This is one of my favourite Tanimbarese stories. It is adapted from the ethnography of Petrus Drabbe, which I consulted in its Indonesian translation by Karel Mouw.
Once a mother gave birth to eleven sons. Her twelfth child was a daughter, but when she came to be born, she was born in the form of a crab.
One day, her brothers decided to set out on a long sea journey, as young men will, and they said to their mother, ‘Bring us our sister the crab, because we want to travel with her.’
Their mother refused. ‘If anything happens to my daughter on your journey,’ she said, ‘I would hold myself responsible, and would surely die of grief and shame.’
Her sons, however, were persistent and eventually their mother relented. Her children left their village the next day. They put a bucket of water in the bows of the boat, and in the bucket they put their sister. When she was safely stowed, they set off for the open sea. When they were out of sight of land, their sister shed her skin and became human. The brothers emptied the bucket of water into the sea having no further use for it, and with the water they threw out their sister’s skin, where it fell into the sea.
Deep in the ocean, a huge fish swallowed the skin, and found it very tasty indeed. The skin of this creature is delicious,’ it mused, ‘but surely if I can find who it belongs to, the flesh will be even tastier!’ Thinking this, the fish went in pursuit of the canoe.
Catching up with the boat, the fish came to the surface and said, ‘Give me the child whose skin was so delicious. I would like to sample its flesh.’
‘We don’t have the child with us,’ the brothers lied as the girl hid in the bottom of the boat. The fish, however, saw through their deception.
‘You liars!’ it spat. ‘If you do not give the creature to me, I will capsize your boat and then all of you will die.’ So the brothers, seeing that there was nothing else for it, threw their sister over the side to her watery fate.
The fish carried the girl to the horizon, where it left her. Presumably, it then went off to look for something else to complement this feast. Stranded on the gloomy horizon, the girl was distraught. Dark snakes writhed around her feet. She dreaded the return of the fish. Just as she was about to lapse into despair, however, the sun rose, and with the sun came hope.
‘Elder brother sun!’ she cried out. ‘Take me away from here. Lift me up on your back as you rise.’
But the sun could not help her. ‘O my little one! I am hot and if you come to me you will surely be cooked. Wait for the moon, your elder sister the moon. The moon will help you.’
The crab daughter waited, shaking in fear, but eventually the moon rose.
‘Oh!’ she called. ‘Elder sister moon. Lift me up as you rise into the sky.’
And the moon said: ‘Come!’
The girl went to the moon, but she was afraid of the snakes.
‘Younger sister, do not be frightened. The snakes will not harm you if you come straight to me,’ the moon called.
So the crab daughter went to the moon and climbed onto her back.
As the moon rose, she was lifted from the horizon up into the safety of the sky. Before long, they were high over her home village. The crab daughter saw her house far below, and said to the moon. ‘Elder sister moon! Put me down here! This is my village.’
The moon lowered the girl to the earth on a golden hook, until she was low enough to clamber into the branches of a huge mango tree on the outskirts of the village.
The following day the girl’s mother was going to relieve herself in the fields when she heard a voice crying, ‘Mother! Mother!’ She ran to the voice, weeping, and there in the branches saw her daughter.
‘Mother, it’s me, your daughter!’ cried the girl. And when the mother had recognised her daughter again – for she had changed much on her voyage since she lost her skin – she fetched her down from the tree and, holding her in her arms, she wept.