‘Five Tales of the Rose Palace’, Ephiny Gale

Illustrations © 2018 Martin Hanford

 [ Mirror, © 2018 Martin Hanford ] The Fifth Tale:

My father vomits when he sees the palace.

I help him wipe the last traces from his mouth with a rag. A few flecks have stained his nicest coat, which he insisted on wearing to the funeral of his favourite daughter.

There is barely a plant in the palace grounds that is not a rose. “I wish to never set eyes on another of these weeds again,” he says, clutching my arm for support. “Forgive me, Beauty, for I meant well.”

The palace doors swing open before us.

“I know, Father. Roses are few people’s most precious possessions.”

“Monsters. Not people,” he corrects. He guides us down the empty corridor to the sprawling dining hall. A steaming banquet waits on the table. Flaming chandeliers hang from the ceiling, spotless burgundy carpet under our feet. This hall, like the rest of the palace I’ve seen, is lined with deep water channels which extend about two feet into the room. They seem an eccentric choice for aqueducts.

We sit awkwardly at the table, alone and sick with tension. The food cools and my father weeps into his handkerchief. I keep silent and try not to ruin my last hours on earth with my own misery.

Eventually, a loud splash echoes throughout the palace. Watery reflections dance in a panic across the ceiling. From the fountain in the middle of the hall, a long creature rears up and lunges towards us, resting its hands on the stony ledge. Light ripples across its scaly green tail. Blood red roses wrap around its hips to its shoulders.

“Have you come of your own free will?” asks the beast.

Trembling, I manage to say yes.

“Very good.” It bears its teeth at my father. “Enjoy your supper, sir, and enjoy your sleep. Leave in the morning and never return.”

My father inclines his head. The creature disappears down the fountain in another great splash and flicker of scales.

The palace returns to overwhelming silence. Stunned, we help ourselves to the glistening pork, thick apple sauce, roast vegetables, crisp breads and assortment of iced cakes which adorn the table. Under other circumstances, it would be a meal fit for a princess.

My breath catches in my throat. “Father,” I whisper, “did you tell me the beast was male?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “It said to call it ‘Beast,’ Beauty. I didn’t check between its legs.”

The next day, everywhere I walk through the palace appears recently abandoned. Warm, caramel-coloured dough waits half-kneaded in the kitchen. A spade protrudes from fresh dirt in the rose gardens. Cooling coals still smoke in a bedroom with rumpled floral sheets.

Finally I find myself back in the dining hall. A note has been tacked to a set of adjacent double doors:

My apologies for such a performance. You are no more a prisoner here than air is a prisoner in water. If you do choose to stay, however, everything in this palace is yours. I eat supper at nine.

My heartbeat, which had begun to level out from the many hours alone, spikes again dramatically. I should leave. I should sprint down the corridor and crash outside, racing until I tumble safely over my own wooden gate. I should return to my very ordinary, predictable life with my father.

I tug the note off the doors, instead, and push them wide open. The room beyond is circular, with dozens of rows of books of every size and colour radiating from the centre. In the centre itself is the most elaborate golden harpsichord I’ve ever seen, with a pile of music books stacked neatly on its seat. And at the very back, directly opposite the doors, my reflection watches me nervously in an imposing silver mirror.

I wander through the aisles, ghosting my fingertips over various titles and worrying the note in my other hand. When I reach the mirror, I whisper, “Mirror, mirror, should I stay? Will father die of grief that way?”

The surface flickers for a moment, then ripples and runs like coloured paint. I almost trip back into a bookshelf and stub my toe on nothing but the floor. The mirror morphs into a clear, moving image of my father arriving home from his journey. My sisters kiss his cheeks and guide him inside our cottage. He is exhausted but okay.

The image runs and disappears. I bite my lip. Then I sit at the harpsichord and start to play.

At supper, the beast asks me why.

My fingers still tremble as I cut my lamb. “Curiosity,” I say. “Why did you demand I come here, if not to keep or eat me? I don’t understand.”

She pauses, halfway through tearing her bread loaf into bite-sized pieces. After a long moment, she says, “I wanted to know whether anyone would come. Would sacrifice themselves. It’s a rare quality.”

I wait for some time, but she doesn’t elaborate. “That’s really all?”

“I can’t tell you the rest.”

I place my cutlery down with a soft clink on the china. “Can’t… Or won’t?”

The beast stares me straight in the eyes. “Can’t.”

I spoon another mouthful of buttery potato into my mouth. My hands feel steadier now, daring.

I walk over to where she’s settled on the fountain’s edge. It feels like approaching a wild animal. I motion to where the roses are coiled around her torso, and say, “Those look very painful. May I take them off?”

The beast eyes me warily. She gives a tiny nod.

I reach down to where they’re hooked around her waist, fiddling gently until an end comes free. My fingers brush against her skin, which is alternately soft and ridged with dozens of tiny old scars. I unwrap the roses, layer by layer, and a few thorns dislodge from her supple flesh in the process. Blood wells in their place, tracing down her body in rivulets.

