Mermaids by Louisa May Alcott

Story type: Literature

“I wish I were a sea-gull or a fish or a mermaid; then I could swim as much as I like, and not have to stay on this stupid dry land all day,” said Nelly, as she sat frowning and punching holes in the sand one summer morning, while the waves came murmuring up on the beach, and a fresh wind sang its pleasant song.

The little girl loved to bathe so well that she wanted to be in the water all the time, and had been forbidden to go into the sea for a day or two because she had a cold. So she was in a pet, and ran away from her playmates to sit and sulk in a lonely spot among the rocks. She had been watching the gulls fly and float, with their white wings shining as they dipped down or soared away in the sunshine. As she wished her wish a very large one swept down upon the sand before her, and startled her by saying in a hoarse tone, as she stared at its bright eyes, the red ring round its neck, and the little tuft on its head,–

“I am the King of the gulls, and I can grant any one of your wishes. Which will you be,–a fish, a bird, or a mermaid?”

“People say there are no mermaids,” stammered Nelly.

“There are; only mortals cannot see them unless I give the power. Be quick! I don’t like the sand. Choose, and let me be off!” commanded the Great Gull, with an impatient flutter of its wide wings.

“Then I’ll be a mermaid, please. I always wanted to see one, and it must be very nice to live always in the water.”

“Done!” said the gull, and was gone like a flash.

Nelly rubbed her eyes, and looked about her rather scared; but nothing had happened to her yet, and she was just going to complain that the bird had cheated her, when the sound of soft voices made her climb the rock behind her to see who was singing down there.

She nearly fell off again when she spied two pretty little creatures floating to and fro on the rocking waves. Both had long brown hair, green eyes as clear as crystal, pale faces, and the sweetest voices Nelly had ever heard. But the strange thing was that each little body ended in a shining tail,–one all golden, the other all silver scales. Their little breasts and arms were white as foam, and they wore bracelets of pearls, strings of rosy shells about their necks, and garlands of gay sea-weed in their hair. They were singing as they rocked, and throwing bubbles to and fro as if playing ball. They saw Nelly in a moment, and tossing a great rainbow-colored bubble toward her, cried gayly,–

“Come and play, little friend. We know you, and have often tried to make you see us when you float and dive so bravely in our sea.”

“I long to come; but it is so deep there and the waves are so rough that I should be dashed on the rocks,” answered Nelly, charmed to see real mermaids at last, and eager to go to them.

“We came for you. The King-gull told us to call you. Slip off your clothes and spring down to us; then we will change you, and you can have your wish,” said the mermaids, holding up their arms to her.

“My mother said I must not go into the sea,” began Nelly, sadly.

“What is a mother?” asked one little sea-maid, while the other laughed as if the word amused her.

“Why, don’t you know? Don’t you have fathers and mothers down there?” cried Nelly, so surprised that she forgot her wish for a moment.

“No; we are born of the moon and the sea, and we have no other parents,” said Goldfin, the shining one.

“How dreadful!” exclaimed Nelly. “Who takes care of you, and where do you live? Without fathers and mothers you cannot have any home.”

“We take care of ourselves. All the sea is our home, and we do as we please. Come, come, and see how gay it is!” called Silver-tail, the other mermaid, tossing bubbles like a juggler till the air was full of them as they sailed away on the wind.

Now, if Nelly had not been angry with her good mamma just then, and ready for any disobedience, she would never have been so naughty, or have gone to play with such strange friends. She was very curious to see how they lived, and be able to relate her adventures when she came back, as she was sure she would, all safe and sound. So she dropped her clothes on the rock and splashed into the green pool below, glad to show off her fine swimming. But Goldfin and Silver-tail caught her and bade her drink the spray they held in their hands.

“Sea water is salt and bitter; I don’t like it,” said Nelly, holding back.

“Then you cannot be like us. Drink, and in a moment see what will happen!” cried Goldfin.

Nelly swallowed the cold drops and caught her breath, for a dreadful pain shot through her from her head to her feet, while the mermaids chanted some strange words and waved their hands over her. It was gone in an instant, and she felt like a cork floating on the water. She wondered, till glancing down she saw that her little white legs were changed to a fish’s tail of many colors, which gently steered her along as the waves rippled against her breast.

