Twisted Fairy Tale: The Mermaid and the Ferryman by Elizabeth Amber Love
Welcome to the 8th annual #SpookyShowcase! The Spooky Showcase celebrates the dark minds of creatives around the world through short stories and artistic creations that are dark in nature, macabre, or horror themed.
This year’s theme is Twisted Fairy Tales. Expect twisted legends, creepy creations, and dark fairy tales that will keep you up at night. Visit each day in the month of October for a scare. The master schedule is here.
The Mermaid and the Ferryman
By Elizabeth Amber Love
Feliks, Zygmunt, and their younger sister Basha approached the river’s edge on the outskirts of their Polish village. The path was worn down by all the villagers who went to catch the ferry ride to the other side or to one of the islands. Boot marks and footprints from bare feet could be seen in the moist dirt. The Wojtków siblings made this journey from the river to a lake often. They had to reach the western side of the lake to deliver their fine selection of headwear.
Though Zygmunt and Feliks worked hard to kill the animals and tan the leather hides, Basha did as much work in preserving the meat, making sausages, and then sewing the boots and hats that kept people warm and protected. It made them good money, but the brothers kept it for themselves, hardly ever sharing with Basha. They also refused to pay the Ferryman in money and insisted he take trades of meat which suited him just as well.
The Ferryman never refused anyone even if they could not pay. His barge was in need of some repair, but he kept it afloat and worked every day unless the weather was far too severe. He never married and had no family — if he did, he never spoke about them to Basha. He enjoyed seeing her every week, but not so much her overbearing and greedy brothers.
One week, Feliks and Zygmunt said they had to go on a hunt and Basha had to be responsible for packing the trunk of goods and getting it to the ferry and the market by herself. She lined up two planks of wood against the back end of a wagon in order to push the heavy trunk into it.
Her boots had been resoled many times, usually once a year by her own hands. They protected her feet and ankles through the marsh. Wagon wheels were always getting stuck in the mud. The Ferryman noticed her struggling and hopped out to lend a hand.
“What you need, dziewczyna, are larger wheels. You should be able to find someone at the marketplace to help you out.”
“Dziękuję Ci, Pan.” She thanked the Ferryman and then explained that she didn’t have any money for him today and she definitely didn’t have any money for procuring new wheels for her cart.
The Ferryman had such a fondness for Basha. Here she was, a young woman who could have been marrying and having a family of her own if not for the sheltered life under the control of her brothers. The Ferryman never refused to give her transport.
“Your brothers should share the family income with you. You are a hard worker plus you take care of them.” The Ferryman pushed his barge off from the river’s edge and directed his vessel towards the middle of the waterway.
“I don’t know how I will ever meet someone to offer me a way out of this life.” Basha looked over the side and saw her reflection warped by the waves. She could see the grayling swimming below. Their unusual dorsal fins made them easy to spot in the shallower water. She loved studying the fish and the other animals along the water. She could remember the time before her parents died when Feliks and Zyggy were more playful. They showed her how to catch fish with her bare hands. The first time she lifted a grayling out of the water, the fins looked like they were made of rainbows.
On the ride back to across the lake and up the river, Basha was the only passenger on the ferry. She was surprised when The Ferryman said he had a gift for her.
“This is your own fishing rod. It’s quite special. It will always catch what you need from the waters.”
She was filled with awe and wonderment. The Ferryman must have been gilding the presentation of the gift when he didn’t need to. Any fishing rod would help. It didn’t need to be magical. She pretended she believed him and tried to express her gratitude despite the air feeling caught in her chest.
Basha rose early the next morning. Her brothers were still gone which was something else that made her happy. She grabbed her new fishing rod and went to the river. She used her fingers to feel the wood. The handle was rough for gripping compared to the smooth pole. At the end of the line was a shiny hook. Above the hook were colorful strands of hair, feather tips, and strings. She swung it behind her shoulder and cast the line as far as she could.
