I was never one for the trappings of shipwrecks. Those were my sisters. But when they brought me his statue—man of marble stone—I knew there’d be no going back.
In the privacy of my quarters, I created myself. He stood in front of me, a handsome instruction manual, as I flattened my chest with my forearm, broadened my shoulders, learned how to square my jaw. I practiced until I was no longer looking at a boy from above the sea, but rather, a version of myself from a future I could feel, a reflection of my own making.
My sisters teased me. “What were you doing in there all day?” they asked. “Spending time with your boyfriend, no doubt.” They were right, of course, just not in the way they imagined.
“Sing for me,” said my father, and I did.
“Sing for me,” said my grandmother, and I did.
“Sing for us,” said my sisters, and I did, the sound of my voice reverberating through the halls of my childhood. Those disembodied chords never belonged to me, no matter how hard I tried.
It was not lost on me that we shared the same birthday, the Prince and I. When at fifteen I broke through the water’s surface, I saw the statue of my youth dance before me, a celebration of his royal birth, his sixteenth turn around the sun. I envied his boyish features, his short hair. The tight, muscled calves that sauntered barefoot on the deck of his father’s ship.
My father. I could never conform to his version of masculinity, nor did I want to. He was trident and thunder, lightning strikes and storm clouds. But the Prince. His open, joyous face. His baritone laugh.
I wanted it.
I wanted it more than anything.
My sisters swore to secrecy, though that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. “You’ll never be able to turn back,” they warned me.
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m doing it.”
“This will hurt,” said the Sea Witch, the knife in her hand a promise I silently dared her to keep. “Your voice will be lost to the sea forever, and your tail will dissolve into foam. The growth of your legs will cause you a great deal of pain—are you prepared for that?”
What I said in response to the Sea Witch: “I am.”
What I should have said to her instead: “Pain is a palace I have lived in for years. Let the knife cut through all of it—my hair, my scales, my stubborn tongue. Let the polypi feed on the husk of my tail as I kick through these waters, break through the surface, my throat bare of handbells and chimes.”
He was the first person I saw upon opening my eyes. I recognized him instantly—hair black as the Sea Witch’s cauldron, eyes blue as the waters from home—and knew right away I was done for.
I had not left my home for love, had not abandoned my tongue to the polypi for midnight strolls and moonlit dinners, but I thought him gentlemanly. How quickly he covered me with his coat, my body open to the shores of his estate. His blush so furious, I almost mistook it for rage.
No butler was called, no housekeeper summoned. Instead, he took me to his quarters—closed doors, closed curtains—and asked me quite kindly to wait.
When he returned, a slew of dresses were draped over his arms, long and colorful as streamers. He had given me a robe before leaving, red as my shoulder-length hair, and I clutched at it then, my fist curled tight as a conch shell.
“No?” he said, and I shook my head. No.
I opened my robe to him, ignoring his blush, and pressed my forearm against the tide of my chest. He looked at me, a dawning realization, before placing the dresses at the foot of his bed. He went to his closet, where he removed a suit the color of ivory, gold thread glinting at the seams. “This?” he said, and I nodded. That.
They bound my chest in muslin. They cut my hair. The palace buzzed with my presence, and not once was I questioned, challenged, brought in before the lords and ladies of his father’s court. I learned quickly that the Prince had been lonely as I, his acquaintances that of his father’s employment, all older than him by decades. He was hungry for friendship, for brotherhood. They would not take me away from him, nor he from I.
“Ari,” he said. It took me a moment to realize I was being addressed. We were out horseback riding, a sport I was still getting used to, and had stopped by the river to drink. “Is that all right?” he said. “I’ve been thinking all week of a name you might like. Ari. I think it’s a good fit.”
I stared at the water in my hands—the reflection—my new pompadour shimmering on my head like a crown of roses. Ari. I mouthed the word like a prayer, nodding so he could see. He brought his cupped hands to mine and cheersed. Goblets at his father’s table. I took a sip. Swallowed. Warmer than I would have liked.
It was our favorite thing to do. When the ballroom was empty but for our shadows, when all those who lived within the palace retired for the evening, when it was us and only us, we danced. And oh, that music—sounds like I never heard before, the glow of the full moon pouring into the ballroom through windows of stained glass, pulling at us like high tide.
The Prince liked to narrate, to point out which instruments were what. “Hear that?” he said, and I nodded. “Those are the cellos, and there—the violas. And that?” I nodded again. “The French horns.” The music swelled, the phonograph singing, the brass undertones of his voice blending seamlessly with the song. The Prince put his hand on the small of my back, the tempo of my heart, a metronome.
When he leaned in to kiss me, he did not take advantage of my fallen tongue. He stopped, nose inches away from mine. “Is this all right?”
