THE TALKING FISH (A CHINESE WONDER BOOK) BY NORMAN HINSDALE PITMAN
Long, long before your great-grandfather was born there lived in the village of Everlasting Happiness two men called Li and Sing. Now, these two men were close friends, living together in the same house. Before settling down in the village of Everlasting Happiness they had ruled as high officials for more than twenty years. They had often treated the people very harshly, so that everybody, old and young, disliked and hated them. And yet, by robbing the wealthy merchants and by cheating the poor, these two evil companions had become rich, and it was in order to spend their ill-gotten gains in idle amusements that they sought out the village of Everlasting Happiness. “For here,” said they, “we can surely find that joy which has been denied us in every other place. Here we shall no longer be scorned by men and reviled by women.”
Consequently these two men bought for themselves the finest house in the village, furnished it in the most elegant manner, and decorated the walls with scrolls filled with wise sayings and pictures by famous artists. Outside there were lovely gardens filled with flowers and birds, and oh, ever so many trees with queer twisted branches growing in the shape of tigers and other wild animals.
Whenever they felt lonely Li and Sing invited rich people of the neighbourhood to come and dine with them, and after they had eaten, sometimes they would go out upon the little lake in the centre of their estate, rowing in an awkward flat-bottomed boat that had been built by the village carpenter.
One day, on such an occasion, when the sun had been beating down fiercely upon the clean-shaven heads of all those on the little barge, for you must know this was long before the day when hats were worn—at least, in the village of Everlasting Happiness—Mr. Li was suddenly seized with a giddy feeling, which rapidly grew worse and worse until he was in a burning fever.
“Snake’s blood mixed with powdered deer-horn is the thing for him,” said the wise-looking doctor who was called in, peering at Li carefully through his huge glasses, “Be sure,” he continued, addressing Li’s personal attendant, and, at the same time, snapping his long finger-nails nervously, “be sure, above all, not to leave him alone, for he is in danger of going raving mad at any moment, and I cannot say what he may do if he is not looked after carefully. A man in his condition has no more sense than a baby.”
Now, although these words of the doctor’s really made Mr. Li angry, he was too ill to reply, for all this time his head had been growing hotter and hotter, until at last a feverish sleep overtook him. No sooner had he closed his eyes than his faithful servant, half-famished, rushed out of the room to join his fellows at their mid-day meal.
Li awoke with a start. He had slept only ten minutes. “Water, water,” he moaned, “bathe my head with cold water. I am half dead with pain!” But there was no reply, for the attendant was dining happily with his fellows.
“Air, air,” groaned Mr. Li, tugging at the collar of his silk shirt. “I’m dying for water. I’m starving for air. This blazing heat will kill me. It is hotter than the Fire god himself ever dreamed of making it. Wang, Wang!” clapping his hands feebly and calling to his servant, “air and water, air and water!”
But still no Wang.
At last, with the strength that is said to come from despair, Mr. Li arose from his couch and staggered toward the doorway. Out he went into the paved courtyard, and then, after only a moment’s hesitation, made his way across it into a narrow passage that led into the lake garden.
“What do they care for a man when he is sick?” he muttered. “My good friend Sing is doubtless even now enjoying his afternoon nap, with a servant standing by to fan him, and a block of ice near his head to cool the air. What does he care if I die of a raging fever? Doubtless he expects to inherit all my money. And my servants! That rascal Wang has been with me these ten years, living on me and growing lazier every season! What does he care if I pass away? Doubtless he is certain that Sing’s servants will think of something for him to do, and he will have even less work than he has now. Water, water! I shall die if I don’t soon find a place to soak myself!”
So saying, he arrived at the bank of a little brook that flowed in through a water gate at one side of the garden and emptied itself into the big fish-pond. Flinging himself down by a little stream Li bathed his hands and wrists in the cool water. How delightful! If only it were deep enough to cover his whole body, how gladly would he cast himself in and enjoy the bliss of its refreshing embrace!
For a long time he lay on the ground, rejoicing at his escape from the doctor’s clutches. Then, as the fever began to rise again, he sprang up with a determined cry, “What am I waiting for? I will do it. There’s no one to prevent me, and it will do me a world of good. I will cast myself head first into the fish-pond. It is not deep enough near the shore to drown me if I should be too weak to swim, and I am sure it will restore me to strength and health.”
