She laughed too loud, she swam too fast, her eyes were too shiny, her fingers too long. Her skin was greenish, her hair was the darkest violet, she howled to the sea at night, and she licked the salt spray eagerly off her lips.
The villagers called her strange. She was different, frightening, a thing to be avoided. “Not from this world,” breathed the old nurse Gertrude, to anyone who would listen.
They took from the sea. They took fish and pearls and seaweed and coral and salt and water and bones. Now, whispered the villagers, the sea is coming to take something in return.
They quaked around her strangeness, balked when she came their way. She was a thing of the ocean and a thing to be avoided, and nobody could truly know what the sea wanted from them. Rumors started, of course, but they died out just as fast.
One day he came to the village on his father’s orders, to study the kingdom he was fated to rule. Pretty girls with long golden hair offered their hands to him, as did the freckled brunettes, and graceful-footed redheads. He turned them down, and she slipped in, with her too-loud laugh and her weird, shiny eyes, and he was enraptured by the mere sight of her.
Villagers gasped when they heard the news, quaked and crossed fingers over their hearts in prayer. Some ran up to warn him, to beg him to change his mind, but he was in love and heard none of it.
He told his father he was to move beside the sea because she loved it and he loved her. And her eyes gleamed greedily when he was near, her brittle fingers wrapped gently around his wrist.
The wedding came, and she wore a blue dress. Villagers worried over her, wringing their hands and speaking to each other in low voices at night. “She’s taking him… she’s taking him…”
Servants wondered about her when she slipped out of her new manor at night to call to the waves and to sing with the stars, and when she came back smelling of salt but not a single drop wet. Advisers nervously asked the prince about his bride, and he pushed them away, his eyes eternally fixed on her swaying back.
One night she woke him, her shining eyes fixed on his face, whispering that she had to show him something. She led him to a cliff, beside the sea, and told him to trust her. Frightened though he was, he gripped her hand tightly and jumped with her as she had asked.
When he landed in the blue waves, he found that he could see, with as much ease as he did on land. His bride floated beside him, smiling, her violet hair swirled around her in a cloud, her shiny eyes gleaming sunset orange, and her green skin darker in the sea’s light.
He gaped, and she took his hand and told him that she was from the undersea, where they danced over sand and laughed glistening bubbles, and their dresses were made from shells and salt. Sea elves, she told him, grinning at his confusion.
He could do nothing else but stare, and she brought him, down, down, down, where they danced over black sand amid her sisters and brothers, where they ate raw fish stuffed with sea grass, seahorse hearts pierced through with a silver needle, tuna cakes, and scallops in a squid ink sauce. When it was morning and they returned to the surface he remembered none of it and she never told him.
The next night was the same, as it was on and on and on. The sea elves roared with laughter at the strangeness of his pale skin and plain hair, and she watched on, smirking, pleased with her game. He puzzled over the coral beads he found around his throat in the mornings, wondered why his shoes were soaked with seawater. She never breathed a word, smiling a twisted, evil smile as she brought him down for longer and longer each night.
Sea elves loved, but their love was brief and they loved a game more.
This was her game to play, and he was her favorite piece.
One night a guard saw the prince and his wife slipping out of the palace yet again. The prince was laughing as he stumbled, his face curiously blank, and she led him along, smirking at him. The guard thought nothing of it, until it happened again and again, and he began to worry as he saw the prince’s skin grow paler, his shiny eyes glistening strangely.
After the guard described this to others, they too became worried. The next night they took his wife and led her to her own rooms, while they stood guard outside the prince’s door.
The prince awoke the next morning, dizzy and bleary. With her locked away, the magic in his head was gone, and he remembered everything that had happened when she took him, night after night, to the bottom of the sea.
She was placed under house arrest. Every day he came to talk with her in her rooms, and every day she snarled at him, rejecting his love and bitterly wishing she’d been more careful with her game.
When she became pregnant, she was a monster. She screamed and threw things at him, her body shrinking and paling from her lack of the sea. Her beautiful hair turned black as a frying pan, the ugliest color in the world of sea elves. Her nails grew longer and her eyes turned yellow as a goat’s.
She bore the pain of labor coldly, making little sound through her contractions, her anger too great for something as simple as pain to break through. The child was born, a girl with blue-tinted skin and beautiful sky-colored hair. The mother thrust the child at a nursemaid without looking at her. Villagers gossiped fearfully when they saw the child, and led their own creamy babies away.
The prince was sad. He loved his wife too much to give her up yet, and continued to visit, asking to console her, asking what he could do. Ruby earrings chipped from mountain peaks weren’t enough. Silken robes brought from the sun’s farthest stretches weren’t enough. Even their daughter wasn’t enough. He had her moved to her own cliff-side manor with a view of the sea, but that seemed to make it worse. Her anger had subsided, and was replaced with deep sadness. She spent all day pressed on the glass like a child, her fingers curled against it.
Finally he could bear it no longer. He loved her too much to watch her suffer, so at dusk he brought her to the beach.
The guards held her as she walked, but there was no need. Her feet stepped over the sand as though she were in a dream, her huge eyes fixed on the shifting grains. Her black hair was growing, regaining its volume and darkening to violet. Her creamy skin colored to mint- green.
When they got to the water, it was as though it knew she was coming. The sea splashed eagerly over their feet, reaching out and calling for its lost daughter. Tears formed in her eyes. At a word from their prince, they released her.
The prince watched his wife swim out to sea, holding onto his baby daughter. Tears fell down his cheeks, but he was smiling too, as she waved back at him from between wave crests.
And for years after that, the kingdom was rich in trade, the most prosperous in the land. Villagers and visitors smiled, a skip in their step for no apparent reason. The air just makes you feel lighter, they said.
If you were lucky, walking along the shore, you would see the shape of a sea elf in the waves, smiling at you before she coiled down back below the water. And sometimes, a woman would slip into the king’s castle, still beside the sea, and gently touch the face of her sleeping daughter to wake her and bring her down into the ocean.
Their old king watched, smiling at his people’s joy and knowing she was the reason. And he was grateful. He remembered her promise to him before she left to go back to her own watery world, and he never regretted taking his chance to return something to the ocean.
“Thank you, my love! Thank you forever! You will always have a friend beside the sea!”