Who hears the fishes when they cry?—Henry David Thoreau, 1849
“I wish I was a fish,” said the Wart.
“What sort of fish?” asked Merlyn.
It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.
“I think I should like to be a perch,” he said. “They are braver than the silly roach and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”
Merlyn took off his hat, raising his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, “Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?”
Immediately there was a loud blowing of seashells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared, seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn, and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found he had no clothes on. He found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown hundreds of times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.
“Oh, Merlyn,” he cried, “please come too.”
‘’For this once,” said a large and solemn tench beside his ear, “I will come. But in future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.”
The Wart found it difficult to be a new kind of creature. It was no good trying to swim like a human being, for it made him go corkscrew and much too slowly. He did know how to swim like a fish.
“Not like that,” said the tench in ponderous tones. “Put your chin on your left shoulder and do jackknives. Never mind about the fins, to begin with.”
The Wart’s legs had fused together into his backbone and his feet and toes had become a tail fin. His arms had become two more fins—of a delicate pink—and he had sprouted some more somewhere about his stomach. His head faced over his shoulder, so that when he bent in the middle his toes were moving toward his ear instead of toward his forehead. He was a beautiful olive green, with rather scratchy plate armor all over him, and dark bands down his sides. He was not sure which were his sides and which were his back and front, but what now appeared to be his belly had an attractive whitish color, while his back was armed with a splendid great fin that could be erected for war and had spikes in it. He did jackknives as the tench directed and found that he was swimming vertically downward into the mud.
“Use your feet to turn to left or right,” said the tench, “and spread those fins on your tummy to keep level. You are living in two planes now, not one.”
The Wart found that he could keep more or less level by altering the inclination of his arm fins and the ones on his stomach. He swam feebly off, enjoying himself very much.
“Come back,” said the tench. “You must learn to swim before you can dart.”
The Wart returned to his tutor in a series of zigzags and remarked, “I do not seem to keep quite straight.”
Gleipnir, by Walton Ford, 2012. Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil on paper, 69" x 120" x ½". © Walton Ford, courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.
“The trouble with you is that you do not swim from the shoulder. You swim as if you were a boy, bending at the hips. Try doing your jackknives right from the neck downward, and move your body exactly the same amount to the right as you are going to move it to the left. Put your back into it.”
Wart gave two terrific kicks and vanished altogether in a clump of mare’s tail several yards away.
“That’s better,” said the tench, now out of sight in the murky olive water, and the Wart backed himself out of his tangle with infinite trouble, by wriggling his arm fins. He undulated back toward the voice in one terrific shove, to show off.
“Good,” said the tench, as they collided end to end. “But direction is the better part of valor.
“Try if you can do this one,” it added.
Without apparent exertion of any kind it swam off backward under a water lily. Without apparent exertion—but the Wart, who was an enterprising learner, had been watching the slightest movement of its fins. He moved his own fins anticlockwise, gave the tip of his tail a cunning flick, and was lying alongside the tench.
“Splendid,” said Merlyn. “Let us go for a little swim.”
The Wart was on an even keel now and reasonably able to move about. He had leisure to look at the extraordinary universe into which the tattooed gentleman’s trident had plunged him. It was different from the universe to which he had been accustomed. For one thing, the heaven or sky above him was now a perfect circle. The horizon had closed to this. In order to imagine yourself into the Wart’s position, you would have to picture a round horizon, a few inches about your head, instead of the flat horizon which you usually see. Under this horizon of air you would have to imagine another horizon of underwater, spherical and practically upside down—for the surface of the water acted partly as a mirror to what was below it. It is difficult to imagine. What makes it a great deal more difficult to imagine is that everything which human beings would consider to be above the water level was fringed with all the colors of the spectrum. For instance, if you had happened to be fishing for the Wart, he would have seen you, at the rim of the tea saucer which was the upper air to him, not as one person waving a fishing rod, but as seven people, whose outlines were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, all waving the same rod whose colors were as varied. In fact, you would have been a rainbow man to him, a beacon of flashing and radiating colors, which ran into one another and had rays all about. You would have burned upon the water like Cleopatra in the poem.
The next most lovely thing was that the Wart had no weight. He was not earthbound any more and did not have to plod along on a flat surface, pressed down by gravity and the weight of the atmosphere. He could do what men have always wanted to do, that is, fly. There is practically no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air. The best of it was that he did not have to fly in a machine, by pulling levers and sitting still, but could do it with his own body. It was like the dreams people have.
