Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Ash-Girl and the Salmon Prince, Part I

I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in their secret places, a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you so that you will know that the tale I tell you now is true, just as it happened and just as it was told to me, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth.

The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have. The tale I tell you now comes from the Brecan Fords, along the Icicle Coast, where the land is gray and green and the fishers pluck their living from the sea.

Once upon a time and not so long ago, there lived in a hovel on the shores of Wessord a fisherman and his wife with three daughters, the oldest as beautiful as the day, the next as beautiful as the night, and the youngest a plain girl of little account, with nothing to recommend her save perhaps obedience. The fisherman and his wife loved their first two daughters, but they were poor and there was nothing much that they could give them. As for the youngest daughter, they had nothing to give her but chore-work, not even a place to sleep, so in the end she had to sleep in the fire pit, amongst the ashes. She had a name—they had given her that, at least—but because she slept amongst the ashes they all called her “the ash-girl.”

One day, the fisherman was out casting his nets along the shallows of the ford, when his net caught upon some great form beneath the waters. He struggled and fought, and in no time at all his little boat was pulled far out into the depths, far beyond where he had ever been before, out beyond the sight of shore, where the waves lapped the edges of his boat and the winds blew shards of ice against his beard. With one look around him, he knew that he was lost, but all the same he was a fisherman, and proud of his labor, and so still he wrestled his nets, calling out to the fish in the ancient rhyme.

Oh, fish of the sea
Hearken to me.
Come from the waves
to answer my plea.

Once we were brothers
Above the sky.
Now for one to eat
The other must die.

Oh, hearken to me
Swift fish of the sea.
Give up your flesh
And set your soul free.

No sooner had he finished his rhyme then out from his net leapt the most brilliant salmon he had ever seen, steel-headed with scales in red and rainbow. As quick as he could, he leapt upon the salmon, holding it down with his body while he reached about for his leaded club. The salmon struggled and thrashed, but the fisherman held it tight against the boat, and in the end, just as he was lifting his club to end its life, the fish cried out, “Mercy! Mercy! I yield! I yield! Brother, do not strike me dead!”

“Well I’ll be,” said the fisherman aloud, biting off the blasphemy. “A talking fish! That’s not something you see every day.”

“I am no ordinary fish,” said the fish. “For I am a salmon, the prince of all fishes, lord of the seas and lord of the streams, endowed by ancient right and ancient custom with the primordial magics of the water above the sky. Spare me, brother, and I shall place my might and magic at your discretion. Spare me, brother, and I will promise you a boon.”

“Well,” said the fisherman. “I know better than to get involved with any part of a talking fish nor I want any part with any prince. This is just the sort of thing from the stories my dear old gran once told me, and not a one of those stories ever ended happily. No, my life is hard enough as it is already. Return to the sea, brother, and let us never speak of this again.” And, with that, he hefted up the fish and turned it over the side of the boat.

“You are wise,” said the fish, “and yet regardless you have spared me and regardless my life is in your debt. If you ever should wish a boon of me, brother, you must only let me know.”

“If you mean that truly,” said the fisherman, eyeing the waves and the weather, “then I ask no more than that you transport me safely to the shores of my hovel, which have been my home ever since I was bearn, for in our struggle you have pulled my little boat far out into the depths, far beyond where I have ever been before, beyond the sight of shore, and I fear that, without your aid, I will surely capsize and twice as surely drown.”

“It is done,” declared the fish, and even as he spoke those words aloud, the seas calmed and the waves withdrew. Presently there came a swell, gentle but strong, that lifted up the fisherman’s little boat and carried him all the way back to his hovel on the shores of Wessord. No sooner had he landed on the shore than his wife came out of their hovel. “Husband, you are back so soon! And where is your catch today? For if again you have nothing to put up then surely by this winter we shall starve.”

“Wife,” said the fisherman. “In truth, I do not think you shall believe me, but I promise you that this is the whole truth of it.” And then he told her the entire story, about how his boat was dragged out to the open waters, beyond the sight of land, about the prince of fishes and his magic and his promises.

