The Prince

A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's
"The Little Mermaid" by Laura Owen

At some point in time, not so long ago, but not so very recently either, a young Prince sits in his library. It is not a large library, but it is copiously stocked. Leather-bound books fill the shelves and overflow into unstable piles, emitting an odor of ink, dust, and flesh.

On the library wall hangs the preserved skeleton of a large swordfish; along the mantelpiece are crowded glass jars containing the pickled remains of pig embryos. Lumped on every surface are boxes full of minerals, fossils, and shells. Here and there one can see some spiny sea-creature, either dried or dissected, or a dead beetle of unusual size, color, or shape.

Not all the creatures in the library are dead, however: in a cloudy bowl of water, a silvery fish swims round and round; a green snake coils round the confines of a mesh cage. A seemingly empty shell sprouts legs and begins to move, as the hermit crab inside inches, unnoticed, across a table.

The Prince is looking at a starfish, recently discovered in a rock pool, through a rudimentary magnifying glass. He is comparing its insides-which he has exposed using a silver scalpel-to some ink drawings in a book he has open beside him.

The Prince has a questing, curious, skeptical mind. In his spare time, which is ample, he likes to dabble with the great questions of life: How do things work? Where do they come from? What is their essential nature? He is often in the process of clarifying a system for the organization of the universe, or in the midst of a treatise on the nature of the soul. He has a particular interest in marine life. The oak table he sits at is covered in heavy sheets of paper marked by his notes in thick black ink.

The Prince is not a Prince in name only, but the heir apparent to the throne of a legitimate kingdom, if not a particularly large or important one. At present his father is a healthy presence, so the Prince has little to do but sit in his library, taking notes. He has finished his formal education. His mother wishes him to marry, some Princess of a slightly larger and more important neighboring kingdom, but the Prince has other ideas. He is in love. Which is as it should be.

When he is King, the Prince thinks, he will be a patron to important scientists and artists. He will found a Royal Society. The time is right for it.

The Prince ceases his starfish exploration and closes his book. He is prone to sudden, violent enthusiasms, which he then discards, and even though he has been up all night in an intellectual fever, now he is setting these particular studies aside and will probably never look at them again. He is, like most Princes, rather spoiled. He is still quite young.

He gets up to stretch his legs, nearly knocking over a stack of framed paintings, bound up in brown paper. He has yet to have the paintings unwrapped and hung on the walls. There is little enough space as is.

The Prince tries to cultivate his artistic as well as his scientific impulses: for instance, an easel is propped up by the window, containing the blotches of his attempt to capture a view of the sea.

The sea is present in nearly every room of the Palace, and one can hear its rushing from the rooms and windows of every tower and turret of the Palace. But nowhere is the view quite so beautiful as from the library window, where the curtains rustle with a faint salt wind.

On impulse, the Prince stands up and leaves the library. It is still very early-the sun has not yet quite risen-and no one is around to greet him. He passes the Palace's largest saloon, empty except for an enormous fountain that throws sparkling jets up against the glass cupola of the ceiling.

He is soon outside the Palace, unsure of where he is going. The Palace itself is made of an unusual yellow stone, which in the early morning light glows the color of hot mustard.

The Palace is surrounded by flights of marble stairs, one of which reaches quite down to the sea. These are the stairs the Prince begins to descend. He passes, stuck into the rock of the cliff, several large, white, life-size statues, of man or beast or unusual combination thereof. These statues were commissioned by an ancestor and are to be found all over the Palace and its surrounding grounds.

The further he goes down the steps towards the sea, the more cracked and worn the marble becomes. He concentrates on keeping his balance. Looking down to the very bottom steps, which are being nibbled at by water, he sees a large pile of yellow-green sea-kelp, spat up by an ambitious wave.

As he descends a few steps further, he wonders if perhaps some animal has been caught in the sea-kelp and washed up on the steps-there is something odd, something flesh-like-a few steps farther and he realizes that it is not sea kelp at all, but a small woman covered by her hair.

She is so pale that her skin blends in with the marble; she lies across the bottom steps, the sea lapping over her feet. Her eyes are closed.