“Now I am a mermaid,” she cried, and looked into the pool to see if her eyes were green, her face pale, and her hair like curly brown sea-weed.

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No; she had her child’s face still, with rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and yellow curls. She was not disappointed, however, for she thought it a prettier face than the moony ones of her new playmates; so she laughed and said gayly,–

“Now you will play with me and love me, won’t you?”

“What is love?” asked Silver-tail, staring at her.

“Why, when people love they put their arms round one another and kiss, and feel happy in their hearts,” answered Nelly, trying to explain the beautiful word.

“How do you kiss?” asked Goldfin, curiously.

Nelly put an arm round the neck of each, and softly kissed them on their cold wet lips.

“Don’t you like it? Is it sweet?” she asked.

“I feel that you are warmer than I, but I think oysters taste better,” said one; and the other added,–

“Mermaids have no hearts, so that does not make us happier.”

“No hearts?” cried Nelly, in dismay. “Can’t you love? Don’t you know about souls and being good, and all that?”

“No,” laughed the mermaids, shaking their heads till the drops flew about like pearls. “We have no souls, and don’t trouble about being good. We sing and swim and eat and sleep; is not that enough to make us happy?”

“Dear me, how queer they are!” thought Nelly, half afraid, yet very anxious to go with them and see more of this curious sea-life of which they had spoken. “Don’t you care about me at all, and don’t you want me to stay with you a little while?” she asked, wondering how she should get on with creatures who could not love her.

“Oh yes, we like you as a new playmate, and are glad you came to see us. You shall have our bracelets to wear, and we will show you all kinds of pretty things down below, if you are not afraid to come,” answered the mermaids, dressing her in their garlands and necklaces, and smiling at her so sweetly that she was ready to follow as they swam away with her far out on the great billows that tossed them to and fro but could not drown or harm them now.

Nelly enjoyed it very much, and wondered why the fishermen in their boats did not try to catch them, till she learned that mermaids were invisible and were never caught. This made her feel very safe, and after a fine game of play she let her friends take her by the hand and sink down to the new world below. She expected to find it very gay and splendid, with sea-coral trees growing everywhere, palaces of pearl, and the ground covered with jewels; but it was dim and quiet. Great weeds fanned to and fro as the water stirred them; shells lay about on the sand, and queer creatures crawled or swam everywhere.

The green sea-water was the sky, and ships cast their shadows like clouds over the twilight world below. Several gray-bearded old mermen sat meditating in nooks among the rocks, and a few mermaids lay asleep in the great oyster-shells that opened to receive them and their beds of sea-weed. A soft murmur was in the air like the sound one hears in shells, and nowhere did Nelly see any toys or food or fun of any sort.

“Is this the way you live?” she asked, trying not to show how disappointed she was.

“Isn’t it lovely?” answered Goldfin. “This is my bed, and you shall have the shell between Silver-tail and me. See! it is lined with mother-of-pearl, and has a soft cushion of our best sea-weeds to lie on.”

“Are you hungry?” asked Silver-tail. “Come and have some shrimps for dinner,–I know a fine place for them,–or oysters if you like them better.”

Nelly was ready to eat anything, the sea air had given her such a fine appetite; so they swam away to gather the pretty pink shrimps in scallop shells, as little girls gather strawberries in baskets; then they sat down to eat them, and Nelly longed for bread and butter, but dared not say so. She was so surprised at all she saw, that this queer, cold lunch was soon forgotten in the wonderful tales the mermaids told her, as they cracked snails and ate them like nuts, or pulled the green sea-apples tasting like pickled limes from the vines that climbed up the rocks.

“You don’t seem to have a very large family, or have the others gone to a party somewhere?” asked Nelly, rather tired of the quiet.

“No; there never are many of us. A new brood will be out soon, and then there will be some little mer-babies to play with. We will show you the Wonder-tree, if you are done eating, and tell you all about it,” answered Silver-tail, floating away with a wave of the hand.

Nelly and Goldfin followed to a lonely place, where a tall plant grew up from the sand till its branches reached the air above and spread out like floating weeds covered with little pods like those we often snap under our feet as they lie dry upon the beach.