She gasps and shivers, and when I’m finally done she reaches for the pile of roses with eager hands.

This time I’m the one to ask her why.

The mermaid clutches the roses to her scarred human breasts, and all she says is, “I hope I can tell you one day.”

The Fourth Tale:

Cradling my naked body on the beach, the prince informs me that his name is Sun. My happiness feels like it must be a palatable force radiating from every inch of me.

My childhood in the ocean has been marked by two passions: a statue of a handsome young man, and a garden patch of red flowers in the shape of the sun. My late mother had loved roses, and although my own red flowers did not grow quite the same, she’d often said they were a pleasant reminder.

Sun has a rose petal caught in his thick, gorgeous hair. I reach up to caress it between my fingertips. He is all of my dreams come to life. He is perfection.

Then he helps me climb to my feet, and I almost bite my tongue in the incredible agony of standing.

After he chooses her over me, after I refuse to stab him, after I throw myself in the ocean, after the hallucinations, after I am certain I am dead…

I wake just below the surface of the rippling water. Light, strong fiery light, shines down like heaven. My first thought is that the sun has risen and I am still alive. I splash clumsily, desperately, to the surface.

“You won’t drown,” says a smooth, feminine voice. “No need to act like you’re suffocating.”

I control the last of my coughing fit and cling to the stone wall next to me. My throat feels like it’s lined with spider webs, but otherwise I feel well enough. I realise I am far from the middle of the ocean; I am spluttering in the fountain in Sun’s dining hall, and it is unusually empty.

The green-skinned woman sitting nearby squeezes water from the end of her dress. She raises an eyebrow at me. “You’ve finished splashing me?” she says.

I nod, wide-eyed.

“There are some conditions for your life.” She picks absently at her long nails as she speaks. “Firstly, you are not allowed out of the castle grounds. You are cursed. Secondly, you may speak to no-one of your life before this moment, nor are you permitted to speak about any of these conditions I am imposing on you now. The curse shall be broken when a human falls in love with you.” She uncrosses her legs. “Any questions?”

“Yes,” I say. “Many questions.” I heave myself up onto the fountain’s edge with weak arms, struggling to get my legs to work. They feel like they’re bound with seaweed. After several moments of struggling, the strange woman leans down and helps drag me up onto the cold stone. Water runs onto the carpet and splashes back onto her dress.

I catch sight of my old, scaly mermaid tail and collapse, gasping and heaving like a dying fish.

“For goodness sake,” mutters the green-skinned woman. “What a dramatic thing you are. You must get that from your mother’s side of the family.”

I barely register her words. “If what you say is true,” I moan, “how am I to get a man to love me? He didn’t even love me when I had legs.”

“That is the challenge and the point, dear. Some people put entirely too much stock in mirrors. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

I whack my palm against the wet stone. “But why am I like this again? What’s in it for you?”

Her lips curl into a smile. “How about I explain the debt when you win the game?”

When I glance up again she’s vanished completely, and invisible hands are pouring me a glass of red wine.

The Third Tale:

On my fourteenth birthday my father’s finger falls off.

I find him twisted in the garden between our cottage and the fence, pawing through the sand with glassy eyes. He freezes when he sees me. His right hand is missing a forefinger, broken cleanly off, though no blood stains the murky water.

Inside the cottage, my mother cradles my father’s injured hand and kisses his remaining fingers. They tell me they’re both very sick. I must fetch them a blue rose, which they must both eat within three days, or they shall literally fall to pieces.

My parents have never left our property in fourteen years, and this illness is no exception. They have nothing more to say on the matter. They kiss me underneath my eyes and watch me swim out the gate with only a snakeskin satchel.

Inside the fence, everything is illuminated in the gentle glow of lantern fish. My mother catches them and ties them inside dead jellyfish sacs, securing them to the cottage by the tentacles.

Outside the fence, the sun barely pierces water this deep. I can make out the faintest outlines of the polypi forest, and the contours of the skeletons, driftwood, and various shipwrecked treasures trapped in their slimy arms. They strain away from their roots to stroke my arms and tail as I pass. They whisper to me. They tell me their names. They offer me wood for the fence, bones for the cottage walls, crystal goblets which have fallen from the surface like drowned angels.

“I have no use for those today,” I whisper in return. “Today I am looking for a blue rose.”

The forest ripples before me like seaweed. A hundred voices breathe, “There is no blue rose.”

I take a metallic egg from one of their outstretched arms instead, and it blushes with golden light in my palm, illuminating the ocean floor in a small sphere around me. I pluck out seven strands of hair in exchange.

And I look everywhere for the blue rose.

That night I scour all the shipwrecks I know of, catching bursts of sleep curled inside their broken hulls. I find plants with red, snapping lips that wail for my blood between sharp teeth, and I knock flowers which scatter silver powder amongst the rotting wood. I do not find the blue rose.

