Having begun the process of settling into a new job, I'm back on the blogging wagon. As well, I have a snack for you patient, lovely people! Thanks for waiting around for me.
It was late and I was inspired. A friend and I were chatting about name origins, and she mentioned that her sister's middle name was Undine. Digging up my folklore encylopaedia, cross-referencing a few things with Wikipedia, and sorting through my own recollections, I tried to describe the story. Of course, I ended up telling it as bed-time stories must be told, and here it is.
A long time ago, in the time of Crusades and of Christ and kings, there was a prince in France. The prince was an avid hunter and loved to fish next to the waters of the great river that divided his kingdom.
One night, as he sought the great prowling cats that came to fish there, at the cusp of the mountains, he strayed far from his fellow hunters. Silently and stealthily, watching for the great cats and other beasts of the night, he crept to the river. Where the water fell down across the old mossy rocks, a fine mist always rose up. He looked, sometimes, but on this night, with moonlight catching the water, he looked longer than ever. In the shape of the spray, a damsel bathed, perfectly naked.
Luxuriating in the water and tossing her hair, combing it, she was perfect. Skin silver as air on the water, blue eyes, and when she smiled, sharp sharp little teeth. The prince was infatuated.
Riding across the bridge and to the waterfall, he approached her without hesitation, without thought. On one knee, he begged her to marry him, and the undine, the water nymph, agreed. The undine, you see, wanted a soul, something she could get only by marrying a mortal, and bearing a child.
They returned the next morning to his kingdom, the prince bearing his beautiful bride to the castle in an exquisite chariot. Their wedding was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance, and all the kingdom rejoiced.
On the night of the wedding, as the new couple went to bed, the Undine took a moment to make her lover promise a few trifling conditions: first, never to look at her on Saturdays; second, to let her lock her chamber and be undisturbed on that day, and third, never to be unfaithful to her, as long as he drew a waking breath. Her husband, smitten, agreed that they were trifling conditions indeed.
And so, they lived together a very long while, and were happy. A year after the wedding, the Undine had a beautiful child, a well-formed princeling heir. But from that day, a shadow stole over her.
The undine, immortal and lovely, though soulless, had had a child, and that had taken away her immortality. Lovely as she was, and fey, she was now a mortal, and began to age. It was faint at first, but the prince--short of attention span and of temper, as princes so often are--began to notice. The fine, elegant lines, as delicate as finest spider-webs, and the silvering at her temples--no matter how graceful--were signs of age. And a prince is many things, but in his own eyes, and in those days, in God's eyes, he was a little immortal.
And so it was that the prince's eye began to wander. A little, at first, and then a lot. The undine, though she often coveted the river, was dutiful.Then, thoughtlessly, her maid glanced through the keyhole one Saturday as the still-lovely undine bathed.
To her shock, she saw not a woman, but half-a-woman, with a long, curling, elegant tail, covered in silver and green scales! The prince caught wind of the tale, which travelled through the castle like a monsoon storm. He had to see it for himself. So there he was, one fine Saturday morning, peeping through the keyhole--and what did he see, but his wife with the tail of a serpent! Horrified, he burst in.Angry and hurt, she cried out, "Oh, you have broken your first and second promise!" and vanished straightaway as he looked at her.
A few nights later, he heard her soft voice singing in the babe's room, and came in to find her cradling her son. Apologizing, weeping, and down on both knees, he pleaded with her to return.
"Yes," she said, "but remember the third condition. Break your word, and I won't be so forgiving next time."
And so it was that she returned, he quelled the rumors, and they lived happily. For a time. The silver at her temples showed more, and her skin softened. And still, she was beautiful, but she was growing older. Her chuckling infant had become a toddler, and then, a gold-haired boy. And the prince's attention wandered.She took to walking about the castle at night, more and more. Generally she avoided the animals, which capered and danced away in fear when she came near. One night, however, she found herself near the stables. To her surprise, a familiar droning snore was cutting the air.
Could it be? Her heart hammered fearfully in her chest. She padded in, soft as dew in the morning, and found her husband, the prince, lying in the arms of a common trollop there in the hay.
He woke in an instant, feeling as though someone had kicked him in the ribs, to find her pointing a finger at him.
Her eyes large with pain, she cried out, "You promised to be faithful with every waking breath!" He sat dumb, silent. She wept, as immortal nymphs cannot. "Faithless man! Well, as long as you are awake, and have your breath, you can live. But as soon as you sleep, you shall die!"
And with that, she vanished again, a final time. The prince died a short time later, in his sleep, but his young son grew up fine and strong, and was wiser than his father in choosing a wife.
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