The village of
Zennor lies upon the windward coast of Cornwall. The houses cling to the
hillside as if hung there by the wind. Waves still lick the ledges in
the coves, and a few fishermen still set out to sea in their boats.
In times past,
the sea was both the beginning and the end for the folk of Zennor. It
gave them fish for food and fish for sale, and made a wavy road to row
from town to town. Hours were reckoned not by clocks but by the ebb and
flow of the tide, and months and years ticked off by the herring runs.
The sea took from them, too, and often wild, sudden storms would rise.
Then fish and fisherman alike would be lost to an angry sea.
At the end of a
good day, when the sea was calm and each boat had returned with its
share of fish safely stowed in the hold, the people of Zennor would go
up the path to the old church and give thanks. They would pray for a
fine catch on the morrow, too. The choir would sing, and after the
closing hymn the families would go.
Now, in the
choir that sang at Evensong there was a most handsome lad named Mathew
Trewella. Not only was Mathew handsome to the eyes, his singing was
sweet to the ears as well. His voice pealed out louder than the church
bells, and each note rang clear and true. It was always Mathew who sang
the closing hymn.
evening, when all the fishing boats bobbed at anchor, and all the fisher
families were in church and all the birds at nest, and even the waves
rested themselves and came quietly to shore, something moved softly in
the twilight. The waves parted without a sound, and, from deep beneath
them, some creature rose and climbed out onto a rock, there in the cove
of Zennor. It was both a sea creature and a she-creature. For, though it
seemed to be a girl, where the girl's legs should have been was the long
and silver-shiny tail of a fish. It was a mermaid, one of the daughters
of Llyr, king of the ocean, and her name was Morveren.
upon the rock and looked at herself in the quiet water, and then combed
all the little crabs and seashells from her long, long hair. As she
combed, she listened to the murmur of the waves and wind. And borne on
the wind was Mathew's singing.
breeze is there that blows such a song?" wondered Morveren. But
then the wind died, and Mathew's song with it. The sun disappeared, and
Morveren slipped back beneath the water to her home.
evening she came again. But not to the rock. This time she swam closer
to shore, the better to hear. And once more Mathew's voice carried out
to sea, and Morveren listened.
sings so sweet?" she asked, and she looked all about. But darkness
had come, and her eyes saw only shadows.
The next day
Morveren came even earlier, and boldly. She floated right up by the
fishermen's boats. And when she heard Mathew's voice, she called,
"What reed is there that pipes such music?"
There was no
answer save the swishing of the water round the skiffs.
and must know more about the singing. So she pulled herself up on the
shore itself. From there she could see the church and hear the music
pouring from its open doors. Nothing would do then but she must peek in
and learn for herself who sang so sweetly.
Still, she did
not go at once. For, looking behind her, she saw that the tide had begun
to ebb and the water pull back from the shore. And she knew that she
must go back, too, or be left stranded on the sand like a fish out of
So she dived
down beneath the waves, down to the dark sea cave where she lived with
her father the king. And there she told Llyr what she had heard.
Llyr was so old
he appeared to be carved of driftwood, and his hair floated out tangled
and green, like seaweed. At Morveren's words, he shook that massive head
from side to side.
is enough, my child. To see is too much."
go, Father," she pleaded, "for the music is magic."
he answered. "The music is man-made, and it comes from a man's
mouth. We people of the sea do not walk on the land of men."
A tear, larger
than an ocean pearl, fell from Morveren's eye. "Then surely I may
die from the wanting down here."
and his sigh was like the rumbling of giant waves upon the rocks; for a
mermaid to cry was a thing unheard of and it troubled the old sea king
then," he said at last, "but go with care. Cover your tail
with a dress, such as their women wear. Go quietly, and make sure that
none shall see you. And return by high tide, or you may not return at
take care, Father!" cried Morveren, excited. "No one shall
snare me like a herring!"