The Prince hurries down the few steps that separate them and stands over her. Underneath the matted hair her chest moves up and down. She is alive. Almost imperceptively, her eyes dart back and forth beneath her closed lids.

As the Prince moves to bend down over her, the sun finishes extricating itself from the sea and sheds a beam of light over them. The girl starts up, as if pierced by a sudden pain, and opens her eyes.

The Prince can think of nothing to say. It takes her a moment to turn her eyes-which are large, in her pale face, and blue-up towards him. Yet when they meet his, she looks away, down towards her very small feet, which she splashes in the water. Awkwardly, she tries to better cover herself with her thick, damp hair.

The Prince does not know what to say and finds himself asking questions, about who she is, where she comes from, whether he can help her. She says nothing. Eventually he stops asking questions. She seems to lose some of her shyness and looks up at him, her eyes quiet and expectant.

He manages to wrap her up in his cloak and lead her up the marble steps. Her little feet trip eagerly up the stairs. He notices that she has been hurt, in whatever ordeal has left her swept from the sea: her feet leave trails of blood on the white marble.

He stops, asks, "Are you hurt?" and points to the blood (he feels confident that she can understand him, even if she will not respond).

The girl begins to laugh. Her whole body shakes. It takes the Prince a moment to work out what is alarming about her laughter, what is disturbing. Then he realizes: her laughter is silent. She smiles, but makes no sound. As her mouth curves open, he realizes why. Someone has cut out her tongue.

She continues to laugh, quite silently, as if her voice has been sucked from her body.

The girl's introduction into the Palace household is untroubled. Everyone, from the servants to his mother and father, is intrigued and captivated by the silent girl and she soon finds a place as a servant. The household takes pleasure in dressing up her lovely quietness in muslins and silks, and she reveals herself as a talented dancer, performing for the royalty after dinner. When not dancing, she sits in a corner and watches.

Only occasionally does she seem distressed: this is when, as sometimes happens, a few young serving girls are brought forward after dinner to sing for the King and Queen. One night, when a young girl sings so beautifully that the Prince jumps to his feet in spontaneous applause, he notices that the mute girl looks stricken, about to weep.

She never does cry, though: she seems incapable of it, as if missing the requisite machinery in the eye to produce moisture.

She becomes a pet of the Prince's, and he calls her his little foundling child. He has a page's uniform made for her, so that she can ride with him when he takes his horses for rambles in the woods. They take walks together, scaling the mountains that surround the Palace. She walks with speed and does not tire, though her feet never do heal from their mysterious injury, and after a long walk they bleed so much that the blood soaks through her shoes and leaves marks on the rocks they climb. Whenever he points to the blood, she only laughs her curious silent laugh and walks faster.

Yet he notices that often, in the evening, she walks down the marble stairs and sits on the very last step, bathing her feet in the sea. Perhaps as a result, she always seems to smell faintly of salt-water.

He notices that her teeth are slightly pointed, and that she cannot learn table manners, but eats always with her fingers.

She begins to sit with him in his library, and he tells her of researches and ideas, showing her specimens: his shells, his dried animals, his explorations into the marine life of the area. He does not think she understands all he tells her, but she smiles at everything he shows her. He begins to stop taking notes and merely talks aloud to her, discoursing on whatever enthusiasm he has at the moment, whichever scientific, artistic, or theological theory he is trying to work out.

In a quiet way, she seems to desire nothing else except to be with him, and begins sleeping outside his door, on a large velvet cushion.

The Prince is dreaming. In this dream, he is on a large ship, a pleasure-boat decked out with every convenience. The ship is anchored, and everyone on board is watching a brilliant fireworks display, the colored lights reflecting in the water and lighting up the ship in sporadic bursts.

It is night, and the water of the sea is dark. The Prince looks down into it with unease; there is something inherently unsettling about that darkness. Perhaps, really, the Prince is a little afraid of the sea.

He is not quite sure how the storm starts up, when exactly the sky becomes as dark as the water, when the waves start to bite chunks out of the ship. Suddenly, the world is filling with water, he can taste nothing but salt, and he is bobbing in the sea, which is too strong for him. He realizes and accepts that he will die soon, for he is profoundly out of his element. He feels a sudden, acute envy for even the littlest fish of the ocean, for a fish could survive all this while he will die, merely because he happens to be a human being, because he happens not to be a fish.

