Saturday 20 February 2016

The Crab And The Fisherman

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a fisherman who lived by the shore of a great lake.

So vast was this lake that from one side one couldn’t see the other shore, and when the storm winds blew from the north, the winds would blow the waves before them and bring them crashing to the shore as though they were breakers on the shores of the distant sea.

The fisherman was very poor. He lived alone in a hut by the lakeside. It wasn’t a big hut. The fisherman had built it himself, with mud from the banks and reed from the lake, and each rainy season it crumbled and leaked, so that he had to rebuild it again. He also had a boat, which was very old and had come down to him from his father and his father before him, and a net which was frayed with age.

Each day, rain or shine, the fisherman would paddle out into the lake and throw in his net. The catch was usually very meagre, for, truth to tell, the net was so frayed and full of holes that for every fish he pulled aboard, three managed to slip out and escape. Whatever was left, the fisherman would then take to the nearest village, and sell for what he could get.

It was a hard life, and the fisherman was not happy with it, but there was nothing else he knew how to do; and he worried, because he was growing old.

One morning, as usual, he went down to the shore from his hut, and looked at his boat, which lay upturned on the pebbles, and he saw how ancient it was, how the wood was almost worn out. And he looked at his net, which was spread out on the rocks to dry, but which, despite all his mending, was even more tattered than ever.

“I can’t buy a new boat or a new net,” he sighed aloud. “And I’m getting as old and decrepit as the boat and the net. Soon, I can’t fish anymore, and then there won’t be anything left for me but to starve.”

“Why don’t you take an apprentice?” a little voice enquired, apparently from right behind him. The fisherman turned to see, but there was nothing but the mud and pebble of the lake shore and the water beyond. “Take in an apprentice, train him in the work, on condition that he take care of you in your old age.”

“Who’s there?” the fisherman demanded. “Are you a ghost or a demon?”

“Ghost? Demon?” the voice laughed. “Hardly. Look in the pool by your feet.”

So the fisherman looked in the pool, which was hollow in the rocks by the water’s edge, and in the very bottom of it, there was a crack in the stone. Peering out at him, waving a claw, was a large crab.

“Do I look like a ghost or a demon?” the crab demanded. “I’m only a crab offering a word of advice. Find an apprentice, teach him your job, and he’ll take care of you in your old age.”

“Who would be fool enough to learn this thankless trade?” the fisherman asked bitterly. “Only those who are luckless enough to be born into it will pick up a net anymore.”

“Why don’t you try and see?” the crab persisted. “You don’t have any other choice, do you?”

The fisherman laughed shortly. “If any apprentice joins me under those conditions,” he said, “I’ll give him anything he wants that I can drag out from the bottom of the lake – anything at all.” And, paying no more heed to the crab, he pulled down the boat to the water and paddled out into the lake. Because the boat was leaking badly, he could only go a little way, into waters which the fish had already learnt to avoid, and threw in the net. And though he fished all day, he caught nothing at all – not even a single fish for his own supper. Nor could he go out again at night because by evening heavy clouds had gathered over the lake and thunder rumbled ominously on the horizon. So, not for the first time, he had to go to bed hungry.

The storm had broken overhead, rain lashing down, and the fisherman was huddled, miserable and hungry, on his thin mattress when there was a rapping at the door of his hut. At first he ignored it, imagining it was just the rain. But when it grew persistent and so loud that it rivalled the crash of thunder overhead, he got up to open the door, for he thought it might be a traveller seeking shelter from the storm. That it might be a bandit or some other malefactor, he didn’t even consider for a moment, for he was far too poor and insignificant for anyone to bother to do him harm.

Outside the door, claw raised to knock again, was the crab.

“Did you mean what you said, fisherman?” it demanded. “You’ll give anyone who becomes an apprentice whatever he wants of what you can pull out of the water of the lake?”

When the fisherman had got over his astonishment, he nodded. “I said that, and I meant it,” he said. “But it’s a pointless offer anyway, because I can no longer even find fish enough to feed myself, let alone find something for an apprentice.”

“Are you hungry?” the crab asked. “Just wait.” Turning, it scuttled away sideways into the night, and, before the fisherman could quite persuade himself that he was awake, not dreaming, it returned bearing a fish in each of its claws. “There you are.”

The fisherman cleaned and gutted the fish, but he couldn’t cook it, for the roof of the hut was leaking so badly that the water dripped on everything, and he couldn’t get a fire going.

“Wait a moment,” the crab said, and vanished into the darkness. In only a little while it had returned, dragging palm fronds in its claws, which it pulled up to the roof. In less time than it takes to tell of it, it had mended the roof, and the drip of water had stopped entirely.

“So,” the crab said, “will you now take me on as your apprentice? I can do much more for you than I’ve done just now.”

The fisherman, having eaten, was feeling a lot better, and nodded slowly, considering. “But who ever heard of a crab becoming a fisherman’s apprentice?” he asked.

