Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Merry Spinster

Tales of Everyday Horror

Mallory Ortberg

Holt Paperbacks

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

ONE

The Daughter Cells


Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with—if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible. There are, you may know, kingdoms underneath the sea as well as above it, with all manners of governance, as it happens. Kings have daughters there too, in the manner of kings everywhere, and fathers there must find something to do with daughters, just as we do on land. There once was a king who owned a great deal of what lay under the surface of the sea, and he happened to fill it with his daughters. Another man might have filled it with something else—potato farmers or pop-eyed scholars or merchant marines—but this one filled it with daughters, so there’s no use arguing about it now.

Each of this man’s daughters had a little plot of ground in the central gardens of the underwater city, which she could develop as she liked. Each daughter had use of the land but did not own it. (I haven’t time to explain to you the way personal property is thought about in states where all borders are by definition liquid. There are other books about that sort of thing.) You might call the daughters princesses. I wouldn’t, but if it’s easier for you, then you might. You might call them something else, too—there are words for such things that live under the sea and haven’t legs. You certainly wouldn’t think to call them girls, if you happened to see them.

At any rate, these girls didn’t own their patches of land, but they had the use of them, which made for good practice. They might ornament their allotted land with flowers, they might grow crops, or they might stuff it with old sea glass and bits of shipwrecked kettles, as they saw fit. The only way to teach the value of something is to give someone the chance to waste it—or at least that was how the thinking went under that particular administration. And most of the daughters grew up with a reasonably discerning sense of what was worth something and what wasn’t, so that’s one point in that philosophy’s favor. Most of them didn’t farm sea glass either.

The youngest of the daughters planted nothing at all in her garden, and no one thought any less of her for it. If a single polyp so much as presented its head above the ground there, she’d twist it out and fling it over the wall before it could so much as think of partitioning itself. She had no particular genius for growing things, and saw no reason to force a skill when there were so many others to cultivate.

You might well ask—and some did—why bother to go to all the trouble of patrolling for kelp and rhizomes and bits of eelgrass if you weren’t going to grow anything in their place. “The point isn’t that I’m growing anything else there, at least not at present,” she always said. “There’s the whole rest of the sea available to go be a polyp or a rhizome or a bit of eelgrass in; they just can’t do it here. I can go look at a flower anywhere without having to put in a lot of effort to grow a poorer version of my own,” which everyone celebrated as an eminently sensible answer.

Nothing gave the youngest daughter so much pleasure as to hear about the worlds above the sea, and the ways in which they were variously apportioned and administered. She made her old grandmother tell her all she knew of the ships and of the towns (a great deal), of their fortifications and their distribution of resources (very little, but she didn’t mind lying). The defining characteristic (or so it seemed to the youngest daughter) of these places was what a great store its peoples seemed to set in declaring one place not another—this country here can never be that country there and vice versa, and how strictly important the notion of a front door was.

“You mean if someone has something, and I should like to use it, and they don’t want me to,” she said to her grandmother, “all they have to do is put it behind their front door, and keep it there, and there’s nothing I can do about it?”

“Not unless you were willing to get into a great deal of trouble for the keeping of it,” her grandmother said.

“But that’s unreasonable,” she said. “What right has a front door to keep me from anything? My goodness, I keep clams and things out of my garden, but I don’t expect them to stop trying just because I put a few rocks around it. It’s my garden because I till it, not because the world stops trying to grow things at my say-so.”

“Nevertheless,” her grandmother said, “they set a great store by it, and wouldn’t give up their front doors for anything.”

“You can’t have understood it properly,” the girl said.

“Front doors,” her grandmother repeated, “they’re absolutely mad for them, and their fish are covered in soft scales, and roost in stiff pods of kelp that don’t move in the slightest, and scream at one another from their nests all day long, for everything that lives there hates quiet. All day long a hot coal rakes its way across the roof of the world, and all night they freeze as little white maggots peep out all over the sky to watch them.”

“It isn’t decent,” she added, and the general opinion was that she was right.

“Decent or not,” the girl said, “I’d like to see it for myself.”