Yet, somehow, he is not dead. He is not only not dead, he is on a beach, and a beautiful girl is bending over him. She is wearing the habit of novice nun, and she is very young. He knows, somehow, that it is she who has saved him, she who has plucked him from the arms of the sea.

But soon, her face fades and the Prince wakes up.

He cannot fall asleep again and gets up to go sit in his library. His little mute foundling friend joins him, for she wakes up when he does. He tells about his dream, and that it is not a dream at all, in the strict sense of the word, but something that really happened, months ago, when he took a pleasure-boat out on the water to celebrate his birthday. Often and often it comes back to him.

"There was a storm," he says. "I was nearly drowned. But somehow I washed up on a beach and a beautiful maiden revived me, and I was taken to the church nearby. I never saw her again, and I think she has pledged her life to the church. But she is the only one in the world whom I could love."

His foundling friend says nothing, of course. "Look," he says, and begins unwrapping the paintings stacked about the library. They are all portraits of women, various women, of different ranks and ages, sometimes in profile, sometimes asleep, sometimes clothed, sometimes naked.

"I keep trying to find a picture that looks like her," he says to his friend. "Sometimes I think I see something: a curve of the neck, an expression in the eye, that makes me think of her. But it is never quite right. I am forgetting what she looks like."

There is silence in the library. His friend seems sad for him, as if she would cry if she could.

Finally, the Prince speaks again. "Well, good fortune has sent me you instead of her. We will never part."

He kisses her silent lips and plays absently with her hair, which slips down her back to the floor. She wraps her little arms around him and draws his head down so that it rests on her slight bosom. He feels the blood rushing through her heart and reflects that he could do anything he liked to her and she could never tell, could never speak it to reproach him with.

There is no sound in the library except for the sea through the window. The Prince reflects on how odd it is that the sea can so distinctly seem as if it were saying something-as if it were laughing, crying, or whispering something to you-when, in fact, the sea is saying nothing at all.

Time passes, and the Prince's mother grows more importunate about the advantages of matrimony. She speaks feelingly of the virtue and beauty of the neighboring Princess, and the manifold advantages-economic, diplomatic, and personal-that would accrue as a result of the Prince's union with this particular Princess. At last, the Prince gives in and agrees to pay a visit to her Kingdom, ostensibly to negotiate with the King, but really to view the much-praised Princess. Privately, he tells his silent friend that they will never oblige him to bring home a bride.

A large and beautiful ship is fitted up, and an extensive company assembled to attend the Prince. Of course he takes his silent page-girl with him, and, as the ship sails away, they stand on the deck together, looking out at the sea. She smiles her empty smile.

"You're not afraid of the sea?" he asks her.

She shakes her head and looks back down at the water.

The Prince talks to her for a long time about marine life, all the wonders that are to be found at the bottom of the sea. They stay out on deck until the sun has set, the Prince talking, the girl smiling and staring down at the water.

By the next morning they have reached the Kingdom they set out for. The ship sails into the harbor of the main town and the Prince, with his select group of attendants, journeys to the Palace, where the King and his Court receive them with every courtesy. The Princess, however, is nowhere to seen. She is being educated away from home, in a religious house, and the ship scheduled to bring her home has been delayed. The Prince enjoys his reprieve and takes advantage of all the entertainment the Court offers. His little friend dances, to the admiration of all the courtiers.

At last, the truant ship returns and the Princess is presented to the Prince with all due ceremony. Beneath, however, the elaborate costume she wears, beneath the dark velvets and dripping rows of diamonds, the Prince recognizes none other than the girl from the beach. It is strange, to look up expecting a stranger and to see instead the face you have sought through dreams, pictures, and books.

"It's you," he says.

The Princess, years of strict training in etiquette behind her, tries not to look surprised.

"I do not know what you mean," she says, looking down. All her life, she has prepared for this moment, for this introduction to a promising suitor. She has studied her face in the mirror, hoping for signs of useful beauty, mouthing her responses to her imaginary prince silently, over and over. And, now, within seconds, the Prince has departed from the script.