“Who ever heard of a crab talking, either?” the crustacean demanded. “Or, for that matter, who ever heard of a crab repairing a roof?”

The fisherman had to admit the animal was right, and finally agreed to take it on as an apprentice. “But only if you do everything I tell you,” he warned. “Fail, and out you’ll go. And, of course,” he added, “if I can’t catch anything, there will be nothing for you. My boat and net are all but falling to pieces.”

“You won’t have to worry about that,” the crab said. “Now go to sleep, and I’ll meet you in the morning by the lake.” Waving a claw, it scuttled away.

The fisherman went back to bed, still wondering if he were dreaming.

In the morning the storm was over, and the fisherman went down to the lakeside, wondering if the wind and rain had battered the boat to pieces and ripped the net apart. To his astonishment, he found the net neatly repaired with strips of coconut fibre plaited and woven tight. As for the boat, it was upturned on the shore, and the crab was busy on it, sealing the cracks with resin. It saw him and waved a claw merrily.

“Now we’ll go out,” it said cheerfully, “and you’ll teach me the trade.”

So the fisherman paddled the boat out into the lake, and because it was in so much better repair than it had been, he could take it out much further, until the land was only a dark smudge on the horizon. And there, when he threw in the net, it filled with such an enormous catch that he would never have been able to pull it all aboard if the crab had not been there to help.

“See what taking me for an apprentice did for you,” the crab said.

“You can have whatever you want from the net,” the fisherman said, “in accordance with what we agreed.”

“I want nothing of this,” the crab said. “When I want something you’ve brought up, I’ll tell you.”

That was the turn of the fisherman’s fortunes. Each day, he and the crab would go out into the lake, and throw in the net just once; and, each day, they would return with such a catch that the boat seemed about to be swamped by the lake waters. If ever the net tore or the boat sprung a leak, the crab would mend it instantly, so that their work did not suffer even for a single day. Little by little, the fisherman grew rich enough that he managed to build a larger and better hut, and even put a little money by. But though each day he offered the crab whatever it wanted from the net, as always, the animal declined.

For a year and a day it went on like this; and then, one morning, the fisherman threw in the net as usual, far from the shore; and when he brought it up, among all the other fish there was one which glittered black and gold, and had eyes that looked human.

“I must take that fish to the king,” the fisherman thought. “He will pay me a goodly sum for it, and keep it in his royal pond, for surely this is a fish the likes of which have never been seen before.”

But the crab spoke up. “Fisherman,” it said. “Do you remember the promise you made me, to give me whatever I wanted from what came up in your nets?”

“Yes, of course,” the fisherman replied.

“Good,” the crab said. “In that case, I want that fish, the one that glitters black and gold and has human eyes.”

Though the fisherman sighed with regret, he had to admit his apprentice was within its rights. So, reaching in to the net, he brought out the fish with the human eyes which glittered black and gold, and handed it to the crustacean. At once, the crab took the fish in its claws and, holding it out over the side of the boat, dropped it into the water.

“What are you doing?” the fisherman gasped. “It’s getting away!”

“It will be of great service to you someday,” the crab told him, “just as I was. And, in any case, it was my fish, to do with as I like.”

The fisherman had to admit the truth of this, and, albeit with many a sigh of regret, he turned the boat towards shore.

Now it so happened that the ruler of the kingdom had a treasury filled with gold and silver, which he hoarded jealously to himself, even when his subjects went hungry; for he was a vain and miserly king. But of all his riches, the greatest was a small box filled with jewels from all corners of the world, whose fame was known throughout the land. And word of it finally reached the ears of a particular thief, who prided himself on being able to steal even the smile from a baby’s lips as it gazed upon its mother. At once he decided he would steal that box of jewels, and vowed to do so no matter how securely it might be guarded.

That very night, having managed to enter the palace by an upper window, the thief found his way past locked doors and alert sentries to the treasury, from which he took the famous box and tied it in the folds of his turban. But as he was leaving the palace, though he easily passed by the guards and the locked portals, by ill chance a chambermaid, who was coming from an illicit liaison with a groom, saw him and raised the alarm. The thief, finding himself chased by all the guards in the palace, fled as fast as he could go. And though he ran like the wind, he was alone, and they were many; so that they raised the alarm and more of the king’s men began converging from several directions.

Finally the thief saw that there was no escape; he would be caught for sure, for on three sides of him were groups of onrushing sentries, while on the fourth was only the huge expanse of the lake, far too broad to swim. But there was a small hut near the lake shore, and there was just time for him to take the box out of his turban, thrust it into the palm fronds with which the roof was thatched, and walk quickly away. Though the guards caught him, they searched him and found nothing, so they let him go.

The fisherman was, of course, not so fortunate. Roused by the blows of the sentries’ spear shafts on the door, he hurried out and was instantly seized, while the troops ransacked his home. In moments they had found the box and, binding him with ropes, they dragged the fisherman to the king. But the monarch was still asleep, so they threw him, still bound, into a cell beneath the palace, to await his fate in the morning.

