Once upon a time, far out to sea, where the water was as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, lived the Mer - king. Since the Mer - king's wife was dead, his old mother kept house for him and his six daughters. His youngest daughter was very quiet and thoughtful. And nothing pleased her more than hearing her grandmother tell stories about the far-off world of humans, about ships and towns and people.
"As soon as you are fifteen," her grandmother said, "you may rise to the surface of the sea and sit on the rocks and watch the ships sail by."
One by one the sisters turned fifteen, until at last it was the little mermaid's turn. Her grandmother put a wreath of white lilies and pearls on her head. The mermaid said good-bye, and she floated up through the water as lightly as a bubble.
When she came to the surface of the sea, the little mermaid saw the evening star shining in the pink sky. A three - masted ship was anchored in the water. There was singing and dancing on board; and as the night grew darker, hundreds of lanterns lit the deck.
The little mermaid swam about the ship, peeking in all the portholes. Every time she rose with the waves, she saw a crowd of people dancing. They were elegant and well-dressed. But the most striking of all was a young prince. He could not have been more than sixteen. How handsome he was-shaking hands with all the guests, laughing and smiling while beautiful music filled the night.
But as the little mermaid watched the prince, a sudden storm swept over the sea. The waves rose like mountains. The ship creaked and cracked. Water came rushing into the hold. Just as the ship broke in two, the prince fell into the deepest part of the sea.
The little mermaid swam through the dangerous waves until she reached the prince. She held his head above the water to keep him from drowning. At dawn, she carried him into a bay and laid him on the sand. Then she sang to him in her lovely voice. When she heard people coming, she hid behind some rocks.
A young girl appeared. She woke up the prince, and he smiled gratefully at her. He did not turn and smile at the little mermaid, though, for he had no idea that she was the one who had saved him and sung to him. Soon others came to help the prince, and he was carried away from the shore.
Thereafter, many evenings and many mornings, the little mermaid returned to the shore where she had left the prince. She saw the fruit ripen on the trees; she saw the snow melt on the high mountains - but she never saw the handsome prince.
At last she told the story to her sisters, and one of them showed her the palace where the prince lived. Thereafter, night after night, the little mermaid rose to the surface of the water and watched the gleaming palace. She even pulled herself up the marble steps, so she could gaze at the prince, standing on his balcony in the moonlight.
The more she visited the palace, the closer the little mermaid felt to humans, and she longed to be one of them.
"Do humans live forever?" she asked her grandmother.
"No," said the old lady. "Their lives are much shorter than ours. We live for three hundred years, but when our lives come to an end, we turn to foam upon the water. But a human has a soul which lives on after the body dies. It flies up through the sky to the stars."
"Oh," breathed the little mermaid, "how can I get a human soul?"
"Well, if a human being loved you dearly and married you, you could get one," the grandmother said. "But that will never happen. The very thing that is so beautiful in the sea - your mermaid tail - is ugly and disgusting to humans."
The little mermaid looked sadly at her tail.
As time passed, the little mermaid could not forget her prince. One day she was filled with such longing that she made a terrible decision. "I will call on the sea witch, " she said. She had always been afraid of the terrible witch, but now it didn't seem to matter.
The sea witch's house lay deep in the eerie sea forest. Her trees and bushes had long slimy arms that writhed like worms. Her yard was filled with fat water snakes slithering about. The witch's house itself had been built from the bones of shipwrecked humans.
"I know what you want," the sea witch said to the mermaid before she had a chance to speak. "You want to get rid of your fish's tail and have two walking stumps like humans have. You hope the prince will fall in love with you, and you'll be able to marry him and get a human soul." She let out a hideous laugh that sent her snakes sprawling to the floor of the sea.
"Well, I shall make a special potion for you," the witch went on. Before the sun rises, you must carry it to the shore and drink it. Then your tail will divide into two parts. When those parts shrink into what humans call 'legs,' the pain will be almost more than you can bear. Though you will glide along more gracefully than any dancer, every step you take will be like treading on sharp knives. Are you willing to suffer this to be a human?"
"Yes, said the little mermaid.
"Remember, once you've taken a human shape, you can never be a mermaid again. Never be with your sisters or your father. If you fail to become the prince's wife, you won't be a human either! If he marries someone else, you will turn into foam the morning after his wedding. Are you willing to drink the potion and risk your life?"
"Yes, " whispered the mermaid.
"And one more thing," said the witch. "You have the loveliest voice in the sea. I want it for my payment."
"But if you take my voice, what will I have?" the mermaid asked.
"Your beauty, your graceful movements, your speaking eyes. Now give me your voice, and I'll give you the potion."
"Oh dear, no," said the little mermaid. She was horrified at the thought of giving up her lovely voice.
"All right then," said the hideous sea witch, "you will never become human."