In the morning I swim to a human village. I prop up my arms on the sun-warmed dock so that my tail is still submerged, safely out of sight. A market has popped up nearby, and the faintest hints of lush perfumes and exotic flowers carry on the breeze. Sea birds circle and waddle and poop on the planks around me, crying and shedding feathers like old skin.

A teenage boy approaches me, hands in his vest pockets and a grin stretching his wide mouth. “Nice day for a swim,” he says.

“It’s a lovely day,” I agree. “Do you know of anywhere with a blue rose? Perhaps that market has one?”

He shakes his head. “You’re in luck, missy. No-one around here got a blue rose but me.”

Hope bubbles from my toes to my scalp in an instant.

“Truly?” My fingers fidget with the gaps in the dock’s wood. “May I have it? What would you have me pay?”

“Tell you what,” he says, still grinning. “You can have it for the price of a kiss.”

My throat constricts but I nod, feeling my cheeks colour with something other than the sun.

He kneels on the ground and wraps his hands in my salty hair. His mouth seems too big on my own, and his tongue is aggressive and insistent. Before pulling away, he nips my bottom lip with his teeth and draws pinpricks of blood.

When he stands I can barely move, and my heart is battering like a storm inside of my chest. I force myself to speak, “The rose?” and he says, “I’ll get it now.”

He never comes back.

On the second morning, on the bank of a long river I have never been down before, I come across a man with a deep blue beard. He eyes me like a gull may eye a fish, and calls, “Maiden! Whatever it is you seek, I can deliver it.”

I tell him I am seeking a blue rose, and he promises he can supply one. Twelve gold and ruby rings adorn his fingers, and when I ask him what he wants in return, he says, “A single touch of your skin, in the hope that you may like it well enough to be my wife.”

I cling to my rock in the middle of the river, knuckles flushing white and much more cautious this time. I say, “I need to take the rose to my parents, who are very sick. Bring me the blue rose and I shall return in three days’ time so you may touch me.”

He agrees with the click of his many rings. He stalks across the hills and through the door of a mansion with a single turret, and when he emerges not long after he holds a rose as blue as his beard.

At his request, I leave my golden egg glowing on the riverbank; I can collect it when I return in three days. Then I pluck the blue rose with nimble fingers, careful not to touch him in the process. When I hold it to my nose it smells slightly metallic, in a way I have not known roses of other colours to be.

He picks up the egg and strokes it with his thumb. “There’s a drop of blood on this,” he says.

It must have fallen from my first kiss.

With tensed muscles, I ask, “Is that a problem?”

He spits on the egg, rubbing at the blood with his thumb, but it won’t come off. The smile grows on his face like ink spreading in water. “Not at all.”

I tuck the blue rose into my satchel and dive down, down and away.

The swim back home takes several hours, and now that I have the rose the adrenaline has worn off and I am simply exhausted. I pause halfway through the afternoon, stretching out on an underwater plateau a couple of metres from the surface. The sun plays over my skin and I indulge in a short, blissful sleep to rest my aching muscles.

When I wake the sun is still warm, and I pry open the satchel to check the safety of the rose. It looks a paler blue in this watery light. I predict that we should reach my parents just after nightfall.

At sunset I pass the palace of the Sea King, an extravagant structure constructed with every colour of coral imaginable. Usually I would give it a wider berth, but today I am too keen to get home to my parent’s arms. I miss my father’s cooking, hot and satisfying in the pit of my stomach, and watching my mother toiling over her projects with her tiny needles and knives. I want to see their faces light up when they see I’ve won. I want to know they’re really safe so I can sleep properly tonight.

A commanding female voice makes my muscles seize up. I glide the next few feet through the water awkwardly, twisting my neck around to meet her eyes. The Sea King’s mother calls my name again from the palace gardens. She crooks a finger.

I force my weary body to meet her, my throat dry and pupils wide. My parents have instructed me several times that the palace and its inhabitants are unquestionably forbidden. But surely I can’t refuse such an explicit instruction from such a powerful woman.

She runs her eyes over me, appraising me like a new tool. “How old are you, love?”

I tell her, and she smiles like she already knew the answer. I catch a glimpse of her slightly greying hair as she bends to pluck a crimson flower from the garden bed and tucks it behind my ear.

“And what are you doing by yourself, so far from home?”

I don’t dare to lie. I explain, very simply, about my search for the blue rose.

“May I see it?”

I back up slightly while reaching into my satchel, hoping she won’t ask to physically hold the rose. The thought of refusing her anything makes me want to shrivel up.

All she does is gaze at it. Then I catch a glimpse myself and drop it instantly, as if pricked.

It is undeniably a white rose. A sickly-looking white rose with traces of blue around the edges, but certainly white, regardless of the quality of light.

The rose and I sink gradually to the sandy floor. I bend over it like a grave. It feels like being thumped in the guts and I am suffocating.

“Oh dear,” murmurs the sea king’s mother. “Perhaps it was dyed. I’m afraid there are no blue roses anywhere in the royal gardens, either.”

