If you traveled far from where snow capped mountains make their berth, through golden deserts on camel back, and over countless emerald plains you would find a beautiful ocean, blue like a Himalayan Poppy and as fresh as a baby’s first breath. It flows with fish, all colors of the rainbow, and within it is a kingdom constructed of both sand and coral. Along these sandy roads swim not only whales and goldfish but the prettiest of mer-people too.
Their skins are shaded in a multitude of color like the fish, ranging from lilac purple and sunshine orange to coal black. The luckiest of them even have tails that reflect different pigments, as though carved from diamond. The mer-people spend a great deal of time indulging on oysters, adorning themselves with pearls, and playing silly love games. They court each other day and night, the mermaids batting their lovely lashes at the handsomest boys, while the mermen performed daring feats before the most beautiful girls. At night they gather upon soft tongues of clams to await the new morning. Such is life beneath the sea.
But there was one mermaid, particularly plain compared to the rest, who rejected their behavior. It reminded her of the tide, which wastes a great deal of time swallowing the shore only to be drawn back again at night with nothing more than it started out with. Surely there must be more to life and love than that, she thought. Though when she sought her sisters advice they merely laughed, telling her to grow up and stop acting so childish. But it was they who were childish, she decided.
“Perhaps you are jealous!” suggested the most beautiful of all her sisters, who was sitting in the family garden amongst the flowers and a group of popular mermen.
That wasn’t it either, for the mermaid knew that one day her sister would be left alone when her beauty escaped her, just like their mother had been. And look at mother now - spilling woes upon the unfortunate garden of seaweed that surrounded her oyster bed. The mermaid felt sorry for those poor plants because they couldn’t flee the miserable tales like those who had fins could.
Instead, the mermaid found solace above the sea. She bobbed up and down, far from land, where she occasionally glimpsed large wooden whales cutting the air with their peculiar white fins. At last, curiosity took hold of her. She wondered where the giant whales lived, if not beneath the ocean like all the others, so she followed it all the way to a sandy beach. Now some humans leapt from the whale’s mouth and began to heave large baskets full of fish onto the land. They were all dead. Horrified, the poor mermaid fled along the beach and down a creek, until stopped in the loveliest lagoon.
This wondrous place was palisaded with plants; taller and sturdier than any where she lived. Vines hung from branches like curtains and exotic flowers carpeted the floor. Even greater was her joy when she discovered that she could actually smell them too! There were fruit and berries to taste, and the wind carried sent of the mountains and jungle. None of this was possible when you lived under water, for all you ever smelt or tasted there was salt. Then she heard the most wonderful noises: the trilling of birds, the rush of the wind, even the gurgling water. And, for the first time ever, she heard her own voice. This was all very amazing to her because if you attempted to speak in the sea your mouth was filled with water, not words.
The mermaid spent the afternoon enjoying these new delights, finally coming to rest upon a smooth gray rock in the very center of the lagoon. Here she lowered her head on her folded arms and gazed at the sky to be reminded of a story her mother once told her (when she was happily in love, that is). It was a story of a beautiful kingdom that floated above the clouds. Everyone who lived there was happy and pure of heart. But the mermaid knew nothing more of this place, since her sisters soon dismissed it as common fairy gossip.
She was about to sigh when something startled her. Upon the horizon came two massive silhouettes in the shape of large birds. She threw herself into the water and swam through some reeds along the bank. There she hid and watched as the first of two shadows landed. The mermaid gasped. Never before in all her life had she seen anything so terrifying. The creature looked like a mad conglomeration of fish, bird and human. His nails were like shark teeth, his wrinkled face like bedrock, and his feet like that of a dragon (which she had never seen, but imagined).
Soon after, the second silhouette landed. He was a similar creature, but younger in age. Untidy clumps of chin length hair covered his dark green face. Like his father he had the horns of a goat and the ears of a cat. The strange winged boy turned to his father who said: “Son, my advice befits you like the annoying drill of a woodpecker. It’s loud and constant but only ignored. Never do you listen or heed what I say!”
“Because your words are foolish,” the boy retorted. “You force unwanted marriage upon me; to unite our brethren kingdoms and to gain wealth and status. The sky outside our palace is congested with potential candidates, but when I look at them – yes, every single one – all I see is air. They might as well be made of it for all their personalities are worth.”
