Freebie Mondays: The Singing Shell

Freebie Mondays: The Singing Shell

This is an indirect follow up to Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, which tells the story of what happened to the evil queen’s magic mirror after the events of Snow White and The Spindle of a Spinning Wheel, which features a follow up to the item post Sleeping Beauty. Possibly my favorite installment, If the Shoe Fits, involves Cinderella’s glass slipper. Now here’s a twist on the Little Mermaid…
. . .

The music drifted across the sand, a series of rising tones that suddenly dropped an octave before climbing again. It was so quiet at first that it seemed like merely a low hum. But as Tiffania followed the sound across the small dunes, seeking its source, the haunting tones took clearer form.

They were vocal, a series of careful ahs in a rising scale followed by the briefest of pauses for breath before they resumed. The sound was haunting and mournful, nearly impossible to ignore once it crept into the ear. So although Tiffania wanted nothing more than to abandon the beach and return to the comfortable warmth of her family’s nearby cabin, she followed the song’s rising volume until it began to fade again. Then she spun on her heel and traced back to the point where the song seemed loudest.

She paused on the beach, lifting her head to the sky. A full moon shone brightly over the waves which lapped gently against the shore as they receded, leaving their most recent bounty in their wake. Shells littered the space the water had recently abandoned. Many of the smooth surfaces glimmered white beneath the moonlight, reflecting the shimmer of distant stars.

It was the kind of night that ghostly spirits tended to roam, or so Tiffania’s pa always liked to claim. And since she could see no person who could possibly singing, Tiffania could only assume that she had finally found proof of his claims.

The voice flowed around her, rising and falling, and the sorrow held within the song made Tiffania’s heart ache. There was no way to tell how old the mournful ghost might be, but she got the impression this song had something to do with lost love.

Had the owner’s lover gone out to sea never to return? In the old days, ships didn’t always come back, or so her grandmam like to lecture. Many young sailors lost their lives to jagged rocks when the hull of their wooden ships crashed upon them. The big metal beasts that sailed the oceans now were nearly impervious to such things, unless a rogue wave lifted them high above the ocean’s surface and dashed them on a reef.

Even then, the thick metal shells of modern ships protected most of the crew.

But Tiffania’s favorite stories always included older boats with billowing sails departing on journeys that might last for months. Back when those ships roamed the oceans, the world had been full of exciting things lurking just beyond the horizon, waiting to be found. Not like this boring modern world with its satellites and radar and lack of surprises.

With a mournful sigh of her own, Tiffania turned back toward the cabin. Her parents would be wondering if she stayed out much longer, and she could almost hear her warm bed calling her through the chill night breeze. She scraped her toes through the sand as took the first step toward home, and they encountered something sturdy just beneath the surface.

The song faltered for just a moment before its music filled Tiffania’s ears even more strongly.

Startled, she glanced down, digging her toes into the soft, wet sand. This time, she burrowed straight under whatever had caught her the first time. But when she shifted her foot back upward, a wad of sand and stone came with it.

Blinking, Tiffania slid her foot to one side, clearing a wide swath of shells from her path before she knelt to examine her discovery. What she first took as a polished rock turned out to be a perfectly formed nautilus shell. Even in the darkness, its edges seemed crisp, its color lightly golden. And as Tiffania grasped it between thumb and forefinger, the music that had filled the evening seemed to reverberate through her.

Her first instinct was to grasp the shell firmly in one hand and toss it back into the ocean. This was magic of a sort that should not be trifled with. It was an object of the sea and, therefore, the sea was where it belonged.

But as the song filled her chest and skull, the intensity of the sorrow tore at her heart and she paused, cupping the shell between both hands. It had a strange warmth to it, and a light glow that radiated from its opening. When Tiffania pressed her hands together around the shell, the song became muffled, and when she pressed her ear to the shell’s opening, it became almost deafening.

How had a song gotten stuck in a shell?

Perhaps it was some modern trinket made in some foreign country and discarded on the beach by a tourist. Tiffania scanned its surface for any hint of a logo or barcode, anything that might have been etched into the smooth surface by a laser. But the shell had no blemishes or markings aside from its odd coloration.

Recalling her love of stories from the age of sail, Tiffania cradled the shell against her chest, letting its warmth sink into her flesh beneath her thin shawl. This could very easily be an artifact out of one of her favorite tales, the necklace of a mermaid given to a sailor as an expression of their love but lost overboard when a ship capsized in a storm. Likewise, it could have been the gift of a sailor to a mermaid to gain safe passage across the sea. Over time, their encounters may have fostered a close relationship between them. But alas, humans cannot live in the sea, and the necklace captured the mermaids mournful cries after she inadvertently drowned her beau.

She had no proof, of course, nor any idea how the voice may have come to inhabit the shell. But suddenly she wanted to protect it, to keep it always as her own, a valuable item for her collection of curiosities.

She rose from her crouch and tiptoed back across the sand, pausing just before she entered the cabin door to shroud the shell in the soft fabric, muting the sound. By the time she reached her room and pulled the shell from its wrapping, it had gone silent. But when Tiffania held it, she still felt the warmth radiating from its hidden depths.

After some time rearranging the contents of her nightstand, she tucked the shell safely into the top drawer, then settled beneath the warmth of her covers to sleep.

At some time in the night, she became certain that the song returned. It drifted through her dreams, conjuring images of faraway places and distant voices.

