This Indian fairy tale comes from my extremely difficult to obtain copy of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Mermaids. It begins when a ship encounters a storm at sea and promptly disintegrates. All hands on board are lost save for one young sailor, who manages to hang onto a passing plank and is eventually washed ashore on a small island. At first glance it appears to be a storybook paradise of ripe fruit, but when he reached up to snag some breakfast he realises the branches are thick with jewels instead.
In other circumstances, that would be the answer to Midas-level prayers. The situation being what it is, the sailor would prefer carbs to carats, but he pockets a handful of the jewels anyway and walks on in the hope he’ll find something more edible. Sure enough, there is one tree on this island that grows real fruit – an apple tree, growing beside a well. After he has eaten his fill, the sailor bends to slake his thirst at the well, and sees a woman’s face gazing back at him through the water. She is so beautiful that when she crooks her finger he leaps headfirst into the well without stopping to think.
“Welcome to the Kingdom of Ocean!” the mermaid declares. She adopts the role of tour guide, proudly showing off a panorama of rainbow bridges and crystal forests. It turns out that she is the queen, and the sailor is basically being interviewed for the vacant position of king. He is more than happy to accept.
For some time they are very happy together, but then the sailor king (that would sound so much better if he was a pirate) becomes curious about a hall of pillars in the palace where a mysterious veil is hung. Upon the fabric cities rise and fall, forests grow and fade, night comes and day again. The mermaid is very uneasy when he mentions it, but she doesn’t try to dissuade him from further questions. Instead she takes him for a proper look, hoping this will satiate his curiosity. It doesn’t. He wants to see behind it, and when she draws the veil aside to reveal the statue of a diminutive warrior, he wants to touch it. There, his wife draws the line – no one is permitted to touch the statue. She claims she doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t believe her. Often he goes to look again, reaching out, almost touching…only to stop himself at the last minute. He broods. Frankly, he becomes obsessive.
“Am I a king and may I not have my own way?” he reasons. “Am I to bow to the will of a mermaid wife? After all, I promised her nothing. I must and will touch that little image, let happen what may!”
Exhibit A for the power of karma: no sooner has his hand touched the warrior than its stone foot boots him so hard he is sent flying right out of the kingdom, up the well and across the sea, to land breathless but somehow not broken on the shore of his own country. With no way of returning to Ocean, he goes home to his own village instead. His parents are delighted to see him alive, having believed him drowned on that ship, but expect he will soon return to sea to earn his living.
He does not mean to do any such thing. He still has his pocketful of jewels; these he sells and uses the proceeds to buy a small farm. After a while he marries a village girl, who either doesn’t care or doesn’t believe that he was once husband to an undersea queen. Though he sometimes thinks wistfully of Ocean and the mermaid, he never returns. And, as Manning-Sanders puts it, “Whether his mermaid queen still thought of him, or whether she didn’t – who can tell?”
I hope she didn’t. This fairy tale is unusual in recognising that some relationships can be impermanent without either party being evil; certainly, divorce by statue is a bit extreme, but the narrative does not condemn the sailor, and more importantly, it does not condemn the mermaid. There is absolutely no reason to suppose she did not find a less sexist, speciesist husband to share her kingdom – someone who actually appreciated that crystal forest.