I was part of the sea, once. I was foam and coral and silvery fish scale, bundled into a tail and a torso with a voice like golden rain. My sisters sang sailors to their deaths and laughed while I collected curious pieces of flotsam. One day, I collected a still-breathing prince draped across a bobbing spar of wood.
I was part of the land, once. I had earth in my bones and pink, soft skin. I had no voice, only a roaring pain in my feet whenever I took a step. All for a chance to marry the prince, to borrow a tiny piece of his immortal soul and grow my own.
I could have been part of the sea once more, if I had killed him before he married the kind princess who fed me sponge cake and jam and kissed me on the forehead for my good service to the prince. But I’d never been like my sisters. I’d never been able to laugh at the pale faces of drowned sailors and pinch their bloated cheeks.
I no longer belonged in the sea, or on the hard, unforgiving land. As I began dissolving into seafoam, into nothingness, the daughters of the air took pity on me. They spun me a body of nimbus clouds and gave me the grain of a soul. They told me to coat it over and over again with compassionate deeds until it shone like a pearl.
I soared inland over forests and mountains, looking for a way that even a small draft like me could do some good. The first wheat field I found reminded me of home, of endless kelp forests. I stirred the wind to pollinate the grain and ensure a bountiful harvest. I brought a cool breeze to the farm wife’s fevered head. Then I rained on her funeral, to hide the tears of her little daughter.
“Take care of her when I cannot,” the farmwife begged, before she traveled to Elsewhere, the eternal paradise that awaits those with souls.
Some other, more populous place might be better for practicing kindly acts, but how could I refuse? I soon loved that girl like she was my own. During the day, I wafted warm air over the laundry she set out to dry. At night, I drizzled to fill her buckets with water. The months I’d intended to stay turned into years.
Later, I fogged her stepsister’s windows. With the sun hidden, they slept late and left my girl alone a little longer. I hailed on their carriage when they rode off, leaving my girl crying on the porch. The stepsisters just closed the shutters.
My girl wore rags, and soot stained her face and hands. I misted around her, trying to wash the grime away.
“I wanted to dance. To be someone else for a night. Was wishing it wrong?” she asked.
No, I thought. Though sometimes, when you become someone else, you can’t find your old self again. Sometimes when you leave, you become too much for mere seafoam to hold.
I dried her face with soft gusts.
“It’s you, Mother, isn’t it?” she asked, peering into the air, almost like she’d sensed me. “I know you’ve been watching over me.”
Her mother had been, in a way. She’d sent me.
Our girl was already more than laundry and sorrow and ashes could hold. Weren’t all daughters more than seafoam or cinders? I couldn’t remove every hardship from her life, but a night of reprieve—perhaps I could manage that.
Trying to puff myself up as large as a tornado, I wrestled down an old, beautiful dress from the attic. Then I did my best to mimic the spring breezes we’d enjoyed together over the years as I pinned her hair with zephyrs. She had no shoes, but I knew the land around the farmhouse by then. I sculpted and cooled the lava from a nearby volcano into a pair of obsidian glass slippers.
After so much effort, I should have been a stretched-thin, exhausted tendril of air, but I felt stronger and more solid than I ever had before. Maybe I’d never needed to do something this large before. I gathered together tufts of cumulus from the evening sky and carried her in a cup of clouds to the dance.
“There you are!” she said on the steps of the palace, meeting my eyes. She embraced me tightly. “Mother, I’ve missed you.”
Warmth flooded me. How could she see me?
I stroked her hair, then gestured for her to go on. She glided into the ballroom and became an angel of movement, accompanied by a string quartet.
I examined the grain of my soul. It was round now, marbled blue and pink and white. I knew the colors for what they were: a princess’ gratitude, a mother’s plea, a daughter’s spoken love. The colors shimmered and swirled like mother-of-pearl. They’d all given me a part of themselves.
I looked Elsewhere. I could see it. I could go there now.
But I lingered at the palace gates a little longer. I’d wait until I was sure my daughter didn’t need me anymore.