Fay Collins, “Floating Seaweed”
Did you know that oceans were once fresh? That you could
kneel and drink the Irish Sea to your thirst’s content?
Hard to think that now. Were wombs and blood so clear?
Were tears once clean of grief, as Adam before Eve?
A tale for you then, old yet somehow ever true and blue.
A poor Irishman went to see his rich brother for food.
His family was starving, his cow too thin to milk,
the porridge they ate for every meal mostly dirt and water.
The rich brother gave him a ham, but told him to take
it to a house far down the road. (In some versions, it’s Hell.)
Whatever they are willing to pay, the rich brother tells him,
trade instead for the grinding mill they hide behind a door.
It doesn’t make much sense to the poor brother, but what
does he know of fortune? So with the ham crooked in one arm
he trudged down the road (all the way Down to Hell,
in some versions) until he came to a dark house, set back
from the road like the shadow of late afternoon’s shadow.
He knocked on the door and an old man answered (some
say it’s the Devil, others an elven queen). The poor man
showed him the ham and sure enough, old fellow invited him in
and asked to buy it. The house is dark and cramped; balefire
or elvenlights flicker the walls. The old man offered money
for the ham but the poor man remembered his brother’s
instruction, and asked instead to trade it for the mill.
The Devil pursed his lips, pauses: then sighs. It’s a deal.
He (or the elf queen) disappeared into the forest of the house
for a few moments and then came back with the device,
a measly little table mill with a battered bell of a mouth
and chipped crank handle. The poor man wondered
if he should relent and take back the ham; it’s the surer
bet against starvation. But what does he know of fortune?
The old man instructes him how to use the mill. Starting it
is easy, just make a wish and start cranking: But to stop it
one has to say three magic words. The Devil leaned into
the poor brother and whispered them in his ear.
The words were in Gaelic and were surely very old,
sounding like silver fished from a forgotten lake.
When the poor man got back home, his kids surrounded
him wailing for food; when he produced the mill
his wife was furious. But leaning over the device he said
make food and begian cranking the little chipped handle.
Edibles start rolling out, hams and fish, bread and cheese
and cream. Oh such food! The family is saved at last
and they ate with thankfulness and joy. Sated at last of
hunger’s wrack, the poor brother whispered the three
magic words over the mill and it stopped. His wife thanked God
smiling for the first time in years; the children dozed content.
He decided that fortune meant some pluck and a little luck;
thanks to the magic mill, he and his family never lack for food.
When the rich brother hears of his brother’s fortune,
he thought how he should have the mill; it was his idea to
send his brother on the errand, and besides, what does
a poor man know of fortune? So he walked over to
his brother’s house and offered three hundred pounds
for the mill. The poor brother ‘s well-fed now, why not
also get rich? So he took the money happily and went
to get the mill. The rich brother is so eager to take
possession of the thing, as soon as the poor brother
tells him how to start it he turned and left, carrying
the mill back to his estate. Setting it on a table, he
whispered fine food and starts turning the crank. Elegant
stuff started pouring out, capons and pheasant,
ducklings and goose, jellies and tarts and pastries,
too many to count. Or eat. And even though the rich
brother’s house is grand, it’s soon filling up with food
from the busy little mill; the rafters are bumped by
an overwhelming meal. Stop, stop! his wife cries,
batting a ripe Camembert away from her nose;
but the rich brother never learned the three magic words
to stop the mill. Fortune be damned, he shouts, gathering
up the manic little thing and running back to his brother’s house.
Trailing sausages and steaks and roast turkeys all the way.
When his brother opened his door, the food-beslimed brother
shouts Take this thing back, surely it comes straight from Hell!
Watching his brother scoot away, the poor brother said
the magic words and rack of lamb squeezes out and stops.
For years the mill was put to sensible use, sometimes
grinding food, other times spilling out coins. The brother
was careful to give thanks, for the mill, of course, but
moreso for the three silver words, which he kept upon a
mantel in his mind, polishing them whenever enough
was enough. But that is not the point of this tale, is it?
A sea-captain having a pint one night in the local tavern
heard about the fortunate farmer and his magic mill.
Later that night he stole into the farmer’s house and took
off with the mill. The next day he sets sail in his ship.
A few weeks later the captain overheard some of his crew
complain about the lack of salt; so back in his cabin
he pulled the magic mill out from his sea-chest. Make salt
he said and started turning the handle. Soon enough
salt was spilling over the table. Plenty enough he said
but the salt kept grinding out, rising the walls of his cabin.
Stop! he cried, but the mill is making salt merrily,
overspilling the crew’s quarters and filling up the hold!
No more! he cried as the boat capsized, leaving him
and his men to grab anything that floats while the ship
faded down from view trailing bubbles and salt. Down
at the ocean bottom, the mill kept busy grinding salt,
spoons then shovels then truckloads of salt spreading
into the blue, grain by grain hazing pure water to saline.
It went on hour after hour, day after year after age
until all of the river Oceanus was salt, every sea from
Ireland to the Mediterranean and Spain to the Americas
onwards to Asia and to India, from North and South poles,
a vastness beyond imagining and none of it to drink.
filling hearts with blood and tears from its immortal sink.
Is there a moral to this tale, or like a magic mill does it
keep pouring itself forth without a shore in sight,
spilling so into this life that every quintessence
of pain and joy carries salt in equal measure?
And what do we know of fortune, anyway?
What sated angel turns away and cries enough!
What three words can sated water pray here that
will let us all at last turn the page before it turns us,
covering us quiescent and suffocate in white? I don’t know
but I suspect it has a clear blue ring—like Thank you, friend.
Submitted to D’Verse Poets Tuesday Poetics — Fay Collins ekphrasis challenge