"The beach," the Prince says, his voice that of an excited schoolboy. He moves towards her, his hands reaching for her face. "I was drowning-I was drowning and you saved me. I woke up on the beach. And I saw your face."

The feel of the Prince's hands on her face freezes the Princess. She never wants him to take his hands away. She does remember. "A young man was lying on the beach, half-drowned. The sisters sent me away to fetch help. I never saw him again."

"I thought you were a nun," the Prince says, laughing. It is comical now, the misunderstanding, how closely he might have missed his happiness.

"I wore a novice's habit," the Princess says. She is laughing, too. "All the pupils did."

There are stirrings all around them. The King and Queen exclaim; the courtiers whisper. But the Prince and Princess speak only to each other. It is delightful, in fact, to have an audience, to willfully baffle. To feel so important.

"You saved me," the Prince repeats. "You rescued me from the sea."

A small frown line appears between the Princess's perfectly arched, dark eyebrows. A small indentation in her perfect white skin.

"You were lying on the beach," she says. "I ran to get help. You had already washed up onto shore. I didn't save you."

The Prince shakes his head. He is sure; he knows what he knows. "I was drowning," he says again. "I remember it so clearly. I was sinking. I thought nothing could save me. And then I felt arms around me, delicate little arms like yours. I felt someone kiss me on the cheek." He grasps her arms so tightly it is almost painful. It is wonderful, the Princess thinks, to feel so claimed, so wanted.

"Something pulled me from the sea," says the Prince. "Something cradled me and sang to me so beautifully. I woke up and I saw that it was you. It was you, wasn't it?"

The Princess pauses. The line between her brows deepens. She has been trained so strictly, has the Princess. She has been partially raised by nuns. She has been taught etiquette, courtly manners, regal bearing. She has also been taught morality. She has been taught never to lie. She didn't sing to the Prince, she didn't pull him from the sea; she didn't cradle him and kiss his cheek. All she did, really, was stumble upon him, at the right place and the right time. It is wrong to take credit for something you didn't do. It is wrong to lie.

But also, she has been prepared for this moment. She wants to please her Prince. And who knows, really? The Prince was confused at the time, had been through a horrifying ordeal. If he wants to seem more to her than is really there, if he wants to gift her a beautiful voice, tenderness, strange strength, than who is she to say that he is wrong?

The Princess looks around her. The Court has fallen silent. The whispering has stilled. She sees the King and Queen, her mother and father, who have raised her for this moment, only for this moment. She sees the courtiers, she sees all the young women, staring at her enviously, staring at her, with her velvets and her diamonds and her Prince who claims her with his hands. She sees a young woman, a skinny little young thing, with long, bedraggled hair that glows green and gold in the candlelight. This young woman is not staring at her, at the Princess. Her big blues eyes gaze up at the Prince.

"It was me," the Princess says. She is sure now; she has no hesitation. "It was me. I saved you."

It is the correct answer. In front of the entire Court, the Prince kisses her. Her words have bridged the gap, the gap between the same old obsessive dream and holding what you most desire, holding solid flesh in your hands.

Naturally everyone is delighted at this turn of events, at this happy conjunction of personal happiness and international convenience, and plans are put in motion for a speedy wedding. There is no need for delay. The story is repeated around the Court: the Princess saved the Prince from drowning and he has loved her ever since! He sought her obsessively, only to find she was his betrothed all along! The story is repeated and repeated, embroidered, exaggerated. It is a good story: the stuff of legend, the stuff of fairy tales. Like all good fairy tales and legends, it illustrates the inevitability of destiny. You can't escape your fate, it seems.

The Prince takes long daily walks with his Princess. Every day, he discovers new elements to her. She speaks several languages and has a delicate hand at needlework. She is not only beautiful, she is wise and good. Which is as it should be.

Yet when the Prince talks to his silent friend, his little page-girl, of his newfound happiness, she seems sad. She will smile, but her smiles will quickly dissipate and he catches her often in abstraction, gazing out windows, or staring, unseeing, at blank walls, her lips downturned. This puzzles him, for she has always entered into his joys and sorrows whole-heartedly. He assumes she is melancholy because she senses a change, perhaps worries he will not have so much time for her, the way favored pets often take to pining when the master marries. But he does not have much time to worry about his little friend. He does note, with approval, that his Princess has also taken quite a fancy to his little servant, and his friend is to carry the bridal train.

