I have heard the mermaids singing. . .T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
In the wee church of St. Senara in Zennor, Cornwall, there’s a chair, said to be more than six hundred years old, that has carved on one side a mermaid. She could be symbolic of the dual nature of Christ, or she could be the heroine of a folktale. (I’m partial to the folktale, myself. ;))
The best singer in the little congregation at St. Senara was a handsome youngster called Matthew Trewhella, back in the late Middle Ages. So accomplished a vocalist was he that he always sang a solo at the close of vespers, and other times besides.
Now there was a little stream running beside the church that meandered its way to nearby Pendour Bay, and in that bay there lived a mermaid.
One evening, this lovely sea creature heard Matthew singing, his voice carrying on the wind. Enthralled, she listened to him, and by the end of his song, sight unseen, she was in love with him.
So each evening she would come up to the shore to hear him sing. Eventually, she became bold enough to swim up the little stream, and listened from its relative safety.
But her love grew and grew and she pined to see this man who sang so sweetly. Surely he must be as beautiful of face and body as of voice!
Now, being half-fish, she was awkward on land, but love’s determination knows no bounds. One night, she lumbered over the ground and somehow managed to steal a long dress. The next evening, in her stolen finery, she boldly made her way into the church and seated herself on the back pew, waiting to see Matthew.
Her hope had been right. Matthew Trewhella was as handsome as an angel, and sang like one.
For awhile, then, she slipped into the church each evening, to hear her true love sing. Sometimes, she would join him in song, her voice as true as any of her siren kin. Matthew heard her, but couldn’t quite figure out where in the nave that new alluring voice came from.
One evening, a stray sunset light shone in the window and illuminated her face. She, singing and watching Matthew, never noticed, but Matthew, at the front of the church, did. His voice faltered for a second as he stared at the beautiful girl on the back pew. She was the one whose voice blended so perfectly with his!
In that moment, he fell irrevocably in love.
After the service, as she tried to slip away to the stream and thence to the bay, Matthew caught up to her.
Before she could speak, he poured out his love for her, in words as impassioned as his singing.
When he finally stammered to a halt, looking into her lovely face, she told him gently that, though she loved him and would sing with him forever if she could, she could not be his. She was a sea creature and could never survive on dry land. She asked only to be allowed to continue to come listen to him of an evening, and then to return to the bay.
Matthew, his voice trembling with his love, told her then and there that, if she must return to the sea, then he would go with her, for he could not bear to be parted from her.
Before she could protest, he swept her out of the little stream, up into his arms. Startled villagers last saw Matthew Trewhella carrying that strange lovely girl toward Pendour Bay.
He was never seen again.
But they say that sometimes of an evening, if you listen closely, you can hear two voices singing as the sun sets over the bay.
That’s Matthew and his mermaid, they whisper with a smile.
For more about the Mermaid of Pendour Bay and her lover, see Richard Jones’s 2002 book Haunted Britain and Ireland and the Wiki article about Zennor. The two versions differ in a few small details, so I kind of put them together. 😉
Incidentally, we have pictures in the family of my grandmother and Mom–then a toddler–standing in the waters of Morro Bay, California, which is also said to be home waters to a mermaid.