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The Mermaid and The Poor Fisherman

Mermaid image Copyright © 2002 Chloe Hedden. It may not be reproduced in any way without permission of humanity.org.
Chilean tale

Once upon a time there was a fisherman who had to give fish to the king every day. On the day he failed to do so, his head would be cut off. He lived with his wife, a little pup, and a baby two months old. When he returned home in the evening, his wife never came out to meet him, but his dog was always at the door barking a welcome.

One night the fisherman couldn’t for the life of him make a catch. Suddenly a mermaid appeared and said, “Listen to me, fisherman, if you give me the first creature who comes out to greet you at your door, I will give you fish.” He though to himself, “My wife never comes to meet me, and neither does my baby boy. My dog is the only one who is always there.” So he made the deal with the mermaid, and tossing out his net, he drew it in heavy with fish. Now there were fish and enough left over to sell in the city.

When the fisherman got home that night, out came his little boy as fast as he could creep and hugged his father about the legs. Then the fisherman said in his heart, “My son, my son, I have to give you to the mermaid.” Without a word, he went off to the king’s to deliver his fish and sell the rest to the townsfolk. That evening, he brought home everything he needed for his humble cottage, but never mentioned a word of what had happened with the mermaid.

This man went on fishing every night. The bargain he had made with the mermaid was to deliver to her, at the age of sixteen, whoever came to the doorway. Gradually the fisherman became richer than a king, and meanwhile his son grew up by leaps and bounds. The boy came to be a handsome lad, and when he was coming of age, his father grew very sad, for he knew that the deadline of his fateful bargain was drawing near. Although his wife served him faithfully, he would not take a bite to eat. One day she said to him, “Eat, my love. I have done you no wrong.” But the fisherman answered nothing, until finally his son asked him, “Why won’t you serve yourself, father? Maybe it seems wrong to you that I am here.”

“No, my son,” he answered, “It’s not that at all. You see, I was once a poor fisherman and one night I couldn’t catch a thing. Then a mermaid made a bargain with me to trade fish for whoever should come to greet me at my door. As I thought it would surely be my little dog, I agreed. When I came home on that evening so long ago, you scrambled out and hugged my legs. Now the time is up, and I have to deliver you to the mermaid. That you see is the cause of my sadness.”

“Ah,” answered his son, “is that the only problem you’ve got? Go on and give me to her. But first you must go and buy a colored saddle.” The poor man shambled off to the store to buy some colored blankets, with which he made his son a saddle.

“Now, papa,” continued the boy, “we’re going to round up the animals.” Since the following day was the time for delivering the lad to the mermaid, the father and his son left the horses corralled and ready that night. Early the next morning, the boy got up and saddled the most cantankerous mare in the herd. His mother was fixing breakfast and crying for her son. He bade her good-bye and went outside with his father. They mounted up and rode away toward the sea.

The mermaid was waiting at the water’s edge, and when she caught sight of the lad, she exclaimed, “How lovely he is, and what a beautiful saddle! You must give me the boy and the horse, all together.” At that, the father threw his lasso into the middle of the sea, where the mermaid caught it. Then the father threw his lasso into the middle of the sea, where the mermaid caught it. Then the father rode to his house at breakneck speed, not turning once to look back. The mermaid stood with her eyes glued on the youth on horseback. “How lovely he is, and what a beautiful saddle!” Then she began to tug the horse into the sea, but the beast tugged back, and the more it pulled, the more the sea fell back around the mermaid. The horse pulled and strained until the mermaid, tired of being dragged from the water, dropped the lasso. The valiant animal galloped off toward the most tremendous mountains on earth, with the boy clinging tight to its neck.

The young man became lost in the great mountains. After traveling a long while, he came to a place where flocks of birds and beats guarding a dead cow.

“Why aren’t you fellows eating?” asked the young horseman as he rode up.

“Because,” answered the Lion of Africa, “we’re all of different sizes; some would eat more and others, less.”

