After a couple of reviews of German literature, I’m finishing the week off with a little surprise, another of my own translation efforts, and it involves a writer whose work I’ve tackled before. So far I’ve translated and serialised two books by Ricarda Huch: an entertaining long story called ‘Der Weltuntergang’ (‘The End of the World’) and Fra Celeste, a novella about the tribulations of a monk in love. Today’s choice, though is a much shorter piece, running to just over 2000 words (around eight pages in print), and I’ll be publishing it in full in this post.
What we’re looking at is an 1897 story called ‘Lügenmärchen’, a short allegorical tale of a romance between a young man and a mermaid. Märchen is German for ‘fairy tale’, and there’s certainly a good element of that genre here in both content and style, but Huch was too skilled a writer to leave it at that. In fact, the story is a clever reworking of many relationships between the sexes, with mistrust built into the heart of the action.
The other part of the German title, Lügen, means ‘lies’, and Lügenmärchen as an expression can mean something like ‘a pack of lies’ or ‘a load of rubbish’, so when looking for a suitable title for my version, I wanted to find something that would tie together the dual ideas of deception and myth. As I hope you’ll agree, ‘Once Upon A Lie’ seemed like the perfect answer.
So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
A young man had once read in an old book of water maidens and their incredible beauty, which left less of an impression upon him than another fact he found in the same book, namely that these mermaids were able to sing so sweetly, and with such exquisite skill, that they were thus able to lure the souls from the bodies of any being. This is how it worked: the listening soul surged so violently towards the power of the song that it revealed itself, voluntarily shrugging off its shell, and this was true not only for humans and animals, but also for plants and dumb, lifeless aspects of nature, this unfathomable magic seduced everything into revealing, in its own way, what lay within.
The young man found this to be the most remarkable and beautiful of all the world’s wonders, and he constantly dreamed of how the stars in the sky would come at his beck and call, and the gravel on the path and the green-golden beetles that scuttled across the sand and told him, in truth he had no idea what an entity in full knowledge of its entire being would tell of itself and at the same time reveal everything that it knew: he imagined that it would be as if all parts of its body and soul would become entirely transparent in his presence.
He now read the book closely from start to finish, in the hope of finding more information on this, and indeed it was written that such maidens did share their art with mortal men with whom they fell in love, but only in return for the greatest of sacrifices, such as no human would ever provide. From that moment on, the youth racked his brain ceaselessly wondering what kind of sacrifice it could be that was too high a price to pay for such a gift, one which, it seemed to him, contained the most magnificent action a person could ever be capable of.
He was to learn all about it soon enough, for one night, as he lay awake in his bed, he heard so softly, as if it were intended only for the ears of the spirits, a delightful melody that seemed to emanate from the direction of the sea. His body and soul were immediately gripped with a warm yearning sensation he was unable to withstand for long, instead getting up, dressing and setting off after this incomparable music. Thus, he soon arrived at the beach, and there he saw, gleaming in the moonlight, on a rock half-submerged in the water, a woman of such unimaginable beauty that it was immediately clear that it could only be a mermaid.
She smiled on seeing him, dipped her fingers into the water and splashed a few drops onto his face, they flew through the air like milky pearls and caressed his cheeks with an eerie coldness. Although initially not entirely at ease, he was nevertheless unable to resist her charms, and swore that he must die and rot away at once were he unable to win her love. She immediately took him in her arms, and with his head resting against her breast, he realised that he could hear no heart beating in her silent chest; however, the yearning in her glimmering eyes and the flighty smile on her false mouth captivated his senses so completely that he ignored all his body’s doubts and alarms.
They agreed to meet each other on every moonlit night, and from this moment on, the youth’s one desire was for the mermaid to teach him the magical melodies through which she was able to entice the secret of existence from all beings. All the while, however, the mermaid had reasons of her own for this tender relationship she had entered into with the young man. You see, inside all these heathen water monsters there lives a yearning for an immortal soul, which they can obtain by consuming the heart of a person, who, however, must offer it up of their own free will, from love.
She hoped that her radiant charms would infatuate the young man to such an extent that he would be unable to keep this gift from her and, by means of the most exquisite skills in the unfolding of love and good spirits, kindled his passion to an ever-growing madness. While this all brought the youth great pleasure, none of it enabled him to come any closer to his goal; when he once asked her to provide him with a sample of her magical song, she had indeed been prepared to do so, but had added that if anyone awoke and found themselves drawn towards her, she would be forced to disappear, never to return, at which he had naturally been obliged to withdraw his request.
But the opportunity to express his most ardent desire arrived one night when the mermaid, in order to make progress with her own affair, began to speak of the unfortunate lot of her people, how they lived for hundreds of years, yet not eternally, and were confined to a corporeal life, whereas she imagined the unfettered floating of a soul in infinite blue space as the most enjoyable form of existence. The youth comforted the lamenting woman, saying that life among the caresses of the waves and in the company of the host of fish species and other wonders of the deep must be far more entertaining than any other kind, and that thanks to the precious art of her song, she was able to pass her days in a manner that humans and their immortal souls never could.