“Only a few of these will bloom; for there never are many mermaids in the sea, you know. It takes long for the tree to reach the light, and it cannot blossom unless the full moon shines on it at midnight; then these buds open, and the water-babies swim away to grow up like us,” said Silver-tail.

“Without any nurses to take care of them, or mothers to pet them?” asked Nelly, thinking of the pretty baby at home with whom she was so fond of playing.

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“They take care of themselves, and when there are too many in one place the old mermen send away some to another ocean; so we get on quietly, and there is room for all,” said Goldfin, contentedly.

“And when you die, what happens?” asked Nelly, much interested in these queer creatures.

“Oh, we grow older and grayer and sit still in a corner till we turn to stone and help make these rocks. I’ve been told by Barnacle, the old one yonder, that people sometimes find marks of our hands or heads or fins in the stone, and are very much puzzled to know what kind of fish or animal made the prints; that is one of our jokes;” and both the mermaids laughed as if they enjoyed bewildering the wits of the people who were so much wiser than they.

“Well, I think it is much nicer to be buried under grass and flowers when our souls have flown away to heaven,” said Nelly, beginning to be glad she was not a “truly” mermaid.

“What is heaven?” asked Silver-tail, stupidly.

“You would not understand if I tried to tell you. I can only say it is a lovely place where we go when we die, and the angels don’t puzzle over us at all, but love us and are glad to see us come,” said Nelly, soberly.

Both little maids stared at her with their green eyes as if they wanted to understand, but gave it up, and with a whisk of their shining tails darted away, calling to her,–

“Come and play with the crabs; it’s great fun.”

Nelly was rather afraid of crabs, they nipped her toes so when she went among them; but having no feet now, she felt braver, and was soon having a gay time chasing them over the rocks, and laughing to see them go scrambling sidewise into their holes. The green lobsters amused her very much by the queer way they hitched along, with their great claws ready to grasp and hold whatever they wanted. It was funny to see them wipe their bulging eyes with their feelers and roll them about on all sides. The hermit crabs in their shells were curious, and the great snails popping out their horns; the sea-spiders were very ugly, and she shook with fear when the horrible Octopus went by, with his eight long arms waving about like snakes and his hooked beak snapping.

“Show me something pretty,” she begged; “I don’t like these ugly things. Haven’t you any flowers or birds or animals here to play with?”

“Oh yes, here are our sea anemones, yellow, red, and white, all blooming in their beds; and these lovely plants of every color which you call weeds. Then there are the coral trees, far away, which we will show you some day, and the sponges on the rocks, and many other curious things,” answered Goldfin, leading Nelly up and down to see the only flowers they had. Then Silver-tail said,–

“She will like the nautilus boats and the flying fish, and a ride on the dolphins and whales. Come and let her see that we have birds and animals as well as she.”

Up they went; and when Nelly saw the lovely red and blue creatures like a fleet of fairy boats floating over the waves, she clapped her hands and cried,–

“We have nothing so beautiful on the land! How delicate and fair they are! Won’t the wind tear them to pieces and the storms wreck them?”

“Watch and see!” answered the mermaids, well pleased at her delight; and as a gust blew by every silken sail was furled, the lovely colors vanished, and the fairy boats sank out of sight safely to the bottom of the sea.

“Our sailors can’t do that,” said Nelly; “and when our ships go down they never come up again.”

Just then some fish flew over their heads and splashed down again, while the gulls snapped at them in vain.

“Those are our birds, and here are our horses. People call them porpoises, but we call them dolphins, and have many a fine gallop on their backs,” said Goldfin, as a school of great creatures came gambolling by.

Up sprang the mermaids, and went swiftly dashing through the water with high leaps now and then, as their sea-horses reared and plunged, tossing their tails and waving their fins as if they enjoyed the frolic. Nelly did, and wished to ride longer; but a whale appeared, and her playmates went to climb on his back and hear the news from the North Sea. It was like a moving island, and they sat under the fountain as he spouted water and rolled about lazily basking in the sun after his cold voyage.

“Don’t we have good times?” asked Silver-tail, when they slid down the slippery sides of the monster and climbed up again as if coasting.

