(a Cornish folktale)
Once upon a time a mermaid and a merman were swimming off the coast of Cornwall. They were leading their many children on a race through the waves, laughing and swishing their tails, playing hide and seek among the seaweed and rocks. After a few hours, the merman grew tired, and he pointed to the southern shore of Lizard Peninsula.
“Let us swim to the cavern over there,” he said, and off he swam.
His wife and children followed close behind.
The cavern was cool and peaceful, and merman rested upon a bed of seaweed.
“I shall sleep awhile,” he said. “Make sure to wake me when the tide begins to rise, and it is time for my supper!”
The children crawled out to play in the waves that lapped the shore. Seeing her family so peaceful, the mermaid decided to explore, and off she swam. Drawn by the scent of flowers — heath and eyebright and moneywort — she swam on until she reached a rock and stopped to rest and brush her hair. The sun was hot, the sky bright blue. The flowers grew out of reach along the cliff tops, so the mermaid sat and contemplated this lovely world. Time passed by.
Suddenly she heard a human voice call out, “Young lady, are you all right?”
She spun around and saw the tide had gone out, and now she was surrounded by a bar of sand that separated her from her loved ones, and there was an old man looking closely at her.
She had noticed him a while ago — he had been wandering along the shore, seemingly as enchanted as she was by this beautiful world. But she had never met a human being, and she had heard terrible tales. Her husband said they kidnaped mermaids, and now what? What if he meant her harm?
She turned away, but what could she do? Where could she go?
He called to her again: “Please don’t be afraid. I would never hurt a soul, I promise you. I have lived my whole long life trying to be kind. Please tell me if you need some help. I shall do whatever is in my power to help you.”
After some time, her fear of this human diminished and she realized that she needed his help, or she could not cross the sand.
“I have made a terrible error,” she said sadly. “My husband and children are out there,” and she pointed to the cavern where her husband slept.
“If my husband wakes and I am gone,” she continued, “he will be furious and very hungry, and in his fury he could do anything. He might eat our children, for his temper knows no bounds! I must reach them before the tide. If you will help me, I will grant you three wishes.”
The old man nodded and said, “I am glad to help, dear girl.”
He stepped closer and knelt on the rock, his back toward her. “Put your arms around my neck and I shall carry you across the sand,” he said.
The mermaid wrapped her arms around his neck, and the old man lifted her on his back.
As he walked across the sand, she said, “What are your wishes, sir? I can grant you wealth and success and great power.”
The old man nodded. “Very well,” he said. “I do not wish for wealth, but I do desire power.”
“It will be yours,” the mermaid said.
“I wish to have the power to keep my family and my friends and neighbors from harm,” he said. “I wish the power to charm away disease. Third, I wish the power to return to others what has been taken from them.”
The mermaid was amazed. Her husband had told her tales of human beings. He said they were selfish, greedy creatures, but here was a man who wished nothing more than to do good for others.
“I grant you all this,” she said, “but you must return to this rock tomorrow so that I may instruct you in the charms and spells you will need.”
At that moment they reached the water, and he bent to let her slide gently into the waves.
“I shall meet you tomorrow at noon,” she called, and she swam away.
The next day at the appointed time, the old man and the mermaid met at the rock. There she taught him all the charms and spells he needed to know so that his wishes would come true.
“Now,” she said, “I can grant you one more wish. I can make you young forever.”
The old man smiled and said, “No thank you, my friend. I love my life just as it is, and I am glad to let nature take its course as it will.”
“Very well,” the mermaid said, “but take this comb and if you ever need me, use it to call on me.”
She handed him the comb from her hair, and they said farewell.
The old man lived many more years, and he used his powers to help people recover their health, their lost belongings and their happiness. Often he showed people the mermaid’s comb and told the tale. Before he died, he passed them on to his descendants. Ever since that day, the comb has passed from generation to generation, and so has this tale.
There are skeptics, of course. Some people see the comb not as a mermaid’s comb at all, but only as the jaw of a shark. But those who do not believe also often miss seeing the most beautiful sights in this world.