Most people first encounter mermaids through the eponymous Disney classic, The Little Mermaid. We feel for Ariel’s fascination with the human world, we cheer for her as she goes after her dreams, we cry for her as her doom becomes certain, and we smile as the happy ending comes true.
In Mermaid, Carolyn Turgeon takes the familiar tale and brings it back to its roots as a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, happy endings not included. The Princess Margrethe encounters mermaid Lenia and the prince she saves, and neither of their lives are ever the same again. Turgeon’s descriptive writing style brings life to the passage below, searing it with emotion and life.
How was she to know that this would be the most singular moment of her life? How can any of us tell when that thing comes that will make everything different? It seemed, to Margrethe, a moment like any other: waiting to return to her father’s castle, looking over the gloomy sea, waiting for private prayer to be over and the convent workday to start. Strangely, she found herself looking forward to the hours she’d spend weaving that afternoon, listening to the clacking of the looms, the hum of the spinning wheels nearby, the voice of one of the sisters reading scripture moving over them. At first she’d hated the dull hours of work, but lately she’d found a certain comfort in them. She could forget everything, watching the wool transform in front of her.
The sky gleamed and shifted. The sun was a dull ache behind a veil of grey and silver.
And then, there. On the water! She breathed in quickly, afraid it was a trick of the sea.
A fish’s tail shooting out. Bright, shimmering silver.
Margrethe squinted against the cold wind, trying to keep her eyes steady and focused. They say you can see things here, at the end of the world. Faces in the clouds and waves and leaves. Branches becoming arms and then branches again.
But there it was again, a flash of white.
Margrethe blinked repeatedly, and the sea air seemed to cut through her. She wiped tears from her eyes and cheeks and leaned into the wind. The sea seemed to shift from foam to water, from dark to light, swirling. In the distance, rocks jutted. It would be easy to mistake one for the monstrous fin of a giant fish, the prow of a ship sinking down.
And then: a curving, gleaming tail flaring out of the water. A moment later, another flash and a pale face emerging, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. A woman’s face. the tail of a fish stretching out behind her. Silvery, as if it were made of gems.
Margrethe shook her head. The cold was making her see things.
She turned to look at the convent behind her, the cross and church spires stretching black against the sky. The other women were inside, next to fires and wrapped in blankets and furs. Only she was crazy enough to stand here staring into this impossible sea.
She laughed at herself, turned back to the sea. But the woman was still there, closer now, gliding through the water as if she had wings. her hair the color of the moon and scattered through with pearls Her skin shimmering out of the water, catching the light and turning to diamonds. And that tail propelling her forward, unmistakably. It was not human, this creature.
Mermaid. The name came to Margrethe automatically, from the stories that had rooted themselves in her mind, the ancient tales she had read by firelight as the rest of the castle slept.
She no longer felt the wind or the cold as she stood transfixed, watching the mermaid move through the water. Margrethe had not known such things could really exist, but the moment she saw the mermaid, it was as if the world had always contained this kind of wonder. This is how it works, she though. When the world becomes something new, it seems always to have been that way.
Carolyn Turgeon is the author of five novels: Rain Village (2006), Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story (2009), Mermaid (2011), which is being developed for film by Sony Pictures, and The Next Full Moon (2012), her first and only book for middle-grade readers. Her latest novel, The Fairest of Them All, comes out in August 2013 from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster and is about Rapunzel growing up to be Snow White’s stepmother. She lives in Pennsylvania and New York and teaches fiction writing at the University of Alaska at Anchorage’s Low-Residency MFA program. She’s currently at work on a new novel about Dante’s Beatrice, set in thirteenth-century Florence.
Categories: Splash into Summer