Let’s talk about an Ariel who walks away—limping, mouthing inaudible sailors’ curses, a sea-brine knife in her belt.
Ariel traded her voice for a chance to walk on land. That was the deal: every time she steps, it will feel like being stabbed by knives. She must win the hand of her one true love, or she will die at his wedding day, turn to sea foam, forgotten. The helpful steward tells her to dance for the prince, even though her feet scream each time she steps. Love is pain, the sea witch promised. Devotion calls for blood.
But how about this? When the prince marries another, nothing happens. When Ariel stands over the prince and his fiance the night before their wedding, her sisters’ hard-won knife in hand, she doesn’t decide his happiness is more important than her life. She decides that his happiness is irrelevant. Her curse does not turn on the whims of this boy’s heart.
She does not throw away the knife and throw herself into the sea. She does not bury it in the prince and break her curse—it would not have broken. She leaves them sleeping in what will be their marriage bed and limps into a quiet night, her knife clean in her belt, her heart caught in her throat. Her feet scream, but they ache, too, for the places she has yet to see.
Ariel will not be sea foam or a queen. There is life beyond love. There is love in just living. Her true love will not be married on the morn—the prince will be married then, in glorious splendor, but he had never been why she was here.
Ariel traded her voice for legs to stand on, a chance at another life. When she poked her head above the waves, it wasn’t the handsome biped that she fell for. It was the way the hills rolled, golden in the sun. It was the clouds chasing each other across blue sky, like sea foam you could never reach.
(She does reach it, one day, bouncing around in the back of a blacksmith’s cart, signing jokes to him in between helping to tune his guitar. They crest up a high mountain pass and into the belly of a cloud. Her breath whistles out, swirls water droplets, and she reaches out a hand to touch the sky. Her feet will scream all her life, but after that morning they ache just a little bit less).
I want an Ariel who is in love with a world, not a prince. I don’t want her to be a moral for little girls about what love is supposed to hurt like, about how it is supposed to kill you. Ariel will be one more wandering soul, forgotten. Her voice will live in everything she does. She uses her sisters’ knife to turn a reed into a pipe. She cannot speak, but she still has lungs.
Love is pain, says the old man, when Ariel smiles too wide at sunrises. It’s pain, says the innkeeper, with pity, as Ariel hobbles to a seat, pipe in hand. At least you are beautiful, soothes the country healer who looks over her undamaged feet. The helpful steward had thought she was shy. Dance for the prince even though your feet feel stuck with a hundred knives.
Her feet feel like knives but she goes out dancing in the grass at midnight anyway. She’s never seen stars before. Moonlight reaches down through the depths, but starlight fractures on the surface. Ariel dances for herself.
She goes down to caves and rocky shores. Sometimes she meets with her sisters there. Mouths filled with water cannot speak above the sea, so she drops into the waves and they sing to her, old songs, and she steals breaths of air between the stanzas. She can drown now. She holds her breath. She opens her eyes to the salt and brine.
Ariel uses canes and takes rides on wagons filled with hay, chickens, tomatoes—never fish. She earns coins and paper scraps of money with a conch shell her youngest sister swam up from the depths for her, with her reed pipe, with a lyre from her eldest sister which sounds eerie and high out of the water. The shadow plays she makes on the walls of taverns waver and wriggle like on the sea caves of her childhood, but not because of water’s lap and current. It is the firelight that flickers over her hands.
When she has limped and hitched rides so far that no one knows the name of her prince’s kingdom, she meets a travelling blacksmith on the road with an extra seat in his cart and an ear for music. He never asks her to dance for him and she never does. She drops messages in bottles to her sisters, at every river and coastline they come to, and sometimes she finds bottles washed up the shore just for her.
They travel on. When she breathes, these days, her lungs fill with air.
Some nights she wakes, gasping, coughing up black water that never comes. There is something lying heavy on her chest and there always will be.
Somewhere in the ocean, a sea witch thinks she has won. When Ariel walks, she hobbles. Her voice was the sunken treasure of the king’s loveliest daughter, and so when they tell Ariel’s story they say she has been robbed. They say she has been stolen.
