The moon watched with the nonchalance of heaven as I lay wakeful in my bed, listening to the waves slap against the marble steps of my palace, listening to the wind and the surf weeping for my death. Tonight the ocean's grief was gentle, but I could not sleep. I hated the ocean, the fear that flowed in on the tide, the waves that wore at my limestone courage. My mother, who clung to the delusion saltwater was an elixir of immortality, had banished me to the palace for the summer. She still believed I might recover from my consumption, though I grew weaker with every passing day. Locked in my room, I read Socrates and Plato with my tutor, Mr. Alexander. I was too weak for swimming, too old for sandcastles and hope.
At dawn the fishing boats swarmed like butterflies into the harbor. The aroma of rosemary flowed down from the hills behind the city. I watched the moon from my bedroom window as it dwindled from a glowing ball to a flat smear like a cloud in the sky. The fog was lifting from the steps of the palace where a girl sat with her feet dangling in the water and her long hair spread over her body. She did not move when a seagull landed beside her.
At first I thought the girl was a trick of the fog or a streak of phosphorescence on the stairs, but she remained even when the daylight changed the marble walls of the palace from gray to the pale pink of sea coral. After my wakeful night, I fretted to escape from the paneled walls of my room and the gargoyle faces that leered at me from the iron bedposts. I tiptoed past Mr. Alexander's door (he was snoring), down the quiet hallway with the frescoes and the statues of nereids and mermaids and out into the sunlight.
The girl turned her head as I descended the staircase toward her. Her eyes were as empty and tranquil as a newborn goddess'. Salt had dried on her arms and legs and the hair that barely concealed her nakedness.
"My name is Prince Maximilian," I said. "What's yours?"
Her teeth chattered from the cold so violently she could not respond. I covered her body with my dressing gown, trying not to stare at her.
"Where did you come from?" I asked.
She pointed to the waves that broke over the palace steps.
"Were you shipwrecked?"
"I am sea-born. My name is Hespatia. I have come for your help."
She spoke as carefully as a child counting shells on the beach. I could not look away from her eyes. They were as strange and clouded as the light and shadow in a forest of kelp or the spotted fish that feed from the walls of an underwater castle. Pictures moved and changed in their depths, like the scenes on a tapestry that had come to life.
Her legs confined in scale, she stared up through the green water at a boy who floated on its surface. The boy had my face. Then she swam in blue darkness where a woman with dozens of arms gave her a vial of sunlight.
"Don't drink it," I said.
Too late. Her mouth opened in a scream as silent as a yawn. She fell backward on the sand where she writhed like a stranded fish. The scales popped and melted back into her eyes that were as pale as the froth on the waves.
"If you love me—" she said.
"Don't tell me," I groaned. "You want an immortal soul."
"Will you help me?"
She waited for my answer with her hands folded like a saint's in a church window and her face white with expectation. My heart sank as I looked at her.
"Hespatia," I said. "Let me tell you a story."
She nodded. "I'm listening."
Long ago men believed the breath of life came down from heaven and returned there when they died. The love between a man and a mermaid would transfer that breath (which men called soul) from the lover to the beloved. Then Mr. Darwin discovered men arose from the waves. Through eons of time, they learned to reason and walk upright, but none of their stories could make them immortal. Like their forbearers, they had no souls.
Hespatia was born of sea foam and would return to the sea when she died. But I was dust and would return to dust. Neither of us would see the feather-winged angels on the tropic shores of heaven. Heaven was one of my nurse's tales, as mythical as the island of Atlantis.
Mr. Alexander explained it all to me. He was the only person I could talk to about death. My mother grew hysterical and my father made awkward reassurances when I mentioned my sickness, but Mr. Alexander described to me without embarrassment or apology the process of deterioration in a consumptive.
"First, breathing becomes difficult, followed by bloody sputum and fever and chills. Then—death."
"What happens after you die?" I asked.
"Nothing," he said. "Oblivion. But nothingness is peaceful, like floating on the ocean waves."
I did not tell Mr. Alexander I was afraid of death, of sinking beneath the waves and never again returning to the knowledge of myself.
Hespatia trembled as I finished my story, her hands fluttering around her face like startled birds. Then she clutched at her heart as though I had impaled her on despair.
"I'm sorry," I said.
She rose from the staircase, yanking the folds of the dressing gown around her body, and stumbled down the palace hill. I followed her past the rosebushes that bloomed in terracotta pots along the wall, past the stone nereids that smiled through the climbing vines. Her first steps were limping, but her walk grew firmer as she descended the hill toward the bleached wooden houses of the town.
Shafts of sunlight fell on the stone streets and the boats tied along the pier. Fishermen, unloading their nets, pointed and stared at the dressing gown as Hespatia crossed a graveyard and halted before the tangled line of the sea.