“Splendid! I like to be a mermaid and have no lessons to study, no work to sew, no nurse to scold me, and no mamma to forbid my swimming as much as I choose,” said naughty Nelly; but as she spoke and looked toward the land now far away, a little pain went through her heart to remind her that she was not a real mermaid, and still had a conscience, though she would not listen to it.

They played all the afternoon, had an oyster supper, and went early to bed to get a good nap before midnight, because the moon was full and they hoped the Wonder-tree would bloom before morning.

Nelly liked the quiet now; and the soft song of the sea lulled her to sleep, to dream of sailing in a nautilus boat till a dreadful cuttle-fish came after her and she woke in a fright, wondering to find herself lying on a bed of wet weeds in a great shell.

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“Come away; it is time, and a lovely night,” called the mermaids, and with several new friends they all hurried up to watch the buds open when the moon kissed them.

The sea shone like silver; the stars seemed to float there as well as in the sky, and the wind blew off the shore bringing the sweet smell of hay-fields and gardens. All the sea people sang as they lay rocking on the quiet waves, and Nelly felt as if this were the strangest, loveliest dream she had ever dreamed.

By and by the moon shone full upon the Wonder-tree, and one by one out popped the water-babies, looking like polliwogs, only they had little faces and arms instead of fins. Lively mites they were, swimming away at once in a shoal like minnows, while the older mermaids welcomed them and gave them pretty names as the tiny things came to peep at them and dart between the hands that tried to grasp them. Till dawn they kept in the moonlight, growing fast as they learned to use their little tails and talk in small, sweet voices; but when day came they all sank down to the bottom of the sea, and went to sleep in the shell cradles made ready for them. That was all the care they needed, and after that they had no nursing, but did what they liked, and let the older ones play with them like dolls.

Nelly had several pets, and tried to make them love and mind her; but the queer little creatures laughed in her face when she talked to them, darted away when she wanted to kiss them, and stood on their heads and waggled their bits of tails when she told them to be good. So she let them alone, and amused herself as well as she could with other things; but soon she grew very tired of this strange, idle life, and began to long for some of the dear old plays and people and places she used to like so much.

Every one was kind to her; but nobody seemed to love her, to care when she was good, or wish to make her better when she was selfish or angry. She felt hungry for something all the time, and often sad, though she hardly knew why. She dreamed about her mother, and sometimes woke up feeling for baby, who used to creep into her bed and kiss her eyes open in the morning. But now it was only a water-baby, who would squirm away like a little eel and leave her to think about home and wonder if they missed her there.

“I can’t go back, so I must forget,” she said, and tried to do it; but it was very hard, and she half wished she was a real mermaid with no heart at all.

“Show me something new; I’m tired of all these plays and sights and toys,” she said one day, as she and her two playmates sat stringing little silver and rosy shells for necklaces.

“We are never tired,” said Goldfin.

“You haven’t any minds, and don’t think much or care to know things. I do, and I want to learn a little or make some one happy if I can,” said Nelly, soberly, as she looked about the curious world she lived in and saw what a dim, cold, quiet place it was, with the old mermen turning to stone in their nooks, the lazy mermaids rocking in their shells or combing their hair, and the young ones playing like so many stupid little fishes in the sun.

“We can’t go to the South Sea yet, and we have nothing more to show you unless a great storm comes up,” said Silver-tail.

“Perhaps she would like a wreck; there is a new one not far off,” proposed Goldfin. “A big ship went over a small one, and it sank very soon. One of Mother Carey’s chickens told me about it this morning, and I thought we might go and see it before it is all spoiled. Things that men make never last very long in our sea.”

“Yes, let us go; I long to see and touch something my people made. Your world is wonderful, but I begin to think my own is the best, for me at least,” said Nelly, as they left their pearls and swam away to the wreck, which lay down among the rocks, fast going to pieces. “Where are the people?” she asked, as they were about to float in at the broken windows and doors. She was very much afraid that she might see some poor drowned creature, and it would trouble her, though the mermaids might not care.

“Little Chick said they were all saved. It was a fruit-ship, and there were only a few passengers. One lady and child and some men went away in the boats to the shore, but left everything else behind.”

“I’m so glad!” cried Nelly, feeling her heart warm in her breast at the good news about the mother and little child.

