The Washer Maid

A Patchwork Fairy Tale: the one with the mermaids, the handkerchiefs, and the magic cure.

When a prince falls deathly ill a brave washer maid sets off to find a cure. If only so his poor sister the princess will stop crying.

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  • Read the full transcript below:


[Gentle theme music]

Laura: Hi, you can call me Laura, I’m here to tell you a story if you like. You found one of my Patchwork Fairy Tales. This is the one with the mermaids, the handkerchiefs, and the magic cure.

[Music fades]

The Washermaid

Once, in a land neither very far nor very near, a widowed king ruled with command and kindness. His wife had left him two children to treasure, raise and spoil. One son and one daughter. They were both delicate children and even when they were not quite children anymore, the king tried to shield them from anything that might upset them. How could he have known that the worst thing that had ever befallen them would come from within their own home? But so it was, because one cold autumn day the prince fell ill.

The king worried and the princess fretted and although the prince tried to assure them both he would be better soon and obediently took all the medicines and draughts he was brought, the sudden illness only got worse.

Terribly fearful of losing his son, the king summoned all the doctors, healers and medicine dispensers in the kingdom. They all came and they all did their best, but to no avail.

Desperately the princess said: “If there is no scholar of science that can help us, we should call upon the wisdom of a wizard or magician.”

The king agreed with her and so it was that an old sorcerer was brought to the prince to examine him and give advice.

The sorcerer stroked his beard and looked very grave when he said: “Your Highness, the illness that has struck you is not an ordinary illness. I cannot take it away and I cannot provide the cure, I can only tell you what the cure might be.”

“Speak up then,” the prince said weakly, while his father and sister wrung their hands.

“Your Highness can only be cured by drinking a soup made from the black seaweed that grows on the bottom of the northern ocean. But no one would be able to fetch it. The northern sea is ruled by mermaids and they let no one near.”

“There has to be a way!” the princess pleaded. “Or how would you know such a cure even exists!”

But the sorcerer shook his head sadly. “Long ago, when I was young, there sometimes were women that dared to let themselves drift out to sea in search of the healing seaweed. Some of them managed to come back with it. But if anyone is to try, it must be a woman, anyone else that is to enter their waters the mermaids will surely kill.”

Of course the princess immediately offered to go herself, but the prince cried out in horror and the king forbade her outright.

The king suggested sending a ship, but the sorcerer said it would be sunk by the mermaids immediately.

“Someone must go,” the princess cried. “I cannot lose my brother to something that might be cured if only someone was brave enough to fetch it.”

So the king, who in this time of need saw no other option than to draw on old traditions, and who was too afraid to either lose his son or risk his daughter’s life, instead sent a declaration into the kingdom. He had it proclaimed that any young woman who would risk her life to save his son and brought back the seaweed that would save him, could marry the prince and become the future queen of the kingdom.

Messengers spread through the kingdom to proclaim this promise and while they blew shining brass trumpets and loudly chanted their message, they left the palace in a dark gloom. The prince lay ailing in his chambers, the king sat sighing in his room and the princess cried so that every hour a lady in waiting had to give her a clean handkerchief. So many handkerchiefs the princess used up that finally there were no more delicate lace ones, so she had to start on the plain cotton ones. These lasted a little longer, but she still needed a new one every other hour. And it did not seem very likely the princess could stop crying soon, for there was no one in the whole kingdom who dared to go out to the northern sea and brave the mermaids.

So bags and bags of handkerchiefs needed to be laundered and because these ones were only plain cotton they were given to one of the young washer women that had to wash the palace linens in the nearby river.

Whenever she came to collect the wash she saw the poor princess with her eyes so red and her face so pale. And it pained her to see her so, because the washer maid had always rejoiced in the princess’ high spiritedness and cheerful ways. It was the single biggest joy in the work that she did, getting to hear the princess laugh whenever she visited the palace. But there was no laughing now.

While she scrubbed and rinsed handkerchief after handkerchief, the washer maid sighed: “This is really too sad, the poor princess will cry her beautiful eyes out at this rate.”

This proved quite right, because for three full day the flow of dirty handkerchiefs did not stop. On the third day the washer maid cried out:

“That does it, I cannot wash only  handkerchiefs for the rest of my life. Someone must go fetch that seaweed to cure the prince so the princess can stop crying, and if no one dares to go I will have to do it myself!”

“But you’ll have to go all the way down to sea!” the other washerwomen exclaimed.

“I am not afraid of the sea,” said the maid. “It is only water and I know how to swim.”

“But the northern sea is full of mermaids,” the other washerwomen cried.

“So much the better,” the maid answered. “I would dearly like to see a mermaid, I have heard they are very beautiful.”

So she packed up her things, got herself a little boat and floated down the river in it, quite pleased to use it for something else than the endless washing for a change.