I nodded, slipped my fingers into the collar of his shirt, and pulled him close against me. Yes, I mouthed into him. This is perfect.
I never felt another body inside me before, and thought with alarming certainty that the Prince would be more than my first, but my only. I wanted it that way. Wanted him. I pined for no other, thought only of him as he took me—pupils dilated in rings of blue, black hair a halo of disarray—our bodies becoming into their own, into each other, finding themselves in the seams of our shared arrival.
He did not ask me to unbind my chest, touched only where I wanted to be touched. In the aftermath of our first time, he told me—skin still glistening with heat—that he’d never been with a boy as handsome as me.
I thought he saw me. I really did.
I wanted fresh air. I wanted the night, black and motionless, the sea of stars blinking like an armada of distant anglerfish. Safe in my distance. Able to enjoy its soft glow.
I left the Prince for the balcony, not wanting to wake him from whatever dream made his eyelids flutter, dark lashes moving against the pale of his skin.
Outside, the world breathed alongside me, my shoulders relaxing on the exhale. I looked up to the sky. Its vastness, its possibility. The Prince had shared their names for constellations with me some nights ago. What he called Ursa Major, my sisters and I called the Tadpole. What he called Pegasus, we called the Great Jellyfish.
My sisters. At night, when no ships could be heard or seen, we’d hoist ourselves up on the nearest rock, slabs of white marble, and gaze at the constellations, the split ends of our tails still submerged in the sea.
I did not miss my tail or the rocks, but I did miss my family, my siblings. I missed being their little brother.
“Ari, isn’t it?”
Startled from my remembering, I turned around, cocooned in the Prince’s silk robe. Before me for the first time loomed his father. That he wore a robe himself did not alter his presence as King. He stood with the confidence of men born into power, with an aura of one who knew he was feared and liked it that way. His height against my own would have been comical if not for the way his eyes narrowed into mine.
He took a step closer. My hands curled to fists in the pockets of my robe. “Ari,” he repeated. “I heard you can’t speak. Is this true?”
I can speak, I wanted to say. Just not in a way you’d understand. I chose, instead, to nod.
Again he came closer. Every part of my body screamed threat. “I imagine you’re quite a good listener then, so listen to this.” He cupped my chin the way the Prince did before kissing me, the gesture absent of love, and I was surprised to find myself more angry than afraid, that he would take something tender and turn it cruel. “You can stay here. You can be his greatest confidant. But don’t get in our way. Do you understand? He is part of a lineage that cannot be disrupted. No matter what.”
I didn’t get the chance to respond.
The King removed his hand. Turned around. In the frame of the balcony’s french doors, the Prince. His hair was disheveled from sleep, but his expression was alarmingly clear. He did not break his gaze, blue eyes fixed on his father, as he extended his arm to me, voice level and trained. “Come here, Ari. I’ll walk you back to your room.” I followed him, knowing better than to take his hand.
As we walked back to the Prince’s chambers, I could not help but feel cheated. I did not leave my father’s palace for another narcissistic king. I wiped at my chin where he touched me. The Prince noticed. “I’ll draw a bath,” he said, and that was the last we spoke of it.
When the King announced it was time for his son to marry, the daughters of his kingdom rejoiced, falling asleep to hopeful longings, dreams of the Prince choosing them, of taking their place by his side. But I knew better. It was not just the threat of being taken from me that distressed him so, but that it was a summoning of daughters—not sons. His future belonged more to his father than it had ever belonged to him.
“I cannot begin to imagine it,” he said. We laid in bed, our bodies ripe with musk. I stared at him staring, blue eyes gauging the canopy of his bed, as though—if he looked long enough, hard enough—his gaze alone could break through the wooden frame, his ceiling, the roof of his father’s palace. As if he could evaporate, lift up, disappear into the ether, softly as seafoam. “Marriage itself feels so otherworldly, but marriage to a woman? How can I fake such a thing?” he said. “It’s so unfair, and to her as well, I imagine. I will not be able to give her what she will inevitably want.”
I listened. I did not suggest he tell his father the truth. After all, I never told mine. Besides, we knew what would happen, knew how his father would react: banishment. The Prince stripped of his title. Public shaming. Disownment.
The Prince could not afford that. He did not know how to live without luxury.
He turned to face me then, his eyes softening at my gaze. “And how,” he said, “am I supposed to go on living without you?”
I was glad, in some ways, that he did not expect me to stay, to play the part of butler, some innocent bystander. To engage in secrecy, an affair I could not pretend to want. That we could not speak openly of our love was painful enough, yet his acceptance of the situation burned at my center, how quickly he succumbed to the problem at hand. I thought of the Sea Witch, the physical pain of my transformation. My tongue turned to fodder, my sisters who I missed every day. Think, I wanted to say. Try. You can’t have the freedom you’re looking for if you’re unwilling to give something up.
