Hear and Listen! O, most gracious and exalted sovereign, honored visitors from lands afar, ennobled company all.
Hear and listen, I again beseech you, for I have returned most recently from a journey to the distant east, to the shores of Itl where the people live not upon the land as you and I, but within cities that float upon the waters of that great and salty sea.
In that place many stories came to my ears, wondrous and astonishing all, but none more wondrous or astonishing than that which I shall recount this evening for your diversion. This tale is called “The Queen of the Seas,” or sometimes “Hyminis and the Three Fish.” The events take place long ago, before the people of Itl ever set sail upon the sea, and lived still an ordinary existence of soil and toil. Or so it is said.
At this time there lived a mighty king, Timket called, who had to him many wives, as is the custom of those people still. Chief among these was Hyminis, whose name means “flower of fortune.” Hyminis ruled among the wives of Timket as Timket ruled among the people of Itl, which is to say she maintained honor and peace with firm hand and merciful heart. None ever had cause to complain of cruelty or injustice under the rule of Hyminis and all the wives of Timket prospered in her care.
And yet Timket grew dissatisfied. After careful consideration on the cause of his unhappiness, he came to Hyminis and said, “First Wife, I am displeased.”
Hearing this, Hyminis threw herself to the ground and begged the king to tell her the source of his displeasure so that she might make the proper amends.
“Hyminis,” Timket said, “you are too fat. Your fatness is a disgrace to me and to all this kingdom. The nobles laugh behind their hands and ambassadors heap scorn upon me due to your appearance. I fear the influence you may have upon those of my wives who are yet young and slender. Either you loose this fatness or I deem I must put you forth from my house forever.”
To this Hyminis had nothing to say. Indeed, she was fat—a mass of fleshy corpulence the likes of which has not been seen for generations. And, though she doubted the truth of his fears, she felt the duty owed by a wife to her husband and agreed to Timket’s demands.
For the next month she strove to reduce the fatness that so displeased her husband and king. While her sister wives feasted on roasted fowl, rich pastries, and delicate sweetmeats, Hyminis took only water and the smallest amount of bread. While they lounged by the fountains and listened to the songs of the minstrels, she walked and walked, up and down the lengths of the court, lungs straining, heart thumping, perspiration dripping from her brow. And yet, at month’s end when Timket came to review her progress, he found that despite her deprivation and exertion she had only become fatter!
Incensed, Timket determined that Hyminis should be removed at once not only from his house but from his kingdom as well. Thus he commanded his servants to seize Hyminis and she was set aboard a raft upon the waters of the sea of Itl. “Should her foot ever touch these shores again,” Timket decreed, “her life will be forfeit!” And then he returned to his palace.
Alone, drifting further and further from shore upon a raft dangerously small for one of her immensity, Hyminis despaired. “Alas!” she cried, and “Woe!” But no one heard her cries, so alone was she upon the sea of salt. For many days she lay in a stupor of grief, arising only to bewail and bemoan her fate, while her tiny raft drifted upon the sea. At last great hunger drove her to her senses and she set about seeking food.
Because she had been given nothing for her exile save a single skin of water, she began to pluck the hairs from her head one by one. From these, Hyminis wove herself a net, which she cast out into the water in hopes of catching a fish or two to assuage her hunger. Soon she felt a tugging upon the net and a great weight within. Gathering the cords of the net together, she began to pull it towards the raft. For a full day Hyminis pulled upon the net before she was able to wrestle its contents aboard.
Within the net lay a large fish, the likes of which she had never seen. Its scales were silver as the moon and its eyes were shimmering stones of blue. More astounding yet, the fish spoke to her. “O, great lady!” said the fish, “Spare my life and I will grant you beauty like none upon the land has seen before. A model of loveliness you shall be, possessing brilliance and perfect symmetry; your face a flower of white, eyes of black fringed with jetty lashes, lips of coral red and teeth like a line of strung pearls; tall and slender, with the grace and elegance of the wild gazelle and voice as sweet as the nightingale’s. This I can give to you, and all who see you shall fall in worship of your beauty.”
