The Summer Fish.
A wild, frigid wind blew down the valley. Channelled by the snow-covered slopes of the barren mountains it became an icy tempest. This vicious squall brought with it numbing cold and stinging rain that soon froze to the streets and buildings of the once magnificent town, bringing nothing but misery and despair.
‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ said an old, haggard merchant, ‘Wennol was once bustling and prominent.’
‘Aye, there was once music, mirth and merriment. We grew rich from the abundant trade,’ replied another, ‘look at me now, I can’t keep my britches up and my skin sags awfully.’
‘Children no longer play, the music has died,’ put in a third merchant. ‘The people are starving, if only there was a way to get through the snow.’
The first merchant scratched his chin ruefully and said, ‘Those massive slabs of ice are too thick, at both ends of the valley too.’
‘This weather just gets worse which makes it even harder, we’re blockaded. What can we do?’ asked the second merchant.
‘Well, it’s up to the baron to figure out, it was his dealings with that old crone that got us in this mess. I just hope it’s settled soon or I doubt we’ll survive,’ said the first merchant as he stood up, said his farewells and left. The others followed suit.
Meanwhile in the keep, the nobleman paced the flagstones of his chambers wrapped heavily in pelts and furs.
‘What am I going to do? How was I so foolish?’
‘It’s not your fault my lord,’ said his younger brother, ‘that harpy, it’s all her doing why was she here?’
‘She had the temerity to ask me to spare her wretched animals, impudent little witch.’
‘What, that old spinster, who refused your order to relinquish her herds to you instead of giving them to the townsfolk?’ asked an aide.
‘Yes her! The people don’t need those pigs, they’ll all have enough hidden away for a rainy day. Haven’t I allowed the town to flourish and prosper?’, his face reddening with anger, ‘they’ve all become fat and wealthy from the bounty of my governance. Well, it’s damn well raining now, and I mean to collect!’
‘She will have to answer for this.’ Turning to the aide he said, ‘throw some more logs on the fire, it’s freezing in here.’
Beyond the furthest house in town, within a small frozen copse of ash and willow, stood a hut, where an elderly woman sat before a small hearth. She was staring at the flames, the light reflecting off her wrinkled face. She sat gazing at the embers, looking for answers to this icy riddle.
She had no idea what had happened to the town, his lordship has it all wrong, this is not my doing, she thought, I wonder if he has come across the ‘winter stag’? I only wanted to help the village survive. I must fix this. She sat ruminating on this puzzle for a while.
Suddenly a thought came to her. She sprang out of her chair with the speed and grace of a cat belying her age and scrabbled frantically around trying to find a tome she knew she had hidden away somewhere.
‘Aha,’ she exclaimed as she found the book and began reading it.
It was morning by the time she shut the book with a heavy Thump! So forcefully, it startled her out of a trancelike state. I wonder if that will work? She rushed outside to her pond surprisingly free of ice.
Where are you? She scattered some feed onto the water’s surface.
‘There you are,’ she said as she spied a stunning fish swim up from the icy depths and snatch a morsal of food. It hovered almost motionless while it consumed its food, then with a graceful flick of its fins, swam to capture another treat from the surface.
The fish was covered in vibrant golden-red scales, that glimmered like a glorious morning sunrise. These were punctuated by the odd scale of purest pearlescent white. Its fins were gossamer threads of gold lace, which helped propel the fish with grace and eloquence. It seemed to look at the old woman expectantly, hoping for another measure of food.
‘Yes, you will do nicely indeed,’ she muttered to herself as she headed back into her hut to fetch her cloak.
A few days passed and the weather grew particularly bitter. An oppressive blanket of ice and snow engulfed the town. Conditions were worsening, not a sole ventured outside for fear of freezing to death. There was one small, hooded figure however, bounding along purposely, as if the conditions were no hindrance. The person made their way to the lord’s keep and rapped on the door with urgency.
‘Go away,’ cried a voice from behind the door, ‘his lordship is not to be disturbed.’
The castellan opened the metal grill to see who was there, and finding no one present, cautiously opened the door.