“And you will,” said her grandmother. “When you’re of an age, and your affairs are in order, and you have your family’s consent, you may sit on the rocks by the coast and watch the ships go by moonlight. Then you will come home, and you can think about what you have seen.”

At last the girl came of an age, and her affairs were in order, and she had the consent of her family tucked under the wallet strung round her waist.

“Now you are grown up,” said her grandmother, “and you must let me turn you out so everyone who sees you will know your rank,” and she placed ropes of nautilus on her neck and ordered eight solemn oysters to clamp onto her hair.

“But this hurts so,” said the girl, who had never suffered before and did not like it in the least.

“I would not hurt you unless I could bear the same thing. You are not being asked to do anything without precedent,” said her grandmother, “and no one likes to hear someone talk about their aches and pains. Have the decency at least to be quiet about it.”

“All the same,” the girl said, twisting her mouth, “I don’t believe I should like to suffer again. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe I will suffer again at all. Good-bye, for now at least.” And with that, she drew herself up and vanished into the blue haze overhead.

The sun had set just before she broke her head into the air. Nearby, a large ship rested on the water. The sea and the sky alike were still and cool, but the surface of the ship seethed in continual motion against the waves. Dark figures crawled all along the rigging with a great shouting and waving of arms. Lanterns had been tipped up all around the deck and stuffed with fire, and pennants flashed from every spar. A lurching, crashing music tipped over the sides of the ship and scattered on the waves so that the girl sputtered and thrust her head back under the water, where everything was blessedly dark and quiet. She swam closer to the cabin windows and looked in through the glass. There she saw a smaller crowd of people, not moving about so wildly as the first, but richly dressed, who smiled at each other and spoke in soft voices.

Among them was a young prince—“for practical purposes, much the same thing as a daughter, at least to them,” her grandmother had said. His rank was obvious from the deference offered him, despite the conspicuous lack of nautilus and clamshells on his person. He was dark-eyed and solemn, or at least civil, and the girl thoroughly approved of him for it. The celebration was for him; it was the prince’s birthday, and they were marking it with tremendous merriment, for they had only a single prince to share among all their people.

The girl remembered what her grandmother had told her: “They aren’t made as you or I were made. Here, a king knows exactly the number of daughters—or sons, if he wants any—he needs, and produces them as necessary. They have to go to a great deal more trouble than that if they want to get up more people. And they can make only one or two at a time, which makes for a devil of a time with planning, so that sometimes there are too many, and sometimes not nearly enough, and always there is the question of who they are going to make new people with. They can’t make daughters as individuals or as a body politic, nor bud nor generate colonies, as sensible people do. They have to split off into two first, and commit sexuality against one another. I told you it wasn’t decent.”

When the prince moved from his cabin to the deck, a terrible shouting came from the sailors gathered there, and more than a hundred rockets shot out across the bow, singeing the sky with such a brightness that the girl could hardly bear to look. She had to bathe her eyes in salt water before she could open them again. When she did, it appeared as if every star in heaven had been wounded, and that they were unspooling themselves into blazing white threads that dripped into the sea. Everything was freezing cold and burning hot all at once. The ship itself was so brilliantly lit that everything onboard seemed lost in half radiance, half shadow. No one seemed in the least bit frightened, and everyone who saw the prince smiled at him. In this way the girl figured he must be lovely, so she smiled at him, too.

It grew late, yet the girl did not take her eyes from the ship, nor from the prince once they had adjusted to the glare. One by one, the lanterns drooped lightless, the music paled, and the ship grew quieter. The sea became restless, and every wave began to hiss foam, but still the girl remained by the cabin windows, bobbing up and down in the water. Then suddenly the deck was no longer quiet; sailors moved in a black line up the mast, seizing at the rigging, but the waves threw themselves to yet greater heights, where they were joined by fat lashings of lightning. The sails were soon swamped, and the ship dove down like a swan, and all of it made for great sport for the girl, who had long been cradled by storms such as these.

