Inspired by a Rhine cruise and the Lorelei legend. Photo at the end taken by me.
They called him foolhardy and warned him not to go out by himself, not when he was unfamiliar with the river’s swirling currents and hidden rocks. But he was an experienced sailor, and it was a fine day, so he set out in the borrowed boat alone, determined to sail the Rhine and take in the magnificent castles that perched on the cliffs high above and the picturesque villages that clustered at their feet.
Soon he was scoffing at their needless warnings; the river was placid and flowed smoothly along, no challenge to his expert skills, and the little sailboat skimmed over the water like a bird. He doffed his straw boater to a steamer full of passengers out for a pleasure cruise and they waved back at him, and he laughed for sheer joy as the boat hit the steamer’s wake with a slap and a spray of white foam.
The fog that descended several hours later arrived with shocking abruptness; chill and grey, it engulfed him, dense as a woolen blanket, cutting him off from the world. He soon lost his bearings and could only pray, as he’d never prayed before in his life, while he tacked this way and that in the direction he hoped would bring him safely back to land.
Fierce currents threatened to seize control of the sailboat so that he had to cling to the tiller with desperate fingers. His white flannel trousers and red and white striped jacket were soon soaked through with moisture. He shivered convulsively and wished he’d thought to bring an oilskin with him and a bottle of brandy.
When he heard the haunting song drifting through the fog, he thought at first that it was a figment of his imagination, for it held an almost unearthly beauty. But the song continued, and its sorrowful sweetness pierced his heart and filled him with inchoate longing. His fears dissolved away, and he became consumed with a single desire: to find the one whose seductive singing called to him, saying, Come to me, beloved, I have been waiting for you, and you alone.
He came about and sailed in the direction of that alluring voice, blind now to all else; the winds and the currents seemed anxious to abet his desire and carried him swiftly and surely toward his goal. Then there was a tremendous jolt, and the boat shuddered and the song ceased. Like one released from a spell, he suddenly became aware of his predicament. He looked over the side and saw with horror the jagged rocks like broken teeth sticking up out of the river.
The boat had come to grief upon them, and a great gash had been rent in the wooden hull; in but a few terrifying minutes, he was knee-deep in cold water and cursing his arrogant stupidity. Why hadn’t he listened to those who had warned him of the perils lying in wait for the unwary? Pulling off his hat, he strove desperately to bail the rising water with it, but it was a hopeless endeavor. The boat went down, and he with it, and taken by the currents he was swept away.
Weighted by his sodden clothes, his feeble struggles were doomed to failure. The murky grey-green waters of the river closed inexorably over his head and he sank…
As he reached vainly toward the water’s surface, the last oxygen in his burning lungs nearly depleted, a face appeared, floating just above him, a face fairer than a drowning man’s dreams. Pearl-pale skin he had, with great eyes that were bluer than periwinkles. Hair the color of rain-washed onyx drifted languidly about him. Fins like the fronds of some exotic sea plant decorated his naked body, running along his back and narrow shoulders, and delicate blue-veined webbing stretched between his fingers and toes.
Who he is? he wondered. And was it his song I heard in the fog?
It was my song, came the unexpected reply, and I am Lorelijah.
He could hear the words clearly, though the perfectly shaped coral lips did not move, and wonder filled him even as black dots danced behind his eyelids and he knew the end was very near. Lorelijah, he repeated dreamily. I am glad you will be the last sight I see before I die, for you are beautiful.
But you shall not die, said Lorelijah. Take my hand, beloved, and fear not.
With the last of his fading strength he took it, and offered no resistance when he was drawn in and the dark head bent, long strands of hair like seaweed wrapping around and binding them tightly together. Cool wet lips closed over his own and parted them; new life entered his failing body with every shared breath. When at last he was released, he felt strong and alive, and the water passed easily in and out of his lungs. The confines of his ruined clothing were suddenly irksome; he discarded them, and unnoticed they floated away, while the newly formed fins on his back and shoulders stirred, and he stared in dawning wonder at his own webbed hands and feet.
For years have I sat on the rocks and sung of my grief and longing for a mate, said Lorelijah. Many have answered my call and found their doom, but you I loved as soon as I beheld you.
As I loved you. Floating weightless, arms outspread and fingers touching, their lips met this time in a lover’s kiss.
Come with me now, and I will show you my home beneath the river. A sad and lonely place has it been, but no more.
I will come with you gladly and forever, he said, for the world above the river seemed a dim and distant memory, and all he desired was held in the strange blue eyes of this enchanting creature who had taken his life and given it back again.
They swam away together, hand in hand.
In the morning the shattered remains of the little sailboat were found washed up on the banks of the river. But of the foolhardy man they never found any trace, nor was the haunting song that had lured so many to their deaths ever heard again along the Rhine.