A young woman hunts for her wayward shadow at the school where she first learned magic—while another faces a test she never studied for as ice envelopes the world. The tasks assigned a bookish boy lead him to fateful encounters with lizards, owls, trolls and a feisty, sarcastic cat. A bear wedding is cause for celebration, the spinning wheel and the tower in the briar hedge get to tell their own stories, and a kitchenmaid finds out that a lost princess is more than she seems. The sea witch reveals what she hoped to gain when she took the mermaid’s voice. A wiser Snow White sets out to craft herself a new tale.
In these eight stories and twenty-three poems, Theodora Goss retells and recasts fairy tales by Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde. Sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious, always lyrical, the works gathered in Snow White Learns Witchcraft (available February 5th from Mythic Delirium Books) re-center and empower the women at the heart of these timeless narratives. Read the story “Conversations with the Sea Witch” below!
Conversations with the Sea Witch
In the afternoons, they wheel her out on the balcony overlooking the sea. They place her chair by the balustrade. Once there, the queen dowager waves her hand. “Leave me,” she says, in a commanding voice. Then, in the shrill tones of an old woman, “Go away, go away, damn you. I want to be alone.”
They, who have been trained almost from birth to obey, leave her, bowing or curtseying as they go. After all, what harm can come to her, an old woman, a cripple? They do not call her that, of course. One does not call a queen dowager such things. But their mothers and fathers called her that long ago, when she was first found half-drowned on the sea shore—the crippled girl.
“A poor crippled girl,” they whispered, incredulous, when the prince emerged from her room and told his father, “I’m going to marry her. She saved my life in the storm. She has no name—not as we have names. I’ll call her Melusine.”
Elsewhere in the castle, the king, her son, is issuing orders, perhaps about defending the northern borders, perhaps just about the education of the young prince, his heir. The queen is walking in the garden with her ladies-in-waiting, gathering roses. The young princess, her granddaughter, has stolen into the garden, where she is playing by the water-lily pool with her golden ball. In a moment, it will fall in. She has always been fascinated by water. She takes after her grandmother—her fingers are webbed. There are delicate membranes between each finger.
In the chapel, the former king, her husband, lies in his grand tomb of black-veined green marble. Next to it is another tomb, where she will someday lie. Now, it is empty like a promise unfulfilled. She knows it is there—she can feel it patiently waiting, and she knows it will not have to wait much longer. After all, did she not exchange five hundred years of life in the sea for one human lifetime? Once she lies beside him, completely surrounded by stone, she will have left the sea permanently at last.
But she is not thinking of that now. She is waiting for company.
She does not have to wait long. Soon after they leave—the servants, who have lives about which she knows nothing, about whom she thinks no more than she would of the white foam on a wave—the sea witch rises.
“Greetings, princess,” says the witch. That, at least, is the closest we can get in translation, for she speaks the language of the sea, which is not our language. In the air, it sounds strange and guttural, like the barking of seals. In the water, it is higher, more melodious, like the song of the sleek gray dolphins that sometimes visit our waters. It carries far.
“Greetings, witch,” says the queen dowager. It is obvious, from her tone, that this is an honorific. “How goes it beneath the water?”
And then the sea witch tells her: all is well at court. Her eldest sister is a beloved queen. There have been storms along the southern coast, causing shipwrecks. Which is good—that stretch of the coast was suffering from over-fishing, and this will keep the fishermen away for a while. The whales that were trapped in the main harbor of the capital city have returned to the open sea. When Melusine became queen, it was forbidden to harm a whale, and her son continues that tradition. Her middle sister’s second child has recently emerged from his father’s pouch. The sea-folk, although mammalian, reproduce like sea-horses: a child, once born, is deposited in the father’s pouch and emerges only to suckle its mother’s breast until it can fend for itself. The sea is a dangerous place. The sea-folks’ children must be strong to survive.
“And how is your throat?” asks the sea witch. “Have you tried the poultice I recommended?” It is made of seaweed, boiled down into a paste.
“Better,” says the queen dowager. “But I feel death coming close, witch. Coming on human feet, soft and white and tender.”
“May it not come for a few years yet,” says the sea witch. She herself will likely live for another hundred years. “Who will I talk to after you are gone?”
The queen dowager laughs—the situation is, after all, ironic. And then she puts her hand to her throat, because it aches.
Two old women—that is what they are. Two old women who have lost the ones they loved, whom the world has left behind. All they have now is these conversations. Do not pity them. They get more enjoyment out of these talks than you imagine.
It was, the queen dowager thinks, a fair bargain: her voice, the voice that produced the beautiful songs of the sea-folk, like dolphins calling to one another, for a pair of human legs. Of course they were useless. A witch can split a long, gray, flexible tail into a pair of legs, pink and bare, but she cannot make them functional. What is inside them will not bear a body’s weight. The crippled girl, lying on the sea shore, in love with the prince she had saved from the storm, hoping against hope that somehow she could make her way to him, perhaps by crawling higher among the rocks, knew she might die there, among the pools filled with barnacles and snails. She knew the crabs and seagulls might eat her soft white flesh. The rest of her might dry up in the sun.