At once the sea rushed over the deck, sweeping everyone before it. All around her there was a struggling of limbs and gasping for breath, and the girl felt rather sorry for complaining about the weight of a few oysters, now that she could see how thoroughly everyone around her suffered. “I won’t complain about them next time,” she promised herself.

Now and again she had to swim slightly out of her way to avoid the scattered side effects of the shipwreck. It became so dark she could imagine herself on the seafloor, but then a flash of lightning threw the scene into relief, and she glimpsed the prince sinking below the waves. She brightened at the thought that soon he would be down in her father’s country, where she might show him her garden and explain her philosophy of relative value and effective stewardship. After all, she thought, better for him to join us than for us to join him, if he is the only administrator his father has, as having one is scarcely better than having none at all. Then she remembered that humans could live only under the strictest of conditions, that their lungs were quite useless when wet, so that by the time he reached her father’s house he would be quite dead and unable to learn anything about her philosophies at all, much less help implement them. So he had better not drown.

She dove among the beams of the ruined ship, and found him drifting a few lengths below, tangled in a bit of sail. His eyes were closed, and he seemed not to take a bit of interest in the goings-on around him (for there was still a great deal of thrashing going on just under the waves). The girl, being fair-minded, was careful not to attribute this to indifference and so did not hold his lack of curiosity against him, but tucked him squarely under her left arm and made for shore, mindful that his head faced upward. It was a generally clumsy and inefficient form of travel, but like any good administrator, she never held anyone responsible for their natural limitations.

The prince remained similarly useless once they reached the shore, and since his head seemed determined to loll about on his neck, she was compelled to steady him with one hand on either side of his face. His eyes still did not open, but his mouth hung slack, so she closed it.

“You’re very quiet,” the girl told him. She frowned meditatively. “I don’t mind it. You may kiss me, if you like.” The prince said nothing at all to that, so she kissed his forehead, and pushed back his damp hair, and kissed him again. The prince’s assets—silence, introspection, slowness to judgment, pliability—all spoke of good breeding and more than compensated for his lack of seaworthiness. He also had, it seemed, the quality of Loveliness—Or, at least, the girl thought, is recognizably lovely to others of his own kind when he is awake, which was much the same thing.

Soon the morning had scrubbed both storm and ship clean from the horizon, and still the prince’s eyes did not open. She had never seen anyone who lived above water so placid before. It seemed eminently sensible, and so she decided to love him for it. She was delighted that she had been away from home less than a day and already she had found something useful to do.

Considering further delay unnecessary, the girl dove back into the sea and tucked herself just beneath the waves, so that she might not have to see him wake up. A little farther down the shore was a long, low building, and a number of people surged out of its doors onto the sand and busied themselves about the prince. One of them sank next to him and pressed his hand tenderly; he soon opened his eyes and sat up, and the activity on the beach consequently increased. When she saw the prince disappear behind the front doors of the building, the girl considered him unlikely to drown again, so she swam farther out into the waves, flipped over neatly, and made for home.

She had kissed him, and she had kept his lungs from getting wet; this made him hers according to the laws of most commonsensical people. It certainly made him more hers than anyone else’s, which meant there was a great deal to attend to before she was ready to challenge any front door’s claim on him.

Everyone at home made much of her return, and she let herself be fussed over with patient indifference.

“If human beings are not drowned,” said the girl to her grandmother once she had been thoroughly scrubbed and fêted, “can anything else kill them? Are they like sea grass, or like seals? Will the same one return again if I yank it up by the roots, or will it die?”

“Humans die,” said the grandmother, “and humans suffer too, for they lead short lives and when they are dead, no one eats them. They are stuffed in boxes and hidden in the dirt, or else set on fire and turned into cinders, so no one else can make any use of them; they are a prodigiously selfish race and consider themselves their own private property even in death.”

“The prince would never be so miserly as to deny himself to any fellow citizen, whether he is living or dead, I am sure,” the girl said, “for I could never love anyone who was not civic-minded, and I am very sure that I love him.”

“That’s all very good,” her grandmother said, “but if he is to make his home here, you must make him promise to let us eat him when he is dead, as you and I will be eaten.”

