This was written after collecting beautiful seaglass on the beaches of Tallinn, Estonia:
The Baltic Mermaid
Rumor on the shores of Tallinn have it that a hundred years ago, a French wine merchant ship went down. Crashing in the waves, bottles and other merchandise were lost to the sea. Tumbled by time, the glass has begun to wash up on the seaside, offering treasure to the beach wanderers.
In the spirit of Estonian lore, here is my version of what happened:
There was a maiden of the Laplands with hair of the palest gold and eyes like the noonday sky, a foreign angle to her face. The lapi nõid* were jealous by her beauty and cursed her. While wandering the forest, a group of brigands abducted her. Clever was she so kept her wits about her. Seeing she was lovely, the brigands decided she would be good for trade and took her with them.
They brought her to a shore and put her on a ship. She was hidden for months, unable to see sea or sky. At one point though, cramped and dismayed, she felt something change, despite the ocean. A presence entered the place, which seemed neither good nor bad, and there it lasted until she noticed it no more.
Eventually, she no longer recognized the difference in day and night but just the coming of food, which sometimes seemed forever. The day the presence came, she also found a pair of mittens* thrown aside, which she wore to defend further against the cold and would unwind and repair to cope with the tedium. But soon the cold drifted away.
They stopped at a port and once more it felt different to her. The wood of a barrel near her came to life, a faint face of an elderly man showing through.
“Do as I say and you will be safe,” it said. “Out on the dock there is another ship close by. When you see the opportunity, slip away and board it. Find a safe space and stay there and be absolutely silent.”
Shocked but level-headed, she remembered and followed the directions exactly.
The air was hotter than she had experienced but dared not remove her cloak. She was beautiful and would be seen.
A different set of brigands came for her and took her ashore. She squinted in the hot, French sun, but saw the ship the haldjad* had mentioned and waited patiently for her chance. It came as the brigands were bartering over their barrels. She was intended for a duke.
The duke would not have her because she escaped. She stowed away with stealth. She creeped quickly into the storage on the ship, away from the Sun once more, but unnoticed with the dirt accumulated in her hair and her wool cloak and mittens concealing her. She hid, once again between barrels, filled with the fish that feed the seamen, and masked her smell. She hid for a long time, but had sat longer on the way there.
After enough time that she feared they were searching the ship, it began to move. How lucky!
Good fortune found her again out of a wooden barrel. The same face which had given her instructions before. He told her new instructions on when to move when she needed.
“If you followed my instructions exactly, you will be safe,” the spirit told her, then left.
Once again, she followed the instructions exactly. Long months passed again, but not as many as she’d first sailed.
“This is your stop at the next harbor. I must return to the forest where I was first cut and begin anew. I am no vetevana* to dwell in the water. The rest of the journey is for you to navigate.”
“Have I made it to the north of Finland already?” she asked.
“No, your blood is of a different land, lost in the north many, many generations before. This will be your new home. Here you will find your mate and great joy. If you make it,” he answered, then vanished.
She remembered the instructions to stay safe and contemplated her potential obstacles.
This was not to happen so easily.
She heard a great uproar above and the ship rocked heavily. The men screamed.
Ever present was the underlying sound of a song. The song seemed to incorporate the screams into a strange melody.
The maiden was terrified, but strong-willed she was, and continued to hold on with ferocity.
The water began to pour into the space from every direction, going up the walls as well as down.
Then came the creature, part woman, both beautiful and hideous at once, and part fish, silver-scaled and dangerous.
The mermaid grinned at her and that was when the maiden let loose her own scream as the song rose from everywhere at once, lulling her while frightening her. Without moving her mouth, the näkk* told her she was drawn to the scent of a maiden and hungered for her.
The girl lifted from the floor into the grasp of her new captor. Fear rose and she was pulled by the magic of the hungry, horrible beast.
She was taken far but quickly, to a cavern, the secret home of the mermaid.
“Now, I prepare,” said the mouthless voice.
The maiden panicked but then caught in a trance and went still, hovering in the water, neither floating nor sinking.
Over the water, some distance away, a couple on a fishing boat heard the song and knew, a touch of magic they both had. They also knew that the song of a mermaid was lethal to men.
The wife, who could hold her breath long like a dolphin, saw the ship suddenly go down in the distance. The husband stayed below, holding his ears.
They were in agreement.
They took their lives into their hands and went as far as they could go without killing the husband, sailboat tossing in the water.
The wife dove in, first taking much air into her lungs.
The husband, with the gift of animal speak, washed his hands across the water in prayer. The dolphins, white on their bottom side*, heard and responded, the pod heading to the source of the song.
Feeling danger coming near her, the mermaid grew annoyed and she left her preparations to meet the enemy. Surprise took her as the dolphins came upon her. She lashed with claws and teeth, unable to send them off.
Meanwhile, the wife, worried for her husband’s life, but set on her task, entered the cavern.
She groped and cut herself on rocks but saw the light. Knowing it a dangerous glamour, the fisherwife averted her eyes and cut the ropes of the maiden and pulled her from the light.
When they exited the cave, the fisherwife gave the maiden air and the knife, for only the victim may kill this näkk, then went to the surface for breath.
The maiden saw the beast, now fleshy and torn, surrounded by dolphins who cut her with sharp teeth.
The creature turned to the maiden, eyes flashing, fangs gnashing, claws thrashing. She made to seize the girl but the dolphins made formation and held her, teeth holding fast her arms.
Without hesitation, the quick-witted maiden cut the throat of the mermaid. It screamed and made such a sound that the dolphins dispersed and pain filled the ears of both women.
Then it ended, the mermaid decaying into nothing as she fell into the deep.
The women surfaced and swam to the boat. As it happens, the scream of a mermaid which can be lethal to women, is restorative to men. The husband had lost consciousness at the sound, losing his path to the dolphins. But, he awoke with his ears and diminishing bones restored to perfect health.
He pulled his wife and the maiden aboard, both weak from their trial and the näkk’s dangerous scream, but alive.
They made their way to land and saw many men swimming away from the place where the ship went down, their lives regained long enough to save themselves from a watery grave. They never took for granted their lives from that day on.
Once the husband saw that the maiden and his wife were back on land and well enough to return to the couple’s small but tidy home, he returned to sea to help the swimming sailors make it to safety along with the others on the coast who had dared not risk their lives before.
The women, once in the couple’s home, fell into a deep sleep for three days.
During that time, the husband and his son cared for them.
After awakening, the maiden told her tale, and the family invited her to stay. She spoke confidently, the language having been given to her, perhaps by some magic, from her ancient blood.
Soon after, the maiden and the son found that they were deeply in love and were married.
The people loved and admired her because from that day forward she brought luck to the people of Estonia and also to the Frenchmen who’d lost their ship while unknowingly freeing her from evil captivity.
Still today, the glass from the ship’s wares of wine and perfume, tumbled by sand and salt and made into something new, washes to the shores of Estonia, holding the tale in their myriad colors shining from within their frosted skin.
*Lapi nõid is the Estonian word for Lapland witch
*Mittens are sometimes used in Estonian lore and give protective powers and are often made by sailors
*Haldjad is the Estonian word for nature spirit or fairy and may preside over the traveling forest
*Vetevana is the Estonian word for water spirits
*Näkk is the Estonian word for mermaid
*The Atlantic white-sided dolphin is a rare and currently vulnerable species. They live in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, polar regions, the North Sea, Norwegian Sea, and the Baltic Sea.
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