My mother and 3-year-old nephew are in the living room watching ABC Kids. Peter Rabbit and his friends are out and about, roaming the countryside. It’s quaint. My nephew is enthralled.
I can’t believe Peter Rabbit is still around, on television no less. “These books are so old,” I say. “From like, the 1940s.” (I’m totally wrong – they’re actually from 1902 to 1912 – but that’s not something I work out till later.)
“There was a story that starts like this,” Mum says, watching Peter and the other bunnies skip rocks on a pond. “Called The Bride of the Sea, something like that…
There was a goose, a duck, a chicken, a rabbit and a little dog. They were all walking together in the countryside when they came across a lake. They sat down by the water, collecting rocks. After a while one said, ‘Let’s see who can throw a rock the farthest across into the lake!’
The chicken picked up a rock and threw it, but she was the weakest one among them and it didn’t go far.
The goose went next. She picked up a rock and threw it far. As it hit the water, they heard a voice say, ‘Ouch!’
The dog picked up a rock and threw it, and it went a little farther than the goose’s. Again they heard a voice say, ‘Ouch!’
The rabbit also threw one. Every time a rock hit the water they heard the voice cry out in pain.
The animals stopped picking up rocks and told each other they wouldn’t throw any more. But the duck hadn’t had her turn yet.
‘I have to throw one too!’ she said.
‘Okay,’ said the other animals. ‘Throw one.’
Suddenly, a strong wind blew. Everything around them started to fly – leaves started to fly off trees, the dirt kicked up and stormed around them. The gust of wind was so strong the animals were knocked against each other. They couldn’t see anything in the sudden storm.
After a while, the wind died down. The animals, finally able to see again, began to look at each other. Each of them would look at another and laugh. One would say, ‘Why are you laughing?’ then laugh at someone else, and the other would say, ‘Why are you laughing?’ and do the same.
They walked to the water and looked at reflections of themselves on the surface.
There they each saw what the others had been laughing at! They found that the dog had the ears of the rabbit. And the rabbit had the dog’s ears –
I giggle. My mother pauses and looks at me. “You’ve heard a similar story before?”
I haven’t, but I’m reminded of the Puss and Donkey body-switch in Shrek the Third and that movie always makes me laugh. My nephew thinks I’m laughing with him at the antics of Peter and his farmer neighbour. “It’s Mr. McGregor!” he says. He keeps saying it till I tell him to be quiet. “Zayn, we’re listening to teita. Teita’s telling a story.”
The chicken, the duck and the goose had all lost their feathers. All the feathers had flown off them into the basket where they had collected rocks.
An old woman appeared, walking up to them. She looked at them and seeing their present state said, ‘You were throwing rocks into the water?’
‘We were just playing!’ the animals answered.
‘See what’s happened to you?’ said the old woman. ‘Don’t you know who lives here?’
She told them the story of a beautiful and kind girl who lived long ago, beloved by all the people of the countryside. She had lived in the area until she was a bride on her wedding day, when her stepmother had taken her to the lake and drowned her.
‘That girl now lives in the lake,’ the woman told them. ‘When you throw rocks in the water, you hurt her.’
The animals were ashamed of themselves for what they had done. ‘What can we do to make up with her?’ they asked.
“I can’t remember what she said they had to do.” Mum says. “What was the girl’s name? Sit al-Husn? No, that wasn’t it… Amira? Suad? Eh, I can’t remember at all. It was a great story though. I remember all the kids became scared of water at the time, God rest my uncle’s wife’s soul. When I went to the lake to wash clothes or collect water – we didn’t have taps in those days, not in the countryside, we had to fill water and bring it back – I’d be scared to go in or get too close to it.”
“You definitely haven’t told us this story before,” I say. “Or I don’t remember if you did.”
“Maybe I’ve told it, maybe I haven’t. I really was scared of it, very scared of it. Any water I got near… I stayed scared for a long time. Well, I was young.”
“Is this why you’re scared of water and swimming?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. Anyway I’m not scared of swimming, I just don’t know how to. I think – oh! The old woman told them to go gather some flowers. Not a bouquet or anything, just some flowers.
The old woman told each of the animals to collect some flowers, so they did. They brought the flowers back to the lake and sat at the edge of the water. And they started putting the flowers into the water and saying, ‘We’re sorry! We’re sorry!’
When the last flower hit the water, a figure came up out of the water. It was the Bride of the Lake. The animals gasped, finding her to be as beautiful as described.
The Bride sat in front of them, smiling and laughing. They knew they had been forgiven. And when they looked back down at the water’s surface, they saw that each of them had returned to their first appearance. The dog and rabbit had their own ears, and the chicken, the duck and the goose had all their feathers.
“I’d forgotten this story,” Mum says, turning back to the TV. “The rabbits skipping stones on the water reminded me. I used to be so worried something was going to pop out of water at me, I thought something would pop out at them…”
This story was narrated to the author by her mother, Badria, in Egyptian Arabic. Some of the nuance is lost in translation.