She saw an altar, cracked and cragged but glowing with molten light. Above it passed three glowing orbs, then a heart.

“You must make the prince fall in love with you,” a voice declared and a pair of pale hands gestured above the altar. “As proof, you must receive the kiss of true love before the sun sets on the third day.”

The image faded and the song grew stronger. She got the sense of striding across a moon drenched beach except, this time, the shell rested against the base of her neck, held in position by a thin silver chain. Her lips moved in time with the music and a pair of eyes fixed on her out of the darkness, framed by a mop of dark hair.

Warm hands closed around hers and soft lips brushed her cheek.

Then she saw the tearful face of a young woman. Most of her body was submerged in water. She seemed to be floating just beyond a rocky shore. Her damp, matted hair was short and uneven, as if it had been hacked free of her scalp by the blade of a knife.

“It’s the only way,” the woman insisted, over and over, tears mixing with sea water on her face. “You must cut your hair first and use this knife. Only then can we be reunited.”

The woman dove beneath the water and, moments later, a shimmering fish tail glided across the surface.

Tiffania woke from the dream with her head spinning, unable to fully grasp the implications of the images.

At first she dismissed them as wild imagination. But each time the dream repeated, each time the ghostly voice traveled through her dreams, the images became more vivid and the story a little more complete.

*   *   *

It must be tonight, Tiffania thought as she fingered the nautilus shell that hung at the base of her neck. The thin silver chain that held it in place jingled lightly as she disturbed the pendant, but she only noticed the warmth that radiated from inside the polished trinket.

Two summers had passed since she pulled the shell from the sand one late night on the beach. Since then it had spent all of its time either perched next to her pillow or worn on her person. It only revealed its secrets at night, beneath the warm glow of the moon’s pale disc. But its song now reverberated through her head at all hours of the day without pause.

She had come to view the waning of each of those super heated blocks of time as her sunsets, and her third was running down. If she couldn’t make the prince kiss her by the end of the week, all hope would be lost.

She lowered her hands quickly when the soft sounds generated by the chain caused one of the other occupants of the room to cast her a sharp glare. Servants were meant to be silent, unseen figures, ready to swoop into action when the nobility needed them but invisible all other times. Tiffania was waiting to carry the tea tray back to the kitchen. From the waning of the gentle clicks of silverware against its surface, she wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

It took every ounce of willpower she had to resist glaring at the young noble woman in return. Everything had been going just fine until she showed up.

A year and a half it had taken for the summer internship to turn into a full-time position, and another three months after that before she’d managed to wriggle her way directly into the prince’s service. But as soon as she was able to work her whiles at him, fluttering her eyelashes at just the right moments, he had fallen under her spell.

It wasn’t unreasonable to assume that a member of the royal family might be willing to admit true feelings for a commoner. After all, nobles ran away with peasant lovers all the time.

But even if he wasn’t willing to rake himself across societies coals, even if he needed to save himself for a political marriage, he might not reject her. Kings kept mistresses all the time. Tiffania happened to know that the current king had three. And everyone tiptoed politely around the truth, keeping it carefully secret so that they would not have to suffer the backlash with him.

All she needed was the kiss. Once she had the kiss, their fate would be set.

But now that the duchess was here from across the sea, the prince barely paid Tiffania any attention. It was as if he had come to his senses, shaken free of whatever electric drew them together during those first few weeks of brief interaction. He no longer asked her advice or commented on the weather. When Tiffania bent to retrieve the refreshments tray, his eyes didn’t even flick in her direction.

How infuriating to have her true love stolen by someone so shallow as the visiting duchess.

Tiffania held her composure until she reached the service corridor, then she stomped her feet all the way back to the kitchen where she deposited the tray with as much force as she dared without shattering any of the delicate porcelain it held.

Several of the kitchen staff glanced in her direction, but she ignored them. The gleam of bright light off the silverware reminded her of something else. Her hand shot to her leg, and her fingers traced the faint outline.

It was still there, thank goodness. Still unnoticed by her peers.

If it came to it – and it seemed like it might – she would have to use that knife. It had taken her months to find it, and longer still to figure out how she could slip it free of the case its noble owner used to keep it in. They still hadn’t found the culprit, though they might soon recover the relic from the chest of their dear, beloved crown prince.

It’s the only way to break the curse, the voice of the sobbing young woman from her dream reminded her. Cut your hair with the blade, then use it to slit his throat. His blood will wash clean the curse the sea witch laid upon you, and we will finally be together again.

The knife’s original owner hadn’t been able to bring herself to complete those instructions. Tiffania had since learned all the brutal details. She had, indeed, cut her hair, but then she had sliced her own neck open. And some sick noble had claimed the knife as a curio in the wake of it. People were bloodthirsty, after all. They liked to speculate about death.

Tiffania drew a deep breath, used a moment to compose herself, then carried on with her duties.

She must wait until the moon was high in the sky and the soft voice of the shell permeated the air surrounding her. If the prince heard it, he might be convinced to see reason. And Tiffania knew of a secret corridor that led to his room, a passage that would allow her to slip in unnoticed, and back out again if necessary.

If the spark returned to his eyes when he looked at her, she would go for the kiss. The ahs issuing from the shell seemed to rise and swell as she imagined the warmth of their bodies mingling. How soft his lips would be. How sweet they would taste.

But if he turned her aside, or spoke of the duchess…

She fingered the knife as she made her way into the shadowed corridor. It was, after all, the only way to break the curse.

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