The Unwilling Mermaid
Dedicated to Ethan and Declan and Finlay who support Storynory on Patreon
Read by Jana
Adapted freely for Storynory by Bertie from The Girl-Fish by Andrew Lang in his Orange Fairy Tale Book (1906).
Hello, this is Jana, and I’m here with a nice long story, so get comfortable and ready to listen! It’s about a girl and her adventures. There are quite a few twists and turns and transformations. As you can guess from the title, she becomes a mermaid. Now, I know that many people think it would be a lot of fun to be a cute mermaid, but this girl is not happy about what happens to her. Listen on to find out why.
Once upon a time, there was a teenage girl who was far wiser than her parents - or at least, that was her opinion.
She lived with her mother and father on a hill above a stream. Often her mother would take a net and catch a fish for their supper. One evening, the girl saw that her mother’s face was weary from work, and the girl said:
“Mother, I’ll tell you what. Let me take the net down to the stream and I’ll catch our supper in no time.”
The mother flopped down in a chair and readily agreed.
When the daughter picked up the net, she saw that there were some holes in it. “For goodness sake,” she tutted, “This won’t do at all. No wonder it takes you so long to catch a fish every evening. They can swim right through the holes.”
So she sat down and sewed up the gaps in the net. Then she held up her work and was pleased with it. “There!” She told her mother. “That’s a big improvement. You should have asked me to help you before.”
Then, she ran down the hill to the stream, where she flung the net into the gushing water, fully expecting to pull out a fish right away.
But she had no experience at casting a net, and it merely became caught up in some rocks. She hauled it back, with some difficulty, and saw that all she had caught were some stones. Worse, she had ripped a new hole in the net.
She flung the net back into the river, and this time she caught an old boot.
“Aah!” she said. “Third time lucky!”Just then, a boy who lived nearby saw that she was having difficulty and offered to help her.
“I don’t need your help,” she insisted, “I just wanted a couple of practice throws to train my eye. Just watch. I’ll catch a big one this time.”
A third time, she threw the net, and by luck or skill, she hauled in a shimmering, golden fish, easily large enough to feed a whole family. The boy was quietly impressed.
“Yummy, Yummy,” the girl said to the fish. “You’re going to feel nice in my tummy!”
Then the fish stopped wriggling and replied to the girl.
“If you don’t throw me back in the river right now, you’ll be sorry.”
“Oh, I’ll be sorry, will I? Tell that to somebody without any brains!” she said, glancing at the boy. “I won’t fall for a trick like that. What can you, a fish, do to harm a young girl like me?”
“If you take one bite of me, you’ll be a girl no more,” said the fish. “You will turn into a fish and know what it feels like to breathe water!”
The astonished boy pleaded with the girl: “You’ve caught a magician! You’d better do as he says and chuck him right back. I’ll help you catch a normal fish, so you needn’t go hungry.”
“What do you know? You’re just a foolish boy,” snapped the girl, and she bumped the talkative fish on the head with a rock. That shut it up, alright. Then she hurried back home with her catch as she was feeling quite peckish.
“Look at this whopper of a fish!” she said to her parents. “Didn’t I say I would catch a good bite to eat without any trouble? I expect this one will taste extra delicious because he was a talkative fish.”
“A what?” asked her father.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said he could talk, and he made more sense than either of you ever do,” insisted the girl.
Her father sighed. He was used to his daughter’s lippy back-talk. He hoped that she would grow out of her strong-headed ways before too long. He took a knife and expertly fillited the fish for her. Then she tossed it into the frying pan with butter and parsley, and soon it was sizzling away. Meanwhile, the father buttered some thick slices of bread that he had baked himself.
When the fish was ready, the girl placed it on a large plate and asked her parents to admire her evening’s work. They agreed that it looked and smelt impressive. She cut the fish into three pieces, and the family sat down to dinner. The girl was the first to prong a piece of fish on her knife and place it in her mouth. She closed her eyes and savoured it, saying, “Hmmm, delicious,” but when she opened her eyes - What was this? A very peculiar feeling had come over her. Was she ill? The symptoms were mighty strange: a salty taste on her lips, a sense of lightness, multiple colours swirling before her eyes.
