The Mermaid of the Magdalenes
FAR off the north-east coast of Canada is a group of rugged islands called the Magdalenes. They are a lonely, barren group, where grass and flowers and trees grow scantily. There, the northern storms rage with their wildest fury, and the sea breaks with its greatest force upon the bleak rocks. Numberless birds of strange cries and colours fly constantly about. On days when the storm dashes the sea white and angry against the coast, even the thunder of the surf is almost shut out by the screaming of countless gulls; and on clear days the sun is hidden when the birds rise in clouds from their nests. The "Isle of Birds," the Jesuits called one of the islands when they first visited the group hundreds of years ago, and it is an "Isle of Birds" still. It is a wild and rock-bound desolate land.
But although the islands are barren of grass and flowers and trees, the waters around and between them are rich in fish. "The Kingdom of Fish," men call the place, for adventurous traders grow wealthy there reaping the harvest of the sea. The greatest product of the waters is the lobster. He always inhabited these northern seas, and about his power in olden times strange tales are told. Away off the coast of one of the islands, you can still see on fine moonlight nights in May, and also during the day once a year, a maiden holding a glass in her hand, combing her long hair, and looking wistfully to the land. Sometimes, too, on calm nights you can still hear her strange song above the murmur of the waves. She is the phantom lady of the Island over whom the Lobster in far away days used his power. She is now a prisoner in the deep, held there as a punishment for her deeds.
Now, it happened that long ago when fish were first canned for food there was a great slaughter of sardinesthe tiny fish of the seaby cruel money-greedy traders who caught them, packed them in small boxes, and shipped them to far countries, just as they do to-day. These traders received large money rewards for their labour, for people all over the world liked the little fish and paid a high price for them. The sardines saw their number slowly growing smaller, for, being little, they were helpless against their captors, and among all their family there was great sorrow. In despair they asked the big fish of the sea to help them. At last, in answer to their appeal, a meeting of all the fish in the sea was called. Here the big fish took an oath to help their small cousins in their struggle with man, and to punish when they could all who ate or fished the sardine family. And the little fish rejoiced greatly.
One May day a large ship loaded with packed fish was wrecked on the sunken rocks of the Magdalene Islands. Soon the ship was broken up by the heavy surf on the sharp reef, and her cargo was strewn along the shore. It happened that in the cargo were many boxes of sardines, and they too were washed up on the beach by the tide. In the evening, after the sea had calmed, a fair maiden who lived on the Island with her father, a fish trader, walked along the shore alone to view the wreckage of the broken ship. She found, to her delight, one of the boxes in which the sardines were packed. She resolved at once to eat the contents, for she too, like all the world at that time, liked the little fish. But although she tried as hard as she could, she was unable to open the box. She sat by the side of the sea and sang a song of lament, calling on anyone who could to open the box for her. She sang:
"I love sardines when they're boiled with beans
Away out from the beach a skate-fish was resting on a sand-bar. Hearing the song of the maiden, he quickly swam towards the shore. When he came close enough to hear the words of the song and to know what the box contained, he swam away in great disgust, for he was cousin to the sardines in the box, and came from the same family tree as they. But he was too timid to try to punish the maiden. Then a bold merman heard the song. He had long looked for a land wife to live with him in his home under the sea; now he said, "Here at last is a shore maiden for me," for the voice of the singer was beautiful to him. So he went to his looking-glass to dress himself in the most genteel fashion. From bright clean sea-weeds and sea-leaves he quickly made himself a new suit, all green and yellow; and he covered his feet with bright-coloured shells, and his neck with pearls which the oyster gave him; and dressing himself carefully, he hastened in the direction of the song. But when he came close enough to hear the words and to know what the box contained, he remembered his oath at the great gathering of the fish, and although he loved the singer he swam hurriedly away. For, like the skate-fish, he too feared to try to punish the maiden.
The maiden was now sore distressed, for it was growing late and the moon was already far up in the sky. The box was still unopened, and the girl was hungry for the fish. Going to the edge of the sea, she knocked the box hard against a large rock that lay in the water, hoping thereby to break it open. But the box would not break. Now, it chanced that under the rock a large black lobster lay sleeping quietly after a long battle with an enemy in the sea. The tapping on the roof of his sleeping-place awoke him, and he rubbed his eyes and listened. The maiden was again singing her song:
"Oh I love sardines when they're boiled with beans,
Then the lobster remembered his oath at the great gathering of the fish. Unlike the skate-fish and the merman, he had no fear of the maiden, for he knew his power. He determined to punish her, and he resolved at once upon a crafty trick. He came out of his hiding place, and waving his claw politely he said, "Fair lady, I can open the box for you; give it to me and let me try." But when, in answer, she held the box out towards him in her hand, he grasped her by the wrist with his strong claw, and, holding her fast, he swam with her far out to sea. Where he went and what he did with her, no man knows. It is believed that he sold her to the merman who had long sought a shore-wife, and that she is still being slowly changed into a fish. One thing is certain,she never came back to land. But on the first day of May she always appears on the water away off the coast of the Island; and if that day is fine and clear you can still always see her there. She holds in her hand a looking-glass in which in the sunlight she looks at herself to see if she is nearer to a fish than she was on May Day the year before when she last appeared in the sun; and she is combing her long hair, which is now covered with pearls; and she looks with longing eyes to the shore and her old home. And sometimes on moonlight nights in May, when the wind is still and the sea is calm, the fishermen hear her strange sad song across the waters. They know then that she is lonely, and that she is singing her song to lure land-comrades for company to her side. And on these nights they stay on shore, for they know that if they venture out to sea she will seize them and carry them off for playmates to her home of bright shells far under the sea.
Cyrus. Canadian Wonder Tales. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head,