A covered basket lay at the foot of the door with a simple note attached.
For the Baron, keep it in the light.
The castellan carefully picked the package up and took it to the baron.
‘What is it?’ the baron asked.
‘I don’t know my lord, it was left by the door, with this note.’
The castellan handed the baron a crumpled piece of paper. ‘It’s just a fish in a cauldron.’
‘A fish you say, well we won’t be going hungry tonight, what with that venison we got from the hunt as well. That was a fine beast, a thirty-two pointer eh?’
‘Yes, my lord, but I wonder if we should have left it well alone. There are stories about a white stag in the woods, perhaps we should not have hunted it.’
‘Nonsense, game is game. It was a fair hunt and his ghostly appearance cost him, made him stand out.’
‘But my lord. Folk say it was a magical beast and well…’
‘These troubles started soon after we got it back to the keep.’
‘You’ve been listening to too many stories from that wet nurse,’ the Baron said, ‘No its all that old woman’s fault. She did this to us.’ He looked towards the fish and asked, ‘Why does it glow so?’
The fish seemed to radiate a strange luminescence as it swam around the bowl.
The baron called for his apothecary and when he arrived asked him, ‘Is it normal for a fish to glow like that?’
‘No, my lord, I can’t say I’ve ever seen such a fish, perhaps I should examine it,’ reaching for the bowl.
‘Be careful you don’t know what could be wrong with it,’ the baron said.
At that moment the baron’s brother entered the room and looked at what the group of men were enthralled with.
‘What have you got there brother?’ he asked the baron.
‘It’s the strangest thing, a glowing fish! What do you make of it?’
‘I’ve heard rumour of deep-sea fish that glow with a magical light to attract prey, but they are thought to be deadly poisonous.”
‘Poisonous? Magical? Are you sure? Who could possibly get hold of something like that at a time like this?’ Suddenly his demeanour changed from one of curiosity to one of outrage.
‘It’s that witch, she’s trying to poison me. Get rid of it, NOW!’ gesturing to the castellan to take it away.
‘Yes, my lord, at once.’
The castellan felt sorrow for the fish, it was far too majestic to be dispatched. I know what I’ll do I’ll set it free in the river, his lordship just said to get rid of it, he didn’t specify that it was to be killed.
And so, he did. He took it to the riverbank and made a hole in the ice.
‘I think that water may be too cold for you right now, but I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s better than the alternative. How does that sound?’ he asked the fish.
The fish stared at him amicably. He gently lowered the fishbowl into the water and watched it slowly sink away.
‘Goodbye and good luck,’ he said turning away and fighting his way back to the keep over the treacherous terrain.
After a few moments something happened that could not be explained. The ice where the fish went in started to melt, slowly at first but then started melting quicker and quicker. The fish was swimming sedately, describing slow arcs as it navigated its new numbing environment.
Where the fish swam, the water warmed and above, the ice melted. Where the fish swam, it was somehow dissolving the ice and defrosting the riverbanks around it. Where solid permafrost existed before, young flower shoots began to push through the warmer soil and bloom instantaneously.
The fish explored its new domain and everywhere it went signs of spring and summer returned. As it cruised upriver, the landscape in the fish’s wake changed from glacial to balmy with the deftest stroke of its golden fillagree fins.
Trees were waking up from a deep slumber and they bloomed, shaking off their oppressive, icy shackles. Birds began to sing their summer melodies and flitted from tree to tree in the hunt for a now plentiful insectivorous bounty. Jackdaws appeared in the sky and roosted in the town’s skyline, all the while keeping up a raucous din that caused the townsfolk to stir.
‘What’s all that noise?’ asked a merchant who rose out of bed, discarding three large blankets on his way to a window. He was amazed to see water running down his neighbour’s roof in rivulets that meandered around dripping icicles.
‘Margaret, Margaret,’ he called to his wife, ‘come and see this, you won’t believe it!’
As Margaret joined her husband at the window, she gasped in shock at what she saw.
‘Look the swallows,’ she said pointing at some fast-moving birds, as they skimmed through the air catching insects on the wing.