When she heard what he had done his wife gasped, then cuffed his ears, then blasphemed aloud. “What a fool of a fisherman I’ve married!” she said. “I should have listened to my mother! I should have married a weaver!”

“I’m so sorry, my dear wife. How is it that I’ve failed you?” asked her husband, still smarting from her cuff. He knew better than to argue.

“You had in your power a salmon, the magical prince of all fishes, and what boon did you ask? Merely to return home? Think, for a moment, of us, your family. Think of the squalor in which we live. Think of our two beautiful daughters, and not a penny of dowry between them!” She did not mention the ash-girl. She did not often think of her youngest daughter, unless there was a chore still left undone.

“Oh,” said the fisherman. “That is true.”

“So you agree,” said his wife. “You must go back to the fish and ask for a proper boon: a snug little cottage for us, with servants and dowries for our beautiful daughters.”

• • • •

The next morning, the fisherman went out onto Wessord in his little boat, but before he cast his nets upon the shallows, he called out to the salmon-prince.

Oh, prince of the sea,
Hearken to me.
Rise from the waves
to answer my plea.

My wife of the shore
sent me to implore:
She’s heard of your boon;
she wants something more.

Oh, hearken to me
Great prince of the sea.
You offered a promise.
I’ve come to agree.

No sooner had he finished his rhyme then out from the sea leapt the same salmon-prince that he had caught the day before.

“Brother,” said the fish, “you have spared me and my life is in your debt. What is the boon you would wish of me?”

“It is not for me, but for my beautiful daughters and for my wife, who has a will of her own. She wishes for a snug little cottage for us, with servants and gardens, and dowries for our two beautiful daughters.”

“It will be done,” said the fish. “But first, brother, because we are brothers and there should be nothing between us, I have a blessing to ask of you in turn.”

“Is that so?” asked the fisherman, skeptical.

“It is merely,” said the fish, “that I ask that you consider me as a groom for one of your beautiful daughters. Being as I am a prince, it is surely a good match for you.”

“But you are a fish!” said the fisherman. “What should you want with a human wife?”

“It is true that I am a fish, but it is also true that I am a salmon, and in our ancient rites and customs our conjugal-bed and our death-bed are one and the same. To marry is, for us, to die. In the course of the seas and streams, though, I have heard it told of humans and of human wives, of their love and their comfort and the magic of ‘happily ever after.’ So of course I wish to find such a match for myself, to live and love in bliss and until death do us part, an enchanted human marriage, not the struggles of the salmon, all fight and rot and death and the doom in every headwater.”

“Well,” said the fisherman. “I will have to ask my wife.” And, with that, he returned the fish to the sea.

When the fisherman returned to his hovel, his wife was already at the door berating him. “Look at this hovel! Does this look like a snug little cottage to you? How is it, my fool of a husband, that you have failed to gain a wish not only once, but twice? I should have listened to my mother about you! I should have married a weaver! I should have married two!” She cuffed him twice across the face.

“Wife, it is true, I have failed to gain your boon. But the cost, wife, was altogether too great. The magic fish, who has heard tales of human love and human wives, has asked for the hand of one of our beautiful daughters. Think of them, dear wife. Think of how beautiful they are, one as beautiful as the day and the other as beautiful as the night! How could we give one of them up to a mere fish, to live her years beneath the waves, so far away from us and the world of men? Surely a snug little cottage, even one with servants, cannot be worth so much to us as that.”

At that, his wife began to hit him in earnest. “Fool!” she called him, “Idiot!” “Good-for-nothing incompetent!”

“I’m sorry,” he cried, although he did not know what he was sorry for.

“Have you forgotten, my fool of a fisherman, that we have three daughters? Of course we could never give up our beautiful daughters—who of us could ever bear their loss?—but we have a third daughter, you know. She may be plain, she may be stupid, but at least she has the virtue of obedience. All she does is sleep in filth and get herself underfoot. Surely, for a cottage, we could spare her. Surely, for two daughters’ dowries, we could give her to the sea. Even if your fish is not as magic as all that, at least we shall be spared the mouth to feed.”

“But the fish did not ask us for a plain wife,” said the fisherman, who knew better than to answer back but nonetheless could not help himself. “He asked for a beautiful wife. Surely, he shall notice our substitution. Surely, we should not so invite the wrath of a salmon, the prince of all fish.”

