The young fisherman went out in his boat every evening, and threw his nets into the water. Sometimes he did not catch much. But sometimes the fish came in from the deep sea and swam into his nets. Then he took them and sold them in the town.
One evening the net was very heavy. The young fisherman laughed. “Perhaps I have caught all the fish in the sea!” he thought. He pulled and pulled, and the net came nearer and nearer to the boat. At last it came to the top of the water. There were no fish in it – only a sleeping mermaid. Her hair was like gold; her body was silver and pearl. She was very beautiful. The young fisherman picked her up in his arms.
When he touched her, she opened her deep-blue eyes with fear. She tried to escape, but he held her tightly.
She began to cry. “Please, please don’t take me away!” she said. “I am the daughter of the King of the Sea. He only has me and he is old and alone.”
The fisherman answered, “You can go if you make a promise. When I call you, you must come to me. You must come to me and sing. The fish love the song of the People of the Sea. They will come and my nets will be full.”
So the mermaid promised. The fisherman opened his arms, and she disappeared into the water.
Every evening after that, when the young fisherman went out in his boat, he called to the mermaid. She came up out of the water and sang the songs of the People of the Sea. She sang about the king’s palace, with its roof of clear blue jewels and its pearl floor. She sang about the gardens of the sea. The big fish came in from the deep sea to listen to her songs. Then the young fisherman threw his nets round them and caught them. When his boat was full, the mermaid disappeared into the sea.
The mermaid never came close to him. Once he tried to touch her, but she went down into the water. He did not see her again that day. Each day the sound of her voice became sweeter in his ears. He forgot about his nets and his boat. The fish came, but he did not see them. He sat in his boat and listened. Darkness closed round him, and the moonlight changed his brown arms to silver.
One evening the young fisherman called to the mermaid, “Little mermaid, I love you. Take me as your husband.”
But the mermaid answered, “No, you have a man’s soul. Send away your soul, and I will love you.”
The young fisherman said, “I do not need my soul. I cannot see it. I cannot touch it. Of course I will send it away!” He held out his arms. “I will send my soul away and you will be my wife. We will live in the deepest part of the sea, and you will show me the wonderful things in your songs.”
The little mermaid laughed with happiness and hid her face in her hands.
“But how can I send my soul away?” cried the fisherman.”Tell me how to do it.”
“I do not know,” said the little mermaid. “The People of the Sea have no souls.” She looked at him sadly and swam away.
Early the next morning the young fisherman went to a priest’s house. “Father,” he said, “I am in love with one of the People of the Sea. But I cannot marry her because I have a soul. Tell me how to send my soul away. I do not need it. I cannot see it. I cannot touch it.”
The priest answered, “Stupid man! Your soul was given to you by God. It is the most important thing that you have. It is like the gold and jewels of kings. The People of the Sea have no souls and, like animals, do not know right from wrong.”
“Father,” said the young fisherman, “I caught the daughter of the King of the Sea in my net. She is more beautiful than the morning star, and whiter than the moon. I will give my soul for her body. I must send my soul away.”
“Go away! Go away!” cried the priest.
The young fisherman went into the city. The market-sellers called to him, “What are you selling today?”
“I will sell my soul. I do not need it.”
The market-sellers laughed at him. “We do not want to buy your soul. What can we do with it? Sell us your body and become a slave, but do not talk about your soul.”
The young fisherman thought, “This is very strange. The priest tells me that a soul costs more than gold and jewels. I do not understand.” He went down by the sea to think.
At last he remembered that there was a witch near the beach. He ran along the sand to the place where she lived. She knew by magic that he was coming. She laughed and waited for him.
“What do you want?” she cried, as he ran towards her. “I can give you anything, but everything has its price.”
“I only want one small thing,” said the young fisherman. “But the priest was angry when I asked him for it. And the market-sellers laughed at me. So I have come to you.”
“What do you want?” asked the witch, coming nearer.
“I want to send my soul away from me,” answered the young fisherman.
“What will you give me if I help you?” asked the witch, looking at him with her beautiful eyes.
“Five pieces of gold, and my nets, my house and my boat. But tell me how I can lose my soul.”
She laughed. “I am a witch. I can have all the gold and silver that I want.”
“So what shall I give you? What shall I do?” She put her thin white hand on his head and smiled at him.
“You must dance with me, pretty boy,” she said.
“Only that? Nothing more?” cried the young fisherman.
“Only that,” she answered, and she smiled at him again.
“We must dance when the moon is full. Tonight you will come to the top mountain. It is the witches’ meeting place, and He will be there.”
“Who is ‘He’?” asked the young fisherman. “Come tonight. Stand near the tree top of the mountain and wait for me. When the moon is full, I will be with you. Then dance together on the grass.”
“But you will help me to send my soul away?”
The sunlight shone on her red hair. “I will,” she answered.
“You are the best of witches,” cried the young fisherman, “and I will dance with you tonight.”
