The Smiling Fishwife

Quill 176 Smiling Fishwife Image 1 FinalOnce, there was a fisherman who was dissatisfied with his wife because she was always complaining and frowning.  The fisherman had no friends, for he never went to the market at the village square.  His wife was the one who sold the fish he caught.  So he poured out his misery when he went out on the waters to do his fishing.  When that made him tired, he would go silent and that’s when the fish would come. For when he complained, the noise frightened the fish, but when he was silent, they would come near and see his lures, and his lures were quite enticing.

One fish, unlike her fellows, swum closer and listened to his woes.  The fisherman’s noisy complaining made her curious rather than frightened.  She was different from the other fish.  While they were born in the water, she was born of the water, for she was an elemental.  As she watched and listened to the fisherman, she began to fall in love with him, for after pouring out his woes, he would speak fondly of his dreams.  He would speak of all the things he would do if he were not a fisherman, and if he were not weighed down by such a miserable wife.

The fisherman’s lamentations made the elemental curious about this miserable wife.  One day, the elemental swam and swam until she reached the riverbank.  There she saw a group of women doing their washing.  Most of them were chatting boisterously.  A few were singing a work song.  A few were working quietly, looking tired or dreamy or focused.  One was weeping and being comforted by her friends.  And one stood apart from all the others.  She was neither chatting, singing, dreaming, nor crying.  She wasn’t focused on her work.  She was listening to the others, that was certain, for she often rolled her eyes, frowned, or shook her head in what seemed to be disgust or disapproval.

What a miserable woman, the elemental thought.  She takes no joy in the company of her fellows.  No joy in the company of her husband.

This was the fisherman’s wife, the fishwife.  Then the elemental had a horrible thought.  What if the fisherman and his miserable wife were to have children?  Would she be miserable even in the company of her own little ones?  From what the elemental could discern, the fishwife certainly would be miserable in the company of her own children.  For misery seemed to be in her nature.


At first, for the sake of the fisherman she loved so dearly, the elemental tried to find ways to make the fishwife happy, or at least to make her smile.  One day, when the miserable wife was beating her wet clothes against a rock to clean them, the elemental peaked her face just above the river’s surface.  She spit a stream of water at the fishwife’s face.  Surely, the miserable wife would look down upon herself, how she was as wet as the clothes she was washing, and burst out laughing.

There was indeed a burst of laughter.  But not from the fishwife.  All of the other gathered women, and some little girls and boys too young for schooling, saw what happened and began to laugh.  One of the little boys even claimed he saw a fish come up out of the water and spit at the fishwife, which only made everyone laugh all the harder.  Everyone except one, that is.  The fishwife did not laugh.  She only frowned.  She only glared at her fellows, who quickly quieted down and returned to their own washing.

The elemental watched the fishwife and thought of what she might do next.  The days grew warm and then hot.  The women toiled at their washing under wide-brimmed hats, wiping their brows with kerchiefs wrapped around their necks.  One particularly stifling day, many complained and frowned, for they had good cause.  The elemental however felt joyous.  She was a water elemental and had great power over the waters.  She could make them boil until they burned away.  She could make them churn until they turned to mist.  And she could make them cool for the fishwife, so she would be refreshed while her fellows wilted.

When the fishwife had waded into the shallows of the river with her wash basket floating beside her and tied to her waist, the elemental began to cool the waters of the river.  The cool water carried to the other women, who began to exclaim how refreshing the river was.  They abandoned their washing and their mending for a spell and fell into the river to soothe themselves.  But the fishwife only frowned at them.  She fumbled impatiently with her washing and glanced often at the abandoned baskets of the others as if she would have to do all of their work.

The fishwife kept wiping her brow.  The elemental thought the fishwife must still be hot, so she cooled the water more and more.  Cooler and cooler.  Cold and crisp.  A mist wafted atop the river as the icy waters met the scorching air.

The elemental took a moment to dip under the water and make sure the fish and other creatures were comfortable.  She had only cooled the very top layers of the waters, but she could not allow them to fall into discomfort or danger for the sake of the fishwife.  When she glanced back up, she saw the fishwife struggling and realized she had cooled the waters too much.  The elemental began to warm them again, but it was too late.The fishwife was shivering.  She cried out when she saw ice crusted along the edge of her wash basket.  She tried to pull it lose, but it would not move.

