Louisa M. Alcott
"I wish I were a sea-gull or a fish or a mermaid; then I could swim as
much as I like, and not have to stay on this stupid dry land all day,"
said Nelly, as she sat frowning and punching holes in the sand one
summer morning, while the waves came murmuring up on the beach, and a
fresh wind sang its pleasant song.
The little girl loved to bathe so well that she wanted to be in the
water all the time, and had been forbidden to go into the sea for a day
or two because she had a cold. So she was in a pet, and ran away from
her playmates to sit and sulk in a lonely spot among the rocks. She had
been watching the gulls fly and float, with their white wings shining as
they dipped down or soared away in the sunshine. As she wished her wish
a very large one swept down upon the sand before her, and startled her
by saying in a hoarse tone, as she stared at its bright eyes, the red
ring round its neck, and the little tuft on its head,—
"I am the King of the gulls, and I can grant any one of your wishes.
Which will you be,—a fish, a bird, or a mermaid?"
"People say there are no mermaids," stammered Nelly.
"There are; only mortals cannot see them unless I give the power. Be
quick! I don't like the sand. Choose, and let me be off!" commanded the
Great Gull, with an impatient flutter of its wide wings.
"Then I'll be a mermaid, please. I always wanted to see one, and it must
be very nice to live always in the water."
"Done!" said the gull, and was gone like a flash.
Nelly rubbed her eyes, and looked about her rather scared; but nothing
had happened to her yet, and she was just going to complain that the
bird had cheated her, when the sound of soft voices made her climb the
rock behind her to see who was singing down there.
She nearly fell off again when she spied two pretty little creatures
floating to and fro on the rocking waves. Both had long brown hair,
green eyes as clear as crystal, pale faces, and the sweetest voices
Nelly had ever heard. But the strange thing was that each little body
ended in a shining tail,—one all golden, the other all silver scales.
Their little breasts and arms were white as foam, and they wore
bracelets of pearls, strings of rosy shells about their necks, and
garlands of gay sea-weed in their hair. They were singing as they
rocked, and throwing bubbles to and fro as if playing ball. They saw
Nelly in a moment, and tossing a great rainbow-colored bubble toward
her, cried gayly,—
"Come and play, little friend. We know you, and have often tried to make
you see us when you float and dive so bravely in our sea."
"I long to come; but it is so deep there and the waves are so rough that
I should be dashed on the rocks," answered Nelly, charmed to see real
mermaids at last, and eager to go to them.
"We came for you. The King-gull told us to call you. Slip off your
clothes and spring down to us; then we will change you, and you can have
your wish," said the mermaids, holding up their arms to her.
"My mother said I must not go into the sea," began Nelly, sadly.
"What is a mother?" asked one little sea-maid, while the other laughed
as if the word amused her.
"Why, don't you know? Don't you have fathers and mothers down there?"
cried Nelly, so surprised that she forgot her wish for a moment.
"No; we are born of the moon and the sea, and we have no other parents,"
said Goldfin, the shining one.
"How dreadful!" exclaimed Nelly. "Who takes care of you, and where do
you live? Without fathers and mothers you cannot have any home."
"We take care of ourselves. All the sea is our home, and we do as we
please. Come, come, and see how gay it is!" called Silver-tail, the
other mermaid, tossing bubbles like a juggler till the air was full of
them as they sailed away on the wind.
Now, if Nelly had not been angry with her good mamma just then, and
ready for any disobedience, she would never have been so naughty, or
have gone to play with such strange friends. She was very curious to see
how they lived, and be able to relate her adventures when she came back,
as she was sure she would, all safe and sound. So she dropped her
clothes on the rock and splashed into the green pool below, glad to show
off her fine swimming. But Goldfin and Silver-tail caught her and bade
her drink the spray they held in their hands.
"Sea water is salt and bitter; I don't like it," said Nelly, holding
"Then you cannot be like us. Drink, and in a moment see what will
happen!" cried Goldfin.
Nelly swallowed the cold drops and caught her breath, for a dreadful
pain shot through her from her head to her feet, while the mermaids
chanted some strange words and waved their hands over her. It was gone
in an instant, and she felt like a cork floating on the water. She
wondered, till glancing down she saw that her little white legs were
changed to a fish's tail of many colors, which gently steered her along
as the waves rippled against her breast.
