This poem came out of the August 2, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from Dreamwidth user ailelie, who wanted a version of the fairytale in which the Little Mermaid leaves the sea not for love, but for reasons of her own. I love subverting fairytales like that. The poem is cosponsored by ailelie and laffingkat.
Note: "Knifewalking" is a poem about pain and healing and personal growth, containing some dark and graphic imagery. Sensitive readers may want to skip this one.
The mermaid swims in a sea of pain.
This is all that she has ever known:
the bitter salt of the ocean's tears,
the weeping cries of the seagulls,
the bite of her mother's words and
the implacable grasp of her father's hands.
For her, it is nothing more
than the water that fish don't see.
There lies a dream within her,
which she holds secret as an oyster's pearl.
She dares not let it slip into the sea,
for something in her knows
that it is meant for only air,
a dream to ride the winds
from which the storms are born.
It is that compelling
and that powerful.
She tears herself away from her family,
leaves them bleeding in body and soul,
waits for the tide to wash away her own wounds.
She fears becoming that which she most despises,
wonders if their darkness will follow
to wipe out whatever light she might find,
as ink from a frightened squid blots out the sun.
The mermaid goes to the sea-witch
and begs for a bit of magic.
The sea-witch wants to know why.
The mermaid hides the pearl of her dream
deep inside the soft meat of her soul,
and spits out a lie that anyone would believe
coming from a sweet young thing:
The sea-witch, though evil,
is honorable in her own way.
She gives fair warning.
The pain of changing fins to legs
will be like walking on red-hot knives,
and there will be no speaking of this
to prince or anyone, ever.
The mermaid swallows
around the hard lump in her throat
The sea-witch works her magic and produces
a blade for the mermaid's hand.
The bargain is made
and the mermaid takes her leave.
She goes to the beach
and cleaves herself cleanly
from her former life,
flops her way along the damp sand
until she learns how to walk,
and gives thanks for the banishment of her voice
because now no one can hear her scream.
The maiden does not go to the palace.
She goes to the little fishing village instead.
There she finds the old physician,
who has no apprentice as yet,
and though he does not know this,
she places the pearl of her dreams
into his gnarled brown hands.
She cooks for him. She cleans for him.
She puts up with his incessant tut-tutting over her legs
until she grows accustomed to the land-life
and finally quits limping on her slender enchanted feet.
She watches him. She learns from him.
They devise a language of signs in which to converse,
subtle as ocean currents, voluble as the wind.
He shows her what he knows of anatomy,
all the warm wet secrets that the body enfolds.
He teaches her the painful tools of his trade,
the saw and scalpel and cautery iron.
She has no fear of these things;
she is familiar with secrets and with pain.
She walks through her new life
balanced on the knife's edge,
accepting the old familiar ache
with every step she takes
because it hurts less
than remaining at home
and choking on a dream unborn.
It is this, perhaps,
that comforts the patients
when they come to her for aid:
the biting silence of her lips,
the clear tears that never leave her eyes,
the steady grace of her fingers
as supple as water-weeds.
They know what she feels,
although she never speaks of it,
know that the pain she applies
is given with all of her attention --
and never one mote more than is needed.