There is love not much discussed: between family, parent and child, siblings and cousins.
There is love, unavoidable in conversation: between a man and a woman, without exception.
Ariel has always known better: it is not a prince she falls in love with, but the land he walks upon.
It begins as it always does: with a child looking out with curiosity to sights she’s never seen before.
The water is warmer closer to the surface. Sunlight fractures into soft light beneath the waves. Her sisters play beneath her, forgetting Ariel in their game. She ventures closer to the surface, then breaks out of the water. For a moment, all she sees in blue skies, a lighter color than any she’s seen before.
Something. Grey and green and giant. It reaches into the sky far from her, piercing the clouds.
She’s never seen anything so magnificent.
Her sisters pull her down and scold her, a cacophony of “It’s not safe!” and “Don’t wander away from us, you could have gotten lost!”
Ariel is pulled away and lets herself be dragged through the water behind them. Her sisters, all older and bigger than her, are much faster than she is. There’s no point in trying to keep up when all it will do is tire her out. Instead, Ariel twists in her sister’s grip and looks longingly behind her, where the water is warmer and the light so much brighter.
It disappears far too quickly. Before long, she’s being pulled into the castle, her sisters faking smiles as their father asks them how their day was.
They don’t say a word about Ariel going to the surface. And King Triton swims away, oblivious to his daughters’ sighs of relief.
“Never go back to the surface again, Ariel. It’s too dangerous. Who knows what the humans will do to us! Alright? You can’t go to the surface ever again.”
They don’t make her promise though, so Ariel nods quietly, and dreams of touching the sky.
She doesn’t stop dreaming.
Ariel explores shipwrecks and collects human things. puzzling over them and wanting to learn more. She disappears for hours at a time, but this is fine; as the youngest, she has the least responsibility to the kingdom. She will never become Queen, will never be remembered as anything other than the youngest daughter. She knows she will never be as important as any of her sisters. The thought leaves her bitter and the urge to run away grows.
She wonders if anyone would notice if she didn’t come back. They never care to find out where she disappears to for most of the day.
Maybe it better this way. Ariel doesn’t know. Even in a castle surrounded by life, she still feels so alone.
There are days when the loneliness is too much. It’s then that she escapes in the night and makes her way to her cave of hidden things. The darkness doesn’t scare as it once did when she was a child. Instead, she’s thankful for how it hides her as she swims away.
It’s in the night that Ariel can stay above the surface longer, too, where it’s too dark for any humans to see her.
She looks out to the land. And Ariel sings her longing until the ache in her heart is bearable, then ducks under the water once more and makes her way back to the castle.
And then: a ship. Gliding through the water, full of humans. Closer than she’d ever seen them before.
Ariel can’t help it; she follows it, swimming alongside it and listening to the humans yell and shout and laugh. A strange creature covered in hair looks over the railing into the water – directly at her – and makes a strange noise. A human comes up besides the creature and looks into the water with a grin. Her heart beats frantically in her chest as she swims lower, praying that he didn’t see her.
But he says nothing, doesn’t look at her as she swims, and picks up the creature with a laugh and disappears back into the ship.
Ariel sighs, and sticks to the bottom of the ship.
The only sign she got was the sudden chill in the water. The usual warmth of the sun vanished. Instead, Ariel shivered and swam back to the surface.
The blue sky was gone. Dark clouds blocked out the sun, brought early night, and howling winds whipped past her face and tossed up dangerously strong waves. Ariel gasps as a wave comes crashing down onto her, then forces herself back up. Lightning splinters the sky in angry flashes. From the ship comes frantic shouting.
There is no land nearby, not close enough for them to stop and wait out the storm.
And then: a flash of lightning and screams. The ship splits in two and a body goes flying overboard.
Ariel pushes herself more, swimming faster than she ever has in her entire life, and reaches for the man, the same one that almost saw her. His eyes are barely open, dull, and small bubbles stream out past his lips.
He’s dying, she thinks, then hooks her arms under his armpits and swims them both up to the surface.
The ship is still sinking, but there are smaller boats leaving it, filled with people. The waves toss them around without care, but they push on regardless. It’s too dangerous for Ariel to leave the man with them, so she ducks under the water again and swims past them quickly, heading towards the land, still too far for eyes to see.
The man breathes. Once she’s sure the other humans won’t see her, Ariel brings them both to the surface and does her best to swim while carrying a human. He coughs, sea water trickling out his mouth, but doesn’t move. He shivers, but Ariel can’t help when she’s so close to collapsing from exhaustion.
She pushes on and on and on, and, at last, reaches the land. She swims up to the shore, closer than she’s ever been before. The sun is rising, the storm calmed and moved on. It’s dangerous, being out in the light where a human can spot her so easily, but Ariel still drags the man up out the water and lays him on the sand.