Her eyes were empty now as two vast tracks of water. I shivered despite the heat rising from the stone. The sunlight that poured down on us was searing, stabbing.
"If you love me—" she said.
Of course I wanted to help her, but what could I do? A storybook prince would grant her desire with a kiss. But in stories, love had power. It could halt the progress of consumption. It could bring into existence a soul. Love was not a toy boat tossed on the ocean or a castle made of sand.
The sky blurred in tears of self-pity as the familiar pain filled my lungs. I sat on the ground and covered my mouth and coughed. The taste of the blood was sour.
Hespatia crouched beside me.
"I want a soul as much as you do," I said.
She put her arms around my shoulders. Though Mr. Alexander did his best to comfort me with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, I missed my mother's embrace. Hespatia smelled wild and briny, an odor too strong to be pleasant in a person, but her hair felt like cool water under my fingers.
"How old are you, Maximilian?" she asked.
"Sixteen." I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and laughed. "Too young to die."
I showed her the bloody spit on my palm. "I'll be dead by the end of the summer. I wish I could help you."
"It doesn't matter." Her face grew distant, as if she were looking upward through deep water. "Maybe I was sent to help you."
She smiled, the distance fading from her eyes. "I'm hungry. You can feed me, can't you?"
My lips stretched into an unfamiliar smile. "That I can do."
The First Day
Mr. Alexander glanced up from the washbasin as I entered his room.
"Maximilian, why aren't you in bed—?"
The wet towel dropped to the floor. He stared at Hespatia, his mouth opening and closing. In the darkened room she had the purity of a leaf or flower, carried in from the sunlight to shame the heaviness of carved wood and figured bronze. She was elemental, transparent as water, like snow the rest of the world seemed stained beside her brightness.
"You're a queer item of flotsam," Mr. Alexander said. "Were you shipwrecked?"
She gazed into his eyes until he fidgeted and looked away. He was frowning, the wrinkles from philosophy and fear written deep into his face.
"The Great Severance ended the dealings and unions between our kind and yours," he said. "Men drove the sea-born to the north through their wars and commerce, cruelty and greed—"
"And disbelief," Hespatia said. "The sea-born cannot abide doubt."
He laughed nervously. "But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar," he quoted. "No wonder the sea-born avoid us when we find our own company oppressive. Despair and doubt are the curse of our time."
"Men grow colder in the age of the world," Hespatia said.
"A Jeremiah with fins and flippers," he replied. "They sent us the whale in place of Jonah." He laughed at his own joke. "Don't expect eternal life in exchange for your warning, though I can offer you a bed and supper. How long do you intend to stay?"
"Three days," she said.
Mr. Alexander called for a maid, who hustled Hespatia out the door. Then he returned to making faces in the mirror above the washbasin.
"What a siren," he said. "Enough to make a man wish he had a soul. Does she have designs on you?"
"You're pale, Maximilian."
"I couldn't sleep last night."
"Have it your way," he said. "But if you're wise, you'll go to bed—"
Footsteps and the breathless rush of the servant's voice interrupted us. I had enough time to move to the center of the room and run my fingers through my hair before the door banged open against the wall. Hespatia appeared in the doorway wearing a violet dress and a string of pearls on the pale skin beneath her throat.
"Now you get her some proper sustenance," the servant said to me in parting.
Hespatia moved with the grace of a sparrow along the tiled hall, past the frescoes of gentlemen and ladies sporting in a garden, past the silver picture frames that encircled my ancestors. My grandmother frowned at us from the wall above the dining room doorway. She had run away with a sea king in her youth, though a few years later she returned to land. She had an amphibious heart, my nurse had said, half on the shore and half in the water . . .
In the dining room I seated Hespatia on a high-backed mahogany chair and took a place across from her.
While we were waiting for Mr. Alexander, I told her a story to keep the mood light. I had once played a prank on Mr. Alexander by perfuming his only clean cravat. Hespatia did not smile during the story.
"What is a cravat?" she asked.
Then Mr. Alexander arrived and made a great show throughout the meal of serving Hespatia, never letting her make a move of her own if he could forestall it. He kept her plate piled with food and even cut her meat for her. When the meal was over, he laid aside her napkin.
"You might have stayed in the north," he said, "instead of swimming here to fill this boy's head with fairy tales and lies."
"I don't understand," Hespatia said.
She seemed shaken by the unexpectedness of the attack.
"It's a wicked thing to do to a dying boy. He's too young to marry you and too sick for deceit and disappointment. If you hurt him, I will throw you back into the ocean so quickly—"
"I'm not hurting him," Hespatia said.