The fishwife managed to pry her wash basket loose and slosh back to the shore, where she sat, soaked and shivering, while her fellows wrapped her in warm blankets and threw puzzled glances at the river.

Between her efforts to cheer the fishwife, the elemental continued visiting the fisherman.  He spoke of his wife’s complaints about the mishaps she had suffered while simply trying to do the washing so that she and her husband would not have to go about in clothes that were as dirty as they were worn.

Hearing that, the elemental had a new idea.  She would give the fishwife the finest attire known in all the waters, from sea to falls.  After a few hesitant days, the fishwife had returned to wading in the river’s shallows with her wash basket.  The elemental waited until the fishwife was almost done with her washing and slipped the fine garment into the basket full of washed and stone-beaten clothes, so it would not be discovered until the fishwife returned home to hang the washing up to dry.

The next day, the elemental came to the riverbank to see if the fishwife would arrive, dressed finely in the gift she had been given, a cloak of dazzling many-colored scales.  The elemental did not think it would be so, for the garment was too fine to wear while performing chores.  She expected that the fishwife would come to the shores with a smile on her face at last, exclaiming she had found a wonderful gift in her basket.  Perhaps she would think her husband had got it for her and would be happy with him and he would be happy when next he went out to fish.

The fishwife did come rushing to the shores of the river, but she was not smiling.  She was still frowning.  She was fuming.  She went about to all her fellows and asked who had played a nasty trick on her.  The women were all confused of course, for they had nothing to do with any trick.

At last, one of the women, unable to stand seeing everyone being harangued, asked the miserable fishwife to explain.  The fishwife then pulled out the gorgeous and delicate garment that the elemental had given her.  It was the skin of a rare fish, complete with the proud armored head and the flowing fins.  It could have been worn as a cloak as it was, or sewn into a dress if the fishwife wished.  And it had the power to transform any who wore it into the very kind of fish from which it was taken, a powerful and deep-dwelling fish.

The fishwife held aloft the gift as if she were holding a filthy washcloth.  She demanded to know who had placed the thing in her wash basket.  She complained of its odor, of its horrific appearance, of her distaste with her fellows for playing such a nasty trick.

The other women all denied doing the deed.  Some, the elemental saw, eyed the garment with curiosity and caution, but said nothing of what they might be thinking.

“I’m cursed!” the fishwife cried.  “Surely, I am cursed!”

The elemental was baffled.  After all her efforts, the ungrateful, miserable woman before her could do nothing but complain.  Suddenly, the fishwife drew back her hand and flung the fish-skin garment into the river.

The elemental grew angry then.  The river began to rush from the force of her anger.  The women in the shallows cried out and hurried to shore before they could be carried off.

The elemental began to grow.  She rose up out of the waters, opening her mouth, still growing.  She commanded the waters to carry her to shore, far enough so she could reach the fleeing fishwife.  The elemental snapped her mouth shut and caught the end of the fishwife’s skirt.  She held tight as the waters knocked the fishwife over and swept them both back toward the river.

The elemental opened her mouth again and let the waters carry the fishwife into her mouth, past her jaws, into her throat.  She clamped her mouth shut and swallowed the miserable fishwife.


When she emerged from the waters of the river, many days later, the fishwife was greeted by worried villagers.  On the day she had disappeared, the women had fled and gone to fetch their warriors and elders, for they had seen a great fish rise out of the river and swallow the fishwife.

When the fishwife heard this story, saw the worried looks on the face of her fellows, and felt the embrace of her husband, whose face was streaming with tears, she did something she had rarely if ever been seen to do.

The fishwife smiled.

She smiled because she was grateful for the concern of her fellows.  She smiled because she was grateful for the warm arms of her husband around her.  She smiled because the air felt soft and cool.  She smiled because the world around her was bursting with color and scent.  She smiled because she felt as if she had never been in the world before.

She smiled because she was not really the fishwife.

She was the elemental.

And she truly had not been in the world of the air before, not in the way she was now.  As water was changeable, so too was the water elemental.  She had taken on the form of the fishwife as she had taken on the form of the fish.  For she was curious, always curious.  And she was not content to watch any longer.