He stirs, just briefly, but it’s enough to frighten Ariel into diving away.
She looks back once, sees his legs, sees a woman run towards him and shake him, then swims away.
Ariel can’t forget to feel of the dry sand beneath her hands. Can’t forget how the woman moved, with legs instead of a tail. Can’t forget the blue sky and the lush green farther inland.
The ocean feels so cold after leaving the sun-warmed land.
She wants to go back.
Triton finds her and rages. He tears down her cave of hidden things, human things, and her sisters sigh and shake their heads.
She loves them, desperately, but Ariel knows she only causes trouble. She knows they will never love her back enough to keep her.
Ariel runs away, following whispered rumors of a sea witch who can grant wishes.
No one stops her, doesn’t look for her, doesn’t notice her sneak out of the castle one last time.
The sea is dark. It’s deeper than she’s ever swam before, but Ariel is desperate.
Ursula laughs and purrs and hisses, wild and feral, dangerous. Ariel stays. She has nothing left to lose.
“One pair of human legs,” Ursula says, “In exchange for the loveliest voice in the seven seas.”
That is how Ariel will be remembered: the princess with the most enchanting voice. She’s only loved when she sings, and ignored when she speaks. A voice is a small price to pay for happiness.
Ariel signs the contract and feels the hollow in her chest when her voice is ripped out of her.
It’s worth it. This is what she will tell herself everyday afterwards until it stops feeling like a lie.
It’s worth it. Always.
“Be warned: if you do not earn the prince’s love by the third day, sealed with true loves kiss, you shall return to the sea and never see the human world again.”
Ariel knows better: the magic must be true in order to work. It’s not the prince she saved that she loves, but the land he walks upon. She is in no danger, for the love she is looking for is already reciprocated.
The prince finds her. She’s still weak, her balance unsteady as she adjusts to having legs. And toes.
He drapes his coat over her and keeps his distance in an effort to keep her comfortable. He asks her name, but all Ariel does is smile and shake her head when her voice doesn’t come out.
Each step is painful, like she’s walking on blades that cut into her soles without mercy. But still, Ariel walks, and smiles as she feels the sun warm her.
Ariel stays with the prince for three days. She observes, learns, and adjusts to the human world. She dances and smiles when the prince tells her stories of sailing, of drowning, of being saved by an angel he can’t remember.
“The sea saved me,” he says, “An angel of the sea brought me back to land.”
She smiles and nods and lets him twirl her around even when the pain makes her want to cry.
The castle is bright and big, but the world outside is bigger. Ariel learns how to ride a horse, walks with her toes in the sand, drags her hands along the rough bark of tree trunks and thinks that she’s never been more in love.
She says goodbye on the fourth day, when she keeps her legs and Ursula’s warning never comes to be. The prince is sad, but he understands to call of adventure, and gifts her with a reed pipe as they say goodbye.
“You have no voice,” he says, “But you can still play. Being unable to sing isn’t enough to stop you from creating music.”
Ariel takes his hands and bows her head, smiling so wide her cheeks hurt, and plays a quick song in thanks. He makes her promise to come visit when she’s seen more of the world so they can share stories. After all, neither of them are ready to be tied down, not when there’s still so much of the world to see.
They say goodbye, and it doesn’t hurt at all.
Her second oldest sister pops up to the surface when Ariel takes a break for the night after walking all day along the coast.
“Ariel!” she cries, “Is it true? Did you give away your voice?”
She weeps when Ariel nods, but it dies down when Ariel plays her reed pipe. Ariel walks into the ocean and feels the water tug at her legs, her dress, pull her in deeper, but she only goes to her sister. Her lungs fill with air now, not water, and she no longer has a place beneath the waves. Ariel takes her sisters hand and places it over her heart.
I love you, she mouths, and her sister nods.
“We miss you. Be careful and visit the ocean when you can. We’ll meet you when we can.”
She disappears back under the waves, and Ariel doesn’t move until it’s well past dawn and the ache in her feet dies down.
Ariel walks far. She goes until no one knows the name of the prince’s kingdom. She goes until the ocean is far out of reach. She goes where no human lives and dances under the moonlight with her bare feet in the grass. It hurts, but it’s worth it.
The world shines and storms and grows and dies. Ariel plays for people, builds a small collection of instruments, and plays the melodies of the sea. It’s sorrowful and lovely and the crowd gives her coin after each performance. She leaves notes for her sisters in bottles, plays for them on the rare occasion they can meet, and keeps traveling.
She meets people and leaves them just as quickly, goes with a traveling blacksmith to the mountains, so high she can run her hands through low hanging clouds.
Each step hurts a little less.
The ache will never go away, a reminder of the life she traded away, but Ariel looks down the mountain and sees the whole world stretched out in front of her, bathed in the golden light of dawn, and falls in love all over again.