The little mermaid felt great despair. She didn't think she could bear to live if she didn't become human. "I will give up my voice if I must, " she said sadly.
So the witch cut off the mermaid's tongue. Then she gave her a vial of magic potion. The drink glowed like a glittering star.
The little mermaid swam away from the horrible forest. When she saw her father's house, she felt as if her heart would break. She threw hundreds of kisses towards the palace. Then she rose up through the dark blue sea and
swam to the prince's palace.
In the moonlight she made her way up the marble steps and drank the burning potion. A sword seemed to thrust itself through her body; and she fainted from the pain.
At dawn the little mermaid woke up. She felt the pain again. When she looked down at her fish's tail, she saw that it was gone. In its place were two beautiful white legs. She had no clothes on, so she Wound her long hair around her body.
When the little mermaid looked up, she saw the prince standing before her. His coal-black eyes stared intensely at her.
"Who are you? Where have you come from?" he said.
The mermaid looked at him softly, yet sadly, for she could not speak. The prince took her hand, and led her to the palace.
The little mermaid was the fairest maid in all the kingdom and the prince was enchanted by her. They rode together on horseback and climbed mountains together. And when they went to parties, the little mermaid danced as no one had ever danced, and everyone marvelled at her graceful, flowing movements.
Sometimes, at night, the little mermaid crept down to the sea, and she heard the mournful song of her sisters as they swam over the water. In the distance, she saw her grandmother and her father stretching out their arms to her.
Though the prince was very fond of the little mermaid, he often seemed distracted, as if he were thinking of someone else. One night, he confided in her, "I'm in love with a girl I saw long ago. Once I was shipwrecked, and the waves carried me ashore. There a young girl found me and saved my life. She sang to me with her golden voice - a voice more beautiful than I've ever heard. I've never seen her since that day."
The mermaid felt great despair. Since she could not speak, she could not tell the prince what had really happened, that it was she who had saved him and sung to him.
Soon the mermaid heard a rumor that the prince was to be married to the daughter of a neighboring king.
"I am obliged to make a sea journey to meet this princess," the prince told the little mermaid. "My mother and father have insisted. But if I cannot find that girl who saved my life on the shore, I would like to marry you, my silent orphan with the speaking eyes." And he kissed her.
The prince and the mermaid journeyed together to the neighboring kingdom. In the moonlit night, the little mermaid sat by the ship's rail, gazing into the water. She thought she saw her father's palace and her grandmother's crown of pearls.
Soon the ship sailed into the harbor of the neighboring king's city. Church bells rang, and trumpets blared. The princess was brought to the ship.
When the prince looked upon her, he cried out with great joy. "It is you!" he said. "You're the one who saved me when I lay almost dead on the shore! My wish has come true!"
Indeed it was the girl who had discovered the prince on the shore. But the little mermaid would never be able to tell the prince that she herself was the one who had saved him from drowning at sea. She felt as if her heart would break.
The wedding ceremony was held immediately. The mermaid was dressed in silk and gold, and she held the bridal train. But she did not hear the festive music, nor pay attention to the ceremony. This was her last day in the world. The prince's wedding would soon bring her death; tomorrow she would turn to foam upon the sea.
That evening the bride and bridegroom slept in a royal tent on deck. The sails filled in the breeze; the vessel flew swiftly over the shining sea.
The little mermaid leaned her white arms on the rail and looked out to sea. Dawn would bring an end to her life. Suddenly she saw her sisters rising out of the water. They were as pale as ghosts, and their hair was cut off.
One sister held up a knife. "We gave our hair to the witch in return for help," she said. "She gave us this knife. When the sun rises, you must plunge it into the prince's heart. When his blood splashes on your feet, you will have a tail again. You can join us below in the sea. Hurry! Either he dies or you die."
The little mermaid took the knife and crept into the royal tent. She drew back the purple curtain and looked at the prince sleeping with his bride. She looked at the knife, then back at the prince.
The knife quivered in her hand. Suddenly she rushed out of the tent and hurled it into the sea. The waves shone red as though they were made of blood.
The little mermaid threw herself into the water. She saw lovely transparent creatures floating above her.
"You are one of us now, " one of the lovely creatures said. "We are spirits of the air. We have no souls, but with good deeds we can win them. We fly to hot countries and send cool breezes to suffering people. We spread the fragrance of flowers. Then after we serve people for three hundred years, we are given a human soul."
The little mermaid felt great joy as she raised her arms towards the sun and floated through the water into the air. She saw the prince and his bride on the deck of the ship. They seemed to be searching for her.
Invisible to all, the little mermaid floated to the ship. She kissed the bride and smiled at the prince. Then she rose like a pink cloud high into the morning sky.
From: Mermaid Tales From Around The World
By: Mary Pope Osborne