The Water Maid

Long ago in the central mountains, a young man named Henio became lost while hunting. For many weeks he wandered through the forest, with only his horse to keep him company. He drank the water from the streams and ate berries and the small animals he caught, but he knew that he would perish if he did not find shelter quickly.

One morning, he came to an ancient stone wall. It was so high he could not see over it, and looking in either direction he could see no end.

“Perhaps this is a wall protecting a great city,” Henio said to himself. “Even if the city is in ruin, I will find some shelter. That will be better than staying in the forest.”

Henio walked along the wall, and for days he saw no sign of an opening or a way to scale it.

He camped close to the wall each night, curled in his cloak, lying close to his horse. As he woke one morning he saw a woman sitting next to him, gazing at him with great curiosity.

“Who are you?” Henio asked, “How have you come here?”

“I am Marja,” she replied. “I live here. You are the stranger—how did you come here?”

“I am Henio, I became lost in this forest many weeks ago. Please help me, I fear that I will die here otherwise.”

With a small smile, Marja pulled out a small golden coin from her pocket, and walked to the wall. She placed the coin on the wall and a door appeared before her.

“Of course I will help you,” she said. “Take your horse and follow me.”

Staying close behind, Henio followed Marja through the door in the wall. Once they were through it closed silently behind them and vanished, becoming solid stone once more.

They continued walking through the trees until Marja led them to a great house. It was strange and rambling, and as large as a mountain. She guided the horse to a stable, and took Henio into the house.

She took him to a dining room and silently shared a meal of bread and cheese and wine. Henio was delighted at the meal and relieved to be sheltered once more. After he was full and content, he peered around the room in wonder. The house was vast, but he did not see any evidence of another soul.

“Marja,” Henio finally asked, “do you live here alone?”

“Yes,” Marja replied. “Since I was a small child I have lived here alone. I like the solitude and quiet, and have never needed the company of another person. I prefer the company of my books and the birds and the sound of the wind.”

Marja drew a map which would lead Henio out of the forest and back to his home. They spent the day in quiet conversation until Marja excused herself, saying she needed to rest. That night Henio slept in a soft bed in the room Marja gave him, and he woke the next day to the sun glimmering through the windows.

Henio walked to the dining room, and Marja was nowhere to be found. In the absence of his host, Henio quietly walked up and down the halls of the great house and explored the grounds.

The next morning Marja reappeared, and they spent that day together. She showed him many of the rooms of the house, each filled with wonders and curiosities.

That evening Marja murmured quietly to Henio, “I do enjoy your company, but don’t you wish to return to your home?”

“To be truthful,” Henio replied, “I would prefer to stay with you.”

“That is good to hear. You are the first person I have spoken to in many years, and I have come to enjoy your company. You may stay as long as you wish.

I have one rule which you must obey before all others. Every Friday is a time for me to be alone. From sunrise on Friday to sunrise on Saturday, I cannot see another person. Do not follow me or search for me. If you do, you will never see me again.”

Henio was shocked at her odd requirement, but agreed, as he could see no harm in her privacy.

The two of them lived together for many years, and they had a number of beautiful children. As Henio promised, on Fridays Marja was left completely alone. From sunup on Friday to sunrise on Saturday, no one was to disturb her. He never knew where she went in the great house, and he never tried to discover her secret.

One Friday, Henio walked along the outside of the great wall with the children, when they came across an old man. “Please help me,” the old man begged. “I have been lost for many days, and I fear that I will starve!”

“Of course I will help you,” Henio replied. “You will stay with us as an honored guest, and be given lodging for as long as you require.”

The old man was led in, given a room, and a few hours later he joined Henio and the children for dinner.

“I am so glad for your mercy,” the old man said. “I was sure I would perish in the forest, but you rescued me and have shown me great kindness.”

“It is my pleasure,” Henio replied. “We have never had a guest, and your presence has brought great joy to this house.”

“Do you live here alone with your children?” the old man asked.

“Yes, except for one other. Their mother Marja lives here as well.”

The old man was shocked at Henio’s answer. “Is she ill? Why is the lady of the house not present for dinner?”

“Thank you for asking after her,” Henio replied, “she is not ill. Today is Friday, and Friday is her day. Neither I nor the children are allowed to disturb her until sunup tomorrow.”

“What a strange arrangement,” the old man murmured. “She must be deceiving you. Mark my words young man, no good can come from this.”

The words of the old man frightened Henio. He had thought that her request was odd, but never thought Marja would deceive him. In his fear, he got up from the table and went to search for Marja. In his soul he knew that he was violating her trust, but his dread was stronger.

He searched high and low, and could not find a trace of her. Finally, he went down to the deepest cellar of the ancient house. In one dark corner, he found a door he had never seen before. He opened it, and saw a damp tunnel leading down into the blackness of the earth. He crawled through the tunnel until it opened up into a great dark cave with a lake.

Looking to the lake, he finally saw Marja, swimming peacefully in the lake. Even from a distance he could see that her legs had been replaced by a long tail, and from her waist down she was covered with green scales.

He gasped in shock, and the noise alerted Marja to his presence. Their eyes met, and she looked at him in horror. She cried out, “Henio, you promised that you would never disturb me. I am cursed into this form every Friday. Because of your betrayal I must leave you, and you will never find me again.” With a sob, she dove into the black water.

Henio tried to swim after her, but she had disappeared from the lake. Sobbing in fear and sorrow, he ran back into the house and upstairs. In his absence, the old man had completely vanished, and the children were sobbing at the table.

Henio soon died of grief, and his children after him, one by one. The beautiful house fell into ruin and collapsed and was eaten by the forest. Nothing is left of them but this story.

The inspiration for this story was “Die Wasserjungfer,” from Harzmärchenbuch; oder, Sagen und Märchen aus dem Oberharze (Stade: Verlag von Fr. Steudel, 1862), pp. 173-76.  This story was translated by D.L. Ashliman, and shared on his Folklinks site: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html.   To read the original German: http://books.google.com/books?id=6Ig6AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA173#v=onepage&q&f=false

This is another story about an ill-fated love affair between a human and a faerie creature. Die Wasserjunger is a variation of the story of Melusina, in which a man falls in love with a wonderful woman, who requires solitude once a week.  In both cases he violates her trust, and the two are separated for eternity.

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