Friday, 26 December 2008
The Whale and the Witch.
The young man was shocked to discover that Death's memory was good. The following day, Death was very punctual arriving after work in the evening and knocking on the door. The young man frantically tried to remember what little he knew and having sat down and offered Death a glass of wine, he began.
"You recall that I mentioned Larkham being turned to filigree," he said.
"Yes, yes and a crow settled on his shoulder and told him a story, which are going to tell me," Death said impatiently.
"Ah yes, well that's right, the crow's tale," the young man said nervously.
"Are you trying to trick me?" Death said pleasantly.
"Oh no, no, not at all, it's just that sitting in the presence of Death is apt to make me nervous." the young man answered.
Death nodded understandingly and assured the young man that there was nothing to worry about. He was after all, only going to die.
"It's Life you should worry about," Death told him, "Life is down right dangerous. It can hurt you just living. Now Death is very restful and you can't be hurt or scared or upset - ever. So don't you worry."
The young man hadn't thought of Life like that. He considered it for a moment then settled himself a little easier in his mind and raised his glass to Death who bowed his head and raised his own glass.
"Well then, so this crow had flown far and wide as crows often do. It seemed to the crow that the only way it could tell how far it was flying was that the land beneath slipped away beneath it. Around him, the sky was vast and endless.
Now around our land is the ocean, but at one part of the country there is a large lake and deep down at one end, it is connected to the sea by a long wide natural tunnel. So when the tide goes out, the level of the lake drops and when the tide comes in the level rises. It happens that by this lake there is a large castle and while it was once full of knights and ladies and ruled by a just queen, nowadays it is mostly a ruin. In the more habitable part of this ruin, lived a witch. She had a black cat with eyes like moons and a broomstick which she used to keep the castle ruin clean with. She also had a cauldron, for she was very fond of soups.
She was a young witch, a little imperious because she was unsure as to how good a witch she was, but basically kind. She would sometimes take care of her garden which she grew in what had once been the castle courtyard. At other times she would walk about the castle and gaze at the sheer beauty of the lake. Occasionally she would walk by the lake with her cat. The cat would look suspiciously at the deep dark waters for he did not trust them.
It happened that local fishers would come and take their boats out on the lake to fish. One day, while the witch stood on the ruined battlements of the castle watching them, a whale was seen pushing up out of the waters and crashing down into the depths. Huge waves rippled out and shook the little boats, but the witch murmured a word and the waters calmed.
For a little while, the whale and the fishers got along with each other. One did not bother the other, but then a boy fell in the water and the whale swallowed him. The fishers were terrified and angry - a bad combination in people. They began to notice that birds did not catch fish from the lake any more and that the few dolphins that had come in the summer were gone. It did not matter that neither of these things were strictly accurate; the birds did catch fish, but not when the fishers were there and the dolphins always came in the summer and left after it had gone.
The witch returned to her garden to look after her vegetables. She was thinking about the boy. She was also thinking about the whale. The people sent a delegation to her and asked that she destroy the whale as a lesson to the other fish.
"The whale is not a fish," she told them.
"No matter. The whale took one of our children and he must be punished for it," they answered.
The witch promised that she would talk to the whale and see if she could get the boy back. This was not enough for the fishers, they wanted the boy back, but they also wanted revenge on the whale.
"If he thinks that he can get away with it, what's to stop him from casually swallowing any of us whenever the mood takes him?" the asked.
"I will get him to promise that he won't swallow any more of you," the witch told them reassuringly.
That night, she went down to the lake and called the whale. The still dark waters shivered, trembled and ripples flung themselves upon the shoreline. The whale came and asked the witch what she wanted of him.
"I have come to ask you to return the boy you swallowed and to require of you a promise not to swallow the fishers whenever the mood takes you," the witch said gently.
The whale harrumphed, no mean feat for a whale but he coughed up the boy onto the beach and without giving the witch his promise swam away. The witch took the boy and gave him a bath and a meal. Then she put him to bed and kissed him. Her cat settled on the bed by the boy to comfort him. But the witch was troubled for the whale had not given him her word.
She returned to the lake and called the whale again. This time, the waters surged up and the whale leapt from the lake. He seemed so big that his body took some time to leave the lake surface and he seemed to blot out the moon from the sky where the witch watched. He turned in the cold night air and plunged back into the lake with a terrible crash. The waves flew up around him before rippling out in huge breakers to the shoreline. The witch murmured a word and the waves crashed on the beach around her, but not a drop touched her. Now he approached her, furious at being called back.
"Witch, I am of the deep oceans, the dark waters and the cold light. I have drifted as an island beneath angry skies and disdained the lightning. I swim beneath your metal ships, as strong as the metal itself. I am the ocean's wrath and the seal's fear. I am the stirrer of waves, maker of tides and you dare to call me back?
You are either brave or foolish to dare me, madam," he told her glowering.
The witch was unafraid. She reminded him that he had not given his promise to let the fishers alone and that he must do that or she would not allow him to leave. The whale laughed at that, told her that he would scatter the little boats and make splinters of them as he would of the fishers' bones. He turned then, but the witch murmured a short phrase and the whale suddenly found that he could not move away. He must stay there.
He thrashed about in the water, rousing the waters to violence. Huge waves crashed about the witch but not one drop touched her still. She asked again for the promise to be given and kept, but the whale would not answer. He struggled against the spell until he cried out,
"I am as unbending as steel and fixed in my decision. I will not promise you anything."
At that, the witch sat down on the beach and waited. All night the whale struggled until by morning he was exhausted. Still he would not promise and declared himself as unbending in his will as steel. Then the witch arose and said to him,
"If you will be as hard as stone and unyielding as steel, so be it. You shall be like that forever."
Now she uttered a terrible word and followed it with an awful phrase. The whale vanished from the lake and the witch went home. The following morning, when the fishers came down to their work, they saw in the stone wall of the castle overlooking the lake a metal whale fixed in the stone. They went fishing and caught so many fish that they gave some to the witch to thank her. She in her turn, handed back the boy to his parents who were overjoyed to see him again. The witch cooked the fish and ate it, but gave some to her cat. The crow who saw all this, related it to Larkham and I tell it to you."
Death chuckled and thanked the young man for the tale. He put down his wineglass and took up his scythe and the young man said quietly,
"As for the tale the witch told her cat... but you probably wouldn't be all that interested..."
For a moment Death stood looking at the young man. Then he smiled a little smile.
"I would, but you are probably tired. It's been a long day after all. You should get some rest and I will come again tomorrow to hear the witch's tale. How about that?" he asked.
The young man felt his heart jump in him but agreed. Death patted the young man on the shoulder and left, thanking him for the wine. So the young man had a reprieve for another day.