“Your words are true but have little consequence. As the rightful heir to my throne and prince of the sky it is time you left behind your benevolent disposition and overvalued morals. Instead, act as our kind do – without mercy or care,” the gargoyle king told his son. “You will change over time. So remain here upon this rock until I return. Then, we will see if you are ready to behave accordingly.”
With that the gargoyle king took to the sky and out of sight.
“I will never act as you wish … leading armies, slaughtering the innocent, devouring their food, and burning their homes. Nor will I behave like a barbarian, marry for position, or ever move from this rock for that matter. I shall stay here until I die!” the gargoyle prince declared, while watching his father ascend the clouds.
The mermaid heard all this from where she hid and felt very sorry for the boy. Like her, he seemed trapped by society and customs. Like her, the prince was different. And perhaps, like him, she would also stay by that rock forever. She swam out eager to share her plight, but when the prince saw her, his back went rigid and he prepared to take flight.
“Wait!” she cried. Suddenly he was bound to the stone.
“What do you want?” he answered. “Had I known that the water could eavesdrop I wouldn’t have come.”
“I’d like to talk,” she said.
“Well I wouldn’t.” He scowled (as if that settled things) and turned his back on her. Unfortunately for the prince, she swam round to the other side, intent on inspecting him. “What are you anyhow?” he asked in agitation.
“A mermaid. I came from a kingdom deep in the sea!” she answered.
“Then go back home,” said the prince. “You don’t belong here, and if you continue to pester me I shall leave.”
“I can’t go back. I’ve left for good,” she confessed. “All mer-people do is eat, sleep, and court each other day and night. Their love is like the tiniest bubble, seemingly perfect but only for a moment – then it pops!”
“Well I don’t know about bubbles, but things are no different up here. Staying will only lead to disappointment, but if that is what you want then go ahead. Just leave me alone.” The prince enclosed himself inside his wings, shutting the mermaid out completely.
At first she cried, but when her sobs fell upon deaf ears she sunk to the bottom of the lagoon and slept upon a bed of dark sand. In the morning she rose to find the prince gone from his rock. Her momentary horror soon passed when she realized he was flying above the canopy. She called to him and he glowered back. He absolutely refused to come down until his wings grew so heavy that he had no choice. Even then, he drew up his long tail and locked her out once more.
“Please listen!” she begged. “I know what it’s like. You want to find a place where you belong so badly that you envy the rocks, which have no feeling at all. None can understand you; like the last flower in fall, left to suffer all alone, surrounded by thorns and dead leaves. But I promise you that I share these same feelings of sadness and separation. If you would just listen for once then we could become friends.”
The winged boy looked up then chided her for being silly. “Tut!” he said, “My kind and yours don’t get along; so says my father.”
“Your courage is so little it could barely fill a shell! You might as well throw it to the sharks for all the good it’ll do you,” she responded, with a mixture of sorrow and anger. Then she disappeared beneath the water’s surface.
Only upon reaching the bottom did she realize how dark it was there and regret becoming so upset. She longed to swim back up and talk to the boy but … the thought of him just made her more upset. If they were both in the same predicament then why would he not accept her friendship?
That night the gargoyle king returned. At first the mermaid feared the prince would be taken away. To her, his heart could be carved from the icebergs drifting the sea at winter; for that is the cold isolation it screamed of. Even still, he remained the following morning and she hoped to find the goodness within him that his father could see but she could not.
She swam up to the prince’s rock, but before she could speak he cleared his throat most pompously and said, “Haven’t you gone away yet?”
“No, I don’t think I will. It’s much nicer here than it was beneath the ocean,” she answered. At least this boy, unlike the mer-people, was not so flighty. And here she could be in peace since the prince only spoke after she did.
“I have a question,” the mermaid continued; and before he could refuse she asked: “Why haven’t you gone home yet?”
It took a while for the boy to respond. “Same as you I suppose. I want a better life; full of happiness and void of foolish people.”
“I’m not foolish!” she said, looking hurt.
“I didn’t say that,” the prince responded, taken aback. “Look, nothing will become of a friendship between a gargoyle and a mermaid.”
“Because is not an answer; it’s an excuse! Why are you so hopeless?” asked the mermaid. “Is it not worth standing up for something you believe in – dangerous and terrifying as it may be?”
“Go away you!” he told her. “Don’t fill my head with such nonsense.” With that the prince pushed her head beneath the water.
“He is so stubborn!” she thought to herself. “If only he would give me a chance then he might become kindly obstinate, instead of obstinately cruel.”