The elders wanted to speak with her, to find out what had happened, and how she had escaped from the great fish, or at least from drowning (if the fish was merely imagined by the horrified women as they fled from a flooding river).  But the fisherman, after thanking all his fellow villagers, asked that he and his wife be allowed some quiet, so she could rest after her suffering.  Then she went home with the fisherman.

The fisherman was kind, but he looked at her strangely.  She smiled at him and he returned her smile with one of his own.  The elemental thought he looked handsome through her new eyes, almost unbearably so.  She turned her eyes away and when she looked back him, he was looking at her, puzzled.  She wondered how the fishwife could be so miserable with such a handsome husband, with his thin lips and matted hair, those bulging eyes, and that sleek and sharp nose.

“Do you wish to be bound to me?” she asked the fisherman carefully.  “If not, I will go.”

The fisherman laughed and waved away her question.  “Of course,” he said.  “You are my wife.”

The elemental smiled.  The contract was made.

The fisherman asked her if she were hungry, and she realized that she was.  She had not eaten in quite some time.

The elemental had only ever eaten raw fish and was at first dismayed when the fisherman cooked a fish for their dinner.  She didn’t understand why he scrubbed off the tasty crunchy scales, but she didn’t stop or interrupt him.  She wanted to learn how it was that fisher-people and the other people of the village lived their lives.

The fisherman fried the fish in vinegar and oil, spiced it with salt and some herbs, and gave it to her to eat.  She reluctantly tried it, a nibble first, then a bite.  Soon, she was gulping it down, for she found it to be one of the most delicious foods she had eaten in her long life (and she could not remember how long that was, but the last time she had looked above the surface of the waters, there were no fisher-people to be seen).


As the days past, the elemental found she had reason to keep smiling.  She enjoyed walking, the strange sensation of falling and catching herself so smoothly.  She tripped and fell once and after frowning from the pain in her side, she smiled again.  For she was helped up by a kind couple who passed by.  They even brushed off her dress, and when she had time to think on what happened, she found it to be ridiculous, and began to laugh.  The couple laughed with her and bid her a good day.

She also liked sitting down and lying down.  She marveled at the green of the trees, the brown of the earth, the gray of stone, and the clear blue of the river.  As an elemental, she could see many colors, but she had been seeing through the eyes of a fish for so long, she had forgotten how vibrant and delightful color could be, even though she lived in waters full of brightly colored creatures.  Best of all she loved the food, like rice and bread that was soft, crusty, and dry.  Dry was new.  Dry made her smile.

Still, she was a being of water.  And she had good reason to return to the water, for she had washing to do.  Where once she had watched, she now took part, washing and chatting with the other women, who welcomed the change in her manner.  She slipped easily into their circle of singing and stories.  Sometimes she tired of it, for she was a solitary being.  When she did, she would smile and tease her fellows that she was tired of their gossip and she wished to be left alone.  They would laugh and let her be.

The fisherman for his part, was happy with the change in his wife.  He thought she looked beautiful, that she was growing more and more beautiful every day, though she looked the same as she always had.  The same flat hair.  The same small ears.  The same thin—almost absent—eyebrows.

It was the smile, he thought.  Now that she smiled, she was beautiful.


One day, they were walking through the market, when the elemental reached for a rich fruit and the fisherman stopped her and gave her a strange look.  He frowned at the fruit and said they hadn’t the means to enjoy mangoes.

The elemental did not understand why she couldn’t try all of the things she wanted to, why she couldn’t just take what she wanted.  So she observed the people in the market.  She saw that they traded one thing they had for another they wanted.  She grinned as she watched the people trade, for she deemed it an ingenious idea and wondered why she hadn’t thought of such a thing.  But then she was a solitary creature.

She asked her husband if they had anything to trade that would equal the worth of that mango, or a silken orange scarf she spied in a stall selling fabrics.  Her husband laughed, but it was a strange laugh.  It was not full of joy but of some other feeling.  He stopped and crossed his arms when they reached an opulent store flanked by stern guards.  Displayed outside were glittering stones.  Stones of the earth that dazzled as much as the scales of the most beautiful fish.

“I supposed you’ll ask for a necklace of pearls next,” he said.  He seemed to be teasing, but he was also looking at her cautiously.

