Warning: Much hacking of flesh ahead. Also, I’m kind of inundated with weirdness right now. More so that usual, anyway.
Here’s how the old fairy tale goes: Once upon a time there were three beautiful fairy princesses. As the fairy queen was near death, she brought these sisters to her bedside and asked:
“How much do you love me?”
“I love you more than the first day of spring,” the eldest said promptly.
“I love you more than the all the jewels that sleep among the rocks,” said the middle directly after.
The youngest didn’t answer for sometime, too over come by the sight of the dying queen to answer.
The fairy queen grew impatient, her soul yearning to separate from her worn, mortal body. “Well, how much do you love me?”
“I love you—” A single tear streamed rolled down the cheek of the least articulate girl and gently traced the corner of her lips. “I love you more than salt.”
“Salt?” The queen was outraged. The elder sisters shook with barely restrained laughter. What kind of a thing was that to say at a royal death bed? The queen had meant to divide her kingdom between the three sisters, but when the youngest had given her answer, she changed her mind.
“My dear Foliana,” the queen said to the eldest. “I bequeath you all the earth’s surface and seasons so that you may rule over the flowers of spring and the fruits of summer that you love best.”
“My sweet Cordeline, I give you the heart of the earth and the caves and wonders that lie within.”
And with her last breath, the queen cursed the youngest princess to the cold cruel sea.
We came from the sea. Sometimes old money forgets that we are the children of the youngest, clumsy-tongued daughter. But grandfather will never let us forget.
“Our blood is chemically identical to seawater,” he announces as we dine in the great hall that over looks the Pacific. This isn’t true, but I let it go. He is more than a hundred years old.
“I see you don’t believe me.” There are fifty other family members feasting at the long formal table, but Grandfather’s eyes bear straight into mine. Some shade of doubt had probably flickered across my face. I should have known better. He rings a bell and a servant wheels out a pump connected to a series of thin tubes.
Grandfather rolls up his fine silk sleeves, revealing pale arms still corded with muscles. “Pay close attention.”
Then my grandfather takes a sharp knife from his plate and slits his wrists.
Blood gushes every where. The wife of one of my uncles faints. Children scream. But the expression in my grandfather’s eyes is utterly serene. “Come here. I want you to see this.”
His words are meant for me. But I hesitate. Before I move, the room grows oddly silent. Everyone is looking at me. Blaming me. We have been long in the habit of humoring Grandfather. If he dies today, it will be on my head. So I go and kneel in the pool of blood by his chair.
A servant takes each one of his marble arms, presses the tubes into ocean-blue veins and begins to pump.
But the blood keeps gushing out and out and out. The floor puddles red around my knees. He keeps a hand on my shoulder, forcing me prostrate in the gore. I was vaguely aware of my uncles and aunts flooding into action around me. With someone else’s eyes I see the servants pushing everyone back. I hear the whirl of the hand pump pushing all the ocean into my grandfather’s leaking veins, but it is as distant as heaven itself.
It is as if they are in a different world.
A world under water.
The smell of salt is strong in my nose. The blood at my knees rises higher and higher, pulling at me like the tide and invading my body with an unforgiving cold. Grandfather’s face wavers above mine. I am looking at him through a curtain. He is holding me under.
I am drowning.
There’s a part of the story that doesn’t often get told.
Just as the curse was claiming the youngest princess, she cried out to her sisters:
“Please have pity on me!”
The elder sisters were not hard-hearted girls. They each grabbed one of her arms and held on for all they were worth. Every bit of magic they had went into keeping their little family together. Their bodies trembled with their light energy; molecules dislodging and reattaching, as unstable as stars.
But the curse—the wishes of the dead—were too strong. The fairy queen’s voice reached back from eternity and ripped the sisters asunder.
The elder sisters’ bodies were nothing but sparks and vapor at this point. The youngest clung to them wherever she could. When they were ripped asunder, two large pieces of her sisters’ energy broke off into her all too solid hands.
As the curse landed her in the deepest darkest part of the sea, the energy cooled, solidifying into two wiggling legs, one from each of her sisters. Her own legs had been taken from her, a golden fish’s tail taking their place.
The youngest sister began to sob, heaving so hard that the sea trembled with each shudder. In one day she had lost the queen and her sisters. She did not care about her inheritance or about the warmth of the sun. She only cried for the love that she had lost.
Her crying stirred the sea. The surface of the ocean grew treacherous. Ships crashed against rocks. Giant whirlpools plucked down whole islands as if they were ripe fruit.
In the tumult, a human relic fell before her. She recognized it at once. The knife of the first alchemist. One side could be used to cut through any living surface and the other could be used to seal up any wound. Her sisters’ legs flail around beside her on the ocean floor. If she severed her own tail, she could wear her sisters’ legs. Then she could return to dry land and . . .
The youngest sister took the golden knife into her hands and drove it deep into her flesh. A sharp, bitter laugh escaped her lips as she hacked into her own flesh. Apparently, blood meant more to her than salt.
I heave and sputter as I take my first gasp of the real world. I am lying on the floor, covered in my grandfather’s blood. It is in my hair, my ears and in my eyes. It has found its way into my mouth, tasting just like the sea.
