The Big Gravel-Sifter by August Strindberg

An eel-mother and her son were lying at the bottom of the sea, close to the landing-stage, watching a young fisherman getting ready his line.

“Just look at him!” said the eel-mother, “there you have an example of the malice and cunning of the world . … Watch him! He is holding a whip in his hand; he throws out the whip-lash–there it is! attached to it is a weight which makes it sink–there’s the weight! and below the weight is the hook with the worm. Don’t take it in your mouth, whatever you do, for if you do, you are caught. As a rule only the silly bass and red-eyes take the bait. There! Now you know all about it.”

The forest of seaweed with its shells and snails began to rock; a plashing and drumming could be heard and a huge red whale passed like a flash over their heads; he had a tail-fin like a cork-screw, and that was what he worked with.

“That’s a steamer,” said the eel-mother; “make room!”

She had hardly spoken these words when a furious uproar arose above. There was a tramping and stamping as if the people overhead were intent on building a bridge between the shore and the boat in two seconds. But it was difficult to see anything on account of the oil and soot which were making the water thick and muddy.

There was something very heavy on the bridge now, so heavy that it made it creak, and men’s voices were shouting:

“Lift it up!–Ho, there!–Up!–Hold tight!–Up with it!–Up!–Push it along!–Lift it up!”

Then something indescribable happened. First it sounded as if sixty piles of wood were all being sawn at the same time; then a cleft opened in the water which went down to the bottom of the sea, and there, wedged between three stones, stood a black box, which sang and played and tinkled and jingled, close to the eel-mother and her son, who hastily disappeared in the lowest depths of the ocean.

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Then a voice up above shouted:–

“Three fathoms deep! Impossible! Leave it alone. It isn’t worth while hauling the old lumber up again; it would cost more to repair than it’s worth.”

The voice belonged to the master of the mine, whose piano had fallen into the sea.

Silence followed; the huge fish with a fin like a screw swam away, and the silence deepened.

After sunset a breeze arose; the black box in the forest of seaweed rocked and knocked against the stones, and at every knock it played, so that the fishes came swimming from all directions to watch and to listen.

The eel-mother was the first to put in an appearance. And when she saw herself reflected in the polished surface, she said: “It’s a wardrobe with a plate-glass door.”

There was logic in her remark, and therefore all the others said: “It is a wardrobe with a plate-glass door.”

Next a rock-fish arrived and smelt at the candlesticks, which had not yet come off. Tiny bits of candle ends were still sticking in the sockets. “That’s something to eat,” it said, “if only it weren’t for the whipcord!”

Then a great bass came and lay flat on the pedal; but immediately there arose such a rumbling in the box that all the fishes hastily swam away.

They got no further on that day.

At night it blew half a gale, and the musical box went thump, thump, thump, like a pavier’s beetle, until sunrise. When the eel-mother and all the rest of them returned, they found that it had undergone a change.

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The lid stood open like a shark’s mouth; they saw a row of teeth, bigger than they had ever seen before, but every other tooth was black. The whole machine was swollen at the sides like a seed-fish; the boards were bent, and the pedal pointed upwards like a foot in the act of walking; the arms of the candlesticks looked like clenched fists. It was a dreadful sight!

“It’s falling to pieces,” screamed the bass, and spread out a fin, ready to turn.

And now the boards fell off, the box was open, and one could see what it was like inside; and that was the prettiest sight of all.

“It’s a trap! Don’t go too near!” said the eel-mother.

“It’s a hand-loom!” said the stickleback, who builds a nest for itself and understands the art of weaving.

“It’s a gravel-sifter,” said a red-eye, who lived below the lime-quarry.

It may have been a gravel-sifter. But there were a great many fallals and odds and ends which were not in the least like the sifter which they use for riddling sand. There were little manichords which resembled toes in white woollen stockings, and when they moved it was just as if a foot with two hundred skeleton toes were walking; and it walked and walked and yet never left the spot.

It was a strange thing. But the game was up, for the skeleton no longer touched the strings; it played on the water as if it were knocking at a door with its fingers, asking whether it might come in.

The game was up. A school of sticklebacks came and swam right through the box, and when they trailed their spikes over the strings, the strings sounded again; but they played in a new way, for now they were tuned to another pitch.

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On a rosy summer evening soon afterwards two children, a boy and a girl, were sitting on the landing-bridge. They were not thinking of anything in particular, unless it was a tiny piece of mischief, when all at once they heard soft music from the bottom of the sea, which startled them.

“Do you hear it?”

“Yes, what is it? It sounds like scales.”

“No, it’s the song of the gnats.”

“No, it’s a mermaid!”

“There are no mermaids. The schoolmaster said so.”

“The schoolmaster doesn’t know.”

“Oh! do listen!”

They listened for a long time, and then they went away, home.

Presently two newly arrived summer guests sat down on the bridge; he looked into her eyes, which reflected the golden sunset and the green shores. Then they heard the sounds of music; it sounded as if somebody were playing on musical glasses, but in a strange new key, only heard in the dreams of those who dream of giving a new message to the world. But they never thought of looking for any outside source, they believed that it was the song which their own hearts were singing.

Next a couple of annual visitors came sauntering along; they knew the trick and took a delight in saying in a loud voice:

“It is the submerged piano of the master of the mine.”

But whenever there were only new arrivals present, who did not know anything about it, they were puzzled and enjoyed the music, until some of the older ones came and enlightened them. And then they enjoyed it no longer.

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The musical box lay there all the summer. The sticklebacks taught their art to the bass, who became much more expert. And the piano became a regular fishing-ground for the summer guests, where they could always be sure to catch bass; the pilots spread out their nets round about it, and once a waiter fished there for red-eyes. But when his line with the old bell weight had run out, and he tried to wind it up again, he heard a run in X minor, and then the hook was caught. He pulled and pulled, and in the end he brought up five fingers with wool at the fingertips, and the bones cracked like the bones of a skeleton. Then he was frightened and flung his catch back into the sea, although he knew quite well what it was.

In the dog days, when the water is warm and all the fish retire to the greater depths to enjoy the coolness, the music ceased. But on a moonlit night in August, the summer guests held a regatta. The master of the mine and his wife were present. They sat in a white boat and were slowly rowed about by their sons. And as their boat was gliding over the black water, the surface of which was like silver and gold in the moonlight, they heard a sound of music just below their boat.

“Ha ha!” laughed the master of the mine, “listen to our old piano! Ha ha!”

But he was silent when he saw that his wife hung her head, in the way pelicans do in pictures; it looked as if she wanted to bite her own neck and hide her face.

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The old piano and its long history had awakened memories in her of the first dining-room they furnished together, the first of their children which had had music lessons, the boredom of the long evenings, only to be chased away by the crashing volumes of sound which overcame the dulness of everyday life, changed bad temper into cheerfulness, and lent new beauty even to the old furniture . . . . But that is a story which belongs elsewhere.

When it was autumn and the winter wind began to blow, the pilchards came in their thousands and swam through the musical box. It was like a farewell concert, and nothing else, and the seagulls and stormy petrels came in crowds to listen to it. And in the night the musical box was carried out to sea; that was the end of the matter.

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