The Mermaid by Karl Hans Strobl and translated by Joe Bandel
Copyright Joe Bandel
I translate German weird fiction stories that were published over 100 years ago. I hope you enjoy them! This story is from “Lemuria” Book 1.
Tall Peters came running back into the village like a man possessed. Even from a distance he was waving his long arms in the air. Yes, then the pastor’s wife randomly threw a glance out the kitchen window. When she saw how tall Peters came running with his legs flying and waving his hands the frying pan fell out of her hands in terror.
The pastor’s wife was in another condition. Terror went shooting through her limbs and she sank down onto the wooden crate by the stove deathly pale. With one hand she held her aching body, with the other she felt along the wall trembling convulsively. Her trembling fingers threw the salt shaker from the nail so that it fell down and shattered. The white salt mixed with the gray dust in front of the stove. Her eyes were staring wide open and fear poured into the emptiness.
Then tall Peters ran through the village bellowing something as long legs flew behind him and his arms waved like a windmill. He was yelling at the top of his lungs. The women peered after Peters from out of all the doors. But he didn’t stop until he had ran through all the streets. Then he stood in the middle of the village square, pale and panting from the exertion. Curious, inpatient women crowded around him. What was it? Yes. What was it? Yes what?
The fishermen have caught a mermaid down on the beach. She’s lying there in the sand. She was trying to escape and the waves have washed her ashore. She has a fish tail and green blood and she’s lying down there. Everyone should come and see. Then the women gathered their bonnets and scarves together and in a few moments the entire procession was running out of the village. Hobbling along behind them as quickly as her old feet could carry her came the short weathered, over one hundred years old, grandmother of Peters. She was leading her smallest grandson by the hand because he still couldn’t run very well and kept on falling down.
The wind blew the skirts and scarves of the women so that they fluttered like loose sails behind them.
From a high dune they could already see the dark crowd of fishermen down below them. They were standing together in a knot and looking at something in their midst.
Then the women parted the circle of men that were standing around and the miracle of the sea lay there before them.
Half woman, half fish . . . a small, pale face with blue, fear filled eyes that wandered from one to the other of them in deathly terror. Heavy, moist blonde hair fell around her shoulders. And the trembling young, budding breasts lifted and fell in a storm of small dancing water droplets.
But where the legs began with human children, there was a tender, rosy red and green scale. And the gleaming scales became smaller and thicker, until they slid together and tightly covered the barrel shaped lower body around to the back where they ended in a fish fin. Diagonally above the tail, but right beneath the fin was a deep and hideously gaping wound. Only a thin band of flesh still held the fin to the body. Large, heavy drops of green blood slowly oozed and trickled from out of it. All around her the sand had been colored green.
A knife sharp coral reef must have wounded the helpless mermaid and the waves washed her onto the beach.
The fishermen, women and children stood in a circle and looked at the miracle with dull eyes.
Then the spell was slowly broken. What did it mean? What should they do with her?
Someone proposed that they should drag her up into the village with ropes. No, not into the village, the women clamored . . .
Let’s ask the pastor! Someone get the pastor! And Peters with his long legs was sent running to get the pastor. The others continued to shout at each other, a confusion of questions. But no one had any answers.
The blue, tired, and deathly afraid eyes wandered from one to the other. Finally they settled upon Jens.
Flaxen haired, broad shouldered Jens had pressed up to the front. He asked nothing; he answered nothing. He just stared fixedly and dumbly at the mermaid at his feet.
Her wandering eyes had found a calm place to rest and with a trembling look embraced his figure. Then her searching eyes met his . . . and bashfully and shyly her small, pale hands reached up to her heavy, moist mantle of hair and covered her tender, young breasts.
The two of them didn’t hear the confusion of voices and questions around them. Wealthy Klaus proposed to simply kill the devil thing and throw it back into the water. The women were all in agreement with that and the men wanted to run back to their boats and grab their oars.
