Taddeusz and the Magic Fish

by Leo D. Orionis

A fractured fairy tale

NCE UPON A TIME there was a Polish fisherman named Taddeusz, who lived with his wife Marta on the shore of a large lake.

Now, you may have heard another story about a fisherman who caught a magic fish who gave him three wishes.  His bitter wife used the first one to wish for a house to replace their miserable hovel.  Then she decided a house wasn't good enough, but wanted a palace instead.  Then that wasn't enough, but she had to wish that the rain wouldn't fall on her.  Her spineless husband conveyed each wish to the magic fish, who granted the first and the second.  But on hearing the third, he became so angry that he took away the first two wishes and the poor fisherman and his nagging wife were worse off than before.

This is not that story.  Taddeusz was smarter than that, and tended to "play his cards close to his chest", though playing cards hadn't been invented yet.  Nor was Marta that other fisherman's wife, but the merriest, sweetest lady that ever brought a gleam to a young fisherman's eye — albeit a bit of a gossip on market day.

On the other hand, it may very well have been the same fish.

Be that as it may, Taddeusz would go out every day and cast his nets.  Sometimes he barely got enough to feed the two of them; sometimes he caught enough to salt some away for the winter.  Sometimes he even had some to sell at the market in the nearby town.  As he himself would tell you, it was a living, no worse than any other.  Besides, it was all he knew how to do.

"Just keep the Russians at home, Lord", he would say before going to bed.  "The last thing we need is Russians running around the country killing people and trying to run things.  No, I take it back, the Mongols are worse.  Lord, spare us the Mongols, even if it means we have to suffer the Russians.  If the Mongols kill everyone, who will be left to go to Mass on Sundays?"

One day, Taddeusz was having very bad luck indeed.  A bad day is just a bad day, but this was a bad day at the end of a bad week in the middle of a bad month.  Taddeusz' net came up empty time and time again.  "No wonder," he said to himself.  "I'm sure my growling stomach is scaring them all away."  But he decided to throw his net one last time.

No sooner had he done so, than a sudden weight in his net almost pulled his arms from their sockets!  "I've cast my net about a whole school of fish!" he cried.  But when he finally pulled it up, with much grunting and straining, he saw he had caught only one fish.

But what a fish it was!  It was almost as long as he was tall, and as thick around as his chest.  Its scales glistened like golden armor, and its fins and tail gleamed like silver lace.  And wonder of wonders, atop its head sat a tiny golden crown, that stayed on no matter how it squirmed and thrashed.

Thrash it did, and mightily.  Between its struggles, and its size, Taddeusz was half minded to let it go, not knowing whether it might sink his poor little boat if he did get it on board.  "But I haven't had so much to eat that I can afford to let good food get away," he said to himself, "and neither has Marta."  So he reached behind him for his club, once he had the great fish pulled up into the air, and raised it over his head for a blow that would still its wiggling.

Seeing this, the fish cried out, "O fisherman, stop, I beg you!  I am a magic fish, and if you spare my life, I will give you anything you want."

Now, if the fish had merely pleaded for its life, it might have got away scot free, for Taddeusz was so surprised to hear a fish speak (even one with gold scales and a crown on its head), that he almost dropped club and net and all.  But when the fish offered him a magic wish, all of Taddeusz' peasant bargaining instincts took over, and he held the net tighter than ever.

"Make that five wishes, fish, and I'll let you go," he said.

"Oh, no," said the magic fish, "I couldn't possibly do that.  Why, even one wish might be more than I can afford."

Taddeusz pulled the net a little tighter (though it was almost beyond his strength to do so), so that the fish turned a little more blue, and laid his club down the middle of the creature's head, so that it crossed its eyes anxiously to look at the terrible hook on the end.  "Three wishes, then," he said, "and that's my final offer."

"Three wishes," said the fish, unhappily.  "Now let me go so I can breathe!"

"I'm going to regret this," said Taddeusz, but he put down his gaff, opened his net, and let the fish go.  Right away it turned tail up and dove for the bottom of the lake with a mighty splash.

"I knew it!" he said.  Resignedly, he packed his net, and got his boat ready to go home for the evening.  Just as he was finishing, the magic fish surfaced again, just out of reach of his boat, with its mouth and head out of water, but its gills still submerged.  The crown on its head flashed in the rays of the setting sun.

"Ahhh, that's better," said the fish.  "All right, man, what is your first wish?  A better boat?  A new house?  Maybe a son to help you with your fishing?"

"Well," said the fisherman, "those things are all very nice, but they're all things I can earn for myself if I just keep working."

"Very wise," said the fish.  "Something you can't expect to earn, then.  A mountain of gold?  Jewels?  Perhaps a vast estate, with you as its lord?"

"Well," Taddeusz said, "those things are all very fine, but I wouldn't know what to do with riches like those.  And some great noble would be sure to come along and steal them from me, anyway."

"Very wise," said the fish, who was now really impressed.  "So what do you want?"