“I am sure that he can be persuaded,” the girl said. “He was very persuadable, when I fell in love with him. You know he is the only prince they have at all up there; he has no sisters or colleagues to share his burden or offer him advice. It is a singular place, and everyone seems quite determinedly alone, and I think he will be grateful to learn there are more reciprocal ways of living.”

“They are powerfully ungenerous,” her grandmother agreed. “They do not think of the future, as we do; each one keeps a little soul all locked away for himself, and once their bodies are used up, their souls go off somewhere no one else can reach and continue along in perfect isolation forever and ever.”

“But what a terrible waste that must be,” cried the girl. “I can think of a dozen better things I could do with a soul.”

“More’s the pity that you haven’t got one, for I have no doubt you could put a soul to a great deal of good use.”

“I should like to get a soul,” said the girl. “The prince has one already. I might have his. I have put my mouth on his mouth, and surely that counts for something, even among savages.”

“Getting a soul takes suffering and solitude,” said her grandmother. “We are much better off than they are, no matter how much they squander their birthright.”

“I’ve suffered already,” said the girl. “Not much, perhaps, but I should still like to get something for my suffering.”

“You could,” said her grandmother, “if the prince were to love you such that his own people were nothing to him, and if he forgot the two parents who made him, and if all his thoughts were yours, and if he were wed to you with his full heart, then his soul could become yours, and you would gain a share in his eternity.”

The girl thought of the prince, quiet and still on the sand with his dark eyes closed, and she thought about gaining something from him. She considered his soul quite her own already, minus a few necessary formalities.

The very next day the girl swam out from her father’s house to visit the sea-witch. She didn’t call her a sea-witch, obviously, because people who live there don’t go around affixing the word “sea” to everything any more than you would speak of visiting your land-doctor or your dirt-grocer. She didn’t call her a witch either, as a matter of fact, but no translation is perfect, and for our present purposes, there’s not much more you need to understand about the sort of person the sea-witch was. After all, it was true that she lived in the sea, and it was true that she could make things happen that other people couldn’t. She was a very effective and useful person, which meant, as far as the girl was concerned (although, you will remember, that you would never call her a girl, if you got a good look at her), a sea-witch was just another sort of king’s daughter.

Now here is what the sea-witch looked like: she was hinged neatly in the middle; she could jump very high by bending and straightening her great-foot; she could whistle water through her teeth and hit a swimming fish one hundred yards away; and she had no head at all. She was lovely to look at.

And here is what the sea-witch’s house looked like: it was composed of a hundred white chimneys that shot out merry little clouds of particulate all night and day. The chimneys were crusted in mottled bits of iron and long drips of sulfide and flanked with lovely pale calcium blooms. Out of this smoking corridor grew tube worms, which the sea-witch tended herself, and which had no faces at all, only pale, slender midguts and foreguts that concluded in a red mouth that danced in the current. The mouths turned and followed carefully everything that swam by. The sea-witch’s home was bounded by a dead brine pool and old dripping waterfalls, and a soft shower of marine snow was always pattering lightly against the roof of her chimney-palace. It was too hot and too cold and too wriggling for anyone else to live there, so the sea-witch owned it. She turned it out quite neatly, too.

The girl felt the worms twitching underneath as she swam, mouthing at her limbs softly as she passed over. She went faster until she came to a chimney that would have looked to you like a squat stone beehive—it didn’t look like a beehive to her, but what she thought it looked like wouldn’t mean anything to you. Anyhow, it was in this chimney that the witch lived, and so it was this chimney that the girl came to.

“Good day and well-met, girl,” said the witch, spitting a long stream of nacre on the floor in welcome. “Come in, then, and bring your business with you.”

“Good day and thanks, Mother,” the girl said (who was polite as well as efficient). “I’m off to get a soul, and a prince besides, if I can manage it.”

“Can’t see what need you have for one,” the witch said. “What will you do with it?”

“Oh, I haven’t got any plans, exactly,” the girl said. “Only I’m good at figuring out what to do with things, and the ones that have the things to begin with don’t seem interested in putting them to use, just in keeping them where they already are.”

