In a land not far from here, in a time not long ago, there lay a small village at the edge of the shore. Many of the men made a living out of fishing, leaving their wives and children before dawn and returning with the setting sun –or not at all-. The shoreline near the village was treacherous, littered with sea caves and underwater reefs, just waiting to drown an unsuspecting sailor.
It was perhaps because of that, that the sailors often returned with stories of the water maidens, beautiful blond women whose songs were what caused the drownings. Despite their lethal reputation they were thought to make excellent wives for those cunning enough to entice them to the shore. In fact, many of the older families in the area boasted of having a water maiden as an ancestress.
Now, in the village lived a poor young fisherman with his mother. The lad was reckless, as young people tend to be, and often brought his boat far closer to the rocky shore than what most might consider prudent. One year the young man was making the customary wine liberation “to appease the Old Man Sea”, as his elders said, when a most unusual thing was caught in his net; a golden comb inlaid with pearls. The fisher knew if the stories, so he threw the comb right back in the water, not particularly wanting to be at the receiving end of a water maiden’s wrath.
Little did he know that the comb belonged to one of the daughters of Old Man Sea himself, who, having never tasted wine before, had been drawn near the boat by the unfamiliar sweet taste overpowering that of the salt in the water. The dawn the fisherman returned to the same spot and cast his net once more. The newly-risen sun painted the water gold and out of it came the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Her skin was pale as foam, her eyes were the blue of the deep ocean and her hair the gold of the sand on the shore. Remembering the stories he had heard, he offered her some of the stone-baked bread that he had brought to lunch on. The maiden took one look at it and laughed, as tiny waves rocked the boat gently.
“Your bread won’t do for me!” she said. “It’s too hard.”
With one last laugh she dived underwater and disappeared.
The fisherman returned home and that night and every night after his dreams were haunted by the water maiden’s laugh. Every morning he would return and cast his net on the same spot, hoping to catch another glimpse of her. One week later his patience was rewarded. The mid-spring sun was burning overhead when, with a mischievous smile, the water maiden reappeared. This time the fisherman offered her unbaked dough, but the maiden shook her head and a cascade of pearls fell from her hair to the boat.
“Your bread won’t do for me!” she said. “It’s far too soft.” With one last wink she disappeared underwater once more.
The lad returned to his mother with feverish eyes and a bag full of pearls instead of fish. One look at her son’s sorry state was all it took for the woman to understand the situation. Knowing that this was the sort of love-sickness that cannot be cured, she set off to help her son win the maiden. For the next few days she gave him half-baked bread with the instruction to offer that to his fey sweetheart. Indeed, in a week’s time, when the water maiden appeared to the fisherman with a shy smile, he offered her the loaf and –to his delight- she accepted it.
“My name is Awel,” she said softly before diving once more to the wine-coloured sea.
The fisherman almost jumped after her in his despair, but before he could the sea grew choppy and out of its depths appeared the Old Man himself, followed by twelve girls, all identical to Awel.
“Choose wisely young human,” said the Old Man. “Pick the one you have been courting and you may take her and all that is hers to your land-bound house.”
The fisherman studied the twelve sisters carefully. They were all silent, all gazing at him with the same sweet-as-wine smile playing on their lips. And yet…near the middle of the line one of the maidens had breadcrumbs on her lips. The young man looked at her in the eyes and said,
“You are Awel.”
With sparkling eyes Awel stepped inside his boat, dressed in a bride’s white raiment.
“Know this young human,” Old Man Sea said once the couple had settled on the boat, “my daughter shall be your wife and bring happiness and prosperity to your house. But take heed! If you strike her unnecessarily three times she, and all she has brought, will leave you.”
The fisherman was so entranced by his bride-to-be that he eagerly promised never to lay a hand on her for anything other than a caress.
And so the young human brought the water maiden to his house and made her his wife. Awel was always cheerful and industrious, and the couple were happy together. True to the Old Man’s word, from that day on the fisherman prospered, his nets always full and his boat safe, no matter how treacherous the water he treaded. Awel bore him three sons and three daughters and there was never shortage of laughter and merry-making at their house.
So happy was the fisherman, that he was willing to overlook some of his wife’s more… peculiar habits. She might like her fish raw but the food that she served on their table was always perfectly cooked. So what if the floor of their house was never quite dry? They lived close to the shore, some damp was inevitable. So what if the children grew as wild as the seals at the sea caves? There were six of them and born as closely as they were, there was always a baby to focus on.
Life was as perfect as could be for the fisherman until, one day, he returned to find the house empty of wife and children. Awel had a habit of taking the children to the sea, but she always brought them back before her husband returned. The fisherman didn’t have to wait long before his family walked through the front door, laughing and soaked to the bone. Torn between fondness and exasperation he lightly pulled his wife through the door. All laughter immediately stopped. Awel looked at her husband.
“This was the first strike,” she said. “Take care.”
The fisherman loved his wife and had no intention of losing her. For the longest time he paid extra care, fearful that he might forget himself and bring her closer to her departure. Alas the day he feared came sooner than he thought. After a particularly nasty storm, news reached him that one of his closest friends had drowned. The entire village gathered to pay their respects to the unfortunate man when, amongst the cries and tears, Awel’s lilting laugh was heard. Despite her years away from the sea, she still remembered the tricks her sisters and her would use to lure young men to their caves whenever they felt like taking a lover. The fisherman, embarrassed by his wife’s reaction and not privy to her knowledge, lightly rapped her hand. Once more her laughter stopped and she looked at her husband with sad eyes.
“This was the second strike,” she said. “Take great care.”
The third and final strike came not long after the second. Awel’s eldest daughter had grown from a child to a maid and, as maids are bound to do, she fell in love with a young man from their village. The wedding was swiftly arranged, but, amongst all merriment, Awel cried knowing her daughter forever locked in the land and forever out of her reach. Forgetting himself and not wanting to cause a scene, the fisherman lightly struck her hand once more. Awel looked at him with tear-filled eyes.
“This was the third strike. Now my house and yours will forever be divided.”
A sound like a thunderclap shook the wedding hall to its foundations, a wild ocean gale followed it, and in its wake Awel and her five remaining children disappeared, taking with them the fisherman’s preternatural luck.