Long ago there lived a lone miller. He had not planned to live alone and would have liked to share his life, but things hadn’t worked out that way.
The miller lived in an old mill left to him by his parents. The mill was round and made of riverstone. It was built over a clean, fast-running mountain stream. There was a little garden in the courtyard outside the kitchen where the miller grew vegetables and herbs. Next to the mill, there was a bridge that crossed the stream. On the other side of the stream, there was an orchard that had been planted by his grandparents. The trees produced many different kinds of fruits and nuts.
The miller made most of his living by grinding flour from the different grains and seeds grown by the local farmers. He also traded fruits and nuts from the orchard, and vegetables from the garden for things he needed but could not make himself.
The miller worked every day from dawn until late afternoon. He ground flour, tended his garden, cared for the orchard, and kept the mill tidy and in good repair. After work, he would go to the stream and bathe, dress himself in clean clothes, pack a light meal, and fill his old water gourd with fresh water from the stream. He would then wander up into the hills above his mill and enjoy his meal surrounded by nature. He could hear the birds chirp, smell the fresh air, and look out over the valley from his high viewpoint.
One day as he climbed the hills on his afternoon walk, a glimmer caught his eye. A golden late-afternoon light shone through an opening in the trees and called him to take a closer look. The miller found a patch of bright yellow bunch grass and in the grass grew a vine he was unfamiliar with. The vine was blooming and the flowers were a shimmering violet color. He leaned over the plant and gazed at it for a while, then returned to his trek up the hillside.
Over the next few days, he took the same path up the hillside and visited the copse with the unusual vine growing in it. The flowers turned into little gourds and grew at a rapid rate. Within two weeks, the fruits were ripe.
“What strange little gourds,” the miller thought. They had an unusual shape and a pale violet hue similar to the flower that had produced them. When the gourds looked ripe, the miller chose one and brought it home with him. He hulled it out and carved delicate designs on the outside. He planned to use the new gourd to replace his old, worn water gourd.
That night, he had a strange dream. When he awoke in the morning, he couldn’t remember the dream entirely, but he remembered that the purple color of the gourd had suffused the whole dream with a kind of deep longing he had not felt since his parents had died. He wanted to do something to honor the dream and his longing. For the first time since he could remember, the miller wanted to do something different than follow his daily routine.
He finished his chores early, and after his usual bath in the stream, he packed some food and put water into his new water gourd and headed up into the hills. He looked for the vine in which the gourd had grown, but could not locate it. He thought he had known exactly in which part of the path the copse was located, but today the path seemed a bit foreign. He saw trees that he hadn’t noticed before, and the turns in the paths were unfamiliar.
He thought, “Perhaps because I am of a different mind today, things appear different to me.”
He was forced to take a switchback to his left in order to follow the main path. This was definitely a place he had never been before. Puzzled, he sat down by the road to rest and have a drink from his gourd. The water was incredible. It was so cold and crisp and tasted somehow wild. His old gourd would never have kept water cold for so long. He put the cork back into the top of the gourd, slung it across his chest, and returned to his walk.
The trees and landscape became more foreign to him with each mile. It never occurred to the miller to turn back, although it was getting late and the sun was setting. In the past, he sometimes stayed out until the moon rose and sat listening to the crickets, but he had always stayed in sight of the mill.
Sometime during dusk, the trail leveled off and widened. The trees became thinner and farther apart. The trail faded altogether and he found himself walking through a field. With the trail behind him, he had no idea where to go next. He sat down again to rest and take a drink. The water in the gourd was still cold and tingling and wild. He drank deeply, not bothering to ration the water for later. Only when his thirst was slaked did he consider checking to see how much was left.
It was dark by now. The quarter moon was overhead, but did not give off enough light to see into the gourd, so the miller dipped his finger into the opening. He tipped the gourd towards his finger, assuming the level was low and would take some tipping to get an idea of how much water was left. To his surprise, the slightest tip and water poured out of the lip of the gourd.
“How can this be?” thought the miller. “I have been drinking without heed and still the gourd is full!”
This gave the miller courage to keep moving forward. If he had water, he could walk through the night.
He crossed the field which became plains. He crossed the plains until it touched the sandy beach of a great sea. All was quiet except the soft sounds of waves lapping on the shore. He could just make out the shape of a small boat overturned in the beach grasses where the sand met the plains.
