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ink drawing of a chapter heading for The Fisherman and his Wife featuring title and figure of a man back turned to fish in the sea, black and white

Fish and the call of the Sea

The Old Man, His Wife, and the Fish

The source for this Russian version of this story is: Folk-Lore and Legends: Russian and Polish (London: W. W. Gibbings, 1890), pp. 35-41. The Grimms published a similar one and stories of the same type can be found in Japan, India, and elsewhere.

There once lived in a hut on the shores of the Isle of Buyan an old man and his wife. They were very poor. The old man used to go to the sea daily to fish, and they only just managed to live on what he caught. One day he let down his net and drew it in. It seemed to be very heavy. He dragged and dragged, and at last got it to shore. There he found that he had caught one little fish of a kind he had never before seen, a golden fish.

The fish spoke to him in a man’s voice. “Do not keep me, old man,” it said; “let me go once more free in the sea and I will reward you for it, for whatever you wish I will do.”

The old man thought for a while. Then he said, “Well, I don’t want you. Go into the sea again,” and he threw the fish into the water and went home.

“Well,” said his wife, when he got home, “what have you caught today?”

“Only one little fish,” said the man, “a golden fish, and that I let go again, it begged so hard. ‘Put me in the blue sea again,’ it said, ‘ and I will reward you, for whatever you wish I will do.’ So I let it go, and did not ask anything.”

“Ah, you old fool!” said the wife in a great rage, “what an opportunity you have lost. You might, at least, have asked the fish to give us some bread. We have scarce a crust in the house.”

The old woman grumbled so much that her husband could have no quiet, so to please her off he went to the seashore, and there he cried out:

Little fish, little fish, come now to me,
Your tail in the water, your head out of sea!

The fish came to the shore. “Well, what do you want, old man?” it asked.

“My wife,” said the man, “is in a great passion, and has sent me to ask for bread.”

“Very well,” said the fish, “go home and you shall have it.”

The old man went back, and when he entered the hut he found bread in plenty.

“Well,” said he to his wife, “we have enough bread now.”

“Oh yes!” said she, “but I have had such a misfortune while you were away. I have broken the bucket. What shall I do the washing in now? Go to the fish, and ask it to give us a new bucket.”

Away went the man. Standing on the shore he called out:

Little fish, little fish, come now to me,
Your tail in the water, your head out of sea!

The fish soon made its appearance. “Well, old man,” it said, “what do you want?”

“My wife,” said the man, ” has had a misfortune, and has broken our bucket. So I have come to ask for a new one.”

“Very well,” said the fish, “you shall find one at home.”

The old man went back. As soon as he got home his wife said to him, “Be off to the golden fish again, and ask it to give us a new hut. Ours is all coming to pieces. We have scarcely a roof over our heads.”

The old man once more came to the shore, and cried:

Little fish, little fish, come now to me,
Your tail in the water, your head out of sea!

The fish came. “Well, what is it?” asked the fish.

“My wife,” said the man, “is in a very bad temper, and has sent me to ask you to build us a new cottage. She says she cannot live any longer in our present one.”

“Oh, do not be troubled about that,” said the fish. “Go home. You shall have what you want.”

The old man went back again, and in the place of his miserable hovel he found a new hut built of oak and nicely ornamented.

The old man was delighted, but as soon as he went in his wife set on him, saying, “What an idiot you are! You do not know how to take good fortune when it is offered to you. You think you have done a great thing just because you have got a new hut. Be off again to the golden fish, and tell it I will not be a mere peasant’s wife any longer, I will be an archduchess, with plenty of servants, and set the fashion.”

The old man went to the golden fish.

“What is it?” asked the fish.

“My wife will not let me rest,” replied the man; “she wants now to be an archduchess, and is not content with being my wife.”

“Well, it shall be as she wishes. Go home again,” said the fish.

Away went the man. How astonished was he, when, on coming to where his house had stood, he now found a fine mansion, three stories high. Servants crowded the hall, and cooks were busy in the kitchens. On a seat in a fine room sat the man’s wife, dressed in robes shining with gold and silver, and giving orders.

“Good day, wife!” said the man.

