Five from Andersen
I see you as the little mermaid
barefoot beside someone else’s marriage bed
and longing, yearning for that closeness which you will never never
never never have. (And dreams of children you will never carry
All the voices that never will be heard and the lullabies unsung.)
The knife is ice cold in your hand
But you cannot bring yourself
to use it — even knowing
what a great price your sisters paid for it.
It is heavy, pregnant with meaning and possibility
But it can’t fulfill your dreams or win you love
This knife can never restore life.
Instead you turn your back on the marriage bed
that will never be yours
and throw the knife back into the sea from whence it—and you— came
Back to the depths, the salty maternal waves
You shiver in the cold the wind cuts through you
like a knife.
The sea’s foam freezes
you in this merely human form, this alien body
with these feet things that never stop hurting like knives
You have no more tail. You cannot swim away into the protecting depths
of the only mother you ever knew
but stand here naked on the deck
Exiled from your first home, you have given up all for a chance at happiness
that has never materialized
The knife sinks beneath the waves and your sisters moan and weep
Now you will be no more than the foam of the sea
Their tears are pearls
for mermaids cannot cry salt tears
but yours are salt and indistinguishable
from the sea’s foam on your cheeks
as the killing dawn steals away even this miserable existence from you
But wait, the rosy light shows that
there’s still some small hope in the bottom of this jar
Being a Spirit of the Air feels thin compared to human legs and human arms
Your good deeds so very fragile, like spun glass, like
And yet I have walked along the edge of the sea and been beguiled
by that foam piling up in mounds
When you pile up enough of it, it seems much less insubstantial
A matrix of proteins, a unicorn’s mane of dreams,
Maybe we can work with this
Maybe from these dreams and deeds an immortal soul
might yet be spun…
I see you as the little match girl
cold and lonely and scared to go home
because no warm welcome waits there, only shouts and anger.
You look through the windowpanes and long
for the festive tree, the meal, the family gathered
the music the cheer
the singing and feasting to which you will never be invited.
Barefoot you tread the streets, every step a dagger in the sole
Will you ever get warm?
All you have to cling to is memories and dreams
a phantom warms, flares, and is gone—
A smile, your grandmother, she once held you tight. Once
you were loved and cherished.
And you will be again.
But not in this life.
They find you cold
What is it you see that they can’t know?
I see you as the steadfast tin soldier
unable to move, afraid someone will notice
He was made without one leg, a cripple
because they ran out of metal to fill the mold.
But he stands straight and tall and hides it well
He loves but does not show it
His heart aflame through all his dark adventures in the
deepest sewers among the rats, in the belly
of the fish.
Eventually he finds his way back home, miraculous
that that fish should find its way to
And yet he still ends up in the fire,
melted to a glowing heart.
But of the indifferent paper ballerina
only ash remained.
I see you as the princess,
lost in the rain,
but there are windows gleaming
and you desperately knock
at the heavy doors.
Miraculously they let you in
They dry you off, give you clean clothes
and a warm bed with plenty of blankets.
There’s only one catch:
They don’t believe you are a true
And lying there on the hard kernel of their disbelief
you toss and turn all night
unable to sleep
no matter how soft or how high the pile
of their unconvincing mattresses.
They will ask you how you slept and you will say
very ill indeed
as if a stone had found its way into my bed
which should have been so soft.
Black and blue, blue and black,
invisible bruises only you can detect.
But here’s the unbelievable part:
That’s all it took—
One bad night— to turn wrong to right!
Who could possibly imagine that such
delicacy is the true test
of your real worth?
I’ve never believed that’s who you really are.
But certainly you deserve better than that fickle prince.
The story ends not with the marriage but a museum—
where you can still see that fabulous pea under glass.
(Your savior? Or your nemesis?)
Is the princess the hero or the pea?
What were you looking for anyway? There in the dark?
get the prince’s point of view.
What were you doing out in the storm, alone
with no servants and no carriage?
Indeed who could believe a princess could come in such a form
And why are you so sensitive?
Can that really be the key that opens up the mystery?
And how will that work exactly? The picky prince
and his too-delicate bride?
Will you have the fortitude for the sort of life that he can offer?
Him and his suspicious mother?
I’m still choking on that pea.
I see you as the bedraggled baby swan
I never, ever thought you were a duck
Though all the barnyard fowl swarmed
around you crying foul she’s not one of us.
They pecked you raw, pulled out all the feathers
and exposed your bleeding heart
And later in the dark you spun the down into dreams
a fabulous length of silk that an emperor would cherish
Fit for the bridal dress of the Queen of Heaven
Winter trapped you frozen in the lake of despair
until a kindly man freed you from the ice and
brought you home to become family
But even there you were fed and cared for
But never understood
They too couldn’t see your true worth
the children pestered you until you flew again.
And the hen thought you should be laying eggs
you worthless thing
and the cat saw no good in you and the little old woman could
barely see you at all her sight was so poor
Come spring you fled as fast as you could back to the wild
places. Rushed to the rushes and reeds
where you could hide from all your tormenters
But then one day they came
the golden company
with a rush of wings in the slanting light,
they alit all around you and you were sore afraid
the glory surrounding you
But they greeted you as one of their own
They saw you the way I saw you all along
cherished, beloved, a swan among the kings of air
And when you flew away with them
the beauty of it fair broke my heart.
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Hans Christian Andersen wrote stories for children but never married or had children of his own. And the more I return to my favorite tales, the more I hear the echoes of the longing of the celibate, childless man for the family he never had. The agony of loneliness and the clinging desperately to the hope of a heavenly homeland where all the years eaten by the locust will be restored. His stories feel thin and unsatisfactory to the unbeliever. And, well, that’s because there is no satisfactory answer under heaven for the pain and longing he endured. Only the cross suffices.