At dawn, the crab crawled out of his crack in the rock at the bottom of the pool as usual, to greet his friend the fisherman. But the hut was empty, the door broken down, the things inside strewn about, and even the roof ripped apart. Peering inside, the crab found no trace of the man. But, having friends among the rats and moles of the lakeside, he asked them if they knew anything. And one or two of them said that they’d seen the fisherman being dragged away with ropes in the direction of the palace.

So, keeping to the shadows and the shelter of trees and hedges, the crab scuttled in the direction of the palace, and, shortly after sunrise, he reached it. Hiding among bushes near the front door, he listened to the sentries talking and soon understood what had happened; and, by following them as they went on their rounds, he discovered where the cells were. Squeezing his flat, armoured body through a tiny ventilator slit, he dropped into the cell which held his friend, still bound and half dead with fright.

“Take courage,” he said to the fisherman. “I am your apprentice, and pledged to take care of you. And no harm will come to you as long as I live.”

“That is easy for you to say,” the poor fisherman groaned.  “But I lie here bound hand and foot, and in an hour the king will doubtless have me hanged or impaled, all for no fault of my own.”

“I have been listening to the conversation of the guards,” the crab said. “And that has suggested to me a course of action that will not fail. This is what you must do...”

The fisherman listened, but shook his head. “I could never get my hands free in time,” he said.

“I will cut your ropes through partly with my claws,” the crab said, “so that when you need to, you can break them easily. But until then, make no move to show that you are no longer tightly bound.”

“And then what happens, when my bonds are free?” the fisherman asked. “The soldiers will still be there with their spears, ready to stick them in me.”

“Don’t worry about that,” the crab said, busily working on the rope. “When the time comes, you’ll see. I think I can hear them coming for you now.” Squeezing through a crack between the wall and the floor, he found his way to the sewers, and from there, he made his way back towards the lake.

Meanwhile the fisherman, still in his ropes, was brought before the king, who sat on his high throne, looking down angrily at the court.

“This is the man who stole the box of jewels,” the guards said. “We found it hidden in his roof.”

“He must answer with his life for this crime,” the monarch said, frowning terribly. “Take him away and hang him at once!”

At these words the fisherman felt weak at the knees and about to faint, but he took a deep breath and pulled himself together, remembering the crab’s words. “I am innocent,” he said. “But if I must die, as an innocent man, let me at least choose the way I leave this world.”

The king considered a moment. “I see no harm in that,” he said. “How do you wish to be killed?”

“I have always lived by the waters of the lake,” the fisherman responded, “and I have earned my living from it. The only proper way for me to perish is in its embrace.”

“Very well,” the king said. “We shall take you out in a boat and throw you into the water; but beware lest you come up again, even for a breath, for my men will be ready to cut you into pieces.”

“He won’t come up even once,” the commander of the guard laughed. “Not with the knots my men tied on him, he won’t.”

So they took the fisherman to the bank, near enough so he could see his own hut, perhaps for the last time; and they then put him on his own boat, and rowed him far out into the lake, until they were in its centre, where the water was deepest.

“Remember,” the commander of the guard said, “if you come up, even for a breath of air, our spears are ready and waiting.” And, without a further word, they threw him into the water.

As the water of the lake closed over his head, the fisherman, fighting down panic and remembering what the crab had told him, worked his hands and feet so that the weakened ropes broke and fell away. But even so he was under the surface, and he did not dare rise again because of the spears waiting for him. It seemed to him, as his lungs felt about to burst for want of air, that he’d merely exchanged death by hanging for death by drowning, and it would be the end of him, after all.

But all of a sudden he felt something swimming beside him, and a hundred slippery bodies crowding around him and pushing him along; and when he opened his eyes, he caught a glimpse of a hundred shining bodies of black and glittering gold. They pushed him along so swiftly that when he finally could no longer last without breathing, he came to the surface far enough away from the boat that the guards didn’t see him at all. Then the fishes pulled him under again and swam with him out to the far side of the lake.

There, at last, they brought him to a cavern at the base of a cliff, the only entrance to which was under the water; and there he found, waiting for him, his old friend the crab.

“I told you that the fish would be of help to you,” the crustacean said, waving a claw in greeting. “And here you can stay in this cavern with me, and nobody will bother us ever again. There’s no shortage of things to eat, and I’ll bring you whatever you want.”

“You’re supposed to be my apprentice,” the fisherman replied, when he’d somewhat recovered. “I’m supposed to teach you how to fish. But here in this cavern, how can I?”

“We can bring you the boat and net, if you like, when the soldiers have gone,” the crab said. “Would you like that?”

The fisherman looked at the black and gold fish flickering back and forth under the water, and once in a while raising their heads to look at him.

“No,” he said at last. “I don’t think I’ll be catching fish again.”

A little later he asked the crab: "And you? Why are you doing all this? I can't teach you any more than I have already, so why are you doing all this for me?"

The crab was silent for a moment. 

"You gave me the chance to be more than just a crab," he said.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016


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