The witch nodded, or made an approximate gesture that involved folding and unfolding herself quickly. “I can’t abide selfishness either, an it comes to that. Well, good luck to you, and if you manage to bring either one back, I’ll look forward to a good meal in your company. But better a plate of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.” (The witch didn’t say “ox,” or “love” either, if it comes to that, but there are other books that better explain that sort of thing. Hadn’t you better be reading some of them?)

The witch looked the girl up and down with a critical eye. (You know, by now, I think, that the witch had no eyes, and I need not explain every little difference to you, but bear in mind that even if someone is merely in possession of a clot of photosensitive cells and a rudimentary sort of lens that is only dimly aware when a shadow passes overhead, they might be just as proud of that clot of cells and that rudimentary lens as you are of your own two eyes.)

“You’ll need a great deal more skin than you’ve got now,” she added, “and you’ll be dried out all over, and you’ll get two limbs on the top half of you and two on the bottom and no more than that, and if you lose one, that’s the end of it. There’s no growing those back; no one up there abides by the blessed mandate of Radial Symmetry. Cut one of them in half—in either direction!—and they just fall apart stupidly, never to move again.”

“That will be novel,” the girl managed to say, although she looked more than a little pale at the prospect of losing Radial Symmetry, which she had been catechized in from her earliest memory.

Then the witch laughed so loud that she fell to the ground and wriggled about. “I will prepare a drink for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit on the shore and drink. All manner of things will happen to you: you’ll grow a hard plate of bone that will split the vaults inside your head; two soft cysts to force the air out of your chest; sprout studs of bone all in a line down your back; you will be mammalized, and it will hurt, and it will hurt until you are back here with all of us, in your own form again. But all who see you will consider you lovely, and you will be able to open your eyes wide against the sun. If you can bear this, then I can help you.”

“I can bear this,” the girl said. “Most likely,” she added, for she had never actually had to bear anything as yet and was only guessing.

“Well, I’ll give it you, then,” said the witch, “but you should be careful, because I don’t know much about the undoing of it, and once you’ve become human all over—instead of just partway, as you are now, and might I say, I like your present form much better—you might become particularized and believe you belong to yourself only, instead of in the normal way—you belonging to all of us and we all to you—and never return to the water, or your sisters, or your father’s house, or mine. And if you were to fail in winning the prince or his soul, if he were to join with another or hoard his own soul to himself, then you might die, and turn into nothing useful at all, and I should have wasted an afternoon, and gone hungry to boot.”

“Just the same,” the girl said, “I don’t think I’ll fail.”

“Another thing,” said the witch. “I can’t do voices. I mean that I can’t make you a new mouth that makes sounds. Not the kind they could understand, anyhow. I can make you a mouth that can suck in air and blow it back out again, and a mouth that can eat the right kind of food and swallow it, but I can’t make a mouth that can do all that and put a voice in it, too. So you won’t have one.”

It was a disappointment, but like any good administrator, the girl never held anyone responsible for their natural limitations. “No voice, then,” she agreed. “I’ll make up the difference somehow.” It was getting to be a great deal of trouble for a single prince, but there was a great deal to be said for doing something unprecedented.

At any rate, everything happened exactly as the witch said it would; the girl beached herself in the dark, drank from her little cup, experienced a fair bit of discomfort as her skeleton made itself known in new and distressing configurations, tested out her voice, found none, and assessed the situation, along with her assets (alive, conscious, in possession of a singleness of purpose, also in possession of eyelids) and disadvantages (unable to change color, one-way joints, a sudden and profound sense of isolation). Then the sun came up. The prince was there, which was remarkably convenient.

His eyes were so fixed upon her that she decided she must have uncommonly attractive legs, or else somehow the principle (if not the reality) of Radial Symmetry was visible in her new form. She found, somewhat to her surprise, that she was rather put off by his obvious approval, given how much trouble she had gone to just to split so much of herself apart. He had not, it had to be said, asked her to suffer this for him, and so could not strictly be blamed, but she found herself doing it just the same.