They swam along, Merlyn occasionally advising him to put his back into it when he forgot, and the strange underwater world began to dawn about them, deliciously cool after the heat of the upper air. The great forests of weed were delicately traced, and in them there hung motionless many schools of sticklebacks learning to do their physical exercises in strict unison. On the word one they all lay still; at two they faced about; at three they all shot together into a cone, whose apex was a bit of something to eat. Water snails slowly ambled about on the stems of the lilies or under their leaves, while freshwater mussels lay on the bottom doing nothing in particular. Their flesh was salmon pink, like a very good strawberry ice cream. The small congregations of perch—it was a strange thing, but all the bigger fish seemed to have hidden themselves—had delicate circulations, so that they blushed or grew pale as easily as a lady in a Victorian novel. Only their blush was a deep olive color, and it was the blush of rage. Whenever Merlyn and his companion swam past them, they raised their spiky dorsal fins in menace and only lowered them when they saw that Merlyn was a tench. The black bars on their sides made them look as if they had been grilled, and these also could become darker or lighter. Once the two travelers passed under a swan. The white creature floated above like a zeppelin, all indistinct except what was under the water. The latter part was quite clear and showed that the swan was floating slightly on one side with one leg cocked over its back.
“Don’t you see,” said the tench, “that this place is exactly like the forest which you had to come through to find me?”
“Look over there.”
The Wart looked, and at first saw nothing. Then he saw a small translucent shape hanging motionless near the surface. It was just outside the shadow of a water lily and was evidently enjoying the sun. It was a baby pike, absolutely rigid and probably asleep, and it looked like a pipe stem or a seahorse stretched out flat. It would be a brigand when it grew up.
“I am taking you to see one of those,” said the tench, “the emperor of these purlieus. As a doctor I have immunity, and I dare say he will respect you as my companion as well—but you had better keep your tail bent in case he is feeling tyrannical.”
“Is he the king of the moat?”
“He is. Old Jack they call him, and some call him Black Peter, but for the most part they do not mention him by name at all. They just call him Mr. P. You will see what it is to be a king.”
The Wart began to hang behind his conductor a little, and perhaps it was as well that he did, for they were almost on top of their destination before he noticed it. When he did see the old despot he started back in horror, for Mr. P. was four feet long, his weight incalculable. The great body, shadowy and almost invisible among the stems, ended in a face which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch—by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness, and thoughts too strong for individual brains. There he hung or hoved, his vast ironic mouth permanently drawn downward in a kind of melancholy. He was remorseless, disillusioned, logical, predatory, fierce, pitiless—but his great jewel of an eye was that of a stricken deer, large, fearful, sensitive, and full of griefs. He made no movement, but looked upon them with his bitter eye.
The Wart thought to himself that he did not care for Mr. P.
“Lord,” said Merlyn, not paying attention to his nervousness, “I have brought a young professor who would learn to profess.”
“To profess what?” asked the king of the moat slowly, hardly opening his jaws and speaking through his nose.
“Power,” said the tench.
“Let him speak for himself.”
“Please,” said the Wart, “I don’t know what I ought to ask.”
“There is nothing,” said the monarch, “except the power which you pretend to seek: power to grind and power to digest, power to seek and power to find, power to await and power to claim, all power and pitilessness springing from the nape of the neck.”
“Love is a trick played on us by the forces of evolution. Pleasure is the bait laid down by the same. There is only power. Power is of the individual mind, but the mind’s power is not enough. Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only might is right.
Royal coat of arms of King William III and Queen Mary II of England, c. 1690. © Joanna Booth, The Bridgeman Art Library.
“Now I think it is time that you should go away, young master, for I find this conversation uninteresting and exhausting. I think you ought to go away really almost at once, in case my disillusioned mouth should suddenly determine to introduce you to my great gills, which have teeth in them also. Yes, I really think you might be wise to go away this moment. Indeed, I think you ought to put your back into it. And so, a long farewell to all my greatness.”
The Wart had found himself almost hypnotized by the big words, and hardly noticed that the tight mouth was coming closer and closer to him. It came imperceptibly, as the lecture distracted his attention, and suddenly it was looming within an inch of his nose. On the last sentence it opened, horrible and vast, the skin stretching ravenously from bone to bone and tooth to tooth. Inside there seemed to be nothing but teeth, sharp teeth like thorns in rows and ridges everywhere, like the nails in laborers’ boots, and it was only at the last second that he was able to regain his own will, to pull himself together, to recollect his instructions and to escape. All those teeth clashed behind him at the tip of his tail, as he gave the heartiest jackknife he had ever given.
In a second he was on dry land once again, standing beside Merlyn on the piping drawbridge, panting in his stuffy clothes.
From The Once and Future King. A quartet of novels published between 1938 and 1958, The Once and Future King adapts Thomas Malory’s late-fifteenth-century Le Morte d’Arthur, the first English prose account of the Arthurian legends. White achieved his first literary success with an autobiographical book, England Have My Bones, published in 1936. A reclusive man with interests in fishing and hunting, he also published a book on falconry, The Goshawk, and two works of social history. He died at the age of fifty-seven in 1964.