Then Jens broke his silence. This woman was not to be killed, he declared with his deep voice. He would take her and heal her, and when she was healthy he would put her back into the water.
“But Jens!” — screamed his mother from the crowd.
And Jens was indifferent to what all the others said.
“You are not permitted to torture the animals. That is what the pastor said. So you must also help those that are only half human.”
The women raised a great fuss over it and Jens mother started to cry.
Jens thought that the pastor would agree with him.
Here comes the pastor, several screamed, and the pastor stepped into the circle with them.
He was very agitated and his legs shook. His hands trembled and the sweat of fear stood out on his forehead. At home his wife was writhing in pain.
“What is it?”
“Jens! Jens,” they all screamed.
Jens explained to the pastor what he intended to do.
But the pastor pressed his hand against his forehead, as if to come to his senses. Then he began to speak, hastily and brokenly.
What Jens intended, could not be tolerated within his congregation. All compassion and all charity went only to God’s creatures. But this creature here was without a doubt a creature of the devil, and it would be evil to take such a thing into the village and do such devil’s work.
“Kill it, kill it,” cried Klaus and a few others with him. But the pastor also thought that killing it was not right. They should just let it lie there in peace; it was a mixture from hell, and it would disappear again like a fish, when the tide came and carried it out into the sea again.
But now everyone should go about their work and leave the mermaid in peace.
Then the pastor pressed back through the circle of people and hurried with long strides back to his house. Slowly the people disbursed.
Only Jens remained behind. With bowed head he looked down at the woman. Her blue eyes had become more calm and quiet. There was gratitude and trust in them. She knew that he had spoken up for her.
Then a rough fist shook Jens shoulder.
His father stood next to him. But Jens stubbornly shook his head. He wanted to stay there. But his father shook him harder. A red rage climbed into his face. He threatened . . . then Jens grabbed the fist on his shoulder with his iron fingers so hard, that the joints creaked.
Both men stared into each other’s faces. But . . . Jens saw his mother up above on the dunes. Her skirt and scarf fluttered and she rang her hands in misery.
Then Jens let go of his father’s hand and went back up to the village . . .
The clouds scurried across the narrow crescent moon. The sea surged. Its loud sounds reached to the village. Everything there had long since become dark. Only in the pastor’s house, behind red curtains, was there a light. A dull red glow lay upon the small front yard. A figure sneaked past the picket fence — Jens.
He stopped for a moment and looked up at the lit window. He knew that up there a woman was struggling with death. He bit his teeth together and muttered an angry curse.
Then he was beyond the village and down the dunes. On the white sand lay a dark spot . . .
The mermaid heard footsteps. She tiredly raised her head. And then Jens kneeled down beside her and spoke to her with gentle, kind and compassionate words. He knew that she didn’t understand him. But it would sound good to her.
She hid her feverish hands in the brown fists of the boy.
Then she began to sing, softly and sadly, words in a strange language. Like thick gray fog over secluded rocky islands — the melody was so hollow and heavy — and so infinitely sad.
Jens listened . . . and he didn’t notice how the tears were rolling down his face.
Then he came to his senses. He had brought some food, bread and fish, and he offered her some.
But she just shook her head. And then she sang some more. Jens knelt beside her and held her hands in his, until the stars went out and the morning wind began.
Then he got up and looked at her.
“I will come again.”
And she understood the strange words and the promise, and her gaze was mild and peaceful, as he climbed up the dunes.
There was a great unrest over the entire village, as the people went with shy, quiet steps past the house of the pastor and the window draped with red curtains where it was so deathly quiet. Several had heard broken screams and strangled whimpering, as if someone was biting into a pillow. Around noon the pastor stood motionless in the garden behind the house and stared down at the distant roiling sea, with a long pipe in his hands. And then suddenly, like a madman, he shattered the glass ball of a lawn ornament with the head of his pipe so that it shattered in all directions and ran back into the house. There was something eerie in the air.
