We were sitting in a small park of Ljubljiana, eating burek, a cheese-filled puff pastry fried in tons of oil that’s very difficult to eat in one go. In Slovenia, the storms had paused for a few days, and the night was very warm. A few metres away, we could hear voices, and candles had been lit in little red lanterns, a bit like those they use in cemetaries. We had not got any closer, thinking it was a private event. After a while, however, as the speaker did not stop, we decided to find out what was going on.
We sat on a bench close to the little stage with the candles, and suddenly we realised that the speaker was not speaking Slovenian, but English, with a very strong Scottish accent. There were two of them, middle-aged guys wearing T-shirts and jeans, looking pretty unexceptional in every respect, and it took us a few more minutes to understand what they were going on about.
Well, ladies and gentlemen: they were two storytellers. The old kind, not actors with dozens of props that change voices and facial expression until you don’t know what to pay attention to. One of them came from the Shetlands, the other from the Orcades, and they were simply telling story, looking us in the eye, standing still on the stage. At this point, it was just impossible for us to walk away. We stayed until the end of the session, and came back the following night to hear the rest of what they had to tell.
You should never lose a story. So, here’s one of the tales we heard that night:
The Lost Fisherman’s Daughter
Somewhere in the Orcades, in a maze of islands and tides, there is a small island where no one wants to live, because he land is poor and the sea ferocious. No one but those who had no choice, that is. It so happened that the family of a fisherman, his wife, his two sons and his daughters, lived there in a humble farm on the coast. They had one small boat and a couple of cows, that managed to find enough to graze without starving each other. Most of their living they made out of gathering samphire, fishing and making some cheese every now and then. It was a hard living, and they could afford to feed no idle mouths. So while the men were fishing and the mother tending the cows, the daughter, the youngest, hardly more than a child, had to walk down to the beach to collect clams and small fry for bait.
She went one morning just after the full moon, when the tides are at their lowest. Still, one has to watch for the rising tide, and he father told her again before she went. She nodded and smiled and kissed him happily. He watched her go with a proud eye. She was so pretty and sweet, the jewel of the family, you see. And he did not worry too much in spite of his warnings, because it was not the first time she went there by herself. He climbed down the rocks to his fishing boat, where his sons were already waiting for him. The day went on, exactly as usual.
In the evening, however, when they came back to land, the fisherman found his wife crying in the kitchen.
‘What’s happened?’ he said.
‘There was a fierce wind this morning,’ she said. ‘Our daughter did not come back!’
The fisherman and his son took lanterns, and called until iit was too dark to see, and searched the coast, to no avail. In the middle of the night, they went back home, more quietly than you might think. It is a hard life out there on the sea, and you always expect to lose someone, one day or another.
The next morning, they took the boat again. The fisherman knew the currents well. If his daughter had drowned in the high tide, he knew where the sea would have brought her by then. He sailed to another island, where he braced himself for the find. But he found nothing. He went back the next day, and the day after that. But the body of his daughter never turned up.
Days passed, then weeks, then months. One day when the fisherman and his sons were watching their nets, something happened that is very common in the Orcades: a mist rose and engulfed the sea, until it was impossible to see where they were heading. This was quite a distressing siuation. You may know where you are, but there is no way to know where the currents may be taking you, and if you drift into the open sea, far from the last island of the archipelago, then you’re lost for good. The best they could do was to try and sail back as best they could, following the direction they had taken. Soon, they saw the shape of an island through the mist. They rejoice, then they realised that something very strange was happening.
It was not their home island. In fact, it was no island they had ever seen. From their boat it looked like a mighty mountain, and there were lights at the top, as if there was some mighty mansion there. When the first moment of surprise was past, they thought they could ask for shelter, or at least for direction. They moored their boat on the beach, and walked up to the lights in the mist.
It was a mansion indeed, a finer one than they had ever seen. They knocked at the door, trying to brush the salt and grime off their coats. Soon they heard someone coming. The door creaked open. Someone held a lantern behind it, and cried in surprise. And then the fisherman recognised the voice of his lost daughter.
‘What are you doing here?’ she said. ‘Come in, come in please! My husband will soon be back.’
‘Since when do you have a husband?’ her father asked.
‘Well, father,’ she said, ‘I have to tell you what happened to me. Remember that morning when I went to the beach for bait, and you told me to watch the tide? I did, but I forgot that I should not turn my back to the sea, as you told me. When I was gathering bait, something grabbed me from behind. I was so frightened that I forgot to call a blessing on myself, as you always told me to. And so he took me. He was a fin-man, a man of the sea. He’s my husband now. And we are in his home.’
Just as she finished her story, the door opened a second time, and a booming voice called:
‘Woman! Who are these strangers in my home?’
The fisherman turned to the door. With the dim light of the lantern, he saw that there was a man there, a tall, frighteningly strong man, with a huge black beard, black eyes, and long black hair that went all the way to his waist. Before he could say anything, his daughter hurried towards him.