He traced my jaw with the pad of his thumb. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
I closed my eyes. Let him memorize the outline of me. Nothing, I mouthed, and he kissed my lips clean of the lie.
It happened on the night of the first ball.
After the first round of women was brought into the palace, after a night of ceaseless dancing, the Prince courting one future princess after another, after plastered on smiles and hollow pleased to make your acquaintances, the Prince returned to his chambers, exhausted, collapsing heavy onto the bed.
I stood from his desk, sitting with him on the mattress’s edge. He had invited me, of course, to dance with whomever I pleased, but I was not interested in royalty for royalty’s sake. That the boy whom I loved was heir to his father’s throne was coincidental; had he been a jester, I would have loved him all the same.
I placed my hand on the nape of his neck, where I knew he held his pain, and massaged my fingers into his skin, damp with hours of unwanted exertion.
“Of the many things my father has ruined for me,” he said, “I did not expect dancing to be one of them.” He dropped his face into his hands. I rubbed harder. “You know,” he said after a moment, “one of the most challenging parts of this ordeal is the permanency. Once I’m married, that’s it—I can never take another lover. I could stomach it, I think, if I’d at least gotten the chance to sleep with a real boy first, but now—”
My hand froze. It hovered above him, a startled twitch, caught just as off guard as the rest of me. I watched his shoulders hitch, the entirety of him turned stone, and for the first time in months, I was reminded of the marble statue gifted to me by my siblings, the cold and impenetrable outline of his exterior.
He looked at me, horrified, the realization of his confession sitting between us, a permanent fixture. That it was accidental, that he did not say it to hurt me, somehow made it worse.
The pain he must have seen in me reflected back in him, for his face burned over in shame, while his eyes widened in horror, his mouth working to form words, speechless in the aftermath of his slip.
And I thought, I am going to forgive this man. And I thought, He has been so good to me, let it go. And I thought, I know he didn’t mean it; I know he will apologize; I know he will do anything in his power to make it right.
But as soon as my conviction found its way into my reasoning, the expression on the Prince’s face changed. He stood from the bed, darting away from me as though seized by a sudden bout of panic. I stood too, alarmed by his change in energy. He stared down at me, accusatory and cruel.
“Oh, put that expression away,” he said, and the bite in his voice made him something both foreign and wholly recognizable. He looked at me, eyes damning, and I knew whatever came next would break us. He gave me a once over, his upper lip folding into a scowl. “Don’t act like you’re the victim here,” he said. “You know what you are.”
I felt the spine in my back pull at both ends, hardening me, and I realized in that moment what familiarity I saw in the lines of his expression. I was staring at his father. His father’s father. A family tree of fathers, all meeting on the Prince’s face to tell me who and what I was.
I saw his lower lip tremble, his eyes flashing into temporary softness, as though a part of him was still in there, still fighting against the generations before him. And I thought of my own father, the way he taught me how not to be a man, and realized with sudden clarity it was a lesson the Prince never learned.
He stormed from the room, all ego and slander, leaving me in the wake of his destruction, a piece of flotsam floating out at sea.
I stole his suits. The ivory with gold stitching, the teal as bright as peacock feathers, the rich and royal burgundy, red as his father’s wax seal. I stole his cufflinks, his ties, his custom-made shoes. I took his brooch, his cologne, his collar chain, his rings.
I did not have a voice, but I knew how to be loud.
When all was bartered for, when the Prince’s possessions afforded me food, a room, new clothes of my own, I rinsed him off of me, the shower and its steam a sort of baptism. The paste in my hair dissolved in the water, and I found with relief that I could comb my fingers through it. The locks relaxed into themselves, free of structure—of someone else’s design.
I stared in the bathroom’s mirror, my mane of red curls, and spoke the old name into the reflection. Ari. Had I ever really liked that name? Better, I admitted, than the one from my childhood. That Ari was closer to the truth was something I couldn’t deny. But was it me? I didn’t think so.
I threw myself onto the bed, back to the mattress, and noticed the difference in comfort in comparison to the bed I once shared with the Prince. Yet that it was mine thrilled me. I waved my arms, my devoted legs, the way starfish made angels in the sand.
I delighted in my body. That I earned it. That it belonged to me. I did not know what came next, if my heartbreak would heal, if there was a person out there who would see me—see all of me—and want for no other. I did not even know my own name, but I knew I would find one that fit. And I would leave it up to no man but me.
Cover art: “Miami Docks” by Timothy Phillips