"Now I am a mermaid," she cried, and looked into the pool to see if her
eyes were green, her face pale, and her hair like curly brown sea-weed.
No; she had her child's face still, with rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and
yellow curls. She was not disappointed, however, for she thought it a
prettier face than the moony ones of her new playmates; so she laughed
and said gayly,—
"Now you will play with me and love me, won't you?"
"What is love?" asked Silver-tail, staring at her.
"Why, when people love they put their arms round one another and kiss,
and feel happy in their hearts," answered Nelly, trying to explain the
"How do you kiss?" asked Goldfin, curiously.
Nelly put an arm round the neck of each, and softly kissed them on their
cold wet lips.
"Don't you like it? Is it sweet?" she asked.
"I feel that you are warmer than I, but I think oysters taste better,"
said one; and the other added,—
"Mermaids have no hearts, so that does not make us happier."
"No hearts?" cried Nelly, in dismay. "Can't you love? Don't you know
about souls and being good, and all that?"
"No," laughed the mermaids, shaking their heads till the drops flew
about like pearls. "We have no souls, and don't trouble about being
good. We sing and swim and eat and sleep; is not that enough to make us
"Dear me, how queer they are!" thought Nelly, half afraid, yet very
anxious to go with them and see more of this curious sea-life of which
they had spoken. "Don't you care about me at all, and don't you want me
to stay with you a little while?" she asked, wondering how she should
get on with creatures who could not love her.
"Oh yes, we like you as a new playmate, and are glad you came to see us.
You shall have our bracelets to wear, and we will show you all kinds of
pretty things down below, if you are not afraid to come," answered the
mermaids, dressing her in their garlands and necklaces, and smiling at
her so sweetly that she was ready to follow as they swam away with her
far out on the great billows that tossed them to and fro but could not
drown or harm them now.
Nelly enjoyed it very much, and wondered why the fishermen in their
boats did not try to catch them, till she learned that mermaids were
invisible and were never caught. This made her feel very safe, and
after a fine game of play she let her friends take her by the hand and
sink down to the new world below. She expected to find it very gay and
splendid, with sea-coral trees growing everywhere, palaces of pearl, and
the ground covered with jewels; but it was dim and quiet. Great weeds
fanned to and fro as the water stirred them; shells lay about on the
sand, and queer creatures crawled or swam everywhere.
The green sea-water was the sky, and ships cast their shadows like
clouds over the twilight world below. Several gray-bearded old mermen
sat meditating in nooks among the rocks, and a few mermaids lay asleep
in the great oyster-shells that opened to receive them and their beds of
sea-weed. A soft murmur was in the air like the sound one hears in
shells, and nowhere did Nelly see any toys or food or fun of any sort.
"Is this the way you live?" she asked, trying not to show how
disappointed she was.
"Isn't it lovely?" answered Goldfin. "This is my bed, and you shall have
the shell between Silver-tail and me. See! it is lined with
mother-of-pearl, and has a soft cushion of our best sea-weeds to lie
"Are you hungry?" asked Silver-tail. "Come and have some shrimps for
dinner,—I know a fine place for them,—or oysters if you like them
Nelly was ready to eat anything, the sea air had given her such a fine
appetite; so they swam away to gather the pretty pink shrimps in scallop
shells, as little girls gather strawberries in baskets; then they sat
down to eat them, and Nelly longed for bread and butter, but dared not
say so. She was so surprised at all she saw, that this queer, cold lunch
was soon forgotten in the wonderful tales the mermaids told her, as they
cracked snails and ate them like nuts, or pulled the green sea-apples
tasting like pickled limes from the vines that climbed up the rocks.
"You don't seem to have a very large family, or have the others gone to
a party somewhere?" asked Nelly, rather tired of the quiet.
"No; there never are many of us. A new brood will be out soon, and then
there will be some little mer-babies to play with. We will show you the
Wonder-tree, if you are done eating, and tell you all about it,"
answered Silver-tail, floating away with a wave of the hand.
Nelly and Goldfin followed to a lonely place, where a tall plant grew up
from the sand till its branches reached the air above and spread out
like floating weeds covered with little pods like those we often snap
under our feet as they lie dry upon the beach.