“I don’t know where else to look,” I say. The words come out somewhere between a squeak and a sob.

She kisses me on the forehead and tells me everything will work out as it should. Then I am on my way back to the surface, the white rose abandoned at the bottom of the sea.

On the evening of the third day, I am certain I have failed. The time is up. My parents are probably dead already, and regardless, I can’t bear to face them empty-handed.

I collapse on a beach, half submerged, near a palace completely overgrown with red roses. They climb across every one of its walls, poke inside its windows and wind around its turrets. The wind blows the petals onto the beach, and I swallow dozens of them, soft and cool and rubbery on my tongue. I alternate eating petals with screaming underwater. I thrash on the sand, coming out in rashes across my belly and breasts. I bite my forearms hard enough to draw blood.

Eventually I fall asleep, belly up just underwater, like a dead fish in a glass tank.

Not too long afterwards–-although the days do bleed together–-I wake to a song so charming I find myself holding my breath. My mother used to sing, sometimes, while she sewed, but this is nothing like that. It feels like the voice is inches from my ear-–that the melody is just for me-–but the singer is nowhere to be seen.

I have been operating largely on instinct since my parents died, and it is this same instinct that draws me like a thread through the water, between schools of neon yellow fish and salmon-pink coral, through bunches of velvety seaweed and grazing the tentacles of translucent anemones, eventually following the voice into a sizeable hole in the cliffs. Darkness stretches inside, and I feel blindly for craggy handholds in the rock, pulling myself along as the voice grows louder and clearer.

I can feel the tunnel narrowing as I go, but before it becomes truly claustrophobic I spy a patch of light up ahead. I am so close now my skin is almost crawling off my bones. I am half-expecting the voice to belong to an angel, it is so sweet.

The melody halts just before my head breaks the surface.

The air beyond is warm and syrupy and I hurry to wipe the curtain of water from my eyes. At the other end of the small, square pool stands a young woman, a tiara nestled in her hair and a hand over her mouth. The room surrounding us is not much bigger than the pool. She shrinks back in the water, glancing twice at the single door, then back to me.

“I won’t hurt you,” I say. My voice sounds louder than I expected, and it echoes a little over the damp tiles. “Was that you singing? I’ve never heard anything like it.”

I smile at her, and after a moment she removes her hand, and she’s smiling too.

Her name is Talia, and she’s locked in the pool every Wednesday to bathe for exactly an hour. Every Wednesday, she sings for me and I rise out of the water and into her waiting arms. She devours my stories like a starving shark and drip-feeds me morsels of her own past, a couple of pieces a week.

Beyond the single door, her twin babies named Sun and Moon are watched by soldiers in tents at the gates of the palace. The soldiers always have at least one of the twins. They are a neighbouring king’s ‘property,’ Talia and her children, because the king impregnated her one day while she slept. She never even saw his face until after the twins were born.

I want to murder the king.

Not long after our meetings have become a fixture, I arrive to find her tears mingling with the bathwater. The king has announced he will be back to claim his prizes in seven weeks.

I press my chest to hers, slip her hair behind her ears and reach for her tiara. She yelps. She parts the hair just above her ears, and I see the ends of the tiara disappear inside Talia’s skin.

“It can’t be removed,” she says. “He had it pierced after his first wife burnt to death.”

The breath catches in my throat. “Why would he do that?”

She speaks slowly, almost sluggishly. “So I can never escape who I am. Even if I could bear to leave my children, no matter where I travel on this land, I know he’ll find me.”

“What if it wasn’t on land?”

In the first week, halfway down a familiar river I spy a pillar of smoke on the horizon. This is no bonfire; this is an inferno. The location seems vaguely familiar, and when I reach its closest riverbank the mansion with the single turret is ablaze like a flaring match head.

Standing in the grass nearby, the mansion burning behind her like a halo, stands a woman enveloped in feathers and tar. The effect would be almost comical if not for the soot, the slight bloodstains on her hands and her glinting eyes, which are the eyes of a hawk: a predator.

She clutches my golden egg in a death grip.

“You have my egg,” I yell, before I can lose my nerve.

Her gaze swivels to rest on me. “Your egg?” she says. “You demon. You witch. You may take your egg. I expect there are no pools of blood to be found in the ocean.”

I catch the egg with both hands, its glowing shell still warm on my skin from the mansion’s flames. A whisper of something stirring inside knocks against my palms.

In the second week I take the egg back down to the shipwrecks, and I find nothing of consequence. In the third week I ask again at the markets, wary of charlatans, and my search is unrewarding. An older woman suggests I seek out the thirteen fairies, but they seem as unattainable as the moon.

In the fourth week, growing desperate, I use the egg to light the polypi near my childhood home. They greet me in great clouds of whispers like a chorus of old friends, stretching to stroke my tail and arms and tangle their elastic limbs in my long hair. They circulate something from one to another until it touches me, pressing the leather into my hip.