When she tried to move, her whole body flipped in a fishy swimming motion. At last, it dawned upon her that she no longer had feet: only a long shimmering tail. Then, she realised that the swirling colours were weeds, coral and jellyfish.
Of course, she now understood that the dastardly fish’s curse had come true. She had turned into a fish, or at least in part. You might call her an unwilling mermaid!
“Oh, what an unlucky girl I am!” she declared. “Of course, none of this misfortune is my fault. How could I have known that stupid fish was speaking the truth!”
Soon she resolved to master the art of swimming underwater. So she practised flipping and flexing her fishy body, and before too long, she praised herself, saying: “See, I can swim like a fish if I want to. In fact, I can swim better than any actual fish!”
She used her new swimming skills to explore the seabed, and soon she found a shipwreck where she met a shoal of curious fish, opening and closing their mouths. She thought they looked totally stupid, not realising that she was doing the same with her mouth.
“Who are you?” asked the largest of them. “You’re a strange kind of fish!”
“Don’t you dare call me a fish! Can’t you see I’m a girl?” insisted the unwilling mermaid.
“Well, you look like a fish, and you swim like a fish, so I say you are a fish!” replied the big fish.
“How dare you say that! I’m a smart and pretty girl, not an ugly, stupid fish!”
“Oh, I see,'' said the big fish, “you probably were a girl until just recently, but you made the mistake of trying to eat a magic fish. So now you’re a fish even if you don’t want to be. Serve you right. Well, never mind, you can come and meet the Queen. She used to be a human girl just like you; now she’s a posh fish.”
The shoal of fish led the way. The unwilling mermaid felt lonely at the bottom of the deep sea, and so she followed on.
Up above them, a ship was setting out on a long journey. Some passengers gazed over the side and saw a splendid shoal of silvery shimmering fish. “Do you see that large, pretty fish!” said a woman passenger. “She has a face like a girl!” “Perhaps she’s a mermaid,” suggested her husband, putting his arm around his wife’s waist. Little did he know how right he was!
The fish and the mermaid swam on through crystal clear waters.
“Here we are at last,” cried the big fish, diving down into a deep valley, for the sea has its mountains and valleys just as much as the land. “This be the palace of the queen of the fishes! Isn’t it the most amazing building you ever could imagine!”
“It’s not too shabby!” gasped the unwilling mermaid, weary from trying to swim as fast as the rest. The palace was built like a cathedral, with high walls and sloping roofs covered in shells, coral, and pearls. The great gates and gothic windows were open so that visitors could swim in and out freely.
The troop of fish floated into a great hall where the Queen, who was half a woman, was seated on a throne made of a green and blue shell. The unwilling mermaid was shy - not a feeling that she was used to by any means. The other fish pushed her to the front.
“And who is this peculiar fish? I’ve not seen her before?” asked the Queen.
“You’re majesty,” said the big fish. “She was once a girl like you were.”
“Oh really?” said the Queen. “Then she may be of service to me and help herself into the bargain.”
“I won’t let you down!” declared the unwilling mermaid. “I’m a self-starter and a quick learner! You’ll soon see that I’m highly motivated to achieve my goal, which is to turn back into a girl and go back to live with my parents.”
“In that case,” said the Queen, “This is what I want you to do. Go and fetch my crown.”
“I can do that, no problem!” declared the unwilling mermaid, for it sounded like an easy task. “Only tell me where your crown is, and I will fetch it right away.”
“My crown,” said the Queen, “is on top of a tall mountain.”
“Fine! I will climb Mount Everest if I can have my legs back.”
“And it is inside a strong castle.”
“I do not lack for brains. I will find a way into the castle.”
“And the castle belongs to a fierce giant.”