The sun began to peek above the hills. The sky was pink at the bottom and blue on top. The clouds were pale and barely noticeable in shapes like paintbrush strokes. The toads became quiet.
Basha felt a pull on her line. She had her first catch of the day. Leaning back, she expected the end of the line to come flying out of the water. Whatever she had hooked was heavier and larger than anything she ever caught before. She hoped it was a real fish and that she hadn’t hooked onto some sunken garbage. She continued to pull until her force became straining.
It definitely wasn’t garbage. Basha’s catch started to move away and writhe fiercely. She had to step from rock to rock until she could brace her feet in a way that would keep her from tumbling into the water. She watched as a tail fin breached the water splashing with chaotic energy. The sunlight sparkled off the fins and scales.
Basha swiveled and put the rod against her shoulder and she started to step away from the water’s edge. Step by step, she used her leverage to dig into the ground and inch her way. Her catch was tiring as was she. By the time Basha walked about twenty-five feet to get the line over the shore, she wasn’t sure if the huge fish had managed to free itself. She turned around for her eyes to find the end of her line at the shore. What she saw took her breath away.
A water nymph. Basha had heard of them being in the sea, but not in the rivers. She never knew if they were real, but now her vision was filled with this beauty. Her ears heard high-pitched shrieks. Was it sadness or fright? Basha didn’t know. From the waist to the head, Syrena was a woman with arms that were webbed between her torso and triceps. Her fingers were webbed too.
They stared at each other. Hearts raced. Both were scared and curious. The sea nymph was quite familiar with humans and had been told to never trust them.
“Hello, Syrena. I’m Basha. Do you understand me?”
“Yes. Above the water, I can speak as you do. We learn your words by listening when you don’t think we’re around.”
“I thought you were a fish. I can’t believe you’re real!”
“I am real. So real that I feel this hook through my face. Can you help?”
“Yes, I’m so sorry!” Basha quickly went to the aid of the mermaid. Her fingers were surprised that the creature’s skin was almost the same as her own. Millions of imperceptible scales shifted the light’s reflection. It made her look like she was glowing.
Once Basha was close, she noticed the different colors of Syrena’s scales from beige to every shade of green and blue. The sea nymph’s hair was a bounty of green seaweed. Once she was on land, the filaments looked heavy and lifeless. It would change as the sun dried it. The greens became more brown and tan. The strands allowed air to move between them lifting them with the wind.
“I can stitch your wound. I make most of my clothes.”
First Basha had to transport the sea nymph to her house. Basha fetched her wagon and lifted the creature placing her down carefully so as to be mindful of her fins. At the house, Basha’s hands shook while she threaded a small thin silver needle instead of one she used for leather. She didn’t want to make any piercings through her victim’s skin too big to heal cleanly.
“I’ve seen you when you go to the ferry. There are usually big men with you.”
“Those are my older brothers, Zygmunt and Feliks. They went hunting, but they are expected back tonight.” Basha’s stitches couldn’t be seen unless examined closely. She used a thread that matched the pale quality of Syrena’s cheek.
“Thank you for not leaving me there alone on the shore. I need some water, please.”
The room was equal parts kitchen, butchery, and clothing assembly factory. It was cramped. There were cupboards and shelves up to the roof. In the cooking area, Basha took down one of the pottery jars and a stone mortar and pestle.
“This is burdock root. It’ll help your skin heal. Hopefully. I honestly don’t know if it will work on fish type skin.” She made a paste with the mashed up root and applied it gently to Syrena’s wound. Basha apologized many more times that day.
They spent the day talking through their traumatic introduction and eventually the tension eased. Basha tried to mimic Syrena’s language, but without the conduit of water, it was laughably bad. It was a tragic way to meet a new friend, but both of them came to accept that catching the mermaid on a hook was an accident.
With full bellies, it had become time for Syrena to get back to the river. She explained that at sunset, if she’s not in her water environment, her body will change her into a human. The power of the Moon over water life was unimaginable and that night she was full.
