The Fisherman and His Soul
By Oscar Wilde,
abridged and re-told for PASSPORT.
Illustration by Nica Harrison
A fisherman cast his nets, in the face of a bitter and black-winged wind. But once the net was so heavy he thought he had caught the world, but in his net was a sleeping mermaid. Her hair was as a wet fleece of gold. Her body was as ivory, her tail silver and pearl. Like sea-shells were her ears, and her lips were like coral.
Every evening, the young Fisherman called to her, and she rose out of the water. Round her swam dolphins, and wild gulls wheeled above her. She sang of the nautilus and his boat of opal with a silken sail; of the happy Mermen whose harps can charm even the great Kraken; of the little children who catch the slippery porpoises and ride laughing upon their backs; of the Mermaids who lie in the white foam and hold out their arms to the mariners; of the sea-lions with their curved tusks, and the sea-horses with their floating manes.
At last he asked her to marry him, but she told him he had to lose his soul before he could enter the waters. ‘But how shall I send my soul from me?’ cried the young Fisherman. ‘Tell me how, and it shall be done.’
‘Alas! I know not,’ said the little Mermaid. And she sank down into the deep, looking wistfully at him. So he asked the Priest.
‘Father, I am in love with one of the Sea-folk. She is the daughter of a King, fairer than the morning star, and whiter than the moon. For her body I would give my soul, and for her love I would surrender heaven. How I can send my soul away from me, for I have no need of it. Of what value is my soul to me? I cannot see it, touch it or know it.’’
The Priest answered, ‘Alas, you are mad, for the soul is the noblest part of man, given to us by God that we should nobly use it. There is nothing more precious than a human soul, nor any earthly thing that can be weighed with it. It is worth all the gold in the world, and is more precious than the rubies of the kings. Think not any more of this matter.’
The young Fisherman said to himself: ‘How strange a thing this is! The Priest tells me that a soul is worth all the gold in the world, and the merchants say that it is not worth a clipped piece of silver.’
So he went to the witches to ask how to rid himself of his own soul. At midnight the witches came flying through the air like bats. Last of all came one young witch, with her red hair streaming in the wind. She wore a dress of gold tissue embroidered with peacocks’ eyes, and a little cap of green velvet was on her head. She laughed, and ran to the hornbeam, and taking the Fisherman by the hand she led him out into the moonlight and began to dance.
‘What men call the shadow of the body is the body of the soul. Stand on the sea-shore with thy back to the moon, and cut away from around thy feet thy shadow, which is thy soul’s body. Bid thy soul leave thee, and it will do so.’ But she wept when the fisherman told her of his love for the mermaid.
He did as she said. But his separated Soul protested. And the young Fisherman laughed. ‘I have no need of thee. The world is wide. Go wherever thou will, but trouble me not, for my love is calling to me.’
His Soul was afraid, and asked for the Fisherman’s heart. He laughed. ‘With what should I love my love if I gave thee my heart?’ And he dived into the waters.
After each of three years, they met on the shore. The Soul called to the Fisherman, and he rose out of the deep, and said, ‘Why dost thou call to me?’
The Soul answered, ‘Join me, for I have seen marvellous things.’ And he tempted the Fisherman again and again. Eventually, the Fisherman gave in, and his Soul lured him into evil deeds which tormented him.
‘No!’ cried the Fisherman, ‘I may not be at peace, for all that you have made me do I hate you. Why have you done this to me?’
His Soul answered, ‘When thou sent me into the world with no heart, I learned to do all these things.’
The Fisherman came to his rightful senses too late. When he fled to the shore to rejoin his Mermaid wife, there came a great cry of mourning, that one of the Sea-folk is dead. Black waves came hurrying to the shore, bearing with them a burden whiter than silver. White as the surf, and like a flower tossed on the waves to lie at the feet of the young Fisherman was the body of the Mermaid.
The young Fisherman called on the little Mermaid and said, ‘Love is better than wisdom, more precious than riches, and fairer than the feet of the daughters of men. Fires cannot destroy it, nor waters quench it. In evil had I left you, yet ever did your love abide with me. Now that thou art dead, I will die with thee.’ And he let the waves consume him, as he carried her back into the deep.
The Priest found their bodies, and the alter flowers that grew on their graves told of God’s love, not wrath.