“But that’s just it,” said his wife. “He is a fish. What does he know of a beautiful girl from a plain one? If we say that she is beautiful, surely he will believe us, and surely he will be content. And then, think! With a magic fish for a son-in-law, there is no limit to what we might manage ourselves.”

“Just as you say, my wife,” said the fisherman, and went inside to tell his daughters.

• • • •

After the fisherman told the ash-girl of her engagement, her beautiful sisters were furious. They shouted and screamed and tore at their hair, though they looked no less beautiful for all of it. “Usurping bitch,” they screamed at the ash-girl, who had not even said anything, “we are your older sisters, as beautiful as the day and as beautiful as the night. How is it that you, plain and stupid as can be, with only obedience to recommend you, are married before us? What kind of sister usurps her elders’ place? Clearly, we have not yet humbled you enough. Clearly, somehow, you have yet grown proud!” They surrounded her and pushed her back and forth until she cried.

“Now, now, girls,” said their father. “It’s not like any of that. Rather, consider this: that by our match with your sister we shall gain for ourselves, not only a snug little cottage and servants besides, but also the value of your dowries, that we might marry you to men as rich as your beauty deserves, men who will keep you in peace and comfort for all of your days. Do not be jealous of your sister’s lot, for she goes beneath the waters a sea-bride.”

With that, the beautiful sisters were mollified. The ash-girl, though, was terrified. She did not want to go beneath the waves. But what was she to do? Her only virtue was obedience. There was nothing for it but to cry, which she did, at least until her mother told her to be quiet.

The next morning, the fisherman got the ash-girl up before dawn. “It’s time to go,” he said quietly, so as to not wake his wife and beautiful daughters. “Bring your things.”

As she looked around the single room of theirs, she began once again to cry, but worried that she might wake her mother and sisters, she shut her eyes as her father led her out the door and down to his little boat on the shore.

Perhaps, when he saw her start to cry, he took her hand and gave her, at least a moment of comfort. Perhaps he felt something for her in that moment, some love or at least some short compassion. I would like to think so. I would like to think that he whispered in her ear some advice and some love, for even though she was not his favorite daughter, she was his daughter nonetheless. I would like to say that, but in truth, I do not know. If he ever felt such things, if he ever said such words, they are not told in this story, at least not as I have ever heard it. Perhaps he said those things, perhaps he did those things, but perhaps simply gave his daughter to the sea with no more caution than a trade-good and no more emotion than grim relief.

Once they had set out in his little boat, the fisherman cast his net once more upon the shallows, calling to the fish he’d promised:

Oh, prince of the sea
Hearken to me.
Rise from the waves
to answer my plea.

You asked for a bride
To love and to guide.
I bring you my daughter
To dwell by your side.

Oh, hearken to me
Wise prince of the sea.
Take your betrothed
I give her to thee.

No sooner had he finished his rhyme then out from the sea leapt the same salmon-prince that he had caught the day before.

“Oh brother,” said the fish once he had entered the boat. “It does my heart glad to see you once again. Have you given any thought to my proposal?”

When the ash-girl caught sight of the fish in her father’s net, her breath stopped in her throat. How beautiful! His red-and-rainbow scales! How noble! His princely countenance! She clenched her fists against her racing heart, and tried to look away, to hide her sudden love for him. But he was so beautiful that she could not bear to look away, not even for a moment.

Still, with her long-practiced complaisance, she did not make a sound. Or, if she did, her father didn’t notice it.

“I have, sir,” said the fisherman. “And I have brought for you my daughter. On account that she makes her bed in the coals of the day’s fire, we call her the ash-girl. Good sir, I hope that you like her well enough.”

From the bottom of the net, the fish looked the girl up and down with one cold fishy eye. “She’s wonderful,” he said. “And she is beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” lied the fisherman. “As beautiful as the sun and moon.”

“Hmm, yes,” said the fish, who was in the end a fish and in the end did not know a beautiful woman from an ugly one. “I can see how radiant she is. And I have her consent to marry her?”