I steal glances at the small, leather-bound book while trying to extract myself from the tentacles. Normally, any books found at this depth are irredeemably waterlogged, a mess of swollen pulp and vanishing ink. This one is beautiful and soft, and when I flick through the pages the ink is entirely legible.

A spell-book.

I am intoxicated.

As soon as I have collected the necessary ingredients and tools, I return to the palace pool at an unscheduled time. Talia is absent. There are no songs. Just my eyes breach the surface, hunting for soldiers. The single door is open, but the corridor beyond it seems empty. Talia had explained that the soldiers avoid the palace if at all possible; they believe that it’s haunted.

She had whispered in my ear that they were right.

I sing a mediocre, butchered version of her own song and she flits into the room, her salmon-coloured dress floating around her calves, her face rosy with haste. She closes the door behind her and kneels by the water, cupping my jaw.

“Do you still want to do this?” I ask. Her hands tremble against my cheeks.

She takes a little while to answer. Her children bind her here like stones, but she is only a little older than me and she has been a prisoner her whole life: imprisoned by her parents to protect her from spinning wheels and flax, imprisoned inside an extended sleep through no fault of her own, imprisoned by a foreign king within her own palace. So she says yes with an edge to her voice, and kisses me as if I am an elixir that can make her forget.

It is not a complicated spell, but it is a difficult one. We mix her blood and tears with sea water, and bind the cuts on her arms with bandages. I take the same razor-sharp knife and slice the two fins from the end of my tail. They are quick cuts, clean cuts. She holds a soft hand over my lips to muffle the noise. We bind my tail tighter than her arm, to try and stem the blood flow.

I dip the severed fins in the pot of blood, tears, and sea water. Then I bind them to her feet and ankles with lengths of seaweed. Finally, I cut a tiny slice from the left fin and slip the translucent, slimy section past her lips.

She swallows it, convulses once, twice and collapses on the watery tiles. I lunge and capture her head as it falls. I cradle her while the blood on my tail clots, while the skin on her legs slowly knits together. While it hardens and takes on an opalescent shine.

When her tail seems complete, I draw back her long hair and find gills protruding in lines across her neck. I kiss her once, and she is all warm breath and rose-petal lips. Her eyes flutter open, and she smiles at me.

I say, “Let me take you home.”

When I push open the door to my parents’ old home, no-one comes to greet me. No corpses cuddle in the chairs. Just a layer of sand on their seats from the weeks I’ve been gone.

My mother’s lantern fish are dead. The darkness is thick. Talia shivers at the table, though it’s hardly cold and I’ve given her the golden egg to cradle. If I need its light elsewhere, I have to lift it from her fingers when she sleeps.

Without my fins, I am embarrassingly awkward and it takes me several days to catch a single lantern fish. Talia spends these days shadowing me, if I am home, and trying to find a safe path to the surface if I am not. Merely setting eyes on the polypi makes the blood run from her face. She speaks of countless whirlpools near the house that I’ve never noticed before. Goosebumps prickle her skin when she lies in my arms, and no amount of my rubbing seems to alleviate them.

When she doesn’t come home one day, I am frantic. I finally find her at the Sea King’s palace, slumped on the coral wall, golden egg cradled in her lap. She has been waiting for me.

When I approach, she stretches out the egg like a peace offering.

“You’re not coming home?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. She fiddles with the silver tiara, still locked securely to her scalp. “I’m a princess.”

The Sea King rises out from behind the coral wall, wraps his muscled arms around her waist, and I can’t spot one lone goosebump wrinkling her skin.

Soon after, the egg begins to twitch regularly between my hands. The creature inside knocks the glowing shell, and I feel pressure on one palm and then the other. Before this, I had never properly considered that the egg might be hollow: a container for something alive and beating.

I am expecting a chicken. I watch over my prize on the rocks above the water, ensuring that my chick doesn’t drown the minute its shell cracks. But when the egg ultimately fractures, two tiny sea-snakes emerge to tongue the air. They curl around my fingers like living, breathing rings.

Over the next few years, those snakes breed and thrive in the sands around my house. They glide over my body while I wake and sleep, winding themselves around my waist and tail and compensating for the fins I lost like extra limbs.

The polypi whisper of the Sea King’s palace: those inside call me the ‘Sea Witch,’ and when Talia dies young her six mermaid daughters blame only me.

I never discover how she dies.

 [ Mermaid, © 2018 Martin Hanford ] I am expecting Talia’s youngest when she calls. She is fifteen years old and looks so much like her mother, pale and shaky from the journey. Where Talia clung to me years ago, her daughter simply eyes my snakes like a prey animal.

She is lusting after her half-brother, the prince, which draws the first laugh from my throat in many months indeed. “A very bad idea,” I say, although I won’t explain why. That story is long and only mine, now that Talia has died.

Nevertheless, the girl insists on gaining her legs, and I don’t refuse her. She’s willing to pay the required price, plus the price for my help: I bottle her beautiful voice.

