William Shatner’s A Twist in the Tale – Plot Synopsis: The Anchoress
“It is in ordinary places, where daily life is at its most humdrum, that superstition breeds. Especially in small isolated communitites, dependent on nature and the sea. But when superstition becomes belief – things start to happen. Things that turn lives upsidedown … ”
Cindy (13) and Jonathan (10) Copeland live happily in a small seaside village with their fisherman father, Bob. Since the mysterious disappearance of their mother when Jonathan was still a baby, they have been cared for by their gruff but kind Aunt Moya.
The only cloud on the horizon is the recent downturn of business: with the waters around the port close to being fished out, Bob is having a hard time earning a living. All that looks set to change one day when he brings in a very special catch – the merman …
Aunt Moya is horrified when Bob has the merman preserved and brings his trophy home – merpeople are said to be very bad luck, and haven’t the Copelands had enough of that? But the children are fascinated – especially Jonathan, who has a keen interest in all natural things, and trails a constant menagerie of pets in his wake wherever he goes. The superstitious villagepeople, like Moya, are shocked and disapproving, but the outside world takes a keen interest in Bob’s find. All the media attention gives Bob an idea: with fishing no longer a going concern, why not turn his hand to the hotel business? And so the Copelands’ home is transformed into a seaside inn – The Mermaid’s Rest.
Business booms, and at first it seems the merman has brought the family nothing but good fortune. But there are some unpleasant surprises looming. Aunt Moya’s husband Jim has a nasty accident: she and the children are already overworked running the inn, and now that she must look after Jim, Bob is at his wits’ end. This is when Moya has her brilliant idea. It is high time Bob stopped grieving for Mary, the children’s mother, and found himself a new wife. What better way to vet candidates than by – advertising?
Jonathan is vastly amused by the responses to Bob’s ad, but Cindy is not at all – the village is laughing at them, and anyway, she doesn’t want a stepmother: she thinks the family is complete as it is. Her worst fears are realised by the arrival of the first prospect, the cold and manipulative Jennifer Shilling.
Greatly distressed, Cindy runs out of the house – heading for the hills, where she can be alone and mull things over …
But what Cindy stumbles across is the little hut of the Anchoress – the Holy Woman of the Blari Hills. Drawn by this woman, Cindy pours out her troubles. In return, the Anchoress tells her a story which seems oddly familiar – of a beautiful young woman, a stranger, who came to the village, fell in love, married, had children – and then vanished.
That night Cindy can’t sleep: the sound of the sea seems to be calling her. From her window she looks down on the beach, and sees a still figure, a woman, standing before the waves – and then another appears: it is her father. As Cindy watches he runs after the woman, calling for her to come back … but when Cindy arrives on the beach, both of them are gone; and in the morning, when she asks him about it, Bob doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Cindy tells Jonathan about the Anchoress, and takes him up to where she first came across the hut. But all that remains is a small shrine, with a plaque dated … 1776. Cindy is bewildered, the more so as she continues to catch glimpses of who looks like the Anchoress in the village – entering the church, in the old village shop – but by the time she reaches her, the mysterious woman has gone.
Meanwhile, Bob’s search for the perfect wife continues just as fruitlessly as before. Jan Pollock has the advantage of great good temper – and an appetite to match, which when Jonathan’s rabbit Fizz disappears leads Jonathan to fear that Jan has eaten him. The children scour the hills for the wandering bunny – and once more find the Anchoress’ hut. But this time the story she tells is slightly different: it is of a man who falls in love with a mermaid he once glimpsed in the waves, and searches for her ever afterward, lost without his one true love. For the first time Cindy realises what it must be like for Bob to live alone, even if he does have her and Jonathan for company; and she makes a fateful wish: that Bob might, after all, find love and marry again.
Not that the third candidate, Hazel Bouncer, is what Cindy has in mind. Hazel has a compulsion to organise and reorganise: the house is in an uproar for the duration of her stay, but her visit has an unexpected outcome. Amongst the drawers Hazel turns out is a photograph – the only one of her mother that Cindy remembers ever seeing – and who Mary looks like … is the Anchoress.
Bob too is tiring of the search; he begins to believe with Moya that perhaps the merman, floating inscrutably in his bell jar, has brought them bad luck. The children set off on a picnic – secretly they are going once more in search of the Anchoress: Cindy means to ask her for a miracle – for Bob to find a wife he can love. While they are gone, Bob impulsively takes the merman in its jar and sets out to bury the creature at sea.
But while he is gone a terrible storm blows up, and Bob is believed lost. The children, however, never lose hope. Bob has been missing a week when Jonathan, combing the beach for clues as to the fate of the Mary Jean, comes across a seaweed pouch – filled to bursting with tiny, pearly shells: with mermaid coins.
Back at home Moya has opened the last letter in response to Bob’s advertisement: from a young woman named … Maris. When Jonathan comes racing home with his treasure Moya bursts into tears – the merpeople cannot pay for Bob’s life with this! Cindy, however, has quite a different understanding of the gift from the sea: a dowry – for a mermaid princess! For Maris! And she insists Moya answer the letter, asking Maris to come immediately.
When Maris’ letter of acceptance arrives Cindy races down to the quay – with the bride on the way, can the bridegroom be far away? And there indeed is the Mary Jean, coming finally and safely into port, with Bob and a huge catch of fish aboard.
When Maris arrives it is as if the entire family recognises her: green-eyed and gentle, she is the Anchoress, or she is Mary, or she is some magical combination of both. The tide has turned; the mermaid is indeed finally at rest.