The miller turned the boat right side up and examined it. It seemed sound, and the oar next to it was strong.
He picked up the oar and pushed the boat into the surf. He climbed in and pushed off with the paddle. He didn’t have to paddle far when a current caught the boat and pulled him out to sea.
The moon set behind him but the sun did not rise. The waves gently rocked the miller to sleep. His dream was again suffused with the purple color of the water gourd. The miller saw his life play before him from his birth to the time he found the vine with the purple flowers. It was strange, like reading a story of someone else. He awoke feeling refreshed.
The dawn was breaking. He looked towards the bow of his little boat and saw a shaft of golden light shining down on a tiny island just ahead.
With little effort, he managed to land the boat softly onto the sandy beach. He stepped out of the boat and moored it to a tree.
The miller walked the perimeter of the island and found only trees and bright yellow bunch grass growing in the sand. He sat down to drink from the gourd, as was now his habit when he wasn’t sure what to do. The water was still cold and fresh. He shut his eyes and drank deeply. When he opened his eyes, He saw a woman walking out of the waves towards him.
When she was standing beside him, he tried to speak, but speech did not come easily. When he finally did open his mouth, he stammered.
“Hello. Who..how are you?”
He wanted to know who she was and also wanted to be polite and ask her how she was, but he couldn’t divide it into two questions so the sentences came out together.
“I am fine” is the response he thought he heard. Had she said Fayne or fine or something entirely different?
“Who are you?” He said, trying to be clearer this time around.
“My name is Fayne, and before you ask the other question, I am fine. What brings you to my little island?” said Fayne.
The miller, not trusting his words now, pointed to the boat moored on the beach.
“I see,” she said. “It has been a long time since I’ve talked with someone. I’ve been alone on this island for years.
“When you find your tongue, will you tell me your story?” said the woman.
The miller took a long drink from the gourd, then handed it to Fayne who drank as well.
“This water,” she said, “reminds me of the water from the stream that runs through my home village. It tastes cool, and refreshing and wild.”
“That water, and the gourd that carries it, is the reason I am here,” said the miller. He took a deep breath. “My name is Liam,” said the miller, and told her his tale.
When he had finished his story, Fayne and Liam sat quietly next to each other and watched the waves lap onto the sand.
“Thank you for telling me your story, Liam. Would you like to hear mine?” she said.
“Yes, Fayne, I would love to hear your story.”
He desired to hear her story more than he had desired anything in his life, and yet he was so content sitting on the beach next to her with his toes in the sand and listening to the sea.
Fayne began, “Long ago, I lived with my family in a small farming village very far from here. I had many brothers and sisters and my father was not able to make enough as a farmer to support all of us.
“As soon as my brothers and sisters were old enough, they would go out into the village to try to earn money for the family. Even though I was very young, I found that I could earn money mending shirts. When I completed a job, I was given a penny for my work. I would run to my mother with a smile on my face and give her the penny. She would respond with a tired smile and say, “Every little bit helps.”
My heart would sink. I soon realized my work was not enough to do any real good, and that I cost my family more than I could ever make at my sewing jobs. I packed my few belongings and left with a heavy heart.
“I found work as a helper to a roaming merchant. The merchant was an older man who had lost his wife. He needed someone to cook for him and mend his clothes and care for the horses that pulled his cart. It wasn’t a terrible job, and I had lots of time off during the day after he set up his stall.
“I liked to wander the market places and listen to the stories people told. One day while we were visiting a fishing village, I overheard two women talking about mermaids.
“One woman said that if you meet a mermaid and ask her to make you a mermaid, she can’t refuse. ’Oh, to be a mermaid!’ I thought. I ran away from the merchant that day and hid in a pile of fishing nets until he got tired of looking for me and moved on without me.
“Why would you want to be a mermaid, Fayne?” asked Liam.
“I thought that it would solve all of my problems. I could take care of myself. I could swim in the beautiful sea all day and eat seaweed and have lovely scales so I wouldn’t need to wear worn clothes. I thought that I could find sunken treasure and give it to my family so we wouldn’t be so poor.”
Liam thought about this for a moment, but said nothing. Fayne continued.