He hastened along the little stream, almost running in his eagerness to reach the deeper water of the pond. He was like some small Tom Brown who had escaped from the watchful eye of the master and run out to play in a forbidden spot.
Hark! Was that a servant calling? Had Wang discovered the absence of his employer? Would he sound the alarm, and would the whole place soon be alive with men searching for the fever-stricken patient?
With one last sigh of satisfaction Li flung himself, clothes and all, into the quiet waters of the fish-pond. Now Li had been brought up in Fukien province on the seashore, and was a skilful swimmer. He dived and splashed to his heart’s content, then floated on the surface. “It takes me back to my boyhood,” he cried, “why, oh why, is it not the fashion to swim? I’d love to live in the water all the time and yet some of my countrymen are even more afraid than a cat of getting their feet wet. As for me, I’d give anything to stay here for ever.”
“You would, eh?” chuckled a hoarse voice just under him, and then there was a sort of wheezing sound, followed by a loud burst of laughter. Mr. Li jumped as if an arrow had struck him, but when he noticed the fat, ugly monster below, his fear turned into anger. “Look here, what do you mean by giving a fellow such a start! Don’t you know what the Classics say about such rudeness?”
The giant fish laughed all the louder. “What time do you suppose I have for Classics? You make me laugh till I cry!”
“But you must answer my question,” cried Mr. Li, more and more persistently, forgetting for the moment that he was not trying some poor culprit for a petty crime. “Why did you laugh? Speak out at once, fellow!”
“Well, since you are such a saucy piece,” roared the other, “I will tell you. It was because you awkward creatures, who call yourselves men, the most highly civilized beings in the world, always think you understand a thing fully when you have only just found out how to do it.”
“You are talking about the island dwarfs, the Japanese,” interrupted Mr. Li, “We Chinese seldom undertake to do anything new.”
“Just hear the man!” chuckled the fish. “Now, fancy your wishing to stay in the water for ever! What do you know about water? Why you’re not even provided with the proper equipment for swimming. What would you do if you really lived here always?”
“What am I doing now?” spluttered Mr. Li, so angry that he sucked in a mouthful of water before he knew it.
“Floundering,” retorted the other.
“Don’t you see me swimming? Are those big eyes of yours made of glass?”
“Yes, I see you all right,” guffawed the fish, “that’s just it! I see you too well. Why you tumble about as awkwardly as a water buffalo wallowing in a mud puddle!”
Now, as Mr. Li had always considered himself an expert in water sports, he was, by this time, speechless with rage, and all he could do was to paddle feebly round and round with strokes just strong enough to keep himself from sinking.
“Then, too,” continued the fish, more and more calm as the other lost his temper, “you have a very poor arrangement for breathing. If I am not mistaken, at the bottom of this pond you would find yourself worse off than I should be at the top of a palm tree. What would you do to keep yourself from starving? Do you think it would be convenient if you had to flop yourself out on to the land every time you wanted a bite to eat? And yet, being a man, I doubt seriously if you would be content to take the proper food for fishes. You have hardly a single feature that would make you contented if you were to join an under-water school. Look at your clothes, too, water-soaked and heavy. Do you think them suitable to protect you from cold and sickness? Nature forgot to give you any scales. Now I’m going to tell you a joke, so you must be sure to laugh. Fishes are like grocery shops—always judged by their scales. As you haven’t a sign of a scale, how will people judge you? See the point, eh? Nature gave you a skin, but forgot the outer covering, except, perhaps at the ends of your fingers and your toes You surely see by this time why I consider your idea ridiculous?”
Sure enough, in spite of his recent severe attack of fever, Mr. Li had really cooled completely off. He had never understood before what great disadvantages there were connected with being a man. Why not make use of this chance acquaintance, find out from him how to get rid of that miserable possession he had called his manhood, and gain the delights that only a fish can have? “Then, are you indeed contented with your lot?” he asked finally. “Are there not moments when you would prefer to be a man?”
“I, a man!” thundered the other, lashing the water with his tail. “How dare you suggest such a disgraceful change! Can it be that you do not know my rank? Why, my fellow, you behold in me a favourite nephew of the king!”
