May 14, 2014

Cats-eyes and Carbuncles: How a Merchant's Son Outwitted Old Nick--A Fairy Tale in Thee Acts, By Todd Swanson

"The Ship," by William H. Hunt, artmagick.com
Editor's note: Magical objects, Satan, sibling rivalry--this story has many classic elements of the very best fairy tales. It casts a magic spell on the reader.

I.

Once, not so long ago, there lived two brothers, the children of a wealthy merchant.  On the night before his final journey, the merchant dreamt that his ship would sink into the farthest reaches of the farthest seas.  In the morning, he summoned his sons.

“My beloved sons, tomorrow I sail to seek the Gate of the Moon, for it is said to glitter with gems and jewels that shake from the shimmering moon.  But I fear my dream shall prove truthful, for all who seek the Gate of the Moon disappear into the sea.”

At this, the elder son was most dismayed, for he loved his father dearly.  The younger son was also dismayed, but for a very different reason: He did not want to share an inheritance with his elder brother.

The father read resentment in his younger son’s face and said to him, “My son, though I know what you want is wealth immeasurable, I bequeath what you need instead.”  And the father drew from his left pocket a pendant of lodestone, and said, “Though this dull gray stone seems of little worth, it is priceless indeed, for it possesses the power to bear its wearer home, no matter where he might be. I give it freely, for lusty youths such as you are often wayward and easily lost.”

Feeling insulted, and cheated of his inheritance, the younger brother tossed the lodestone pendant onto the floor and retired to his bedchamber.

With the younger son gone to bed, the father took his elder son aside and said, “My son, I love you both dearly, but be wary of your brother, for he loves naught but wealth.”

“Father,” said the elder, “Travel and trade have made you distrustful.  I cannot believe my brother would cause me harm.  He is merely moody and prone to ill humors.”

“Nonetheless, as your father, I command you: Take this, and keep it with you always,” and from his right pocket, he drew a necklace of cat’s-eyes and carbuncles.  “This charm foresees dangers and wards evils that might befall the wearer.”

“I would wear it without your injunctions, Father, for it shall always remind me of you.”  And this pleased his father, who embraced his son fondly.  And with that the son wished his father farewell.

Now it came to pass that their father’s ship was wrecked in the farthest reaches of the farthest seas, and when the ship did not return at its expected time, the elder son wept rivers of woe, vowing to neither forget nor forsake his father.

The younger son, however, sought a warlock who might broker a pact with Old Nick, the Prince of Mischief.  So in the witching hour, Old Nick appeared in the younger brother’s chambers and woke him, asking why he had been summoned, though in truth he already knew.  In exchange for his soul, the younger brother asked for the power to secretly slay his older brother, so the inheritance need not be shared.  Old Nick happily agreed.  This was a deal he dealt often, and it was easy for him to accomplish.

So the youth gave his soul to Old Nick.  The Prince of Mischief locked it in an iron box, which he placed in a golden trunk.  And from the same trunk, he drew a silver flute, which he gave to the youth.

“This is a magic flute,” said Old Nick.  “Play a tune on this flute, and the winds will obey your commands.”  The younger brother was much pleased, and set about thinking of a way to put the silver flute to good use.

The next day, the younger brother invited his elder brother on a picnic.  The elder brother accepted, eager to mend relations with his moody brother.

They walked for some time, when the elder brother said, “Here on this beach is a lovely spot where we can watch the waves.  Let us sit here to enjoy our lunch.”

But the younger brother shook his head.  “No, dear brother, beyond is a spot more wonderful which I shall enjoy all the more.”

So they continued for some time, when the elder brother said, “Here on this hilltop is a lovely spot where we can see our entire town.  Let us sit here to enjoy our lunch.”

But the younger brother shook his head.  “No, dear brother, beyond is a spot more wonderful which I shall enjoy all the more.”