He smiled at her. Then he ran happily back to the town.
The witch watched him as he went. “He will be mine!” she said. “I am as beautiful as she is.”
That evening, the young fisherman climbed to the top of the mountain and stood under the tree in the moonlight. The sea lay far down below, and the shadows of the fishing boats moved on the water.
At midnight the witches came flying through the air.
“Phew!” they said, as they came down to the ground. “What is this smell? There is a stranger here!”
The young witch came last. She wore a gold dress and her long red hair flew out behind her. “Where is he? Where is he?” cried the witches, when they saw her.
She laughed and ran to the tree and took the fisherman’s hand. She pulled him out into the moonlight and began to dance with him. The other witches began to dance too, round and round. Then there was the sound of a horse, but he could not see a horse. He felt afraid.
“Faster! Faster!” cried the witch. She put her arms round his neck. He knew that something terrible was watching him. Then he saw someone under the shadow of a rock.
It was a man, dressed in black. His face was white, but his mouth was like a red flower. His hands were white and heavy with rings. He watched the young fisherman as he danced. Suddenly the dancers stopped and went to kiss the mans hands. He smiled proudly, but he was still looking at the fisherman.
“Now we must go to him,” said the witch, and the fisherman followed her. But when he was close to the man, the young fisherman suddenly called out God’s name. He did not know why he called it.
The witches cried out and flew away. The man closed his eyes in pain. He called to his horse, jumped up on to its back, then turned and looked sadly at the fisherman.
The witch with the red hair tried to fly away too, but the fisherman caught her arm and held her.
“Take your hand off me!” she cried.
“No!” he answered.
“First, you must tell me the secret.”
“What secret?” said the witch, fighting like a wild cat.
“You know!” he answered.
There were tears in her green eyes. “I am as beautiful as the Daughter of the Sea,” she said.
He pushed her away. “If you do not keep your promise, I will kill you.”
Her face was grey. “All right,” she said. “It is your soul, not mine.” She took out a little knife in a green case. “The shadow of the body is the body of the soul. Stand by the sea, with your back to the moon. Cut your shadow away from your feet and order your soul to leave you.”
He took the knife. Then he began to climb down the mountain. His soul inside him called out, “I have lived with you for many years and I have been your servant. Do not send me away from you! How have I hurt you?”
The young fisherman laughed. “You have not hurt me, but I do not need you. My love is calling me.” He stood on the sand, with his back to the moon. His shadow lay in front of him.
His soul said, “If I must go away, do not send me away without heart. There is no love or kindness in the world, and I am afraid. need to take your heart with me.”
“My heart belongs to my love,” he answered. “So do not wait – go! I do not need you.”
The young fisherman took the little knife out of its case and ut away the shadow from round his feet. It stood up in front of him. It was just like him. He stepped back and put away the knife. He was afraid. “Go!” he said. “I never want to see you again!;
“No! We must meet again,” said the soul.
“How will we meet?” cried the young fisherman. “Will you follow me into the deepest part of the sea?”
“Once every year I will come to this place and call to you,” said the soul. “Perhaps you will need me.”
“Why will I need you?” cried the young fisherman. “But do what you like.” Then he jumped into the sea. The little mermaid came up to meet him. She put her arms round his neck and kissed him. Then they went down into the sea. The soul went away, crying.
After a year, the soul came down to the sea and called to the young fisherman. He came out of the sea and said, “Why are you calling me?”
The soul answered, “Come nearer. I want to tell you about the wonderful things that I have seen.” So the fisherman came nearer and listened. “When I left you,” the soul said to him, “I travelled to the east. All wise things come from the east. I arrived at a city, walked through its streets and came to the garden of its god. ‘I want to see your god,’ I said to one of the priests, and he took me to a house in the garden. There was no god there, only a metal mirror on a stone table.
“I said to the priest, “Where is the god?”
“He said, “There is no god, but this is a special mirror. It shows everything on earth. When you have this mirror, you know everything. Nothing is hidden from you.”
“I stole the mirror and I have hidden it close to here. Take me as your soul again, and you will be wiser than all the wise men.”
The young fisherman laughed. “Love is better than understanding,” he cried. “And the little mermaid loves me.” He went back into the sea. The soul went away, crying.
After the second year, the soul came down to the sea and called to the young fisherman. The fisherman came up out of the sea and said, “Why are you calling me?”
“Come nearer,” the soul answered. “I want to tell you about the wonderful things that I have seen. When I left you, I travelled to the south. All gold and jewels come from the south. After many days I came to Ashtar. The king of that city has a special ring on his finger. If you have that ring, you are richer than all the kings in the world. I went into the king’s palace. The soldiers hit me, but they could not hurt me. The king said, “Who are you? Why can’t we hurt you? Please leave here tonight. While you are here, I am not king of this city.” I answered, “I will go if you give me your ring.””
Then the soul said to the fisherman, “I have hidden the ring in a place not far from here. Come with me and take it. You will be richer than all the kings in this world.”
