I was still five when Disney made the world fall in love with The Little Mermaid all over again. Like many girls, I stood inches in front of my TV set, watching a thing called a VHS video-cassette, and singing, “Ah-ah-ah,” and (according to the video-cassette of me watching my video-cassette) “Doll in its butter, don’ wear its sweater,” and some other silly things my parents still find more amusing than I do.
My inability to understand singing Jamaican crabs aside, I was completely enraptured by that movie. It had everything. It had excitement, music, romance, true love, it had whozits and whatzits galore, and it had one terrible thrill of real danger. Every time I watched it, the Sea Witch stole Ariel’s voice. I believed Ursula could really do that. I believed she had once stolen mine.
I have been accused of some wild fantasies, and I have been commended for noticing things no one else notices. I will admit sometimes it’s hard for me to tell the difference between the two. But this was not some wild childhood fantasy of mine. I didn’t believe Ursula had a magic spell that really worked; that could really steal Ariel’s voice. That would just be silly. But Ursula had a snail.
Let me rewind that video-cassette a couple of years to help me explain.
I wasn’t quite four the first time I saw the ocean. Uncle Nick, Mama’s brother, flew out from the West Coast to visit us that summer and insisted it would be great fun to drive the remaining hundred plus miles and take Little Annie to see the beach.
The beach itself was amazing; something I can never forget. Waves that at times were several times my height stormed the sandy shore resounding interminable thunder without the precursory lightning. When I stood and let the water rush up to lick my toes, the ebbing tide swallowed the entire world around it in a giant dizzying gulp as it receded. Then by magic, when the wave was gone, the beach and the sand and the world were all still there. Only my feet had been swallowed up by the glassy smooth surface left behind.
There were husks of crabs, a school of jelly fish that had washed ashore, and shells upon shells if you looked. It was an endless world of discovery and wonder. Pipers darted along the flattened ridges hunting tiny mollusks, while the cries of terns floated above the foamy din. One small piper had separated from her flock. I named her Katie, because I liked to name things, and so I was chasing after her along the water line calling her new name. Katie darted ahead, always a few steps out of harm’s way and it seemed like she was playing with me when suddenly she turned and darted high up the beach. I turned to watch in rejected dismay.
Before I knew what had happened, I was spinning head over heels under water. My mouth, my nose, my eyes were full of saltwater and sand, and when I tried to cry out, I swallowed a horrible, salty stomach-full of nausea as my throat choked tight to keep the rest of the ocean out. Some of the water had made it into my lungs and my body went immediately into convulsions, trying with equal desperate reflex to cough up what I’d breathed in and lock out what I hadn’t yet. There was pain everywhere inside me and then everything was quiet and I floated calmly out to sea, much to the envy of the dead jelly fish in their sun-baked Hell.
Nana had a very large and pretty shell of a sea snail sitting on her shelf and I could stare at it endlessly.
“Do you want to hear something?” Nana asked one day.
I nodded timidly. Nana always exuded an air of supernatural mystery that gave me concern and I had trouble speaking when she spoke to me.
“Hold it up to your ear.”
“It’s okay, dear. You can pick it up.”
I’d been in trouble several times already for picking things up at Nana’s, so I was extremely cautious when I lifted it and held it carefully to my ear.
“Do you hear it?”
I didn’t really. I mean what do you hear when you put your ear to a sea shell?
“That’s the sound of the ocean.”
I pulled the shell away from my ear in instant terror. Anything that could swallow an entire ocean could certainly swallow my head and I was shaking near tears as Nana laughed.
“What’s the matter, dear?”
I continued to stare at the shell in silence.
“Go on, listen again.”
It took some coaxing but I did it; I put the shell back to my ear and listened again. I did not hear the sound of the ocean. I couldn’t. I had never heard the ocean before. My young mind struggled a lot with that, but I did arrive at a conclusion I’m still proud of: that different people hear different things when they listen to a sea shell. I also concluded it is because snail shells have some magic power. Nana didn’t help.
“Did the snail swallow the ocean?”
“Don’t be silly, child. Oceans are vast. Snails are just tiny little things.”
This snail seemed pretty big to me, nearly as big as my head. “Then how come can I hear it?” I wondered, still fairly certain that I couldn’t.
“No one really knows,” Nana said. “Perhaps the snail swallowed the ocean’s voice.”
As the waves churned me helplessly about in my pre-mortem stasis, the sound of Nana’s sea shell came back to me. The roar of the waves on the beach was gone. In its place was a quiet whisper like a soft breeze, the echo of those distant waves licking at the beach where a small sand piper had watched me gradually drift out to sea. Rocked into dream by the constant surge of the tide, I was sitting on the little guest bed in Nana’s living room again, her beautiful shell pressed against my ear. Somewhere in that shell, I knew I should hear my voice crying for help.
The convulsions of my body relaxed. The pain subsided. Everything was growing darker and darker as my head spun in confusion, hypnotized by the shell and yet focused intently on the horrible knot in my throat where the water was strangling me with an invisible hand.
I’m not sure how long I was adrift. Certainly, Mama’s account was exaggerated by her panic and can’t be trusted. Suddenly there was a strong arm around my waist and I was jerked up painfully from my peaceful, watery grave. I opened my eyes but everything was a blur behind a thick briny film that made the wind burn. My ears were filled with water and the sounds were all muddled. A reborn desire to breathe flooded me with panic. I tried to scream and I couldn’t. I had no voice, still lost in Nana’s shell, only a knot in my throat where my voice was supposed to be. The arm squeezed me and I exploded. Fire and water burst from my chest at once.
A nice Puerto Rican man who said his name was Frederico had kept an eye on me when he saw me wandering too close to the water with no adults nearby. He’d seen the wave coming and raced to my aid, pulling me to safety probably within a few seconds rather than the ten minutes Mama proclaimed. He set me down in the shallow water, held my hand, and led me coughing and sputtering up to the warm dry sand where Mama’s anxious crying was already beginning to annoy me as she ran toward us.
Before Mama reached us, Frederico knelt down beside me and gently pulled my hair out of my face. He was dark and handsome with a friendly smile, he smelled like hero, and he was still holding my hand.
“Never turn your back on the sea, Mija,” he said in a thick Puerto Rican accent.
I will never forget those words. I nodded my head and looked around the beach. Katie was gone.
Fast-forward now back to my fixation with The Little Mermaid, a fixation I never explained to my parents, or to anyone else until I explained it to you today. The first time I watched it, I finally understood what had happened to my voice that day. The Sea Witch had stolen it with the same shell she’d used to steal the ocean’s voice.
And if I thought that Jamaican crab was hard to understand…
© 2014 Anne Schilde