The ship had been loaded with oranges, and the sand was covered with boxes of them broken open, and letting the fruit float to the top of the water. Much was spoiled, but some was still good, and Nelly told the mermaids to taste and see if oranges were not better than salt sea-apples. They did not like them, but played ball with the golden things till Nelly proposed that they should toss some on the shore for the fishermen’s children. That suited them; and soon the beach was covered with oranges, and the poor little people were running and screaming with delight to pick up this splendid feast.

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“I wish there were some pretty things to give them; but there are only the sailors’ bags of clothes all wet, and those are not nice,” said Nelly, enjoying this game very much; for she was homesick and longed to hear human voices and see faces like her own. She wanted to do something for some one, and be loved a little. So she peeped all about the ship, and at last, in one cabin better than the others, she found the toys and clothes of the little child and its mother. She was very glad of that, and, knowing how children love their own things and cry when they are lost, she gathered up all that were not spoiled, and made Goldfin and Silver-tail help her carry them to the shore, where people had gathered to save whatever came from the wreck.

There was great rejoicing when these small treasures came ashore, and they were carried to the house where the lady and the child were. This pleased Nelly very much, and even the lazy mermaids found the new game pleasant; so they went on floating things to the beach, even the heavy bags with the poor sailors’ clothes, wet books, and boxes, which otherwise would have been lost. No one could see Goldfin and Silver-tail, but now and then some child would cry out, when Nelly lingered to look and listen through the foam and spray,–

“Oh, I saw a face over there,–a dear little face, very pretty but sad, and a hand waved at me! Could it be a mermaid?”

Then some older person would say,–

“Nonsense, child! there are no mermaids. It is only the reflection of your own face in the water. Come away, or the tide will catch you.”

If Nelly had not been partly human this could not have happened; and though no one believed in her, she took comfort in the thought that she was not all a fish, and loved to linger where she could see the children at play long after Goldfin and Silver-tail had grown tired of them and gone back to their own affairs.

The longer she stayed the more sad she grew; for the land seemed pleasanter now than the sea,–the green, dry, warm land, with the flowers and trees, birds and lambs, and dear people to love and care for her. Even school looked like a happy place; and when she thought of her own home, where mother and Baby were, her heart was so full of longing for them that her tears dropped into the sea, and she held out her arms, crying sadly,–

“Oh, mamma, dear mamma, forgive me, love me, and help me to come back to you!”

No one answered, no one came; and poor Nelly sank sobbing down to cry herself to sleep in her pearl-lined bed, with no good-night kiss to comfort her.

Every day she longed more and more to go home, and grew more and more tired of the sea and all in it. The mermaids could not amuse her nor understand her sorrow; so she went to wise old Barnacle and asked him what she should do to be a child again.

“No one but the King of the gulls can change you, my Periwinkle,” said the merman, kindly. “You must wait and watch for him patiently. He is not seen very often; so it may be years before he comes again. Meantime be happy with us, and don’t fret for that very dry land in which we see no beauty.”

This comforted Nelly a good deal, and she spent half her time floating on the waves, calling the gulls, feeding them, and making them her friends, so that they might be sure to tell her when the King came. Other kind things she did, trying to be good; for she knew, though even the wise old merman did not, that naughty people cannot be happy. She gathered all the curious shells she could find, and strewed them on the beach for the children playing there. She popped the cross crabs and lobsters into the nets let down for them, and helped the fishermen to many a good load for market. She sat and sang among the rocks where lonely people could hear the faint sweet music and enjoy it. She watched over the little people when they went bathing, and loved to catch and kiss the rosy babies as they splashed about, and send quiet ripples to refresh the sick ones when their nurses dipped them in the wholesome sea.

She was good to all the wounded fishes who got hurt by the many enemies that haunt the great ocean, and tried to teach the cruel sharks, the ugly octopus, and the lazy snails to be kinder and more industrious. They did not mind her; but it kept her busy, and made her heart tender to try to help all who came near her, and every night when she went to her lonely bed she said hopefully,–

“Perhaps to-morrow the King will come and let me go home. When I do, mamma must find a better Nelly than the naughty, wilful one who ran away.”

