An Estonian fairy tale, this version was published in ‘Fairy Tales from the Soviet Union’ in 1986.
It was a bad year for the fishing vllage. The catches had been poor ever since autumn, and by spring the larders were empty. Fish is to the fisherman what grain is to the peasant. When there is no fish, the whole village goes hungry.
The fishermen gathered together and racked their brains. What could they do? It was too early in the year to go out to sea, but to stay at home would mean certain ruin.
So they thought and thought, then resolved to try their luck.
“Perhaps the sea will take pity on us and send something into our nets at least!”
Then one fisherman said: “I don’t know whether it’s true, but they say Old Man Kaarel used to be friendly with the Sea Queen herself. He must know how to get a good catch.”
“I seem to remember something about that too,” said a second. “I was still a boy, when my grandfather said that Kaarel had some special thing that lured the fish at all seasons. Why don’t we go and see the old man. Perhaps he’ll give us it to try our luck.”
Old Man Kaarel’s house was right on the edge of the village. He had once been a brave and successful fisherman. But time had long since being his back, and now he had not only stopped going out to sea, but rarely crossed the threshold of his little house. Yet when the fishermen knocked on his door, Kaarel went out to them and said:
“I know why you have come to me, friends, and this is what I have to say: a good fisherman relies on his skill and the strength of his hands, not on good luck. But you have taken on a hard task. You are going out to sea before the season, and the sea does not like that. Never mind, go ahead bravely, and I will help you.”
So saying Old Man Kaarel took the kerchief from his neck and showed it to the fishermen.
“See the three knots in this kerchief. The first will bring you a fair wind. Undo it as you hoist the sail. The second will draw the fish into your nets. Undo it as you cast them. And the third must never be undone. Woe betide you if you do. And one another thing. Be content with what the sends you. Whatever your catch, do not cast your nets a second time.”
“Don’t worry, Kaarel,” replied the fishermen. “We’ll do as you say. We give you our word.”
“Remember that a seaman’s word must never be broken,” the old man said, handing the fishermen his kerchief.
All night long the fishermen pitched their boat and mended their nets. By morning all was ready.
The fishermen jumped into the boat and pushed off.
They were soon out of the gulf and hoisted the sail. The captain pulled out Old Man Kaarel’s kerchief and said:
“Let’s undo the first knot.”
They undid the first knot. At once a fresh wind blew up, filled the sails and sent the boat racing along.
It sailed splendidly, turning without the rudder and cutting the waves like a knife. The fishermen sailed far out into the open sea. Suddenly the wind dropped, the sail went limp and the boat stopped.
“This must be the place the old man was talking about,” said the fishermen. “Let’s cast our nets here.”
So they all set to work. They lay anchor, spread out the nets and cast them into the sea.
“Now undo the second knot!” cried the fishermen.
The captain took Old Man Kaarel’s kerchief out of his jacket and undid the knot. No sooner had he undone it, than there was a great rippling and splashing in the sea that made the floats on the nets bob wildly.
The fishermen waited until everything had calmed down, then cautiously began to pull in their nets. Never before had they been so heavy. The fishermen had to pull with all their might. At last the edge of the nets appeared above the water. They were teeming with fish. The silver scales glittering so brightly in the sun dazzled their eyes.
“Heave ho, my lads!” the captain ordered.
The fishermen tugged at the nets and the fish tumbled into the boat.
“It’s a fine catch!” said one of the fishermen. “Thanks to Old Man Kaarel.”
“That’s as may be,” replied another fisherman. “But to last all of us until the start of the fishing season, we need three catches like that. Shouldn’t we cast the nets again, friends?”
“What are you saying?” exclaimed the youngest fisherman. “Remember what Old Man Kaarel told us: be content with what the sea sends you.”
“Ah, the needs of the old and young are small indeed,” laughed the captain. “But we’d be ashamed to go home with a boat that’s not full to the brim.”
So the fishermen cast their nets again.
But this time they were not so lucky. The nets they hauled in were empty. They hadn’t caught a single fish.
The fishermen’s spirits fell, but the captain said:
“That’s because we haven’t undone the third knot in Old Man Kaarel’s kerchief. It’s no ordinary kerchief, as you yourselves can see. Each knot brings success. There is one left, so we will undo that too. Then our boat will be full up.”
“But, captain,” the oldest fisherman now spoke up. “Old Man Kaarel told us not to touch that knot.”
“You’re an old man yourself,” replied the captain. “And old men have a well-known saying-don’t try your luck a third time. But there’s another saying too-only a fool turns down good fortune.”
“That’s for sure,” said the fishermen. “Let’s give it a try then! Undo the knot, captain.”
The captain had been holding the kerchief ready for some time. He tugged at the knot and undid it. The sea roared, the waves rose up over the stern, and the floats on the nets danced madly.
“There go the fish!” said the captain. “I told you so!”
The fishermen were so overjoyed they could hardly wait until it was time to haul in the nets. Again, like the first time, the nets seemed very heavy. But fishermen arc a strong breed. They hauled the ropes together hard and pulled out the net. But wait a minute! What was that! There was only one fish in the net. A huge pike with a blunt tail, as if the end had been chopped off with an axe.
“Did you ever see the likes of that!” exclaimed the fishermen, flinging the pike angrily into the boat.
Meanwhile the sun was sinking low on the horizon. The sea grew calmer with the approach of sunset.
