Encore: 'The Forbidden Knot'

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

What does it mean to “keep your word”?

Well, it doesn’t mean that you say a word and then stash it away somewhere, right? You know, keep it in a jewelry box or a dresser drawer?

No! Keeping your word… means keeping a promise. And in today’s story, we’ll meet a fishing captain who learns a very important lesson about staying true... to what you promise others.

This week our story is inspired by an old folktale from Estonia: a country on the northern coast of Europe.  Read more versions of this story HERE.

Voices in this episode include: Eric Messner, Mitch Hebert, James Konicek, Kim Schraf and Mel Rodriguez. Grown-ups: you can check out Mel on the shows, “The Last Man on Earth” and “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.” And look for him this April in the movie, “Overboard.”  Story adapted by Rebecca Sheir and Jessica Alpert. Casting by Amy Lippens, CSA.  Original music and sound design by Eric Shimelonis.


ADULTS! Print out this picture so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album on Instagram, and we’d love to see what you color. If you’d like to share your picture on Instagram, post your artwork and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it!

Things To Think About After Listening

What word would you like to keep? Maybe you’ve  heard of New Year’s resolutions? That’s when people make a promise they hope to keep for the entire year! Well, think of something you’d like to resolve to do this year: a promise you’d like to keep. Maybe it’s lending more of a hand around the house… or helping a friend with homework.

Whatever it is, share that promise with a grown-up. Then ask your grown-up to share a promise with you. Stay in touch throughout the year, to see how you’re both holding up… and whether you’ve kept your word as firmly as those fishermen tie their knots!

Story Transcript

NARRATOR: The fishing village beside the sea had seen its share of good years... and its share of bad years.

This year… was one of the bad ones.

And the fishermen… were beside themselves!

FISHERMAN 1: Can you believe it? It’s the end of the fishing season, and we haven’t caught one fish!

FISHERMAN 2: The village is getting so hungry, everyone’s bellies are rumbling! Loudly!

NARRATOR: Now, it just so happens that the fishermen had a new Captain. He’d inherited the position from his father… and didn’t have a whole lot of experience.

CAPTAIN: Listen, men. As your Captain, I will tell you: staying home and complaining will solve nothing. We must head back out to sea and try our luck.

FISHERMAN 1: But, Captain! The next fishing season doesn’t start for months!

CAPTAIN: Don’t you worry. My father once told me about a legendary fisherman named Aleksander. Aleksander is an old man now, and retired, but he still lives at the edge of the village. In his younger years, it was said he could lure in fish, whatever the season. Everyone believed he had special luck when it came to the sea. Let’s visit him, and see what he has to say.


NARRATOR: So, together, they made their way through the village, and to the end of a long, desolate road. When Aleksander answered the door of his small cottage, the men saw he had a long, gray beard and wrinkled hands.

ALEKSANDER: Welcome, friends, welcome!

CAPTAIN: Aleksander, sir, thank you for seeing us today. As you know, it’s been a terrible year for fishing and our village is hungry! We must go out to sea and try to catch more fish. Might you tell us what brought you good luck all those years, because we most definitely need it.

NARRATOR: Aleksander smiled, and the corners of his eyes crinkled.

ALEKSANDER: I hear you, Captain, and the only advice I can offer is this: a good fisherman relies on his skill and the strength of his hands… not on good luck. I’m sure your father would have told you the same thing. But, even so: it’s the end of the fishing season! If you take your boat out now, the Queen of the Sea isn’t going to like it. Trust me. I knew her rather well in my younger days.

NARRATOR: The Captain’s shoulders fell. Aleksander stroked his beard a moment.

ALEKSANDER: Alright, alright. I can see how desperate you are. And your father, Captain – your father was a good man. He helped me out many, many times. So, my friends, today I will help you.

NARRATOR: Aleksander reached down and pulled a bright red kerchief from his neck.

ALEKSANDER: You see this kerchief? I’ve had it since I was a young fishermen. It has never led me astray.

NARRATOR: The fishermen gazed at the bright red piece of cloth. They noticed it was knotted: three times.

ALEKSANDER: You see these three knots here? Well, listen up, and listen closely. This first knot will bring you a fair wind. You must untie this knot as you hoist the sail of your ship.

NARRATOR: Aleksander pointed a bony finger at the second knot.

ALEKSANDER: This second knot here – this knot will attract fish. You must undo it as you cast your nets.

CAPTAIN: And the third knot, Aleksander?

ALEKSANDER: Ahhh. The third knot, Captain… the third knot must never be undone. Never. And one other thing… something you must always remember: be content with what the sea sends you. Cast your nets one time, and one time only. Do not cast your nets a second time. No matter what. Do you understand?

FISHERMAN 1: We do, Aleksander. We’ll do as you say.

FISHERMAN 2: We give you our word!

ALEKSANDER: And a fisherman’s word must never be broken. Here. Take the kerchief, and good luck to all of you.

