The Surface Breaks – Louise O’Neill

You are not ready, my child. Be patient. Your time will come. I have been listening to my grandmother say these things to me for as long as I can remember. “But when will I be ready?” I kept asking her. “When, Grandmother? When, when?” And she told me to be quiet. “It’s for your own good,” she said. “You know how your father feels about the human world. Do not let him catch you speaking in such a fashion.” I have never been allowed to talk much. My father doesn’t care for curious girls, so I bit my tongue and I waited. The days of my childhood kept turning over; dissolving like sea foam on the crest of the waves. I have been counting them, the days and the nights, the weeks, the months, the years. I have been waiting for this day. And now, at last, it has arrived.

I am fifteen and I shall be allowed to break the surface, catch my first glimpse of the world above us. Maybe there, I will find some answers. I have so many questions, you see. I have spent my years swallowing them down, burning bitter at the back of my throat. “Happy birthday, my beloved Muirgen,” Grandmother Thalassa says, placing a wreath of lilies on my head. I am sitting on a throne carved from coral, staring at my reflection in the cracked mirror in front of me. It is a relic from a ship that was wrecked two years ago. The Rusalkas rose to the surface to sing the sailors to a watery grave, stuffing death into their bloated lungs. They sing so sweetly, the Salkas do. They sing for revenge for all that has been inflicted upon them.

My room in the palace is full of such finds; remnants of humans that descend from their world into ours, and that I hoard for my collection, piece by piece. A broken comb that I use to tame my long, red hair; a jewelled ring that my sisters covet and beg to borrow, but I shall not share. A statue of alabaster white, of a young man’s face and torso. I wonder who he is, he whose face has been whittled out of marble. I wonder if he ever looks at the sea and considers its depths, ponders what could be found in its belly if he looked hard enough. I wonder if he knows that we even exist. “It is difficult to believe that it is your fifteenth birthday,” Grandmother says. “I remember the day you were born so clearly.” Everyone in the kingdom remembers my birthday, but not because of me. She knits a pearl into my fishtail, piercing the flesh with a razor shell.

I watch as the blood drips away, trembling on the water before it melts. The pearls are large, heavy, and I must wear six of them for fear the other mer-people will somehow forget that I am royalty and therefore their superior in all ways. “It was clear you were special,” my grandmother says. “Even then.” But not special enough. Not special enough to make my mother stay. Grandmother scrapes the scales away, ignoring my gasp of pain. Thalassa of the Green Sea does not care to hear such complaints. One cannot have beauty for nothing, she would tell me. There is always a price to pay, and she would gesture at her own tail with its twelve pearls.

My grandmother is not royalty-born, so she is expected to be grateful for this decoration bestowed upon her by her son-in-law, the Sea King, and even more grateful that the privilege wasn’t revoked when her daughter … misbehaved as she did. Grandmother’s family was of high birth, and well respected, but my mother was their ticket to the throne. Perhaps my grandmother did not realize the price her daughter would have to pay. Perhaps she did not care. When my grandmother calls me “special”, she means “beautiful”. That is the only way a woman can be special in the kingdom. And I am beautiful. All of the Sea King’s daughters are, each princess more lovely than the next, but I am the fairest of them all. I am the diamond in my father’s crown and he is determined to wear me as such. He will hold my prettiness out for display and he will take any ensuing admiration as his due.

“My name is Gaia,” I say. “That is what my mother called me.” “Let us not speak of your mother,” Grandmother says. “Muireann had many ideas that would have been better ignored.” My breath catches a little. Muireann. We hear my mother’s name so rarely. “But—” “Sssh,” she says, looking over her shoulder. “I should never have told you the name she chose for you.” But she did.

My fifth birthday, and I begged her to tell me something, anything about my mother. She called you Gaia, I was told, and when I heard it, I felt as if I was coming home to myself. “Gaia is not a name of the sea, my child,” my grandmother says now. “But it was what my mother wanted, wasn’t it?” “Yes,” she sighs. “And my father, he agreed, didn’t he? Even though Gaia was a name of the earth, and not of our kind.” “The Sea King was very fond of Muireann in those days. He wished to see her happy.” They thought my mother’s love of the human world was innocent in the beginning. That was before she started to act strangely. Before she disappeared for hours at a time, giving increasingly elaborate excuses to explain her absence upon return.

Before she was taken. “And then my mother—” “Your mother is dead, Muirgen,” my grandmother says. “Let us not speak of her any more.” But I don’t know if she is dead, despite what they tell me. All I know is this: when someone disappears on your first birthday, your entire life becomes a question, a puzzle that needs solving. And so, I look up. I have spent my life looking up, thinking about her. “She could still be alive,” I say. “She’s not.” “But how can you be so sure, Grandmother? All we know is that she was taken.

