Once, there lived a Wise Woman, called Annis. Nobody liked her, some were afraid of her, this was because she was both very ugly and a wise woman. Annis could do all sorts with her potions and ointments. Bessie Jane Rosewarne, a young girl who lived with her parents on a nearby farm, wasn’t afraid of old Annis. Bessie Jane was kind and often took Annis fruit and flowers. Annis was very grateful to the child and in exchange she told her stories of The Small People. Bessie was very interested in Annis’ stories, especially the ones about the cliff piskeys and the sea-fairies.
One day, Bessie Jane took the Wise Woman fresh berries and cream and old Annis gave Bessie Jane a present.
‘I have made you a shrimping net,’ she said. ‘The small people have spun its mesh for me with piskey wool. The hoop and the handle I made myself with ash wood.’
‘Thank you, I will go straight to Harlyn Bay to catch shrimps with my net.’
‘It will catch you something far lovelier than shrimps,’ said Annis.
‘Don’t let it get out of the net before it promises to lend you its eyes and its ears for a night and a day.’
‘Yes Annis, I hope I do catch something lovelier than a shrimp.’
Bessie Jane skipped down Tamarisk Lane toward Harlyn Bay. She went straight to her favourite pool; full of sea anemones, shrimps, mussels and seaweed. She looked into the water, a swirl of silver swam backwards and forwards. Bessie Jane carefully dipped her net, intent on catching the beautiful creature. To her amazement, she caught it easily and when she looked closely, Bessie Jane saw she had caught a sea-fairy. The sea-fairy was just as in Annis’ stories. She had golden hair, sea-green eyes and a flowing green dress.
‘I am the first of the sea-fairies to be caught in a net,’ said the sea-fairy. ‘I was playing hide and seek with my friends, when the tide went out, left me under this rock and you caught me.’
‘I did,’ said Bessie Jane, staring in wonder at the sea-fairy.
‘How did you catch me?’
‘The Wise Woman of Tamarisk Lane gave me this net.’
‘What will you do with me? Please let me back into the sea.’
‘I won’t hurt you, Sea-Fairy. I would like to show you my farm please, then I will let you go.’
‘I can’t live out of the sea very long. I can’t see your farm.’
‘Then I will take you to the sea.’
‘All the sea-fairies are watching you. Take me back to them and they will forever be grateful.’
‘I can’t see any other sea-fairies,’ said Bessie Jane, seeing only the foam of the wave and the sparkle of the sun.
‘You can only see me because you hold me in a net spun by piskey wool and woven by the Wise Woman.’
It was then Bessie Jane remembered old Annis’ words. ‘I will put you back as soon as you lend me your eyes and your ears for a night and a day,’ said Bessie Jane.
‘Wade into the sea a little before you put me down. And when you do, a wave will bring you a little red ball.’
Bessie Jane tipped the sea-fairy out of her net into the sea. The sea-fairy disappeared beneath the waves and just as she had said, a wave pushed a little red ball to the shore. She scooped up the red ball and ran all the way to the Wise Woman, who told her to come back in the morning,
Bessie Jane got up very early and ran all the way to Tamarisk Lane. She put fairy ears into her ears and fairy eyes in her eyes. All of a sudden, the little house was full of Small People, they all gave Bessie Jane a wink when she looked at them. The Small People were everywhere and Bessie Jane found them very interesting to watch. She ran around trying to see them all.
‘If you want to see the sea-fairies, you will have to go to the beach now,’ Annis said.
Reluctantly, because she was enjoying watching all the Small People in Annis’ house, Bessie Jane started off down the lane. With her new eyes, the view was very different to usual. As she came down the lane, Bessie Jane could see the beach covered in flowers; little cows were grazing on a film of fairy green, tiny goats and little men wondered about. Small People were all over the cliffs, sitting on piskey-stools. The men wore red jackets and blue trousers and the women wore red, blue and gold dresses. Musicians played and they all sang.
‘We sing to our cousins, the sea-fairies every morning.’
‘I love your song,’ Bessie Jane said happily.
Bessie sat on the cliffs and watched the sea-fairies, they were dressed in green dresses and they all had the same gold hair and blue eyes as the sea-fairy Bessie Jane had caught in her net. The sea-fairies sang and danced with the sunbeams. The piskeys on the cliff began a song and the sea-fairies all came to listen. When the song ended, the piskeys on the cliffs all disappeared and Bessie was alone on the cliff.
She walked down onto the beach and the sea-fairies came up to see her. They thanked Bessie for being kind to their sister.
‘I am so pleased to see you, thank you,’ said Bessie.
‘You see us with sea-fairy eyes.’
‘I am so sorry I asked her for them.’
‘We thank you for being kind to her and for being kind to the Wise Woman who has always loved the little people.’
‘What do sea-fairies do?’ Bessie Jane asked.
‘We like doing good and being helpful. We take wounded creatures to the bottom of the sea and heal them. We play games, singing and dancing and play with the sunlight on the sea.’
The sea came in and went out and Bessie sat listening to the sea-fairies. She didn’t even notice the coming and going of the sea. A carriage rolled up near where Bessie was sitting. It was shaped like a scallop shell and had four white horses. Peeping out of the carriage, was the sea-fairy with a bandage over her eyes and a bandage over her ears. The sea-fairies made a circle around the carriage and all looked at Bessie.
‘Please give me back my eyes and my ears,’ said the sea-fairy.
‘What eyes and ears?’ asked Bessie.
‘The ones you borrowed for a night and a day. I am so miserable without them.’
‘How shall I take them out? The Wise Woman put them in.’
‘I will call back my eyes and my ears,’ sang the sea-fairy.
And with that everything disappeared and the beach was back to how Bessie knew it every day. The only person she could see was an old man bringing his donkey down the lane to get sand. She ran to the old man with the donkey and told him all about seeing the sea-fairies and the piskeys. Then she ran up the lane and told Annis the same.
Bessie Jane never saw the sea-fairies again or fished with her fishing net but she was ever grateful for what she had seen and pleased to have been thanked for helping her dear friend, the Wise Woman Annis of Tamarisk Lane.
retold by Anna Chorlton
from Enys Tregarthen's ‘The Piskey Purse’
- North Cornwall Coast