The sky gleamed and shifted. The sun was a dull ache behind a veil of gray and silver.
And then, there. On the water! She breathed in quickly, afraid it was a trick of the sea. A fish’s tail shooting out. Bright, shimmering silver.
Margrethe squinted against the cold wind, trying to keep her eyes steady and focused. They say you can see things here, at the end of the world. Faces in the clouds and waves and leaves. Branches becoming arms and then branches again.
But there it was again, a flash of white. Margrethe blinked repeatedly, and the sea air seemed to cut through her. She wiped tears from her eyes and cheeks and leaned into the wind. The sea seemed to shift from foam to water, from dark to light, swirling. In the distance, rocks jutted. It would be easy to mistake one for the monstrous fin of a great fish, the prow of a ship sinking down.
And then: a curving, gleaming tail flaring out of the water. A moment later, another flash and a pale face emerging, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. A woman’s face. The tail of a fish stretching out behind her. Silvery, as if it were made of gems. Margrethe shook her head. The cold was making her see things.
She turned to look at the convent behind her, the cross and church spires stretching black against the sky. The other women were inside, next to fires and wrapped in blankets and furs. Only she was crazy enough to stand here staring into this impossible sea.
She laughed at herself, turned back to the sea. But the woman was still there, closer now, gliding through the water as if she had wings. Her hair the color of the moon and scattered through with pearls. Her skin shimmering out of the water, catching the light and turning to diamonds. And that tail propelling her forward, unmistakably. It was not human, this creature.
Mermaid. The name came to Margrethe automatically, from the stories that had rooted themselves in her mind, the ancient tales she had read by firelight as the rest of the castle slept. She no longer felt the wind or the cold as she stood transfixed, watching the mermaid move through the water. Margrethe had not known such things could really exist, but the moment she saw the mermaid, it was as if the world had always contained this kind of wonder. This is how it works, she thought. When the world becomes something new, it seems always to have been that way.
She’d never seen anything so beautiful in all her years at court, not in all the grand banquets and dances, the festivals that lasted weeks at a time, the creations of musicians and storytellers, the rich spices and fabrics and jewels shipped in from all over the world. Not in all her years surrounded by handmaidens who bathed her and brushed her hair and laced her corsets and pressed powder into her skin. Nothing could compare to this creature gliding through the water, propelled by the tail of a fish.
As the mermaid approached the shore, Margrethe saw that she was carrying something… A man.