Why the Sea is Salt
retold by Edward Ahern
This is a retelling of and homage to “Why The Sea Is Salt”, from the 1904 book, Popular Tales From the Norse by George Webbe Dasent. The language is modern but the spirit is hopefully as it was once told.
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 Christmas eve, the poor brother 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, but in the end said, “I’ll give you a whole side of bacon, just do as I ask.”
“I’ll do anything for you, brother. Thank you, and Merry Christmas.”
“Here’s the side of bacon. Now go straight to hell.”
“I’ll stick to my word,” said the poor brother. He threw the bacon over his shoulder and set off. He walked all day, and at dusk he saw light of a fire and turned off into the woods. 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.
“And you. Where are you out so late on Christmas eve?”
“I need to go to hell, but I don’t know the way.”
The old man smiled. “Well, you’re close, for this house 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 inside the imps will beg you to sell your bacon. Don’t sell it unless they give you the stone quern sitting just inside the door. If you come out with it, I’ll teach you how to use it, and it will grind out almost anything for you.”
The poor man gave polite thanks, and knocked loudly on the devil’s door.
Once inside the door, the imps swarmed over him like ants, all yelling bids for the 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 argued 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 the secret ways in which the quern must be used. He thanked the woodcutter and marched home with the stone quern, but it was Christmas eve midnight before he reached his own house.
“Wherever have you been?” asked his wife. “I’ve been sitting hours without two sticks to fire up, nor Christmas porridge to be heated.”
“Ah,” said the man. “I had a long way to go and 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 came lighted candles, and table cloth, and meat, and ale, until they had everything for a Christmas meal.
His wife kept blessing herself and asking where he’d gotten such a wonderful quern.
“It’s all one where I got it,” he said,”but the quern is a marvel 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.
“On Christmas eve,” he told those attending,” 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,” Where, in Hell’s name, did you get all these things?”
“Oh, from just behind the door,” the brother replied, and would say no more. But later, after many mugs of ale, he relented. “This is how,” he said, and took the quern from a cabinet. He gathered the guests and ordered the quern to produce fine flaxen cloth and several pairs of boots.
The rich brother swore that he must have the quern, and flailed his brother with twisted words. “You’ve so much now, you’ve no need for more,” he said. “But I do. Let me keep the quern till hay harvest is over, and I’ll give you three hundred pieces of silver.”
For the rich brother planned to force the quern to spew out meat and drink and cloth to last for years. The poor, good-hearted brother finally agreed. But he didn’t entirely 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. The next morning he ordered his wife into the field to toss grass the mowers cut.
When dinner time neared he 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 the quern just ground faster. The rich man 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 wife, still tossing hay, thought it time for dinner and called to the field hands.
“The master hasn’t called us but we may as well go. He may want my help boiling the broth.”
The men were walking 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.”
He ran 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 parish 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.”
Over time the brother, no longer poor, built a big farmhouse along the sea shore, and plated it 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 marvelous golden house.
The fame of the quern spread far and wide. One day a ship’s captain came and asked 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 back ship loads of salt. Please sell me the quern so I can safely do my business.”
The captain begged and prayed and asked and pleaded. And at last, the brother realized that he was rich enough for several lifetimes and the quern could be put to good use by someone else.
“Very well,” he said.”Give me a thousand pieces of silver.”
The captain was afraid that the brother would change his mind, so he paid the price and rushed back to his ship without asking how to stop the quern from churning.
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.