Hyminis considered. Beauty such as that described by the fish would be a boon indeed, for surely Timket could not refuse her return to his home should she appear thus. Yet Timket was days distant, and Hyminis was very hungry.
So it is said, Hyminis ate the silver fish and was much refreshed.
Days passed and Hyminis continued to drift upon the water. At long last she again cast her net of hair into the sea, hoping to satisfy her growing hunger with a fish or two. Soon she felt a tugging upon the net and a great weight within. Gathering the cords of the net together, she began to pull it towards the raft. For a full day and a night Hyminis pulled upon the net before she was able to wrestle its contents aboard.
Within lay a large fish, even more wondrous than the first. Its scales were brilliant gold and its eyes shone red with the gleam of rubies. “O, noble lady!” it said. “Spare my life and I will grant you great wealth! Such a fortune as never been has seen upon the land. Bags of gold and silver in such number that one thousand camels would be required to carry them across the desert. Countless chests of precious gems, the least of which is the size of your fist. Rings, and necklaces, and bracelets, and crowns, all beset with stones of diamond and emerald and sapphire and carnelian and more. You will be wealthier than the wealthiest king of yore ever dreamed of being.”
Hyminis considered. Wealth could be useful indeed. With such a fortune as the fish described she could buy her way into any realm she wished, including the kingdom of Timket her husband. Yet she was far from land and the places where money can purchase favor, and she was very hungry.
So it is said, Hyminis ate the golden fish and she was much refreshed.
Days came and went and still Hyminis was alone upon the sea. At last she cast her net once more into the water, hoping to fill her stomach with a fish or two. Soon she felt a tugging upon the net and a great weight within. Gathering the cords of the net together, she began to pull it towards the raft. For a full day and night and a day Hyminis pulled upon the net before she was able to wrestle its contents aboard. Within lay the largest fish of all, with scales of ebon and eyes that glinted like a light shining through diamonds.
“O, worthy lady!” it said, and Hyminis was no longer surprised by this, “Spare my life and I will grant you a great gift!”
“And what great gift is this, Fish?” said Hyminis. “Already have I turned down the offers of your kin, for beauty and for wealth. What have you to offer that could be greater than these? Speak quickly, for we are far from land and I am very hungry.”
“Ah,” said the fish. “My gift is the greatest of all, for I can give to you the gift of prophecy. The secrets of the future will no longer be a mystery to you, for you shall have the power to see what is to come, and to see it truly.”
Hyminis considered. Prophecy was a mighty gift indeed, not one to be thrown away lightly. Or swallowed, so to speak. And so, though she was indeed very hungry, Hyminis did not eat the ebon fish.
“I shall accept your gift, Fish,” said Hyminis. And so the thankful fish produced from its gullet a stone the size of your smallest finger that shone with many colors and yet was clearly none. This he bade Hyminis swallow, which she did. Immediately was the gift of the fish proven for in a vision she saw herself coming to the shore of an island upon the very next day.
Tearful with relief, Hyminis thanked the fish and released him into the water, where he splashed his tail once in salute before disappearing beneath the waves.
And indeed, at sunrise the next morning Hyminis saw upon the horizon a faint speck of land. And her small raft made course straight for it, as sure as the camel driver leads his caravan across the desert.
As Hyminis stepped foot upon the sands of that land she fell to her face and kissed the earth, so happy was she to be upon dry ground once more. When she looked up, she found herself surrounded by the natives of this island, who greeted her with awe and reverence.
In the whole of their history they had never known anyone to come across the waters and because of that and because of her great size (her long ordeal had done little to lessen her bulk), they welcomed Hyminis as they would have welcomed a goddess—for such they regarded her.
The people of the island lived in isolation and ignorance, yet they were of noble spirit and they possessed much in the way of material wealth. They heaped upon Hyminis gifts worthy of the goddess they thought her to be: silken raiment, embroidered robes, fine carpets, boxes of rare and pungent incenses, statues of carved ivory and gilded marble. They gave to her a fine house with many sheep and goats, and servants to see to all her needs.