There was an early morning noise in Jen’s house. His father had learned from the night watchman that Jens had been down at the beach. It came to a dispute and Jens raised his hand against his father and flung him against the stove so that his head received a considerable lump. But finally the old man overwhelmed Jens, carried him upstairs like a child and locked him in his room.
In the village there was a wild muttering against the poor, abandoned mermaid lying down there on the beach. Several young fellows had been down there and reported that she was lying there motionless in the sand, with closed eyes. It was only by her slight breathing that they knew she was still alive. They had wanted to tease and throw sand at her, but the lust to do that had left them when they had seen her pale, dying face.
But the elders held the mermaid responsible for the disruption in the village that day. Wealthy Klaus thought it would have been better if they had immediately killed the thing of the devil yesterday.
Then, late that evening the people discovered that the pastor’s wife had brought a dead child into the world. The baby had a malformed water head and its crippled feet had a reddish and green metallic shimmer like fish scales. It was hopeless, the pastor’s wife was going to die.
Then a great rage seized the people and they wanted to go down to the beach immediately and kill the mermaid, whom they thought had caused all this. But the night was growing dark, and the wind that blew from the sea was so icy cold that they turned back. Tomorrow . . . in daylight . . . at dawn.
Then it became completely dark and not a light was burning in the entire village — only the sad flickering behind the red curtains showed someone was still awake in the pastor’s house — when Jens climbed out his bedroom window.
Like a cat, silently and carefully. — His broad shoulders barely fit through the narrow window frame. But he succeeded. Jens pushed himself through — and then jumped down to the soft lawn in front of the house. His knees buckled from the force of the fall, but he straightened back up. As he ran past the red curtained window of the pastor’s house, he balled his fists and growled a wild curse between his teeth.
And the mermaid knew that he would come. She lifted herself up on her arms and reached out her face to him. And Jens kissed the pale lips and the eyes, sunk deep into their holes.
Then she sang once more. The melody swam like fog over a rocky reef — then the veil of fog parted and her song became clear and golden. Sunshine lay over the sea and the waves became calmer and quieter and ebbed . . . and she softly fell asleep.
The woman had taken Jens hand and placed it on her breast. His hand moved through the heavy mantle of hair and then his heavy, work callused hand tenderly and softly lay upon the trembling breast of the woman.
And Jens felt how the life in her heart became fainter and fainter with every beat, then one last wild heartbeat, a convulsive grip on his arm and the woman fell back.
Jens sat and stared at the sunrise.
His eyes were dry. He had not shed one tear for his deep pain. And yet this pain was so easy and free. Only something troubled him. He didn’t know at first what it was. But then it came to him. He had heard what they had promised to do downstairs. They were going to come and kill her.
But they would not find her . . .
He got up with a powerful effort and took the corpse into his arms. His gaze burned solidly on her small, starring face; the severed fin dangled down from his right arm and swung with every step he took.
That is how he walked out into the sea. With confident leaps he went from stone to stone and from the last large boulder he flung the corpse out into the sea with a mighty heave.
A splash and gurgle — and the tide carried the body away . . .
When Jens arrived back on the beach he heard the voices of the men from the village up above on the dunes. He realized immediately that several of them were drunk, recognized their hoarse, tinny laughter right away.
They shouldn’t see him.
He laid down flat on the dunes in a low spot and let the procession go past. In the morning light he saw almost all of the men and boys of the village with sticks, clubs and oars. Several were drunk. At the front of the procession was Jens father with a white cloth around his banged up head. His fist was wrapped around an axe, and he was drunk as well. His eyes were bloodshot and his face was red.
Finally they were past. Jens raced up the dune. Halfway to the village he heard the angry, disappointed screams behind him.
Jens ran on. He wanted to reach the village and his room before the men came back. They shouldn’t know what had happened that night.
As Jens passed the house of the pastor, he saw all the windows wide open.
He knew then, that the woman inside had died. And he ducked as he went along the houses and growled a wild curse between his teeth.