The fisherman looked surprised. He had not considered this at all. “Well, uh, that is,” he said, unprepared to lie.

“Yes,” said the ash-girl. “Yes, yes, yes.”

The fisherman showed her the edge of the smile. “Well, then, that’s all done. Here you have her. Don’t forget: A snug little cottage.”

“With servants and dowries for your other daughters, yes, yes, of course,” said the fish. “It is already done. Go home now, and leave me with my bride.”

The fisherman didn’t have to be told twice. Leaving his daughter in the sea, he rowed as fast as he could back towards the shore. He didn’t once look back.

• • • •

As soon as her father’s boat had vanished over the horizon, the ash-girl, now floating as best she could in the cold sea brine, spoke to her new husband. “Oh, husband. I hope that you do not find me presumptuous while I say ‘I love you.’ I loved you as soon as I saw you, your beautiful scales and your princely countenance. I give myself to you now, to do with as you will. Please take me into your care and do not misuse me.”

“Oh wife,” said the fish, “truly I cannot imagine a greater happiness. If you want anything, you only need to say it.”

At first, not wanting to seem insolent, she said nothing. But, in time, her arms became tangled in the waves, and she could feel her strength leaving her, until at last she spoke aloud. “Beloved husband,” she said, “please do not think me insolent, but though I love you as your wife, your home is still the sea, and as I swim here my arms grow tired and tangled in the waves. I fear that soon I shall be drowned, and should I drown here there will be no marriage left between us, only the sorrowed edge of death.”

“Beloved wife,” said the fish, “do not doubt and do not fear. This matter is easy to resolve. Simply undo your dress and float freely in the water, and the waves shall tire you no more.”

“Beloved husband,” said the girl, “I dare not remove my dress. It is immodest, and without my modesty I shall surely die.”

“Oh wife,” said the fish. “Are we not husband and wife and is it not thus only right that we know each other’s nakedness? Undo your dress; I promise I shall make no matter of it.”

With that, the girl undid her dress until floated freely in the water beside her, and in no short time she felt herself restored. “Wonderful!” She laughed and swam in circles around her husband the fish, who leapt into the sun and splashed her playfully. The two of them kept like this for some time, until the girl’s skin began to twist in the cold, and she began to shiver.

“Beloved wife,” asked the fish. “What’s your matter now?”

“Beloved husband,” she said, “please do not think me insolent, but though I love you as your wife, your home is still the sea, and as I swim here my skin grows cold and twisted in the brine. I fear that soon I shall be drowned, and should I drown here there will be no marriage left between us, only the sorrowed edge of death.”

“Beloved wife,” said the fish, “do not doubt and do not fear. This matter is easy to resolve. Simply undo your skin and leave it aside, and the ice shall trouble you no more.”

“Beloved husband,” said the girl, “I dare not remove my skin. It is immodest, and without my modesty I shall surely die.”

“Oh wife,” said the fish. “Are we not husband and wife and is it not thus only right that we know each other’s nakedness? Undo your skin; I promise I shall make no matter of it.”

With that, the girl undid her skin until it floated freely in the water beside her, and in no short time she felt herself restored. “Wonderful!” She laughed and swam in circles around her husband the fish, who weaved between her legs and splashed her playfully. The two of them kept like this for some time, until the fish said “Wife, the hour is growing late. We must soon return to my palace beneath the sea, where I rule as prince of all fishes.” Together, they dove into the water, but no sooner did they dive beneath the waves than the girl began to choke.

“Beloved wife,” asked the fish. “What’s your matter now?”

“Beloved husband,” she said with the last of her breath, “please do not think me insolent, but though I love you as your wife, your home is still the sea, and as I dive here my lungs rend and tear for breath. I fear that I shall soon be drowned, and should I drown here there will be no marriage left between us, only the sorrowed edge of death.”

“Beloved wife,” said the fish, “do not doubt and do not fear. This matter is easy to resolve. Simply leave aside your bones and leave them aside, and the water shall trouble you no more.”

What could the ash-girl do? She did not have the strength to argue back. She left aside her bones and continued through the water as the wriggling fish of her pure soul, without clothes or skin or bones to hold her.