Hyminis, in her modesty, was reluctant to accept the honors given her, but she came to see through her gift of prophecy that she would rule among these people for many years and that she would lead them well and prosperously. And so she did. Over the years, she maintained honor and peace with firm hand and merciful heart. None ever had cause to complain of cruelty or injustice under the rule of Hyminis and all the people of the island prospered in her care.
So it is said.
Then it happened one day that Hyminis had a vision of a terrible calamity. Summoning all her people together she spoke to them thus: “I have foreseen a great flood that will rise from the ocean and sweep away all our homes and fields.
“But do not fear!” continued Hyminis, silencing the fearful wails of the islanders. “For I have also foreseen how we shall escape our doom.” And so she told them that which she had seen, and following her instructions, the people began to build a great many boats.
Now I tell you, these were not boats like the tiny one upon which Hyminis had been set adrift. Oh no! The smallest of these boats was as large as a house, some as big as palaces, and none larger or finer than the boat of Hyminis. Upon these boats the people loaded all of their possessions—all their silks and gold and treasures. They also put aboard such food and water as might be needed for a long voyage. Lastly, they boarded each and every one of their sheep and goats and cows.
When the flood came as Hyminis had predicted, the people of the island watched in safety from their boats as the water swallowed their home. They were not tearful, for they had all that they might need or want aboard with them. In fact, so happy and content were they that they resolved to live always upon the sea rather than seeking a new home upon dry land. Hyminis had of course known they would feel so, but let them come to this decision in their own way.
It is said that the same flood that chased Hyminis and the island people from their home reached far and wide, even to the kingdom of Timket. Hyminis, seeing the destruction of her former homeland in a vision, bade her people to steer their course in that direction. When they arrived they found the flood already much advanced and the people fled far into the hills to escape the rising waters.
Only Timket remained, trapped with his closest advisors upon the highest minaret of his palace. How amazed was he to look out towards the sea and witness the approach of what looked to be a floating city!
He watched in wonder as the great fleet approached. A small craft was sent forth, and Timket and his ministers were rescued from the tower and ferried across the water to the waiting boats. From boat to boat they were led, each more finely appointed than that which preceded it, till at last they reached the largest and most ornate of all. Here the advisors were bade to wait while Timket alone was escorted through a pair of gilded doors into a hall as grand as any within his own palace. Therein he found himself before a dais, and upon the dais was a couch embellished with gems and chased with precious metals. And upon this couch, draped in fine silks and strings of pearls, was Hyminis.
Timket, though, did not recognize her—so much fatter had she grown in the years since her exile. She seemed to him some strange and magnificent queen, come over the sea in her floating city, a being of magic and mystery.
The queen regarded Timket in silence as he stood nervous in anticipation.
“Timket,” she said after a long while, “You are too thin!”
Only then did Timket recognize the great queen as his own first wife, sent out to sea so long ago. He gaped in astonishment and exclaimed, “Hyminis?”
“Yes, Timket. It is I,” said Hyminis. And she told him of her journey across the sea and how she had come to rule the people of the isle. “But now I fear what they shall think of me, having such a thin husband!”
Timket knew that Hyminis mocked him, and he threw himself to the ground before her to beg forgiveness for the shameful acts of his past. “For I acted in vanity and pride, and was a fool for not recognizing the treasure I cast out.”
Hyminis listened to his pleadings without comment. When he finally ceased to speak she said nothing, only studied him thoughtfully for a long moment. Then without a word she rose to her feet and left the hall, leaving Timket bewildered and confused.
The reason for Hyminis’ abrupt departure was this: she did not know what to do with him.
Hyminis still felt in her heart great affection for Timket, and yet there was also bitterness and anger for the way he had cast her aside. There was some satisfaction in watching his abased groveling before her, and a part of her longed for further punishment, even while her heart softened towards him as his words recalled a sweeter time.