"Only a few of these will bloom; for there never are many mermaids in
the sea, you know. It takes long for the tree to reach the light, and it
cannot blossom unless the full moon shines on it at midnight; then these
buds open, and the water-babies swim away to grow up like us," said
"Without any nurses to take care of them, or mothers to pet them?" asked
Nelly, thinking of the pretty baby at home with whom she was so fond of
"They take care of themselves, and when there are too many in one place
the old mermen send away some to another ocean; so we get on quietly,
and there is room for all," said Goldfin, contentedly.
"And when you die, what happens?" asked Nelly, much interested in these
"Oh, we grow older and grayer and sit still in a corner till we turn to
stone and help make these rocks. I've been told by Barnacle, the old one
yonder, that people sometimes find marks of our hands or heads or fins
in the stone, and are very much puzzled to know what kind of fish or
animal made the prints; that is one of our jokes;" and both the mermaids
laughed as if they enjoyed bewildering the wits of the people who were
so much wiser than they.
"Well, I think it is much nicer to be buried under grass and flowers
when our souls have flown away to heaven," said Nelly, beginning to be
glad she was not a "truly" mermaid.
"What is heaven?" asked Silver-tail, stupidly.
"You would not understand if I tried to tell you. I can only say it is a
lovely place where we go when we die, and the angels don't puzzle over
us at all, but love us and are glad to see us come," said Nelly,
Both little maids stared at her with their green eyes as if they wanted
to understand, but gave it up, and with a whisk of their shining tails
darted away, calling to her,—
"Come and play with the crabs; it's great fun."
Nelly was rather afraid of crabs, they nipped her toes so when she went
among them; but having no feet now, she felt braver, and was soon having
a gay time chasing them over the rocks, and laughing to see them go
scrambling sidewise into their holes. The green lobsters amused her very
much by the queer way they hitched along, with their great claws ready
to grasp and hold whatever they wanted. It was funny to see them wipe
their bulging eyes with their feelers and roll them about on all sides.
The hermit crabs in their shells were curious, and the great snails
popping out their horns; the sea-spiders were very ugly, and she shook
with fear when the horrible Octopus went by, with his eight long arms
waving about like snakes and his hooked beak snapping.
"Show me something pretty," she begged; "I don't like these ugly things.
Haven't you any flowers or birds or animals here to play with?"
"Oh yes, here are our sea anemones, yellow, red, and white, all blooming
in their beds; and these lovely plants of every color which you call
weeds. Then there are the coral trees, far away, which we will show you
some day, and the sponges on the rocks, and many other curious things,"
answered Goldfin, leading Nelly up and down to see the only flowers they
had. Then Silver-tail said,—
"She will like the nautilus boats and the flying fish, and a ride on the
dolphins and whales. Come and let her see that we have birds and animals
as well as she."
Up they went; and when Nelly saw the lovely red and blue creatures like
a fleet of fairy boats floating over the waves, she clapped her hands
"We have nothing so beautiful on the land! How delicate and fair they
are! Won't the wind tear them to pieces and the storms wreck them?"
"Watch and see!" answered the mermaids, well pleased at her delight; and
as a gust blew by every silken sail was furled, the lovely colors
vanished, and the fairy boats sank out of sight safely to the bottom of
"Our sailors can't do that," said Nelly; "and when our ships go down
they never come up again."
Just then some fish flew over their heads and splashed down again, while
the gulls snapped at them in vain.
"Those are our birds, and here are our horses. People call them
porpoises, but we call them dolphins, and have many a fine gallop on
their backs," said Goldfin, as a school of great creatures came
Up sprang the mermaids, and went swiftly dashing through the water with
high leaps now and then, as their sea-horses reared and plunged, tossing
their tails and waving their fins as if they enjoyed the frolic. Nelly
did, and wished to ride longer; but a whale appeared, and her playmates
went to climb on his back and hear the news from the North Sea. It was
like a moving island, and they sat under the fountain as he spouted
water and rolled about lazily basking in the sun after his cold voyage.
"Don't we have good times?" asked Silver-tail, when they slid down the
slippery sides of the monster and climbed up again as if coasting.
