(a Jamaican folktale)
Legend says that River Mumma inhabits the rivers of Jamaica, and all the fish are River Mumma’s children. Sometimes, people say, River Mumma rises out of the river to sit on the rocks and comb her long, black hair. But, like they say, don’t touch River Mumma. Don’t even look at her. There’s no telling what she will do if you try. Some say if you so much as see her, you’ll fall into a trance and she’ll grab you by the heels and drag you under the river. If you try to catch her, the fish will disappear; the river will run dry. It’s best, they say, not to make trouble with River Mumma.
River Mumma lives in deep rivers, way down in those places where the water is tranquil, still and achingly blue, in spots beneath the shade of cotton trees, rimmed with plumes and spears of palms and overhung with ferns and ropes and vines of plants. It is there, they say, in those still places, way down at the bottom of the river, that the Golden Table lies hidden. The Spaniards left this table, made of solid gold, during their quest for gold many centuries ago. River Mumma guards that table.
But often at noon, on the hottest of blazing-hot days, the Golden Table will rise slowly to the surface and hover there. When the greedy see that table, they long to steal it. Many have tried. One time, in the deepest blue river on the land of a great sugar estate, the foreman saw that table rise, so he chained a team of oxen to it. “Pull!” he cried, and he snapped his whip across his oxen’s backs. “Pull!”
They pulled, and they pulled — 12 muscular, broad-backed oxen — but that Golden Table simply pulled every single animal and all the yokes and chains into the river, all the way to the bottom.
That, they say, is what happens to anyone who tries to steal the Golden Table.
One day Bastian and his sister, Lora, were walking home at high noon, and as they passed the river, they saw sitting on some rocks the River Mumma. “Run away,” Lora cried, but it was too late. Bastian saw it right before his eyes — that magnificent Golden Table rising up out of the river, hovering there, gleaming bright.
“Let’s get that table,” Bastian gasped. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He’d heard the tales, of course. Everyone had. But he had never imagined something so hypnotizing.
Lora grabbed his arm. “Never, never, brother,” she said, and she pulled him on, trying to get him on the path back home. “You know what happens to greedy people, Bastian.”
“Greedy?” Bastian said. He was bigger and stronger than his sister, and he could resist her pull, no matter how hard she tried. “I’m not greedy, and you know that.”
“I do,” Lora agreed. “That’s why we’re leaving. Only greedy people take what’s not theirs.”
“And what about Papa’s boss?” Bastian asked. “He’s greedy.” Their father worked in the sugar cane fields, and for the last few weeks, his boss had stopped paying him. When Papa asked why, he said, “I need to make more money.”
“Never mind,” Lora said. “Remember what Mama says: People who are covetous end up creating big problems for themselves, that you know.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Bastian said. “But what about Mama’s boss? She gives Mama a basket as payment for carrying water — that’s the raw deal she gives.” That was true; their Mama worked as a housekeeper, and her boss said, “I can’t pay you more; I need more money for my baby.”
Lora shrugged. “Every day’s a fishing day, but not every day’s for catching fish,” she said. “Things change, Bastian.”
They continued to argue this way, on and on until the sun began to set, and that Golden Table drifted back under the water. Soon it was night, and they were back home, arguing still.
When their Papa’s boss heard their argument, he asked Bastian, “Where is this Golden Table? I think I should have it for myself.”
“Why’s that?” Bastian asked.
“The rich deserve the riches,” the boss said. So the next day he insisted Bastian lead him to the spot, and right there before their very eyes arose the Golden Table.
“But don’t try it,” Bastian said, for he had come to his senses. “You know the stories.”
“Myths!” the boss laughed. “Go on home, Bastian. I’ll handle this.”
Bastian did go home that day, and he told his Mama and Papa the tale of the Golden Table.
Papa’s boss never came home, and nobody knows where he went, but people talk. Lora said his greed drowned him, and the boss’s son? He changed his ways and paid his workers a fair wage. As for Bastian? A chip, as they say, off the old block. In other words, Bastian turned out much like his father. He was a hard worker, a good and fair man. His Mama and Papa taught him well.