Thanks to her gift of prophecy, Hyminis had known all that would come to pass up until the very moment when Timket knelt before her in the great hall, pleading for her forgiveness. But beyond that moment she could not see. Was she to punish him for what he had done to her, or was she to forgive him and return him to his place as her husband? For all the years since accepting the gift of the ebon fish, her path had been clear to her. Now, she did not know what to do.
And so, puzzled, she left the hall and Timket.
For many hours Hyminis walked the decks and hallways of her floating palace, weighing the choice she must make. As she came to the highest point of the boat, looking at the stars above and the sea below, she finally came to an understanding about what she must do. And the knowledge came not from her gift of prophecy, but from her own heart.
The whole of this time that Hyminis spent wandering and pondering, Timket was left alone within the great hall. At first, he knelt in continued supplication upon the floor, wringing his hands in anxiety as he contemplated the ways in which Hyminis might execute her judgment upon him. “Execute” was foremost in his thoughts.
Gradually, however, as his wait lengthened and Hyminis did not reappear, his anxiety lessened and his perplexity increased. After an hour or more he rose with creaking joints and began to pace in a restless manner, muttering to himself as he pondered the meaning of Hyminis’ extended absence.
At long last, two servants appeared and beckoned Timket to follow. They led him on a long course from boat to boat, the way linked by wooden walkways over precarious depths. On and on they went, and the further they went the smaller the boats became, until they reached the smallest and outer-most boats of that great flotilla.
Here they found Hyminis, holding in her hands the rope of a tiny raft that drifted off the side, an ornate chest resting at her feet.
“Timket,” spoke Hyminis, “you know that I could set you forth upon the sea with only this small boat. I have the power and the right, for what you did to me.”
Timket hung his head in shame and despair. He had no more words with which to plead.
“And yet,” said Hyminis, “if you had not cast me forth upon the sea, never would I have that which I do now. Therefore, I owe you some degree of thanks. I have decided, Timket, that I will forgive what you did to me. And in fact, I am going to reward you.”
Timket eyed the chest resting at Hyminis’ feet, and wondered with a renewed sense of hope what treasures it might contain. He did not need to wonder long. Hyminis nodded to one of the servants who stepped forward to unlock the chest, and then produced from within what seemed to be a net. It was in fact the very net that Hyminis had made of her own hair so many years ago while adrift upon the sea, though Timket did not know this.
The servant handed this net to Timket, who accepted it with grace, if with some puzzlement. Before he had a chance to inquire as to the purpose of this strange gift, he found his arms seized and himself lifted into the air. The two servants carried him effortlessly to the rail and, before Timket could raise a protest, they dropped him off the side of the boat, to land in a pile upon the raft that bobbed there.
Hyminis looked down upon her startled husband and spoke. She wore no expression upon her face, though in truth she felt a great deal of satisfaction at that moment.
“Timket, please do not think of this as a punishment. I am simply giving you the same opportunity that you gave me so many years ago.”
So saying, she let go of the rope that held the small boat, letting it loose upon the great and salty sea of Itl. As the raft began to drift away, a stunned and unbelieving Timket aboard, Hyminis raised her hand in farewell.
“Good-bye, husband! I wish you the fortune you deserve,” she called after him. Then, turning back towards her floating palace, she ordered fish for supper.
So it is said.
Stace Dumoski is a professional content writer, aspiring fantasy novelist, and lover of all things magical and fantastical. She has an undergraduate degree in Medieval Studies and has undertaken formal study in Folklore and Mythology and helmed the website “Phantastes: The Online Journal of Fantasy Criticism” which was listed three years running in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology.
“The Piscine Gifts” has been previously published on Parageography 2 (Winter 2004) (as Staci Ann Dumoski), and in Scheherazade’s Bequest, Issue One (July 2005).
The painting of the Farralones Islands, Pacific Ocean by Albert Bierstadt is in the public domain.