And so her futile attempts carried on, day by day, and each time she knocked on the prince’s door he would chase her away. Getting to know him was much like trying to befriend a barracuda at fishing hour, or to open a locked chamber without the key … but she would break in if she had to. Each day she would sing for the prince. She told him undersea stories and sometimes fairy gossip she heard as a child.
“I have heard about a kingdom in the sky. Have you ever seen it?” the mermaid asked one day while watching the prince hover in the air.
“No, but I have heard of it. Beings such as myself cannot enter for our souls are rotten graves, welcoming death,” he explained bitterly. “That is what father said.”
The mermaid was very sad to hear this and wondered if her soul was unworthy of such a place too. “Well perhaps we could find and enter it together?” she asked hopefully. She would feel more comfortable searching for such a far off place with the prince at her side.
“Ridiculous!” said the prince, who took off with a single beat of his wings. But as he soared up the mermaid saw a faint glimmer stinging his eyes.
It hurt her to be ignored this way. She loved him so much and knew he loved her just the same, for even though his words burned like acid, they were coated in compassion like the finest sugar. Still, the barricade remained until one summer’s eve when the sun dipped into the horizon like a bright orange yolk. The prince was flying about the treetops as usual, harvesting a colorful assortment of fruit for his dinner when a perfectly fine tree branch split and fell.
It tumbled right on top the poor gargoyle prince, who cried out in anguish and lay wounded upon the shore. Indeed his injury was serious; his wing has been so badly broken that it would be a miracle should he ever fly again. But this did not stop the lovely mermaid swimming to him. She bound the wing together with sticks and dried seaweed and told him, “Have faith!”
The boy scoffed at her, just as usual, and remained in a miserable temper upon the shore for seven days. All this time the mermaid had brought food for the prince and redressed his wounds. Unfortunately, in the middle of that week the gargoyle king came and saw his son.
“What has happened!” he bellowed.
“A tree fell and broke my wing,” his son replied honestly.
“Very likely!” his father retorted. “You probably flew straight into a tree during one of your daydreams. It’s much deserved and about time! But I’ll come back later and if you are healed I will take you home; if not you shall die here because there is no place for the wingless in our kingdom.”
On the seventh day the mermaid peeled the bandages from the prince’s wing. To his amazement it was good as new! He was so amazed and thankful that he took her by the hands and kissed them.
“Because of your devotion I was able to heal!” he exclaimed, then leapt into the air and rode the wind currents higher. He was so elated that he almost forgot she was still down below.
“You fly like an angel!” she cried.
The prince saw her, then landed on the rock. “Yet you have the beauty of one,” he replied, touching his scaly face in shame.
“Beauty is nothing when it comes from the outside,” the mermaid told him.
The boy smiled in return, “Your response pleases me, but that’s not what I meant. Outside beauty is food for the worms.”
“Then why are you so resentful?” she asked.
He sighed. “My kind are terrible. We bring no joy to others as you do. Instead, we do horrible things and will suffer in the afterlife. That is my fate.”
“Well I don’t think you are terrible – though sometimes you pretend to be,” she added honestly.
The prince smiled, “Forgive me.”
As time passed their love for each other grew and blossomed like spring into summer. It was not the love an adult understands but the pure and simple love of a child, which reaches it’s touch to everything good and lovely, and makes a person want to jump and sing in appreciation. It is the kind of love that most people forget with time.
Then one day, when the mermaid and the gargoyle were playing in the lagoon together, they heard the beat of wings. The prince, who was holding the mermaid around her waist and sweeping her across the water’s surface, let her fall. He forced her head beneath the ripples and held his finger up for silence, then moved to his rock where he sat and waited.
No sooner had the prince lifted both his clawed feet upon the rock, then his father came soaring down from the clouds. The mermaid watched quietly as they sat together. At last the father turned to speak.
“My son, you have stayed for nearly three months now. Have your feelings changed at all?”
“They haven’t, father. If anything they grow even stronger,” the son replied.
“Then, I have decided to take you back with me. Being here does no good for you or your kingdom. It is time you learned how to rule it properly, whether you’re ready or not,” said the gargoyle king.
“No, please!” cried the prince, for he couldn’t bear to leave the mermaid without one last goodbye. “Let me have a day longer, at the very least!”
“What for? If you haven’t changed by now you certainly won’t change overnight. Stop this foolishness and come.” With that the king took his son by the hand.
The mermaid gasped, but only bubbles escaped her lips. She watched the prince tear away and dig his claws into the hard rock below. “One more night,” he demanded. Thus the king vanished into the pinnacle of sunset.