It sounds just like her mother’s.

Listening to the voice becomes compulsive, and after two months I feel distinctly unhinged. It reverberates always in my head, calling me somewhere that doesn’t exist anymore. Part of me is amused that I still have any sanity left to lose.

Someone else has a similar thought.

Talia’s youngest has died and turned to sea-foam, which I have carefully scooped from the sunrise waves and stoppered in a crystal vial. And from the darkest depths of my little house, a green-skinned woman emerges. She has two human-looking legs and a smooth green neck where her gills would cut. Her unfocused eyes and pinched expression give the impression that she is continuously drowning, drowning without dying.

When she speaks her voice is deep, strained and watery. “You have lost some of your body, and most of your heart, and much of your mind. Still…” Her hazy eyes settle fleetingly on the black glass jar that contains the second-most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard. “I believe removing that will take the rest of it.”

She holds out an expectant hand. Part of me, the part that is quick and dark and very tired, is compelled to hand it over right away. But I force myself to still. I study the sprawling treasures collected in piles on my floor; the tubes and boxes and pots of things, and a previously half-formed idea completes itself and solidifies.

“I’ll give it up,” I say, “but I’d rather not just hand it to you. There’s something I want to do with it.”

The green-skinned woman has several conditions, none which cause me extensive hesitation. Talia’s old palace, the one surrounded by roses, has been recently abandoned. This is explained to me quickly in the cool night air, in far more relaxed tones than underwater.

When Talia fell into her extended sleep, the palace’s servants were also placed under a similar spell. They were expected to attend to the princess when she woke. But this spell was very flawed, and they ended up rotting in their sleep instead. After that there was one eternal sleeping beauty, and dozens of ghostly servants cleaning up their own decomposing bodies from the rooms around her bed.

Later, when Talia left with me, her twin babies were split up and the spirits eventually fell dormant. The palace gradually lost its haunted reputation. Until the day that Sun brought home his new bride, and the presence of female royalty woke them up again.

The green-skinned woman announces that they’ll have another mistress very soon. The spirits must prepare the castle. Every room will need to be lined with water channels, two feet deep, wide enough to swim in.

And back in my own home, I combine the little mermaid’s sea-foam, the locks of her sisters’ hair, several drops of her mother’s blood, and finally her heavenly voice, and I bring her back to life.

The Second Tale:

I climb through the mirror legs first, perching on the rim for a moment before dropping into the library. Already, I can feel the cut across my thighs healing.

This library is grand and the afternoon light streams through the western windows. Still, the mirror looks out of place here; it’s a trophy on display, not something chosen to compliment the space. I feel my slow-boiling fury re-ignite in my gut.

When I throw open the doors of the palace’s dining room, they bash simultaneously against the walls and all eyes twist to me; rows and rows of guests, including my twelve younger sisters in various strains of pastel frocks. The blue fairy has a spoon of chocolate pudding dangling from her slightly parted lips.

There, at the end of the room: the king and queen and a bassinet. Never taking her eyes from me, the queen reaches down and clutches her baby to her velvet breast.

“You really didn’t invite me?” I shout. It is perfectly controlled. “You, of all people, Snow. You think by ignoring me your daughter’s life will always be perfect and pure? I thought you’d grown up.”

The queen’s delicate hands start to shake. She has always been pale, but now her face drains to a sickly white.

“Not everything is as black and white as you believe,” I continue. “I am not above teaching lessons.”

She thrusts the baby into her husband’s arms and steps towards me. “Please. If you must punish someone, punish me. My daughter is innocent.”

I suppress the desire to roll my eyes. “Yes,” I say. “She is.” A ragged black butterfly flies out of my dress, darts around the flickering chandeliers and flaps towards the royal family. Guests push out their seats to chase it. The king and queen shelter their daughter with their bodies, clutching for it with desperate hands.

Too clumsy. Too slow. The butterfly flies past dozens of fingers and straight into their daughter’s gummy mouth.

“When she is sixteen,” I announce, “she shall prick her finger on a piece of flax and die.”

The king and queen bellow at me. They are crying. They have their fingers down their daughter’s grimy throat, searching for the butterfly.

I see her then: the little cinder girl with her glass shoes, now with her own crown and an expression of heartbroken betrayal, staring straight at me.

I am gone in a matter of moments, cutting my fingers and knees in my scramble back through the mirror. I am counting on the blue fairy to temper my death curse into a long-term sleeping spell. My sister has never blessed anyone before finishing her dessert.

A little more than 85 years later, I greet the very first mermaid in the middle of the ocean. She reclines across some craggy rocks, her tail dipped in the water, watching the roses smother the palace walls. She has allowed the first traces of grey to bloom in her hair. More than anything else, that is why I have chosen this moment.

I approach from behind, my shadow shimmering over the rocks. She says, “Hello, old friend,” without properly looking at me.

I perch next to her, the ends of my dress darkening and ballooning in the salt water. “There is still a debt to repay, old friend.”

