by Natalie Mo
The sea witch had lied to her.
She had promised that by the third sunset, if the prince had not fallen in love with Ariela, she would turn into sea foam, returning to the ocean that birthed her. But when she cast herself in the sea, instead her borrowed legs had split into four, scales spreading across her skin like a disease. When Ariela touched the ocean floor, she had eight muscular tentacles the color of squid ink from waist down. Greenish scales armored her chest and arms. Her once beautiful hair drifted in the water like broken flower stems.
Ashamed, distraught, she fled to a distant ocean where she became the new sea witch. In a cave ringed by jagged coral reefs, she dealt spells to the lonely and desperate. A few years off your lifespan for a fertility charm. Treasured memories for curing your beloved. Borrowed legs for a voice. Ariela did not need these things, but it gave her pleasure to extract a toll anyway. In fact, the longer she lived, the darker her reputation grew and the more she realized that the sea witch had been playing a cruel trick on her. The spell she gave did not require vocal cords: Ariela had only gotten speech back after her mutation. The witch had stolen Ariela’s voice because she could, and because love always, always required a sacrifice. It was a pendulum out of balance, and Ariela delighted in teaching others this lesson.
One day, a plump mermaid showed up at her door. Freckles spattered her otherwise fair skin, coalescing in an ugly scrawl on her nose. Her hair was thick, tangled and catfish-brown.
Beauty, Ariela instantly surmised. But for courtesy’s sake, she asked what the little mermaid wanted.
“I want to help you,” she replied.
Ariela laughed. “Look at me, child. I am beyond help. You though… Men on land or sea would launch legions for a glimpse of your face after I’m through with you.”
“I’m happy the way I am.”
“No one is happy with the way they are.”
“I am.” She said it so simply.
Ariela bared the fangs that had spouted following the prince’s betrayal. “Why do you want to help?”
“Because what happened to you wasn’t fair. You can perform wonders. Why not use it to reverse the spell?”
“Do you think I haven’t tried?” It was the original reason she had devoted herself to the magical arts. But none of the tomes she consulted ever contained the answer. In time, she gave up and focused on bartering miracles instead of seeking one herself.
“Maybe you simply didn’t want to see.”
Books flew off their shelves and thumped in crooked spines before the mermaid. Lounging in a chair fused together by whale bones, Ariela waited as the girl browsed. Soon she held out a book open near to the end. Ariela was prepared to sneer at whatever she found, but then read it more carefully. It was a spell she had come across in her youth. Inexperienced andignorant, she had dismissed it and moved onto the next tome. But with her current abilities, it could maybe, just maybe, undo the curse.
“What do you want in payment for bringing this to my attention?” Ariela asked.
“Nothing. I just want to help.”
“I demand you take something in exchange. If not beauty, then riches to attract a man’s love, or fame to attract his eye.”
“I have no use for either, and I am not interested in men.”
“I just want to be kind.”
Ariela loomed over the girl, her tentacles snaking through the water like gathering storm clouds. “So be it. But if the spell backfires, I will take your heart in payment.”
The girl nodded. The bargain was struck.
The spell had to be cast on a new moon. An algae-green fire that spat sparks even underwater crackled under the cauldron that would hold the mixture. For three moons, the sea witch added lionfish whiskers, seahorse tails, speckled anemone, human ashes, and other various elements to the potion. It shifted from cobalt, to purple, to finally a pure obsidian black.
On the fourth new moon, the little mermaid suddenly inquired, “What was he like, the prince?”
Ariela stirred the pot. “Like all princes. Arrogant, finely dressed, possessing too high an opinion of his teeth.”
“But you loved him anyway.”
“I used to think that. But time is also distance. I only knew him for three days, after all. I loved the way he made me feel. Special, singular. To be desired is a heady drink, and I mistook it for love.”
“You were young.”
“I was foolish. That is no excuse.”
The mermaid shrugged. “You were young and foolish. Each lapse is a lesson. You do not have to punish yourself for it forever.”
A smile sliced across Ariela’s face. The silver knife she had used to split her tail in two had to be wielded by the user, and each step on land had felt as though the blade was shredding through her flesh again. “No, but I can punish you. The last ingredient – a drop of blood belonging to one who bestows upon the user unconditional love. There is no such thing as unconditional love. You should have chosen beauty, you arrogant little leech.”
Quicker than a sea snake, Ariela had the little mermaid pinned against a wall, one leg strangling her waist. Bubbles sped across the water. The luminous jellyfish lighting the cave bobbed erratically.
The girl seemed unperturbed by this turn of events. “Unconditional love exists.”
“Does it?” Ariela snarled and extended nails as long and sharp as heartbreak. “Parental love is the closest example, but even that is a social contract. When their hair whitens and their bones grow brittle, they expect their children to take care of them. It is a debt that recurs every generation.”
“What about the love one holds for one’s self?”
“That is narcissism, not love.”
“Narcissism to self-love is what infatuation is to romance. Self-love means valuing your own well-being and happiness as you would for someone you care about. You didn’t kill the prince.”
Ariela had taken that blade and thrown it into the ocean, then herself after it. She’d wanted him to be happy so badly. Even at the cost of her own life. He had gone on to have three children with the human woman he’d chosen, and a dozen bastards with women he’d chosen for a night.
She wondered if his wife had ever sat in front of a mirror and asked, “Am I not enough?” Or maybe she’d had her own petty revenge through affairs with foreign dignitaries. Ariela wondered which option she would have chosen if the prince had married her instead. She did not think the prince would have changed, regardless of the woman he married. The three short days they had spent on land he’d flirted outrageously with duchesses and barmaids alike. It had made her feel special, knowing she sat in his carriage, she received the daisies he’d charmed the shopkeeper into selling for a lower price.
But why? Why should my worth be appraised by him?
She could summon hurricanes on a whim. Her voice rivaled the songbirds in the blue above the sea. She could write, do sums, run a business (morbid as it was). She was enough. The prince had picked someone else, and that was fine. She did not need to be defined by his choices.
Nor her own. Ariela recognized the little mermaid then. It was herself, decades younger, before the transformation. Ariela knew what she had to do then. Breathing deep, she forgave herself. She forgave herself for being young and silly and believing someone could ever be her entire world. She forgave herself the years of doubt and confusion and self-loathing. She might not be able to forgive herself for the cruelty she’d inflicted on others that had sought her help just yet, but it would come with reflection and penance. It was a debt she was glad to bear.
The mermaid floated back down to the ground as Ariela loosened her hold and then pricked her own finger with a silver dagger. A greenish-grey drop slipped through the protective bubble shielding the cauldron. The potion sang a low soft note before shuddering into a clear blinding white.
Her younger self was already fading. She and Ariela stood on opposite ends of the cave, looking at each other. The little mermaid and the sea witch.
“The potion will grant you idealized beauty as well,” the little mermaid said before fading. Returning to wherever souls resided.
“I know,” the sea witch said to empty water. “But I do not need it.” She looked down at her reflection in the potion and smiled. “I’m happy the way I am.”