The Old Boatman and the Seashells
There was once a village known for the wealth and quality of its fish. Though most of the fishermen began their catches at dawn going no further than the teeming bay on which the village sat, one particular boatman set sail every night at dusk, going far into the open sea, and could not be seen until dawn the next day.
No one thought much of this, save that it was the peculiar practice of an old man—though from time to time concern arose among the villagers regarding his eccentricity as a waste given that there were always more fish to be caught in their bay.
Still, he did well enough.
It was the consistency of his comings and goings, however, that caught and captured the attention of a young village lad. To do the same thing for years on end struck him as an unimaginable fate, and he would not be satisfied with the explanation that the boatman was simply strange.
And so, one day—or rather, one night—he followed the boatman.
Creeping behind him, slowly and well out of the light of the lamp the boatman had hung on the bow of his vessel, the boy followed in a tiny, dark and silent craft.
Now, it had been assumed that the old man simply took his boat to sea, cast a net into the water, and sat to wait out the night—and that this was the extent of his curious behavior.
How wrong they were.
For the old man kept his boat moving, out further and further until almost half the night was spent. Then he stopped. The lad waited for the man to cast his net into the water, disappointed that it looked as though the village had been right after all. But instead the old man reached for his lamp and lifted it high. From its dim light, the boy saw that they had not come out to the middle of the sea. Instead, the old man’s boat bumped against the shore of an island.
The lad followed the old man down a thin path through thick trees until he saw a warm light shining in the distance. Coming to the edge of the tree line, and daring to go no further, the boy saw that the light shown from a cave. As the old man moved toward the cave, a voice began to sing—a haunting, echoing melody that bounced off the cave walls. The lad thought it was the most beautiful sound that he had ever heard. And it belonged to the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, who sat amidst the water that filled the bottom of the cave.
The woman, most of her remaining in the water, draped her arms around the old man’s neck as he bent down and looked at her with such affection that the lad felt he had intruded on something quite intimate.
‘My lord,’ the woman said, ‘say that you are happy to see me.’
The old man smiled. ‘I am never so happy as when I see your lovely face, lass,’ he said.
‘Have you brought them to me?’
The old man grinned and brought out two gleaming white seashells.
The woman clasped her hands in delight.
‘And you will do no harm?’ the old man asked, his voice suddenly grave. ‘Maybe a little good?’
‘Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not,’ the woman said, her eyes fixed on the seashells, which seemed to glow in her hands.
‘Ah, well,’ said the man with a sad smile, ‘Either way, I must be going.’
‘Oh no!’ the woman cried, her eyes torn from her shells. ‘Stay, my lord!’ her eyes filled with the sight of the old man.
‘Nay, lass. Perhaps another time.’
‘That is what you always say,’ the woman said, her own voice showing signs of sorrow. Then her face brightened, and her eyes looked at the old man slyly. ‘Perhaps I will do some good, if you come again.’
‘That, lass, is what you always say,’ teased the old man.
‘But will you?’ she asked again.
The old man smiled. ‘Perhaps,’ he said as he turned and walked away from the woman toward the trees.
The lad was careful to stay out of sight until the old man had climbed back into his boat and set sail.
Only when the boat was close to the shore did the man dip his nets. The lad saw the waters begin to stir, and the man’s net came up with his daily modest catch, which he took to shore and hauled home. And when the lad looked back at the bay, there could be no doubt that it had suddenly become quite full of fish.
The lad followed the old man the next night, and again the night after that—each night was the same, with a gift of seashells, followed by a steady banter.
‘And you will do no harm? Maybe a little good?’
‘Perhaps. Perhaps not.’
‘Either way, I must be going.’
The lad followed the old man for seven nights. And all went as it had gone before.
‘Either way, I must go,’ the boatman was saying.
‘No, my lord! Stay!’ the woman cried, her eyes torn from her seashells.
But then the old man paused. The woman’s echoes bounced off the cave walls as they had not done before.
‘Perhaps I will,’ the old man said.
Then he put his head into the woman’s arms and the lad saw that the old boatman’s head was at rest and his face at peace as he drew his final breath.
A tear rolled down from each of the woman’s eyes, as her fingers traced the lines of the man’s face. Then, in one swift movement, she plunged into the water, the old man in her arms. The lad hung his head, but then raised it one last time, only to see the flip of a fish tail stir the water a final time. And then all was still.
That was the last day the fish teemed at dawn in the village bay.