Tallahassee, FL – January 26, 2012
The young princess rushed back to the merkingdom to see her father. She snuck close to the palace and peered in his window. He lay there in his bed of seaweed looking old and frail. Her brother and sister stood by his side looking beautiful, handsome, and perfect. The young princess thought of rushing to her father’s side, but then she looked at her scared tail and her face flushed with shame.
“I don’t want him to see me like this,” she thought. “But I won’t let him die.”
The princess raced away, swimming to that dark reef where she first met the mercrone.
“My father is dying,” the princess said. “Please help him.”
“Your father is old,” the mercrone said. “Perhaps it is his time.”
“No,” the princess said. “He can’t die. Don’t let him die. I will do anything you ask. I promise!”
The mercrone looked at the princess’s necklace of broken shells and laughed.
“You made me another promise once,” the mercrone said. “And you have never kept it and now you come to my house wearing the very shells you promised me and asking for my help?”
The young princess felt confused, then looked down at the string of broken shells hanging on her neck.
“That is no way for a princess to act,” the mercrone said. “You might rule the kingdom one day.”
“Surely these are not the best shells in the ocean,” the princess said. “They are broken and battered. They were perfect once, but no more. Now they are nothing but cracked pieces. Useless.”
“As useless as an old, cripple covered in scars?” the mercrone asked. “But where do you swim to when you need help?”
The princess looked down at the broken, worn shells, then across at the broken, worn mercrone. She saw the holes and chips, the scars and broken bones. She saw them filled with wisdom and age, joy and sadness. She saw how perfect they really were, and was sure she wore the most beautiful shells in the ocean around her neck.
She lifted the necklace over her head and handed it to the old mercrone.
“It is yours,” the princess said. “As I promised once.”
The mercrone smiled. She untied one end of the necklace and slipped off a single shell.
“Whisper into it,” the mercrone said. “Whisper about your tail. This shell knows sadness and fear, it knows hopes and dreams, it know what it is to lose something precious, it knows and it will listen. Whisper to it, then cast it out into the ocean. Throw it away. Let it go.”
The young princess did as the mercrone asked, pressing the shell to her lips, whispering, then casting it away. It fluttered in the current for a moment, then disappeared down a dark abyss. When she looked at her tail, at the scar and hole left from the shark’s bite, she knew that the mercrone had kept her promise. The scar, the hole, the tail were all perfect.
“Now go to your father,” the mercrone said.
The princess returned to the palace. She swam to her father’s side and held his hand. She whispered how much she loved him in his ear. When he heard her voice, strength flowed back into him. He opened his eyes and stared at his wonderful daughter, strength returning to his face. Then he saw her tail with the scar and hole.
“That must have been an adventure,” he said. “It fits you well. You look so bright and wise and full of life. I am so proud that you are my daughter.”
The young princess never worried about being perfect again. She had adventures, explored reefs, and put a few more scars on her tail. When old age caught up to the king and his three children came to his bed for the last time, he looked at them. He saw the two eldest still handsome and beautiful from a lifetime spent staring at silver plates behind palace walls and he saw his youngest with scars crisscrossing her tail and the slightest hints of laugh lines on her cheeks. The merfolk wondered which child he would choose as an heir and debates over the perfection of the two oldest children were constant along the reef, but the king was wise and had visited many reefs in his day. Once he even hid from a shark in a crack of rock near an old Spanish galleon.
He did not choose the prettiest or most handsome of his children. He chose the best.
When he passed, the young princess felt grief and sadness and the weight of a kingdom on her shoulders, but when she came to her room, she saw a broken seashell sitting on her bed. She recognized it from her travels–a piece of a conch she found near a distant island–and she picked it up. She whispered to it and let it go.
It was not the first or last shell she found in a difficult moment, but she lived happily ever after in a kingdom full of wisdom and joy.
“So you see,” the dolphins said to me. “You are picking up the wrong shells. Pick up the ones that have been beaten up and battered, the ones that are full of life, put them on a string, make a mercrone’s necklace out of them, and you might live happily ever after too.”
“But then I’d have to whisper to them and throw them away one at a time,” I said. “And that is difficult to do.”
The dolphins nodded.
“That is the whole point,” they said. “And if you ever need more, go on another adventure and find them.”