The Mermaid's Gift
“Do you know the reward for combing a mermaid’s hair?”
The fisher-boy shakes his head, his sea-colored eyes as unreadable as the moon.
I lean forward, slapping my tail in the surf. The water sprays up around us, cool and salty-sweet. My newly combed hair feels like a cloud flowing around my shoulders. “Three wishes. Anything you can think of, I can grant you.”
“But at what cost?”
I laugh. A flock of seagulls circles, answering the sound with their own low cries. “I see you’ve heard the stories—and been wise enough to listen. That is rare in one so young.” With one webbed hand, I trace the smooth line of his cheekbones. “And one so fair. But if you know the stories, surely you can outwit me.”
He flinches out of my grasp. “I know I cannot.”
“Ah. You are wise indeed, young master.” I touch his face again, just with my fingertips, and this time, he does not pull away. “But will you be foolish enough not to accept my gift?”
“I have nothing to wish for.”
“No?” I lift a fistful of sand from the beach between us and let the grains run out between my fingers. When I open my hand again, three tiny shells sit in the palm. “Then take these.. When you need me, whisper your wish into the shell, and I will grant it.”
“Thank you.” He takes the shells warily, tucking them into his pocket and taking up his net.
By the time he wades back into the sea, I am already gone.
“I wish my wife could get with child..”
I do not recognize the voice at first; it has been years since our chance encounter on the beach. But, as I surface and breathe in the cool night air, I remember the eyes.
The boy—a man now—looks startled to find himself standing on the beach.
“Oh,” he says, and kneels down beside me. “Did you hear my wish?”
“Yes.” I take his rough, work-hardened hands in mine. They still warm from the sun. “You wished for a child..”
“Can you grant it?”
“Good.” He pulls his hands away.
As he turns and walks back to the village, I open my fingers and see what he has left there. A tiny conch glistens wetly in the moonlight.
“I wish my wife could give birth.”
This time, he does not look surprised. As I emerge from the sea, he tosses a shell at me and steps back, out of my reach.
“She’s bleeding—the doctor’s say uncontrollably.” His voice is flat, but I see his fists clenching at his sides. “I want her healthy, and I want the child to live. Can you grant it?”
“Of course.” His pain makes him beautiful. I nearly ache with longing, but I do not try to touch him.
“Good,” he says, and walks back up the beach toward the village.
“I wish my daughter was healthy.”
He starts to hand the shell to me; but this time, I pull away.
“This is your last wish, you know.”
His eyes glisten but did not move.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“My daughter is dying. How could I want anything else?”
I shrug, brushing hair away from my face. “You could let her die and wish for your wife’s next child to be perfect. Haven’t you heard the stories?”
“I have, but that is not what I want..”
“You could wish to live forever. You would have an eternity to make a perfect daughter.”
“That is not what I want.” He drops the shell into the sand. “I wished for my child to be healthy. Can you grant it?”
“Of course,” I sigh.
“Then do it.”
The seagulls hear him coming before I do. They call to me with their laughing voices, beckoning me to shore.
When I surface, I find him sitting on the beach, his face buried in his hands.
“I want my child healed,” he whispers.
“I already healed her. It was your last wish, remember?”
He shakes his head. “She’s sick again. There’s nothing the doctors can do. Please, heal her again.”
“I’m sorry, but I cannot. It was your last wish.”
He reaches for me. I let him touch my face, run his fingers through my hair. “Please. I’ll do anything.”
“It only works once.”
“I know; I’ve heard the stories. Now we talk of cost.” He leans forward, until our foreheads touch, and his sea-eyes fill my vision. “If I offered to trade my life for my child’s, could you do it?”
“No,” I say. My heart pounds in my chest like a wild thing against the bars of its cage. “I won’t do it. Do you know what happens when a mermaid accepts aid from a mortal?”
“I’ve heard the stories. I know you’ve fallen in love.”
I press my lips against his. He doesn’t pull away—but neither does he return my kiss. “Then how can you ask me for such a thing?” I whisper. “How can you ask me to take your life?”
“If you truly understood love, you would know how.”
I sob, plead, but he won’t listen. He gently pushes me away and stands, turning towards the village.
“Where are you going?”
“To find someone who can help me.”
“No, please!” I swallow salt and bitterness. “Don’t leave me. I’ll do it.”
For the first time, I see a smile spread across his face.
He kneels again and offers his hands to me, but I don’t take them.
I lift a tiny shell from the beach, grind it to powder in my hand. The magic rises in my chest, fierce and strong as the tides. I spread my arms like wings and fling myself into the ocean.
Through the darkness, I see his daughter. As water fills my lungs, I see color return to her corpse-pale face. As cold bites into my bones, I see her sit up in bed, stand, walk across the room.
As sea-foam envelops me, I see her father take her into his arms.