“Who are you, man?” said his wife. “What have you to do with me, a fine lady? Take the clown away,” said she to her servants. “Take him to the stable, and whip some of the impudence out of him.”

The servants seized the old man, took him off to the stable, and when they had him there beat him so that he hardly knew whether he was alive or not. After that the wife made him the doorkeeper of the house. She gave him a besom, and put him to keep the yard in order. As for his meals, he got them in the kitchen. He had a hard life of it. If the yard was not swept clean, he had to look out.

“Who would have thought she had been such a hag?” said the old man to himself. “Here she has all such good fortune, and will not even own me for her husband!”

After a time the wife got tired of being merely an archduchess, so she said to her husband, “Go off to the golden fish, and tell it I will be a czarina.”

The old man went down to the shore. He cried:

Little fish, little fish, come now to me,
Your tail in the water, your head out of sea!

The fish came swimming to the shore. “Well, old man!” it said, “what do you want?”

muted image of a man with a rope in his hand standing on a rock by the ocean with a large fish above a wave
Image from page 120 of “Reading and Literature First Reader” (1911)

“My wife is not yet satisfied,” said the man; “she wants now to be a czarina,”

“Do not let that trouble you,” said the fish, “but go to your house. “What you ask shall be done.”

The man went back. In place of the fine house he found a palace with a roof of gold. Soldiers were on guard around it. In front of the palace was a garden, and at the back a fine park, in which some troops were parading. On a balcony stood the czarina surrounded by officers and nobles. The troops presented arms, the drums beat, the trumpets blew, and the people shouted.

In a short time the woman got tired of being czarina, and she commanded that her husband should be found and brought to her presence. The palace was all in confusion, for who knew what had become of the old man? Officers and noblemen hurried here and there to search for him. At length he was found in a hut behind the palace.

“Listen, you old idiot!” said his wife. “Go to the golden fish, and tell it that I am tired of being czarina. I want to rule over all the ocean, to have dominion over every sea and all the fish.”

The old man hesitated to go to the fish with such a request.

“Be off!” said his wife, “or your head shall be cut off.”

The man went to the seashore and said:

Little fish, little fish, come now to me,
Your tail in the water, your head out of sea!

The fish did not come. The man waited, but it was not to be seen. Then he said the words a second time. The waves roared. A short while before it had been bright and calm, now dark clouds covered the sky, the wind howled, and the water seemed of an inky blackness. At length the fish came.

“What do you want, old man?” it asked.

“My old wife,” answered he, “is not satisfied even now. She says she will be czarina no longer, but will rule over all the waters and all the fish.”

The fish made no reply, but dived down and disappeared in the sea. The man went back. What had become of the palace? He looked around, but could not see it. He rubbed his eyes in wonder. On the spot where the palace had stood was the old hut, and at the door stood the old woman in her old rags.

So they commenced to live again in their old style. The man often went a-fishing, but he never more caught the golden fish.

7 thoughts on “Fish and the call of the Sea

  1. wonderful story. The ambitious wife never was satisfied with her fortune and the man never have the guts to stopped the wife and ask something for both of them. The moral of this story could be, easy comes easy goes. In other words, if you don’t work for it you’ll never know the value of things, therefore you don’t appreciate the work of others.

    1. Isn’t this true! The wife is very ambitious to get more and more but still not satisfied with anything. The husband is blinded by his wife and does nothing to stop her nor help himself. This story depicts a lesson to value the most which are to not be ambitious or else you won’t gain anything.

    2. I have to agree with you Melida, the ambitious wife wasn’t satisfied with anything that was given to her. The main lesson that was being taught (like you said) you’ll never know the value of things, therefore you don’t appreciate the work of others.

  2. I think that the moral of this story is that greed and ungratefulness can cost you. The wife constantly wanted more no matter how much she recieved and always demanded the husband tell the golden fish to do so. She seemed to be ungrateful and take everything for granted, until they lost it all.

  3. The wife was ungrateful for what she had, she always seemed to want more and more and would have her husband tell the goldfish for more. This story is a life lesson to appreciate everything that you have no matter how little because anyone’s ungrateful attitude can get them to lose everything just like the wife who lost everything due to this mindset.

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