The Big Fish

A Portuguese Fairy Tale

(art by Oliver Hunter)

Once there was a poor fisherman who had three daughters. One day when he was out at sea, a big fish swallowed him. The fish demanded the fisherman’s oldest daughter in exchange for his life and the fisherman sadly agreed. The man returned home, took his eldest daughter to the beach, and the fish took her away. This was not the end to the poor man’s troubles, however. Each time he cast his nets he caught the same big fish, and each time it asked for another daughter. When it had carried off the last of the man’s three daughters, it left him a present of jewels and gold.

The fisherman and his wife lived in comfort and ease, and one day his wife gave birth to a boy. As the boy grew up, he noticed that his parents were not happy. When he asked them why, they told the boy the story of his three older sisters. Resolving to find them, the boy set off, taking a quantity of gold with him.

On his journey, he met three brothers who were arguing over an inheritance of magical items: a pair of boots that took the wearer wherever he wanted to go, a cloak that made the user invisible, and a key that would open any lock. The boy bought the items from the brothers. He then instructed the boots to take him to his eldest sister, and was whisked off to an island in the middle of the sea.

On this island he found his first sister, who was married to the King of the Fishes. To avoid the anger of the jealous King, the boy hid under his invisible cloak. When the sister had pacified her husband, the king and the boy sat talking together. The King told the boy that if he ever needed help all he had to say was: "Come to my aid, King of the Fishes," and in a flash the king would be beside him to give him any aid he could.

The boy then used his magic boots to travel to his second sister. She was married to the King of the Seals. As before, the boy hid in his invisible cloak until his sister pacified her husband. The king told the boy to say: "Come to my aid, King of the Seals" should he ever need his help.

The boy then departed to find his third sister. The boots flew him to a magical forest. Here he met his youngest sister, who was married to the King of the Birds. On leaving the Kingdom of the Birds, the boy was told that if he should ever need help, all he needed to do was to call: "Come to my aid, King of Birds."

As the boy left the magical forest, he suddenly spied a gloomy–looking tower. He asked a passing old woman about it, who warned him that it was the tower of Babylon and very dangerous to enter. The boy was determined to explore it, however, and he told the magic boots to take him there. Inside he met a maiden, and he asked her how she came to be there. She told him she had been a prisoner since she was a baby, held in the tower by a miserable old man. She asked the boy to help her to escape.

In order to find out how this could be done, the young girl slyly asked the old man why he always groaned and sighed. The old man answered: "At the bottom of the sea there is a huge chest. Inside the chest is a fish, inside the fish is a seal, inside the seal there is a bird, and inside the bird there is an egg. If anyone found that egg and broke it on my head, I would die!"

The girl recounted all this to the boy, who resolved at once to obtain the chest. He called upon the Kings of the Fish, Birds, and Seals, who found the chest and brought it to him. The boy used his magical key to open the chest, found the egg, and broke it on the old man’s head. Then boy and the girl travelled back to his parents’ house, hand in hand.