by C. S. E. Cooney
This poem originally appeared in Goblin Fruit
March is blowing wet and snowy when I stumble on the Sea King
Where he’s washed up from the water, all his nakedness like heaven
With his hair so lank and heavy, green and black as sodden seaweed
And his harp of kelp and pearl cracked to pieces on his knee
“What ails you, my Sea King?” I ask this creature, laughing
I love him — how I love him, immediate and sudden
The way you love a rainstorm, the Milky Way, a leopard
That reckless love of wild things after years pent in a city
“My bride Agneta left me,” says the Sea King like the thunder
Like the salt and surf and thunder
“She has left our seven children, and our castle made of coral
She has gone back to her father, to his bright and airy kingdom
Has maybe found a lover — some brawny freckled farmer
She left me for another.”
“But tell me, pretty sea-thing,” I tease the lonely Sea King
“What motivates this horror? Perhaps — because you beat her?
Or threatened sharks would eat her? Or treated her with seven sons
Got upon her one by one, and not a year between them?
That might just be a reason, if reason’s what you’re after.
It’s a basis to be bitter…”
(And no wonder! Poor Agneta!)
His Majesty grows maudlin, how he glances
How he glistens! So cunning, yet so awkward
On these sands that bloat and bleach him, in this shape
Akin to man-shape, gills agape and fins aquiver
How the Sea King’s skin is silver, like lightning under water!
“Agneta was my daybreak,” mourns the Sea King on the seashore
“I never knew a morning ’til the morning that I met her
When I stole her from her father, leaving only dew behind us
I cried to her, Come under! Come beneath and be my consort!
She said she feared the drowning, but I covered her in lilies
A crown of purest lilies, white as beeswax, soft as velvet
I combed her hair with sea-shells, and fed her from my fingers
Her slightest wish I granted with the mightiest of magic
I played this harp of pearl, and it swept away her memory.
She did not mind forgetting.
I thought I made her happy.”
The Sea King’s eyes are dark and wide, like otters slick with oil spill
I poke his spiny ribcage and the silver fish that dance there
He jumps — perhaps it tickled? At least he can be tickled!
“Cheer up, my doughty Sea King!” I shout in manner bracing
“For I sicken of this city, of its traffic lights and taxes
Of the emails and the faxes, and the work and wage and worry
So, tell you what, my darling: you take me to your kingdom
And I’ll romp with all your children, spin them stories by the daylight
Sing them lullabies at nighttime
And when they’re sound and sleeping, I will creep
Into your bower, to your bed of bright anemone, where
I’ll comb your hair with seashells, pour my palms in perfumed oil
By and by I’ll take you deeper than ever Sea King ventured
We will scour off what’s rotting, all these thoughts of sweet Agneta
Do you think we have a bargain?”
The Sea King does not answer
But he shrugs his flashing shoulders
And I take this for a yes!
It wasn’t like a marriage:
No broom or blood or bonfire
But he made a few adjustments for my sub-aquatic breathing
Taught his certain way of speaking, like a whale when it’s singing
And a kind of seeing clearly through the brine and murk and current
And when I see him clearly, see my Sea King underwater
(He isn’t much to look at — until he’s underwater)
Then madder do I love him, love his glimmer in the gloaming
Like a tooth or moon or treasure
That you wish might be a knife-blade so to wed it with your flesh
Sure enough his children love me, seven princes crowned in lilies
We are happy in our frolics, and they giggle at my ragging
At my bad jokes and my chitchat, and the way I tease their father
At breakfast we are raucous, and at dinner most uncouth
At supper, always laughing — well, the kids and I are laughing
But the Sea King sits in silence and recalls his wife Agneta
“She heard the church bells ringing — and she left me, never caring
For my soreness or despairing
Forsaking all her children
Forgetting her beloved.”
His wet blanket on our banquets
Somewhat dampens the hilarity, somewhat chisels at my charity
And the boys slink off for climates more conducive to their gaiety
And I tell their father gently, with what kindness I can muster
That our memories are fragile, that we cannot help forgetting
And that precious poor Agneta — please recall, my dearest Deep One —
Had been practically lobotomized by all his fell enchantments
So please strive for some compassion!
“Agneta!” cries the Sea King, “Agneta!” and “Agneta!”
And even though I love him, there are times I’d trade his kingdom
(Yes, his castle made of coral, and his princes crowned in lilies)
For a single good harpoon
By late April I am brooding
And by May I’m truly scheming
And in June I hatch a plan half-conceived in idle dreaming:
“Oh, the bells, the church bells ringing!”
I groan unto my Sea King, rending small strategic punctures
In my robes of pearl and seaweed
“The steeple bells that scream matins — the sound of papa weeping!
In waking or in sleeping, every night and noon I hear them
As if I stood just near them!
Oh, the bells, the bells — I weaken
At their tintinnabulations!
Won’t you let me, dearest Sea King, break to surface and behold them!
An hour, just an hour, but one hour I do beg you!”
Well, the Sea King doesn’t like that.
Does not like that.
Not at all.
He is roused to indignation, which in turn ignites to fury
He is bright as any blizzard, he is cold and white and wondrous
And his bare feet stomp a tidal wave that would have swamped Atlantis
(If Atlantis weren’t already swamped from when Agneta left him)
And he blusters and he thunders, and he coaxes and he wheedles:
Don’t I like his coral castle with its turrets neat as needles?