Was it luck or some vestige of the sea witch’s magic, or true love, which has its own gravitational power, that he was walking on the shore at exactly the right time?
As soon as he saw her, he said, “You’re the girl I saw among the waves. The one who rescued me.”
She tried to answer—she had lost her song, not her voice—but he could not understand what she was saying, and her voice tired quickly, trying to speak through this new medium. The sea-folk learn to understand human speech, from listening to sailors in their boats and children playing along the shore. They must guard the sea from us, so they learn about us what they can. But we, proud and ignorant, thinking there is no intelligent life but that of the air, do not learn about them, and so only a few of us speak their language. Those who do are often considered mad. They spend their lives gathering things the tide has thrown up, living as they can on the detritus of the sea.
The prince carried her to the castle, put her in the grandest of guest bedrooms, and announced to his mother and father that this was the girl he was going to marry. When asked who she was, this girl with nothing—no clothes, no voice, no name—he said she was the daughter of the sea king himself. When his father asked about her dowry, he said it was safety among the waves. If she were queen, their ships would be safe—at least from the sea-folk, who often sank ships for their cargoes of furniture and figurines, which were to them the finest of trinkets, decorating their underwater caves.
In a seafaring nation, which had made its fortune from trade with distant lands—in spices, printed fabrics, hand-painted porcelain—this dowry was judged to be better than gold or jewels. And it is a fact that the fishing boats of that country had luck with their catches once the prince married the girl he had found among the tidal pools. After their marriage, the old king abdicated in favor of his son. The county had never been so prosperous as under King Cedric and Queen Melusine.
It took a few years, working with speech therapists and vocal coaches, for her to communicate clearly with her subjects, to sound merely foreign rather than outlandish and otherworldly. When she laughed, it still startled the palace staff—it sounded so much like barking. She could never learn to walk—she did not have the internal structure for locomotion on dry land. Sometimes she missed the ease of movement under water. Often in dreams she would be swimming, and she would feel the smooth movement of her tail, the strong forward thrust through water, with pleasure. But she loved the prince, later the king, who treated her with such tenderness, carrying her himself anywhere she wished to go—trying to compensate for the loss of her watery kingdom. She loved her children, with their strange pink feet and tiny toes, kicking and waving in the air as their nappies were changed or they threw tantrums. And we all make difficult choices.
The strangest thing about life on land, she told the sea witch once they started holding these conversations, was reproduction. The monthly cycle of blood, as though she were expelling a red tide. Incubating a child herself instead of depositing it in her mate’s pouch, to develop safely in that second womb, coming out only for lactation. She did not understand the concept of a wet nurse. When her children were brought to her for feedings, she laid them beside her and imagined moving through the water, with them swimming alongside, latched to her breast. That is how a child of the sea-folk feeds beneath the waves.
Eventually, she taught them to swim in the palace baths, which dated to Roman times. Her legs could not give her the thrust of her lost gray tail, but with a strong breast stroke, she could pull herself through the water and recapture, for a while, what it had been like to swim through the depths of the sea.
She still swims sometimes. And she makes lace—the most delicate, intricate lace. Her fingers have grown crooked, but this is an ancient art of the sea-folk, which they learn as children: they knot strands made of seaweed, pounded and pulled into long fibers. It is a strong thread that shimmers in sunlight. Into her lace, she weaves patterns of starfish and cuttlefish and stingray. When she is too tired to do either, she reads poetry or stares out the window—the king, her husband, made sure that her bedroom window overlooked the sea. She has had a full life. She could, if she wished, spend every moment remembering it. Her childhood in the palace of her father the sea king, swimming through rooms on whose walls grew coral and anemones, coming up to the surface only to breathe the necessary air, although the sea-folk can hold their breath for hours at a time, then diving down again into her natural element. Hunting and foraging with her sisters through algae forests, for the children of the sea-folk have the freedom of the sea from a young age. Rescuing her prince from the storm after his ship went down, dragging him back to shore on a broken spar through turbulent waves. Going to the sea witch, making the fatal bargain. The years of being a wife, mother, widow.
Once a day she is wheeled out to the balcony. The sea witch comes, rising from the waves, and they speak.
Usually, their conversation follows a familiar pattern. But on this day, the queen dowager asks a question she has never asked before. It has never, before, seemed the right time to ask. “Do you regret your decision?” she asks the sea witch, wondering if she is being rude or too personal. But surely between old friends? After all this time, they must consider themselves that.
The sea witch is silent for a moment, then shakes her head. “No, at least I tried. You were not the only one, you know. I traded for your voice, the hair of another maiden, the soft gray skin of yet another. He would not love me, no matter how I tried to please him. He loved no one but himself.”