"Splendid! I like to be a mermaid and have no lessons to study, no work
to sew, no nurse to scold me, and no mamma to forbid my swimming as much
as I choose," said naughty Nelly; but as she spoke and looked toward the
land now far away, a little pain went through her heart to remind her
that she was not a real mermaid, and still had a conscience, though she
would not listen to it.
They played all the afternoon, had an oyster supper, and went early to
bed to get a good nap before midnight, because the moon was full and
they hoped the Wonder-tree would bloom before morning.
Nelly liked the quiet now; and the soft song of the sea lulled her to
sleep, to dream of sailing in a nautilus boat till a dreadful
cuttle-fish came after her and she woke in a fright, wondering to find
herself lying on a bed of wet weeds in a great shell.
"Come away; it is time, and a lovely night," called the mermaids, and
with several new friends they all hurried up to watch the buds open when
the moon kissed them.
The sea shone like silver; the stars seemed to float there as well as
in the sky, and the wind blew off the shore bringing the sweet smell of
hay-fields and gardens. All the sea people sang as they lay rocking on
the quiet waves, and Nelly felt as if this were the strangest, loveliest
dream she had ever dreamed.
By and by the moon shone full upon the Wonder-tree, and one by one out
popped the water-babies, looking like polliwogs, only they had little
faces and arms instead of fins. Lively mites they were, swimming away at
once in a shoal like minnows, while the older mermaids welcomed them and
gave them pretty names as the tiny things came to peep at them and dart
between the hands that tried to grasp them. Till dawn they kept in the
moonlight, growing fast as they learned to use their little tails and
talk in small, sweet voices; but when day came they all sank down to the
bottom of the sea, and went to sleep in the shell cradles made ready for
them. That was all the care they needed, and after that they had no
nursing, but did what they liked, and let the older ones play with them
Nelly had several pets, and tried to make them love and mind her; but
the queer little creatures laughed in her face when she talked to them,
darted away when she wanted to kiss them, and stood on their heads and
waggled their bits of tails when she told them to be good. So she let
them alone, and amused herself as well as she could with other things;
but soon she grew very tired of this strange, idle life, and began to
long for some of the dear old plays and people and places she used to
like so much.
Every one was kind to her; but nobody seemed to love her, to care when
she was good, or wish to make her better when she was selfish or angry.
She felt hungry for something all the time, and often sad, though she
hardly knew why. She dreamed about her mother, and sometimes woke up
feeling for baby, who used to creep into her bed and kiss her eyes open
in the morning. But now it was only a water-baby, who would squirm away
like a little eel and leave her to think about home and wonder if they
missed her there.
"I can't go back, so I must forget," she said, and tried to do it; but
it was very hard, and she half wished she was a real mermaid with no
heart at all.
"Show me something new; I'm tired of all these plays and sights and
toys," she said one day, as she and her two playmates sat stringing
little silver and rosy shells for necklaces.
"We are never tired," said Goldfin.
"You haven't any minds, and don't think much or care to know things. I
do, and I want to learn a little or make some one happy if I can," said
Nelly, soberly, as she looked about the curious world she lived in and
saw what a dim, cold, quiet place it was, with the old mermen turning to
stone in their nooks, the lazy mermaids rocking in their shells or
combing their hair, and the young ones playing like so many stupid
little fishes in the sun.
"We can't go to the South Sea yet, and we have nothing more to show you
unless a great storm comes up," said Silver-tail.
"Perhaps she would like a wreck; there is a new one not far off,"
proposed Goldfin. "A big ship went over a small one, and it sank very
soon. One of Mother Carey's chickens told me about it this morning, and
I thought we might go and see it before it is all spoiled. Things that
men make never last very long in our sea."
"Yes, let us go; I long to see and touch something my people made. Your
world is wonderful, but I begin to think my own is the best, for me at
least," said Nelly, as they left their pearls and swam away to the
wreck, which lay down among the rocks, fast going to pieces. "Where are
the people?" she asked, as they were about to float in at the broken
windows and doors. She was very much afraid that she might see some poor
drowned creature, and it would trouble her, though the mermaids might
"Little Chick said they were all saved. It was a fruit-ship, and there
were only a few passengers. One lady and child and some men went away in
the boats to the shore, but left everything else behind."