‘These are my father and brother, dear,’ she said. ‘Your kinsmen, now. We should treat them like honoured guests.’
As the fin-man’s expression had been fierce a moment before, suddenly it became very pleasant.
‘My fahter-in-law! Pardon me, I had not recognised you. What a poor host I am! Come to the hall and sit, please. My servants will bring your supper. What a joy it is to meet you at last!’
And what a strange occasion, thought the fisherman. He decided that he would not go from the castle until he had learned some more about this man, his son-in-law, as he must now call him. They sat in the great hall, at a long table covered with viands and soups, made from all kinds of fish and seaweed that you can find in the sea. As they ate, the fisherman tried to question his host. How was it that he had never seen this island before? Was it very far away from their own lands? But the fin-man was a clever fellow, and he never gave anything away. The fisherman started to despair he would ever learn anything bout the island, when the fin-man asked him:
‘My best cow died, and I’m looking to replace her. Do you know where I could get a good deal?’
‘Oh, I have cows,’ said the fisherman. ‘I have a very fine one indeed, and I was precisely thinking of selling her. She’s fat and gives the finest milk in the islands. I could sell her to you, if you like. You just have to come with me to our house, and she’s yours.’
He hoped that the fin-man would thus show him the way from his mansion, but he was soon disappointed.
‘I thank you, father,’ the fin-man said. ‘There is no need for you to take me, though. I’ll pay you now, and take care of the cow in the morning. Don’t trouble yourself.’
And he gave the father a whole bag of gold coins, much more than he would ever dare ask for a cow. Needless to say, the fisherman didn’t complain. He put the coins in his pocket, and the conversation carried on pleasantly, though as mysteriously as before.
At last it was time to take their leave.
‘How will we go back to our island?’ the fisherman said.
‘Just get in your boat, and the mist will take you.’
They were about to leave, all in all rather happy about their adventure. Only the fisherman’s daughter, who had not seen her family for months, looked a bit forlorn. All of a sudden, her face brightened.
‘Father,’ she said. ‘Surely there is something you’d like to take home, as a gift from my husband and me?’
‘Of course,’ the fin-man said. ‘Take anything you like. My home is yours, father.’
‘Anything at all?’ the daughter said, her eyes bright.
‘Anything at all,’ her husband confirmed.
The girl looked at her father with a happy smile. He looked at her just as happily.
‘Well then,’ he said, ‘that’s very good of you, Mr Fin-man. If you so kindly offer, I’ll take that gold plate over there, on the mantlepiece.
It was a heavy plate all made of gold and engraved with strange scenes from the deep sea. It was worth a fortune, but the fin-mn didn’t bat an eye.
‘It is yours, father,’ he said. ‘Good luck.’
The father kissed his daughter, without noticing her disappointment. We can’t truly blame him, can we? His daughter had married a richer man than he could ever hope, and there she lived like a lady, instead of risking her life every morning looking for bait. It never occured to him that she didn’t really have a say in the matter. He walked down to his boat, carrying the heavy plate. At last his daughter came running behind him. She took his hands, and put something in it.
‘Take this knife,’ she said. ‘Please do not lose it, ever! With it you can always find your way back to our island. Without it, you’ll never find it again.’
The fisherman promised to keep the knife, and she hurried back to the mansion. But as he was carrying the plate into the boat, that heavy, heavy golden plate, the knife escaped from his hands, and fell into the deep sea. All his efforts to retrieve him were in vain. And now, they had to sail away.
The mist engulfed the boat and they started to drift. Finally, they saw a shape in the distance, the familiar cliffs of their home island. They moored the boat in the sand, and ran up to the farm, where the fisherman’s wife was pallid with worry.
‘Here you are!’ she cried. ‘What happened?’
And before they could answer, she started wailing:
‘We’re ruined, husband. Our best cow, Betsy, the one you were saving for the market, she’s gone. We’ll never be able to pay our debts.’
‘What do you mean, gone?’
‘Just what I said! She’s gone. I went to the stable this morning, and it was empty. She just vanished into thin air.’
Then the fisherman knew that the fin-man had kept his end of the bargain, and taken care of the cow himself. At least it meant that they would not starve. In truth, they would never starve again, if he could sell that gold plate for what it was worth.
He sat down, and told his wife the story. Sad as she was that she had not been there to see her daughter, she was glad to know that she was alive and well. Soon they took the boat, and sailed to the mainland, where a rich laird was very impressed by the gold plate, and gave them a fine sum of money for it. The fisherman was a rich man now, maybe not as rich as his son-in-law, but well-off enough. He bought another farm on a richer island, closer to the mainland, where he was soon able to find two pretty brides for his sons, and there they lived for some long and happy years.
Yet he never found the knife again, and he was never able to find the fin-man’s island, even though he was now less afraid of the mist than he used to be, sometimes even praying secretly that he would get lost in it again. So perhaps he was not that rich, after all.