He lived in the deepest, darkest abyss in those parts, an underwater crevasse that seemed to descend to the center of the earth. None of the sea-folk knew how old he was. Four hundred years? Six hundred? Older yet? He had filled himself with the magic of those dark spaces, and did not seem to age.
“He taught me so much,” says the sea witch. “From him, I learned a magic that allowed me to stay under water for days at a time. A magic that raised the waves and created storms. The magic that took your voice. For years, I studied spells and potions under his tutelage. But when I told him that I loved him, he called me a silly guppy, no wiser than an infant, and told me to go away, that I was interrupting his studies. I did not go away—I moved to the edge of the crevasse in which he lived, and there I stayed, living in the cavern in which you found me. I hoped that if he saw my devotion, he would come to love me in time. But it merely irritated him.
“He cared only for knowledge—only for discovering the secrets of that dark abyss and the power it would give him. At first he would go to the surface periodically. But after he drove me out, he began to stay beneath the water for weeks at a time. He told me he no longer needed to breath air. His eyes grew larger, his once-muscular body thinner. He developed a permanent look of hunger. I do not think he ate, except when krill or small shrimp floated by and he could catch them without interrupting his studies. He became hunched, as though curled up on himself. I did not care. I had not loved him for his beauty, which was considerable, but for his intellect, his desire for knowledge. I thought he might admire those things in me as well, so after my attempts to charm him failed, I studied the darkest of arts, the most potent of potions.
“One day, I perfected a spell that was beyond even his power. It was one he had attempted many times himself: a way of turning our tails into the tentacles of a squid, with the squid’s ability to darken the water with its ink. I cast it, triumphant, knowing that he must love me now, or if not love, then at least respect me. At last, feeling the reverberations of that spell in the water, he came to my cavern.
“I thought he would be pleased that I had discovered this secret—that he would praise me and want to learn it from me. But no—he hurled himself at me with the full thrust of his tail and struck me across the face. Then, with his hands, he attempted to strangle me. But you see, I had eight new tentacles that I had not yet learned to control…”
The sea witch pauses for a moment, then says, “I tore him limb from limb. I could not even see—the water was dark with my ink. When it cleared, there were pieces of him scattered among the coral. The small fish were already nibbling at his flesh.”
Then they are both silent, the queen dowager in her wheeled chair on the balcony, the sea witch floating among the waves, her body half out of water, a woman above, an octopus below.
* * *
What are we left with in the end, but old women telling stories? The first old women who told stories were the Fates. What else could they do, sitting in their chairs all day, spinning, measuring, and cutting the threads of our lives? Each thread was also a story, and as they spun it, they told it. They are telling our stories still.
Once upon a time, says Clotho as she spins the thread on her spindle. There was a king with three sons, the youngest of whom was called Dumbling, or the prettiest girl you have ever seen who was born with the feathers of a swan, or a queen who could not bear a child until a white snake told her that she was pregnant. And then, says Lachesis, the lass lived happily with her bear husband until she wanted to see what he looked like at night, or the prince found a castle in the forest inhabited entirely by cats, or the cook was so hungry that she took a spoonful of soup and all the sudden she could understand the language of animals. Finally, says Atropos, the loyal servant chopped off the brown bull’s head and there stood the prince he had been searching for, or the maid spun linen so fine that it could fit through the eye of a needle so the Tsar took her back to his palace, or the false princess was put in a barrel filled with nails drawn by two white horses, and did she regret her treachery! They lived happily ever after, or not, and they are feasting still unless they have died in the interval. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. After that end, there are only old women sitting together in the sunshine.
“And were you happy?” asks the sea witch.
“Very happy,” says the queen dowager. “I’m still happy, even when I lie awake at night in a bed that is too large for one shrunken old woman, remembering tenderness that will never come again. Even when I know that soon my body will lie in a dry, dark place. My granddaughter, the youngest, Eglantine—I think someday she will come find you and ask to return to the sea. When she does, I hope you will give her my tail.”
She pauses a moment. “And were you happy?” she asks the sea witch, for everyone deserves a little happiness in life, even witches.
The sea witch thinks for a moment. “No, I cannot say that I was. But I learned a great deal. No one in the sea, or perhaps even on land, has the knowledge I do. If I wished to, I could send a storm to destroy all the ships in this harbor, like a boy breaking sticks. Of course I would not do that, out of courtesy to you…” She bows to the queen dowager, who bows in return. “But I could, and that is something. Knowledge and power—those count for something when one is old.”
“As do the memory of loving and being loved,” says the queen dowager.
And then they are silent for a while, enjoying the sunshine and the lapping of waves.
“Well, until tomorrow,” says the sea witch, finally. She knows the queen dowager’s attendants will be coming soon.
“Of course,” says the queen dowager.
The thread is spun, measured, and snipped, whether it be gold or hemp or sea silk. And afterward, the old women sit in the sunshine.
“Conversations with the Sea Witch” copyright © 2019 by Theodora Goss