“The river will bring me to the sea,” she said. “And if it isn’t exactly the right part of the sea, I will see what to do about that when I get there.”

Floating down the river like this the washer maid passed a fish that had jumped out of the water and had landed on the bank. It was flopping so desperately that the maid steered her boat to the side, picked the poor creature up and put him back into the river. The fish immediately disappeared into the depth but at once came up again and spoke:

“Thank you, kind maid! May I ask why I was so lucky to have you pass by?”

“You are welcome, fish,” said the girl. “And I passed by because I am on my way to the northern sea, to get the black seaweed that will cure the prince, so the princess can stop crying.”

“Ah, but the northern sea is full of mermaids!” the fish said. “So if I may offer you one piece of advice: never get out of your boat, do not so much as touch the water or you will surely be lost!”

After having said this, he disappeared under water again and swam out of sight.

“That is all very well,” the washer maid said. “But how am I to get my hands on the seaweed if I am not even to touch the water!”

But she thought she might figure that out when she got there, so she kept on floating down the river and when the sun went down she pushed herself near the bank, dragged her boat ashore and settled down to sleep under the stars.

The next day the washer maid pushed her boat down the river again and continued on her way. When the sun was high above her she saw a heron perched on a branch overhanging the river. He was ready to pounce, but the boat rushed towards him and he startled and flew away. Hardly did the washer maid know what had happened or a fish stuck its head out above water and said:

“I am truly lucky you happened to pass this way with your rushing boat! May I ask where you are going?”

“I am on my way to the northern sea, to get the black seaweed that will cure the prince, so the princess can stop crying,” the washer maid answered.

“Ah, but you cannot swim in the northern sea to get the seaweed or the mermaids will get you!” said the fish. “So if I may offer you one piece of advice: sing a song so the mermaids will come up and listen to you, then you can pick some of the black seaweed out of their tangled hair.” And having said this he splashed under water and was out of sight.

“That is very clever I’m sure,” said the maid to herself. “But how am I ever to get out of the northern sea again if my singing has called every mermaid to surround my little boat?”

But, again thinking she could figure that out when she got there, the washer maid continued on her way, staying on the lookout for fish in need, until once again the sun set and she must go ashore to sleep.

The next day was no different and when the washer maid saw a fish trapped in a little pool that had split off from the river, she did not hesitate to dig him a little channel back to the river. The fish swam through it and then after her, curiously asking where she was going.

“I am on my way to the northern sea, to get the black seaweed that will cure the prince, so the princess can stop crying,” the washer maid answered.

“Ah, but you shall never get out of there once the mermaids have found you!” the fish said. “So if I may offer you once piece of advice: mermaids cannot abide to be seen crying, so if you sing the saddest song you know they may well hide beneath the waters to hide their tears.” And with that statement he splashed his tail and swam away.

“Well, well,” said the washer maid. “That might just work. At any rate it is the best plan I’ve got.”

So she fearlessly continued on the last part of her journey, all the way down to the northern sea, which she reached by nightfall.

The northern sea was dark and seemed endless, but the washer maid bravely rowed out into the open water and looked around. There was nothing to be seen. Nothing but the shore on one side, the sea stretched out on the other and the wide sky stretched silently above it. So, gathering all her courage, she took a deep breath and started to sing.

She sang the songs the washerwomen sung together when doing the laundry. Good, rhythmic songs, that could go on and on without getting weary. Her voice was loud and cheerful, but the sea winds carried it away across the dark waves and her songs seemed hardly worth noticing in the vastness.

Still the washer maid kept on singing. She sang until her cheeks were red and her blood was warm and in the middle of a spirited chorus she saw the water stir strangely. Dark shapes slowly came to the surface. The maid sung bravely on. Eyes appeared above the waves and long hair floated and rippled in the water. The maid sung with all her might.

One by one, the mermaids of the northern sea came closer, their heads just above the water, their arms stretching curiously towards the boat.

The maid looked at them and started another song. She took great care to keep her arms and even her clothes well within the edge of the boat. The mermaids had seemed very beautiful a moment ago, but now they were nearer the maid could see their green translucent skin and their sharp nails full of chalk and sand. She saw the scaly points on their ears as they tossed their heads and whenever they laughed she saw their sharp teeth gleaming in the starlight.

Nervously, but still singing, the maid looked at the heads with masses of tangled hair that moved towards her. She looked a mermaid straight in the eye, singing brightly and the mermaid smiled, mesmerized,  as the maid stretched out her hand and plucked a clump of bulgy black seaweed out of her long knotted hair. With racing heart she stuck the wet clump into her pocket. She finished her song and for a moment there was a dreadful silence. Then the washer maid drew a deep breath and chose the saddest  ballad she knew.

