Knife and Sea
by Vanessa Fogg
One hundred years pass. Above, in the sunlit world, a prince’s death sparks a decade of war; kingdoms burn and dynasties fall. Under the waves, the mer-kingdoms are at peace. The mer-princess sings in her garden. Lovingly she tends her red flowers, and they turn to her voice the way flowers on land turn to the sun.
Only occasionally does she dream of a different red, of blood spurting hot on her face and hands. Only occasionally does she see her prince’s eyes, pleading silently for his life as it ebbs away. Perhaps once a year she wakes screaming and feels knives stab through feet which no longer exist.
To calm her heart, Maira swims through her gardens. She embraces her husband, a handsome and respectable mer-prince. She watches her children at play. Six lovely daughters, laughing and singing as they chase one another through bright anemone-beds. Their long hair swirls in the deep blue light. Her girls are happy and strong. Not one would give up her voice for any man.
Maira dreams of knives and blood. She doesn’t remember the passion that took her to the Sea Witch’s house. She doesn’t remember what impelled her to leave family and home, to give up all that she had and lose nearly all that she was.
* * *
Her breath catches when she meets the new servant. He bows low, and in his flowing black hair she catches the whiff of wind.
Her daughter, Kythia, smiles as she presents her new pet. He was found drifting and lost near an old shipwreck, but see how pretty he is, how eager to please! Surely she can keep him?
Kythia’s father nods. Maira trembles, but no one sees.
The new servant bows again, and again Maira catches a memory of rushing air, of sunlight filtering through green leaves.
“Thank you,” the pretty merman says.
His eyes are black, like the eyes of another she once knew. Many in that other court had black eyes, black hair.
* * *
“It is very stupid of you,” the Sea Witch said when Maira gave up her tongue for a boy she didn’t know.
* * *
She watches the new servant with her daughter. She sees the devotion shining in his eyes. He swims gracefully, powerfully, his scales rippling and glinting golden and green. He soars to catch the flashing ring thrown above the crowd at the royal ball, and with a flourish he presents it to Kythia.
Kythia never sees his pain. Maira does. She sees his face creased in agony when he thinks no one is looking. With every movement, he must feel knives twisting through his beautiful merman’s tail.
* * *
For a year she danced every night on the points of swords. Each night she wrung blood from her shoes.
* * *
Maira has the Sea Witch over for tea. They sit over delicate cakes of moon-jelly.
“What did he give up?” Maira asks. He still has his voice.
The Sea Witch just laughs.
* * *
Her daughters are like their father: calm and sensible. They will never lose their hearts to what they cannot have. They will never cause her anguish as she did her own family.
She watches Kythia with her handsome plaything; Kythia plays with his hair, rests her head on his breast. Maira sees the bliss in his eyes, the indulgence in her daughter’s.
* * *
She kept the knife. It rests in a locked casket in a locked room in her castle. The knife handle is inlaid with mother-of-pearl; the blade is a wicked, shining edge. She has not seen it in over in a century. But she remembers the light of the setting sun on that knife. Even as she took it from her sisters, the blade seemed to run with blood. It was heavy, but when she swung and stabbed it felt weightless.
* * *
“You love her,” Maira says to the young human. She finds him sitting alone in the garden, sulking because Kythia has gone for the day with a prince of a neighboring kingdom. At her words, the young man’s eyes blaze with desperation and fear. Maira’s heart contracts.
“Swim with me,” she says.
* * *
Her daughters will never know the full folly of what youth can do. They will never feel that awful tide—the tide that swept Maira away, that brought her to land, that brought her pain, pain; she slept on a cushion outside her prince’s room like a dog, and she was grateful for it, she was grateful for his every touch, his every glance, and the knives through her feet were nothing to the knife in her heart when he kissed his bride and then she was the one with the knife, she was, she would pay him back every ounce of pain—
“Here,” she tells the young man, leading the way.
She guides him past the foaming whirlpools and through the gray, bubbling marsh. They swim to the edge of a forest where dark plants sway and wave branches like tentacles.
“Just a little further,” she says. “Trust me.”
Her knife flashes, and it’s as keen as before. But this time, the blood washes easily from her hands.
She leaves his body to the Witch’s plants, to the ravenous suckers of their reaching arms. When the plants are done, the Sea Witch will use his bones for the roof of her home.
Maira swims back to her castle.
* * *
That night she watches her daughters dance in the lit ballroom. They soar and spin and dive among revelers, their singing voices piercing sweet. Maira leans back in her husband’s arms. Her daughters will never know what she’s done. They will never know the full horror that passion can bring. Kythia will never know how her pet’s terrible, doomed love would have led to her death. Maira saw the signs. She knows the contract well.
Mermaids have no tears. But under the sea, Maira weeps.
See them, she thinks as her daughters dance. So innocent and free.
* * *Vanessa Fogg lives in western Michigan with her husband and two daughters. Her fiction has appeared in the journals GigoNaotoSaurus, NewMyths, and LabLit. For a full bibliography of published and forthcoming work, visit her website at www.vanessafogg.com.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
Well, these days "fantasy" encompasses a huge range of styles and modes, from myths/fairy tales to Tolkien-style epics to urban fantasy and magical realism. But for me, what I love about fantasy literature is the way it allows for the metaphorical to become literal. In a fairy tale, a character's heart really can turn to stone from bitterness and grief. Ged, in A Wizard of Earthsea, can literally confront and embrace his own darkness, his shadow-self. There is an essay by writer Lev Grossman which I love, in which he writes that for him, "For me fantasy isn’t about escaping reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed.” That's what I feel, too, and it works in all modes of fantasy—from epic to slipstream. In fantasy, a character can literally cut out her heart and experience hell for the sake of love. And that kind of literal rendering feels somehow emotionally validating to me. It validates a kind of emotional pitch and experience that I think most people are taught to downplay in real life. And of course, who doesn't love magic and whimsy and imagination? Who doesn't like the striking imagery and flights of fancy that fantasy can give? (Ok, I know that some people don't. But most people I know do).