Voiceless – like the little mermaid

I spent the weekend without a voice.

Not in a poetic way – I wasn’t speechless in the face of unimaginable beauty, or horror. And it wasn’t political either – I didn’t lose my right to free speech.

I simply lost the physical ability to speak. Whenever I opened my mouth to say something, all that came out were whispers and occasional croaky rasps.

Losing one’s voice is a very frustrating ailment. Communication is reduced to a series of whispers interrupted by bellowing ‘what?’s from the person one is attempting to address. Waitresses and shop assistants yield nothing but puzzled, somewhat put-out looks. And text messages suddenly seem like sublime nectar, a means of speaking without a voice, and swiftly become long, elaborate ramblings, which must seem akin to gobbledygook to the naive recipient.

Over the weekend, as communication with the outside world became more and more difficult, and I found my willingness to persevere dwindling – cancelling going to parties, calling in sick for work – I found my internal monologue growing deafeningly loud.


All this unspeakable dross got so loud that I felt as though a woodpecker on acid was living in between my ears.

Unbelievably frustrated and on the verge of losing my sanity, I decided that there must be someone who could sympathise. Rather than boring my friends with croaky moans, I turned my attention to books and wondered if I’d ever read about anyone losing their voice.

And so I thought of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The little mermaid gives her beautiful voice to the sea witch as payment for a potion that will give her legs, which she needs to be able to live with a handsome prince. The mermaid fell in love with the prince when she rescued him from a storm, and now she wants him to fall in love with her, so that they’ll live together happily ever after.

But part of the deal with her new-gained legs is that they cause the mermaid enormous pain – ‘each time her foot touched the floor it seemed as if she trod on sharp knives’. At night she bathes her feet in seawater, as it eases the pain of her ‘burning’ feet. But the mermaid doesn’t mind the pain; she bears it to be near the prince, knowing that if he marries her, then she will be able to live a full human life, and that when she dies her soul will be immortal. But the prince falls in love with a princess, who he believes rescued him from the storm. And the sea witch has warned the mermaid that if he marries someone else, then on the morning after his wedding day, the mermaid will die, becoming no more than foam on the crest of waves.

Now the mermaid is definitely in more of a pickle than I am. Being laid up in bed for a couple of days is really not much to complain about compared to feeling acute pain in every step and watching the person you love fall in love with someone else, and knowing that it will kill you.

But what really strikes me about the story is how the little mermaid suffers without her voice. When the sea witch demands it as payment, the mermaid asks her what she will have left. The witch replies, ‘Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.’

Well, no. The mermaid’s beauty, her graceful movements and her eyes aren’t enough to win the prince. She is unable to tell him that it was she was who rescued him from the storm. She is unable to talk to him, to tell him quite how much she loves him, how much she has given up to be with him. The little mermaid has become human, but without that most human of attributes – a voice, the ability to speak, to communicate.

And, without my voice for the past couple of days, I really have felt strangely sub-human. I am ignored, overlooked, unheard. Unable to say anything, people assume I am incredibly stupid. If they deign to talk to me at all, it is slowly and clearly, as though they’re addressing an idiot. No wonder that ‘voice’ finds its way into phrases that express such human concerns. The voice of a people, to voice a concern … yes, a voice is an essentially human quality. I want mine back!

When I called in (or, actually, texted in) sick for work, someone suggested that the ghosts of my tonsils had come back to haunt my poor throat after their traumatic removal last March. Gosh, that would be really unlucky. Who’d have known that their spirit would remain, causing pain and discomfort, despite their physical removal?

And this seemed to resonate again with The Little Mermaid. When the mermaid drinks the potion that will give her legs, the pain is described as ‘it seemed as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body’. Ouch. I know tonsillitis doesn’t affect one’s whole body, but the feeling is strangely akin to having a ‘two-edged sword’ at least in one’s throat. It really is a kind of sharp cutting feeling, just as though a knife were sawing away in there. And that feeling of acute, sword-like tonsillitis returned for two weeks after the horrid little things were removed.

Really, perhaps tonsil-removal was Hans Christian’s inspiration. Something is removed from a throat, immense sword-like sharp pain is suffered, all in order to capture the heart of a prince. (I can’t imagine a prince being allowed to marry someone with recurring tonsillitis.)

If only I’d read the story so closely before having my tonsils removed, then I’d have realised its true message. Just as the mermaid fails in her mission to seduce the prince, essentially because she has lost her voice, or her tonsils; tonsils, apparently, will continue to be an utter pain even when they’ve been removed.

But it does seem a bit rum that the mermaid never thought to write anything down for the prince. Because writing, thankfully, is one place that not being able to speak doesn’t matter one little bit.

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