Moon pulled up a seat by the fire and began a story…..
The Pearl and the Olive Tree
”This is a tale of a sailor called Jack who comes from parts hereabouts. Some say he is a pirate but I say he is not. He is a clever seaman to be sure and a good fighter when he needs to be but he has a kind heart and helps many people, especially the poor.
Sailing homeward from the Barbary Coast with a cargo of Saharan salt and spices from the east is a dangerous journey and Jack and his crew have fought off many a pirate ship, when they can’t outrun them, and who would complain or think it wrong that in victory they take the pirates gold. It’s Jacks favourite joke that it’s a fair transaction.
Any one who saw Jack now wouldn’t call him beautiful. He has become weather-beaten and rugged over the years and has a scar on his face from a pirate captains sword that just missed taking out his eye, but when he was young he had beauty and women were enthralled by him wherever he went, not least for the fire and spirit he has in him.
Jack is one of those people blessed with a quick mind. He learns fast and remembers almost all he hears and he can speak many languages haltingly and French, Spanish and Arabic fluently. His travels to far lands have educated him in many things. He is also clever in trade. His ability to strike a good deal with a cheerful smile and much charm has increased his wealth, though he seems to care not for riches and there is a reason for this, as revealed in this tale.
My tale begins when Jack was but a young man of nineteen or twenty, in the days before he had his own ship. He was shipwrecked not far off Gibraltar. The Captain went down with his ship and all the crew were lost but Jack survived. At the last moment he had climbed one of the masts and as the ship took its final death roll he leapt into the broiling sea.
Jack was a good, strong swimmer but might have drowned if luck had not presented a large rock, almost a small island, just as his strength was fading. He lay on the rock panting and blessing his stars.
In that moment he vowed to captain his own ship and never be ship-wrecked again. Jack knew that the captain of the ship gone down had been a fool who had made a huge mistake and the loss of all his companions was the result of it. He grieved for the friends he had sailed with and lost.
After a while, laying on the shore regaining his breathe, he saw an Olive tree and he crawled to its shade and leaned against it exhausted. Little else grew on the rock, just a few prickly pears growing in dry earth and some plants such as you might see at the edge of the desert. All else was rock. In the cool shade, out of the burning noon sun, Jack fell asleep.
When he awoke the sun had just fallen and he stood up and stretched, grateful still to be alive. He heard a sound behind him and turned.
A beautiful girl stood gazing at him in silence. Jack was confused but entranced. He stood, stunned by her beauty, her dark eyes, her long hair, her lips in a gentle smile. Her skin was brown and she wore nothing but a simple green cloth that blew in the breeze and a few leaves were twined in her hair, but to him she looked a queen, a goddess, and so he bowed.
”Don’t bow to me,” she said in a warm, soft voice ”I am but a maiden and grateful to a fate that has washed you up upon this shore.”
Jack replied ”I am awed by your beauty, my lady.”
”Ah! Your lady I am,” she said, ”for I have watched you while you slept and am already deeply in love.”
” I have never known love,” said Jack ”Never felt it either, yet I feel it now, so strong, I feel I will die if you are not to be mine.”
She moved into his arms and he kissed her with a longing he had never felt before. His heart beat wildly with a need to possess her and they sank to the ground. She tore off the green cloth and cast it aside and clung to him. Jacks heart leapt with joy, in an ecstasy of passion. They owned each other.
Passion subsided and was replaced by a sweet tenderness that felt like a life time of knowing each other and they lay together looking up at the stars, deep into the night. Jack didn’t even notice the cold night air. He said he would never leave her but would take her with him away from this rock. She just smiled, a little sadly, and nodded. Finally they fell asleep in each others arms.
He awoke in the morning alone beneath the Olive tree. He looked about. She was gone. With an awful sinking feeling of realisation he though it had all been a dream yet he felt a huge loss that ripped at his heart and bought tears to his eyes. He howled. He lay on the ground and beat the earth. He cursed his dreaming that had bought him this pain. He called himself a fool. But he knew in his heart of hearts that no other woman would ever satisfy him now, though he had one in every port. He was in love with a dream.
After a time he calmed a little and managed to eat some olives as by now he was very hungry. The olives strengthened him greatly. Now he felt love more than misery but told himself he had just had a wonderful dream and that the most important thing was to face reality and forget dreams and to get off this rock. He saw that the shore of Gibraltar was close and decided to swim.
