Tuesday, September 25, 2012


I stumbled on this little known legend from the South Pacific and was enchanted by the first sentence: “Two brothers went to sea.” I revised some of the details, added more depth to the characters of the brothers and (as usual) made it just a little bit sillier than it probably needs to be (let’s just say it was a slightly different animal that featured so heavily in the later part of the story than the one I chose), but I think it still captures the spirit of that ancient tale from once upon a time and long ago.

Two brothers went to sea. They built their boat out of the trees that grew on their island home. They stitched the sails from old clothes and tablecloths. The rope they borrowed from their neighbor. But all their sweat, blood and borrowing paid off and their boat was ready to set sail. They cast off one morning, vowing never to return…except to give their neighbor back his rope. But other than that, never!

For three days they sailed. It was slow, it was a little dull, but at the same time exciting, not knowing where they were going or what adventures awaited them. After three more days on the water and a truly epic game of 2,020 Questions, they finally spotted land and took their little ship in to port…Well, I say “port,” but, actually, a great big wave just washed them up onto a beach. The point is they weren’t sailing anymore.

The brothers left their boat on the beach and proceeded into the dense jungle that lay before them. After a lot of walking and birdwatching (which is always fun) they came to the interesting and inescapable conclusion that they were lost in the jungle (which is hardly ever fun). The eldest brother, Vincent, thought it would be a good idea if he and his younger brother, Thomas, stood back to back and each took one hundred paces in opposite directions. That way, all they had to do to find each other again, was turn around and walk one hundred paces back. This would also double their chances of finding something…er, something…well, heck, when you’re lost in the jungle in a strange country, you’ll pretty much take anything!

And so the two brothers stood back to back and, wishing one another good luck, they set off, one hundred paces into the unknown…

Vincent set off in what he judged to be a Southern direction, based on the position of the sun in the sky, barely visible over the tops of the trees. He counted his paces carefully, but was not going as quickly as perhaps he should have because he was enjoying the scenery. After all, there are worse places to be lost than a lush, green jungle. And, anyway, there was no fear of starvation in this jungle as the trees were full of ripe, succulent fruit. Indeed, Vincent was beginning to think that he could be perfectly happy living here for the rest of his days.

Unlike his brother, Vincent longed for the quiet life. He would love to spend all his time sitting on a porch with a cold drink and a good book, no sound but the wind rustling through the trees and the songs of the birds. That’s why he had been so keen to leave their home: Too many people, too much activity, too much noise!

Just as he was wondering whether their boat could be taken apart and rebuilt as a hut on the beach, he came upon a large cave. This, thought Vincent, might make good shelter for the night, so he stepped inside and took a look around. It looked structuraly sound, not too damp or too cold and though it was dark, he could feel the back wall and judged it to be about ten feet all around (deep, wide, high). Not luxurious, but good enough to pass the night. Vincent was just about to continue on with his hundred paces when he heard a faint sound from inside the cave. He listened carefully:

“Help! Help!”

It was very, very faint, as though it were coming from very far away, but Vincent was certain it was a woman’s voice calling for help. He was quite sure of the size of the cave, but he thought perhaps there was a crack in the back wall, beyond which might be someone in need of assistance. Wasting no time, he took out some tinder and lit a fire with which he made a torch and entered the cave. He was surprised to discover that the cave was much larger than he had estimated. Indeed, with the torch in front of him, it seemed to go on forever. Finally, to test a theory, he put out the torch and felt with his hands. There was the wall, right in front of him but much, much further from the mouth of the cave than ten feet. He relit the torch and held it out where the wall had so recently been: The tunnel stretched on beyond the reach of his light.

Vincent was confused, but knew that it was his torch that was making the tunnel visible. Taking this to be an enchantment of some kind, he kept moving forward, following the calls for help, which grew ever louder the further he walked. Finally, after far more than a hundred paces, the tunnel opened up into a large, empty cavern. Now the calls for help were so loud Vincent would’ve thought they were coming from right in front of him, had it not been for the fact that there was nobody there. He was entirely alone in the cavern.

“Where are you?” Vincent cried out, his voice echoing all over the high walls of the cavern. “I want to help you, but I can’t find you!”

“Over here!” said a voice from behind him. He spun around and was face to face with a cute little old lady in a brown cloak who was smiling fondly at him.

“Are you the one who needs help?”

“No,” said the littled old lady. “But I was calling for help, if that’s what you mean. You see, I am very wealthy and somewhat magic and I like to test people. When they come to the mouth of my cave, I call for help to see if they answer. And if they do, and they get all the way to this chamber, I reward them with a sogabah! Would you like a sogabah?”

“Er…what is a sogabah?”

“It’s this!” and the little old lady held up a Sack Of Gold As Big As a Human (see?).

“Well, that’s very generous of you, ma’am, but I don’t think I really need that much gold.”

“Oh, see? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about! That’s integrity you got there, kiddo! Here, at least take a handful of gold. After all you’ve come all this way. And, hey, if you change your mind, just rub two of the coins together and say ‘sogabah, sogabah,’ and one will appear at your feet.”

“All right. Thank you, ma’am. Now…is there a way out of here?”

“Oh, yes. Just extinguish your torch and walk back the way you came. You’ll be back in that tiny cave you started in.” Vincent thanked her again and did as he was told. Sure enough, he soon found himself outside the small cave with twenty gold pieces in his pocket. He saw how late it was getting and decided not to bother with the rest of his hundred paces and just headed back to meet his brother…

Meanwhile, Thomas had set out to the North. Unlike his brother, he was not taking in the sights nor was he eager to set up housekeeping in this beautiful jungle. He despised the quiet life his brother longed for. He wanted adventure and excitement, wealth and glory! He wanted to spend the rest of his life at sea, battling pirates, riding storms, falling for and ultimately marrying a really hot girl who was just as eager for adventure as he was. That was the life Thomas longed for.