“I spent my days sitting on the docks staring at the water looking for a mermaid to grant my wish. I grew so thin the fishermen took pity on me and fed me some of the bread and dried fish their wives had packed for their meals.
“One night, as the full moon shone, I glanced down into the water and saw, to my surprise, a mermaid staring back at me. She was pale and thin and had scales on her face and shoulders. I spoke to her and she echoed my words. I leaned over for a closer look and noticed my hand on the edge of the dock. I had small silver scales on the back of my hand.
“I thought, ’I’m turning into a mermaid already!’ Then looking back at the water, I realized I was seeing my own reflection. Mine was the pale face I saw in the water, and the scales were fish scales that had stuck on me from sleeping among the dirty fishing nets at night.
“At that moment, I lost all hope. I stood up and stepped off the dock, hoping to drown. The water refreshed me. I hadn’t actually been in the sea since looking for mermaids. I looked up to see the full moon overhead grow smaller as I sank to the bottom.
“ ’I do not want to die,’ I thought. I swam up to the top for a breath. I treaded water and looked at the moon. The night was still and so beautiful. I felt my heart would burst as renewed joy came into me. I swam around and splashed for a while, then thought about what I wanted to do next.
“I wanted to go back to my family. I thought of my parents, and felt ashamed that I had left without telling them. I thought of the merchant and was ashamed that I had left him too. I would return home and find a way to help.
“At some point, it seemed a lot easier to tread water. I stopped needing to use my hands to keep afloat. I looked down into the water and saw I had a fish tail.
“’No! Not now!’ I thought. Anger welled up inside me and I swam away towards the deep sea.
“The years I spent living in the sea were pleasant, though often lonely. I found treasures in sunken ships. I played with dolphins and seals. I visited fishing villages and hid under the docks to listen to the talk of the people in the seaside markets. My understanding of life grew from my travels and adventures.
“One day, I played chase with a group of dolphins. I chased them all the way out here to this little island. I was exhausted. I pulled myself up onto this beach for a little rest on the shore. To my surprise, my body formed legs and I walked onto the beach as a woman.
“I have visited other beaches, but there I do not transform into a human. Only on this island can I find rest in human form. I live here now as a woman, and return to the sea as a mermaid to find food, play with my sea friends, and enjoy the beauty of the sea.
Liam sat watching the waves again. He didn’t know what to say to Fayne. Finally, after some time had passed, he spoke.
“Fayne? Do you want to go home?”
“Yes. Very much so, Liam,” said Fayne.
“Then I will take you home,” said Liam.
“How will you do that?” said Fayne.
“If you wouldn’t mind, please step into my boat.”
Fayne stepped into the boat, and immediately turned back into a mermaid. She flopped out of the boat and onto the beach, and her legs returned.
Liam took a handful of sand and poured it into the bottom of the boat.
“Try getting in the boat again, if you don’t mind,” said Liam.
She did, and to her surprise, she kept her legs and didn’t transform.
“This is wonderful! How did you know that would work?” said Fayne.
“The bright yellow bunch grass that grows on this island is the same as the grass in which the magical water gourd vine grew. I think that it enchants whatever is around it. Since this worked, we may be able to take some sand with us and return you to your human form on other lands.”
Liam took the small bag in which he had carried his food and filled it with the sand while Fayne made herself comfortable in the boat. Liam got in and pushed them away from the shore.
They let the boat catch a current that pulled them out to sea. When they became hungry, Fayne would slip overboard and collect seaweed for them to eat. Sometimes, she would find a sunken ship with treasure and would collect jewels to give to her family. Liam shared his water gourd with her, for when she took her human form, she could only drink fresh water.
They traveled this way for days until they saw land in the distance. Fayne felt nervous about seeing people again after living alone for so many years.
“Don’t worry,” said Liam. “You did fine meeting me. It was I that felt nervous in your presence.”
They landed safely on a beach not far from some docks. Liam put some of the enchanted sand into a little locket that Fayne had retrieved from one of the sunken ships and hung it around her neck. He took her by the hand as she stepped out of the boat onto land. Her legs stayed firm and she retained her human form. She turned to Liam and gave him a hug and kissed him. The two of them held hands and walked silently to the docks and up the road to the village above.
