Sunday, July 11, 2010
Daughter of the air
I submitted the following piece to Enchanted Conversation's Mermaid contest. I did not win, and I won't be submitting it elsewhere, so here ya go:
Thunder and Bells
It was the little bells, she realized. The little bells the children had tied to the dog’s collar, making him jingle as he bounced around the small garden, chasing them, yapping at them. Only bells. Not waves rushing forward and back over crushed oyster shells and smooth stones.
She had once been a mermaid who loved to loll in the shallows, listening to that sound. Or had one of her sisters told her that? It was getting harder and harder to remember which were true memories, and which were the fragile daydreams of a daughter of the air nearing her three hundredth year.
So many things she had forgotten, but she knew with absolute certainty that she had always loved this: children running, feet bare, shrieking and laughing. Even now, gliding through the branches of an elm, its ridged leaves shimmering as she passed, she forgot about the shore and the ocean, and listened with delight to the children below her.
Focused on the scene – the little black dog would not be caught; his tongue streamed from a shaggy muzzle as he leapt and tore around the garden – she hardly noticed that someone had joined her.
Until he touched her.
A pulse, a beat of thunder, then the crackle of a heated knife.
She nearly shot into the sky.
It had been inadvertent, of course. The boy didn’t even realize she was there, much less that he had touched her. He, too, was focused on the scene below. Gripping his branch, bare feet dangling, he watched his cousins play.
She kept her distance, motionless above him.
It didn’t happen often, these encounters with mortals, but when it did, it was always like this: a storm passing through one, disturbing and electrifying. On these rare occasions, she wondered if, perhaps, this was what it was like to have a soul. Filled with heat, a low fire and its glass cauldron, both. Like being stung by jellyfish when you’ve accidentally brushed against them in the water. Like swallowing the jellyfish.
She wished desperately that her time to receive an immortal soul was near.
Down in the garden, a girl slipped on the wet grass, falling on her side. Pushing herself up, green staining her dress and arms, she looked up into the sky and began to wail.
The boy was gone. In a flash, moving nearly as fast as she could, he had clambered down the tree. Racing over to her, he said, “There, there, Caroline. It’s all right. See?” And he brushed her off and helped her to stand, an arm around her waist. She sniffled against his narrow chest. The dog stopped its maniacal bouncing and cocked its head. After half a minute, the girl started smiling, sheepish, and he smiled too and said they should all go in for ice cream.
And in the heart of the daughter of the air, a scale trembled, settled, and she drifted from the old elm, knowing the day she most longed for was closer yet.
So, this was submitted to -- and lost -- Enchanted Conversation's Mermaid contest. Specifically, we were to familiarize ourselves with the "real" ending to Hans Christian Anderson's tale, The Little Mermaid, and write a piece focusing on what it might be like to be a daughter of the air.
First, my original version was 2300 words, and is now being transfigured into a more traditional ghost story. And thanks very much to Annie, who read through and pointed out the basic flaws in the original. Really, Annie! Thank you!
Second, where I went wrong. Because I did. Very much so.
I dutifully went and read the original fairy tale. Through nearly all of it, I was reading and nodding my head, remembering it. Then, we reached the part at the end where the daughters of the air make their appearance. And I realized that I knew the Disney version of events here.
I was almost horrified. In fact, I found the ending insulting. The author of "Mary Poppins," an Anderson contemporary, called it "blackmail." I agree. At the very least, it seems tacked on and not part of the story that comes before. At the most, it is, indeed, emotional blackmail.
And so, I went from someone who was enthralled by the very term, "daughter of the air," to someone who despised it. And yet, I attempted to write a story. In the longer version, I make it clear my view of the situation these poor creatures are in. And then, when I decided to cut and write a sort-of new story, I still couldn't shake the fact that I was very much upset by HCA's ending.
When we write, we must love our characters. No matter if they're downright evil, or ugly, or just a cardboard stand-in in an egotistical author's little morality tale. And I never could wrap my head around it. I wrote bitterly, and yet, I tried to write a story that was a fairy tale, and beautiful, and ephemeral.
Longest A/N ever. My point is: I learned a valuable lesson here. Just because there's a deadline, if you don't feel it, if you don't love it, don't fucking do it.