The Big Gravel-Sifter by August Strindberg
An eel-mother and her son were lying at the bottom of the sea, close
to the landing-stage, watching a young fisherman getting ready his
“Just look at him!” said the eel-mother, “there you have an example
of the malice and cunning of the world . ... Watch him! He is holding a
whip in his hand; he throws out the whip-lash—there it is! attached to
it is a weight which makes it sink—there's the weight! and below the
weight is the hook with the worm. Don't take it in your mouth, whatever
you do, for if you do, you are caught. As a rule only the silly bass
and red-eyes take the bait. There! Now you know all about it.”
The forest of seaweed with its shells and snails began to rock; a
plashing and drumming could be heard and a huge red whale passed like a
flash over their heads; he had a tail-fin like a cork-screw, and that
was what he worked with.
“That's a steamer,” said the eel-mother; “make room!”
She had hardly spoken these words when a furious uproar arose above.
There was a tramping and stamping as if the people overhead were intent
on building a bridge between the shore and the boat in two seconds. But
it was difficult to see anything on account of the oil and soot which
were making the water thick and muddy.
There was something very heavy on the bridge now, so heavy that it
made it creak, and men's voices were shouting:
“Lift it up!—Ho, there!—Up!—Hold tight!—Up with it!—Up!—Push
it along!—Lift it up!”
Then something indescribable happened. First it sounded as if sixty
piles of wood were all being sawn at the same time; then a cleft opened
in the water which went down to the bottom of the sea, and there,
wedged between three stones, stood a black box, which sang and played
and tinkled and jingled, close to the eel-mother and her son, who
hastily disappeared in the lowest depths of the ocean.
Then a voice up above shouted:—
“Three fathoms deep! Impossible! Leave it alone. It isn't worth
while hauling the old lumber up again; it would cost more to repair
than it's worth.”
The voice belonged to the master of the mine, whose piano had fallen
into the sea.
Silence followed; the huge fish with a fin like a screw swam away,
and the silence deepened.
After sunset a breeze arose; the black box in the forest of seaweed
rocked and knocked against the stones, and at every knock it played, so
that the fishes came swimming from all directions to watch and to
The eel-mother was the first to put in an appearance. And when she
saw herself reflected in the polished surface, she said: “It's a
wardrobe with a plate-glass door.”
There was logic in her remark, and therefore all the others said:
“It is a wardrobe with a plate-glass door.”
Next a rock-fish arrived and smelt at the candlesticks, which had
not yet come off. Tiny bits of candle ends were still sticking in the
sockets. “That's something to eat,” it said, “if only it weren't for
Then a great bass came and lay flat on the pedal; but immediately
there arose such a rumbling in the box that all the fishes hastily swam
They got no further on that day.
At night it blew half a gale, and the musical box went thump, thump,
thump, like a pavier's beetle, until sunrise. When the eel-mother and
all the rest of them returned, they found that it had undergone a
The lid stood open like a shark's mouth; they saw a row of teeth,
bigger than they had ever seen before, but every other tooth was black.
The whole machine was swollen at the sides like a seed-fish; the boards
were bent, and the pedal pointed upwards like a foot in the act of
walking; the arms of the candlesticks looked like clenched fists. It
was a dreadful sight!
“It's falling to pieces,” screamed the bass, and spread out a fin,
ready to turn.
And now the boards fell off, the box was open, and one could see
what it was like inside; and that was the prettiest sight of all.
“It's a trap! Don't go too near!” said the eel-mother.
“It's a hand-loom!” said the stickleback, who builds a nest for
itself and understands the art of weaving.
“It's a gravel-sifter,” said a red-eye, who lived below the
It may have been a gravel-sifter. But there were a great many
fallals and odds and ends which were not in the least like the sifter
which they use for riddling sand. There were little manichords which
resembled toes in white woollen stockings, and when they moved it was
just as if a foot with two hundred skeleton toes were walking; and it
walked and walked and yet never left the spot.
It was a strange thing. But the game was up, for the skeleton no
longer touched the strings; it played on the water as if it were
knocking at a door with its fingers, asking whether it might come in.
The game was up. A school of sticklebacks came and swam right
through the box, and when they trailed their spikes over the strings,
the strings sounded again; but they played in a new way, for now they
were tuned to another pitch.
On a rosy summer evening soon afterwards two children, a boy and a
girl, were sitting on the landing-bridge. They were not thinking of
anything in particular, unless it was a tiny piece of mischief, when
all at once they heard soft music from the bottom of the sea, which
“Do you hear it?”
“Yes, what is it? It sounds like scales.”
“No, it's the song of the gnats.”
“No, it's a mermaid!”
“There are no mermaids. The schoolmaster said so.”
“The schoolmaster doesn't know.”
“Oh! do listen!”
They listened for a long time, and then they went away, home.
Presently two newly arrived summer guests sat down on the bridge; he
looked into her eyes, which reflected the golden sunset and the green
shores. Then they heard the sounds of music; it sounded as if somebody
were playing on musical glasses, but in a strange new key, only heard
in the dreams of those who dream of giving a new message to the world.
But they never thought of looking for any outside source, they believed
that it was the song which their own hearts were singing.
Next a couple of annual visitors came sauntering along; they knew
the trick and took a delight in saying in a loud voice:
“It is the submerged piano of the master of the mine.”
But whenever there were only new arrivals present, who did not know
anything about it, they were puzzled and enjoyed the music, until some
of the older ones came and enlightened them. And then they enjoyed it
The musical box lay there all the summer. The sticklebacks taught
their art to the bass, who became much more expert. And the piano
became a regular fishing-ground for the summer guests, where they could
always be sure to catch bass; the pilots spread out their nets round
about it, and once a waiter fished there for red-eyes. But when his
line with the old bell weight had run out, and he tried to wind it up
again, he heard a run in X minor, and then the hook was caught. He
pulled and pulled, and in the end he brought up five fingers with wool
at the fingertips, and the bones cracked like the bones of a skeleton.
Then he was frightened and flung his catch back into the sea, although
he knew quite well what it was.
In the dog days, when the water is warm and all the fish retire to
the greater depths to enjoy the coolness, the music ceased. But on a
moonlit night in August, the summer guests held a regatta. The master
of the mine and his wife were present. They sat in a white boat and
were slowly rowed about by their sons. And as their boat was gliding
over the black water, the surface of which was like silver and gold in
the moonlight, they heard a sound of music just below their boat.
“Ha ha!” laughed the master of the mine, “listen to our old piano!
But he was silent when he saw that his wife hung her head, in the
way pelicans do in pictures; it looked as if she wanted to bite her own
neck and hide her face.
The old piano and its long history had awakened memories in her of
the first dining-room they furnished together, the first of their
children which had had music lessons, the boredom of the long evenings,
only to be chased away by the crashing volumes of sound which overcame
the dulness of everyday life, changed bad temper into cheerfulness, and
lent new beauty even to the old furniture . . . . But that is a story
which belongs elsewhere.
When it was autumn and the winter wind began to blow, the pilchards
came in their thousands and swam through the musical box. It was like a
farewell concert, and nothing else, and the seagulls and stormy petrels
came in crowds to listen to it. And in the night the musical box was
carried out to sea; that was the end of the matter.