"I'm so glad!" cried Nelly, feeling her heart warm in her breast at the
good news about the mother and little child.
The ship had been loaded with oranges, and the sand was covered with
boxes of them broken open, and letting the fruit float to the top of
the water. Much was spoiled, but some was still good, and Nelly told the
mermaids to taste and see if oranges were not better than salt
sea-apples. They did not like them, but played ball with the golden
things till Nelly proposed that they should toss some on the shore for
the fishermen's children. That suited them; and soon the beach was
covered with oranges, and the poor little people were running and
screaming with delight to pick up this splendid feast.
"I wish there were some pretty things to give them; but there are only
the sailors' bags of clothes all wet, and those are not nice," said
Nelly, enjoying this game very much; for she was homesick and longed to
hear human voices and see faces like her own. She wanted to do something
for some one, and be loved a little. So she peeped all about the ship,
and at last, in one cabin better than the others, she found the toys and
clothes of the little child and its mother. She was very glad of that,
and, knowing how children love their own things and cry when they are
lost, she gathered up all that were not spoiled, and made Goldfin and
Silver-tail help her carry them to the shore, where people had gathered
to save whatever came from the wreck.
There was great rejoicing when these small treasures came ashore, and
they were carried to the house where the lady and the child were. This
pleased Nelly very much, and even the lazy mermaids found the new game
pleasant; so they went on floating things to the beach, even the heavy
bags with the poor sailors' clothes, wet books, and boxes, which
otherwise would have been lost. No one could see Goldfin and
Silver-tail, but now and then some child would cry out, when Nelly
lingered to look and listen through the foam and spray,—
"Oh, I saw a face over there,—a dear little face, very pretty but sad,
and a hand waved at me! Could it be a mermaid?"
Then some older person would say,—
"Nonsense, child! there are no mermaids. It is only the reflection of
your own face in the water. Come away, or the tide will catch you."
If Nelly had not been partly human this could not have happened; and
though no one believed in her, she took comfort in the thought that she
was not all a fish, and loved to linger where she could see the children
at play long after Goldfin and Silver-tail had grown tired of them and
gone back to their own affairs.
The longer she stayed the more sad she grew; for the land seemed
pleasanter now than the sea,—the green, dry, warm land, with the
flowers and trees, birds and lambs, and dear people to love and care for
her. Even school looked like a happy place; and when she thought of her
own home, where mother and Baby were, her heart was so full of longing
for them that her tears dropped into the sea, and she held out her arms,
"Oh, mamma, dear mamma, forgive me, love me, and help me to come back to
No one answered, no one came; and poor Nelly sank sobbing down to cry
herself to sleep in her pearl-lined bed, with no good-night kiss to
Every day she longed more and more to go home, and grew more and more
tired of the sea and all in it. The mermaids could not amuse her nor
understand her sorrow; so she went to wise old Barnacle and asked him
what she should do to be a child again.
"No one but the King of the gulls can change you, my Periwinkle," said
the merman, kindly. "You must wait and watch for him patiently. He is
not seen very often; so it may be years before he comes again. Meantime
be happy with us, and don't fret for that very dry land in which we see
This comforted Nelly a good deal, and she spent half her time floating
on the waves, calling the gulls, feeding them, and making them her
friends, so that they might be sure to tell her when the King came.
Other kind things she did, trying to be good; for she knew, though
even the wise old merman did not, that naughty people cannot be happy.
She gathered all the curious shells she could find, and strewed them on
the beach for the children playing there. She popped the cross crabs and
lobsters into the nets let down for them, and helped the fishermen to
many a good load for market. She sat and sang among the rocks where
lonely people could hear the faint sweet music and enjoy it. She watched
over the little people when they went bathing, and loved to catch and
kiss the rosy babies as they splashed about, and send quiet ripples to
refresh the sick ones when their nurses dipped them in the wholesome
She was good to all the wounded fishes who got hurt by the many enemies
that haunt the great ocean, and tried to teach the cruel sharks, the
ugly octopus, and the lazy snails to be kinder and more industrious.