"Well, now," Taddeusz said thoughtfully, "I think I want all the Mongols in the whole world to gather together from all the lands that the Mongols live in, right at the Russian border; and I want them to ride and ride and ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border; then camp there overnight; and then I want them to all ride back to where they came from."

After a few minutes of stunned silence the fish said, "That is the strangest wish I have ever heard in all my years in the wish business, I have to tell you."

"As may be," said Taddeusz, unmoved.

"Look," said the fish.  "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a magic net that can find fish by itself, or maybe a boat that goes where you want it to, without having to be rowed or sailed?"

"Well," said Taddeusz, "those would be very fine, but I'd get fat and lazy if I had them.  Besides, it's bad luck to take back a wish."

"Oh, the logistics of it," moaned the fish.  "Very well, it shall be as you wish.  But I can't give you your second wish until your first wish has been fulfilled.  When you hear that it has come true, come back here and call for me."  And before Taddeusz could say anything, the fish slipped beneath the lake's surface and disappeared.

"Strange manners these magic fish have," murmured the fisherman, but truth to tell, he was not sorry to see so uncanny a creature go away.  He went home, and he and his wife went hungry that night.  Nor did he tell her about the magic fish, having no wish to have Marta, or anyone else, tell him what he should have wished for.

The next week Taddeusz' luck picked up, and he filled his boat every day.  His wife took a cart of fresh fish to the market that week, and brought home some chickens to lay eggs for the table.  She also brought home news.

"You won't believe it!" Marta exclaimed.  "The whole country is stirring like a hive of bees that a clumsy bear has kicked over!"

"Why, whatever happened?" he asked her.

"Well!  All the Mongols in the whole world must have gotten together from all the lands where Mongols are, for a huge unstoppable horde of them came riding like madmen all the way across Russia, and camped right on the Polish border!"

"Fancy that!" Taddeusz said.  "And then what happened?"

"Well!" said his wife.  "The King sent around to all the Barons to get their armies together, and ride to meet the Mongols at the border.  But the very day after the Mongols had camped, they packed up again, and went riding away again like the Devil himself was on their heels!"

"How strange!" the fisherman said.

The very next day, Taddeusz did not cast his net right away, but called the magic fish instead, for his first wish had been answered.  Since he didn't know the fish's name, he called, "O Fish!  I'm back.  O Fish!"  He was very glad no one was around to hear him.

"You know," said the fish, "I've half a mind not to come when you call, you and your crazy wishes."

Taddeusz jumped; the magic fish had sneaked up on him.  "And break a bargain?  All your magic would go bad forever after," he said.

"It was only a figure of speech," the fish grumbled.  "Well, what is your second wish, fisherman?  Fine clothing that never wears out?  A butter churn that never gets empty, no matter how much butter you take from it?"

"That's a different fairy tale," said the fisherman.  "No, I think I want all the Mongols in the whole world—"

"Oh, no," said the fish.

"—to gather together from all the lands that Mongols live in, right at the Russian border—"

"No!" said the fish.

"—and I want them to ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then ride back to where they came from."

"NOOOOOO!" screamed the fish.  And he carried on for five solid minutes about all the trouble that wish had put him through the first time; how he'd had to send visions to all the Mongol shamans that they should do this thing, how he'd had to plant thoughts in all the Mongol chiefs to make them think it was a good idea; how he'd had to send spirits to cause bad dreams to those who resisted it, after all that; and how difficult it had been, once the Mongols were at the Polish border, to make them turn around and go back.

That last made Taddeusz go more than a little pale, at the thought of Mongol hordes killing, pillaging, raping, burning, and looting its way across Poland; but when the fish stopped for a minute to draw breath, he said, stubbornly, "It's my wish."

"Please!" begged the fish.  "Do you want to work me to death before ever you get your third wish?  Wish for something simple!  How about a magic servant to do the chores for you and your wife as long as you live?"

"Are you saying that you can't give me my wish, fish?"

"No," the fish admitted, wishing it could lie.  "The only wish I'm not allowed to grant is a wish for more wishes.  But why do you want such a thing?"

"Never you mind," Taddeusz said.  "You just make my wish come true, according to our bargain."

"All right!" said the fish.  And it threw itself up out of the water, till it was poised full-length above the lake for a moment, before splashing down again in a huge wave.  "All right!  Come back for your third wish when this one is done!"  And he swam away just as fast as a magic fish can swim, which is considerable.

"There goes one angry fish," mused Taddeusz, as he cast his first net of the day.

Now you might expect, with the magic fish mad at Taddeusz, that his luck the next week would be bad.  But, whether because the fisherman's luck had nothing to do with sparing the magic fish, or because it was, at heart, not a petty fish, Taddeusz' luck stayed good.  Day after day he filled his boat.  Marta took two carts of barreled fish to the market that week, and brought home a fine milk cow.  No sooner had she put the cow in the pasture than she came to Taddeusz bursting with news.

