Seven-years-old and driven by boredom to pillage our living room bookshelves in search of something to read, I knocked over a dusty, leather-bound book of short stories by Hans Christian Andersen. It fell open on the floor to “The Little Mermaid.”
This was the first that I had heard of mermaids (the book came into my life before the animated Disney movie), and the opening conversation between a bevy of teenage mermaid sisters and their grandmother hooked me immediately. The youngest sister, who has just witnessed a shipwreck and helped a drowning human prince to shore, wants to know: How long do humans live? How long do mermaids live? What happens when you die?
You can see how it appealed to a 7-year-old.
Mermaids, according to the grandmother, live for 300 years. People live a shorter time, but when they die, their souls live on forever. Not so for mermaids.
“Is there anything I can do to get an immortal soul?” the mermaid asks.
Not much, the grandmother answers. You’d have to marry a human, but that’s darn near-impossible because mermaids can’t walk on land. Tough tail-fins, sister.
Among the many ways the original short story differs from the cartoon film (see also: singing crabs, oyster-shell bikinis) there is one whopper of a distinction, and you get a hint of it in this line: “She could not forget the charming prince, nor her sorrow that she had not an immortal soul like his.” See, in the story, the little mermaid thinks the prince is cute, but she doesn’t go back for him because he is such an irresistible dream-nugget. She goes back because she wants a soul.
The way I read it, she is not lovesick. She’s ambitious.
But to get what she wants, she has to strike a raw deal with a bad witch and trade away her voice to get feet. From there, everything goes wrong. Once she is on land, she can’t tell anyone who she is or what she needs — she can’t say anything — and she ends up standing mutely by as the prince meets and marries someone else. The real bummer is that, according to the witchy bargain, she can’t cut her losses, grow her tail back and revert to mermaid life. Failing to seal the deal means she is doomed to die.
The mermaid-turned-woman slips into the ocean and dissolves into sea foam. She has lost her remaining 285 mermaid years, she has lost her brief humanity, and most tragically, she has lost what she gambled everything for — a chance at a soul. It’s all over.
Holy hammerheads, that story made me mad. I read and reread it until my thumbs wore the print off the pages, desperate to find the loophole, some way it could all end differently. What could the mermaid have done to turn things around, to get everyone’s attention and explain herself before it was too late? I mean, good grief, couldn’t she have written a simple note?
My God. Couldn’t she?
My little type-A brain obsessed over this fictional dilemma for years. I often fell asleep raging against Neptune, plotting undersea education reform. It was not fair that the sea-girl couldn’t write her way out of trouble. Forget the backstroke — mermaids should be taught their letters.
Decades later, in 2016, I saw first lady Michelle Obama’s turn on “Carpool Karaoke” for James Corden’s “The Late Late Show.” When she mentioned her Let Girls Learn initiative, I could hear the echo of the mermaid story in my head.
I went to LetGirlsLearn.gov and found out that more than 62 million girls worldwide, half of them teenagers, are not in school. I learned that in many countries, where the deck is stacked against girls from the start, obstacles include steep school fees, unsafe walking routes and cultural rules forcing girls to marry. I scrolled through photos and looked into the brave eyes of young women in Mongolia, Ghana, El Salvador and Egypt, and I thought about what they had to give up for their chance at an education. How hard they must have fought to tell their stories to the world and change their lives.
I thought about my daughter, my friends’ daughters, girls growing up in America at a time when the word “feminist” is fashionable again, and girls growing up in places where feminism has not even broken through to the surface.
I thought about how important it is, from the time they are toddlers, to teach girls not only the building blocks of consent — “yes” and “no” — but also the words for bucking expectation: “I will” and “I will not.”
I thought about the things we trade away to get what we want, what we need. How often women accept their situations out of fear of repercussions or even simply fear of being seen as ungrateful or greedy. It should not be so difficult to verbalize, “I’m going to do something different,” or even, “I’m going to do something big.”
We have to be able to say these things out loud, put them on paper.
As I clicked to drop some money into the online bucket at LetGirlsLearn.gov, I remembered my imaginary mermaid friend who lacked the skills to save herself. That story taught me something — and I don’t mean the contrived moral tacked onto the end of the fairy tale; I mean the lesson I took away from it and carried with me forever.
You want a shot at immortality?
Baby, you better learn to write.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “Penguins with People Problems,” the social media director and online content editor for Parnassus Books, and a Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist. She’s on twitter @marylauraph.
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