‘And the trees,’ her husband replied pointing at the trees that were rich with life and colour as their blossoms were in full bloom, where yesterday they were shapeless, frozen monuments.
‘Listen to that,’ Margaret said as bees buzzed around the flowers, drinking deep of their nectar, before buzzing off on their merry way.
‘Somehow summer is here, I don’t believe it, its magical,’ said the merchant, ‘let’s go outside.’
They headed out where the going was easy, all the snow had vanished, and the grass lawns and town parks were lush and riotous with colour.
‘Pieter are you seeing this?’ the merchant said to his neighbour as he too, had come out to see this miraculous event unfold.
‘What is happening? How is this possible?’ asked Pieter.
‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ said the merchant, ‘quickly let’s head to the square, we must convene a meeting.’
Pieter, the merchant and his wife, headed to the town square where a mass of people excitedly chattered and cried with joy at the change in their fortunes.
A young man and his wife had set up a table and furnished it with bread, olives, half a wheel of cheese and a half-filled bottle of red wine.
‘Come share with us what little we have, this is the last of our food we had to survive the cold, but now our crops are plentiful again and our stores will soon be restocked.’
Other townsfolk took their lead and in no time at all, carts of apples, pears and great baskets of bread, dried fruit and nuts, were being wheeled into the square. A child was herding a small flock of scrawny geese. There was a skip to the young boy’s step, mirth had come back to the town. Before long music was playing, ale and wine had been found and for the first time in a long time, the people of Wennol were happy and content. They had a celebration.
The river thawed throughout all the valleys. The large slabs of snow and ice that blockaded the town had vanished, and the roads were open once again. But for all the thawing the land immediately surrounding the baron’s keep stayed glacial. Here the ice didn’t melt. The snow still fell, and wind howled over the keep. It was if some spell had captured the barons keep in perpetual winter. The keep looked like one of the children’s snow globes.
‘What’s going on? It’s getting colder in here but outside, down in the town and by the river, the snow has all gone,’ said the baron. ‘Go find out what’s going on.’
The castellan hurried off to investigate the cause of the sudden summer-like atmosphere in the town, but soon returned.
‘My lord, all the doors are solid with ice, I can’t open them.’
‘Try the other doors you fool.’
‘I have my lord, they are all the same, we are sealed inside the keep.’
‘What do you mean? This can’t be right, me must be able to escape.’
A sudden and enormous crashing sound could be heard outside. The keep rumbled and shook with the impact of giant sheets of ice, as thick as the baron’s arm came, as they were dislodged from the thawing mountains, came crashing down and slid to rest at the keep’s boundaries.
‘What’s happening?’ wailed the baron.
‘The ice, brother, it has sealed us inside this keep, there is no escape unless the townsfolk can get through to us.’
‘It’s getting colder and darker,’ the baron said as he started to shake uncontrollably, ‘I can hardly see a thing. Where’s that glowing fish?’
‘It’s gone my lord, I disposed of it as per your orders.’
‘That witch, she has doomed us all.’ The baron started to cough loudly as his convulsions got worse.
He managed to crawl over to his stately chair and with one immense last effort climbed up into it. As he sat, skin turning blue, he looked outside at the town through a crack in the huge ice hunk.
He spied the old woman, feasting and celebrating with the other townsfolk. He knew then that he had brought this all upon himself. That his greed had gotten the better of him and had cost him dearly.
He took one last look around the room at the frozen bodies of his brother and servants before his eyes closed, frosting over, and his body slumped in his chair, forever to be entombed in his icy prison.
Life was getting back to normal, and the old woman sighed in relief and chuckled as a beautiful blue butterfly landed on a Lilypad floating in her pond. ‘How wonderful,’ she said to herself.
Suddenly there was an eruption of water as a golden, gleaming fish leapt from the depths and engulfed the butterfly in a huge, hungry mouth. It flopped back into the pond with a Sploosh! wetting the old woman, then set about swimming gracefully around its pond.
‘Welcome home,’ the old lady said with a hearty, toothless smile, ‘you’ve been busy.’