She has many instruments because she has many voices—all of them, hers; made by her hands, or gifted from her sisters’ dripping ones. Ariel will sing until the day she dies with every instrument but her vocal cords.
She cannot win it back, the high sweet voice of a merchild who had never blistered her shoulders red with sun, who had never made a barroom rise to its feet to sing along to her strumming fingers. She cannot ever again sing like a girl who has not held a dagger over two sleeping lovers and then decided to spare them. She decided not to wither. She decided to walk on knives for the rest of her life. She cannot win it back, but even if she could, she knows she would not sound the same.
They call her story a tragedy and she rests her aching feet beside the warming hearth. With every new ridge climbed, new river forded, new night sky met, her feet ache a little less. They call her a tragedy, but the blacksmith’s donkey is warm and contrary on cold mornings. The blacksmith’s shoulder is warm under her cheek.
Her feet will always hurt. She has cut out so many parts of her self, traded them up, won twisted promises back and then twisted them herself. She lives with so many curses under her skin, but she lives. They call her story a moral, and maybe it is.
When she breathes, her lungs fill. When she walks, the earth holds her up. There is sun and there is light and she can catch it in her hands. This is love.
so maleficent is the good fairy here, right, and the three
fairies are the bad ones, so like fae do they each appear to be what they’re
not. and aurora, given fae gifts and raised by fae, is nearly fae herself.
maleficent knows that only an elf could hope to sway a fae heart, because elves
are impervious to their glamour. maleficent kidnaps the young prince philip,
and brings him to the elven realm. she tries to bargain a prince for a prince,
but the king is unswayed. a human prince, he declared, is only worth an elvish
servant, so that’s what she gets.
maleficent takes the servant and puts him in philip’s place,
gives him that name, and watches as the servant elf is made a prince among
mortals, watches as he eventually captures aurora’s heart, and saves her from
her living death. watches as the elf servant turned prince becomes a king, as
the almost-fae princess aurora becomes queen, and their two kingdoms become one
and they rule the land of men together.
this, of course, begs the question – what happens to our
dear human philip?
he is not the first child that has been bargained away to
the elves, and elf queen thalia settles the young boy on her hip and raises an
eyebrow at her husband, waiting. the child awakens by degrees, until he’s
clutching her neck and blinking at the gathered elves. thalia is only grateful
that he hasn’t started screaming, like so many of his kind do.
normally the children that are bargained to them are put to
work in the castle, where they’re safe, where their clumsiness and their
ignorance and their mistakes will be glossed over, where she and the king will
ensure they will be politely ignored rather than harassed. they’ve lost a
servant boy, and so she’s sure a servant boy is what this young human is meant
except a woman of the court steps forward, and she’s old,
old enough that it shows, that her curly hair has gone silver and wrinkles are
etched deep in her face. lady ember is older than the forests they reside in,
is older than her grandmother, than her great grandmother. everyone’s lost track
of her exact age, but she’s the oldest elf in village. thalia likes her – she and
lady ember have skin of the same dark shade. thalia hopes that if she is to
live long enough, she and lady ember would look alike.
“i would like the child,” she says, eyes like amber, and for
the moment she appears younger than she ever has. there’s something eager in
her, and it brings a life to her that thalia hasn’t seen in a long time.
thalia looks to her husband, and king celedor gives a
minuscule twitch to his lip which is an equivalent to a shrug. she sets the
young human on the ground, and ember holds out a single hand. the child looks
behind him, then in front him, and takes cautious steps forward. he steps until
he can take her hand, his own looking small and pale in hers. “it’s been a long
time since i was able raise a child,” ember says, “i would like to do so again.
will you come home with me?”
and thalia understands. elf children take many hundreds of
year to mature, and ember would not risk dying on a child before it could take
care of itself. but humans are candles that burn at both ends – hot, and fast.
within a decade or two the child in front of them will be able to survive on
his own, will not need lady ember to coddle him for centuries.
he nods, and finally opens his mouth to say, “i am philip.”
