Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom by the sea, there lived a king and his queen. Their palace was so close to the sea that the waves lapped the stones at its solid base and the salt sea spray and morning mist whispered in the ramparts. The king and queen had one daughter, the fairest child in all the land. But not long after giving birth, the queen died of a fever.
The king remarried but his second wife was evil. His new wife despised the princess because she was very beautiful. This king came from a long line of warriors and his passion was to lead his armies in conquest so he was never home. He was so bewitched by the allures of his evil second wife that he entrusted her with all the affairs of the palace in his absence, especially decisions concerning the princess. The queen was determined that the princess should not marry because if she had a male child, this son could one day usurp the queen’s right to rule should the king die. So every time the princess had a suitor, the queen would find fault with him. She also ensured that the princess was within the palace at all times.
Despite the queen’s best efforts, though. it happened that one day a young man was walking by the sea shore. He looked up and he saw the princess in the balcony of the highest tower and as soon as he saw her, he loved her. He knew he had to marry her. But he knew he very little chance of winning her hand, for he was a lowly lad, he was not rich, nor mighty, he had no family wealth or lands or regal lineage, just a poor teen studying to be a cantor. But in this respect, he had the most beautiful singing voice in all the land, sweet as honey straight from the comb. Everyone who heard that voice thought that they were in the presence of an angel.
So the young man decided to stroll on the shore at midnight and sing. The princess heard that song, sweeter than that of any nightingale, it is told. She was so taken by this song that she could not imagine who could sing with such a wonderful voice so she stepped out on her balcony, there in the royal tower, and she saw him by the light of the full moon, with its light sparkling all about on the waves nearby. That was it, they were committed to each other as he sang,
Yo hanino, tú hanina,
Amémonos los dos
Los hishicos que mos naxen
Derman! Como la luna y el sol
Amán! Como la luna y el sol
(= You are my beloved and I yours,
Let us forge one love from two
Our children will be born
Oy, like the moon and the sun.)
For three nights he came and strolled along that same stretch of beach and sang and for three nights she listened. On the fourth night she took off her royal ring and she tied it in her royal scarf and she threw it down to the beach. So the young man knew their trove was plighted. He would return to the beach every night and sand ballad and an array of songs which were both familiar and strange to his beloved princess. Indeed, she felt that some of these songs were sung straight to her heart and to no other.
But one night, alas, the evil queen was also awake and she heard the beautiful voice. She wondered what this was all about. She had never heard such a voice. She decided it was the voice of a mermaid or merman who had emerged from the sea. The next day at breakfast the queen spoke of this marvelous song of the merman but the princess exclaimed that no, this was no siren but “my true love who has come to court me and has won my love forever.”
When she heard these words, the queen fell into a rage. She immediately ordered that the young cantor be executed. But the princess swore that if he were killed, she too would die. With these words, the queen realized how deeply in love the princess was and she turned to her stepchild with rage in her eyes and hatred in her wicked heart. “If you ever try to run away with this man, you too will be killed!”
So the princess decided to escape and devised a plan to elope with her lover as soon as possible. That very night, in fact, she wrote a message to him, wrapped it in a scarf with a coin enclosed to make it heavy enough to reach him. When the boy read the letter his heart was full of joy. He burst out in song.
They made their preparations and the princess climbed down from her balcony by a rope. Knowing of their great love, the queen anticipated all this and ordered the guards to catch them. They did this and the two lovers were brought before the evil queen who sentenced that they be put to death that very day. So they were dragged into the palace courtyard and blindfolded. They cried out that there love would last for all time. And, it is said, that as the executioner’s sword was descending, the two beings turned into birds and flew away. The princess became a dove and the young man a nightingale flying about together until they came to rest on a branch beside the queen’s window. There they sang a song of joy, unearthly beautiful and in perfect harmony, which put the queen into a further rage. She would not be thwarted by miracles, she shouted in a wicked voice.
So the birds were to be captured and killed, according to the queen’s edict. To ensure that her orders were followed, the queen accompanied the guards to the place of execution on the very beach where the cantor had sung so many times for his beloved. The executioner took out his knife to cut off the heads of these two birds, with the queen standing watch. As the throats of the birds were being slit, however, they turned into fish. The nightingale turned into a perch and the dove became a flounder and they swam off together.
Now the queen was really angry. She ordered the royal guards to catch these two fish. So they fished for three days and caught many fish of every size and color until finally the perch and the flounder that had once been the young man and the prince were netted and flapped together in the bottom of the boat. The queen’s final plan was to cook these two fish and eat them so they would not haunt her anymore. The fish were duly fried up and served to the queen but she choked on a fish bone with the very first bite and died.
After this terrible saga, it was as if a spell had been broken. The king’s ministers took over the kingdom and ordered that the two fish be buried in the same grave. Thus the king, upon his return from battle, would know where his princess was buried, they reasoned.
Miraculously, the very next day, a carnation and a rose bush grew up from the earth at this grave. The two flowers grew higher and higher and closer and closer. From the grave of the evil queen nothing grew but there was a wafting of smoke that lasted for some time. This did not last nearly as long as the growth of those two flowers which eventually were entwined together and could never be pulled apart, at all.
(This is one of the stories I dug up from the ancient Jewish folk tradition when I worked with Batya Podos for the 1992 Bradford Festival’s Sepharad. We never worked this into the show although I keep it alive in the telling now as does Batya. The song Yo hanino, cited here, is still a favorite of mine and Arminda’s. It comes from Turkey, I have read, but the tale itself is based on the Greek oral tradition. Pass it on yourself! With thanks to Batya Podos, Nigel Grizzard and Howard Schwartz.)