The Guilty Fisherman

I’d just formulated my proposition that guilt may not be an appropriate emotion for dealing with the global warming problem, and, not having slept too well last night, I was pondering whether to change my usual habits and take an afternoon nap, when an old book of stories fell from my overloaded bookshelves. It fell open and I found myself starting to read…

“Once upon a time there was an old fisherman. He was fond of regaling his son and the other youngsters in the village with stories of the bounty he’d known in his younger days. ‘You didn’t have to cast a net, ‘ he’d tell them, ‘Fish would just land in the boat. And sometimes you could just go for a walk, miles from land – on the backs of great fish, of course!’ The boys would laugh excitedly. ‘Will we do that?’, they’d ask ‘when we grow up and go to sea?’ He’d nod and smile. He could see them telling their own tall tales to the next generation.

But he couldn’t help thinking that there was a grain of truth in his stories. He remembered days when in honour of some anniversary, festival or betrothal, or just for the hell of it, he’d drunk and sung with his friends until the early hours, not set sail until midday, yet been back long before sundown with his hold filled to the brim, with a shimmering, writhing mass of plump fish of whichever variety he’d sought. Nothing like that ever happened nowadays. And he wasn’t just becoming old and slow. The other fishermen agreed. Nowadays it was tough landing any catch large enough to feed a family, let alone sell on the quayside. And you couldn’t afford to throw anything back. You had to keep whatever miserable specimens you found in the nets.

The old fisherman pondered and pondered. Eventually he resolved to seek advice. Was it the fault of the villagers? Were they taking too many fish?

One day, when he’d landed a half-decent haul the day before, the old fisherman took his stick and climbed the mountain near the village. Many times he slipped and nearly fell, but eventually he made it to the craggy plateau where he knew an Old Woman lived. He hoped she still survived, as it was some months since she’d been seen.

He scouted around, and behind some rocks he found a small wooden hut. She was in. Her broom was propped outside, although only a few hazel twigs were left. Perhaps he should have brought her a new one.

He was still staring at the broom when a hand closed round his arm, the arthritic, clawed fingers more bone than flesh. He turned with a start. His pulse racing, he felt as if his heart would burst before he’d even asked his questions.

‘Steady on,’ she said, ‘I have to be careful not to fall. You wouldn’t believe the waiting list for a hip-replacement these days. Why do you think I grabbed you? You don’t think I fly around on that broom do you? If I tried’, she cackled, ‘my brittle bones would break into a million pieces on the rocks down there.’ The fisherman felt a little vertiginous as she gestured the way he’d just come.

He apologised and gave her the dried fish he’d brought. Her eyes lit up. Or would have done if it hadn’t been for her cataracts. Still, he sensed she was pleased with the offering.

She read his thoughts. ‘Yes, yes,’ she said. ‘Lovely, I hardly ever have fish. Just the odd half-digested morsel.’

As she spoke, they both became aware of a fluttering and a squawking. A seagull was trapped in a net she had strung between two heavy sticks wedged into crevices in the rock. The old woman walked slowly over, grabbed the bird with sudden, remarkable dexterity. There was an unpleasant crunch as she broke its neck.

‘Well, what do you think I eat?’ she said, ‘Sometimes there’s some fish still in the gullet, though I usually leave most as bait for the next bird. Would you like a nice cup of tea?’

As they sipped the hot drink, he explained his problem. Should they fish less? Should they instead try to scrape a living growing crops and hunting in the forest? Did they need to develop new skills?

‘Heh, heh, heh!’ the old woman laughed. ‘Why are you asking me?’

‘The whole village knows you for your wisdom,’ he replied.

‘But I am of Man,’ she said, ‘Even though you shun me.’

‘We’ll visit more often…’

‘That’s alright, young man, the feeling’s mutual. As I was saying,’ she continued, ‘I deal in the affairs of men. I provide harmless powders, so lovers can pretend to discover what they already know, so that angry men can make an enemy sick for a day in revenge for some ill-deed – better than bloodshed, don’t you agree? – but mostly I give advice to simply be calm or to act on desires, depending on the state of the visitor. These are the services I provide.’

‘I can’t help with your problem. You need to consult the Mermaid. She is born of the Earth and knows its ways. Not I, I only know the ways of Man’. She cackled. ‘You must go back whence you came.’

There was a silence as the fisherman contemplated the night he must spend alone on the Forbidden Rock.

‘I’m a pretty Mermaid! I know how Nature works! I pee in the sea, see!’ mocked the Old Woman cryptically, cackling. The fisherman was becoming a little disconcerted.