“hello philip,” lady ember smiles, “i am lady ember of the mother
tree. now you are lord philip of the ember tree.”
they are elves. they don’t do something as gauche as gasp,
but the sentiment comes out just the same. celedor’s mouth drops open a millimeter
and thalia’s right index finger twitches. raise a human child like a beloved
pet they could all understand – but to adopt one, to truly adopt one that she’d
just met and didn’t know and bequeath to him the estate and title the noble name
of the mother tree?
lady ember leads her new son away, and the gathered elves
can do nothing but stare.
prince elion – eli, to everyone who doesn’t want the prince
of the elves nursing a personal grudge against them – comes home in the dead of
night, when he can slip past the guards and the fawning people on the street
and sneak into the royal quarters.
“mother,” he greets as he enters the library. his father
sleeps early, but his mother doesn’t go to bed until nearly dawn. he kneels by
her side, and she runs a hand through his hair, tugging the leather tie off
when it gets in her way. his mass of dark curly hair tumbles around his head,
and as he shakes it out leaves other debris fall out. thalia sighs, but doesn’t
remark on it.
“your hunt went well?” she asks, although she knows the
answer. eli is one of the best hunters in the kingdom, and his hunting parties –
comprised of the strongest and best among the noble families – are notoriously
he grins, teeth extra white against his skin, “of course,
mother. did anything interesting happen while i was away?”
“the faerie maleficent came and bargained away a human
prince,” she says, “she wanted you in return. your father gave her a servant
eli laughs, too loud and boisterous, in a way he would never
allow himself to laugh around his father or his subjects.
philip thinks perhaps he should be screaming, or crying, or
causing some sort of fuss about this new life and this old woman who insists
she’s his mother now. but he’s never had a mother before, and this new place is
beautiful. they live in palace carved out of an enormous tree – the mother tree
that their name comes from – and philip is given a lot more freedom as an elf
lordling than he was as a prince.
he hopes the boy who took his place is nice to his father,
and doesn’t mind long evenings with only the servants for company. being a
prince can be very lonely. he knows from experience.
ember gives him rooms and toys, but warns him that he has a
lot of work ahead of him. as a human, he’s at a severe disadvantage here at the
elf court. elves are faster than humans, stronger and smarter and wiser. “it
sounds to me,” philip says, “that maybe they’re just older. if i had hundreds
of years, I could be all those things too.”
ember’s eyes crinkle at the corners when she smiles, and he returns it.
philip knows hard work. he was set to rule a whole nation,
was set to lead whole armies. he knows training and learning and patience.
learning to become an elf lord seems like it will be a lot easier than being a
lady ember and her servants are harsh, but fair. in their
home, in the mother tree, he is a pampered lord. out of it, however – he acquires
many scars from training, from falling and failing. ember and her staff run him
ragged into the ground, because he must be able to keep up with elves.
they have hundreds and hundreds of years to practice, to
become strong and smart and fast. philip doesn’t have that long, so his mother
forces him to do more, train harder, learn faster than would be expected of any
so he learns. the first time he beats his trainer at an
archery competition, he feels a swell of pride like nothing he’s felt before.
as he inches his way to the level of his teachers, and then surpasses them, the
they’ve always been kind to him. but as his skill grows,
they come to respect him, and that’s far more valuable.
eli hears of the human that lady ember of the mother tree
took as her own – of course he does, it’s all anyone can talk about. but he
doesn’t actually get a chance to see the boy, because lady ember keeps him safe
on her lands, in her tree that none of them dare trespass on. so he assumes,
like many, that she keeps him coddled and safe, away from those who would seek
him harm, away from a world that would seek him harm.
then, two decades from when she gave young philip her name,
lady ember finds him at court. she tilts her head, and he bows. he may be
higher in rank, but he was raised to respect his elders, and lady ember is
certainly that. “prince eli,” she says, “your next hunt is coming up, isn’t it?”
“yes, my lady,” he answers, wondering if she has a request.
he doesn’t mind tracking down a certain type of meat or pelt for her – he likes
the challenge, and likes lady ember.
she smiles at him, and for some reason he feels as if he’s staring
into the jaws of a dragon. “excellent. might my son join you? he grows bored of
hunting on his own.”
the last thing in the world eli wants to do is keep an eye
on a bumbling, spoiled human. but this human is also the lord of the mother
tree, and he can think of no response that wouldn’t bring his mother’s wrath
down on his head. “of course, lady ember.”