Years passed and Jack achieved his ambition and became the captain of his own vessel, the Cormorant. She was a wonderful ship, and fast, and his crew were loyal to a man. They had much success. Though he laughed and joked and rolled about in the arms of many a woman when they went ashore Jack never fell in love with any of them, though he was kind and treated them well. All the women knew not to expect any commitment from Jack. The sea was his life, the sea and trade.
On one of their visits to the main Souk in Mali, where the camel trains come in from the Sahara with their cargo of salt, Jack completed a favourable transaction and had arranged for a caravan to convey a large amount of salt to his ship. After all was done he decided to relax a while and he went to the central square of the Medina to sip at mint tea and watch the world go by. His ear was caught by a storyteller and so he moved closer.
In the centre of a circle of interested listeners sat an old man in a striped robe, his hood up as protection from the sun. He sat on an old worn scrap of a carpet and there was a stick on the ground at his side and a small boy who now and then leaned against his shoulder.
The old man was telling a story about a donkey and a judge and his audience were roaring with laughter as Jack approached. The boy got up and went amongst the crowd gathering coins and then the old man began a new tale and Jack sat down to listen, sipping his tea and munching on almond nougat, which he had a weakness for.
The old man told a tale which gripped Jack the moment he heard mentioned of an olive tree that grew alone on a rock in the sea. The old man told of a beautiful young girl who lived in Tangier long ago, a girl who was an only child and the joy of her fathers heart.
”Many men wanted her as their bride,” the storyteller said, ”and came to her father with generous offers but he refused them all saying ”Only the man who wins my daughters love shall have her.” ‘
Jack leaned forward eager to hear more and storyteller continued his tale.
”It happened that she attracted the eye of a merchant, who was really a magician, and he determined to have her whatever her father might say but he went to him with numerous bribes. The girl would hide behind the pierced screens when he came and she disliked the look of him intensely. He was old and short and skinny and his teeth were black with many gaps and she thought he smelled of something strange that she didn’t like. The sight of him repelled her and made her sick to her stomach.
Eventually the magician came to the house with his final offer, a fortune indeed, but her father, knowing well his daughters dislike of the man, refused once more and told the magician not to come to his house again. The magician flew into a rage and swung his sword and chopped off her fathers head with one mighty blow. The girl saw all this from behind the screen and was both terrified and grief stricken but she had enough sense left to her to run from the house.”
”She ran from the house in a panic and headed down through the winding steps and passages that lead her to the harbour and she took a small rowing boat and rowed out to sea. As night fell she came to a rock. There was no fresh water and little to eat there but there was an olive tree. She was exhausted and it was so dark by now that she decided to rest there until the morning.”
”But she should not have supposed she was out of harms way. She thought the old man was just a merchant and she had no idea of his magical powers. But he knew exactly where she was and he came like a bat in the night and transformed into his own shape before her eyes. He lunged at her. She screamed and backed against the olive tree begging for mercy and, to the astonishment of both the girl and the magician, strong arms came from the tree and wrapped around her and gently drew her in. The dryad of the olive tree had taken pity on the poor girl.”
”The magician could do nothing to draw her out from the tree and the protection of the dryad and this angered him greatly. He placed a curse on both her and the tree.”
”All curses must have some conditions of restitution and the magician was wise enough to know this so he decreed that she must stay in the Olive tree forever and could only step out when a man stepped upon the rock, a thing that he believed would never happen. Furthermore, just to be safe, he added the condition that she would even then have to return to the tree after thirteen hours unless the man buried one hundred and one pearls at the foot of the tree and that one of those must be the most beautiful pearl in the world. Having completed his spell he left the island, content that his revenge was complete and to the best of anyone’s knowledge she is still held in the Olive tree to this day and no man has ever stepped on the rock,” the Storyteller concluded.
”Not so,” thought Jack, his heart flooding with joy. Being too wise to declare it publicly and risk others knowing this truth he kept it to himself but laid a pouch of gold in the old mans lap and rushed back to his ship.
No Captain has ever pushed his crew to load a cargo so fast. All he could think of was the beautiful girl who had not been a dream. His memory flooded with images of her and the feelings of that one night of pure love and joy he had spent with her and his mind was full of the determination to get the one hundred and one pearls and release her from the tree and into his arms forever.
He smiled a huge smile at his crew even as he shouted and swore at them to work faster and they nudged each other wondering,
”What’s up with the Captain, he is like a man possessed.”
But Jack was ever practical and as he sat in his cabin that night writing his log he thought of all the ways to get pearls without making anyone who was dependent on him or his crew suffer from the lack of the gold they earned and took. Certainly he could trade some gold for some pearls after the cargo was delivered and he could do that as a result of every trip but it would take long to get one hundred and one. Also one of them had to be the most beautiful pearl in the world. How would he find that and if he could find it perhaps he could never buy it, what might it cost and did anyone even have it? It might be at the bottom of the sea.