“Then, may it please your lordship,” said Mr. Li, softly, “I should be exceedingly grateful if you would speak a kind word for me to your master. Do you think it possible that he could change me in some manner into a fish and accept me as a subject?”
“Of course!” replied the other, “all things are possible to the king. Know you not that my sovereign is a loyal descendant of the great water dragon, and, as such, can never die, but lives on and on and on, for ever and ever and ever, like the ruling house of Japan?”
“Oh, oh!” gasped Mr. Li, “even the Son of Heaven, our most worshipful emperor, cannot boast of such long years. Yes, I would give my fortune to be a follower of your imperial master.”
“Then follow me,” laughed the other, starting off at a rate that made the water hiss and boil for ten feet around him.
Mr. Li struggled vainly to keep up. If he had thought himself a good swimmer, he now saw his mistake and every bit of remaining pride was torn to tatters. “Please wait a moment,” he cried out politely, “I beg of you to remember that I am only a man!”
“Pardon me,” replied the other, “it was stupid of me to forget, especially as I had just been talking about it.”
Soon they reached a sheltered inlet at the farther side of the pond. There Mr. Li saw a gigantic carp idly floating about in a shallow pool, and then lazily flirting his huge tail or fluttering his fins proudly from side to side. Attendant courtiers darted hither and thither, ready to do the master’s slightest bidding. One of them, splendidly attired in royal scarlet, announced, with a downward flip of the head, the approach of the King’s nephew who was leading Mr. Li to an audience with his Majesty.
“Whom have you here, my lad?” began the ruler, as his nephew, hesitating for words to explain his strange request, moved his fins nervously backwards and forwards. “Strange company, it seems to me, you are keeping these days.”
“Only a poor man, most royal sir,” replied the other, “who beseeches your Highness to grant him your gracious favour.”
“When man asks favour of a fish,
‘Tis hard to penetrate his wish—
He often seeks a lordly dish
To serve upon his table,”
repeated the king, smiling. “And yet, nephew, you think this fellow is really peaceably inclined and is not coming among us as a spy?”
Before his friend could answer, Mr. Li had cast himself upon his knees in the shallow water, before the noble carp, and bowed thrice, until his face was daubed with mud from the bottom of the pool. “Indeed, your Majesty, I am only a poor mortal who seeks your kindly grace. If you would but consent to receive me into your school of fishes. I would for ever be your ardent admirer and your lowly slave.”
“In sooth, the fellow talks as if in earnest,” remarked the king, after a moment’s reflection, “and though the request is, perhaps, the strangest to which I have ever listened, I really see no reason why I should not turn a fishly ear. But, have the goodness first to cease your bowing. You are stirring up enough mud to plaster the royal palace of a shark.”
Poor Li, blushing at the monarch’s reproof, waited patiently for the answer to his request.
“Very well, so be it,” cried the king impulsively, “your wish is granted. Sir Trout,” turning to one of his courtiers, “bring hither a fish-skin of proper size for this ambitious fellow.”
No sooner said than done. The fish-skin was slipped over Mr. Li’s head, and his whole body was soon tucked snugly away in the scaly coat. Only his arms remained uncovered. In the twinkling of an eye Li felt sharp pains shoot through every part of his body. His arms began to shrivel up and his hands changed little by little until they made an excellent pair of fins, just as good as those of the king himself. As for his legs and feet, they suddenly began to stick together until, wriggle as he would, Li could not separate them. “Ah, ha!” thought he, “my kicking days are over, for my toes are now turned into a first-class tail.”
“Not so fast,” laughed the king, as Li, after thanking the royal personage profusely, started out to try his new fins; “not so fast, my friend. Before you depart, perhaps I’d better give you a little friendly advice, else your new powers are likely to land you on the hook of some lucky fisherman, and you will find yourself served up as a prize of the pond.”
“I will gladly listen to your lordly counsel, for the words of the Most High to his lowly slave are like pearls before sea slugs. However, as I was once a man myself I think I understand the simple tricks they use to catch us fish, and I am therefore in position to avoid trouble.”