Upward they climbed until they came to high precipice, when the elder brother said, “Here is a frightful spot where we can see our entire country.  Let us return to the hilltop, or to the beach, to enjoy our lunch.”

But the younger brother shook his head.  “No, dear brother, here is a spot most wonderful, which I shall enjoy immensely.”  Still eager to please his younger brother, the elder brother agreed to take lunch on the precipice.

From a sack the younger brother produced a blanket.  “Help me to spread this blanket, dear brother, so that we may take our repast upon it.”  So the elder brother drew one end of the blanket, though he labored near the precipice.

“Dear brother,” he said, “I am too near the edge to enjoy our repast.  Let us repair down the mountain and return to the hilltop or to the beach.”

But, drawing the silver flute from the sack, the younger brother said, “Very well, dear brother, if you wish to descend the mountain, then descend the mountain you shall.”  With that, he played a tune upon the flute, and a rush of wind tumbled down the mountain. And it would surely have cast his elder brother from the precipice, were it not for the magic necklace of cat’s-eyes and carbuncles.  The magic charm bent the winds around the elder brother, so they did not touch him.  The torrent whorled round and caught up the younger brother instead, lifting him from the ground and hurling him over the precipice, as easily as a breeze lifts a leaf.

So it was that the younger brother was cast to his doom, dashed on the stones below.  His elder brother, who loved his brother dearly, despite his evil ways, wept at this misfortune.  He gathered the blanket and the silver flute, which his brother had dropped, placed them into the sack, and climbed carefully down the mountain to the hilltop, to the beach, and to his house, where he mourned his brother for many months, just as he had mourned his father.

II.

But the elder brother was fated to see his lost brother again, for when the mourning period ended, Old Nick took the iron box from his stores and unlocked it, calling on the spirit of the lost brother, for it now belonged to him, according to their agreement.

“Why have you summoned me, my master?” asked the ghost of the lost brother.

“There is a service you will perform for me,” answered Old Nick.  “You must return to the world to recover my silver flute.”

“This I do gladly, my master,” the ghost replied.  “But I beg of you, while I walk the world again, allow me to take revenge upon my brother who caused my death.”

Now Old Nick knew the ghost would ask this, so he consented that it should be so, for he is always pleased to make mischief upon men.

Meanwhile, his mourning done, the elder brother dedicated his inheritance to an expedition to seek his father’s lost ship, to discover whether Fate had saved any sailors, for he was most forlorn at being left upon the earth with no family to share his joys and sorrows.

He chartered three fleet galleons that his father had often hired for merchant voyages, trusting that their captains and crew were men brave and true.  And they were, and the ships were too.  They were stout ships and lucky, for they had been on many adventures and are in many stories before this one.  They were called Wave Splitter, Water Hopper, and Wind Spinner.  After stocking the holds with provisions enough for many months, the elder brother, his captains and his crew set sail for the farthest reaches of the farthest sea.

For three months they traveled over greens seas, when the lookout on the third ship, Wave Splitter, spotted a roiling mist racing after them.  The mist soon overtook them and, perching upon the crow’s nest, became the shape of the lost brother.

“Elder brother,” the mist howled, “surrender the silver flute, lest I sink you into the sea.”

But instead of surrendering the silver flute, the elder brother put it to his lips and played a tune.  Immediately the sails filled with gusts that scattered the ghost like smoke and sent the three ships skipping across the water throughout the night.  By morning, though, the ship that the ghost had perched upon sank into the sea, rotted by his rotten caress, for it is well-known that ghosts wither whatever they touch.

For three more months they traveled over red waters, when the lookout on the second ship, Water Hopper, spotted a roiling mist racing after them.  The mist soon overtook them and, perching upon the crow’s nest, became the shape of the lost brother.

“Elder brother,” it shrieked, “surrender the silver flute, lest I sink you into the sea.”

But instead of surrendering the silver flute, again the elder brother put it to his lips and played a tune.  Immediately the sails filled with gusts that scattered the ghost like smoke and sent the two remaining ships skipping across the water throughout the night.  By morning, though, the ship that the ghost had perched upon had sunk, rotted by his rotten caress.

