I first heard this tale in the mid-1990s in storytelling class at Dominican University in San Rafael (a college back then). John Boe, a storyteller, musician and professor emeritus at U.C. Davis, enchanted all of us with a gleam in his eye and simple props tucked into his pockets that he brought out at just the right times. I’ve heard other tellers present their versions since then, and I found an excellent version in Ruth Stotter’s The Golden Axe: and other Folk Tales of Compassion and Greed. She formed her own press before print-on-demand technology was available, and many of us are grateful she did. Following is a version I’m working on for inclusion in the book of Aunt Truly’s tales, which will be a companion book to my forthcoming novel, The Kiminee Dream.
The Mermaid’s Gift
By Laura McHale Holland
When the world’s magic flowed freely on fresh morning winds, when it danced through meadows of wild flowers, when it flowed like a river from heart to heart; back then, on the moonlit coast of Brittany, mermaids came to shore to comb their long, shimmering hair.
These sirens of the sea loved treasures: strings of pearls, golden earrings, silver bracelets studded with precious stones, jewels of every size, color and shape. They found them all at the very bottom of the sea in sunken ships lost to humankind long ago.
They liked to see treasures gleam in the sunlight, too. So on rare and balmy afternoons, they would come ashore and spread their riches out on snow-white tablecloths cloths in the sand. But if a human should happen upon them, they would quickly gather up their valuables and dive back into the sea.
One day, two little girls, Clarisse and Celestine, frolicked, collecting shells on the beach. They found many unusual shells that day, and they went farther and farther in search of more until they heard a strange yet beautiful song and paused to listen.
Oh treasures lovely to see
Sparkle as a heart so true
Oh, bounty lost and set free
Trust in wishes old as new
Enchanted, they marched toward the voice, closer and closer they drew until they came upon a mermaid admiring her belongings as she sang that beguiling song. The mermaid was so absorbed, she did not notice the girls, who crept up, barely breathing, step by tiny step, until they were inches from the cloth.
Then Clarisse stumbled and cried out as she regained her balance. The mermaid looked up, clutching a silver brooch. Frightened, the girls stepped back.
But the mermaid’s eyes shone kindly upon them, and instead of gathering her things and diving back into the sea, she smiled and motioned for them to come closer. “Don’t be afraid, little ones. I was once a child, too. Come. I have gifts for you.”
Both girls inched forward, trembling. “Please don’t hurt us,” Celestine said.
“We didn’t mean to intrude,” Clarisse added.
“Don’t be silly. Come closer, still. I want to give each of you a present. Wouldn’t you like that?”
The mermaid’s smile was so wide and her eyes so sincere, the girls relaxed and leaned in to watch as the mermaid filled two linen napkins and knotted them closed so swiftly, the girls had no idea what was inside. She handed a napkin to Celestine, and said, “Tuck this into your pocket, and take it home. Do not open it along the way. Wait until you are with your parents.”
“Oh thank you, thank you. I will,” Celestine said as she accepted the gift and tucked it into her coat pocket.
The mermaid then gave Clarisse her gift with the same instruction. Clarisse also thanked the mermaid and assured her she would do as instructed.
Satisfied, the mermaid gave the friends one last smile and waved them off. “Go now. Go home. And remember what I said.”
The girls trotted off, but soon stopped to look back just in time to see the mermaid’s tail disappear into the waves. The companions scampered away. For a time, they were in high spirits, laughing and playing, but as the afternoon wore on they slowed to a trudge because they were tired and had wandered far from home. Bored and restless, Celestine rubbed the cloth in her pocket again and again.
Finally, she stopped and took the napkin out. “I want to see what the beautiful mermaid gave me. Don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” Clarisse replied.
“Let’s open them now then,” Celestine urged, trying her best to sound persuasive. “Why wait until we get home. A gift’s a gift wherever it is.” .
“Yes, but the mermaid told us to wait until we were home,” Clarisse said.
“I don’t care. I can’t wait!” Celestine plopped on a driftwood log, undid the knot, and pulled the napkin open. Inside was nothing but sand. “Why, that nasty mermaid tricked us. It’s just the same as the sand under our feet. It’s worthless,” she complained. She threw the cloth into the sea. “You ought to just throw yours away too. Go ahead open it. It’s nothing but sand.”
“Maybe so, but I’m going to wait,” Clarisse said, tempted though she was.
So the girls plodded on and parted ways when they reached their village, one girl going home empty handed, the other walking inside her house with a knotted linen cloth in her pocket.
“I met a mermaid today,” Clarisse told her family.
“Sure, and I caught a golden fish,” he father teased.
Her mother and brother laughed. Unfazed, she put the napkin on the table. And as her family gathered ‘round, she told them about the mermaid and the gift that now rested on the table.
“It’s probably just sand,” Clarisse said. Hoping she was wrong, she loosened the knot. Then she opened the napkin.
For a moment, all in the room were speechless, for before their eyes was a pile of jewels more precious than they’d ever imagined.
It is said they used their treasure wisely and thereafter always had more than enough. But who can say? It was so long ago that magic flowed freely on fresh morning winds.
As always, I will welcome your thoughts on this draft.
Note: The Kiminee Dream ebook is now available for preorder on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Kiminee-Dream-Laura-McHale-Holland-ebook/dp/B0872SFRG2/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+Kiminee+dream&qid=1587693735&s=books&sr=1-1. The paperback is available for preorder on Barnes & Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-kiminee-dream-laura-mchale-holland/1136886469?ean=9781733668330. Both formats of the book will be widely available on the publication date: May 2, 2020.