A Short Story by Heather McQuaid
“From her steep castle of sorrow and slate
Lorelei reigns over men and their fate
The river below, its faithless embrace
Rests her grave, and unquiet birthplace.”
“What’s that from?” asks the skinny girl.
“It’s a legend, the legend of Lorelei,” says Captain Plauz, keeping his keen eyes peeled on the perilous currents of the River Rhein as he pilots the paddleboat. “Just ahead is the watery grave of many sailors, littered with the flotsam and jetsom of ships that crashed against the jagged rocks.”
“Why’d they crash?”
“Well, that’s a longer story,” Plauz says, scratching his white beard.
“Will you tell it to me?”
“Yes,” he says, pointing to a large coil of thick, white rope. “Take a seat there. What’s your name?”
“Melinoe,” the girls says as she sips cola through a plastic straw. "But you can call me Mel."
“Okay Mel, I’ll begin with Lorelei, when she was beseeching her husband, Heinrich, to be careful. ‘The sea is a dangerous mistress,’ she said, ‘and shall not claim you as her own.’
Her husband reassured her, ‘Do not fear, my love. I set sail tomorrow, and will return in five.’ His rough hands, callused from the ropes and nets of his livelihood, caressed her blonde hair. ‘You are my one true love, Lorelei, and none shall take your place.’
The days dragged by in slow, dull torture for Lorelei. Alone in the sitting room of her humble home in Rüdesheim am Rhein, she played the lyre and sang sad songs for three days to pass the interminable minutes until her husband’s return. Men, captivated by her voice, stopped still in their tracks as they neared, pressing their ears to the window, heedless of the horses and carts that rumbled along the cobbled road.
On the fourth day of longing, a string pinged free from Lorelei's Lyre. She grabbed her basket, woven from the small branches of saplings, and made her way along the cobblestone streets to the market. Passing by a shadowed doorway, she saw the butcher’s bonny daughter embracing a man wrapped in her husband's cloak."
“Why was the man wearing her husband’s cloak?” Mel asks.
“I’m getting to that.”
“Was this in olden days?”
“It was centuries ago, yes.”
“Oh,” Mel says, slurping on the straw.
The captain continues. “Lorelei recognized her husband at once. She cried out, ‘Heinrich!’ But he turned away and led the butcher’s daughter further into the house, shutting the door behind him. Lorelei dropped her basket on the muddy road and screamed and cried. Then she ran and ran and until she reached the banks of the Rhein. And she climbed and climbed the steepest cliff she could find. She paused at the top, gazing down the sharp precipice, and then leapt to her demise.”
“I, wha…How old are you anyway?”
“I’m eleven,” Mel says. “This sounds like a fairy tale. My mother says fairy tales have a lot to answer for, the way they give girls unrealistic expectations of marriage and relationships.”
“Well, I don’t know about any of that. Do you want to hear the story or not?”
“Persephone, a Greek goddess, took pity on Lorelei’s lifeless body and turned her into a beautiful nymph. She gave her a golden lyre, so that Lorelei could play and sing to the captains on the ships as they navigated the Rhein. And she gave her a golden comb, so that Lorelei could brush her golden locks,” the Captain says, as he steers the paddleboat toward the middle of the river.
“Plucking a lock from the golden cascade
She fashions a lyre, a lyrical braid
Her voice, pure and heart-breaking
Cleaves stones, shattered from aching
Seafarers in their small ships hear
Whispers of promised love in their ear
Beauty beckons, a tempestuous kiss
Caressing echoes from the precipice
'Captains and sailors, bring me your ships
Nearer to hear the song on my lips
Forget your wives, forget all others
Before you lies your eternal lover.' ”
“So, she’s like a siren?” Mel asks.
“Ah...yes, like a siren.”
“She’s killing, like, loads of innocent people ‘cause her husband was an ass.”
“Young lady, that’s no kind of language—”
“Ass, like a mule, I mean. A jackass.” Mel says quickly, swirling the straw in the bottle. “If I were a boy, would you care if I said ‘ass’?”
“Well, I uh…” the Captain trails off, his eyes drawn to the woman gliding toward them, her sandals padding softly on the deck. “Lovely” he whispers under his breath.
As she approaches, she removes her sunglasses and shakes her blonde hair, which falls in golden waves, partially covering her bare shoulders. The wind whips the skirt of her pale green dress, billowing gracefully around her sculpted legs. Her smile is sly and bright, her lips red and full.
“Madam,” the Captain says, “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Captain Plauz.”
“Nice to meet you Captain. I see you’ve been entertaining my daughter.”
“Your…daughter? Oh yes, I see the resemblance,” he says doubtfully.
Mel rolls her eyes and takes her mother’s hand. “He was telling me a fairy tale.”
“Oh? What about?”
“About a siren who lures men to their deaths, because she’s mad at her husband because he cheated on her. And now she’s getting revenge on men, because I guess she’s a man-hater, of course,” Mel says, drawing out the ‘or’ in ‘course' for effect. “But you’ll never guess what she’s called.”
“Hmm, I may have heard this story before,” her mother says, smiling.
“We’re approaching her now, if you look on your left, you’ll see a steep cliff, more than one-hundred and thirty meters tall, made of slate. That’s the Lorelei. The siren. She was a great beauty, but not as beautiful as you, Miss…?”
Melinoe’s mother holds out a cool, slender hand. “Ms Göttin,” she says, shaking the Captain’s clammy hand. “Lorelei Göttin.”
The Captain’s mouth drops open before he snaps it quickly shut.
“And Captain,” Lorelei says, “you better watch where you’re going. These are treacherous waters.”