For three more months they traveled over jade waves, when the lookout on the third and final ship, Wind Spinner, spotted a mist roiling after them.  The mist soon overtook them and, perching upon the crow’s nest, became the shape of the lost brother.

“Elder brother,” said the specter, “surrender the silver flute, lest I sink you into the sea.”

But instead of surrendering the silver flute, again the elder brother put it to his lips and played a tune.  But this time, the elder brother played such a lovely and intricate tune that all four winds came to his aid.  Together they scattered the ghost like smoke, but this time each wind took a bit of him to its corner of the earth, so that the specter could never take shape again.  So in this way, not only was the ghost vanquished, but Old Nick was foiled as well.

III.

“Come,” said the captain of Wind Spinner, the third and final ship, “Play a tune to fill our sails with gusts that send our ship skipping across the water throughout the night.  Perhaps we will discover land before we sink.”  But no sooner had he said this than the lookout spotted the tip of a mast peaking just above the surface of the water.

With a boat hook they fished the flag from the sea and found that this was indeed his father’s ship. 

“Whist,” said the captain, “We have found them.  Let us sail on before we sink.”

The elder brother was about to remind the Captain that they came seeking survivors, not sunken ships, when the morning sun broke over the waves, and the third and final ship that the ghost had perched upon sank into the sea, rotted by his rotten caress.

So the son played such a song on his silver whistle that he summoned a mighty waterspout that drilled a tunnel to the seafloor below.  Then, trusting to the necklace of cat’s-eyes and carbuncles, he leapt into the tunnel.  Slick as a sea otter on silt the son slipped down the sluice ‘til finally his feet stepped onto the deck.  The tunnel held the water at bay, so the son had ample air to breath.  Here he found a skeleton crew.  The skeletons busied away their boredom playing a game of Throw the Bones.

“Ahoy,” said the first mate.  “Who are you who defile our grave?  Can’t you see we’re enjoying our eternal rest?”

“Beg your pardon,” said the elder son, trying to not appear alarmed, “But I come seeking survivors.”

“There are no survivors but our captain and his benefactor, who were trapped in an air pocket in the captain’s quarters.”  The son was overjoyed at this news, for his father was the benefactor who sponsored their voyage.  He rushed to the captain’s quarters and knocked on the door.

“Father, father, it is I, your own elder son, who has come further and farther than any son has sought a father.  I beseech you, open the door.”

And the door was unlocked, and there stood his father, his beard long and his face gaunt, but he was alive, and so was the captain.

“Come,” the son said to them, “By grace and by magic I have come far to rescue survivors, and I will not be stopped now.”

And the father embraced his son, but the captain said, “Nay, I shall not go.  I have gone down with my ship, and I may finally die in it, now that my benefactor is saved.”

But no sooner had he said this than the first mate’s skeleton took the key from the keyhole, slammed the door shut and locked it tight.  Through the door he shouted,

Now you are our prisoners three,

Who trapped us here for eternity.

Soon, so soon, will rations fail,

And we shall share this watery jail.”

“This is mutiny,” shouted the Captain. “You shall damn your souls to hell.”

“How can our souls be damned,” asked the first mate through the door, “if Old Nick can never find us in the Salt Jack’s Limbo?”

It was then that the son remembered the pendant of lodestone that his brother had discarded.  He reached into his pocket and removed the pendant.  This he draped round his father’s neck and whispered,

“I beg you, trusty Lodestone,

Take me home,

Take me home.

I am lost and now I roam,

Take me home,

Take me home.”

And with a twinkle and a flash, his father was gone, and you can suppose the Captain’s surprise.  And the elder son chuckled, imagining the astonishment of his father’s servants when they find their lost master sitting in his chair and shouting for his supper. 

“A fine trick,” said the Captain, “but now I’m back to where I began, unable to die until my benefactor’s son is freed or dead.”