They glared at each other across the table. The tail of Mr. Alexander's wig was as stiff as an irate cat's. Hespatia's eyes burned like lantern fish.
"Do you mean love and heaven when you say fairy tales and lies?" she asked. "If so, I would rather accept my lies than your truth, my foolishness than your wisdom."
"Clear eyes are better than false hope," he said.
"Heaven is real," she said. "And so is love."
"Please—" I interrupted.
They tore their eyes away from each other long enough to look at me.
"I want her to stay."
Mr. Alexander gazed at me for the time it would take to count to ten. Then he sighed, and his face collapsed in a net of wrinkles.
"Have it your way, Maximilian."
Late that afternoon in my room, Hespatia sat before the window and watched the waves crash on the steps of the palace. I lay in my bed with the blanket pulled over my face to shut out the sunlight and the hungry slap of the water. But I could not block out the longing that radiated from her presence.
"Mr. Alexander doesn't like you," I said.
She answered without turning from the window. "Do you like me, Maximilian?"
"Of course I like you."
"Do you love me?" she asked.
Why must she dash her heart against the impossible? She could not shape her destiny as the water carved the earth and rock. She would be broken instead as the ocean broke against the marble stair.
"Hespatia, I can't help you."
I would keep my heart in one piece, despite her siren talk of love and hope and heaven. Love was a toy boat, a castle made of sand, and hope a mirage in the desert. As for heaven . . . There was no heaven, but nothingness like a dark wave.
"I hate going to sleep," I said. "It's like—dying. You disappear."
She was leaning out the window, her face buried in her hands.
"Only until the morning," she said.
"Will you tell me a story?"
The moon climbed into the sky as she sang, looking from her marble prison on the home she had abandoned, of the coral catacombs, the seaweed growing from the eyeholes of skulls and the sea foam.
"But that is too sad for sleeping," she said, and sang again of a kraken-hunt and sea horse races and a treasure ship drowned beneath the waves.
The Second Day
Mr. Alexander bowed stiffly to Hespatia at the breakfast table. The chink of the silverware on the pewter plates was the only sound during the meal. When we had pushed back our chairs, he announced it was time for lessons.
"Stern daughter of the voice of God, Maximilian," he said. "Books are the best teachers. Right, miss?"
He had taken to calling Hespatia "miss" with an ironic inflection.
I sighed at the thought of returning to the darkness of the schoolroom, its walls cross-hatched like a dungeon's with metal bars painted the color of gold, and of translating with my ill-tempered pedagogue the account by Plato of the dinner at Agathon's house.
"Nature is a teacher also," Hespatia said.
"And what does nature teach?" Mr. Alexander asked with a gleam in his eye.
She declined a second argument. "That young boys, especially sick ones, should get fresh air."
"Please, Mr. Alexander!" I said. "I'll do my lessons tomorrow."
"Oh very well," he grumbled.
I took Hespatia's hand, delighted, and led her out into the terraced garden. A stone wall separated our terrace from the one below it and the long drop to the ocean. The white foam splashed along the shoreline fringed with the olive green of palms.
I plucked a rose from the jars that lined the wall, ignoring the sting of its thorns, and offered it to Hespatia.
For a moment, as she looked into my eyes, images moved in their agitated depths. She sat beside me with a crown on her head. White petals showered like snow on our lifted faces. Then she smoothed the pictures away in a smile.
"Consider the resurrection of the roses," she said. "If you will not listen to me, let nature teach you to hope."
"Nature teaches that dust returns to dust," I said. "I want to help you, but Mr. Alexander is right. I'm too young for marriage."
"Are you too young for love?" she asked.
A toy boat, a castle made of sand . . .
"I am too old," I said stiffly, "for love and storybook nonsense."
What did she expect of me? I could not create a soul for her out of kelp or coral, salt or sea spume. I was no god. I was not even a man, only a child and an invalid. If I were a storybook prince, I would love her.
In stories love had power. In stories men went to heaven when they died . . . in stories they deserved heaven . . . in stories they got what they deserved . . .
"You are selfish," she said.
"I'm dying, and I want to forget. Is that selfish?"
"All of us are dying."
"Then forget with me," I said.
The Third Day
The princes of old had ordered the sea-born to dance before them on bleeding feet and with bleeding hearts. That night Hespatia danced for me as lightly as the leaves caught in the wind. She circled faster and faster on the parquet floor, her skirt twirling around her knees like the petals of a flower. The piano keys jangled, and the audience clapped their hands in unison to the dance whose movements reminded me of the swoop of gulls over the cliffs, of the rise and fall of the ocean waves. Hespatia stopped amid the laughter and applause and beckoned for me to join her.