The prince asked her who she was and where she came from, and she looked at him with not a little disgust, that he did not know her. No point in suffering for someone who hasn’t asked you to do it, the witch had said, but please yourself; he won’t recognize what pain looks like on your face, that’s for certain. He evidently couldn’t recognize disgust, either, taking it for a softer emotion and guiding her inside a nearby building. She couldn’t help feeling, even in the midst of everything, a little thrill at the prospect of stepping through her first front door. She walked through it as easily as anything, although every step she took was as painful as promised.

As far as all that goes: the girl was not from the sort of people who took much interest in cataloguing various types of pain. Nor would she be interested in the sort of person who was, chiefly because knowing more about something one cannot change is not especially useful. So as far as the girl was concerned, things either hurt, or they didn’t, and you could either make them stop hurting, or you couldn’t. Walking hurt, and the sun boiled hot and furious over the horizon every morning, and the food she ate was bloodless and dry and made her stomach twist up, but she couldn’t help any of that, and that’s all there was to say about it.

At any rate, she couldn’t say anything about the pain, and so no one noticed, least of all the prince, who brought her home with him in a careless sort of way, and covered her in clothes and smiled at her and gestured broadly at a small stuffed sort of bed that was evidently meant for her use and not to be shared. He seemed to have a frenzy for clothes shared by all members of the administration; the girl could scarcely walk from one room to the next without being frantically presented with clothes by someone or other.

It was strange, the girl thought, that the prince had not yet bothered to thank her for coming to see him, for rearranging her skin, for all the suffering she was enduring for him, simply because he had not asked her to and did not know why she did it. It seemed to her that he was much nicer when he had been drowned and his eyes were closed, but that did not make her love him any less. He simply had a great deal to be taught.

The prince kept her near him at all times, and was forever tipping her chin up with his two longest fingers, as if he remembered having his face pointed to the sky as she swam him to shore. Her little stuffed bed sat just inside the door to his own room, and she slept when he slept, like a favorite dog. Where he went, she went, but never to assist or facilitate, merely to attend.

There had been plenty of activity at the beginning over whether the girl could speak, or was planning on it anytime soon, or whether she should be made to speak, or if she belonged to anyone (which she considered a ridiculous question, as she belonged to everyone). She expressed no preference one way or the other, and eventually she was left alone about it. They did not seem anxious to find a purpose for her. She was not going to be useful, she was not going to be shared, she was not even going to be eaten. It was with mounting horror that she realized their selfishness extended even to her.

She took to sneaking out of her bed after everyone else had gone to sleep and taking the steps that led down to the sea, where she could bathe her feet in salt water and think about her old garden. Once during the night, her sisters came up linked arm-in-arm, chorusing reproachfully at her from the water, and she tried to tell them how severely she had overestimated her ability to make something constructive out of suffering—but she had the wrong sort of mouth, and no voice to tell them with. They waved at her anyhow, and told her of all the work they had been undertaking, and promised to come again.

After that, they came to the same place every night, and she threw crusts of bread for them to eat, and their bright hair flashed in the lamplight as they lunged to snatch it from the waves with their teeth. After she ran out of bread they would bob around sullenly until she spread her arms wide in apology. Then they would vanish.

As the days passed she caught herself clinging to the prince more often, and his arms went easily around her, but it never entered his head to forget the two parents who made him, or to make all his thoughts her thoughts, or to wed her with his full heart, or give any part of his soul to her, which was exceedingly frustrating.

Sometimes the girl would look at him very hard, and try to ask “Do you not love me yet?” with her eyes, and she thought if she had any luck at all, he would begin to find her necessary. She had no luck at all, and began to despair of her plan entirely.