The elemental thought it must be because he was still expecting a complaint or a frown.  But she had no reason to do either, for the necklace he pointed to was a welcome surprise.  She laughed and clapped her hands.  The creamy gleaming beads he spoke of were not made from earthen stones.  The elemental knew them well.  For pearls came from the waters.

She asked him then if pearls were very valuable.  He peered at her curiously, perhaps thinking she was teasing him as well.  But she could already see that they were indeed valuable, admired, treasured, and rare.  She smiled, for she now knew how she would trade for the mangoes and silks and sweets she longed for.

Being an elemental of the water, she had developed many talents possessed by the creatures of the sea. This included the talent of making pearls.  She could make them, grow them, in her throat.  It did not take her quite so long as it took an oyster.  In three days she could make a pearl the size of those she saw in the market.  She was not certain she could grow a pearl in her fishwife form, so she treated her throat delicately.  While she was making the pearl, she feared that the growing pearl would become dislodged.  She worried that she would either swallow it or cough it up far too early.  So during those three days, she did not speak, eat, or drink.  She only did one thing.

She smiled, as much as she could to please the fisherman.

She felt the pearl in her throat like a warm spot that grew over time, and she smiled all the more.  When the pearl was ready, she summoned it from her throat and out it came.  She spit it out of her mouth, washed it clean, and presented it to her husband, saying she had found it.  It was the color of a rosy dawn.  It was as round as the moon.  It was smooth and unmarred.

With one pearl, the fisherman was able to trade for coin, many, many coins.  He purchased many different kinds of goods.  His wife asked for sweets and he bought her sweets.  She asked for soft garments to wear, and he bought her cotton and silks.  Then he began to give her precious stones and jewels, which she also found delightful.


One day, he presented her with a necklace of pearls.  She was puzzled but amused that the folk of that land found pearls to be so valuable.  They were beautiful, to be sure.  But to the elemental, their beauty was a common beauty, like that of a blue sky or a tree to those who lived on land.  Nothing particularly precious, though perhaps the beauty of everyday things like the sky and the pearls was worthy of as much praise as the beauty of rare things.

The elemental made two more pearls, and these she took to market herself to trade for even more coin.  She had learned the ways of the market well, having carried on the trade of being a fishwife.  She knew the worth of the pearls was great and bargained for a supply of coins that she knew would suffice for the lifetime of the fisherman.  She added the coins slowly to their treasure box.  The fisherman had kept count of the coins in the beginning, but had stopped when he found he had so many that he could spend them without worry of running out.  So he did not seem to notice that their supply of coins seemed never-ending.

All was well for a while.

Then the fisherman began to complain of their humble home.  There were holes in the walls and ceilings.  Rain came in and mice.  It was not a fitting abode for those who held such wealth as they did, for it was being noticed among the village that they could afford not just fine things, but luxuries.  He worried they would be robbed.  But he also worried that they would be looked down upon by the other well-to-do merchants in the village.  The fisherman still fished, but less and less often, for he had no need to.  If they wanted a fish for their dinner, they had enough coin now to buy it from market.

So the fisherman bought a house far from the river where he had fished, in the village square.  It was grand and spacious.  Where their old house was made of wood, the new one was made of stone and metal.  The elemental liked the house of wood.  She had never lived in a house before, for she wandered through the waters.  She had inhabited a cavern once, but it was not the same.

She marveled at the stone and metal, for the new house was beautiful.  There were many rooms where she could contemplate alone.  Many where she could gather her fellows.  There was one room in particular that captured her wonder.  It was called a library.  She had purchased a few books, though she had not yet learned to read the language she had so easily learned to speak.  But she had never seen an entire room of books.  It was more daunting than the highest wave she had ever crested.  And just as thrilling.

The fisherman soon complained of how dark the house was, and how difficult to clean for his wife.  So the elemental suggested he spend more coin to hire servants.  This he did.  But he soon complained of how there was nothing to do, for he had stopped fishing.  The elemental suggested he visit with his friends.  This he did, but his friends were always busy with work or with their families.  Soon, the fisherman complained that he had no family of his own, no children.