Fayne recognized the village as the one closest to her family’s farm in the countryside. They were getting tired, and Liam suggested that they rest at the village tavern for the night before meeting her family the next day.
Fayne said, “That sounds like a good idea. I want to be refreshed before seeing them again. I am nervous about seeing my family after so long. I still feel ashamed that I ran away, but at least I have returned with jewels to help them.”
They checked into a room above the tavern and went downstairs for supper. An old man, dressed in shabby clothes, sat sadly at a corner table. Fayne gasped.
“What is it?” said Liam.
“That is the old merchant that I ran away from. Oh, how sad he looks and how disheveled his appearance. What have I done.”
“Go. Speak to him,” said Liam. “Make your peace with him before seeing your family.”
Fayne went over to the table and sat down. The old man looked up slowly. He gazed at her, then a smile spread over his face.
“Fayne, my little Fayne! Is that you? My, how you have grown. I thought I would never see you again!”
“I am so sorry I ran away. I was young and wasn’t thinking of anyone but myself. I should have stayed with you. Look what has become of you.”
“I have seen better days, this is true. But do not blame yourself. I thought of you as a daughter, but when you disappeared, I realized I had not treated you as one. It is I who owes you the apology. After my wife passed away, I thought I needed someone to take care of me, but what I really wanted was family. I am sorry that I was not able to give that to you, and you ran away.”
They sat in silence with each other for a few moments. Then Fayne said, “I have something for you.”
She took out the jewels and gave them all to the old merchant.
“You can use them to retire and have an easier life,” she said.
“Fayne, where have you obtained these? They are worth a fortune. I could not take this from you.” said the merchant.
“You must,” said Fayne. “It came to me in an easy way, and I can get more, so please accept this. It is the least I can do.”
“Thank you, my dear one. I’ve had my eye on a little cottage at the edge of town. I shall buy that cottage and surround myself with all the books I had hoped to read while I was young, but never had the time. I will plant a little garden, and oh, so many things I will do now that I need not roam! Come eat with me. Let us rejoice at our chance reunion,” said the merchant.
Fayne brought Liam over to the table and introduced him to the merchant. The three of them had a long, festive dinner together, each sharing their story with the others.
The next morning, the merchant departed early, anxious to purchase his dream cottage. He made them promise to keep in touch and said they were welcomed any time to his new home.
Fayne looked at Liam and took a deep breath. They held hands and headed up the road to Fayne’s home. They crossed a bridge over a rushing stream and paused in the middle.
“This is the water I told you about, Liam. It tastes just like the water in your water gourd.”
“This stream looks a lot like the one that ran through my mill. It even has the same round river cobble along its banks,” said Liam. They walked on and reached the front door of Fayne’s house. Before they had a chance to knock, a small boy ran out. He bumped into Fayne and looked up at her.
“Who are you?” The child asked.
“I’m Fayne. I used to live here.”
“You are Auntie Fayne?!” He ran back into the house yelling, “Maaaa!!!”
The child returned with his mother.
“Fayne?!” said the woman.
“Caylin?” cried Fayne. The women hugged.
“Liam,” said Fayne. “This is my sister Caylin. Caylin, this is my friend Liam.”
“Good to meet you, Liam. Please, come in,” said Caylin.
Fayne’s sister led her through the house to the kitchen. There were children of all ages running around everywhere.
“Are all of these yours Caylin?” Fayne asked.
Caylin laughed. “Only two of them. The rest are all your brothers’ and sisters’ kids. I watch them during the day while they tend the fields.”
“And how are our parents?” asked Fayne.
“They are well. They moved into a smaller cottage up the lane and let us use this house as the main meeting place for family gatherings and child watching.
“I am dying to hear your tale, but I don’t expect you want to tell it a hundred times, so let us gather the family together, hold a feast, and welcome you back properly!” said Caylin.
An older boy was sent into the fields to find all of the family members and tell them the good news of Fayne’s return, while Fayne and Liam walked to the little cottage that now housed her parents.
Fayne knocked nervously on the door. Her mother answered and gave a shriek of joy.
“Fayne has returned! Papa! Wake yourself. Our little girl is back!”
Fayne hugged her parents and wept.
“Ma, Papa, this is Liam. He is the man responsible for bringing me home.”