“Don’t be so sure about it. ‘A hungry carp often falls into danger,’ as one of our sages so wisely remarked. There are two cautions I would impress upon you. One is, never, never, eat a dangling worm; no matter how tempting it looks there are sure to be horrible hooks inside. Secondly, always swim like lightning if you see a net, but in the opposite direction. Now, I will have you served your first meal out of the royal pantry, but after that, you must hunt for yourself, like every other self-respecting citizen of the watery world.”
After Li had been fed with several slugs, followed by a juicy worm for dessert, and after again thanking the king and the king’s nephew for their kindness, he started forth to test his tail and fins. It was no easy matter, at first, to move them properly. A single flirt of the tail, no more vigorous than those he had been used to giving with his legs, would send him whirling round and round in the water, for all the world like a living top; and when he wriggled his fins, ever so slightly, as he thought, he found himself sprawling on his back in a most ridiculous fashion for a dignified member of fishkind. It took several hours of constant practice to get the proper stroke, and then he found he could move about without being conscious of any effort. It was the easiest thing he had ever done in his life; and oh! the water was so cool and delightful! “Would that I might enjoy that endless life the poets write of!” he murmured blissfully.
Many hours passed by until at last Li was compelled to admit that, although he was not tired, he was certainly hungry. How to get something to eat? Oh! why had he not asked the friendly nephew a few simple questions? How easily his lordship might have told him the way to get a good breakfast! But alas! without such advice, it would be a whale’s task to accomplish it. Hither and thither he swam, into the deep still water, and along the muddy shore; down, down to the pebbly bottom—always looking, looking for a tempting worm. He dived into the weeds and rushes, poked his nose among the lily pads. All for nothing! No fly or worm of any kind to gladden his eager eyes! Another hour passed slowly away, and all the time his hunger was growing greater and greater. Would the fish god, the mighty dragon, not grant him even one little morsel to satisfy his aching stomach, especially since, now that he was a fish, he had no way of tightening up his belt, as hungry soldiers do when they are on a forced march?
Just as Li was beginning to think he could not wriggle his tail an instant longer, and that soon, very soon, he would feel himself slipping, slipping, slipping down to the bottom of the pond to die—at that very moment, chancing to look up, he saw, oh joy! a delicious red worm dangling a few inches above his nose. The sight gave new strength to his weary fins and tail. Another minute, and he would have had the delicate morsel in his mouth, when alas! he chanced to recall the advice given him the day before by great King Carp. “No matter how tempting it looks, there are sure to be horrible hooks inside.” For an instant Li hesitated. The worm floated a trifle nearer to his half-open mouth. How tempting! After all, what was a hook to a fish when he was dying? Why be a coward? Perhaps this worm was an exception to the rule, or perhaps, perhaps any thing—really a fish in such a plight as Mr. Li could not be expected to follow advice—even the advice of a real KING.
Pop! He had it in his mouth. Oh, soft morsel, worthy of a king’s desire! Now he could laugh at words of wisdom, and eat whatever came before his eye. But ugh! What was that strange feeling that—Ouch! it was the fatal hook!
With one frantic jerk, and a hundred twists and turns, poor Li sought to pull away from the cruel barb that stuck so fast in the roof of his mouth. It was now too late to wish he had kept away from temptation. Better far to have starved at the bottom of the cool pond than to be jerked out by some miserable fisherman to the light and sunshine of the busy world. Nearer and nearer he approached the surface. The more he struggled the sharper grew the cruel barb. Then, with one final splash, he found himself dangling in mid-air, swinging helplessly at the end of a long line. With a chunk he fell into a flat-bottomed boat, directly on top of several smaller fish.
“Ah, a carp!” shouted a well-known voice gleefully; “the biggest fish I’ve caught these three moons. What good luck!”
It was the voice of old Chang, the fisherman, who had been supplying Mr. Li’s table ever since that official’s arrival in the village of Everlasting Happiness. Only a word of explanation, and he, Li, would be free once more to swim about where he willed. And then there should be no more barbs for him. An escaped fish fears the hook.
“I say, Chang,” he began, gasping for breath, “really now, you must chuck me overboard at once, for, don’t you see, I am Mr. Li, your old master. Come, hurry up about it. I’ll excuse you this time for your mistake, for, of course, you had no way of knowing. Quick!”