Immediately, the mermaid splashed up to the rock. She threw her arms about the prince and he did the same. “Don’t go!” she sobbed into his ears.
“Fear not,” he replied, taking her by the hands. “Tonight we will visit the sky kingdom at last! It is called Heaven and it is far, far away … but if it really does exist, then we will be welcome there.”
“Oh, thank you!” she cried and kissed his hands. “But how will we go up to the clouds? I have no wings.” This she had never considered before, and it made her incredibly worried.
“I will carry you,” said the prince, lifting her into his arms.
Then, without further thought, he pushed off and they sailed together into the air. All around them were warm colors painted upon the sky, earth, and clouds like a giant canvas. A choir of birds flew by singing their songs while the forest below swung to the beat. They soared above the ocean that was so strangely still it mirrored the sky and for a single instant it was as if they were floating in a cauldron of rainbows.
The prince broke the clouds with his forehead and they flew even higher. Still, they could not see Heaven no matter where they looked. For a fleeting second, the mermaid feared it didn’t exist – just as her mother said – but she urged the gargoyle to go higher.
“We’re almost there,” she said. “I’m sure of it!”
So the gargoyle, whose wings were tired and whose arms felt heavy as lead, pushed on. Even though the mermaid was thin, she wasn’t an easy burden to carry for so long. Several minutes passed in silence. The boy looked at the mermaid and saw that her eyes were starting to haze so he smiled and began to whirl wonderful circles and even loop upside down.
She giggled delightedly and, upon hearing this, the prince would have happily given everything he had and all his life, for that moment. But soon the mermaid’s breath came in short gasps and he took back his thoughts knowing that something dreadful was happening.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
“I can’t breathe!” she gasped.
“It’s the air, you’re just not used to it,” said the prince. “Hold on, I’ll return you to the sea.”
“No, I don’t want to go back,” she answered, hugging his neck. “I’m so happy up here and I’m sure that Heaven is nearby.”
“I can’t make it. It’s too high,” the prince admitted at last. He was tired beyond belief and already sinking beneath the clouds. “We’ll try again when you feel better, I promise!”
“It must be today, for tomorrow your father will return. Keep faith just a little longer,” she begged.
The prince was torn between instinct and heart. Then, without warning, the mermaid went limp in his arms.
“This is the most terrible thing that could happen!” he cried when all his fears came true. The mermaid no longer breathed although her lips still smiled. “I will return you to the sea, and if you’re afraid then I’ll come with you,” he promised, trying to shake her back to life.
With his wings folded, the prince dropped into the now churning waves, still clutching the mermaid’s limp body. At first he only held her beneath the water – that way he could also breathe. When this did not help he plunged deeper. Now, he knew what it felt like without air. He could bear it at first, but the farther he sunk the more it hurt inside, and eventually panic began to swell in his chest.
The prince was afraid. He would have cried but the water prevented this. Instead, he hovered in place for a minute, wondering if he should return to the surface and save himself or continue deeper with the small chance of saving his friend. His heart won. The gargoyle continued to paddle even deeper, though each stroke weakened his body.
Seconds passed then he, too, went limp. The prince felt himself rising against his will and began to struggle. “Keep faith!” he told himself. Then his heart stopped; the mermaid opened her eyes!
“Struggle no more,” she told him. “We are going to Heaven at last!”
Only then did the gargoyle notice the giant hand below, lifting them out of the sea, into the air, above the clouds, and much higher than he ever could fly. There were tears in his eyes and tears in hers. They laughed and cried at the same time, then hugged each other. Softly, the prince kissed the mermaid’s forehead and sung:
You are my princess; God is my king.
You are my candle; the Lord is my light.
Let his angels take charge
And lift us into everlasting life!
At the end of his song they came to the most beautiful golden gates covered in flowers of all colors (even some that didn’t exist on Earth). Then a procession of people came to greet them. They wore robes of purest white and had hearts that loved graciously. There was no greed, hatred, or lust. There was no famine, plague, or poverty either. Everything was true and righteous.
The gargoyle was no longer ugly. Gone were his horns and his dark green skin. The mermaid was no longer plain. Her soul shone from her eyes like two crystal stars and her skin became pearl white. When the gates swung open they heard the loveliest music from within and everyone sung in the most beautiful voices. Then, the prince took her hand in his and they stepped into the kingdom together. They were home at last.