Maybe—” “Muirgen.” Her voice is serious. I meet her eyes, blue, like mine. Everything is blue down here. “It does not do a woman good to ask too many questions.” “But I just want—” “It doesn’t do a woman good to want too much either. Try and remember that.” Muireann of the Green Sea wanted too much. You’re so like your mother, the old folk tell me (though only when my father is out of earshot. My father will not have talk of my mother at court), the resemblance is… (Freakish? Odd? What?) But they never finish their sentences.

Such a pity what happened to her, they say instead. They have all accepted she’s dead, even if we never had a body to bury in the deep sands. They think it’s a shame, but what else could a woman like my mother expect? She had her own needs, her own desires. She wanted to escape, so she looked up too. And she was punished for it. My grandmother picks up the final pearl now, her tongue sticking out in concentration. My tail must look perfect for the ball this evening. My father is always in a rather exacting mood on this date. I wait until she is rapt in her work, and I look up again. I look at the dark sea, the crashing waves, straining to see the faint light beyond.

That was where my mother went, up there. And that is where I must go to find the answers I need. Grandmother tugs at my tail but I keep my head tilted back, staring at the surface. For I am fifteen no w , a nd I c a n d o a s I p l e a s e. CHAPTER TWO I pause outside my sisters’ bedroom, listening to them argue. Raised voices, squeals of annoyance. Shrill, my father would say if we ever behaved in such a fashion in front of him. Not that we would dare. We are the daughters of the Sea King, and daughters must be good at all times. “That’s my comb.

” “It’s not, Talia, your comb is black.” “I have a black comb and a coral comb, and you’re using my coral comb. Give it to me right now.” “Talia,” Cosima says, as I push the door open. She and Talia are floating in the middle of the room, my other three sisters ignoring them from the safety of their beds. “Not everything belongs to you. It’s my comb.” It is a huge space; vaulted ceilings lined with seaweed in greens and browns, the floor paved with pearlescent marble. There are two single beds on either side and one double at the head of the room by the window of stained sea-glass, where Talia has slept since we left the nursery eight years ago. “I am the eldest,” she said when she claimed it for her own, ignoring Cosima’s protestations.

“I shall have this bed until I leave the palace for the house of my husband,” she said then, with a grand wave of her hand. Talia doesn’t make comments like that any more. We all know that Talia shall be a long time waiting to leave this palace. I used to have a bed in the dormitory too, falling asleep with my hand stretched out to hold Cosima’s. I had nightmares then, visions of the acute pain the humans might have inflicted upon my mother when they captured her, and Cosima would shake me awake, reassure me that everything was fine. Don’t worry, Gaia , she would say. Cosima was the only one who called me Gaia, because she understood how much it meant to me. But then I celebrated my twelfth birthday, and everything changed. Cosima, quietly crying herself to sleep at night, each rasping sob a rebuke. It’s not my fault, I wanted to tell her.

I didn’t ask him to pick me. I didn’t ask for any of this . In the end, I requested to be moved to the tower at the top of the palace, pretending not to care that none of my sisters objected. “But there’s no ceiling in the tower,” my father had frowned. “Only the sea above you.” I told him I didn’t mind, and I smiled at him the way he liked, like a good little girl. He relented, saying, “Anything for my Muirgen,” and he granted me permission to move my belongings to the high turrets, dragging my bed and my mirror and my comb and my jewels with me. And the statue, of course, although I had to do that when my father wasn’t looking. The Sea King hates the humans. The only time he is happy to hear of them is when their corpses sink into the kingdom, eyes still open as if searching for something.

A loved one? A rescue that will never come? I can’t be sure. Not that it matters to the Sea King. A dead human, my father would say, smiling grimly as a body floated past the dining room window, is the best human. (But can you blame him? my grandmother said. Can you blame him after they took your mother?) “Give it back,” Talia says now, wrestling the comb out of Cosima’s hands with a triumphant ha! “Good day, sisters,” I say and they both turn to look at me. “You’re late,” Talia says, running the comb through her black hair. She is the only one whose hair refuses to curl, no matter how carefully she wraps it around conch shells. We tease her that she must be half-Rusalka; with hair that straight she cannot have pure sea-water running through her veins. “Have you gone up yet?” Cosima asks. “Not yet,” I reply.

“I will go at first light tomorrow morning.” “Goodness,” Cosima says. “I assumed you would have been racing up there at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps you are not so like that ‘mother’ of ours after all. It would have been a terrible shame if you had inherited that woman’s sickness.” “Don’t talk about our mother like that,” I say, anger flaring. “Why not? She abandoned us, didn’t she?” “She didn’t abandon us.” “Muirgen,” Cosima sighs. “She knew the dangers and yet she kept going to the surface, day after day. She was reckless.

