In the “Finding Your Voices” workshop, I went spelunking for characters in a story based on the novel, Abeille, Princess of Dwarves, (1883) written by the French philosopher, Anatole France.
The ancient physician Paracelsus would be delighted by this story since it features nature spirts, and he was the first to categorize them. He named air spirits sylphs, water spirits undines, fire spirits salamanders, and earth spirits gnomes. In Anatole France’s story, the mountain’s deep interior is peopled with dwarves, and the undines have built a crystal palace under the lake.
Now you may or may not know this about undines, but here’s the thing. They are usually feminine figures who live about three hundred years, and then dissolve like the sea foam on a wave. The undines, nixies, mermaids and melusines we meet in literature desire to become mortal and to have human souls. Some of them can shape-shift and walk on the land, and others prefer to dwell in lakes and rivers where they are known to capture aimless, loitering men. It’s easy to see them as sirens and dismiss them as anachronistic figures who don’t have any place in the closet of the modern feminist, but I think there’s much more to them than that.
The undine queen in Abeille has caught herself a young human named Youri of Blanchelande. He’s only about nine when her nymphs rise up from the lake, grip him by the ankles, and pull him under. They take him down to the crystal palace of the queen. She’s determined to make him love her, and forget all about his life with his foster sister Abeille of Clarides, to whom he is devoted. The queen of pleasure gives him all he desires, and wraps his head in a crown of cockle shells, designed to induce forgetfulness.
I went looking for the undine queen for the purpose of telling the story from her point of view. I found her in an interesting moment. She had thrown Youri into an underwater dungeon because he had refused her marriage proposal. She was quite desperate to snag herself a human husband, because her three-hundred-year life span had come to an end. As I contemplated her dilemma, a scene formed itself in my mind.
The undine queen sits on her red coral throne, worrying and wondering how she is going to get Youri to change his mind. Then the figure of Death enters. I imagined him as a man in a black suit wearing glasses and looking no more sinister than an accountant. He has a record book and is simply there to record the queen’s time of death.
Here’s how their dialogue goes:
Death and the Undine Queen
Queen: Stay! Come no closer, Death!
Death: (checking his records) Sorry my lady, but your time is up. You’ve lived three hundred years to the day. No human marriage, according to my records. You didn’t get a human soul.
Queen: Youri may still return.
Death: How so?
Queen: He’ll think again.
Death: You truly are a queen of fantasy.
Q: Sad, Death, that you take souls but have none of your own.
D: I have eternity, my lady. How many souls have you tried to catch, anyway? Just for the record….
Q: Who knows? Many wandering men died in the crystal cage, but Youri of Blanchelande was the prize…. I could tell he was coming, so I cast my spell:
If wishes were fishes
let him have his krill
let him eat and eat
and never be filled
let him never know
the depths of his soul
let him never come back
to what he lacks
Let him be a happy catch
who never even thinks to ask
has my soul been snatched?
Go my undines, go now,
the stars are descending on the lake
and one is coming who cannot tell
the stars of heaven
from the stars of hell!
My undines went out and rose from the mist, calling: Youri! Youri!
They gripped him by the ankles, and hauled him into the lake.
Listen to the queen’s spell
Death: Impressive. But you couldn’t keep him. He loved somebody else.
Q: We tried to make him forget. We made him a crown of cockle shells, wrapped him in a singing net … and gave him all he desired
D: (checking records) But then, it says here, he made a declaration of love. Not to you, unfortunately. He came to you and he told you that he loved somebody else. A certain… Abeille of Clarides.
Q: A mortal girl! How ignorant and coarse. I almost loved him less.
But then, I thought: he will change his mind. Just give him time. Let him grow soft and indolent. He wandered through the crystal halls and gazed through the glass at the nymphs swimming past … he watched the anemones bloom and spread on the coral shelf, and his mind sailed with the blue and golden fish who made glittering stars with the stroke of their tails…,,
Lulled by our delicious songs, his will weakened, and he loosened his grip on his soul…
D: You should have married him then.
Q: Don’t tell me what I already know, Death.
D: So what happened next? Just for the record…
Q: He found a room where we keep the remains of shipwrecks. He read a book about knights and their attempts to protect weak mortals from the tyranny of giants…
He came running into the hall with a sword, sweet boy. I never liked him better than when he waved it around and declared:
“Open to me the road to earth!
Let me go back to where I belong
To where one suffers, struggles and loves!
Give me back the life that is real
Otherwise I will kill you!”
D: You’ve got to give him points for trying.
Q: Such a sweet boy. I might have loved him. There was a real possibility… There was a real… I might have been .. a.real… real….
D: And … she’s gone. Time of death: Midnight.
Lemme see here…
Latitude 46.5 degrees north
Longitude 2.6 degrees west
Rising Sign in…. uh…. Aries
Sun in Venus
Moon in Scorpio.
…. Also, time of birth for her soul.
(Death removes the queen’s mask.)
Wish granted, my lady. You get to be real.
(checking record book) Okay, let’s see now, who’s next…?
It was really fun playing this scene with Andy Frank who agreed to play an endearing figure of Death. (Earlier, he gave us a retelling of his own character, the king in the Grimm’s story,: “The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs.”)
The ending was the surprise for me in writing and playing the scene. Up until the very end of her life, the queen had thought that what she wanted was eternal life: a soul that would allow her to live, die, and live again in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth.
When she glimpses, in her very last breath, that she could have loved Youri, she has her first truly human experience. It has nothing to do with satisfying her desire to live forever. She loves, and that’s sufficient. There is no endpoint, no fulfillment, no rhyme nor reason. In that moment, her soul is born. What is the soul? Where is it? Who knows. But it lives in the experience of a love with no end.
I feel close to the goddess of love as I write this. She, who is the ultimate queen of mermaids, desires to be mortal so that she may know love. She is willing to give up her fleet of powers to experience a state of limitation, ignorance, bewilderment, and unrequited desire. It seems to me that this kind of love is what we mortals need most to find – a love that IS – and in being, shines in the dark, sings in the tangled net.