“I’ll divide the victuals for you,” volunteered the boy. He dismounted, tossed off his poncho, and began to parcel out pieces of the dead cow to all the animals, from the biggest beast on down. All the animals were very content with this new arrangement. Once the shares were all doled out, the boy leaped upon his horse again and rode away. He had gone about a quarter of a mile when the Lion of Africa sent a falcon to fetch him. Immediately it occurred to the lad that the animals weren’t full and that they were planning to eat him as well. But, having little choice, he returned to the beasts’ encampment and presented himself before the lion.

“I’ve called you back,” purred the lion, “because we’ve agreed to give you a magic charm. My boy, when you’re in a tight spot, you need only say, ‘In the name of the fiercest lion in all the world’.” After this, the falcon added, “When you find yourself in hard times, say, ‘In the name of the most light-winged falcon in the world.’”

Now that the fisherman’s son was blessed with charms, he continued on his travels. A short way along the road he dismounted, turned himself into a lion, and chased his own horse. The poor thing had run about thirty yards, when he caught it. “Now, why do I need a horse after all?” the boy thought to himself, and away he dashed, transformed into a lion. He traveled for two days and two nights without stopping. Next, to try out his other charms, he turned himself into a greyhound and traveled on for two more days and nights. Following this, he made himself a falcon and flew as long and as far as he could.

Still there was no house to be seen anywhere. He lit in a tree and said, “In the name of the swiftest dove in the whole world.” Catching sight of a house, he swooped down, turned himself back into a young man, and approached the house to ask for work. A gentleman appeared and hired him to shepherd his flocks.

Now, the man of the house was very rich and had a single daughter. Early the next day, she got up to make breakfast for the wandering land. After eating, he went out with the master of the house to see the flock, all counted to the last head.

“Never take the sheep and cows to that lake yonder,” cautioned the rich man, “for there’s a wild boar that always eats my live-stock.” But no sooner had the man gone inside than the young shepherd led his animals off to that very same lake. He had just arrived when the boar rushed out ferociously and snatched a sheep in his fangs.

“In the name of the African lion, the fiercest in the world,” said the young shepherd. Immediately he turned into a lion and began wrestling with the boar. They struggled the livelong day, but neither could gain the upper hand. Finally the boar roared, “By the mud of my lake, I’ll make short work of you.”

“By the kiss of a virgin maid and a sheep’s head cooked in a virgin pot with vintage wine,” returned the lion, “I’ll gobble you up in a twinkling.” At last they broke off. The boar scurried away to his lair by the lake, and the boy returned home with his flock. When the owner came out to count his stock, he saw that only one sheep was missing. Now how they waited on the boy’s every wish! Afterwards, the master said to his daughter, “Listen, my dear, this must be a daring young fellow we have here, for he lost only one sheep from the whole flock. You, my sweet, are going to keep an eye on this chap.”

Even earlier the next day, the daughter rose up to make the morning meal. And a tasty affair it was! There glasses of old vintage wine, the very best in the house. After breakfast, the lad trotted off with his flock to the same lake. Sure enough, out roared the boar like mad in pursuit of the sheep. The shepherd boy made himself into a lion again, and the fight was on. When they had battled a great while, the boar said, “By a little mud from my lake. I’ll make pieces of you”. The lion replied, “By the kiss of a virgin maid and a sheep’s head cooked in a virgin pot with vintage wine, I’ll be done with you in no time.” The daughter overhead every word of this and went to tell her father.

“And how are you, my daughter?” he asked.

“As pure as the day I was born,” she answered.

“Good enough, my dear. Now you are going to cook this fellow a sheep’s head in vintage wine with a virgin pot.” Very soon after, the youth came in with his flock and corralled them for the night. The master went out to count the animals and found not one missing. He lassoed the oldest sheep and cut off its head to toss into the virgin pot. They gave the shepherd boy his supper, and if they had pampered him before, the sheep’s head boiled on the whole night through.