She might not have meant to be captured, but she still brought it upon herself. She abandoned us.” What can I reply to that? Perhaps we were easy to abandon. “Come now, Cosima,” Sophia, my third eldest sister says. “Leave Muirgen alone. Have you forgotten that it’s her birthday?” “Forgotten? How could any of us forget what day today is?” “Okay, Cosima,” I snap. “I get it. Today is a cursed day and I am a cursed mermaid. Are you happy now?” “Hush, sister,” Sophia says. “This is your birthday and we are happy to celebrate it.

All of us.” She swims towards me, her waist-length brown hair floating behind her. She hugs me, smelling of salt and tin, of weeds draped around her neck and wrists. She smells the same as all of us do. (Up there, the women wear the fragrance of flowers on their skin; they smell of rose and lily and jasmine. Up there, flowers carry scent, seeping perfume from their buds.) “I know it’s your day, Muirgen,” Talia says, biting her nails. She is always tense on my birthday. She was seven the year I turned one and thus she remembers the infamous party. Talia remembers everything.

“But that doesn’t excuse you being late. We’ll all get in trouble too, you know.” “I’m not late, Talia.” “You’re late,” Talia insists. “Isn’t she late, Nia?” Nia is by the window, fingers pressed against the clear green glass, staring at the fish drifting past. “What?” she says. “Yes. Yes, you’re right, Talia. You’re always right.” She attempts to smile at me.

“But happy birthday all the same, Muirgen.” “How many pearls did you get?” Cosima asks. “It looks like Grandmother gave you seven pearls. Did she give you seven pearls? Why would you get seven pearls when the rest of us only have six?” “I only got six pearls too, Cosima,” I say as Sophia takes my hand, holding back the gossamer curtain wrapped around her bed so I can swim through. “The same as the rest of you did. Grandmother wouldn’t have it any other way.” “Oh, I’m sure you did. Precious Muirgen,” she mutters under her breath, returning to the mirror that is mounted at the head of her bed, decorated with cockles and red algae. “Typical.” “To be perfectly honest, the concept of wearing pearls is archaic,” Arianna pipes up.

She is lying on her stomach, her mint-green tail folding over to skim her back as if scratching an itch. “If any of you bothered to come with me and Sophia and Grandmother when we visit the Outerlands, you would understand what a horrendous waste of resources it is. We should be spending palace money on improving conditions for those folk rather than this frivolous vanity.” “Yes, Arianna, you’ve mentioned that before,” I say. About a hundred times. Grandmother visits the Outerlands every week, to where my father has sent the “undesirables”, the mer-folk that he cannot stomach to see within the palace walls. She brings them food, and unctions the healer has prepared, and while the Sea King does not approve of our grandmother’s demonstrations of good will, he does not forbid it either. I think he might be wary of what could happen if the folk in the Outerlands got too hungry. “But it’s not like it’s our decision to wear the pearls, now, is it?” I ask Arianna. Nothing is ever our decision.

“And that’s why I don’t wear decoration in my everyday life, out of principle,” Arianna continues, ignoring me. “But, then, I’m not as obsessed with this nonsense over pearls and mirrors and which comb belongs to whom and whose hair is the curliest. I mean, really, if you just came with Grandmother and me the next time we go on a charity mission then you would see how terrible the conditions are, those poor folk are—” “The mer-folk in the Outerlands are fine,” Cosima interrupts. “Better than fine. They’re lucky that we allow them to remain here at all. Unnatural creatures.” “Unnatural?” Nia asks, her voice sharp. I glance at her in surprise; Nia never gets involved in arguments. “They can’t help being the way they are.” “Please.

” Cosima rolls her eyes. “They could change if they really wanted to. And, anyway,” she turns her attention back to Arianna, “you’re wearing your pearls today, Ari, for all your talk of principles.” “Today doesn’t count. You know that I can’t…” Arianna doesn’t finish her sentence. But I know what she would say. I can’t because there is a ball at court today. I can’t because Father will be there, and he will expect us to be properly attired. I can’t because the Sea King will be angry if we do not do as he wishes. He will not stand for female insubordination, today of all days.

And we know what happens when our father is angry. “Let’s not talk about this any more,” Sophia says, quick to make peace. “You look beautiful, birthday girl. Zale won’t be able to take his eyes off you.” “I think Zale has more important things on his mind,” Cosima says, her jaw tightening. Yet another thing she can be angry with me about. I wish Zale would take his eyes off me and put them back on Cosima. At least she enjoyed it. “Oh,” I say. “Cosima is entirely correct.

I’m sure Zale won’t even notice me.” I hope he won’t. “Too busy trying to figure out a way to kill every Rusalka under the sea, no doubt.” “And why shouldn’t he?” Cosima asks. “Zale is just trying to protect us. The Salkas are dangerous. They’re not like us. They were not born of the sea, as we were.”

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