Once she had done so, and once she had swum ahead, her husband carefully gathered up her dress and her skin and her bones, and tied them together into a bundle.

In due course, they arrived at the fish’s residence, a great palace beneath the sea, room after room of it, swarming with servants, grown in the opulent colors of ivory and jewels. When the ash-girl saw the palace, she was astonished. “Oh, husband, this palace is much too grand for me. Only this morning I was an ash-girl, without even a proper bed to sleep in. Truly, I am not worthy of such things!”

“Nonsense,” said the fish. “I am a prince and you my bride. This is my palace. All this that you see and all that’s within is yours to command, save aside the particular room which is my own, and no one else may enter, for it contains the source of all my magic, and without it we would be lost.”

“Oh husband,” she began, but just then a swarm of anchovy-servants descended on them, greeting them warmly, cooing over the beauty of the ash-girl, dressing them both in fineries, bringing them everything to eat. It was late at night before they were once more alone, and by then she had quite forgotten what she was going to say.

Later, as they lay together in their bed of kelp, the fish spoke to his new wife. “Dear wife,” he said, “there is a thing that troubles me.”

“Oh my dear husband,” said the girl. “Now that we are wed, you should have no more troubles, at least not on this our wedding night. Speak, please. Speak, and it shall be done.”

“It is simply,” began the fish, “that you were once called ash-girl, because you slept in ashes. But now you are a fine lady, the wife of a prince, with a palace and servants to command. It does not seem right that we should still name you ‘ash-girl.’ But I do not know what you should be called.”

Being called “ash-girl” did bother her, at least a little. Even when her beloved husband said the name, she could not help but hear her cruel mother’s curse in it. But she did not want to seem presumptuous, so she said “oh husband! You are so kind to think of it, but you need not worry. My name is fine as it is. When you say it to me, with the love in your voice, I barely hear my mother’s curse in it.”

“My wife, I love you,” said the fish, “and I do not want you to hear even the edge of a curse in my name for you. So, if you will, I shall call you a name. Eleanor, I think, because you are beautiful.”

“Oh husband,” she said and embraced him happily.

• • • •

Months passed, and although Eleanor was happy living as a fish with her husband in his palace beneath the sea, still she thought from time to time of her family, and in due course she began to swim up towards where they dwelt in their snug little cottage by the shore, to watch them pass their lives and days on land. The joys and waters of her new home had washed away the pain of her memories, and so she longed to join them, to once again see her mother and her sisters and her father. She imagined that they would greet her, and praise her for everything that she had done for them, and weep with happiness knowing that they had given her into a happy life and a happy marriage, that she still lived, that she had not been left to drown.

She longed for all these things, but she was now only her pure and naked soul, without dress or skin or bones, so how could she return to the land and meet her family as their daughter once again? “If only I had my skin again,” she sighed to herself, “then I could return to my family on the land.” So she began to search through every room of the fish’s palace, looking for her lost skin. Weeks later, after she had searched in every room except the single room that was saved aside as her husband’s, she spoke to him over supper.

“Beloved husband,” she said, “truly your palace and our life within it is nothing but extraordinary. I do not want you to think that I want for anything. It is only that . . .” but here she lost her nerve. “It’s nothing,” she said.

“Oh wife,” said her husband, “do not set aside your heart for my sake. Is there anything that you desire? You need merely speak and it is yours.”

“Dearest husband,” she said. “How kind you are to me! It is only that in these many months without my family, I have taken it into my mind that I might visit them on land again, for to see them and embrace them and let them know that they need not worry on my behalf, let them know how happy my life is here with you.”

“But wife,” said the fish. “Your family despised you. They beat you and made you work unceasingly. They did not even give you a bed of your own. You had to sleep in ashes and they called you ‘ash-girl’ for it.”

“Still,” she said, for joy and salt water had washed away the pain of her memory. “I’m sure that they loved me, in their own way. I’m sure that they would be happy to see me again. How could they fail to love me? They are my family, that bore me and raised me.”

When he heard her account of her own family, the fish was first vexed, but eventually he relented. Perhaps he had simply seen things wrong. After all, he was a fish. What did he know of a human family, of human kindness or human cruelty? “If you want to visit them,” he said at last, “I will not prevent it.”

