Why the Sea Is Salty

“Why the Sea Is Salty,” Tambuli, Apr. 1978, 21

Why the Sea Is Salty

(A folktale retold)

Once there were two brothers, Hasty and Swigley, who lived near the sea. Hasty was a pleasant fellow but very poor. Swigley was cranky and stingy but very rich.

When a holiday feast day came, Hasty had nothing to eat so he went to his brother’s house. “Please give me some food for me and my wife, Brother Swigley,” he said. “You have plenty and I will repay you in work when harvesttime comes.”

Swigley didn’t really want to give Hasty anything, but he was afraid the neighbors would scorn him if he didn’t, so he gave Hasty a piece of ham. “Take it and be off with you. When harvesttime comes, I’ll expect a good day’s labor in payment,” he said ill-naturedly.

Hasty took the ham and started for home. Because he was anxious to get there, he took a shortcut through the woods. As he hurried along, the woods began to look unfamiliar to him. Hasty finally decided he had lost his way. While he was deciding what he must do, Hasty heard the sound of a woodcutter’s axe in the distance. Following the sound of the chopping, he soon came upon a large house where an old man was cutting wood.

“Can you tell me the way to—” he began. But before Hasty could finish the sentence, the axe flew from the old man’s hand and would have cut the woodcutter’s leg had Hasty not jumped quickly and knocked it to the ground.

“You are a good man,” said the old woodcutter, “and you have saved me from being hurt. Now go into the house where there are those who will want your ham. Be sure to take nothing in exchange except the old mill that stands behind the door. Then come back and I’ll teach you how to use it. That mill can grind anything.”

Hasty thought this was strange but he did as the old man directed. Inside the house were several dwarfs. When they smelled the ham, they began clamoring and asked Hasty what they could give him for it.

Hasty said, “I’ll take the old mill behind the door and nothing else.”

They offered several other things in exchange but Hasty refused. Finally, the dwarfs agreed to the trade of the ham for the mill.

The old woodcutter smiled when he saw Hasty coming with the mill under his arm. Quickly, he told Hasty how to start the mill and then how to stop it. Hasty thanked the old man and soon found himself on the right path for home.

When he reached home, Hasty put the mill on the table. “Grind a good dinner,” he said. To his wife’s delight, the mill began to turn and out came the best dinner she and Hasty had ever eaten.

After that, Hasty had the mill grind many good things—food, clothing, silver, gold, and anything else he and his wife needed. They invited all their friends and neighbors to come and share their good fortune. Swigley was invited, too, but when he saw how much Hasty had to enjoy, he was jealous and angry. “Where did you get so much wealth?” he demanded.

When Hasty explained about the mill, Swigley was determined to have it. He begged so hard that Hasty finally agreed to give it to him. However, before he did, Hasty and his wife had the mill grind enough good things to last them for several years. Then he took the mill to his brother.

Swigley could hardly wait to be alone with his new treasure. He was so anxious to use it that he didn’t listen when Hasty explained how to stop the mill. As soon as he was alone with the mill, Swigley commanded, “Mill, grind out porridge! I am hungry for good porridge.”

At once, the mill began to grind. First, it ground a bowlful, then a tubful, a tableful, and soon the room was half full. Porridge was running out the door into the yard. “Stop! Stop! Stop!” cried Swigley, but the mill did not stop and the flood of porridge kept coming from the mill.

Finally, Swigley decided to go see his brother. He slogged through the porridge until he was outside and then ran to Hasty’s house. “Take the mill back,” he cried. “Take it quickly! If it grinds more porridge, we’ll all soon be smothered in it! Take it back! I’ll give you anything you ask if you’ll only take it back!”

Hasty took the mill back, stopped the porridge flow in the way the old woodcutter had told him, and for a long time continued to use the mill to get the things they wanted. Soon he became a rich man, living in a fine home that shone with splendor near the seashore. Many who sailed by stopped to see the wonderful mill.

One day, a skipper of a ship asked, “Can the mill grind salt? I have to travel a long way to fill my ship with a cargo of salt to sell. I’d like a mill that could grind out salt.”

“Of course, it can grind salt,” Hasty answered.

“I’ll give you a thousand coins for it,” the skipper offered.

“No,” Hasty answered. “I don’t want to part with my wonderful mill.”

But the skipper kept begging until Hasty finally decided to sell it. The man hurried off with the mill, boarded his ship, and sailed for deep water.

When he stopped the ship, he set the mill down and commanded, “Grind salt! Grind salt and grind it fast!”

Immediately, the mill began to grind. And just as had been the case with Swigley and the porridge, it didn’t stop. The ship’s hull was soon full. Salt filled every crack and the skipper shouted, and begged, and whimpered, and cried for the mill to stop. However, the salt continued to pour out, piling up on the deck while the boat began sinking lower and lower into the water.

At last, the boat sank completely out of sight and came to rest on the ocean floor. And there it is to this very day, endlessly grinding salt into the sea.

Illustrated by Sherry Thompson