“I didn’t forget.” A hint of familiar mischief plays around her eyes and mouth. “And I have a proposition for you.”


She licks the flecks of dried salt from her lips. “As you may well know, my son has come of age and declared himself the Sea King. There is no one to contest his title, so very well. But he persists in demanding a wife.”

“I will not make him a wife.”

She snorts. “I’m not asking for that. I would much rather choose that one.” Her finger stretches towards the top of the palace, where the roses have completely enveloped the highest turret in a mass of petals and thorns. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“So you know enough of the story to know that she sleeps, but not that she’ll wake in fifteen years? Or you’re planning on stealing her prematurely?”

“No, I can be patient.” A slow smile breaks across the mermaid’s lips, and I find myself crossing my arms to ward off the worst of it. Her beauty has yet to fade, if it ever will.

“So,” I say, “continued revenge. Yes, she wakes in fifteen years, and? You have a plan, obviously, and I have growing impatience.”

Her amusement settles quickly into solemnity. “I cannot enter the palace for fear of recognition. I refuse to send my son, partially out of fear for him, but mostly because he cannot pay the price the transformation will inevitably require.”

She reaches for my hands and cradles them between her own. “I want your help to create a tithe,” she says. “A girl of my flesh, whose only purpose will be to seek and transform the princess, and then to sacrifice her own mind, body and heart. A girl who will pay both her own creation debt and my outstanding one.”

“A girl?”

“It’s been 89 years, my dear; grant me a little growth. And besides, she won’t be living with me. I shall craft her parents out of sand. They will be temporary.” She pauses, and all I can hear for once is the toss of the ocean. “And,” she adds bitterly, “I know how palace life works. It has to be a girl.”

I drag my eyes from her face and examine the waves lapping at my ankles. Her fingers are still slightly wrinkled from the ocean, and feel vaguely like sun-warmed seaweed on my skin. The wind teases my hair and wafts through my dress, and the raven croaks in response. Eventually, I declare, “This is acceptable.”

The first mermaid squeezes my hands. “She will need to be drawn to the princess. Explicitly. Something ingrained, in the blood.”

I nod. My lips curl even before the idea is fully formed. “My sisters always bless children with beautiful voices.” In a second I am splashing to my feet, and with a flick of my wrist and a trace of black dust it is done.

Seconds pass. “What are we waiting for?” asks the mermaid.

“You’ll see.”

I can almost feel it, crawling on its spindly legs up the princess’s throat. Prying open her lips like a cocoon. Wedging its way through the choking roses and out into the open air, and fluttering all the way down, down across the stinging beach and the lethal waves, all the way down to its mistress.

I see it now. The ragged black butterfly.

“It’s been sitting next to her vocal chords for over 85 years. It knows her voice. Explicitly.”

The first mermaid beams up at me. Her gorgeous eyes observe the butterfly like a morsel of meat.

“Yes,” I say. “Open up.”

The First Tale:

This is the first time I’ve left the castle since my stepdaughter died.

Then the groom lifts the veil and it is my stepdaughter, staring straight at me, and her skin is almost as white as her wedding dress.

The priest does not speak. There are no expressions of love. Several men lift me from my seat and carry me around the corner of the palace, where a pair of shoes glow red-hot on flaming coals.

Not three paces away, the grave of Snow’s mother is marked with its old headstone and crimson rose-bushes, the colour she wished her daughter’s lips. The dirt that covers it is fresh, and I wonder how I missed its transplant from my own grounds.

Someone removes the shoes with a pair of tongs.

“Really, Snow,” I say. “I only wished you out of existence for a little while. Torture was never in my plans.”

No-one replies. My own shoes are unlaced and thrown in the fire. My stockings are rolled off my legs while my stepdaughter watches, her eyes like ice. The red shoes are forced clumsily onto my feet and they feel like drowning in fire.

I’m released and I can barely think. My feet dance inside the shoes, because of the excruciating pain or due to some enchantment, I can’t tell. The grass blackens and sparks underneath me. I can feel flames licking up my legs, I can feel my skin melting. Smoke rises and I smell my charred flesh. The crowd moves with me, avidly following the entertainment.

I leap off the cliff believing I will die. I fall backwards through the void, watching what remains of my feet still dancing hysterically, and beyond them dozens of glassy eyes staring from the cliff’s edge. Death will be a welcome alternative.

The sudden plunge into the ocean is even more welcome.

Swimming upwards is a battle. Every nerve ending screams and my useless legs feel like they’ve been lashed together with rope and stones. The temptation to gulp the water into my aching lungs grows every moment. And then, finally, my fingertips reach through the bubbles and graze air.

My fingers bleed, pulling myself up onto the rocks, and I barely notice. I lie there gasping on the hot stones, eyes closed, until the world makes some sort of sense again. Until my heart slows and the burning stars retreat from the backs of my eyelids.

When I open my eyes, the sun has cooled. No-one watches from the cliff. My legs are fused together in a mess of burnt flesh from my ankles to half-way up my thighs. Some charred bits of my dress have melted in. I look like a beast has chewed on and discarded me.