I placed my cup on the glass surface of a table and crossed the floor, my shoes tapping the parquet. Now the watchers wore smiles I longed to wipe off their faces. I scowled at Hespatia as I took her hands, which were as smooth and cool as pebbles shaped by the water. The piano murmured of the lily flowers like the thin fingers of dead men, of the moon that watched its face in a quiet pool. Hespatia leaned against my chest, insubstantial and light as a clot of sea spume. She had no scent now, as if the air had dried it from her. Only a trace of salt and brine rose from the sleek head that rested on my shoulder.
"Hespatia," I muttered, pushing her away.
The song ended, and I led her off the floor. One of the guests, a woman, stepped in front of us. She wore enough beauty marks to furnish half a dozen courtesans of France, and the crown on her head was made of knotted silver snakes. I smiled politely and tried to pass her, but she moved again to block us.
"Innocence," she said, pinching my cheek in a manner I had long outgrown. "What wouldn't I give to blush again (I was blushing), and dance with a sweetheart for the first time, and say my prayers at night."
"I don't pray," I said. "And I have danced before. Excuse me."
She prodded Hespatia in her slender middle. "Do you believe kissing this princess will make her immortal?"
"No," I said. "I outgrew fairy tales."
The woman shouted with laughter. The snakes in her crown seemed to rattle and hiss, as if they shared her mirth, and the stink of sulfur filled the room. I backed away from her, startled.
"Take your hands off me, witch!" Hespatia said.
The woman started to push Hespatia, and there might have been a struggle if Mr. Alexander had not come up behind us, taking Hespatia by the elbow and me by the ear.
"That's no way to speak to guests," he said, dragging us away.
Ensconced behind a potted palm, I turned to Hespatia, breathless from my escape from Mr. Alexander.
"Was that really a witch?" I asked.
Hespatia looked through the fronds of the palm at the guests, who were leaving the dance floor to flock around the tables.
"Yes, but she's just a jealous, meddling old woman. She can't hurt me."
"What did you give in exchange for her help? Not your voice."
"I served one year in her palace. I've already paid her, but she's like a shark, drawn to the smell of unhappiness," Hespatia said.
Her pale face had spots of crimson like a consumptive's hectic. The witch had said I was young enough to blush, but Hespatia, when she first arrived, had been too young for blushing. She was older now. The emptiness of her eyes, once filled with gleaming fish and seashells, held pictures of my narrow face and bitter smile.
Then her tears changed the pictures to a prism of colors that ran and melted on her cheeks. She bent to cover her face, caught and shaken in a current of grief.
What was the use of loving her? Love could do nothing. It was a toy boat, a castle made of sand. But if she wanted me to say it . . .
"Very well. I love you."
She looked into my eyes. Their eagerness trembled like moving water, broken light. Then she sighed.
"You don't love me, only yourself. I don't know if you can love."
"That's not true!"
But I was frightened.
"Let's go outdoors," she said. "I'm tired of dancing."
I followed her into the darkness. The sky was tiled with clouds of blue and lilac. The moon looked down through a peephole in the clouds, shining on the boats tied along the pier.
Hespatia sat like a figurehead in the prow of the boat, watching the water slip past under the stroke of my oars. The pain in my lungs reminded me that each breath carried me closer to death's shore. But I had no fear or anger to spare for myself.
I had never wanted a soul badly enough for suffering or exile, never sought further than the wisdom of Mr. Alexander. I had accepted without question his dogma of dust and sea foam. But she, the wanderer, the truth-seeker, had not accepted.
What would she get in exchange for her suffering and her exile? She would die at sunrise and revert to the foam on the waves. Then all her talk of hope and heaven, her beauty and her beating heart, would change to no more than white froth I could hold in my hands like soap or shaving cream. She would be nothing.
"I'm sorry," I said. "If I had a soul, I would give it to you—"
If I were a storybook prince—
If I were not dying—
If, if, if.
My heart was as cold and selfish as she claimed. I loved only myself.
"Maximilian, look at me."
When I looked into her eyes, I saw her. No more pictures or reflections of my own face, but herself, Hespatia, her hands turned upward in renunciation as she waited for the touch of human lips. I kissed her.
As I straightened, blushing, she was the same as before. Except for the smile of rapture, she looked no different than she had the day I found her seated on the stair of my palace. Her hair lay on her shoulders in a pattern as intricate as the rood screen in the village church. Her skin looked as if it might melt in the heat of the rising sun.
But she did not melt in sunlight. Or in sea foam. She remained, smiling, as the boat slid to a halt in the shallows and I carried her up the palace steps.
Once men believed the breath of life came down from heaven and returned there when they died. The love between a man and a mermaid would transfer that breath from the lover to the beloved. A storybook prince would save the princess with a kiss.
I believe it, too.
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