Llyr gave her a
beautiful dress crusted with pearls and sea jade and coral and other
ocean jewels. It covered her tail, and she covered her shining hair with
a net, and so disguised she set out for the church and the land of men.
and fish's tail are not made for walking, and it was difficult for
Morveren to get up the path to the church. Nor was she used to the dress
of an earth woman dragging behind. But get there she did, pulling
herself forward by grasping on the trees, until she was at the very door
of the church. She was just in time for the closing hymn. Some folks
were looking down at their hymnbooks and some up at the choir, so, since
none had eyes in the backs of their heads, they did not see Morveren.
But she saw them, and Mathew as well. He was as handsome as an angel,
and when he sang it was like a harp from heaven -- although Morveren, of
course, being a mermaid, knew nothing of either.
So each night
thereafter, Morveren would dress and come up to the church, to look and
to listen, staying but a few minutes and always leaving before the last
note faded and in time to catch the swell of high tide. And night by
night, month by month, Mathew grew taller and his voice grew deeper and
stronger (though Morveren neither grew nor changed, for that is the way
of mermaids). And so it went for most of a year, until the evening when
Morveren lingered longer than usual. She had heard Mathew sing one
verse, and then another, and begin a third. Each refrain was lovelier
than the one before, and Morveren caught her breath in a sigh.
It was just a
little sigh, softer than the whisper of a wave. But it was enough for
Mathew to hear, and he looked to the back of the church and saw the
mermaid. Morveren's eyes were shining, and the net had slipped from her
head and her hair was wet and gleaming, too. Mathew stopped his singing.
He was struck silent by the look of her -- and by his love for her. For
these things will happen.
frightened. Mathew had seen her, and her father had warned that none
must look at her. Besides, the church was warm and dry, and merpeople
must be cool and wet. Morveren felt herself shrivelling, and turned in
haste from the door.
cried Mathew boldly. "Wait!" And he ran down the aisle of the
church and out the door after her.
Then all the
people turned, startled, and their hymn-books fell from their laps.
tripped, tangled in her dress, and would have fallen had not Mathew
reached her side and caught her.
he begged. "Whoever ye be, do not leave!"
tears, as salty as the sea itself, rolled down Morveren's cheeks.
stay. I am a sea creature, and must go back where I belong."
at her and saw the tip of her fish tail poking out from beneath the
dress. But that mattered not at all to him.
will go with ye. For with ye is where I belong."
Morveren up, and she threw her arms about his neck. He hurried down the
path with her, toward the ocean's edge.
And all the
people from the church saw this.
stop!" they shouted. "Hold back!"
Mathew!" cried that boy's mother.
But Mathew was
bewitched with love for the mermaid, and ran the faster with her toward
fishermen of Zennor gave chase, and all others, too, even Mathew's
mother. But Mathew was quick and strong and outdistanced them. And
Morveren was quick and clever. She tore the pearls and coral from her
dress and flung them on the path. The fishermen were greedy, even as men
are now, and stopped in their chase to pick up the gems. Only Mathew's
mother still ran after them.
The tide was
going out. Great rocks thrust up from the dark water. Already it was too
shallow for Morveren to swim. But Mathew plunged ahead into the water,
stumbling in to his knees. Quickly his mother caught hold of his
fisherman's jersey. Still Mathew pushed on, until the sea rose to his
waist, and then his shoulders. Then the waters closed over Morveren and
Mathew, and his mother was left with only a bit of yarn in her hand,
like a fishing line with nothing on it.
were Mathew and Morveren seen by the people of Zennor. They had gone to
live in the land of Llyr, in golden sand castles built far below the
waters in a blue-green world.
But the people
of Zennor heard Mathew. For he sang to Morveren both day and night, love
songs and lullabies. Nor did he sing for her ears only. Mathew learned
songs that told of the sea as well. His voice rose up soft and high if
the day was to be fair, deep and low if Llyr was going to make the
waters boil. From his songs, the fishermen of Zennor knew when it was
safe to put to sea, and when it was wise to anchor snug at home.
There are some
still who find meanings in the voices of the waves and understand the
whispers of the winds. These are the ones who say Mathew sings yet, to
them that will listen. 2
figure of the "Mermaid of Zennor" with a comb and glass"
in her hand, is carved on a bench-end in the small chapel on the right
hand side of the church of Zennor, the date of this is uncertain but it
is thought to be five or six hundred" years old. 1
Mermaid of Zennor by Sarah Young