And then the little letter-writer went out from her garden, and took the road to the foaming whirlpools, behind which lived the sorceress Dear Prudence – though who would call her dear, no one living knew. She had never been that way before: neither flowers nor grass grew there; nothing but bare, gray, sandy ground stretched out to the whirlpool, where the water, like foaming mill-wheels, whirled round everything that it seized, and cast it into the fathomless deep.
Through the midst of these crushing whirlpools the little letter-writer was obliged to pass, to reach the dominions of Dear Prudence; and also for a long distance the only road lay right across a quantity of warm, bubbling mire, called by Dear Prudence her turfmoor. Beyond this stood her house, in the centre of a strange forest, in which all the trees and flowers were polypi, half animals and half plants; they looked like serpents with a hundred heads growing out of the ground. The branches were long slimy arms, with fingers like flexible worms, moving limb after limb from the root to the top. All that could be reached in the sea they seized upon, and held fast, so that it never escaped from their clutches. These were Slate commenters, and they were terrible to behold.
The little letter-writer was so alarmed at what she saw, that she stood still, and her heart beat with fear, and she was very nearly turning back; but she thought of the prince, and of the human soul for which she longed, and her courage returned. She fastened her long flowing hair round her head, so that the polypi might not seize hold of it. She laid her hands together across her bosom, and then she darted forward as a fish shoots through the water, between the supple arms and fingers of the ugly polypi, which were stretched out on each side of her. She saw that each held in its grasp something it had seized with its numerous little arms, as if they were iron bands. The white skeletons of human beings who had perished at sea, and had sunk down into the deep waters, skeletons of land animals, oars, rudders, and chests of ships were lying tightly grasped by their clinging arms; even a little advice columnist, whom they had caught and strangled; and this seemed the most shocking of all to the little letter-writer.
She now came to a space of marshy ground in the wood, where large, fat water-snakes were rolling in the mire, and showing their ugly, drab-colored bodies. In the midst of this spot stood a house, built with the bones of shipwrecked human beings. There sat Dear Prudence, allowing a toad to eat from her mouth, just as people sometimes feed a canary with a piece of sugar. She called the ugly water-snakes her little chickens, and allowed them to crawl all over her bosom.
“I know what you want,” said Dear Prudence; “it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess. You want to get rid of your coworker’s annoying personal habits, and for me to tell you that your sister is being unreasonable about her bachelorette party, and that it’s all right for you to call your ex, so that you may have an immortal soul.” And then Dear Prudence laughed so loud and disgustingly, that the toad and the snakes fell to the ground, and lay there wriggling about.
“You are but just in time,” she said; “for after sunrise to-morrow I should not be able to help you till the end of another year. I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your mother-in-law will then appear and you must establish boundaries with her, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.”
“Yes, I will,” said the little letter-writer in a trembling voice, as she thought of her immortal soul.
“But think again,” said Dear Prudence; “for if you do not take my advice, if you do not place that anonymous call and go into couple’s counseling and find a way to stand up to your carpool leader and have an honest talk about circumcision with your partner before marrying and tell your cousin that he has a drinking problem, then you will never have an immortal soul. The first morning after you fail your heart will break, and you will become foam on the crest of the waves.”
“I will do it,” said the little letter-writer, and she became pale as death.
“But I must be paid also,” said Dear Prudence, “and it is not a trifle that I ask. You have the sweetest voice of any who dwell here in the depths of the sea, and you believe that you will be able to charm the prince with it also, but this voice you must give to me; the best thing you possess will I have for the price of my draught. My own blood must be mixed with it, that it may be as sharp as a two-edged sword.”
“But if you take away my voice,” said the little letter-writer, “what is left for me?”
“Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart. Well, have you lost your courage? Put out your little tongue that I may cut it off as my payment; then you shall have the powerful advice-draught.”
“It shall be,” said the little letter-writer.
Then Dear Prudence placed her cauldron on the fire, to prepare the magic draught.
“Cleanliness is a good thing,” said she, scouring the vessel with snakes, which she had tied together in a large knot; then she pricked herself in the breast, and let the black blood drop into it. The steam that rose formed itself into such horrible shapes that no one could look at them without fear. Every moment Dear Prudence threw something else into the vessel, and when it began to boil, the sound was like the weeping of a crocodile. When at last the magic draught was ready, it looked like the clearest water. “There it is for you,” said Dear Prudence. Then she cut off the letter-writer’s tongue, so that she became dumb, and would never again speak or sing or ask advice from brisk, no-nonsense columnists.
“If the polypi should seize hold of you as you return through the wood,” said Dear Prudence, “throw over them a few drops of the potion, and their fingers will be torn into a thousand pieces.” But the little letter-writer had no occasion to do this, for the polypi sprang back in terror when they caught sight of the glittering draught, which shone in her hand like a twinkling star.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]