So she began instead to consider how to minimize her losses, capitalize on her assets, and make a strategic retreat. She did not blame the prince—he was not to blame for her limitations—but she began to think about how she could love him more efficiently. It so happened that very soon the prince had to marry, which was a great relief to the girl, who was beginning to wonder whether the leadership of his country cared about the perpetuation of daughters in the slightest. Then it was said that the particular daughter of a particular neighbor was to be the bride. This struck the girl as unnecessary—why favor specificity over proximity?—but as she was merely a guest and had not been invited to comment upon their cultural practices, she kept her own counsel. The prince still tipped her chin up with his two longest fingers, but now did so distantly, as if something had changed.

A ship was prepared, and all the favorite members of the court were put on it, and they wobbled cautiously out over the sea, hugging the coastline for three days. The morning they sailed into the bride’s harbor they were greeted by bells and gunfire and cheering, as if the wedding was something that was going to happen to everybody instead of merely two people.

The bride was brought forth, and the girl had not had time to form an opinion of her before the prince was married. She decided she could love the bride just as easily as she had loved the prince. A fanciful sort of person waved censers about, and the prince and the bride clasped their hands together, and the girl held up the bride’s train. Once again she saw lamps being flung up in every corner; once again rockets disemboweled themselves in a rush to produce light, although this time she could watch without fear of being blinded.

Then there was a great deal of laughter, and dancing, and motion. The prince never left off putting his fingers all over his bride’s face. Nor could his bride decide for what purpose she had a mouth; one moment it was crammed with food, the next moment it was smeared against some part of the prince. Eventually the two disappeared into the bridal cabin, and everyone left without milled around aimlessly. The crowd bled members belowdecks until eventually no one was left above but the ship’s automated operator at one end and the girl at the other.

The girl leaned against the edge of the railing and looked out over the sea for signs of morning. She saw a group of her sisters rising out of the water, their heads quite naked, for they had cut off all their hair.

“Hello again,” they said, “finding you has been awfully tiresome, and we’re very eager to go home. Are you ready to go home? We’ve brought you a knife, in case you are ready to come home, unless you’d rather die up here and be burnt into ashes. Take it, and visit the prince with it, and let his blood coat your feet, and let them grow back together, and have a sensible body again. The grandmother misses you, and your garden is just wild with polyps, and the witch says never mind about the meal, that she isn’t hungry for anything but to see you home again. All our hair is gone. We gave it to the witch so she could make a knife with it. Well, what have you to say to that?” Then they all sighed deeply and mournfully, for they were not used to making such long speeches.

The girl tilted her head and waved cheerfully down at them. Then she bound her hair at the back of her neck, pulled her legs back up from the edge of the ship, and disappeared inside the cabin.

The girl drew back the curtain covering the marriage-bed, and saw the prince sleeping against his bride’s chest. She bent down and kissed his brow, then hers, and then his, then hers once again for good measure. It would be too bad to have suffered so without getting the prince for it, but now it was his and his bride’s turn to suffer. Since the girl had already done her suffering cheerfully, she saw no reason why they should complain either. The knife jumped a little in her hand, and then it jumped first in the prince’s throat, then his bride’s, and a red line trailed after it. Then the girl flung the knife into the sea.

“Oh, that’s lovely,” she said, and she found that she had a voice again, and that she was not suffering in the least. “That’s so much better. That’s wonderful.” She wriggled her toes around in the blood and left scrunched-up little footprints behind her as she returned to the railing.

“Hello, sisters,” the girl called out as she waggled her bloody legs over the side. “Oh, but it’s a relief to see all of you. I can’t begin to tell you the extent of my troubles. I’m covered in little fissions—or fissures, I misremember which is which, but I’m split all over like a reef—and I can only move in four directions, none of them interesting, and I don’t care if I never see another soul as long as I live. I want to come home, and be around sensible people, and dig up my garden, and never have to look at the sun again.”

Then she looked down to see that she had been fully restored to herself, flexing joyfully in every direction, and found her body just as it had been, and she loved the prince and his bride better than she ever had before.

“I’m coming, sisters,” she said, and she felt three voices humming all at once in her throat—her own, and the prince’s, and the prince’s bride (her prince, now, and her bride, too). And she had two souls inside her, and they both belonged to her, and she smiled, and she slipped back into the sea.


Copyright © 2018 by Mallory Ortberg