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Two cautionary tales.


The Fish Eye

At the bottom of his plate of fish soup Gunther found an eye looking at him. He was horrified. In the local folklore, discovering a fish eye in one’s soup was a worrying omen, and Gunther believed strongly in local lore. He scooped the eye onto his spoon and considered it with trepidation. The large black pupil stared back at him malevolently.

He knew the only way to avoid the ill fate now awaiting him was to find a two-headed horse willing to eat the ominous eyeball and thereby lift the threat. Luckily, there was a two-headed horse living a few streets away. Gunther immediately abandoned his lunch and set off to find the horse, with the eye wrapped in a paper napkin. It was with huge relief that Gunther found the horse was at home and the head which answered the door listened sympathetically to his tale.

‘I understand your dilemma,’ the head said, speaking in a whisper, ‘but I’m afraid neither of us is partial to fish, and especially not fish eyes. But my other half is fond of macaroons. Perhaps you could conceal the eyeball in a macaroon.’ ‘What are you two muttering about?’ asked the head at the other end. ‘It’s a surprise,’ said the first head. ‘You’ll have to wait and see.’

Gunther rushed off into town where there was a confectioner famous for her macaroons. He purchased a box and crossed the road to a park where he planned to inoculate one of the cakes with the eye. Hopeful now of escaping the catastrophe hanging over him he reached into his pocket for the napkin but found it gone. Frantic with worry, he retraced his steps and two streets away spotted the napkin lying in the gutter, though the fish eye was nowhere to be seen. Looking about, Gunther noticed a cat sitting on a flight of steps, licking its paws.

He approached the animal cautiously, stroked it gently at first, then grabbed it around the neck and strangled it. Taking a penknife from his pocket he slit open its belly. Several passersby watched with horror as Gunther removed the stomach and began sifting through its contents. Ten minutes later he was in a straight-jacket and being escorted to a waiting ambulance by psychiatric nurses.

The Dog Cemetery

According to family legend a distant forbear of the present Marquis had buried something precious on the ancestral estate. The clue to its whereabouts was said to be hidden somewhere in the library. To this day none of his heirs had succeeded in discovering the location of the treasure and many had concluded that the legend had no basis in fact. M. Claude Thierry St Louis de Rambouilet, the current Marquis, was not of that persuasion. His ancestor had undoubtedly been rich and had lived at a time of great political turmoil, and the ancestral castle had been under siege on more than one occasion. A need to secure the family’s wealth from plunder seemed possible, and the use of a cipher to indicate its location quite likely. Moreover, his ancestor had possessed an enquiring mind, ranging across many subjects, and had amassed a sizeable library, which had been preserved, and much added to, down the ages. What more likely place was there than this for a clever and cunning mind to leave to posterity the key to untold riches.

De Rambouilet had spent his life trying to discover the riddle which would lead him to the buried horde. He had isolated all the volumes that belonged to his ancestor’s library and he had searched them for hidden compartments, concealed sheets of parchment, inscriptions and marginalia. He learned Latin and Greek to be able to read these texts. He had organised them by subject and alphabetically, searching for some sort of pattern, a numerical key to the treasure’s secret resting ground. He had delved into arcane theories of numerology, of the symbolism of letters and hierarchies of knowledge. He had devoted many frustrating hours to this project and was still no closer to unravelling the mystery.

There were times when he despaired. The estate had been re-landscaped three times as fashion changed and many features of the gardens and park had been reworked. Even if there were clues to a specific spot hidden in some configuration of texts, it might be impossible to recognize it since the trees, paths, and water features had been transformed beyond recognition. No drawings of the original garden survived leaving de Rambouilet in the dark as to its layout. Some verses, dedicated to his ancestor, which made references to the garden were too full of allusions to classical myths to be of any practical use.

His two sons would have nothing to do with his obsession. Neither would his wife, who he now rarely saw. He sat in a solid oak chair which his ancestor had once used, the back decorated with carvings of two leaping dogs, the ends of the armrests in the shape of dog paws. There was said to have once been a cushion embroidered with dog motifs and stuffed with the hair of a favourite wolfhound. Over the fireplace hung a portrait of the gentleman, two graceful beagles lying at his feet. Through the casement window de Rambouilet could see across the garden to a small mound, topped by an ancient yew tree in the shade of which stood a series of gravestones. This was the cemetery of the old man’s many adored hunting dogs. The stones were now so badly weathered the names of the animals were illegible.

Looking out on this scene, de Rambouilet suddenly realised the answer to his long quest. How many times had he sat in the chair, the painting of the dogs at his back, his hands gripping the dogs’ paws at the ends of the armrests, his gaze fixed on the distant yew tree, and yet never made this connection. He could hardly summon the energy to move. The treasure which the old Marquis had buried was not a horde of gold coins, silver plate, diamond-studded tiaras and emerald bracelets, but the remains of his beloved dogs.

SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including StrideFortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, Junction Box, The Long Poem MagazineInk Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics ResearchWhy are you here?, a collection of his prose poems and short fiction, was published by Odd Volumes in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021, and his new work Blue Eyes has just been published by Zimzalla (May 2024). Collings is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For more information, visit his webpage.

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