They did not mind her; but it kept her busy, and made her heart tender
to try to help all who came near her, and every night when she went to
her lonely bed she said hopefully,—
"Perhaps to-morrow the King will come and let me go home. When I do,
mamma must find a better Nelly than the naughty, wilful one who ran
She supposed her mother would think her drowned when the clothes were
found on the rock, and often mourned over the sorrow she had given those
at home. But she cheered herself with imagining the joy her wonderful
return would bring, and could hardly wait for that happy time.
The mermaids were soon going far away to the South Sea for the winter,
and begged her to come with them, telling how lovely everything was
there,—all about the pearl-divers, the Spice Islands, the coral trees,
and the many wonders of that summer world. But Nelly no longer cared for
any place but the pretty cottage on the cliff that overlooked the sea,
and she was not tempted by any of the fine tales they told.
"No; I'd rather live here all alone where I can see my own people and
home, even if I wait years and years before the King comes. I know now
what a silly child I was to leave everything that I was made to use and
enjoy, and try to be a creature without any soul. I don't care if my
heart does ache; I'd rather be as I am than like you, without any love
in you or any wish to be good and wise and happy as we are."
Goldfin and Silver-tail thought her very ungrateful after she said that,
and left her alone. But she did not care; for Father Barnacle was to
stay and "stone up," as they called their queer way of dying. So when
all had gone she was very kind to the old merman, who never stirred out
of his nook, but sat meditating on the hundred years of his life and
wondering what would become of the rock he was slowly to grow a part of.
Nelly did not want him to die yet; so she brought him nice things to
eat, sang to him, and asked so many questions that he was forced to keep
awake and answer them. Oh, such wonderful stories as he told her! Such
interesting histories of sea flowers, fishes, and monsters, such wise
lessons in tides and stars, and the mysteries of the great ocean! Nelly
would sit on a conch shell and listen for hours, never tired of these
new fairy tales.
But she did not forget to watch for the Great Gull, and every day
floated near the shore, beckoning every white-winged bird that flew by
and asking for tidings of the King. At last he came! Nelly was lying on
the waves idly singing to herself, with one hand held up for her pet
sandpiper to light upon, when, instead of little Peep, a great silvery
bird perched there, and looking up she saw the fiery eye, the red ring
about the neck, the crest on the head, and with a joyful splash she
"He's come! he's come! Oh, dear King, give me another wish, a better
wish, and let me be a little girl again."
"Done!" said the Great Gull, waving his wings over her. "Will you be
"I will! I will!" answered Nelly, eagerly.
"Never wilful and disobedient?"
"Sure you won't want to be a bird, a fish, or a mermaid again?"
"Yes, yes; for nothing is so lovely as to be a child."
"Good!" and suddenly clutching her in his strong claws the gull flew
high up in the air as if he were going to take her to his nest and eat
her like a fish.
Poor Nelly was sadly frightened; but before she could catch her breath
to ask what was to happen, the King said, in a loud voice, "Remember!"
and let her drop.
She expected to be dashed on the rocks below, and thought that was to be
her punishment, perhaps; but to her great surprise she floated down like
a feather, and found herself lying on the sand in her own shape and the
very clothes she wore when she went away. She lay a moment enjoying the
comfort of being warm and dry, and feeling the dear earth under her.
"Why, darling, how long you have been asleep!" said a voice close by;
and starting up Nelly saw her mother stooping over her, while Baby was
creeping nearer to laugh and crow as he peeped into her face to see if
she was awake.
"Oh, mamma, dear mamma, I am so glad to have you again! I was very
naughty, but I've learned a lesson, and I'm going to be your good child
now," cried Nelly, holding her mother tight with many kisses.
"Bless the dear! she has been dreaming, and wakes up in a lovely mood,"
said mamma, laughing.
"Didn't you think I was drowned? How long have I been away?" asked
Nelly, looking about her as if bewildered.
"About an hour. I was not troubled, for I knew you would not break your
"Then it was a dream, and I haven't been a mermaid?" said Nelly.
"I hope not; for I like my little girl just as she is. Tell me the dream
while I smooth away these tangles before we go home."
So, sitting on her mother's knee, while Baby dug holes in the sand,
Nelly told her adventures as well as she could; for now it all seemed
dim and far away, and nothing remained clear in her mind but the thought
that it was indeed a lovely and a happy thing to be a little child with
a heart to feel, a mother to love, and a home to live in till we go to
find that other one, fairer than any on the earth or in the sea.