"I shall be freed,” said the son, remembering the necklace of cat’s-eyes and carbuncles.   Then, from the safety of the captain’s quarters, he played a short tune on his flute, dismissing the wind that formed the water tunnel, and the sea came crashing down like a tower collapsing on a crowd.  The skeletons were scattered bone by bone, and the door to the captain’s quarters smashed open.  The rushing waters engulfed the elder son, who clung to the necklace of cat’s-eyes and carbuncles as he spun round and round ‘til he was spun senseless.
 
He awoke alone on a beach, dazzled by the glittering of glass sands in the moonlight.  Then he saw the sands were not glass, but were all manner of precious stones.  There were diamonds and emeralds and star sapphires.  There were opals and pearls and pale jade.  The stones reflected many colors onto his hands, the colors blending as their glow rose, until at last they gleamed bluish white, and he knew that it was this light that lit the moon, and not the other way around, as he had always supposed.
 
But being tired and hungry and dizzy from thirst, he decided that this was a delusion.  And besides, what is a weary, starving and thirsty man to do with gems and jewels, which you can neither drink, nor eat, nor sleep upon?  No, not one shard of these stones was as precious to him as food and drink and rest would be.
 
So looking from the strand to the gleaming steeples above him, he saw that the glittering beaches were the shores of a crowded town.  The people there were lonely folk and kind, and they nursed the elder brother back to full health.  As he grew strong, he told them of the miraculous story of his adventures, and of the mysterious power of flutes and lodestones and cat’s-eyes and carbuncles.  And he told many other stories, as well.  As this was the farthest town in the farthest lands, its people were pleased to meet a stranger who could tell them tales of distant places.
 
When at last he was ready to leave that land and return to his father, the elder brother requested only a sturdy straw mat, and this they gave him, but also bestowed rings rich in emeralds, and circlets of sapphires set in silver, and countless pearls placed in platinum medallions in the shape of the blue moon.
 
So it was that, on a throne of pots and chests of precious things, the elder brother played a tune on his magic whistle, and the winds lifted his sturdy straw mat, treasure and all, into to the air and across the seas.
 
In one swift night, he crossed jade waves and sapphire skies to arrive at his home.  There he reunited with his beloved father, who became the wealthiest merchant of all time.

And back in the land of the Gate of the Moon, the people admired a gift the elder son had left behind.  So great was his gratitude, the elder brother gave their mayor the necklace of cat’s-eyes and carbuncles.  These humble stones the people had never seen in that country, so these humble stones were a mighty treasure there, being very rare in those parts.  But the reason he left the necklace was that life in the farthest towns of the farthest lands is perilous, and he guessed quite correctly that those people could do with a bit of luck.
 
Indeed, this soon proved true.  But that is another story.
 
 
Todd Swanson studied Illustration and Anthropology, which he combined in his thesis on ancient Scandinavian artifacts and mythology.  He is a professional technical writer, armchair poet and aspiring storyteller.  He writes fairy tales for his daughters, with mixed reviews.

7 comments

  1. This story was wonderful-almost like a pirate's tale. I like how it ended happily ever after. I can't imagine there would be any mixed reviews on this imaginative story.

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  2. This was a wondrous tale of sibling rivalry and magical tokens with expert description. It held me captive and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Well-done!

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  3. Lots of great elements all mixed up in one story. I always enjoy fairy tales with the devil:)

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  4. Beautiful story. Lovely writing, too!

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  5. I really enjoyed this story. Tales from the sea are always my favorite and this one had enough magic, too. Thank you!

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  6. Very creative story line. One thing that really struck me was the story's rhythm. The words flowed together easily and poetically, and your word choices gave the story that classic fairytale feel. Well done.

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  7. Sincerest thanks for your kind comments, everyone. I'm a very diffident submitter, but your generous feedback gave me confidence to try again.

    In your debt,
    - Todd

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