Jack had always avoided mermaids when they came swimming along side seductively. He knew they could lure a man to his death and had once witnessed one of his crew drown when he believed the mermaids lies and could not be stopped from leaping from the ship to join her. Some sailors say it is a happy death but Jack didn’t believe that for one moment.
Now, despite this aversion he decided to seek mermaids out whenever and wherever he could. He announced this to his men the next day with many heavy and serious warnings not to betray themselves to any mermaid.
‘’We will continue to deal salt for gold and to board any pirate ship that dare draw near us but now we become hunters of mermaids too. Beware their cunning for they hunt men and any man caught in their nets never returns. I have my reason for this hunt, which I do not share, but the share you get of our cargo wont change.’’
So Jack bought a pearl or two for gold after every trip and he never saw one that looked more special than the rest. He became a mermaid hunter. He developed an instinct about where they could be found and when. The mermaids came to know the ship and its crew and were amused at the frequent banter they had with Jack and the way he guarded his crew. In truth the mermaids liked him and he liked them though he would never have admitted that. The mermaids were happy to give a pearl or two for the pretty gold coin they valued only as a trinket.
Jacks love of the life at sea never changed but the girl was always there in his mind and his heart.
Now I must digress, for a moment, for I too met a mermaid in a cove near here some years ago. She asked me to tell her a tale about a mermaid and i did and it so pleased her that, before she vanished with a flip of her tail, she placed a pearl in my hand. I know nothing of pearls so i just slipped it into my pouch, thinking it might have a use one day.
I had well nigh forgotten I had that pearl until I encountered Jack and he told me his history and the reason he hunts mermaids. We sat on the harbour wall and I listened to all he told me.
”How many pearls do you have now?” I asked
”I am unsure,” he said ”for I just this moment left a mermaid who unexpectedly gave me an ‘andful in return for a favour and a bit o’ gold. I ain’t yet counted ’em again.”
He took out a leather pouch and making sure no-one was watching he poured them out on the top of the wall to count them. He had one hundred and nine.
”One more I need,” he said, ”For these are all common pearls and I don’t yet ‘ave the one most beautiful.”
I looked at Jack’s pearls spread out before me and saw that not one of them stood out from another and then I remembered the one in my pouch and I recalled that it was certainly larger than these. I felt in my pouch and found it. I held it out to Jack and laid it in his rope calloused hand.
He said nothing but gazed at it long. It glowed in the light and there were gentle colours in its soft gleam. I confess that until now I had never looked at it properly. It was a pearl of great beauty and larger than the rest.
A huge smile spread across Jacks face, ”This is I believe the most beautiful pearl in the world!” he said.
He stood up. ”You will excuse me now,” he said, ”if i take a sudden leave of ya for ’tis time to set sail for a god foresaken rock and my beautiful woman. Ah but I don’t know ‘ow best ta thankee. Will ya take this pouch o’gold and the other nine pearls.”
I smiled at him, ”Keep the nine pearls as a gift for your girl and give me one gold coin. A gold coin and the sight of you smile is reward enough and I wish you good fortune in your quest.”
With many thanks and a smiling bow he left.
So, I am sure you all want to know whether Jack got his lady.”
Moon smiled at his listeners.
”Aye that we do,” said the landlord.
”Well,” said Moon, ”Jack made excellent use of a fair wind and sailed with all speed to the rock and rowed ashore alone. The olive tree had aged and looked far stronger. He clearly remembered the story and he buried the pearls at the bottom of the tree, keeping just nine.
All was well and as the story had foretold his love stepped out of the tree and straight into his arms. She was more beautiful than ever. Just as the tree had thrived, so had she. She was no longer a slender girl but a woman. I won’t try to describe their happiness or their passion but it was long before they returned to the ship.
They set sail for Tangier and Jack bought a house up high in the hills that look down upon the beautiful bay and the white mud walls of the town. Jack jokes that the curve of the bay is as beautiful as the curve of his woman’s hips but not half as seductive. They were married and nine pearls were sown into the neck of her wedding gown.
Though Jack still can’t resist the pull of the sea and trade and has a care for the welfare of his crew his wife always sails with him and she took to the life easily. He has eyes for no other woman and often says he can’t believe his luck on the only day he has ever been shipwrecked and he met her nor his luck in hearing the storyteller of Mali, for without that he would never have known how to free her or believed her to be more than a youthful dream.”