The servants are still pumping. Grandfather still sits above me, eyes fixed on mine and alert. For all of his bleeding, he looks stronger, younger. Somehow eternal, like a sea king carved from marble. Clear water now runs from his wrists. Every ounce of blood replaced with the sea.
“Our blood is identical to sea water,” he says again.
“Yes” is all I can say because now I see. The rest of our family has cleared from the dining room. We are alone with the servants. “Yours and mine.”
Grandfather nods approvingly. “Now you understand.”
I don’t answer. The golden knife on the plate calls to me. I take it carefully into both of my hands, turn the sharp side to me and reseal my grandfather’s wrists. The servants stop pumping. “How long has the alchemist’s knife been in our family?”
Grandfather wrings his wrists and shrugs. “Always. We are her direct decedents.”
“What I guess I meant was, how long have you had it?”
“Since the day I opened Mermaid.” Mermaid is the reason that we are rich. It is the most important sushi restaurant in the kingdom. Kings and queens can not do without the fish that my grandfather cuts.
“It is the secret of our success.” My voice sounds hallow in the room, no more than the whisper of a ghost. Grandfather nods. “How?”
“The sea.” Grandfather muttered. “It heals. My parents brought me here when I was young. My legs were crushed by a giant millstone. The pain was great and there was nothing left for me except to heal or to drown. They left me on one of those rocks out there.”
I watched the old man point to some distant gray boulder quickly being swallowed by the tide.
“Except that it isn’t a rock.”
“What is it then?”
“A giant oyster shell. It is the dwelling of the beautiful Illonia, the plaything of the youngest sister.”
I shake my head. “She is not in any of the stories, Grandfather.”
“Of course.” Grandfather sighed and looked once more over the water. “The youngest sister haunted the earth for many, many millennia on the legs that she had unwittingly stolen from her elder sisters. She never found them. So she returned to her prison in the sea, using the alchemist’s knife to carve coral from the rocks and fish from her own hair. But she was lonely still. So she ventured to the surface to find things to transform into her sisters: bits of pearl and shell. And that was how she made Illonia, the first of her new sisters.”
“Grandfather, this doesn’t explain how you got the knife.”
“I’m getting to that. It wasn’t long before the youngest fairy princess realized that no companion carved from shell and pearl could ever replace her own flesh, in the same way that she realized that the salt of the sea could never be as sweet as the salt of her own blood. She carved many, many creatures—our ancestors among them—but her heart had shriveled up, dry as a mermaid’s purse. Nothing would ever bring back her sisters. She gave the knife to Illona and retired to the depths of the sea.”
I joined Grandfather by the window. The sea below causing the rocky beach roar as it inhales and exhales against the sand. If I asked, grandfather would tell me that the lonely sound was merely the princess sighing down below. So instead, I asked “Why did Illonia give you the knife? Why didn’t she keep it?”
“It wasn’t for me. It was for our children. Illonia wanted a better life for them. In her grief, the youngest princess had bound her little doll to the oyster that Illonia called home. Illonia didn’t want her children to be a prisoner as she was. So she begged me to leave the shell with the young ones and gave me the knife so that they would not be deprived of anything.”
I fall silent for a long time. There is no doubt in my mind that the knife he holds is indeed the alchemist’s knife. And the more I stare at the rock in the distance, the more it starts to look like the shell of a giant oyster. The more I listen, the more the wind sounds like crying. I do not disbelieve his story. A dozen years of facts and science have melted away tonight.
But there is something missing.
“Why do you want me to know this, Grandfather?”
“I’m passing the knife on to you.”
We stand on the shore at noon. The legs of our pants have been rolled up to our knees. The maiden’s breath wets our feet and we wade further and further out toward the rock.
Our clothes become heavy with water and sand. Sea foam clings to my arms like itchy soap. A second before the waves lift us off of our feet, the oyster shell opens—pink flesh and rainbows in the summer sun. A school of dolphins comes to meet us. Grandfather shows me how to grab on and they take us to the lip of the shell.
There is a woman there, white at the moon. She stands naked to the waist. The pink flesh of the oyster has swallowed her lower regions, covering her female parts like a long, living skirt. Golden hair falls like a veil over her breasts.
“Is this our hero?” The woman asks. The question is for Grandfather, but she is looking at me. “Can he do what needs to be done?”
“He is everything I could hope: brave, honest and true.” Grandfather is beaming at me. “The most worthy of our decedents.”
He squeezes my shoulder and hands me the golden knife. I take it incredulously. All of these years we have been using the most magical relic in the land to cut sushi. “What do I need to do?”
I don’t really need to ask the question. The woman, Illonia, has pulled a giant golden fish tail from the folds of pink oyster flesh. She is looking at grandfather. Looking at his legs. “This once belonged—”
“I know who it belongs to.” I say, thinking of the princess who sighs below. Grandfather takes the tail from her. He turns to me.
“My legs—give them to the princess. Make her sisters whole again. And find a way to break the curse.”
“Are you—” I don’t finish. Grandfather has taken my fist and plunged the golden knife deep into his stomach. I don’t hear his human spine sever, but I feel it.
“Break the curse,” he says with his last human breath.