Warsaw, or Warszawa as it is known to the natives, is the capital of Poland today. 75% of its walls, edifices, and monuments were obliterated by the German Nazis during World War II. However, once upon a time, Warszawa was unfamiliar with such intent vandalism and destruction or being a travel spotlight in an ignored European country. Once, Warszawa was only a small fishing village by the river Vistula.
When monarchy was the prefered form of government, Poland’s major cities today were nothing more than villages spotted along the Polish countryside, each depending on fertile farmland or opulent streams and rivers for their livelihood and trade. Warszawa was no different, depending on the Vistula for supplying fish to the neighboring villages.
Janek was a young fisherman, diligently rowing out into the smooth river in his boat every day to lower his nets and earn his supper. However, one afternoon a great ruckus on the water drew Janek’s attention and his boat into the middle of a dispute. One of the other fisherman, a man known in Warszawa for sniffing out financial opportunities like a bloodhound, had caught a very strange, very large fish in his net.
Janek was surprised to notice that this “fish” had the upper torso and face of a woman. Her hair was as blonde as Polish wheat, and her mournful, panicked eyes were the color of the Vistula itself, silently pleading with Janek. She struggled to free herself from the nets, but the greedy fisherman refused to release her. He was already boasting to his colleagues who had gathered round that he was going to be the first man to have caught a live mermaid in his net.
“Finally,” he bragged, “one man on this earth will have tamed the heart of a siren and conquered her song.”
Janek looked intently at the imprisoned creature within the net. He was suddenly furious with this pompous, cruel man who dared to presume ownership of a frightened girl. While the bloodhound continued to parade his future plans to all his friends, Janek quickly lunged for the net. The fisherman was too shocked to react in time. His burly form reeled overboard from the impact of Janek’s forceful hold on the net while Janek desperately lifted the net upside down so the mermaid could escape. By the time the furious and wet bloodhound of a fisherman had been lifted into his fishing boat by his companions, the siren had retreated deep underwater and Janek was a mile downriver, calmly returning to his occupation and ignoring the fisherman’s evident anger.
There really was nothing the others could do now but also continue to do what they did best and forget about this wondrous mystical creature appearing in the middle of their river. But Janek did not forget. He could not forget the gleaming scales that began at the mermaid’s waist and overlapped downward, the lovely face of a sea angel who smiled at Janek before disappearing into the deep blue water.
Weeks and months passed after this incident. The mystery of the mermaid and her origins were soon buried in the dusty paths of the village, the turbulent market days, the restless autumn harvest, the monotonous fish trade. Then one morning monotony turned into tragedy. There were no fish. At all. The river was…empty. Yes, the water was flowing peacefully, but it had no inhabitants. This was proved by Janek and more than a dozen other fisherman who created quite an outburst at this apparent curse. The harvest only provided for a small part of the villagers’ winter supplies. The gift of fish from the Vistula were the only way the village could survive. When days lengthened into weeks, the villagers became frantic.
Janek was saddened by the loss of his trade. Some mornings, he alone would trek out into the river in his small boat, hopelessly wishing for the return of the fish. One morning, after yet another unsuccessful try, Janek sat at the tiller and relaxed his hand in the cool river water, trailing his fingers in its small waves and praying for change. Out of the depths came a small white hand, gently intertwining with his. His angel, the siren of the Vistula, slowly emerged her head and stared at Janek.
Janek was overjoyed to see her again, but his unhappiness overcame him all at once. Tears rolled down Janek’s face as he softly spoke to the mermaid and explained how his village, his once prosperous village, was soon going to starve if the fish were no more.
The mermaid was silent for a moment before she spoke. A lulling, melodious voice, like the undulating waves, asked Janek if the village would promise to protect her kind and respect the inhabitants of the sea in exchange for her help.
“Not only will we do that little,” cried Janek, “we will also make you the symbol of our salvation!”
The mermaid smiled mysteriously for a moment and then answered, “Because you were kind enough to give back what belongs to me, I will in turn give back what belongs to you. Your village may always count on the water to be its ally.”
With that, the siren began to sing a song as deep as the sea and as beautiful and fluid as the essence of water itself. She continued to sing as she left Janek and, in a small wave of farewell, again dived into her home. The song reverberated throughout the water and the air and the land, casting its haunting spell over all who heard it.
An awestruck Janek went back on land and rallied the entire village around his story, the truth of it being proven by the joyful cries of the fisherman returning with a full catch of fish just retrieved from the Vistula. However, Janek reminded them all about the siren’s terms and his own promise. The next day, a new emblem was lifted above the village, on which a fully armed siren watched over the people who had given their word to respect the true treasures of Poland and all its creatures.
This is now the coat of arms of Warsaw, the city that was saved by a young fisherman and his kindness toward an angel of the sea.
N.B. This is a retelling, written by me, of the original Polish legend.