had pet fish, and their hair never became dull from the salt. Everything was softer beneath the waves, they said, and everything was prettier.
The fact that Veronique found them at all was a feat in itself – she had the innocent, open heart of a child yet, despite her blooming adulthood, and when one has the mindset that anything is possible, quite frequently it is. And so she had met the mermaids. And, rather quickly, she decided she wanted to be one.
“What must I do?” she asked one evening. “I’m desperate. I’ll do anything.”
And so, the doubtful but helpful mermaids swam to the depths of the ocean to ask the Sea Crone for advice. This was a woman who had helped Circe, who had drawn many a sailor to a painful death – who had, in fact, summoned the waves that had killed Veronique’s mother. But Veronique knew nothing of that. She only knew that, if legend proved true, she would have to offer up a part of herself as payment, and then leave her life on shore behind forever.
The trouble was, no one had ever come to the Sea Crone asking to be a mermaid before. She had met with plenty of mermaids who desired to be human, but never had she seen a case such as this. And, with her calculating mind, she decided that this was most unusual and thus deserved a most unusual fee.
“Your father’s life,” the mermaids said as they came back to the shore. “Your father’s life, and she will grant you fins.”
Veronique had no idea what to do. It’s rational to think that she would have cried no, and ran as far from the sea as it is possible to run. But the desire was in her now, and she could only hear the stories of life underwater, of the hundreds of years she could live in that paradise.
“And if I say no?” She inquired, wondering at last how she could possibly agree.
“If you say no, you’ll become one of us – but in the state we are when we are dead.”
“I’ll be … dead?”
“You will turn into seafoam and give up your soul. You’ve already asked the Sea Crone’s aid. If you do not accept her help, you must suffer the consequences. It is your father’s life or yours, and you will lose your soul. Your father will not. ”
Veronique felt suddenly suffocated. She was mad with longing, half-crazed with the desire to become a mermaid … and yet, how could she be happy knowing her father’s life had been the price? Her lovable, peaceful, innocent father?
Walking home that night was terrible. With a knife in her hand, given to her by the Sea Crone, she snuck up to her father’s rooms to bury the blade into his heart. She knew what she needed, what she wanted, and she could not bear to lose her soul. Afterall, the mermaids had said sweetly, the king will keep his soul after death.
Veronique made her way to her sleeping father, watching him as he snored softly and lay huddled beneath his bedcovers.
After a while, she returned to the sea, where the mermaids waited with baited breath.
“Well?” they asked, on the edge of suspense.
Veronique healed up the knife, which dripped with warm, sticky blood and shimmered sweetly in the moonlight.
“We knew you would! We knew!”
The mermaids dashed beneath the waves, eager to tell the Sea Crone that her fee was paid and that Veronique should have her fins.
But Veronique was an innocent. She had not been able to kill her father. The blood that dripped from the dagger’s edge was her own, and she fell into the sea with a tranquil smile, hardly making a splash.
Her body lay at the shore’s edge, the water-beads on her skin twinkling in the moonlight. When the mermaids discovered her, they were aghast, and they were surprised, too – surprised that she had not yet turned into seafoam. The eldest of the mermaids went to the Sea Crone, who said,
“She had not yet paid my fee when the knife went into her heart. I had the power to kill her and take her soul, but she beat me to it. Pity.”
Veronique, out of purity and love, had been spared her soul. She stayed near her sisters often, but mostly she hovered invisibly at her father’s side, sending him rays of light and love to warm his lonely soul.
The king should have ceased to ever speak again. When he saw his daughter’s body half in the muddy shore, he should have had nightmares for the rest of his life – both of his wife and Veronique. Instead, he felt a loving calm wrap around him, and when he was most distraught, most lonely, most vulnerable, he would smell Veronique’s favorite perfume, or hear her soft giggle.
Veronique’s soul kept him calm, even happy sometimes, and she stayed with him until he died five years later of a stroke.
When his soul finally rose from his tired body, Veronique and her mother were there to catch it; together, the three went up to heaven, where a sea of clouds awaited them.
Stella Rothe is 26 and currently studying English and philosophy in Rochester, Michigan. Her photography and writing has most recently been published in Ceremony, Pink Panther Magazine, Nain Rouge, and BAC Street Journal.