Many of you must know it as well as I do, but then you won’t mind me taking you back there – to the mysterious wild walled garden, enfolding woods and slopes deep with spicy bracken, to wander with John, the lazy boy who loves nothing better than to go fishing where ‘the stream flowed quiet as molten glass, reflecting the towering forest trees, the dark stone walls, and the motionless flowers and grass blades at its brim’ till we come to the ‘high dark house with but two narrow windows in the stone surface that steeped up into the sky above’ and where the stream ‘narrowed to gush in beneath a low-rounded arch in the wall, and so into the silence and darkness beyond it.’
And here, as John sits eating his lunch and listening to the cries of the jackdaws and the sound of the water gushing under the arch, he hears a voice, singing.
The thing about de la Mare’s stories is his way of combining freshness with inevitability, the one following upon the other. The voice is a surprise, but immediately one realises that of course this is a place where you would hear an eerie singing. And... what then?
As John creeps closer to the house, hoping to peep in through a window,
…not more than an arm’s length from his stooping face a great fish leapt out of the water, its tail bent almost double, its goggling eyes fixed on him, and out of its hook-toothed mouth it cried, “A-whoof! Ou-ougoolkawott!” This at least to John was what it seemed to say. And having delivered its message, it fell back into the dark water and in a wild eddy was gone.
Startled, John dislodges a stone which splashes into the water. At once, the singing ends.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the high wall and vacant windows, and out of the silence that had again descended he heard in mid-day a mournful hooting as of an owl, and a cold terror swept over him.
He runs, stopping only once the house is out of sight to catch a pike which gobbles down his bait so very quickly that –
John could hardly believe his own eyes. It was as if it had actually been lying in wait to be caught. He stooped to look into its strange motionless eye as it lay on the grass at his feet. Sullenly it stared back at him as though, even if it had only a minute or two to live, it were trying to give him a message, yet one that he could not understand.
This foreboding note is amplified when John’s mother, at the end of supper, remarks,
“What’s strange to me, John… is that though this fish here is a pike, and cooked as usual, with a picking of thyme and marjoram, a bit of butter, a squeeze of lemon and some chopped shallots, there’s a good deal more to him than just that. There’s a sort of savour and sweetness to him, as if he had been daintily fed…”
Eating a fish which has tried to deliver you a message (or warning) is a portentous thing to do, so it’s the less surprising that John’s mother then almost breaks her teeth on an object which turns out to be a golden key covered in mysterious symbols – and that John can’t forget the strange, enclosed place – and that the next time his mother asks him to catch a fish for supper, he’s off there again...
And that this time he follows the stream right under the archway, and comes up for air inside the house, and climbs the stone stairs to a ‘high narrow room full of sunlight’ where he finds a girl with a fish’s tail.
When the lips in the fair small face of this strange creature began to speak to him, he could hardly make head or tail of the words. Indeed she had been long shut up alone in this old mansion, from which the magician who had given her her fish’s tail, so that she should not be able to stray from the house, had some years gone his way, never to come back.
There’s something utterly de la Mare-ish about that – the chilling pointlessness of it all, the melancholy – the life trapped and transformed and ruined by some old magician who doesn’t even care enough to remember about it – who doesn’t even come back. For me, this is the quality that makes de la Mare one of the scariest of writers. He knows that people can do awful things and barely notice. This magician isn’t the sort who goes ‘Mwah-ha-ha’ and enjoys his villainy. He is no Sauron or Saruman. He just wrecks a life and wanders off. This, I submit, is realism. And it’s terrifying.
Anyway, since John has serendipitously turned up – with a golden key, no less – it's down to him to pick up the pieces and save the lady. A pleasant duty? Not exactly. Because in no time at all, transformed into a fish, he finds himself hanging by the tail in the cold dripping stone larder of the magician’s servant who is a bony, glassy-eyed old fellow known as ‘The Lord Fish’, ‘glum and sullen as some old Lenten cod in his stiff, drab coloured overclothes. John is now entirely dependent for life and liberty upon the kindness of the Lord Fish’s little larder maid, who keeps the fishes alive until the Lord Fish wants to eat them…
If you don’t know this story already, do find it and read it. If you do know it, this is a nudge to go back and read it again. I don’t know why it’s not as well known as Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen’; there’s so much to think about. About how to treat creatures which may or may not be human, about casual cruelty, selflessness and forlorn kindnesses and the impossibility of setting everything to rights. All wrapped in unforgettable beauty:
Now the Lord Fish who had caught him lived in a low stone house. Fountains jetted in its hollow echoing chambers and water lapped its walls on every side. Not even the barking of a fox or the scream of a peacock or any sound of birds could be heard in it; it was so full of the suffling and sighing, the music and murmuration of water, all day, all night long. But poor John being upside down had little opportunity to view or heed its marvels. And still muffled up in his thick green overcoat of moss he presently found himself suspended by his tail from a hook in the Lord Fish’s larder, a long cool dusky room or vault with but one window to it, and that only a hole in the upper part of the wall…
All artwork by Rex Whistler