Listen well, and I will tell you a story. It is a story you may have heard before, with a hero and a villain and love and death. It is only sort of my story, for I was the villain. At least that’s how they tell it now.
They call me a siren or a water nymph. They say I like to drown my victims, that none ever escape my clutches. They call me fearfully beautiful, with a voice of such perfection that none can resist. I must admit this: they are right.
Once upon a time, as these things go, there was a rich miller who lived near a pond, where he built his watermill to mill the grain to sell to the townsfolk. And in this millpond, I lived.
The miller, he was rich, yes. But he was a stranger to industry and fair business. In time he became poorer and poorer, and his family with him. His wife, daily increasing with a babe in her belly, became hungrier and hungrier.
Oh, yes. I see the face you make. What tragedy! you say. What sorrow for the poor miller and his wife. There must have been something to save them.
And this is true. The thing that could have saved them? A bit of reason. Hard work. Humility. But the miller and his wife had none of these things. I could see all this, as they argued beside the riverbed.
“And what will become of me?” shrilled the wife. “How are you going to feed me?”
“We have grain. Make yourself some bread!” he said carelessly.
“Me? Make bread? I did not marry you to be a poor little slave. You are the one whose business is failing. You learn to make the bread.”
“Preposterous. I guess you’ll just have to starve.”
And on it went, never a word for the child in her womb. Never did they think beyond themselves. So one day, as the miller sulked and paced beside my pond, I offered him a deal. “Kind sir,” said I, though I knew he was no such thing. “I know of your troubles. I know a way you can prosper again.” I smiled at him. Few can resist my smile.
“You do? Tell me at once.” He rubbed his hands together, and his eyes went wide like a frog’s.
“Well,” I simpered. My simpering is also remarkably effective. “I cannot give you this for nothing. I would like . . . ” I pretended I had to think about my bargain. “I would like the next thing that is born here on your land.”
The miller looked at me, a sneer crossing his face. “The next thing that is born?”
“Yes,” I said. “I long for something of my own.”
He scarce gave it a thought, perhaps didn’t even realize how close his wife was to childbirth. Most likely didn’t care. “I accept. The next thing.” And he held out his hand to shake mine. As if a handshake was binding to the fair folk.
I smiled and touched his hand softly. He shivered. “Now I think you should bring to me your son,” I told him with a smirk.
I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. You humans are always feeling so very clever, trying to fool the fae, wanting to make sure you get the best end of every bargain—everything you want with no sacrifice of your own.
And so the miller tricked me. Another fault of humans: you forget that we are not mortal. We have a patience you have never dreamed of. We follow the moves of the game long after you have forgotten that it was ever started. When the miller placed his wards and his charms around my pond, I raged. It is customary, after all. I pounded against those barriers, cried and swore vengeance. I didn’t laugh when he said I would never get his son.
And I waited.
Oh, you think me bad, do you? You wonder why I bothered? Shall I tell you? Shall I tell you how the miller’s son was born of water, pure and innocent, supposedly, just like all of you? But each day he was poisoned by the miller and his wife. Each day I saw him fall to the same cursed carelessness. Yes, I wanted to save him sooner. But I knew that, no matter the span of time, I would save him in the end.
The water purifies, you see.
So days went, and years went, and the son grew greedy and ugly but fair of face. He married, and on the day of his marriage, his wife came and knelt beside my pond. She wept and called out—she did not know that she called out for me. She said that she had been sold to a monster, one who was cruel and cold.
Could not the universe do something? she asked. Could it save her and change her husband?
And so I spoke to her. “I am not the universe, but I can do something for you. You need only remove my bindings and I will change your husband.”
She looked, as you might expect, uncertain. Your women are never quite so eager to trust me as are your men. Still, she was desperate. So she did as I asked, and she lured him to the pond with the promise of hunting. And he forgot his father’s warning never to stray near the water, so intent was he on catching his game.
I took him down with me into that water, and it washed away his darkness, softened his cold heart. When he rose from the water again, he was not the same. The woman cried and thanked me.
But you forget that part of the story.