The sea maiden listened attentively and said that if that were all he desired, she would be happy to teach him the art of her song, of course, she couldn’t do it for free, he would also need to render her a service, but it wouldn’t cost him all that much. It consisted of nothing more or less than his offering her, of his own volition, from love, his heart, by which means she too could enjoy this human concept of the immortal soul. On saying this, she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him sweetly, allowing her watery beauty to shimmer all over him, said too that it was a small gift, that she herself had no heart, had never had one, but had always felt healthy and contented.
Nevertheless, the youth was troubled by the request, for he found it rather doubtful that, having from the very start been furnished with a heart that served all manner of useful functions, he could continue to flourish without it. His lover did proffer him an assortment of magical tools, by which means he would be able to remove his heart effortlessly and painlessly from his chest, but he was unable to completely place his trust in her words, and as blissful as her caresses were, he still asked himself whether she felt a real, true love for him and wouldn’t embrace any old scaly sea creature just as tightly as him when his corpse should be rotting away on the muddy seabed.
The more he considered it, the firmer his resolve became not to remove his heart, without which he believed himself unable to get by for even a moment, which is by no means saying that he wished to forgo the magic of the mermaid’s song. On the contrary, one night he asked his love to give him, or show him, a means by which he might remove his heart without great pains, in reply to which she appeared at their next encounter holding a sharp, transparent little knife, which she said her mother had made from fish teeth, and which would glide through flesh with a pleasant smoothness, bringing more pleasure than pain. She also offered to carry out the operation herself, but the youth feared that the clouds obscuring the moonlight might cause her to cut falsely, promising instead to appear without fail the following night with his precious offering.
The sea maiden had been sitting on her rock ever since moonrise, she stretched and swung her gleaming body in sweet expectation, singing softly to herself so that the waves came rushing towards her and danced in a circle around her, spitting their foamy souls into the air with pleasure before swallowing them up once more. The young man arrived before too long, and in his hand he held a beautiful, still-bleeding heart; admittedly, it was not his own, but rather that of a young calf, which he had been able to obtain from a slaughterhouse. Once the curious mermaid had gazed her fill of the heart, he asked her whether he should perhaps light a small fire to roast it, which was said to make it a pleasure to eat; however, she replied that she would rather eat it raw, and immediately tore off a large piece with her sharp, spiky teeth. The youth watched her as she ate, how the colour of eyes constantly shifted from a clear light green to dark green and back again, as if they weren’t eyes at all, but playful waves reflected in fine crystal, which lent them a dreamy, mysterious air.
Once she had entirely devoured the heart, she asked her lover tenderly how he felt, and whether the little knife had rendered good service, to which he quickly replied, blushing slightly, that it had been extraordinarily suited to the purpose and that he would like to keep it, if possible. He was, ‘tis true, rather weary and would have kept to his bed had he not realised how impatiently she was awaiting him; at the same time, he could not hide his desire to be inducted into the art of her magical song. At this, the sea maiden let out a charming laugh that leapt high into the air like a fountain of light, transparent chimes before trickling down again, and asked whether he had perhaps not already attempted it, there was no need for her to teach him anything else, for he was already as much in possession of this art as she was.
The youth was unsure what to make of these words and stared uncertainly at the mermaid in confusion, she planted a lengthy kiss on his open lips, however, and said: “Know this, my darling, our magical song comes from our having no heart; I could never teach it to you, but from the very moment you deprived yourself of your heart from your love for me, the ability to display this skill will also have developed inside you, so that the reward for your devotion comes naturally from the act of devotion itself. Just try to sing a melody, and we’ll see what kind of effect it has on the turtles and mussels lying curled up here in the wet sand.” This impossible demand put the youth in a frightening and awkward position, but he pulled himself together and cleverly replied that he still heeded her warning that singing aloud might attract humans, and that their meetings would have to come to an end should they be perceived. The mermaid praised his caution and, with her shining, droplet-covered arms, pulled him towards her to kiss him.
When, during their embrace, his heart beat steadily against her cool breast, she listened carefully and said: “If I hadn’t just eaten your heart, I could swear I heard it beating inside you.” The youth explained that to avoid anyone becoming suspicious about the silence in his chest, he had placed a small clockwork device in the empty space, which he had to take out and wind up from time to time, for which reason he had asked for permission to keep the knife. Lost in thought, the mermaid kissed the spot where a beat could be heard, and from that moment on chose to do so each time they celebrated their nights of love.
Often, she added that it was indeed true that humans, as a result of their possessing souls, were capable of a true, selfless love, even ready to offer up their hearts for the sake of those they love; to which the youth replied that it was for this reason that he was now so happy in the knowledge that she, too, had such a soul, which would allow her to love him not just with heathen sensuality, as was previously the case, but rather truly and deeply. “How beautiful it will be,” she said, “when we soar together through immortality.” “Yes,” he said, “and when we sing together so that even the holy spirit, which will be there with us in the form of a dove, will be obliged to reveal to us all its secrets, not to mention the millions of human souls that we’ll meet. For to know and love one another is the heart of blessedness.” “And we already enjoy it here on Earth,” said the smiling mermaid, kissing the youth on both eyes with her lips.
Translation © 2021 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.
For those who would like to compare my text with the German, the original version, stored over at Projekt Gutenberg, can be found here. The image of the author’s etching (1901), by Johann Lindner, was sourced from the writer’s German-language Wikipedia page.