“That’s, er, interesting...” said the unwilling mermaid, not quite so sure of herself now.
“The fierce giant has stolen my crown for the head of his daughter and will kill anyone who tries to take it.”
“Okay, I’ll deal with him when the time comes,” said the unwilling mermaid.
Secretly she thought that as soon as she had her legs back and was a girl again, she would run home to her house to live quietly with her parents. Then, for as long as she lived, she would listen to advice and not be a mouthy know-all. As for the idea of climbing a mountain and stealing a crown from a fierce giant and his daughter: well, she had no intention of doing anything so insane.
She looked up at the Queen and said:
“Your Majesty, only give me back my legs, and I will complete this task for you.”
“Good,” replied the Queen. “In that case, you must visit the Old Man of the Sea. He will help you with some of his magic.”
The shoal of fish swam with the unwilling mermaid to the cave where the Old Man of the Sea lives. All along the way, they sang her praises, saying how brave, beautiful and clever she was. She rather enjoyed the journey.
They found the Old Man of the Sea sitting propped up against the side of his cave, snoring loudly.
“Wake up, Wake up Old Man!” said the girl, annoyed. “It’s not bedtime yet. The Queen of the Fishes sent me. I need my legs back so I can fetch her crown.”
“What, what what?” said the old man, waking up. The girl repeated her request.
“You can’t do that. You’re a fish. Fishes can’t go on dry land.”
“I know that! That’s why I came to see you. I used to be a girl, and I’d like to be one again if you please.”
“Well, well well, be sure to keep your promise and bring back the crown to the Queen. If you do that, you can live happily ever after as a girl. All you must do now is swim to the beach.”
The girl thanked the Old Man of the Sea and swam with the fishes directly to the beach. As soon as she felt the sand on her belly, a change came over her. She was growing legs - and very soon, she had four of them - as well as a swishy tail. She staggered to her feet. Her new legs were wobbly, but soon she got the hang of standing, then walking, then running.
“Look, Mummy!” exclaimed a small boy. “There goes a sea-deer.”
The unwilling mermaid had changed into an unwilling deer, or a doe to be precise. She had little stubby horns on her head.
“Ooh!” she exclaimed, “They tricked me! How dishonest of them! Now, I’ll have to keep my promise if I want to walk on two legs again!”
She swiftly ran off the beach towards the tall mountain that lay ahead. The lower slopes were covered in woods. Here, a young prince was following his hunting dogs. All at once, they started to run, barking. The prince looked up, saw the delicate deer dashing through the trees, and let fly with an arrow. It skimmed over her back, grazing her skin with its sharp tip.
“Hey, watch where you are shooting!” called out the deer in the voice of a girl. “You might have killed me!”
“Come back! Don’t be afraid! I won’t shoot you again!” replied the prince, who, if the truth is told, was the target of one of Cupid’s arrows.
“Can’t stop now! I’m in a rush. I have important things to do, and I’m running late!” called back the deer with the voice of a girl.
The prince stood and marvelled.
Onwards and upwards ran the deer. Soon, she was picking her way over hard rocks. The mountain became steeper and steeper. She stumbled quite often but fortunately did not injure any of her four legs. Eventually, when she was almost exhausted, she came over a crest and saw a huge castle hewn out of the rocks. It was almost like part of the mountain itself. The sight renewed her energy. She trotted over the stone bridge and through the strong, unguarded gates of the castle.
“Well that part was easy,” she said to herself.
Inside the castle, she found a courtyard. It was empty but not silent because the sound of loud snoring echoed all around it. The unwilling deer looked up and saw that the snoring was coming from an open window high in the main tower. So she went inside and began to climb the winding staircase. Soon she came to a landing and a half-open door. She used her soft nose to nudge it open. Inside, the unwilling deer found an enormous and rough-looking man, fast asleep on a huge bed. His boots and shirt were strewn on the floor. A foul stench polluted the room. She hastily looked around for a crown, but could not see one. So softly, she backed out of the room and climbed the stairs to the next floor. Here she found a chamber occupied by a girl, not so unlike her former self, only three times as big. The young giantess was filing her nails that were like great talons. And yes! There was the queen’s crown sitting on the dressing table. The giantess looked up and gaped at the unwilling deer as she entered her room.
