Undines are water nymphs, or wraiths. According to legend, they cannot acquire a soul unless they marry a human man and bear him a child, although this can also cost them their immortality.
“The Knife and the Wave”, by Susan Cartwright-Smith – published below – is a story in that tradition, and tells the sad tale of a doomed romance between a fisherman and his undine wife.
The Knife and the Wave by Susan Cartwright-Smith
As we looked out over the Irish Sea, and took the opportunity to catch our breath, out of nowhere Dad said, “The Knife and the Wave”.
“What’s that?” I said.
“The Knife and the Wave. It’s a folk tale. I think it’s from Ireland. Which is over there somewhere…” He waved his hand.
“I know that,” I grumbled, good-naturedly. I fidgeted with my maternity trousers, the bump actually justifying my wearing them now.
“There was a handsome young fisherman. I’m not sure when you go from handsome fisherman to salty old sea dog, but he hadn’t made that move yet. And one of the magical sea sprites, or green ladies, noticed him, and wanted him for her own. Now, the only way for a green lady to claim you would be to drown you.”
I put my head on his shoulder, and he absent-mindedly patted his grandson.
“And so, one day, when this handsome young fisherman set out to sea, the green lady stirred up a terrible storm. And with terrible waves crashing about him, and throwing his boat like a cat with a ball of string, she came to claim him.” We both looked out onto a reasonably calm sea, with just the occasional white horse. “Aye, well, it can happen. Anyway, the fisherman reacted as a man does, and as a particularly threatening wave came over the side, he threw his knife at it.”
“He threw his knife at it? At a wave?”
“Aye, men sometimes act out of violence, He sensed a threat, so he reacted in kind. Anyway. The knife stuck into the wave, and suddenly the sea was calm.”
He stopped then, and looked out to sea. The silence cloaking us, as silence often did. I winced a bit as, almost as if he were waiting for the story to go on, the child inside kicked me.
Dad took my hand then, and I held his bony knuckles to my forehead; a strange gesture we often shared. Tears of exhaustion and confusion pricked at my eyes, whilst we avoided looking at each other.
“So. The storm died down. The sailor returned home. But a week later, carried on immense waves, the menfolk of the green lady’s world came. They called for the fisherman, and bade him come. His knife had wounded their lady, and she was sickening.
They had carried her, and the fisherman waded in the shallows, and freed his knife from her belly. But the swelling remained. And the green lady had to go with the fisherman, as she could not breathe underwater anymore. The iron knife had robbed her of her magic. As iron often does.
And so, as her belly grew, and time passed, the coldness of iron spread within her too. She wasn’t where she was supposed to be, and she grew miserable. With that knife, he may as well have pinned a butterfly to a corkboard.”
After a few minutes, I said, “I don’t regret having this baby, dad. I’m not exactly young.”
He gave me one of his quizzical looks, as if he didn’t know why I was assuming he was referring to me.
“And so, she had her wee babby, and as she weaned him, so his gills grew, and the first day she took him down to the sea, he leapt and frolicked and sported in the waves with his uncles and kinfolk, and screamed when she took him back to land. Not a word she spoke to the fisherman, whose metal rings caused fine decoration about her eyes and mouth, as well as his iron knife wound had scarred her belly. She was as grey as iron now, both her skin and her thoughts, and so, one day, she took the wee man, now free from the need of her, and they both dived down, into the deeps. Never to return to land.”
“But I thought you said the iron had robbed her of her magic?”
“Aye. It had.”
“So…what? She drowned?”
“She did. She did what was right for the bairn. Better to be free than live a half-life.”
We watched the waves: the tide going out; the horizon grizzling with mist.