As he was walking his hundred paces, desperate for something exciting to happen, he heard a faint voice, as though it were coming from far, far away. When he strained to hear, he could make out what sounded like a woman crying for help. Thomas followed his ears and came to the edge of a big cliff (which would’ve made finishing his hundred paces pretty tough anyway). The voice was coming from below him and he saw an opening in the side of the cliff. He climbed down carefully and proceeded into the cave.

Thomas soon found himself inside a great big cavern which seemed to descend into an inky black abyss. A steady stream of water fell from an opening high above and formed a waterfall into that selfsame abyss. He was frightened, but he knew that whoever needed help was down there somewhere, so he courageously began to climb down into the abyss. But after a very difficult descent, he found himself getting weary and his fingers couldn’t grip the rock anymore. Soon, he lost his grip entirely and fell off the side of the cliff and into the stream of the waterfall which carried him down, down, down…

When he opened his eyes, Thomas saw that he was in…well, he could only describe it as an underground city. There were houses and streets and gardens and even traffic signs. All very small, of course, because the people who lived here weren’t really, in the strictest sense, people. By which I mean, they weren’t human. Or, to be really quite accurate, they were…well…platypuses.

Yes. Platypuses…Platypi…Platypeople. Never mind, you know what I mean.

“Hi there!” said a voice from behind. Thomas turned around and was face to face with a duck-billed platypus. “I’m Oliver! Welcome to our fair city. Are you feeling any ill effects from the transformation?”

“Transformation?” Thomas asked. But as he was saying the word, it struck him that he was face to face with a platypus. A look in a conveniently located reflecting pool confirmed his suspicions: He had been turned into a platypus!

“Yeah, that’s the magic waterfall for ya,” said Oliver as though this were the most natural thing in the world. “Lemme guess, you heard someone calling for help? Yeah, I know what that’s all about. See, there are these two sisters who live on this island and they have these special powers which they like to use to, I guess, test people. You followed the voice calling for help, even though you were in danger of falling to your doom, so you passed the test.”

“I see. But why am I a platypus?”

“Oh, well that’s sort of your reward. You see this is a quiet, peaceful community where a lot of people come to retire and relax for the rest of their days. The only catch is, you have to be a platypus to live here.”

Thomas explained as patiently and politely as he could that he did not want to be a platypus, did not want to live here and most certainly was not ready to retire. So, Oliver pointed him to the exit which, he promised him, would turn him back into a human as he left. “But take this with you,” he added, handing Thomas (somehow) a small vial of water. “This is water from the magic waterfall. If you drink it, it will turn you into a platypus. You know, in case you change your mind.”

With a curt “thank you” to Oliver, Thomas was on his way out when another platypus came up behind him. “Take me with you!” she said. “I got here the same way you did and I’ve been trying to get out ever since!”

Thomas and this new platypus, who was called Ashley, proceeded to the exit. A moment later, Thomas found himself back at the cliffside where this whole mess had started, in his own human body again. Standing next to him was Ashley, in her own human body…which, it must be said, was awfully nice…very nice…quite nice…in fact, Ashley may have been the hottest ex-platypus in the world. They walked back to the brothers’ rendezvous point, talking about their mutual love of adventure…

When Vincent and Thomas were reunited, they shared their strange adventures. “It’s too bad I didn’t go South,” said Thomas. “I would’ve taken that sogabah in a heartbeat! With that much gold, I could buy a big ship, hire a crew and spend the rest of my life sailing the world looking for adventure.”

“Yes,” said Vincent. “And I wouldn’t have minded living the rest of my days in peace and quiet.”

“Even if it meant you were a platypus for the rest of your life?” asked Ashley.

“Well, maybe not if I had to live among other platypuses…platypi?...platy…whatever. I mean, platypuses can talk to each other, and I hate boring conversation. Now, if I could be a platypus but live among humans, then I could just relax, eat, be taken care of, and nobody would try to make small talk with me.”

It took the brothers a surprisingly long time to figure out the painfully obvious solution. But, curiously, it struck them both at the same time. Without having to speak a word, Thomas handed the vial of magic water to Vincent and Vincent handed the gold coins to Thomas. As Thomas rubbed two of them together and said “sogabah, sogabah,” Vincent drank every drop of the water. The Sack Of Gold As Big As a Human appeared and Vincent turned into a platypus.

Which, admittedly, might not strike the majority of you as a particularly happy ending, but trust me: Vincent was very happy as a platypus. He even went to sea with Thomas and Ashley who did indeed buy a big ship, hire a crew and spent the rest of their lives together sailing for adventure.

And that’s the story of how two brothers went to sea.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • …the knowledge that I played a little trick on you. This is not based on an ancient story from the South Pacific at all! I made the whole thing up myself! You see, one night I had a series of exciting, adventurous dreams involving, among other things, Disneyland, Doctor Who and piloting my own helicopter (though I had a hard time maintaining any kind of altitude. Cheap dream-chopper!). Also, there was apparently something about me and my brother on an island setting to sea and, at the time, I was vaguely aware that the situation was like some old story. I woke up with the phrase “Two brothers went to sea” in my head, along with the knowledge that it was the premise of some long forgotten legend. This, it turns out, was not true. I have yet to find any such story anywhere. But I liked the phrase, so I set myself a challenge: Write a new story that sounds like it’s an old story. Sorry to pull a fast one, but I’ve been doing this for almost three years now. I gotta keep myself entertained!

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