Why the Sea Is Salt, by Ed Ahern
Once, it was a long, long time ago, there were two brothers. One was rich and mean and the other poor and good hearted. The morning of one Christmas eve the poor brother had not a shred of meat or crumb of bread. He went to his rich brother’s house to beg for enough food to make a meal for him and his wife on Christmas day.
The mean spirited brother wasn’t glad to see his face nor willing to help him, but in the end he said, “If you do as I ask you, I’ll give you a whole side of bacon.”
“I’ll do anything for you, brother. Thank you so much and Merry Christmas.”
“Well, here is the side of bacon. Now go straight to hell.”
“What I’ve given my word to I must stick to,” said the poor brother. He threw the side of bacon over his shoulder and set off. He walked all day, not knowing where he was going. At dusk he saw the light of a fire and turned off into the woods. “Maybe this is the place,” he said to himself.
He came out of the woods to a dark house and saw an old, old man with a long white beard who was chopping wood for the Christmas fire.
“Good even,” said the poor man.
“The same to you. Where are you going so late on Christmas eve?”
“Ah. I need to go to hell, but I don’t know the way.”
The old man smiled. “Well, you’re not far off, for this is the entrance to Hell. It’s easy to get in, not so easy to get out, but you seem a good man and should have no problem. Meat is scarce in hell, and once you get inside the imps will be begging you to sell your bacon. But don’t sell it unless they give you the stone quern sitting just inside the door. When you come out with it I’ll teach you how to use it. If you use the quern properly it will grind out almost anything.”
The poor man said thank you very politely, walked over and knocked loudly on the devil’s door.
Once inside the door the poor man found things just as he’d been told. The imps swarmed over him like ants, each trying to outbid the other for the side of bacon.
“Well,” he said, “rightfully my wife and I should have this bacon for our Christmas dinner, but if I sell it at all I will only exchange it for the quern hidden behind the door.”
The devil himself walked up. He chaffered and haggled with the poor man, but the devil wanted that side of bacon so badly that at last he agreed to give up his quern.
Once back outside the devil’s door the poor man asked the old woodcutter how to use the quern. And the snowy bearded woodcutter showed him all the secret little ways in which the quern must be used. He thanked the woodcutter and marched back home carrying the heavy stone quern, but it was Christmas eve midnight before he reached his own house.
“Wherever in the world have you been?” asked his dame. “Here I’ve sat hour after hour without so much as two sticks to fire up, nor the Christmas porridge to be heated.”
“Ah,” said the man. “I just couldn’t get back before. For one thing I had a long way to go and for another I had a long way to come back. But now you’ll see what you’ll see.”
He heaved the quern onto the table, and ordered it to grind out lighted candles, and table cloth, and meat, and ale, and so on, until they had everything nice for a Christmas meal. His dame stood by blessing herself and asking him where he’d gotten such a wonderful quern, but of course he didn’t tell her.
“It’s all one where I got it,” he said,”but the quern is a marvel and the mill stream never freezes, and that’s good enough for us.”
He ground out meat and drink and dainties enough to last till Twelfth Day. On the third day of Christmas he invited all his friends and family to his cottage and provided them a great feast. But when his rich, mean brother saw all that was laid out on the table and set aside in the larder, he boiled up spiteful and wild, for he couldn’t abide that his brother had such things.
“It was only Christmas eve,” he told those attending,” he was in such trouble that he came to me and begged in God’s name for a morsel of food. Now he gives us a feast as if he were count or king.”
He turned to his poor brother and asked,” From where, in Hell’s name, did you get all these wonderful things?”
“Oh, from just behind the door,” he replied, and would say no more. But later in the evening, after he had drunk many mugs of ale, he relented. “This is how we now have everything we need,” he said, and took the quern from out of a cabinet. He gathered the guests and ordered the quern to produce fine flaxen cloth, and good ale, and several pairs of boots in his size.
When the rich brother saw this he swore he must have the quern, and set about with twisted words to convince his brother to part with it. “You’ve so much now, you’ve no need for more,” he said. “But I do. Just let me keep the quern till hay harvest is over, and I’ll give you three hundred pieces of silver.”
