The Mermaid of Zennor

The Mermaid of Zennor (A Legend From Cornwall)

Once, long ago, off the coast of Cornwall, a mermaid sat upon a rock combing seashells from her hair. Morveren was her name; she was the daughter of King Llyr, who rules the ocean.

Suddenly Morveren heard a beautiful sound drifting toward her on the evening wind. She put a finger to her lips. “Shhh,” she called to the fish who swam around her tail, and the ocean grew calm.

The music was mesmerizing. Morveren closed her eyes and dreamed, but as the light began to fade, the wind died down, and she could hear the song no longer. Morveren dived beneath the waves and swam back to her father’s golden sandcastles.

The next evening she returned. When once more she heard the song, she swam closer to shore. “What bird sings so beautifully?” She stared at the shore, but the light was fading, and she could see only the flickering lights of the village of Zennor. Once again she swam home.

The next evening she came earlier. This time she boldly swam right to the fishermen’s boats tied to the docks. When she heard the song, she called, “What makes such music?”

The only sound in response was the splashing of the waves upon the docks and the whisper of the evening wind.

The next evening she could not contain her curiosity. She pulled herself up on the shore and peered at the village. Suddenly she realized the music came from behind the church walls. Morveren had to see who or what made such music, but when she saw the tide was ebbing, she knew she must go home or be forever stranded.

When she arrived home, she knelt before her aged father. “Father, I have heard the most exquisite music in the world. I must see who makes such sounds.”

Llyr looked sadly at his daughter. His hair, mossy and tangled, shivered like seaweed as he shook his head. “Listening to the people is fine, child, but that music is man-made. We do not share the land with the people, and we must never mix with them.”

“I’ll die from longing then,” Morveren wailed, and her eyes welled with tears.

Llyr, who dearly loved his daughter, sighed, and as he did, the waves rose high. Mermaids, you see, do not cry, and the sight of his daughter weeping troubled the mighty king. His heart ached for her.

“Go then, but take good care. Cover your tail with a dress such as the land women wear. You must make sure no one sees you.” He handed his daughter a dress crusted with sea jade and a net to cover her hair.

The next night, filled with joy, Morveren wore her disguise and set off to see what she could. She struggled as she moved across the land. The dress caught on brambles, and she worried that she might not reach the church in time.

She arrived just as the choir began to sing its closing hymn. The people were entranced by the choir, and no one noticed the stranger entering behind them.

But now Morveren saw that one man’s voice rose above all the others, a voice like the voice of an angel. As Mathey, a handsome young lad sang, Morveren fell in love just watching him.

She returned every night, always careful to leave before the last notes were sung. She caught the swell of the high tide and returned home, dreaming always of Mathey. And he, meanwhile, grew taller, and his voice grew more beautiful.

One year passed.

One evening Morveren stayed longer than usual, and when Mathey’s voice rose to a high note, she sighed. The sigh was sweet and long, and Mathey looked up from his songbook and saw this stranger at the rear of the church. Her eyes glistened with love and longing, and the net had fallen from her gleaming hair.

Their eyes met, but Morveren was terrified, remembering her father’s warning. She turned and moved as quickly as she could toward the door.

“Stop,” Mathey cried. He ran after her. Morveren tripped on her long dress and would have fallen, but Mathey caught her. “Stay, please,” he whispered, for he too was in love.

She began to weep. “But I am a creature of the sea,” she whispered.

He looked down and saw the tip of her fishtail, but he did not care. “I will go with you,” and with that, he picked her up and began to run toward the ocean.

When the congregation saw what was happening, they gave chase to Mathey. “Stop, no!” they called. “You must not go to the sea!”

But Mathey was quick. As he ran, Morveren tore the jade from her dress and flung the stones in the path of their pursuers. Many stopped to pick up the jewels, but Mathey’s mother did not stop. “Child, don’t leave,” she called.

The tide was beginning to ebb. The water was too shallow for the mermaid. Mathey plunged ahead and pushed on until the water reached his waist, then his shoulders, and with the sound of his mother’s anguished plea in his ears, he dived.

Mathey and Morveren were gone.

The people of Zennor never again saw them. They say they went to live in the land of Llyr. They also say that Mathey still sang, and the people heard his song. His voice rose up and caused the waters to swirl, and from his songs, the fishermen knew when the sea would welcome them and when storms would threaten. They began to understand the meaning of the voices that come from the water, and ever since that time, fishermen have listened carefully for the sounds from the sea.