It was the story of a young girl who left home and travelled, all alone, to the town where her sister now lived. She was hurrying there to see her sister’s first child, that was to be named for her. But darkness fell sooner than she had expected that night, the poor girl got lost on the moors in the dark and froze to death under the stars.

The washer maid sung with long quivering notes. She mourned and wailed and let her voice swell like the heartless winter winds. The mermaids listened with round eyes. They bowed their heads and wrung their hands. The girl wailed on. She sang until her own throat started to swell with sadness and suddenly one of the mermaids burst into tears and dove back into the depth.

Now the other mermaids gave up too and weeping and wailing they disappeared into the waves and left the washer maid alone in her little boat. When all was still and silent again she breathed a deep sigh of relief and shaking with fear and triumph she hastily rowed back to the shore.

So it was that the washer maid returned from her journey with the healing seaweed. As she did not meet with a single fish on the way back, she soon reached the royal palace.

There she was immediately brought to the sorcerer, who took the seaweed and examined it very closely. When he found that it was indeed the black healing seaweed from the northern sea he could barely find words enough to praise the washer maid and her bravery. He set to work right away brewing a soup out of the seaweed and when it was done he took the soup, the washer maid, the princess and the king to the prince.

Now while the prince drank the soup the washer maid really was rather nervous. Not only because she was afraid she might have made a mistake, but also because the princess, who had finally stopped crying when the sorcerer had told her that they had the cure, was looking at her very earnestly. And even though her eyes were still red from crying, and her nose was too, the princess was still the loveliest girl the washer maid had ever seen.

As soon as the prince had finished the soup, however, all eyes were on him. Because he let out a sigh that seemed to breathe all the illness out of him and in an instant the bloom of health returned to his features.

The sorcerer smiled and said: “There we are, Your Highness, restored to all health.”

The prince had only time to offer them all one shaky smile before his sister burst into tears again, happy ones this time, and fell upon the bed to hug him. Her tears were all interwoven with laughter and the washer maid was so wildly happy to hear her laugh that she did not even notice right away when the king spoke to her.

Once she did have the presence of mind to curtsy the king shook his head, pressed her hand in gratitude and told her that she would never have to bow to him every again. He was as overflowing with thanks as any parent with a recently saved child could be, and when she had told him the whole story he praised the maid for her bravery and cleverness.

“I’ll be extremely proud to have you as my daughter,” he said. “As promised, since you saved his life, you may marry the prince.”

The prince, who by that time had been helped out of his bed by his sister, looked very glum all of a sudden, but the washer maid cleared her throat and said politely: “That is very gracious of you, Your Majesty, but no thank you.”

The prince brightened up immediately. “Oh good,” he said. “For I do not want to marry anybody.” He looked a little awkward and hurried to shake the washer maid’s hand. “I do thank you though, a thousand times over, with all that I am. Thank you.”

The washer maid laughed. “That’s alright, Your Highness,” she smiled. “I am glad you are better.” Because she really was.

“Oh,” said the king, rather taken aback. “But you must have some kind of reward.”

But before the washer maid could protest that she really did not need a reward, the princess suddenly spoke up:

“I’ll marry her.”

Everyone looked at her and the princess blushed deeply. She still looked rather damp, but very happy, and suddenly very flustered. “If she’ll have me,” she added softly.

Because the princess had known who that washer maid was for a very long time. The maid had always laughed and winked at her whenever she came to collect the washing. And when her brother had fallen ill the princess had clearly seen the kind but worrying looks the maid had given her from behind her endless loads of laundry. Moreover, she had heard from her servants how the washer maid had spoken while washing her handkerchiefs and how she had set off after three days to make her stop crying. And on top of all that it just so happened that the princess was extremely partial to strong arms and sun-browned skin and she really liked the washer maid very much.

“Well,” said the king. “I don’t know if…”

But then he looked at the washer maid and he saw that her face had become quite scarlet. She was looking at the princess and the princess beamed back at her.

“Ah,” said the king. “Well, if that’s how it is you’d better.”

And so the washer maid married the princess, becoming a princess herself in the process and the prince married no one and all three of them were very happy. And the king too, for he got to see both his children happy and acquired a most beloved daughter-in-law.

As it was, then, there was nothing preventing anybody from living happily ever after and I am sure that they all did.

[Theme music]

Laura: And with that last word stitching up the very last sentence, this story has its proper end.

Thank you so much for listening, lovely of you to stop by. If you want to listen to more of these, or find out about my other projects, check out You can also find me at which is full of folklore and urban fantasy.

There’s another tale to tell some other Wednesday but until then…

Mind your step near toadstools, keep your word, and be safe~

[Music fades]

Image of the Patchwork Fairy Tale dragon from the podcast logo.

Copyright Laura Simons, please do not copy my stories without my permission, lest you insult the fae.

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