The wedding is achieved quickly, but it is a fine affair, with plenty of gold and silver silks, the smell of incense and the ringing of church bells. The Prince takes his bride to his ship. The winds are favorable and the ship soon slides away.

When it grows dark, they weigh anchor and light colored paper lanterns. There is a magnificent fireworks display, and the Prince is reminded, appropriately, of the night when he almost drowned, the night when everything changed.

Music is played, and everyone dances. The Prince's little servant, who has recovered her spirits, dances with more vigor than ever before. The Prince watches her, his arms around his bride. Soon they retire to the bridal chamber, and, gradually, everything grows quiet.

It is said that there are only two truly terrifying dreams: the dream in which the dreamer is killing someone else, and the dream in which the dreamer is himself being killed. The Prince is having the latter kind of dream.

In this dream, he is asleep: he can see himself, lying in his gold and purple bed, his bride beside him. It is almost morning, a few red streaks are coming in through the window, but the sun has not yet fully risen. Into the room creeps his silent page-girl, the maiden from the sea, and in her hand is a thin silver knife. Her feet are bare.

She approaches him where he lies sleeping, and stands, poised, about to run the delicate blade through his heart. He has the feeling, for the second time in his life, that death is approaching, only a matter of a few moments. He can see it clearly: the knife will enter, blood will start to soak into the sheets, will gush so that it falls off the bed and drip, drip, drip, onto her tiny white feet.

He tries to say something, but he is asleep, and has difficulty forming the words: it is as if he is underwater, in another element. He wants to call out her name, to appeal to her, but he realizes that he doesn't know what to call her. He has never given her a name. With a tremendous amount of effort he manages instead the name of his bride. In his dream-state this seems close enough.

It is said that one's mind will never allow one to die in a dream, that one will always wake up before it reaches the fatal point. So it is now. The Prince awakes. He is in bed, his bride beside him. No one else is in the room. The sun is shining through the window.

Later that day, it is discovered that the Prince's silent page-girl is missing. The ship is scoured, but she is nowhere to be found. There is a general uproar and much distress. It seems especially shocking, coming right after a wedding, after so much happiness.

Wild theories are proposed as to her fate, but on a ship in the midst of the sea there is only one probable alternative. The Prince and his bride stand on deck, looking down into the water.

The Prince tries to imagine. He can see the girl standing on the side of the ship and, with eyes wide open, jumping, but in his mind she does not hit the water, does not sink, does not drown. Instead the image breaks up when it hits the water and then there is nothing, only white foam floating on the surface of the sea.

Many years later, the Prince dreams, for the last time, about his lost friend. In his dream, she stands on the deck of a ship, clutching a silver knife, and staring out at the horizon, where the sun is beginning to grow out of the sea. As light breaks out over the waves, she throws the knife into the sea and dives into the water. But she does not sink. She is somehow lifted up, and into the sky, now part of a different element, part of the air instead of the water. She hears whispers all around her.

"Who are you?" she asks, for in this new element she is able to speak. Her voice is clear and strong, as it has always been. She looks down to the sea, and sees the water, and the ship she has come from. Her eyes fill with water. She is dead now, so she can cry. She is dead, but also she is not dead: she's a spirit, a soul, she's part of the air, she will always be with him, approving his good deeds, sorrowing over his bad. The Prince feels a tremendous sense of relief, the dreamer's false relief at the lost item that has been mysteriously found, the quarrel mended, the undone task completed. I understand, I understand everything, the Prince thinks.

He wakes up. He cannot remember what he was dreaming about. He gets up and walks down to his library, where he sees that the sun is just coming up. The Prince looks out the window and sees that everything shimmers with moisture: the grass, the leaves. The sea sparkles in the distance. It is as if, in the brief moment between night and day, the whole world has become covered in water.

2008 by Laura Owen.

Laura Owen was born in England, raised in Arizona, and came to Minnesota for school. She got her B.A. at Carleton College and is currently a candidate for an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Fiction, at the University of Minnesota.