Mississippi folktale of a desperate fisherman who is granted a wish from a mysterious sea witch. And you know what they say about wishes.
Once, on the Gulf coast of Mississippi, there was a poor fisherman who had five daughters. These daughters were very plain and could not find suitors so they lived at home with their mother and helped her keep the house and sell their father’s catch. They were a great help to the family but also a great burden. With so many mouths to feed, the old fisherman was at sea every waking hour trying to catch enough fish to keep his large family fed and clothed. Those few hours when he was home his old wife gave him no peace. “Whatever will we do for money. Without a big dowry no one will marry our daughters. You must work harder and catch more fish.” And on and on she drove him. It was only at sea that he could find any peace.
One day when the fishing was extremely poor, the old fisherman sailed his boat further from home than ever before. A dense fog fell and covered the coast and when it lifted the fisherman found himself in a strange cove where he’d never been before. He was about to cast his net when the tide changed and a great whirlpool grabbed hold of his boat and spun it around and around. Faster and faster the boat spun until it traveled down the funnel of the whirlpool like a bit of dirt down a bathtub’s drain. Eventually the boat came to rest on the bottom of the cove. The fisherman saw a small hut and an old woman hanging clothes on a line.
“Hello good wife,” called the fisherman, “what place is this and how come you here?”
“I am the witch of the cove,” the old woman said, “and this is my home. No mortal has ever been here before. If you keep my secret, I will grant you one wish.”
“I wish I could catch more fish,” said the fisherman without hesitation as he thought that having more money would silence his scolding wife.
“It is easily done,” said the witch. “When you throw your net you must say ‘Damma damma dammaree Fish of the sea come to me’ and you will have as many fish as your boat can hold. Now you best leave before the whirlpool closes.”
So the fisherman climbed back into his boat and rode the whirlpool’s funnel back to the surface. When he got into familiar waters, he tried out the witch’s chant. As he threw out his net he called “Damma damma dammaree fish of the sea come to me.” Sure enough he soon had as many fish as his boat could hold. He hurried home and told his wife of his great good fortune.
Day after day the same thing happened and every day the fisherman’s catch was as much as his boat could hold. Even though the family had more money than before, the old fish wife was still not happy. “You know,” she said, “if we could marry off our daughters without having to pay so many dowries, we could live very well you and I. Why don’t you go and ask your witch to work some magic to make our daughters comely so they could marry wealthy suitors?”
Day after day the old woman nagged the fisherman so that he again had no peace. Finally he could stand it no longer and set off along the coast in search of the secret cove. After many hours a thick fog enveloped the boat and obscured the shore. When the fog lifted, the fisherman again saw the secret cove and he waited for the tide to change and the again he rode the whirlpool around and around to the sandy bottom.
This time the old witch was sitting on her porch rocking and smoking her pipe. When she saw the fisherman she said, “What, you again? Aren’t you catching enough fish?”
“Oh yes. The fishing has never been better.”
“Then what brings you here?” The old crone fixed him with her black and twinkling eye. “What more do you need?”
“It’s my daughters. I have five daughters and while I love them dearly, they are homely creatures and cannot find husbands. Have you some magic that can make them beautiful?”
“It is easily done,” said the witch, “but you must not come here again lest you make me angry.”
“I promise not to bother you again,” said the old fisherman.
“When next you cast your net, you will find five blue fish amongst the catch. Take these fish home and tell your wife to cook them for your daughters. When the daughters eat of them they will become beautiful.”
The fisherman thanked the old witch over and over and as the whirlpool lifted him higher and higher he heard the old witch say, “Remember your promise.”
That night when the fisherman returned to his home he bade his wife to cook the five blue fish for the daughters who ate them. Then they all went to bed. When they woke up the next morning, the homely daughters had become the five most beautiful maidens in the South. It didn’t take very long before the girls had their choice of wealthy suitors. All of the girls chose plantation owners or planters sons and went to live in great mansions with servants and fine furnishings.
“There, are you happy now?” The fisherman asked his wife.
She just sighed a great sigh, “How can I be happy when we live in this tiny hovel that smells of fish? How are we to have our daughters and their wealthy families to dinner? And what of our grandchildren? Don’t you want to see your grandchildren?”
The old woman kept on in this manner day after day giving the fisherman no peace. “So what is it you want?” he asked his wife.
“I want you to see your witch and ask her for a fine stone house or enough gold to build one.”
“But I promised not to see her again lest bad things befall us,” the fisherman protested.
“Bah. What can she do? If she refuses to help, we are no worse off. And if she helps us, our lives will be much improved.” So insistent was she that she wore down the old man’s resistance and so he finally gave in to her demands and went once again to seek the secret cove. Once again he sailed up the coast and once again he was enveloped by the fog and once again his boat was whirled around and down to the bottom of the sea. This time the old lady was in her garden planting cockle shells. When she saw who it was her face darkened and she said, “You again. Didn’t I tell you never to return?”
“I’m so sorry,” said the fisherman, “It’s my wife. She won’t leave off nagging me to come to you with one last request.”
“And what do you want now?”
“We want a fine house so we can meet with our well married daughters as equals. We want a house of stone with many rooms. A fine house as befits a wealthy man.”
“It is easily done said the witch, “If it’s gold you want, it is gold thou shall have and a fine house to dwell in.” and with that she stooped down and picked up a stone and handed it to the fisherman. “Plant this stone where you wish your house to stand. Tell your wife to go into the cellars with a basket and find the gold that is there. Tell her she must go alone. This is your last wish. Thou hast broken thy word and I am sorely vexed. You shall find me no more.” And with this she turned her back upon the fisherman and went inside her hut. As the fisherman rose higher and higher on the whirlpool he heard the old witch call, “Remember, true happiness does not come from magic.”
Happy and relieved, the fisherman sailed home and told his wife what the old witch had said. Together they planted the stone in a hole in the backyard and went to bed. The next morning they could barely open their door as one wall of a great stone house was pressed against their hovel.
“Oh come and see,” exclaimed the wife, “see what a fine house we have.”
“And you are to take a basket and go into the cellar and retrieve the gold that lies therein.”
“Gladly,” cried the wife overflowing with joy and she found an old fish basket that her daughters once used to sell their catch in the town and hurried into the big house and down into the cellar. She climbed down and down winding stairs and through twisting hallways with many branchings until she lost her way entirely. She called to her husband and often her cries could be heard echoing through the great house but of the fishwife could not find her way out. And of the old woman and her gold nothing was ever seen again.
The fisherman and his neighbors went into the cellar looking for her and found only a single chamber empty save for an old basket. For many days the fish wife called, “Help me. I am lost. I have gold much gold but I would give it away for a single breath of air and the sight of a blue sky.”
The daughters and the rest of the town considered the great house cursed and no one would ever set foot inside its walls. The old fisherman spent the remainder of his days a sad and lonely man. The great stone house stands there still, you can see it to this day along the Mississippi shore just east of Biloxi.
About the author
Harris Tobias lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of The Greer Agency , A Felony of Birds and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Dunesteef Audio Magazine, Literal Translations, FriedFiction, Down In The Dirt, Eclectic Flash, E Fiction and many other publications. His poetry has appeared in Vox Poetica, The poem Factory and The Poetry Super Highway. You can find links to his novels at: http://harristobias-fiction.blogspot.com/