The young fisherman laughed. “Love is better than gold and jewels,” he cried. “And the little mermaid loves me.” He went back into the sea. The soul went away, crying.
At the end of the third year, the soul came down to the sea and called to the fisherman. When he came, the soul said, “Come nearer. I want to tell you about the wonderful things that I have seen. On my journeys I came to a city where there is a house near the river. Seamen come to that house and drink wine. As I sat there, an old man came in. He played music, and a girl came and danced. Her face was covered and I could not see it. But her white feet moved like little birds. They were the most beautiful feet that I have ever seen. It was the most wonderful dancing. It is only a few days’ journey from this place.”
The young fisherman remembered that the little mermaid had no feet. She could not dance. So he said, “All right. It is only a short journey, and then I can return to my love.” He climbed out on to the land and held out his arms to his soul. The soul cried with happiness and went into him.
They travelled all that night and came to a city. As they walked along a street of jewellers, the young fisherman saw a fine silver cup. The soul said to him, “Take that cup and hide it.” So he took the cup and they left the city quickly.
But then the young fisherman threw the cup away. “Why did you tell me to take that cup?” he said to his soul. “It was wrong.”
But his soul answered, “It does not matter.”
On the evening of the second day, they came to another city. As they walked along the street, the young fisherman saw a child with a pot of water. His soul said to him, “Hit that child.” So he hit the child, and the child cried. Then they left the city quickly.
But then the young fisherman became angry. “Why did you tell me to hit that child? It was wrong.”
But his soul answered, “It does not matter.”
Late on the evening of the third day, they came to another city. The young fisherman sat down and rested. After some time, a man came past them. “Why are you sitting here in the street?” he said.
The young fisherman answered, “I have nowhere to sleep. I have no friends in this city.”
The man said, “Aren’t we all brothers? Didn’t one God make us all? Come with me to my house.”
So the young fisherman slept at the man’s house. In the middle of the night, his soul woke him and said, “Go to the man’s room. Kill him and take his gold. We need it.” The young fisherman went to the man’s room. There was a knife near his bed, and there were three bags of gold. The young fisherman put out his hand and touched the knife, but the man woke up. “Are you paying for my kindness with blood?” he said.
The soul said, “Kill him!” So the young fisherman killed the man and took the bags of gold.
When they were away from the city, the young fisherman said, “Why did you tell me to kill the man? Why did you tell me to take his gold?”
The soul answered, “It does not matter.”
“No!” cried the young fisherman. “It does matter. Why have you done this to me?”
His soul answered, “When you sent me out into the world, you did not give me a heart.”
The young fisherman said, “You are bad. I forget my love when I am with you.” He threw the bags of gold away. “I sent you away before, and I will send you away again!”
He turned his back to the moon. Then, with the little knife, he tried to cut away the shadow of the body which is the soul. But the soul said, “A man can only send his soul away once in his life. You must keep me with you for ever.”
The young fisherman said, “I will go back to the place where tlie mermaid sang. I will call her. I will tell her about the bad tilings that I have done.”
His soul said, “There are many women who are more beautiful. There are the dancing girls of Samaris. They laugh while they dance. Come with me to that city.”
The young fisherman did not answer. He travelled back to the place where his love sang. He called to the little mermaid, but she did not come. He built a hut in the rocks and he called to the mermaid every morning and every night. But she never came up out of the sea to meet him.
A year passed, and the soul thought, “I have offered him bad things, but his love has been too great. Now I will offer him good things, and perhaps he will come with me.”
So the soul said, “I have told you about the happiness of the world. Now I will tell you about the world’s pain. I will tell you about people who are hungry, poor and sick. Let’s go and help those people.”
But the young fisherman did not answer.
A second year passed, and the soul said, “Your love is stronger than I am. Let me into your heart and then I can be part of you again.”
“Of course you can come in,” said the young fisherman.
“I cannot find a way into your heart,” said his soul. “There is no room, because your heart is so full of love.”
“I would like to help you,” said the fisherman.
As he spoke, a great sound of crying came from the sea. One of the People of the Sea was dead. The young fisherman left his hut and ran down to the water.
Black waves hurried in to the land and they brought with them the body of the little mermaid. The fisherman threw himself down next to her and held her in his arms. He kissed the cold red mouth.
More waves came. The sound of crying came from the palace of the Sea King. “The sea is coming,” said his soul. “If you stay here, it will kill you. Come away.”
But the young fisherman did not listen. “Love is better than being wise or rich,” he said to the little mermaid. “Love is beautiful. I was bad and I left you. Then I called you and you did not come. But my love stayed with me and was always strong. Now you are dead, and I will die with you.”
The sea came nearer and tried to cover him with its waves. The fisherman knew that the end was near. He kissed the cold face of the mermaid, and then his heart broke. His soul found a way into it, and became part of him again.
And the sea covered the young fisherman.