“Let’s get you back then.” Basha lifted Syrena off the chair when both of them heard noises outside.
Footsteps crunched down on twigs while the deep booming voices of Felix and Zygmunt hooted about their successful hunting trip. The women tried to figure out what to do. The voices grew closer. The anxiety inside the kitchen started to peak. Syrena had to be hidden before the men came home or who know what they would do to her. Kill her? Eat her as some exotic catch? Or worse?
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Syrena. I can’t get you into the wagon before they are able to see us! You’ll have to hide in here.”
“But my life will end. I won’t be able to return to my home — to the water.” Syrena had never felt that kind of pain before. The piercing of the hook and the stitching needle was nothing compared to the despair she felt.
The mermaid hid beneath Basha’s bed and hoped that a blanket would keep her safe from the men’s eyes. The Moon continued its ascension as the sky itself turned from indigo to black. The brilliant reflection of the Sun lit up the clouds making halos.
Basha heard her brothers clearly. They dropped the game animals outside. It was a good hunt: a deer, a grouse, and six rabbits. They burst through the door of their cabin. The smell of blood followed them. Basha met them in the kitchen. She noticed that there were still two mugs on the table. As the brothers barged through, Basha took both mugs and hid them behind her back. She turned around and quickly wiped them in the dry sink and put them back on the shelf. She hoped they couldn’t spot her the new fishing rod from The Ferryman which she left outside. They were too tired and carrying heavy loads.
“Welcome home, brothers. If you don’t need anything, I’ll be going to bed.”
Zygmunt bent down and hoisted two glass jugs of ale, one for each of them.
“You’ll be busy tomorrow. Sleep and get up early.” Zyggy wasn’t much kinder than Feliks. He was still greedy with the family money and didn’t like to spend on anything that he felt they could do without. The rare times Basha was unwell, it was Zyggy who brought her tonics to get better. His sister still never considered him a nice person.
Before the sun rose, Basha and Syrena — now with human legs, no webbing on her body, and hair that was the color of walnut wood — got dressed in Basha’s clothes and were about to sneak out the door. The floorboards creaked woke up Zygmunt.
“Who’s this? What’s going on?”
“This is my new friend, Syrena. She has no place to go.” Basha’s smile was far from genuine. She didn’t have a plan. She didn’t know what to do with Syrena now that the poor woman couldn’t return to her own home in the river.
“Strange name. Why are you here?”
Of course Syrena wasn’t her name. It was what she was called by the humans. Her name could not be said in their language. Syrena had only interacted with human men when luring them out to the water in order to turn over their boats or free fish on their lines.
Zyggy walked closer to their guest. “You are beautiful, dziewczyna. If our brother sees you, he may not let you leave. Both of us are looking for wives.”
Neither of the women were quite sure how to take Zyggy’s warning. Did he mean Feliks would be hospitable and get to know Syrena? Did he mean Feliks was capable of kidnapping her and holding her against her will? They did not want to find out and shoved their way around the man to get out the door.
“Wait,” Zyggy called out. “If our new friend has no place to go, why are you making her leave?”
“I didn’t want to upset you, brother.” Basha held Syrena’s hand while anxiety raced through her veins. She felt her body tighten. Her legs were deciding whether to run or cower.
“How did you meet?”
The women looked at each other and Syrena came up with a story.
“Basha heard me singing at the river and she sought me. When I realized she was not a threat, we became friends.”
“Yes, that’s it, brother. Her song was captivating. I couldn’t continue until I found the source. And there she was. Sitting on the rocks.”
Zygmunt demanded proof. He asked the woman to sing and so she did. He didn’t know if the sounds were words in another language, but the tune and vibration of the music began to have an effect on him. His arms and face relaxed. His legs wanted to propel him to her, but when he took a step, she immediately stopped.
“Maybe Syrena should stay with us, sister.” Though Zyggy spoke to Basha, he didn’t take his eyes off Syrena.
“Pan, you don’t need to worry about me. I can make shelter for myself.” Syrena didn’t have experience in needing shelter. The river and lakes were always enough protection.
