The Song of the Nymph
Near where the castle stood, a river flowed
out of the woods and down into the valley.
One spring morning, two Ladies rode their horses
along the path that wound into the forest
until they came to where the river formed
from two quick streams that flowed down from the mountain.
They always took the path beside the smaller,
but on this day, they chose the other route,
a ford across the river to the shore
beside the wilder water of the larger
where no clear path led up into the wood.
They picked their way along, and then dismounted
to lead their horses where the boughs were low.
Some whim had made them change their long-time habit
to ride this way where no one knew they’d gone.
They soon could ride again, though with much care,
and when they finally wondered what they’d done,
just then they came around a river bend
and saw a mountain lake the castle’s people
had never known to be so near their home.
The bolder of the two, the Lady Cora,
now spurred her horse up to the lake’s green shore,
and called out to her friend, the Lady Ellen.
“I see an island out there in the lake.
We’ll tie the horses and swim out to see
if anyone has ever walked upon it!”
Her friend took no convincing, and they soon
were swimming out into the lake’s cool water,
their clothes well hidden by a bush right near
the horses grazing on the shore’s thick grass.
As they approached the island, suddenly
a nymph appeared not far from where they swam
and drew herself up on a sunlit rock.
The Ladies looked at her and at each other,
and silently agreed to swim no further.
The nymph let down her hair and then began
to brush her golden locks and sing a song
as beautiful as any that the Ladies
had ever heard. The tongue was strange to them,
and yet they felt it was a tale of love.
Her song over, she lay her silver brush
beside her on the rock and closed her eyes
just as the sun was going behind a cloud.
Then Cora put a finger to her lips,
and Ellen nodded that she understood:
whoever takes a water spirit’s brush
will gain a servant loyal to the end.
So Cora slowly swam with silent strokes
until she touched the rock. As quiet as
she’d ever been, she reached her hand out to
the silver brush. The sun came out again
and shone upon the handle, blinding her
just as the nymph began to speak, her voice
as soft and golden as her glowing hair:
“‘Tis true, my Lady Cora, if you take
my brush, then I will serve you till you die,
more faithful than the truest human maid.
But you will never hear me sing again.”
And then she sat so still upon her rock
that Cora thought the nymph was just a statue
more lovely than a sculptor could conceive,
unless he’d heard that song and carved the stone
while dreaming of that voice and of that love.
She turned away and swam back to her friend,
who’d heard the nymph and understood the choice
that Cora’d made. Returning to the shore
without a backward glance, they slowly dressed,
then fetched their horses. Only when they’d mounted
did they look back to where they’d seen the nymph.
The rock was empty in the morning sun.
Back at the castle, they did not talk about
the nymph to anyone, not even to
each other. Only after several days
had passed did they go riding out again.
Without a word, they rode back to the lake
and swam into the middle, at its deepest,
then waited there, treading water, until
the nymph came out to lie upon her rock
and brush her hair while singing. Sunlight flashed
and glinted from the silver handle and
her golden hair. The Ladies came no closer,
and when the song was over, they returned
to shore, their horses, and the wooded path
to head back down the rivers to their home.
For years, the Ladies rode up to the lake
on spring and summer days when sunlight promised
the nymph would sing. They never spoke of her,
but both the Ladies knew the other loved
that singing just as much, and both returned
from every visit ready to go back
to all the duties that made up their days.
One spring, the Lady Ellen grew so ill
she could not ride out with her friend to hear
that magic voice. So Cora stayed beside her
and never went up to the lake herself.
She nursed her through her fever and her dreams,
and listened to her muttering about
their rides up to the lake to see the nymph.
At dawn one morning, Ellen sat up straight
and said, her voice quite clear, her eyes wide open,
“You must ride up to see the nymph as soon
as I am gone.” Those were her final words.
She died an hour later. Cora left
the doctor and her maid to watch the body
and slipped out of the castle on her horse.
The path seemed easier this time, as if
the trees were parting just to let her pass,
and soon she found herself beside the lake.
Her horse tied up, her clothes behind the bush,
she swam across the lake and saw the nymph
come out upon her rock to sing again.
This time she sang a song so sad that Cora
could hardly keep herself afloat for crying.
She clambered up onto the island’s shore
and sat not far from where the nymph was singing.
And when the song was over, she spoke up:
“The Lady Ellen passed away this morning.”
To her surprise, the nymph responded quickly:
“And at the last, she spoke of you and me.
You never took my brush to make me yours,
so now I shall be yours until you die.
A nymph may also serve because she wants
to favor someone faithful with her care,
and then she may still freely sing her songs.
And while I serve you, you may call me Rhoda.”
She slipped into the lake and swam across
to where the horse was waiting. Cora took
a moment to recover from the shock
of what the nymph had said—and that she had
said anything at all, and even known
what Ellen’s final words had been. But Rhoda
kept beckoning to her, so Cora swam
at last to where she’d left her horse. They dried
the lake’s clear water off, and where her clothes
were waiting, Cora found a simple dress
Rhoda could wear. Without another word,
they rode back to the castle, where the nymph
became the Lady Cora’s constant friend
and sang to the enchantment of the court
in words that no-one ever understood,
her voice more lovely every time she sang.
For years, she served her Lady faithfully.
They watched their hair turn gray, then white, together;
they watched the lines appear around their eyes
and lips, and still the servant Rhoda sang
her songs of love, all in her secret tongue.
One morning, Rhoda could not wake her Lady.
She called the other servants in to help,
but there was nothing to be done. She sang
a quiet farewell song beside her bed,
and at the funeral sang again the song
she’d sung when Ellen died, before she’d pledged
herself to serve her Cora till her death.
And everyone who’d ever heard her sing
now wept to hear that song more beautiful
than any she had ever sung for them.
But in the morning after Cora’s funeral,
another servant went to wake up Rhoda
and found an empty bed no one had slept in.
The people of the castle still recounted
the singing servant’s tale until the day
the siege was ended and the castle burned.
Andrew Shields lives in Basel, Switzerland. His book Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong is being published by Eyewear in June, 2015.