When she heard this, Eleanor leapt up, and smothered him with kisses. “Oh husband,” she cried. “Thank you for your lenience. I promise that no ill shall come of it. But there is another thing.”

“Oh?” asked the fish.

“If I am to visit my family, I go before them as I am now, with only the bare fish for my soul. I need to don once more my dress and skin and bones so that I can visit them as a human girl. But try as I might, I cannot find them anywhere. I have looked over the entire palace, save for the one room that is yours alone. Do you know, perhaps, where we have kept them?”

The fish sighed. He did not want to admit that, afraid his wife would tire of him, he had hidden away her dress and skin and bones. But his wife seemed so sad, and he loved her very much, and in the end he could tell her nothing but the truth. “You have not found your things,” he said, “for they are in the single room that is kept aside for me. I secreted them there when you first arrived, fearing that if you wore your human form once more, you would abandon me for your love of the land and never return again to our palace in the cold and briny depths.”

“Oh husband,” she said. “You do not have to fear such things from me. I love you. I love our life together at the bottom of the sea. It is only that I miss my family, and they must be worried about me, in all these months and not a word from me for comfort.”

“You say that now,” said the fish. “But when you have returned to your land, back once more in your bones and skin and dress, by three nights all your time beneath the sea will seem to you to be merely a dream, to be forgotten in the morning.”

“Oh please,” said Eleanor. “Oh please let me go and see them if only for a day. If only for an hour!”

What could he do? The fish could not bear to lose his beloved wife, but likewise he could not bear to hear the longing in her voice. “Beloved wife,” he said, “In truth I do not understand you. I am a salmon—my parents died in the breeding of me; my brothers and sisters are but strangers to me still. The only inclination I have to return to my home is an inclination towards my death. But you are a woman, my beloved human wife! If you tell me you must visit your family, then you must visit your family. I only ask that you return to me before the night of the third day, lest all your nights beneath the sea seem to you only a dream, to be forgotten in the morning.”

“I promise I shall return!” she said. “I promise I shall not forget you!”

“Oh my love,” said the fish, “do not make me a promise that you cannot keep. I cannot bear to lose you, but neither can I bear to see you so distraught. I would rather have you happy and me bereft than to have you so caught up in misery. I will go then to my secret room, and retrieve for you your bones and skin and dress. Go to your family, and with my blessing.”

“Oh husband!” she cried. “Thank you for your lenience! I shall not forget you, I promise, not even if a hundred years would pass.”

“Beloved wife,” said the fish. “Do not make a promise that you cannot keep. I only ask this: even if you should forget me, even if you should think I am only a dream or only a story, remember that I still love you. If I am only a dream to you, then I shall love you as a dream. If I am only a story, then I shall love you as a story.”

“Then I shall go to your particular room and retrieve my bones and skin and all the rest,” said Eleanor.

“No,” said the fish. “I will go. For that particular room, no one shall enter except for me, for it has inside it the source of all my magic, and without it, we would both be lost.”

And with that, he went into his secret room and retrieved his wife’s bones and skin and dress, and the anchovy-servants dressed her in them carefully and returned her to the shore.

• • • •

The fish had been as good as his word. When Eleanor arrived back home, she found not the hovel of her childhood, but a snug little cottage, with a garden and servants coming and going. One of them, a woman in the middle of her years, approached her. “Who shall I say is calling?”

“Oh, it’s Eleanor—” said Eleanor, and then remembered that of course her mother wouldn’t know her by that name. “Tell her that her daughter has returned.”

When the fisherman’s wife heard that her daughter had returned, she hurried out to the courtyard in excitement, but when she saw Eleanor she was at first confused, then disappointed. “Oh,” she said. “It’s only you.”

“Mother!” said Eleanor, moving to embrace her. “I’ve missed you so.” But her mother had already turned away and would not embrace her.

“While you’re here,” she said, “you may as well clean the fireplace again. It’s gotten ever so filthy while you’ve been off neglecting your chores and doing God-only-knows beneath the sea.”