The women took Zygmunt’s silence as permission to leave. They went to the edge of the part of the forest where the ground was soft before reaching the riverbank. The spot was perfectly carpeted in verdant moss that reminded Syrena of the water grasses and algae of her home. Together, she and Basha constructed a small three-sided shelter with a roof which would be suitable for a while until they could finish it properly with a fourth wall and some kind of door. Basha taught her how to make a fire if she needed warmth.
While the women were gone, Zygmunt told Feliks about the beautiful stranger who had been in their cabin. Feliks was jealous that he did not get to meet her. When Basha returned home alone, the brothers said her friend was welcome anytime. She noticed a leering quality to their eyes and smiles and did not trust them. The men began asking around the village if anyone else knew of Syrena, but no one did. No one believed there could be such a beautiful woman who had not been well known to everyone. Why would such a woman be a secret? It made no sense to the villagers and soon, the notion of Syrena became a goal, a challenging prey for the men to find. Even King Casimire had heard of her and wanted to know her.
And so, the King himself created a quest. He challenged anyone, man or woman, child or adult, to bring him back the mysterious stranger whose beauty and singing could render people catatonic and out of their own control.
Basha warned Syrena that people would be coming for her. Feliks was the first one to reach her. It wasn’t hard. He followed Basha’s footprints then tracked her through the woods as he had so many animals. Basha was more scared than Syrena. She tried to coax her friend to run to the river and swim out to the middle since she would be able to swim faster than any man. Syrena refused. She was determined to make it known to all the humans that she was not going to be intimidated nor hunted.
“Dziewczyna!” Feliks didn’t bother using the mysterious woman’s new name and called her what other languages translated to “girl” or “lass.” He made no attempt to walk softly. Twigs snapped beneath his large feet. Feliks carried his bow and quiver and his hunting knife. King Casimire wanted to meet the woman alive and hear her song, but if Feliks could not catch her, he would kill her instead.
The moment they were face to face, Syrena stood her ground and began to sing. It took a few seconds for Feliks to become hypnotized. The women realized he was now harmless but his senses worked. He was able to hear his surroundings. He could smell the earthy fragrance of Syrena’s hair. He could feel her breath when sang directly into his ear. But he had no desire to move from his spot. His eyes followed her as she walked around in a circle.
She didn’t know how long her charm would last. To talk herself out of being prey, Syrena came up with a bargain.
“Feliks, I know where there is a magical guitar that can play by itself. If you fancy my singing, you would be interested to know that this guitar makes far more exquisite sounds than I do. It’s kept in a castle on an island in the river. Take that to the king instead of me.” Syrena gave him directions while he was still unable to move.
The women ran off and hid. Feliks had heard everything Syrena said and took the deal back to King Casimire. It piqued the nobleman’s interest and the bargain was struck. The king kept the idea of demanding a presence with the mysterious woman in the back of his mind, but a magical guitar would be much less worry than a woman who speaks for herself.
Feliks went to The Ferryman and gave him the directions to the island. The Ferryman knew exactly where to go. He was familiar with the castle though he never had to take anyone there before.
“Your sister is Basha, da?” The Ferryman asked even though he knew the answer. He wanted to see if he could get information from Feliks about whether Basha was doing well.
“Yes. And she is old enough to marry. Are you interested, old man? I would gladly make the arrangement.”
“She is a sweet girl and welcome in my company any time, but I have no romantic interests in anyone so young. She is a good friend. She is willing to listen to an old ferryman’s stories. It warms my heart.”
The man steered the boat down the river. The water was dark that day. It wasn’t good conditions for watching the fish below the surface.
“Tell me, Ferryman of stories,” Feliks said. “Have you heard about a woman so beautiful with a song so enchanting, she makes men unable to move or speak?”