She supposed her mother would think her drowned when the clothes were found on the rock, and often mourned over the sorrow she had given those at home. But she cheered herself with imagining the joy her wonderful return would bring, and could hardly wait for that happy time.

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The mermaids were soon going far away to the South Sea for the winter, and begged her to come with them, telling how lovely everything was there,–all about the pearl-divers, the Spice Islands, the coral trees, and the many wonders of that summer world. But Nelly no longer cared for any place but the pretty cottage on the cliff that overlooked the sea, and she was not tempted by any of the fine tales they told.

“No; I’d rather live here all alone where I can see my own people and home, even if I wait years and years before the King comes. I know now what a silly child I was to leave everything that I was made to use and enjoy, and try to be a creature without any soul. I don’t care if my heart does ache; I’d rather be as I am than like you, without any love in you or any wish to be good and wise and happy as we are.”

Goldfin and Silver-tail thought her very ungrateful after she said that, and left her alone. But she did not care; for Father Barnacle was to stay and “stone up,” as they called their queer way of dying. So when all had gone she was very kind to the old merman, who never stirred out of his nook, but sat meditating on the hundred years of his life and wondering what would become of the rock he was slowly to grow a part of.

Nelly did not want him to die yet; so she brought him nice things to eat, sang to him, and asked so many questions that he was forced to keep awake and answer them. Oh, such wonderful stories as he told her! Such interesting histories of sea flowers, fishes, and monsters, such wise lessons in tides and stars, and the mysteries of the great ocean! Nelly would sit on a conch shell and listen for hours, never tired of these new fairy tales.

But she did not forget to watch for the Great Gull, and every day floated near the shore, beckoning every white-winged bird that flew by and asking for tidings of the King. At last he came! Nelly was lying on the waves idly singing to herself, with one hand held up for her pet sandpiper to light upon, when, instead of little Peep, a great silvery bird perched there, and looking up she saw the fiery eye, the red ring about the neck, the crest on the head, and with a joyful splash she cried out,–

“He’s come! he’s come! Oh, dear King, give me another wish, a better wish, and let me be a little girl again.”

“Done!” said the Great Gull, waving his wings over her. “Will you be contented now?”

“I will! I will!” answered Nelly, eagerly.

“Never wilful and disobedient?”

“Never, never!”

“Sure you won’t want to be a bird, a fish, or a mermaid again?”

“Yes, yes; for nothing is so lovely as to be a child.”

“Good!” and suddenly clutching her in his strong claws the gull flew high up in the air as if he were going to take her to his nest and eat her like a fish.

Poor Nelly was sadly frightened; but before she could catch her breath to ask what was to happen, the King said, in a loud voice, “Remember!” and let her drop.

She expected to be dashed on the rocks below, and thought that was to be her punishment, perhaps; but to her great surprise she floated down like a feather, and found herself lying on the sand in her own shape and the very clothes she wore when she went away. She lay a moment enjoying the comfort of being warm and dry, and feeling the dear earth under her.

“Why, darling, how long you have been asleep!” said a voice close by; and starting up Nelly saw her mother stooping over her, while Baby was creeping nearer to laugh and crow as he peeped into her face to see if she was awake.

“Oh, mamma, dear mamma, I am so glad to have you again! I was very naughty, but I’ve learned a lesson, and I’m going to be your good child now,” cried Nelly, holding her mother tight with many kisses.

“Bless the dear! she has been dreaming, and wakes up in a lovely mood,” said mamma, laughing.

“Didn’t you think I was drowned? How long have I been away?” asked Nelly, looking about her as if bewildered.

“About an hour. I was not troubled, for I knew you would not break your promise, dear.”

“Then it was a dream, and I haven’t been a mermaid?” said Nelly.

“I hope not; for I like my little girl just as she is. Tell me the dream while I smooth away these tangles before we go home.”

So, sitting on her mother’s knee, while Baby dug holes in the sand, Nelly told her adventures as well as she could; for now it all seemed dim and far away, and nothing remained clear in her mind but the thought that it was indeed a lovely and a happy thing to be a little child with a heart to feel, a mother to love, and a home to live in till we go to find that other one, fairer than any on the earth or in the sea.

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