NARRATOR: Aleksander handed the kerchief to the Captain, who looped it several times around his wrist.

CAPTAIN: Thank you, Aleksander. Let’s go, men! We have fish to catch!

NARRATOR: The next morning, the fishermen jumped into their boat, grabbed the oars, and rowed out to sea. When they were far enough from the shore, they hoisted the sail.

CAPTAIN: Alright, men. I have Aleksander’s kerchief . Let’s untie the first knot!

NARRATOR: The Captain unlooped the kerchief from his wrist and untied the first knot. At once, a fresh wind billowed up, filling the sails and sending the boat racing forward. A few moments later, the wind disappeared, the sail went limp, and the boat… stopped.

CAPTAIN: This looks like a good place to cast our nets, boys. Let’s untie the second knot!

NARRATOR: The fishermen grabbed their nets and cast them over the side of the boat, while the Captain untied the second knot. Immediately, they saw a great rippling and splashing in the waters around them, as hundreds of fish came swimming over.

The men pulled the nets out of the water and into the boat. When they did, they saw the nets were teeming with fish, their silver scales glittering in the sun.

FISHERMAN 1: What a fine catch!

FISHERMAN 2: All thanks to Old Man Aleksander!

FISHERMAN 1: Let’s lock them down in the bottom of the boat, so they’ll be fresh when we get home!

NARRATOR: After the men stashed the fish away, the Captain… an idea.

CAPTAIN: Men, we’ve taken in a fine catch. That much is certain. But, let’s think about this. We have many, many months until the next fishing season begins. Will these fish last that long? We have so many mouths to feed back in the village. Maybe, maybe... we should cast our nets again.

NARRATOR: The other fishermen couldn’t believe their ears.

FISHERMAN 2: Forgive me, Captain, but what are you talking about?!? Old Man Aleksander told us himself: “Be content with what the sea sends you.”

FISHERMAN 1: We should be satisfied with this catch. We can’t cast our nets again!

CAPTAIN: Oh, so you want your wives to go hungry, then? Your children, too? All those rumbling bellies?

NARRATOR: Thinking of their families, the fishermen couldn’t put up a fight. So they did what the Captain said, and cast their nets again. Only this time…

FISHERMAN 1: They’re empty!

FISHERMAN 2: Not one fish to be seen!

NARRATOR: The Captain scoffed.

CAPTAIN: Oh, that’s just because we haven’t untied the third knot in Old Man Aleksander’s kerchief! The first knot brought us so much success. The second, too. The third knot will surely do the same!

FISHERMAN 2: But Old Man Aleksander was clear: we must not touch that third knot!

FISHERMAN 1: You’ve heard the saying, “Only a fool tries his luck a third time”…?

CAPTAIN: Yes, but I’ve also heard the saying: “Only a fool turns down good fortune.” Come now. Let’s untie that third knot!

The Captain was new at his job, but his crew knew you were supposed to respect the person in charge. So… they untied the third knot.

And as soon as they did, the sea began to roar. The waves grew higher and higher, crashing over the edges of the boat and tossing the vessel this way and that. The Captain fled to the bottom of the boat where the first catch of fish was stashed. The other fishermen held on for dear life.

FISHERMAN 1: I’ve never seen such a storm, in all my days!

FISHERMAN 2:  If only we hadn’t untied that third knot!

NARRATOR: The storm kept raging all night. In the wee small hours of the morning, the fishermen reached a rocky island. Sheets of rain pummeled the mountains and cliffs, but the men were happy to jump off the boat and drag it onto a safe shore.

FISHERMAN 1: What island is this, I wonder?

FISHERMAN 2: Where has the storm taken us?

CAPTAIN: And most importantly, men, where can we find shelter from all this blasted rain?

NARRATOR: Suddenly, a woman appeared from behind a craggy cliff. Over her head and body she wore a cloak of bright blue, and the raindrops bounced right off of it. Her eyes were a sparkling emerald green. When she walked, her feet seemed to flow across the ground, like the tides. When she spoke, her voice was as smooth as water.

WOMAN: Welcome, men. Welcome. I see from your boat that you must be fishermen. And yet fishing season is over, and the next season is months and months away! Tell me: why are you out to sea now?

NARRATOR: The Captain straightened himself up a bit before addressing the woman.

CAPTAIN: Well, madam. As the Captain of this fishing vessel I can answer that question. You see, luck escaped us this past season and we didn’t catch any fish. So, we thought we’d try again! We had no idea this terrible storm would blow in and lead us astray.

NARRATOR: The woman arched her eyebrows.

WOMAN: I see. Well, come. I will take you somewhere so you can change into dry clothing and enjoy a nice, hot meal. Once we get there, you must tell me the whole story of how you came to land in this place.

NARRATOR: So the woman led the fishermen to a warm, dry cabin. As the men sipped hot bowls of soup and listened to the wind howl down the chimney, the Captain told the woman everything that had happened.

Well... almost everything.