Fayne’s father grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously while her mother squeezed him in a bear hug and doused him with her tears.
“I want to tell you everything, Ma. I want to confess the whole story,” said Fayne.
“There will be time for that later. All I care is that my little girl has come home,” said Ma.
That night, the family had a huge bonfire and served the best food they could offer. Liam stood up and told his tale, then Fayne told her tale, then they both took turns telling the part that they had shared together.
There was no extra room for Liam and Fayne to sleep, so they stayed in the barn. They fell asleep in the hay holding hands.
The next morning, Fayne woke up and immediately roused Liam.
“Liam, I need to get back to the water and change form. I gave all of the jewels to the merchant and have nothing to give to my family! I must bring back some treasure to help them.”
“All right, Fayne. I will help you, but it doesn’t seem right to leave. Besides, your family doesn’t look as impoverished as you said.”
“You are right. They seem to be doing well. All of my brothers and sisters are grown and able to help with the farm work now. The farm is prosperous, and the children seem happy, well clothed and well fed. Maybe…maybe I shouldn’t have run away. Maybe all I caused was more suffering by my leaving.”
“Fayne,” said Liam. “ ’Maybe I shouldn’t have’ is a dangerous start to a sentence. You couldn’t have understood at such a young age that the struggles your parents were going through were temporary. You did what you did out of kindness and misunderstanding.”
“I see that now. Still…they work so hard and they are not rich. Surely it would not hurt to give them a few jewels to help out.”
Liam and Fayne made their way back to the seaside village below Fayne’s home. Fayne stood in the water on the beach and removed her locket and handing it to Liam. Nothing happened. She did not transform.
“Maybe if I wade further in,” she said.
She walked in up to her waist, then swam a bit, finally diving beneath the water. When she resurfaced, she looked at Liam and said, “It’s not working! I’m not changing back.”
She walked out of the water to Liam,looking distraught.
Liam said, “Maybe the magic has run its course. You are home, and that is what you wanted. Perhaps you no longer need your mermaid form.”
“What will I give my family, Liam? I’ve held this desire for so long, I don’t want to carry it anymore.”
“Then put it down,” he said.
“How?” she said with tears in her eyes.
Liam handed her the locket. “Make another wish. This time, wish for wisdom, or wish to be free of the desire to repay your family, or simply wish for love.”
She gazed into his eyes and took the locket from his hand. She held it tightly in her hands and shut her eyes. She murmured something under her breath, then opened her eyes and flung the locket into the sea. She turned to Liam and smiled.
On the way home, they stopped on the bridge again.
“What shall we do now, Liam?”
“I’ve been thinking,” said Liam. Your family grows grain and yet there is no mill here to grind it into flour. There are plenty of rocks here to build a mill. I have always had the skill to build one, but there was never a need. I should like to build one right here near this bridge. We can grind the grain and sell it for a much greater profit than your family gets for unmilled grain.”
“A mill. That would be a great help to the family,” said Fayne.
Liam continued, “You told your parents that I was the one responsible for bringing you home. But also, you are responsible for bringing me here. You always wanted to give something back to your family. I would be honored if my help was that gift.”
“But if bringing you back was a gift for my family, then what gift shall you have, my sweet Liam?” said Fayne.
“I have been alone for a long time. I have worked, played and lived alone. Since meeting you, my loneliness has ended. By this, you have already given me the greatest gift in my life; And if you would do me the honor of becoming my wife, I will spend the rest of my life loving you and building a life with you and your family.”
This time, Fayne was at a loss for words. She blushed and nodded yes.
The couple were married on the bridge followed by a great celebration with the entire family. Soon afterwards, Liam started working on the mill and Fayne got her mother to teach her how to bake, for she had decided to open a bakery when the mill was complete.
Late one night, Liam lay awake in bed with Fayne asleep in his arms. He thought back to his time at his family home in the old mill. He remembered his parents and how happy he had been when he was a child, and they were still alive. He thought about the water gourd and the tremendous gifts it had given him, and he remembered the longing that had burned in his heart. He could remember what that felt like, and at the same time, he could feel the love and happiness that he felt for Fayne and her family. He held the two feelings in his heart until they melted together, and he felt whole. As he drifted off to sleep, he knew that he, like Fayne, was finally home.