The Sailor-Boy's Tale

by Isak Dinesen
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

While en route from Marseilles to Athens during a gale, the young sailor-boy Simon spots a bird that is stuck high in the rigging of his ship. Seeing that the bird is a peregrine falcon, the boy climbs up in order to free it. The ungrateful falcon rewards Simon for his kindness by hacking him in the thumb so hard that he bleeds, and the boy responds in kind by giving the bird a strong blow to its head.

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Two years later Simon experiences the full consequences of this seemingly unimportant incident. He is now a crew member on another ship that is docked in northern Norway, in order to buy herring at Bodø, a thriving and gregarious market town. While on shore leave one evening, Simon meets a young girl named Nora, to whom he gives an orange in exchange for the promise of a kiss. The following night he goes ashore again in order to collect his payment. He ends up in the company of Russian sailors, however, and one of them, Ivan, tries to prevent him from going to meet Nora, saying that he wants Simon to stay with them so that they can show him a good time. Simon responds to Ivan’s advances by stabbing him to death.

Simon proceeds to his meeting with Nora. Although she is uncomfortable with the realization that Simon has killed a man, she acknowledges that it was a necessity, especially because he would have otherwise been unable to come to her. After promising never to marry anyone else, Nora gives Simon the kiss that she owes him—an experience that Simon feels has a maturing effect on him. Nora cannot do anything to hide Simon from the Russians, however, because her father is the local parson.

Ivan’s friends are now looking for his killer; Simon hides in the crowd at a dance in order to elude them. As he despairs of being able to save his life, an old pagan Lapp-woman named Sunniva appears, claims that Simon is her son, and tells him to come home with her. Sunniva lets Simon wipe his bloody hands on her skirt; as she hides him, she cuts her own thumb in order to explain the blood on her skirt to the Russians. They treat her with great respect, as Lapps are thought to have magical powers.

Sunniva reveals to Simon that she is the falcon that he once released during the storm in the Mediterranean. As a Lapp, she has the power of flight. She also tells him she likes his commitment to Nora, and that she will place a mark on his forehead that will make girls like him. She has the power to do this, she explains, because of her position in a great conspiracy of the females of the earth.

Sunniva then arranges safe passage for Simon back to his ship, which is to leave Bodø the following morning. She explains that she is helping him not only because she likes him, but also because of her sense of justice, for he deserved to be repaid for helping her when she was caught in the rigging when she was in the form of a falcon. In order completely to settle her accounts with Simon, she boxes his ear in return for the blow to her head that he once gave her.

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