(a folktale from Iceland)
Long ago Gunnar lived on the Atlantic coast of Iceland, near Keflavik, and he was known as the mightiest fisherman who had ever lived. Everyone praised his skill and strength.
One day, as usual, Gunnar went out fishing. He cast his line, just as he always did. He was certain this would be a day like any other, and he was on his own — as always. Gunnar did not like to share his secrets.
But this day, as he tried to pull in his line, he struggled.
“What could there be at the end of this line?” Gunnar asked the wind.
His face grew red as he pulled, and he wondered what was caught on the line. He tugged and tugged, and at long last, he saw a dolphin’s tail break the water.
“A dolphin?” Gunnar wondered aloud, and he yanked once again.
He saw a man’s head and body attached to that dolphin tail, and he then knew he had captured the creature everyone called the marbendlar — a merman. Although, truth be told, he had never believed such creatures existed. Now there was one caught on his fishing hook.
“What are you doing on my fish hook?” Gunnar called.
The merman replied, “I was helping my mother with her chores, so let me go! She needs me there.”
But Gunnar wasn’t so sure he wished to give up this piece of good fortune. “I’ll let you go if you serve me for a while,” he said, and he dragged the merman to his boat, pulled him aboard and rowed to shore.
As they neared shore, Gunnar’s dog came running down the dock to greet them, barking and wagging his tail, but when Gunnar landed, he brushed the dog away, ignoring his joy.
The merman laughed.
Gunnar looked at him, wondering what was so funny, but he did not bother to ask. Instead, he fastened his boat to the dock, and lifted that merman over his shoulder and carried him up toward the house.
As they were walking through the fields, Gunnar tripped over a hillock and began to curse and wail, and as he did, the merman laughed again.
Gunnar wondered about this laugh, but he said nothing. He just walked on up the hill, struggling under the weight of his extraordinary catch.
When his house was in sight, Gunnar saw his wife, Anja, running to greet him, her face flushed with joy.
“Dear Gunnar,” she cried, “welcome home! I’ve missed you so. Let me see what you’ve caught us today.”
But before Gunnar could say a word, the merman laughed once more, this time a long, loud laugh that echoed through the chilly air.
Gunnar stopped in his tracks and lifted the merman from his shoulder. He set him down upon the ground and looked him straight in the eye.
“Now tell me,” Gunnar said, “you have laughed three times, and I wish to know why.”
The merman only shook his head and said, “I can’t tell you unless you make a promise.”
“I’ll promise you what you wish,” said Gunnar.
“If I tell you, you must take me back to the place where you caught me and set me free,” the merman said. “My mother needs me.”
“I promise,” Gunnar said, and he was a man of his word.
The merman could see this, and so he said, “Well, I laughed first at your folly for ignoring your dog, which is devoted to you and greeted you with such joy.”
“You are right,” Gunnar said, and he thought sadly of how he’d ignored that fine dog of his.
“The second time I laughed because that hillock you cursed is full of gold coins,” the merman said.
“That’s hard to believe,” said Gunnar, “but there’s a sure way to know,” and he took a small shovel out of his bag and ran back to the hillock and began to dig. Sure enough, there he found a bag full of gold.”
“And the third time you laughed?” Gunnar asked.
“The third time was at your wife, for she did not miss you at all,” the merman said. “She loves you only for the bounty you bring. And now you must keep your promise and take me back to sea.”
The merman was right — Gunnar was a man of his word. He picked up that merman and, without a word to his wife, turned around and walked back to his boat. Then he rowed out to sea, to the place where he had caught the merman. There he stopped and picked up the merman to toss him back into the sea.
Just before he did, the merman looked at Gunnar and said, “For restoring me to my rightful home, I shall reward you. If you use your skill, you will take possession of a great bounty I send to you.”
Gunnar smiled and tossed the merman overboard, and a moment later he had disappeared from sight.
When Gunnar woke the next day, he looked out the window and saw seven cows down on the beach, milling about. They were fantastic-looking creatures, the color of the wintry sea, gamboling about like wild horses.
Gunnar raced to the beach, thinking he must catch them the way he so skillfully caught fish. So he picked up a stick, hoping to guide them up to the house.
He began to chase those cows, and he managed to smack one on the nose. Instantly, it became so tame that it walked to his side.
The other six leaped into the sea at once and vanished.
But Gunnar knew this cow was the gift of the merman, and never had anyone seen a better cow that gave more milk — the sweetest milk anyone had ever tasted. She became the first of a breed of Icelandic cows.
As for Anja, Gunnar’s wife, no one knows if the Merman’s tale was true.