A Grimm Fairytale for Modern Aotearoa

I entered the Listener/Modern Letters/Goethe Institute competition, and didn’t win. I would have enjoyed eight weeks in Berlin. Never mind. So, here’s my entry.

The Fisherman and His Wife

A re-telling of Grimm Fairy Tale No.19 for modern Aotearoa

Once upon a time there lived by the sea a fisherman, his wife and their son. The fisherman had started as a deckhand when he was seventeen years old. Over the years he had spent weeks at a time on the Chatham Rise or the Challenger Plateau chasing ling or hoki, or the rich seas of the Antarctic catching the mysterious and ugly toothfish. Now, a month shy of his thirty-seventh birthday, he’d been made skipper of one of the big trawlers that sailed out of Nelson.

Skippers took a bigger share of the profits. Fishing boats still worked that way. They sold their fish on the quayside and shared out the money right there and then. The fisherman’s wife was very proud. His was a fishing family, and it was a fishing town. They should buy a bigger house, so people would see how important he was. The fisherman wasn’t sure. He’d only just been made a skipper. His wife said Tangaroa had smiled on them. He shouldn’t worry. He should concentrate on fishing and she would look after everything else.

The fisherman loved his wife, and trusted her. He told her to do whatever she thought best.

*

On his very first voyage, all those years ago, the fisherman had been working on deck at night as they hauled up the first trawl. His skipper had come down from the bridge, picked out the biggest fish, and said some words the fisherman didn’t understand. Then he lowered the fish gently back into the sea, and explained that you always offered your first fish to Tangaroa, and then Tangaroa would look after you. Tangaroa would make sure your nets were full and no harm would come to you.

The fisherman learned a lot on that first voyage. How to work three days straight without sleep. What it was like to depend on your mates. Why making friends with the cook was a smart move. But the most important thing that happened he never told a soul for twenty years.

One night, after the nets were hauled, it was quiet and he was on watch. One of his mates brought him a flask of hot chocolate. More than once he started to fall asleep standing up, jolting awake as he lost his balance. Then a voice called out, melodic but gruff. It was coming from the hold. The fisherman thought he must be hearing things, but he shone his torch down anyway.

‘Get that light out of my eyes,’ the voice said. ‘And lower a rope, so I can climb out.’

The man had dark shiny skin, long whiskers, and eyes like pools. He smelled fishy, but then he had just come out of a hold full of fish. He must have been one of the crew, someone the fisherman hadn’t met yet.

‘Call me Wha,’ the man said. ‘It’s short for my real name, but Wha’s good enough.’

Wha thanked the fisherman, and said it was his own fault. He’d been swimming too close to the nets again. The fisherman shook his head. Too close to the nets?

Wha suddenly seemed restless. Then he said, ‘My father will look after you,’ dropped to his knees – his feet were hidden under wide flaps of what looked like leather – slid across the deck, and dived into the sea. The fisherman could see Wha in the water.

Wha’s sing-song voice floated across the waves.

‘Don’t tell anyone,’ he called out.

*

Now the fisherman was a skipper, each time he came home his wife would tell him about her latest improvement to their lives. She’d enrolled their son in Nelson’s best private school. She’d found a big, new house away from the road. She’d bought a Mercedes. The fisherman could hardly keep up with it all.

He had a particularly successful voyage south that summer. The toothfish seemed to throw themselves onto his hooks. He made his quota early and was back for Christmas. His wife was happy. She said he was the most important skipper in Nelson – maybe in the whole of Aotearoa. She wanted a position in keeping with his status. She wanted to be mayor. The fisherman was surprised. How could such a thing happen? His wife said money could buy anything these days. A well-funded campaign would do the trick. Did he understand?

The fisherman had his doubts, but he trusted and loved his wife. He said, ‘Of course. You must stand for mayor.’

But no sooner had his wife donned the mayoral chain than she wanted more. She wanted to be a Member of Parliament. Again the fisherman asked how such a thing could happen. Again his wife told him that money could get her anything she wanted. Then she gave an ugly laugh, a laugh he’d not seen before, and told him to concentrate on fishing. That was what he was good at. He should leave everything else to her.

*

The fisherman’s son turned seventeen at the end of the summer, and joined the fisherman’s crew. The fisherman had tried to dissuade him but really he was proud his son had followed him to sea. When the crew hauled the nets after the first trawl the fisherman said the karakia and chose a fish to return to Tangaroa. He’d never forgotten what his first skipper had taught him all those years ago. But as he lowered the fish into the sea he heard a voice, melodic but gruff. He looked out and saw Wha, his head popping up between the waves.

Suddenly Wha was close to the gunwhale. ‘Your wife must stop,’ he said. ‘That’s not what the money is for. You know this in your heart.’

Then he was gone.

The fisherman’s son rested his hand on his father’s shoulder, and asked if he was alright. Then he looked out over the gunwhale and saw the sealion, and said it was lucky they hadn’t caught one of Tangaroa’s children in their nets.

*

When they returned with less than their normal catch, the fisherman was not disappointed. Instead he was thankful for their safe passage and the bounty they had enjoyed for years. But his wife was not as happy. Now she wanted to be Prime Minister. She had been assured a substantial donation to the party would secure an uncontested nomination, and then it was a formality. The party would win the election – that was not in doubt – and she would be the leader of all of Aotearoa.

The fisherman said they did not have the money. His wife was furious. She told him his job was to make money so she could achieve her ambitions. Did he not realise how important she was now? The country needed her. How could he be so useless?

The fisherman was sad. There was something about his wife’s face. She no longer looked as beautiful as he remembered.

Perhaps she would make a good prime minister, but not like this. It had to stop. Wha had warned him. Although they had returned safely this time, would Tangaroa be as generous in the future? He had their son’s safety to think of now. The fisherman decided to tell his wife everything. But he would not do it here. He would tell her on the marae, with the kaumatua At first the fisherman’s wife would not hear of it, but eventually she agreed.

The kaumatua made cups of tea, and they sat in the whare kai. At first she pretended not to listen. The kaumatua told her she must give her husband a chance. Afterwards, the kaumatua was quiet, and when he finally spoke he explained how honoured the fisherman and his wife and son had been. Tangaroa had looked after them in return for the fisherman saving Wha’s life. The fisherman’s wife said surely all that was a dream? Her husband hadn’t really saved Wha. He was tired. He must have imagined the sealion was talking to him.

The kaumatua said all the animals in the sea were Tangaroa’s children. It was wrong to use the riches Tangaroa had bestowed on them to buy power, but much more important was the safety of her husband and son. ‘Only Tangaroa can assure that,’ he said.

The fisherman’s wife said nothing on the way home. He was worried. He loved her, but what had she become? Had she really listened to the kaumatua?

Next morning the fisherman woke early, but his wife was not in bed. He found her downstairs, at the kitchen table. She smiled.

‘I’m writing my letter of resignation to the party. And look,’ she said, pointing to the property section of the paper, ‘there’s a lovely little house down by the water, plenty big enough for us. We could help out the seafarer’s fund with the money we get from this place. Maybe those people who rescue injured wildlife as well.’

The fisherman looked at his wife in the morning sun. She was more beautiful than ever.

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  1. February 26, 2013 at 9:30 am

    I really like your writing style, wonderful info , thankyou for putting up : D.

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