Although he mentioned the knots on Old Man Aleksander’s kerchief, the Captain left out the part about untying the third, forbidden knot.

As the woman listened, she began to smile. Her green eyes sparkled more than ever. Their shimmer was like sunlight on the water.

WOMAN: Hmmm. Aleksander, eh? I used to know this Aleksander, back when he was a young fisherman. If you ask me, it sounds like he used that first knot to send you to the pastures of the Queen of the Sea. I’ve heard she keeps many fish there, all of them with glittering silver scales, but they’re too clever to be caught. That must be why Aleksander had you untie the second knot: to lure those clever fish in! But this storm… you’ll never find any storms in the pastures of the Queen of the Sea! The skies are always blue and the winds are always calm. Always!


NARRATOR: The fishermen were about to speak up and tell the woman the truth… how they had broken their promise to Aleksander and untied the third knot… but the Captain stopped them.

CAPTAIN:  Never any storms, eh? How very odd! The world is full of mysteries, isn’t it? Now, though, we ought to get some sleep. We’ve had quite an adventure!

WOMAN: So you have. I’ll see you men in the morning.

NARRATOR: That night, the rain kept falling and the waves kept crashing, but the fishermen slept soundly in the cozy cabin. When they awoke, they saw the woman. She was still in her cloak of blue, with her sparkling eyes of green and her voice like water.

WOMAN: Good morning, men! How did you sleep?

NARRATOR: The Captain yawned and stretched.

CAPTAIN: Well, I, for one, slept wonderfully well!

FISHERMAN 1: Indeed, it’s a very comfortable place you found for us, miss. But outside the rain keeps falling and the wind keeps blowing. There’s no way our boat can make it home in this weather.

FISHERMAN 2: Our hungry children are waiting for us. What do you think we should do?

NARRATOR: The woman smiled.

WOMAN: What about Aleksander’s kerchief? Do you still have it?

NARRATOR: Luckily, they did. The Captain had looped it around his wrist just before the storm struck. He handed it to the woman. She gazed at it fondly.

WOMAN: You know? I thought this kerchief sounded familiar when you described it. I’ve actually seen it before – back when I first made Aleksander’s acquaintance.

NARRATOR: She held the kerchief up to get a better look.

WOMAN: Only… I could have sworn Aleksander’s kerchief had three knots in it. You told me you untied the first two knots, so shouldn’t there be one more knot left? I certainly don’t see one…How odd. The world is full of mysteries, isn’t it… Captain.

NARRATOR: The Captain blushed. He knew he was in trouble.

CAPTAIN: Alright, alright. So when you asked us to tell you our story, maybe I left out one teensy-weensy detail. Like how I sorta-kinda told my crew to untie the third knot…?

NARRATOR: The woman frowned. When she did, the men could have sworn the wind picked up, and the crashing of the waves grew louder.

WOMAN: Oh, Captain. So not only did you disobey Aleksander… you didn’t tell me the truth!  You do know who I am, don’t you?

NARRATOR: Suddenly, it dawned on the captain. This woman with the bright blue cloak… the emerald-green eyes… and the voice smooth as water… she was none other than…?

CAPTAIN:  The Queen of the Sea!

WOMAN: Yes... I am. And as such, I must say, I’m rather disappointed in you! But, look. I can see you have been punished enough already. For the sake of the hungry people of your village… and for the sake of my old friend, Aleksander… I will help you.

NARRATOR: The Queen of the Sea held the bright red kerchief up in the air, and began to tie a knot in it. As she drew the knot tight, the wind dropped and the waves grew calm... as if there’d never been a raging storm in the first place! The fishermen were amazed.

WOMAN: Listen up, my friends, and listen closely, I need all of you to promise me one thing: from now on, you will keep your word every bit as firmly as I’ve tied this knot.

FISHERMAN 1: Of course! We will keep our word, dear Queen!

FISHERMAN 2: Forever and ever.

CAPTAIN: We promise.

WOMAN: Good. Now, come. The storm is gone. Let’s go back to your boat!

NARRATOR: The Queen of the Sea led the fishermen back to the seashore, which was now bathed in sunlight. As the men hoisted the sail of their boat, the Queen waved her hand and a light breeze blew in. Next thing they knew, the boat was racing over the calm, crystal-clear sea. The Captain turned his head back to call out thanks to the Queen of the Sea... but... she had vanished.

The fishermen’s boat moved so swiftly, the men reached their village in just a few hours. They were greeted joyfully by their friends and families. And the first fish they’d caught on their adventure… the ones they’d stashed in the bottom of the boat, before the storm… that catch fed the whole village until the official start of the fishing season. Then the fishermen headed back to sea again.

For the rest of their days, the men would always remember the lesson the Queen of the Sea had taught them: that fisherman should keep their word as firmly as the knots they tie in their ropes.

And, you know? Fishermen aren’t the only ones who should keep their word. Maybe we’d all do well to remember the Queen’s lesson, too.

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Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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