"It happened again!" she said.

"What did, dear?" said Taddeusz, though he suspected he knew very well what she meant.

"The Mongols!" his wife said.  "All the Mongols in the whole world came tearing across Russia and camped right at the border!"

"Really?  What did the King do?"

"Same as last time!  This time everyone reacted even faster, having seen the camp the Mongols left behind last time, and heard the stories of all the terrible things they did in Russia.  But before the King's army could get to the border, the Mongols packed up and rode away again!"

"These Mongols must be crazy," was all that Taddeusz said.  His wife crossed herself and agreed with him.

So, the second wish having come true, the fisherman took himself down to the lake the next morning, and called the fish once again.  "Here, Fish!  Here, fish fish fish!"

"Other fishermen use nets or lines," the magic fish said sarcastically.

"It worked, didn't it?"  Taddeusz replied.  "Are you ready for my third wish?"

"The question is, are you ready?" the fish said, earnestly.  "Remember, this is your last wish.  After this one, you don't get any more wishes, and you'll never get another one.  One of the rules is that no one ever gets more than one opportunity to make magic wishes, you know."

"No, I didn't know," said Taddeusz.  "So everything rides on this last wish, does it?"

"That's right, fisherman.  So I hope you've thought about it very carefully.  If you're ever going to want a magic well that never runs dry, or a magic sword that can pierce any armor, this is your only chance."

"Well, fish," Taddeusz said, "I've given it a lot of thought.  And for my third wish, I want all the Mongols in the whole world—"

"Wait," said the fish, "let me guess.  You want all the Mongols in the whole world to come together from all the lands where Mongols live, assemble at the Russian border, ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then all ride back again?"

"You're a good guesser, fish.  You got it in one."

"AAARRRRRGGGGGGHHH!" screamed the fish.  And for the next half an hour, he screamed and raged; he jumped in and out of the water; he made such noises as you would have thought all the devils in hell could not make, and such waves that they threatened to swamp Taddeusz' boat, and drown him in the bottom of the lake.

"You should charge money for a show like that," Taddeusz said admiringly, when at last the fish was tired out.

"And you must be out of your mind!" the fish shouted.  "Why do you want all the Mongols in the whole world to assemble at the Russian border, ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then go home again?  And why in the world would anyone want that to happen, not just once, but three times?"

"Now why should I tell you that, fish?  Where in our bargain does it say I have to tell you why I want something?"

"Oh ho," said the fish.  "Bargain, is it?  You want something else, is that it?"

"I want the good fishing I've had to go on," said Taddeusz.  "I'm not such a fool that I think you're really a fish, so it's nothing to you one way or the other.  Promise me that the fishing will go on the rest of my life the way it's gone the last two weeks, and I'll tell you why I want all the Mongols in the whole world to assemble at the Russian border, ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then go home again."

"Fisherman, you have a deal," the magic fish said.  "It'll be worth all the trouble to make it happen a third time, just to learn why.  I must confess, my curiosity has been driving me mad."

"You promise?" Taddeusz said.

"I promise!" the fish said.  "Now please!  Why do you want all the Mongols in the whole world to assemble at the Russian border, ride all the way across Russia to the Polish border, camp there overnight, and then go home again?  I must know!"

"Because," said the fisherman, leaning down to the water …


"That way," said Taddeusz …

"Yes, yes?"

"They ride through Russia six times!"

About this story

Once upon a time, in the Kingdom of the West of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Barry Kercheval (Nikolaj Zrogowacialy in the SCA), Ralph Andrews (Raoul the Urbane) and I (Yrjö Kirjawiisas) would get together and tell, jointly, a story called "The Polish Fisherman Joke".  We would compete to see how many details and funny lines we could make up on the spot, and how long we could drag the whole thing out.  Everybody hated us.  We had a blast!

Some years later, while living in Eugene, Oregon and attending a writers' workshop, I wrote up the joke and submitted it for critique, chuckling under my breath the whole while.  I was certain it would be a hit with the other writers.

It bombed big time!  The three main responses were (1) "Huh?  I don't get it." [Don't you know any history?] (2) "There's already a fairy tale about a magic fish!" [There can only be one?] and (3) "This is a shaggy dog story!" [You say that as though it were a bad thing!]

I have attempted to put in enough information to make it clear that this is a different magic-fish story, and to explain about the Poles, Russians, and Mongols in advance of the punch line.  But this is, and always will be, a shaggy-dog story.

So there.

P.S.  Be sure to move your cursor over all the pictures, to see the text for each one.

Copyright © 1996 and 2000 by Green Sky Press.  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work, or any portions thereof, in any form.  An earlier form of this story was published in The Elf Hill Times, publication of the Alfarhaugr Society.  This story also appeared on the older version of my web site.

The background and all the images used herein are from James Matterer's

The little fish pictures were clipped from larger illustrations, and the initial "O" was modified by making its background transparent.  The other pictures have not been changed.