For the rich brother thought to force the quern to spew out meat and drink and cloth to last for years. It would grow no moss while in his possession. And the poor brother in sympathy agreed. But he didn’t quite trust his brother, and taught him only part of what was needed to control the quern.
The rich brother carried the quern home that evening, and the next morning told his wife to go out into the field and toss the grass while the mowers cut it.”I’ll stay at home and get dinner ready,” he said.
When the time for dinner came near the rich brother set the quern on his kitchen table and said ”Grind herrings and broth, and grind them faster and faster.”
And the quern began to furiously grind herrings and broth. The rich man filled all the dishes, then all the pots and tubs, but the quern churned faster and faster, spewing herrings and broth all over the kitchen floor.
He twisted the quern, and twirled it and yelled at it, but for all his twisting and twirling the quern just ground the faster. The rich man threw open the kitchen door and ran into his parlor, but the herring broth gushed behind him, and he almost drowned before he could throw open his house door and run down the path.
As he ran the herring and broth washed in waves behind him, roaring like a waterfall over the farm. His old dame, who was still in the field tossing hay, thought it was past time for dinner and called to the field hands.
“Even though the master hasn’t called us in we may as well go. It may be he finds it hard work to boil the broth and will be glad of my help.”
The men were glad, and they all were walking slowly back towards the farmhouse when the master came running and screaming toward them, chased by billowing waves of herrings and broth. As he ran by the rich man yelled, “if only you each had a hundred throats! Take care that you’re not drowned in broth.”
And the rich man ran on, as if the devil himself were behind him, all the way to the poor man’s house.”Please, for God’s sake,” he cried to his brother, ”take back the quern. If it grinds an hour more the whole perish will be buried in herrings and broth.”
“All right,” said the poor brother,” but you’ll have to pay me another three hundred silver pieces.”
So the poor brother got back the quern as well as more silver. He built a big farmhouse along the sea shore, and plated it all over with gold. On a sunny day the golden house gleamed and glistened far out over the sea. All who sailed by put ashore to get a closer look at the golden house and the rich man who owned the magic quern- for he was the poor brother no more, far richer than his brother had ever been.
The fame of the gold house and the rich man’s quern spread far and wide, till there was no one who hadn’t heard of it. One day a ship’s captain came and asked the brother to see the quern. “Such a little thing,” he marveled. “Can it grind salt?”
“Grind salt!” said the brother. “Of course it can. It can churn out anything.”
“Ah,” said the captain. “For years and years I’ve risked voyages across stormy seas to bring ship loads of salt back to my home. Please, at almost any cost, sell me the quern so I can safely do my business.”
The brother said he couldn’t bear to part with his quern, but the captain begged and prayed and asked and pleaded. And at last the brother thought to himself that he was rich enough for several lifetimes and the quern could be put to good use.
“Very well,” he said.”Give me a thousand pieces of silver and the quern shall be yours.”
The captain was excited to be getting the quern, but afraid that the brother would change his mind, so he paid the brother and rushed back to his ship without asking how to stop the quern from churning.
Once he’d sailed a few miles from shore the captain hauled the quern out on deck and said, “Grind salt, and grind it good and fast.”
The quern ground salt so fast that it flowed out like sand in the desert. The salt poured into the ship’s holds, and into its cabins and piled in mountains on the deck. The captain desperately tried to stop the quern’s churning, but no matter what he said or how he handled it, the quern kept spewing salt. And finally the heap of salt grew so high that the ship sank, and the quern with it.
And there the quern sits to this day, at the bottom of the sea, grinding away. And that’s why the sea is salt.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty six years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had forty plus stories accepted thus far.
Note from Ed Ahern: This is a retelling of and homage to “Why The Sea Is Salt”, a story included by Sir George Webbe Dasent in his 1904 book, Popular Tales From the Norse. The language is modern but the spirit is hopefully as it was once told.
2 readers love this story!
Tags: Ed Ahern, fairy tales, family, fantasy