At last, the elemental had no answer to give.  She could, perhaps, have children with the fisherman.  But their natures would show before long.  The fisherman would learn the truth about his wife.  She hoped that he would forget, that his wish was a fleeting one.  But he did not forget.  As the days bore on, he pressed her.  He tried to worry her by claiming his fellows were gossiping about their lack of children.  He tried to bribe her by buying ever richer trinkets and rarities.  He tried to beguile her with his charms.

The elemental wondered why he was so dissatisfied.

For a while, the fisherman had enjoyed his wife’s new joyful attitude and his good fortune, but then he fell again to complaining.  The elemental was able to withstand his complaints, ignore them, as she sated her curiosity, and lived happily among the villagers.  She wondered to herself why the fisherman was always complaining when his life was so good, so good in comparison to some of the poor folk in the village who had no work to do and no house to live in.


One morning, the elemental smiled at her husband and asked him to indulge her a small trip after breakfast.  This he did only after she promised him that she would consider having a child before the turn of the next year.  He called for a carriage, but the elemental took his hand and asked if they might walk.

They walked a long way from the village square to the village outskirts.  The fisherman, who was no longer a fisherman, worried that his fine suit and his wife’s delicate dress, would be spoiled by the bush and bramble of the forest.  But the elemental could smell the river now.  There was a great fountain in the courtyard of their house.  But its waters could not compare to the free-flowing waters of the river.  It smelled wild and unrestrained.  She too had not visited in so long.  She had servants to do her washing.  And her house was now far from the river.


When they reached the banks of the river, they were alone.  The women of the village, the poorer women, she now understood, had finished their washing.  The elemental sat by the banks.  She removed her boots and stockings and dipped her feet into the waters.  The fisherman knelt beside her.  The river had once been his place.  He appeared to be conflicted.  He had sought to leave his hard labor behind.  But perhaps he was thinking of something else he had left behind.

“When I went out to fish,” the fisherman said.  “I would speak aloud all my thoughts.  My dreams.  I dreamt of being a rich merchant.”

“I remember,” the elemental said.

At this, the fisherman looked at her and frowned.

“You would complain of how miserable your wife was,” the elemental said.  “How she only frowned and grumbled.  Now you have a wife who is smiling and happy.  Now you have plenty to eat and rich clothes to wear and friends to greet you when you walk through the village square.  Still you complain.  I saw that she was miserable, as you said.  But you are just as miserable as she.”

The fisherman looked at his wife’s face and saw upon her skin a lattice of fine glittering scales.  His eyes widened.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Have you not suspected in all this time?”  She turned to the fisherman, her eyes now round, dark, and bulging.

The fisherman fell back.  “You are the creature!  The great fish that ate my wife.  Alas, she never returned.  You took her.  You killed her!”

The elemental grew angry then.  For she had done no such thing.

“Your miserable wife has been sleeping within me all along.  She has been dreaming sweet dreams of mangoes, silks, fried fish, soft air, and the warm arms of her handsome husband.”  For those were the elemental’s dreams.  “You cried, ‘Alas!’  For her misfortune?  Or yours?”

The fisherman lay speechless and agape on the banks of the river.

Then the elemental smiled.  “Be not wretched, husband.  Our contract is ended now.  I am content.  Here is your wife.”

With that, the elemental jumped into the river and sunk beneath the water.  The fisherman sat flabbergasted as he watched something float to the water’s surface.  It was the fine dress the elemental had been wearing, torn asunder.  The river carried it away.  Then the surface broke as a great fish rose up and opened her mouth.  The fisherman rolled away as the fish’s head settled on the riverbank.  The open mouth spewed forth the fishwife, whole and unharmed, and strangely enough, completely dry.  The fishwife lay on the riverbank, blinking and dazed.

The great fish receded back into the river, sinking below its surface.  She did not linger to watch the fisherman and the fishwife, to see what they would do.  Perhaps they would be miserable together.  Perhaps they would not.  Perhaps they would have children.  Perhaps they would not.  Perhaps the elemental should not have interfered.  But she had fallen in love, not just with the fisherman, but with his life, life on land.  All was done now.

As she swam with the river’s current, faster and faster, she let such thoughts fall away as she let her anger fall away.  She would rest when she reached the open waters, for it was true, she was content with her adventure upon the land.  She knew the contentment would not last.  She would grow curious again in time.  She would again long for something or someone.  Such was the way of life.

With that thought, the elemental stretched her lips and smiled.


Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel

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