Very early the following day, the daughter and the shepherd awoke. The boy following day, the daughter and the shepherd awoke. The boy breakfasted richly on sheep’s head, and set off for the lake. The wild boar hove into view once more, and they began to fight fiercely. This time the shepherd beat the beast down with a few blows. He dragged it away from the lake and began to open it, whereupon a fox popped out of the boar’s belly. Immediately the youth turned himself into a greyhound, the most light-footed in the world, and lit out after the fox. He caught at the very threshold of the house of a neighboring giant, and carried it back to the same lake to open it. Out of the fox came a dove, which flew away straight toward the giant’s place.

Then the boy said to his charm, “In the name of the falcon, the most light-winged in the world,” and he caught the dove at the sill of the giant’s balcony. He carried the bird away to the lake and sliced it open. Finding an egg inside the dove, he seized it and headed back for the place, where he found the giant deathly ill and stretched out on his bed.

“Give me the egg, boy,” moaned the giant, “and I’ll grant you all my trasures.”

“First hand over your keys,” answered the shepherd, “every last one.” When the ailing giant had done this, the boy grasped the egg tight and said, “Open your mouth wide, because I’m going to toss this inside.” With all his strength he hurled the egg, which broke to smithereens on the giant’s forehead and killed him on the spot! Now the young shepherd began to open all the doors of the palace. In one room he found a little princess locked up. And what a lovely girl she was! He opened a second door and found another little princess, even more beautiful than the first. Opening a third door, he found a third princess, lovely without equal. This one the boy married.

After his wedding to the third princess, he returned to visit his master and to see how things were at the ranch.

“My son, don’t go,” implored the rich man. “Marry my daughter, for she’s the only one I have, and I’m a man of great wealth.”

“It’s not out of scorn that I don’t marry her,” answered the boy, “It’s just that I have another.” So his master paid him, and he set off for home, telling his wife the story of how he had been married to the mermaid and run away from her and had then become a shepherd.

“Well,” she said upon hearing the tale, “see that you never go to the seashore any more, for she could nab you again with no trouble at all.”

The days passed in this new life, and the youth became a hunter of birds. Bit by bit, he forgot about the danger of the sea’s edge. One day when he strayed there by chance, the mermaid spied him and pulled him in. He didn’t come home anymore, and his wife was sure that he had finally fallen into the mermaid’s power. She bustled off to a jeweler’s and ordered three golden apples. When these strange fruits were ready, she want to hide in a wood near the mermaid’s haunt. Rummaging around, the young wife took out one of the golden apples and began to juggle it from hand to hand. When the mermaid spied the gleam of the golden fruit, she called, “sell me your apple, princess.”

“If you will show me your husband down to his shoulders,” she answered, “the apple shall be yours. Not otherwise.” So the mermaid grabbed the young man and raised him out of the water to his shoulders. When the princess recognized him as her husband, she threw the apple to the sea-maiden. Then she entered the little wood again and took out another apple even more beautiful than the first. When the mermaid saw this one, she cried, “Oh, princess, sell me your lovely apple.”

“Of course. Simply show me your husband to the waist, and you shall have it.” The mermaid seized her captive husband and lifted him out up to his waist, whereupon the princess tossed her the apple. Once again she returned to the grove to get the third and most beautiful apple. When the mermaid asked for that one as well, the princess replied, “Certainly I’ll sell it to you if you’ll lift up your husband in the palm of your hand.”

When the mermaid did this, the young man turned into a dove and flew far away into the clouds. The princess hurled the apple to the sea-maiden and returned to shore in her little boat. When she got home, her husband was sitting there awaiting her. They were married again, and this time the princess insisted, “Never go hunting again, my love, for now there’s no need. If the mermaid should trap you another time, she would never let you out of her clutches.” And that is the story of the mermaid and the poor fisherman.

Pino-Saavedra Y. Folktales of Chile, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1967, pp. 20-26.

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