Walking, and climbing out of here, will be impossible.

With trembling fingers I unlace my bodice and remove my spell-book from where it has been tucked against my breasts. The pages are soggy, but still strong, and the enchanted ink has not run. I flick through potential spells with careful hands, trying to keep my breathing steady.

And flick through again. There is nothing remotely suitable that can be made with such a lack of ingredients.

I am about to check a third time when she appears, like a vision. The oldest of thirteen fairies walks to my feet, silhouetted in the sunset. She drops to one knee, and in the shadows of the cliffs I can make out her flawless skin, the colour of fresh grass, and her hair shining with all the colours of autumn. I can see the slight fluttering of her black dress over her chest – she took it off once, years ago, and showed me the dying raven quivering inside her ribs.

“Come to put me out of my misery?” I ask.

“Normally I would, but you are a special case.”

I would laugh if there was a drop of laughter left inside me.

“The shoes are drenched in powerful magic,” she whispers, slowly pulling them from my feet, and taking some skin with them. “Their effects cannot be reversed, only altered.”

She leans down and wraps her long, snake-like tongue several times around my ankles. The change happens in a wave, like hair bristling along a wolf’s back; the pocked and blistered skin turns smooth and scaly, and my feet stretch and flatten into translucent fins.

When she pulls her tongue away, my body ends in a crimson fish’s tail, and the pain is gone.

“Now the sea will be your mirror, and you will have three-hundred years with which to admire yourself.” She smiles at me and rips bloody lines in my neck with her fingernails, which sting and heal and revise themselves into gills. “I do believe you are the fairest sea-beast I ever saw.”

My viscous blood runs down my neck in rivers.

“What can I pay you with?” I ask, feeling delirious, drunk and light-headed. I stare at her lips as she speaks, and I think they are the same shade of red as my stepdaughter’s.

“You have paid for your transformation with pain and power and your soul. There is no magical debt. For my payment, I will take these,” she holds up the shoes, which have cooled to a transparent crystal. “There is a little cinder girl who will like them. Is this agreeable?”


She goes to stand, and I cry out for her to wait. “There is no-one else like me in the whole ocean, is there?”

She shakes her head.

“I would so love to have a child.”

The oldest fairy fixes me with her beady, raven eyes. The dress over her chest flutters. “Not a daughter, I think.” She stretches over me with mutterings of forthcoming debt and grumbles of how she must do everything herself.

Then she tears the remnants of my dress down the middle, and grips the bottom of my bellybutton with two hands, and tears a two inch hole in my abdomen.

Her tongue plunges inside.

The Fifth Tale, Continued:

The oldest fairy pauses, her tongue darting over her lips. She tears a small strip of pork from the table and drops it into her cleavage, presumably for the raven. Everyone in the glittering dining hall holds their breath.


I interrupt it: “Please don’t just stop there! Why did she want Snow dead, after all? Why did you help her?”

The oldest fairy smirks at me. “I said I’d explain the debt. I won’t keep going back and back until the beginning of time.” She takes a swig of red wine. “By the way, you’ll have to forgive me putting words in others’ mouths, especially in that last tale. But my understanding is quite astute, I assure you.”

“Wait.” The mermaid shifts in my arms. Her skin has dried, and I run my fingers through the tendrils of her still-soggy hair. “I don’t understand,” she says. “The debt is paid. The curse has broken. I shouldn’t be a beast anymore.”

The fairy picks her words very deliberately. “I think you must have misunderstood me. Your body was never transformed by the curse. You,” she gestures to the two of us, and I find myself blushing, “have love, and still you ask for more? Have you not been listening at all?”

The mermaid shrinks back against my chest.

With a half-wave and a flutter of her dress, the oldest fairy disappears in a puff of black dust. She leaves the smell of crackling firewood and damp meadows behind her.


One of translucent ghosts brushes the black dust off the chair.

Our wine glasses are refilled, the table tidied and the ghosts dismissed. I pull the mermaid gently off the fountain’s ledge and back into the water, my arms around her naked waist and my dress billowing around her tail. The water is still freezing; I kiss the goosebumps off her spine.

I say, “Do you not believe I love you?”

“I do believe you,” she says. “But I ask the mirror in the library each day, and each day it tells me I’m a monster. You deserve someone as beautiful as you. Someone who can take you dancing.”

I bite my lip. “I don’t think that mirror should be trusted...”

She wriggles out of my grip and dives into the fountain, disappearing into the depths in a cloud of bubbles. I watch the green of her tail dissolve into the dark; the exact shade as the oldest fairy’s skin.

My dress drips all over the palace before I find her in the garden, staring at the headstones which mark the lives of her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother. Roses twist around the graves like lovers, embracing and strangling.

I kiss her gills with lips like rose petals. I make her shudder.

We hold hands and watch the roses bloom.

© 2018 Ephiny Gale

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