And its grottos and its bowers and its gardens and its mazes?
Don’t I love to love his children, am I not content to stay here
Like the lampreys and the stingrays and the sharks who come to play here?
How he sulks and how he scowls, how he pleads and how he howls!
But — “The bells! The bells!” I mutter, growing slack and wan and fainter
‘Til he grants me what I ask for: “Just an hour, mind — ONE HOUR!”
And up he swims me, grimly
And he doesn’t see I’m smiling
My father’s at St. Agnes, where he’s often found on Sundays
With his choir, and his piano, and the band that plays on Sundays
And I sit with the sopranos, and I join in at the descant
And my father smiles a little, even winks a droll good morning
He is busy with conducting and he’s maybe even praying
Thus I stay the hour allotted me, through Eucharist and homily
But — all in all I’d rather be
Fathoms down beneath the sea, with magic and with mystery
My seven heathen darlings
And a very cranky Sea King
When the bells have ceased to ring, I kiss my father swiftly
He tells me that he’s missed me
I let him know I’m happy
(Even lacking crowns of lilies)
(Even sopping wet and smelly)
I say I’m truly happy.
It’s all he ever wanted.
When he sees me rushing toward him, arms out-flung and smile kindled
The Sea King looks astonished, quite bewildered and bedazzled
Like he’s never seen my likeness
“Your hair is bright as goldfish! Your face is sweet as morning!”
Taking up his silver hand, I vow as how I’ve missed him
Missed his scales and his spackles and his webbed and clammy skin
“How choking is the incense! How blinding are the candles
After months spent in the darkness of your castle made of coral.
But it’s nice to see my father! Let’s go visit him this autumn!
We can introduce the children.”
The Sea King’s rapid smile is a dreadful shock of pleasure
Like a little boy’s first mischief, like a damsel’s foremost coyness
Like a man who’s given manna when he’s begged for stale bread
He cocks his head and murmurs through the tousles and the tangles:
“I never brought you lilies.”
My goblet runneth over, so I scold him, rather sternly:
“There is time enough for trinkets —
Time immortal, time forever, time for starfish in my bathtub
Time for flowers and a foot rub, time for tokens meant
For me alone — and not some ghostly maiden, be she
Ever pure and pious, be she pretty as a lily
For you see, my doughty Sea King, I am from a doting family
And I know that you’ve been lonely, and I know I’m no Agneta —
But I’m warm and I am willing
I can offer what I offer, but it will not come to begging
Do you want me for you lover? Or pine for one who left you?”
The Sea King pauses, pondering
(I almost punch his face in)
Then he smiles like a dolphin, like a green wave clean and leaping, and he solemnly incants:
“Come down with me, come under!
Come beneath and be my consort
I will tell you all my secrets, I will let you take me deeper
Where no Sea King dared to venture, where Agneta never wandered
You will whisper your desires, and together we’ll uncover
All the fire in the ocean.”
Then I give my awkward Sea King
This small thing that I’ve been saving
For a moment like this moment when both he and I are ready
First a kiss and then a promise, then a topple and a tumble
It is frantic, it is frenzied, and we finish in a fever
Come unclasped in joyous moisture
And he leads me to the river
Where we hear the children singing.
© Copyright C. S. E. Cooney
C. S. E. Cooney (csecooney.com/@csecooney) is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Bone Swans: Stories. She has narrated over a hundred audiobooks, released three albums as the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and her short plays have been performed in Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, New York City, and Taipei. Her novel The Twice-Drowned Saint can be found in Mythic Delirium’s recent anthology The Sinister Quartet, and her forthcoming novel Saint Death’s Daughter will be out with Rebellion in Spring of 2022. Other work includes novella Desdemona and the Deep, and a poetry collection: How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes, which features her Rhysling Award-winning “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction and poetry can be found in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Dragons, Ellen Datlow’s Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and elsewhere.
Read the Rest of the August Issue
- The Heart Sings A Siren by Ali Trotta
- A Nereid’s Guide to the Underworld by E. Catherine Tobler
- Depths by Thomas Jones
- Mammiwata Bay by David Ishaya Osu
- Only Circles in the Sea by Carlie St. George and Clare McCanna
- Twenty Thousand Last Meals on an Exploding Station by Ann LeBlanc
- An elegy for voices Ariel traded for legs by Agwam Kessington
- Dream by Mila Nowak
- mermaid life by Susmita Ramni
- Mystery of the Deep by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
- more fat mermaids by Linda M. Crate
- Waking Dream by Kim Coleman Foote
- Honey and Vinegar and Seawater by Keyan Bowes
- They Will Try to Drain You by Valerie Herron
- The Sea King’s Second Bride by C. S. E. Cooney
- Self portrait as an ocean bed by S. Rupsha Mitra
- Mami-Wata by Tony Ogunlowo
- Underwater Eclipse by Cito Wheelington
- Loving the Other: Hans Christian Andersen and the evolution of mermaid romance in Wester media by Carrie Sessarego
- What Mother Failed to Mention About Dating a Mer-Man by LindaAnn Loschiavo
- I Want to Be Where the People Are: Disability and The Shape of Water by Elsa Sjunneson
- I Am Not Your Tragedy by Carlie St. George and Clare McCanna
- Canto for a Mermaid by William Heath