Suddenly some voices drifted over the quiet water. The fishermen jumped up and looked about them.
“Who else has hunger driven out to sea?” they wondered.
But there was no sign of a boat anywhere.
“It must have been a seagull,” the captain said.
Then they heard the long, vibrant sound of a horn, like someone calling the cows in the village. And a woman’s voice asked:
“Everyone awake? Everyone at home?”
“Yes, everyone except that fool without a tail,” replied
a young girl’s sweet voice.
Then the horn sounded again, even louder and longer.
Suddenly the pike in the boat began to thresh about. It opened its sharp-toothed mouth wide and jostled the other fish with all its might. But the captain kicked it and shouted loudly to the crew:
“Raise anchor! I don’t like the look of this. Let’s be off as fast as we can.”
The fishermen raised the anchor and turned the boat towards their native shore.
But what was this! No matter how hard they plied the oars, the boat would not budge. As if the sea had frozen or the boat become rooted to the seabed. They pulled hard
together, but it did not move an inch.
All night long the fishermen laboured, flinging down the oars in despair, then picking them up again to have another try, but to no avail. It seemed that nothing on earth could move the boat.
When the first flush of dawn appeared in the cast they heard the strange voices again.
“Everyone awake? Everyone at home?”
“Everyone’s awake and at home except that fool without a tail. There’s still no sign of him.”
Then came the sound of the horn again and the tinkling of little bells. Suddenly the fish in the boat stirred. Opening its sharp-toothed mouth and moving its gills, it began to wriggle up the side of the boat.
“What’s that monster up to now?” muttered the captain. Suddenly he thought: “Perhaps that’s who they’re waiting for.”
The captain jumped up, grabbed the pike and threw it overboard.
At that very moment someone far away, perhaps on the seabed, clapped their hands and cried happily:
“Look, look! That fool without a tail is swimming home. In such a hurry that he’s blowing bubbles!”
The fishermen heard no more. A terrible wind arose and the waves roared so loud that the fishermen could not even hear one another.
The boat was swept away by the waves.
All day the fishermen were tossed about m the raging sea. The boat would fly up as if to the clouds, then plunge down, down to the very depths. The old men could not
remember such a storm in all their days.
Towards evening they reached a rocky island. The fishermen jumped ashore and dragged the boat onto dry land.
“What island is this?” they asked one another. “Where has the storm taken us?”
At that very moment a little old man appeared from behind a cliff. His back was bent almost double, and his white beard all but touched the ground.
“This is the island of Hiu-maa,” said the old man. “Small wonder that you don’t know it. Men rarely put to shore here of their own free will.”
The old man led the fishermen to a wooden hut behind the cliffs, where he warmed and fed them, then asked:
“Who are you and where are you from, and why are you fishing so early?”
“What else could we do! Our larders are empty, there is naught to eat in the village,” the fishermen replied and told the old man all that had happened. One thing only did they keep back-how they had undone the third, forbidden, knot on Old Man Kaarel’s kerchief.
The old man listened to them and said:
“I used to know that Kaarel of yours. Do you know where he sent your boat? To the pastures of the Sea Queen, where she takes her fish. But her fish are clever, they would never get caught. The shoals of fish you caught had come from far away to feed with the shoals of the Sea Queen. But how that tailless pike swam into your nets, I can’t understand. How did you manage to catch it?”
Then the fishermen realized what Kaarel had tried to protect them against, but they said nothing to the old man. Their spirits were low. The storm was still raging at
sea, the wind howled down the chimney, and heavy spray splashed against the window. The bad weather was here to stay.
The old man put the fishermen to bed on some old nets in a comer of the hut, and they slept soundly.
At dawn the old man woke them up. Outside the storm was still raging, and the waves were dashing against the cliffs. The fishermen’s hearts were heavy.
“What are we to do?” they asked the old man. “We’ll never be able to leave here, and our hungry children are waiting for us at home.”
“Never fear,” the old man replied. “Perhaps you will be able to get away. Give me Old Man Kaarel’s kerchief.”
The captain took out the kerchief reluctantly and handed it to the old man.
The old man looked at the kerchief and shook his head.
“I’ve seen this once before. Only I seem to remember there were three knots in it. You undid two of them, you told me so yourselves, but where is the third?”
What were the fishermen to do? They told the old man the whole truth.
The old man frowned.
“You arc bad fishermen!” he said. “You disobeyed Old Man Kaarel and you tried to deceive me.”
The fishermen hung their heads in shame.
“Well,” the old man said. “I can see you have been punished already. For the sake of Old Man Kaarel and your starving children, I will help you.”
Then the old man took the kerchief, tied a knot in it and said:
“Make sure that from now on your word is kept as firmly as this knot.”
As soon as he drew the knot tight, the wind dropped and the waves grew calm, as if there had never been a storm.
The fishermen thanked the old man and set off for their boat.
The old man went with them to the seashore. As they hoisted the sail, he waved his hand in farewell. And straightway a light breeze filled the sail and sent the boat racing over the the calm sea.
The fishermen reached home the very same day.
They were greeted joyfully by their friends and families.
And their catch lasted until the beginning of the season.
So all’s well that ends well. But the fishermen never forgot the lesson they had been taught. Ever since then a seaman’s word has been kept as firmly as the knots he ties in his ropes.
And you would do well to rmember this story too. For it is not only seamen who should keep their word.