But Chang, with a savage jerk, pulled the hook from Li’s mouth, and looked idly towards the pile of glistening fish, gloating over his catch, and wondering how much money he could demand for it. He had heard nothing of Mr. Li’s remarks, for Chang had been deaf since childhood.
“Quick, quick, I am dying for air,” moaned poor Li, and then, with a groan, he remembered the fisherman’s affliction.
By this time they had arrived at the shore, and Li, in company with his fellow victims, found himself suddenly thrown into a wicker basket. Oh, the horrors of that journey on land! Only a tiny bit of water remained in the closely-woven thing. It was all he could do to breathe.
Joy of joys! At the door of his own house he saw his good friend Sing just coming out. “Hey, Sing,” he shouted, at the top of his voice, “help, help! This son of a turtle wants to murder me. He has me in here with these fish, and doesn’t seem to know that I am Li, his master. Kindly order him to take me to the lake and throw me in, for it’s cool there and I like the water life much better than that on land.”
Li paused to hear Sing’s reply, but there came not a single word.
“I beg your honour to have a look at my catch,” said old Chang to Sing. “Here is the finest fish of the season. I have brought him here so that you and my honoured master, Mr. Li, may have a treat. Carp is his favourite delicacy.”
“Very kind of you, my good Chang, I’m sure, but I fear poor Mr. Li will not eat fish for some time. He has a bad attack of fever.”
“There’s where you’re wrong,” shouted Li, from his basket, flopping about with all his might, to attract attention, “I’m going to die of a chill. Can’t you recognise your old friend? Help me out of this trouble and you may have all my money for your pains.”
“Hey, what’s that!” questioned Sing, attracted, as usual, by the word money. “Shades of Confucius! It sounds as if the carp were talking.”
“What, a talking fish,” laughed Chang. “Why, master, I’ve lived nigh on to sixty year, and such a fish has never come under my sight. There are talking birds and talking beasts for that matter; but talking fish, who ever heard of such a wonder? No, I think your ears must have deceived you, but this carp will surely cause talk when I get him into the kitchen. I’m sure the cook has never seen his like. Oh, master! I hope you will be hungry when you sit down to this fish. What a pity Mr. Li couldn’t help you to devour it!”
“Help to devour myself, eh?” grumbled poor Li, now almost dead for lack of water. “You must take me for a cannibal, or some other sort of savage.”
Old Chang had now gone round the house to the servants’ quarters, and, after calling out the cook, held up poor Li by the tail for the chef to inspect.
With a mighty jerk Li tore himself away and fell at the feet of his faithful cook. “Save me, save me!” he cried out in despair; “this miserable Chang is deaf and doesn’t know that I am Mr. Li, his master. My fish voice is not strong enough for his hearing. Only take me back to the pond and set me free. You shall have a pension for life, wear good clothes and eat good food, all the rest of your days. Only hear me and obey! Listen, my dear cook, listen!”
“The thing seems to be talking,” muttered the cook, “but such wonders cannot be. Only ignorant old women or foreigners would believe that a fish could talk.” And seizing his former master by the tail, he swung him on to a table, picked up a knife, and began to whet it on a stone.
“Oh, oh!” screamed Li, “you will stick a knife into me! You will scrape off my beautiful shiny scales! You will whack off my lovely new fins! You will murder your old master!”
“Well, you won’t talk much longer,” growled the cook, “I’ll show you a trick or two with the blade.”
So saying, with a gigantic thrust, he plunged the knife deep into the body of the trembling victim.
With a shrill cry of horror and despair, Mr. Li awoke from the deep sleep into which he had fallen. His fever was gone, but he found himself trembling with fear at thought of the terrible death that had come to him in dreamland.
“Thanks be to Buddha, I am not a fish!” he cried out joyfully; “and now I shall be well enough to enjoy the feast to which Mr. Sing has bidden guests for to-morrow. But alas, now that I can eat the old fisherman’s prize carp, it has changed back into myself.
“If only the good of our dreams came true,
I shouldn’t mind dreaming the whole day through.”
You might also enjoy other stories by Norman Hinsdale Pitman.