“But Mother,” said Eleanor, “surely you have servants who can clean the fireplace now.”

“Oh my dear,” said her mother, “but they can never clean it half as well as you could. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m quite busy. I’m sure there’ll be time for you to chit-chat later.” And with that she turned and made her way inside, not looking back at her daughter even once.

What else could she do? Eleanor made her way inside and began to clean the fireplace. Her mother didn’t call her for dinner, so she didn’t even stop to eat a bite until some of the servants took pity on her and gave her some of the leftovers from their supper. Finally, late in the night, she went looking for a place to sleep, and her mother found her.

“What are you doing wandering about, then?” asked her mother.

“Oh Mother!” said Eleanor and tried to embrace her again.

Her mother shrugged her off. “Already done with your cleaning then?”

“Yes, Mother, is there any place where I can sleep here?”

“Oh, no, I’m afraid. There’s just no room.”

“But I can see that there are empty rooms!”

“Oh, no, dear. Those are your beautiful sisters’ rooms. We have to leave them just as they are, in case they decide to come and visit. Which they will, of course, the next time their no-good husbands run out of money. A dowry doesn’t last as long as you think it might dear, even a good one! And now here you are asking for a place to sleep! I give and give and give and yet it’s never enough for you. Is there no end to daughters and their incessant complaints?”

Eleanor could make no reply to that.

“And anyway,” continued her mother, “if you won’t sleep in the ashes, then how can we even call you our ash-girl?”

“Actually, my name is Eleanor now,” said Eleanor, but her mother had already left. What could she do? In the end she could do nothing more but make her bed in the ashes of the fireplace, just as she always had before.

Two days passed much as the first one had, but on the evening of the third day, when Eleanor at last set back towards her home the sea, her mother came to her in tears. “Oh, my dear, you can’t possibly be leaving already! We have barely had any time to talk!”

“Oh, no,” said Eleanor. “Mother, I must return to my home the sea. I promised my husband I would stay no more than three days.”

“Oh posh,” said her mother. “What do husbands know? Your husband is just some overgrown trout! What do you owe to him? You’ve given him everything, and left nothing for me, your own mother who bore you and raised you up my own. You must stay another night!”

“I really must go, though,” said Eleanor, and began to explain about the magic, but her mother interrupted her.

“I have often said, my dear, that there is nothing to recommend you save your obedience, and now it seems you have abandoned even that. Poor girl, born so stupid and so ugly. It does you no good to add obstinance to the rest of your flaws! Stay! You must stay.”

“But mother—”

“No more ‘buts’ from you, girl. And of course there is more yet for you to clean. Get back in the house and I won’t hear another word of it!”

What could she do? She returned to the house, she spent another night there, and when she awoke in the morning it seemed to her that her time beneath the sea had been only some dream or fantasy, a tidbit of some story she had heard, to be forgotten in the morning.

And, with that, I must leave off our tale for now. But, you ask, how can that simply be the end of it? Well, now, that entirely depends on the sort of person that you are.

If, perhaps, you are the sort of person who scoffs at happy endings, who looks out at our world full of misery and wonders why our stories must always end with “happily ever after;” if, for you, a story must show all the pain of the world and more then, for you, let this be the end of the story: A simple girl found her happiness, then lost it forever. A mother scorned her daughter, and prospered therefrom. Surely, in that tale there is misery enough to satisfy.

But if, perhaps, you are the sort of person who wants a different story—a story where true love triumphs and cruelty is met with justice—then fear not for this tale, for I have not even told the half of it. There are yet twists and turns to it. There are betrayals and redemptions yet to come. As to the ending, though, I will make no promises. But surely—surely!—it cannot be as cruel as this.


P H Lee

P H Lee. A close-up photograph of three white plum blossoms on a branch, with an out-of-focus brown-and-green background.

P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Magazine. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005, and holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short stories have been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Locus Award among others. She’s also twice won the Nebula Award, once for her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window,” and again for her short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Her first collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, is available from Aqueduct Press; her second, How the World Became Quiet, came out from Subterranean Press in 2010. Visit her website, chat with her on Twitter, or support her on Patreon where she posts one new piece of fiction or poetry each month.