“I’ve only heard of the sea nymphs of Macedonia. They are rumored to exist here as well in the open waters and in the rivers. They sing as you describe. Melodies that are powerful and bewitching. Men are usually the ones to fall under their spell especially on the water.” The Ferryman would not divulge all that he knew. As a man of the water, he had seen plenty of sea maidens with their womanly torsos and faces and fishtail bodies instead of legs. To let such a creature become commonly known was to issue their death warrant.
“This was no naiad. She was a woman from head to toe. She befriended Basha. I don’t trust either of them, but if what she told me is true, I will let her be.” Feliks didn’t look at The Ferryman when he spoke. He kept watching ahead waiting for the island to come into view.
“What is your business on the island?”
“None of yours, Ferryman.”
They arrived on the shore that was filled with birds, clams, and tide pools layered with shells. The castle was made of rocks that sparkled like the brightest stars alternating with the most enormous pieces of amber. It was a magnificent enormous structure that rose high. It should have been easily seen for miles, but the magic kept it hidden one was within proximity. The castle was shaped like no other architecture. Instead of tall angular walls with towers on the ends, this castle was like a crystalline orb. The hardest rocks were carefully chiseled to create a dome with clear crystal windows shaped like honeycomb. When The Sun glistened off the surface, it was like having another right there embedded in the earth to ensure life.
“Ferryman, who lives in such an inconceivable structure?” Feliks could not believe his eyes for he had never seen anything like it before and he lived on that river his entire life.
“Young man, this is the home of the Mother of The Sun. You will have to be more cordial than you have ever been before. She will not stand for sleights. Słońce himself could wreak destruction on any land he sees fit to destroy. If you upset his mother, there’s no telling what the outcome would be.” The Ferryman dropped a small anchor into the water. He would not go all the way to the shore and made Feliks walk through the shallow edge of the tide.
“You will wait for me. I will pay you handsomely for your time.”
“Da, Pan.” Yes, sir. The Ferryman politely agreed to wait in his barge for Feliks. He didn’t know what his customer was after and considered abandoning him there if he spotted any signs of trouble.
The door was a tall arch made of amber blocks. They varied in shade from brown to orange to green in a pattern of mesmerizing mandalas. Feliks moved slowly with purpose. He looked around to see if there was any way to study the layout of this celestial home. He couldn’t make sense of any of it. It wasn’t in any mortal’s capacity to do so. He came to the throne room which looked nothing like that of his king’s quarters. Trees grew through the floor. Any seating to be found was made of silver, gold, and amber. The thrones were no exception though they were elaborately carved. The woman there presented herself in the shape of a woman, but her skin looked like it was a container for fire trying to break through. She glowed like a tall ember.
“Your Highness, I have been sent by the mortal king of my land, King Casimire. He wishes me to procure the magical instrument you have.” Feliks showed proper dignity and grace to the goddess by taking to his knee and bowing his head.
“You want the guitar that requires no musician? Are you sure?”
“It is his humble request. What must I do to bring it to him?”
The Mother of The Sun said nothing while she turned to leave the room. Feliks was afraid to do anything so he stayed there on the floor with his head down. He could not hear her footsteps, but suddenly saw her glowing feet under his eyes.
He did as she commanded. She was nearly a giant, one and a half times his stature. Her hands did not burn what they touched. She held out the guitar and presented it to him. He took it from her open hands, unsure what to expect. The woodwork was magnificent. The strings were golden only stronger than gold from the earth.
“What is your price, Matka? I am certain King Casimire will pay any amount you desire for such a treasure.” Although he stood tall, Feliks continued to bow his head avoiding The Mother’s direct gaze.
“The guitar has its own price which I do not control. Take it to your king before sunset.”
The Ferryman was impressed when Feliks returned with the magical instrument. He wasn’t so sure the mortal man would survive a conversation with a celestial creator. He pushed off the shore and headed towards to the riverside city closest to the king’s highway for Feliks to bring the gift as quickly as possible.