“Oy, get out, you filthy beast.”
“Not until you give me the crown that your brutish father stole from its rightful owner, who is now Queen of the Fishes.”
The giantess threw a huge hairbrush at the intruder. The deer sprang over to the dressing table, momentarily admiring herself in the mirror, and then scooped up the crown on one of the little horns that sprouted out of her head. Then she danced about and sprang out of the room thinking, “I knew I could do it! I’m so clever!”
The giantess yelled:
The reluctant deer was about to dive downstairs when she heard the sound of heavy footsteps and realised that the giant had awoken and was on his way up. She had no choice. The only way was up, so up she went. On the next landing, she rushed through a door and out onto the battlements. She started to run along them. The giant and giantess were not far behind, and it seemed that there was no easy escape. As she ran, she heard a loud cry behind her:
And then another cry, only deeper.
She glanced around, and she saw the giantess pulling an arrow out of her huge behind. The giant was hopping up and down with an arrow in his foot. Who had come to her rescue? She soon saw the answer to her question. Down in the courtyard stood the Prince. He must have followed her to the castle. Soon another arrow flew from his bow, and this one caught the giant in his rear end. The cry was so loud that the whole castle trembled. Now the unwilling deer had to find a way to escape. She darted into the doorway of a tower and found her way down the stairs and into the courtyard. Soon she was charging through the gates, across the bridge, and to freedom. This time, when the prince called her, she did not run from him. They made their way down the mountain together, and she had plenty of time to tell him all about her adventures.
When they reached the beach, the sun was setting over the horizon. They walked together through the surf, bathing their weary feet. The unwilling deer wore the crown on her head. She did not want to disrespect the queen, but it was the easiest way to carry it since she did not have hands.
The prince held her face, looked into her big doey eyes and said:
“You are the most extraordinary girl I have ever met. Will you marry me?”
The unwilling deer almost replied, “Are you stupid or what? You can’t marry a deer?” But then she remembered how she vowed not to be a know-all and said:
“Of course, but first, I must return this crown to the Queen of the Fishes and hopefully, she will turn me back into a girl.”
She looked out to see and called out:
“Oh, Queen! Oh, Queen! Where are you? I kept my promise to fetch your crown!”
They waited while listening to the waves. At last, the sun sunk below the horizon, and the full moon glimmered on the water. Only then did the Queen arrive floating on a boat made from a giant shell and paddled by mermen and mermaids.
“Oh, my stars!” exclaimed the prince. “The queen of the Fishes of whom you have told me so much is my very own mother! We thought she had drowned in a shipwreck!”
The queen waded ashore, took the crown in her hands and placed it upon her head. Then, with tears in her eyes, she embraced her son.
“Hey, haven’t you forgotten something,” said the unwilling deer. “What about your promise to me?’
“All in good time,” said the Queen. “The Old man of the Sea will turn you back into a girl as soon as he wakes up.”
So the unwilling deer had to wait until morning to turn back into a girl. The prince stayed the whole time with her while they walked up and down the beach. The following month they were married, and from that time on, the girl’s happy mother and father liked to boast that they had the cleverest daughter in the whole wide world. The girl herself, who was now a princess, lived a long and happy life with her prince and was noticeably more modest than she had been when she was young, poor, and did not know anything about anything.
And I’m delighted to dedicate this story to Ethan and Declan, and Finlay, - the Trevaskis Family from Pennsylvania.
It’s Declan’s birthday soon - he’s going to be 4 - Happy Birthday Declan! Thank you for listening to us. Ethan is 8 years old, and Finlay listens to us too, even though she’s just 18 months old. Thank you to their mum Nicole and all the family for supporting Storynory on Patreon.