She saw him laughing and smiled. He saw her black teeth, but forbade himself to look away. She could tell, and laughed. He still met her gaze, but with even more effort. This only made her laugh more. Finally, she tilted her head back, cackling: ‘Positive feedback! Positive feedback!’

He didn’t know what she was talking about. He sipped his tea, now feeling very uncomfortable indeed.

‘Be guided by reason, not emotion,’ said the Old Woman after a long silence. ‘That’s the only advice I can give you.’

‘Well, mostly harmless powders,’ she muttered, after another long silence.

The fisherman glanced at his tea, then looked at her, worried.

‘It’s hard work getting the ingredients,’ she explained. ‘By the time I reach the forest, I’m too tired to look for newts. I just gave you a little something to make sure you get down the mountain safely.’ He was drinking only tea, but she knew he’d believe her and avoid a tumble.

The fisherman was determined. But even he was about to give up as the first ruddy rays of sunlight reflected on the sea to the East.

He heard it first, though he couldn’t tell where the sound of the wind and waves ended and the whispering voice began. ‘You seek my knowledge,’ he heard. He looked. She was there. He could feel her presence. Though he couldn’t tell where the glittering jewels of light on the rippling water ended and the Mermaid’s iridescent beauty began.

She seemed to read his thoughts. ‘You should have seen me in my younger days,’ a laughing voice seemed to tinkle, ‘I really was beautiful then!’

The music continued. ‘You must stop. Tell your people they may only fish but once a year, to provide for the great winter festival, and never beyond this rock. Otherwise the seas will never recover.’

He sat there staring, his mind in turmoil. At first, he sensed she was still there, but as the sun rose higher in the sky, the harsh light perhaps made her invisible, before she vanished beneath the waves.

The fisherman set sail for home. After a night without sleep his memory was confused. The Mermaid had confirmed his worst fears. But perhaps it had all been a figment of his imagination.

It was evening by the time he docked. His son was waiting to meet him. Apparently, for the first time, all the village’s boats had returned empty that day. A crowd gathered as he tied up his boat, worried and murmuring.

‘Did you see the Mermaid?’ ‘What did she say?’ ‘Was she as beautiful as the stories tell?’ They were crowding in on him.

He couldn’t let his people down. He had to tell them what they wanted to hear. Surely the young men deserved to experience what he had. If he told them they couldn’t, wouldn’t it be because of his own greed over the years?

Besides, he quite fancied a few more fish suppers himself during the years he had left.

He cleared his throat: ‘The fish will return,’ he said. There wasn’t really a cheer, just puzzled relief. They needed more convincing. ‘It’s a natural cycle,’ he improvised. ‘To do with sunspots. They affect the migration patterns of the fish, you see.’ One or two in the crowd aahed their understanding. He looked at the sea. ‘Like the waves!’ he said, triumphant, pleased that he’d come up with an analogy. His confidence was now reflected in his tone, ‘we’re just in a trough, that’s all. Soon we’ll be riding on the next crest!’

‘But go easy, don’t take too many fish,’ he added. But by then no-one was listening.

Was it his imagination? Or did he hear, over the sound of the wind and the waves, a long low moan in the distance, far out to sea?

The man who came to the Forbidden Rock was still young. But his hands were callused from scraping a living in the fields. Many villagers had died as, already near starving, they finally realised that the fish would not return and belatedly started experimenting with crops or hunting the rodents in the forest. If only they’d begun while there were still some fish left.

His father had been one of the first victims. As the catches worsened, he’d seemed to consume himself from within, while others were as yet merely hungry. They’d buried him here on the island where he’d claimed to have seen the Mermaid. By visiting his grave his son was hoping to understand what had happened.

Lost in his thoughts, an awful rotting smell seemed to creep up on him. The Mermaid hauled herself out of the sea, covered in green slime.

‘Look at me!’ she screamed. Her face was covered in warts and sores.

‘Why didn’t you listen!’ He saw her teeth were pointed and sharp, her red eyes burning into him.

‘We must now go our separate ways, Nature and Man,’ she hissed.

There was a cackle behind him. He turned and saw the Old Woman.

When he turned back the Mermaid was gone.

He turned again. The crone was still there.

‘How did you get here?’ he spluttered, forgetting to be afraid.

‘Never mind that. You’ll have to feed me too now. No fish, no gulls either!’ the Old Woman cackled.”

Well that was the story I found. The strange thing is when I looked for the book again I couldn’t find it. Where I’d put it down there was only a copy of a huge report on the science of climate change. And I don’t remember where it came from in the first place.

What could it all possibly mean?