People followed Feliks as he deboarded the ferry. The entourage grew as word spread that he was taking some kind of treasure to the king. A coach offered to make his journey faster and easier. Feliks hopped onto the back and waved as the parade of people tried to keep up. King Casimire was speechless when he saw the prize. He rewarded Feliks with several purses of coins.
“Now then, how do we make this instrument perform?”
Feliks realized he didn’t know the answer. The Matka handed it over to him with no instructions. He was embarrassed that he didn’t know.
“Perhaps it needs to hear other music to get started, my king. I suggest you gather your performers and guests so that there might be dancing and cause for celebration.”
The king agreed and gave the orders for musicians, singers, dancers, and party guests to meet in the grand hall. Zygmunt was summoned as well to be among the selected guests. It was a great honor to get the personal invitation and he left at once. The party started out nervously, but as soon as the mead and ale were passed around, everyone gave in to the merriment. By sunset, everyone in the grand hall was smiling and cheering. The descent of the light caused the guitar to begin playing on its own. All they had to do was wait for The Sun to go down.
The cacophony made it impossible for any of the partygoers to realize that the front gate had been breached. There was a mad army at the door to the grand hall, but no one noticed. Even the guards were busy enjoying the magical party. Both tall doors were made of the strong spruce trees from the Carpathian Mountains. Yet, they were blasted open with ease by people who were not their normal selves.
It was an army of the dead who had risen to get revenge. The guitar plays and wakes them. Whoever is near, if they have taken the life of someone, their victim returns and kills them in kind. Few people at the party were safe from the dirty decaying undead ravaging the hall. Zygmunt, Feliks, and the King were slaughtered by their own victims. Mostly women remained and all the performers since they also led lives free of violence. The guitar stopped playing and the walking corpses left the way they came leaving dead bodies and blood behind them.
Messengers took it upon themselves to spread this tragic news. The king was dead! The guitar was cursed all along. Basha was saddened by the heartbreaking news that all that was left of her family had been slaughtered. She was conflicted because she was also happy to have her freedom. Syrena told her that it was their own faults and deaths of all those murderers must be taken as a blessing. They went to the busiest part of the village to be around other people who were safe. People hugged family members and neighbors they hadn’t spoken to in years. Then the villagers started to circle around Basha wanting to know who her mysterious friend was.
Syrena barely had to speak, but when she did, all the people listened. She encouraged Basha to say something to the crowd. Basha delivered inspiring words about how they will open their homes to anyone in need. They were to support each other. They were share from their pantries and their hunts. They were to respect each other and in those actions, they would create the strength to live on as a stronger land.
It had never happened before, but with the nobility massacred by unnatural creatures, there was no one left to rule. The villagers started shouting Basha’s name. She was nervous and didn’t realize she had taken Syrena’s hand to hold for support. For the first time, instead of entitled bloodlines determining their ruler, Basha and Syrena were nominated as the new queens. They continued to keep the cabin in the woods near the river and used it when they needed to get away from the demands of ruling. Before they made their move into the castle complete, they visited The Ferryman. They took the purses of coins that Feliks had received from King Casimire and gave all of them to their old friend.
About the Author
Elizabeth Amber Love (sometimes credited as Amber Love) is the author of THE FARRAH WETHERS MYSTERY SERIES and the stand alone slasher novella, MISTY MURDER.
Embracing the indie author/publisher status, fans can support Elizabeth Amber Love at Patreon.com/amberunmasked.
She has worked in independent comics since 2011 including Red Stylo Media’s SHAKESPEARE SHAKEN comics anthology where she co-authored the short story “No.130, For Love” with Kristen McHugh. In 2015 she wrote a short story in the comic anthology RISE: COMICS AGAINST BULLYING published by Northwest Press. She was also a guest writer for the webcomic strip SUBCULTURE (printed by Action Lab Entertainment).
Amber Love hosts the podcast, VODKA O’CLOCK, where she interviews writers, artists, actors, filmmakers and other interesting people. She blogs and covers news for her website AmberUnmasked. She lives in New Jersey with her parents and cat and pays the bills through modeling.