In spite of the sumptuous preparations the Catdog and Theodosius had made for the Sheatfish Protector’s reception (the entire residence had been inundated in water, the pillows from the couch and the napkins in the kitchen were slowly spinning in the blue eddies, and the rugs had risen ten or even twenty centimetres aloft and were fluttering in slow motion), the latter, whether from excessive caution or because he wanted to be entertained in a less customary fashion, had arrived in his own travel aquarium and requested that the banquet be held in the shade of the walnut tree.
The Catdog had punctiliously complied, and assisted by Theodosius he had brought out a long table.
“There’s no need for any chairs,” the Sheatfish Protector gestured behind the glass of his spacious aquarium in token of refusal. Indeed, through the none too limpid water of the aquarium – lake water, as Theodosius imagined – it was possible to see a little table with curved legs, on which stood three dishes all in a row (one deeper, for the soup, another shallow, for the main course, and the last smaller, for dessert) ; an ice bucket on a stand, and a separate compartment for ice cubes ; and an armchair, in which the Sheatfish Protector was lolling. The armchair was quite similar to the one Theodosius had seen at the bottom of Cold Lake, but was probably lighter. In addition, the aquarium of the Sheatfish contained a plain serving table, lake sand and silt – which eddied up from the bottom whenever the Sheatfish shifted position on his throne – two pots with filiform freshwater plants, and a complicated device, consisting mainly of an articulated tube, a funnel, and numerous rubber grommets, which allowed the fish to make himself heard when he deigned to speak. Around the panes of the aquarium, fastened by cords, it was possible to draw rich drapes, whose folds were now crammed into the corners. The entire glass construction and all its contents rested on a metal stand, from which two sturdy and skilfully decorated handles protruded to either side. The aquarium could be lifted and carried from place to place by means of these handles. For this none too pleasant task (since the aquarium, with the Shearfish in it, must have been rather heavy), the fat fish was accompanied, besides another six fishes of lesser rank, by four bearer fishes, themselves encased in their own aquaria. Of course, the aquaria that ensured a natural medium for those who transported the Sheatfish Protector were less sumptuous and had no facilities whatsoever : there were neither tables nor chairs nor ice buckets (in any case, during the entire course of the subsequent banquet, nothing was to pass the lips of the bearer fish). Their aquaria sooner resembled glass suits of armour, through which their arms and legs protruded into the air, strangulated by joints with rubber garnitures and riveted rings. The construction of the aquaria in effect prevented the fish from sitting, and when the Catdog made a gesture for them to be seated, the four bearers angrily jerked their legs, emitting from their mouths remarks that materialised in streams of bubbles and gathered on the surface of the water.
“What will you have to drink ?” the Catdog asked the Sheatfish Protector.
“What’ll we have to drink ?” The Sheatfish turned toward his six counsellors, who, installed upon their sub‑aquatic chairs, were each unfolding a serviette and leisurely spreading them over their knees. “Aren’t we having anything to drink ? Very well. I’ll have wine.”
“I’ll have wine too,” said Theodosius, sitting on the other side of the table, opposite the Sheatfish Protector.
The Catdog poured about two fingers of wine into his glass, filled his own cup to the brim, and poured the contents of a third over the upper lip of the aquarium, into the water containing the Sheatfish. The wine separated into thick strands and sank undulating like an octopus over the fish. The latter opened his mouth and engulfed a part of the liquid.
“Cheers,” he said, “and if you’re in the mood for toasts, make them yourselves.”
“I should like to make a toast,” could be heard from the voice funnel of one of the counsellors. “Though I have no wine,” he said, affably rising from his chair, “I would like to wish the Illustrious Theodosius a long reign and to assure him that, although in the past perhaps we fishes have machinated against him, the whole of Cold Lake is now loyal to him unto the death – or at least so I believe.”
The Sheatfish’s face darkened and he drummed his fingers on the tabletop.
“Have you finished ?” he asked the counsellor.
“Straight away, illustrious Sheatfish Protector. I should merely like to add that yesterday, following the departure of the illustrious Catdog, we signed a treaty with the Purple Ants as regards exploitation of the Petrila salt mines. And with the Green Ants, in Filiaşi, we had a fruitful meeting…”
“One moment,” the Catdog interrupted him, let us go back a little to Petrila. When…”
“Why should we go back to Petrila ?” mewed the Sheatfish Protector in the Catdog’s direction, and then twisted around toward the counsellor and glared at him. “We are here to carouse, not to talk politics. All the more so given that I have ascertained that politics poisons our lives.”
“Agreed, let’s not talk politics,” said the Catdog. “I merely want to find out what is with the salt mines.”
“I shall explain,” said the Sheatfish benevolently. “Sit down,” he addressed the counsellor. “And jettison the acoustic tube. Now. Jettison the tube. And you, all of you, jettison your tubes. Please don’t think badly of me,” he went on, turning toward Theodosius and the Catdog, “but I can no longer abide these counsellors when they open their mouths. They are very duplicitous. I ask them something and they start to quibble, about how you are our master, illustrious Sheatfish Protector, and so on. I can never get a sincere opinion from my subjects. That’s why I’m leaving them without their funnels, because then they have to give a straight answer : to nod either yes or no.”
Indeed, the fish‑counsellors had jettisoned their funnel‑equipped tubes – they had fallen with a thud onto the grass – and were now looking at their master with ineffable sadness.
“What have you got to say, you gang of scoundrels,” the Sheatfish bellowed at them, causing the water at the surface of his aquarium to ripple. “Do any of you still want to make a toast ?”
The fish shook their heads.
“I repeat the question : do any of you still want to make a toast ?”
Anxious, the counsellors consulted among themselves by means of glances and then, doubtfully, nodded their heads.
“Don’t fool with me,” roared the Sheatfish, and the six began to quiver like reeds, moving their heads in every direction. The Sheatfish looked at them piercingly, then slumped in his armchair and began to laugh. “Good, we’ve cleared that one up. I’ll have a piece of ham, if you’ll be so kind, Gavriil. I’d like you to remove the parsley from on top – it gets stuck in my throat. I’d like you to serve me, Theodosius.”
Theodosius gave a start. The wine had somewhat gone to his head and he had been overwhelmed by sweet boredom. He rose from his seat, took a slice of ham, brushing off the parsley, and cast it into the Sheatfish Protector’s aquarium. The latter watched it gently sinking, alternately casting glances at Theodosius, visibly dissatisfied at the way he had tossed him the morsel, and then, as the ham reached the level of his nose, he gulped it down, closing his eyes.
“Tell me what is with Petrila,” the Catdog resumed.
“With Petrila,” answered the Sheatfish Protector with his mouth full, “things stand thus : immediately after our discussion yesterday, I decided to put to some kind of use the privileges you are prepared to grant the ants in future, and to implement a costly investment. That of giving my subjects a salt water resort in the Whale Gulf, with facilities, the whole works.”
“You move fast,” said the Catdog, biting his lower lip.
“Why not ? The costs of the investment are high. If we’d come to an understanding after you signed the treaty, the ants would have increased their pretensions. You can’t condemn me for my business acumen. The main thing is to be on the ball.”
“Why is it called the Whale Gulf ?” Theodosius demanded to know, while in his mind there took shape a gleaming cetacean, which frolicked in the gulf spurting jets of water from the top of its head.
“Ah, because the lake is so salty in that area that only a whale could live there.”
“Oh, really ?” wondered the Catdog. “I had always thought it was because it has the shape of a whale when you look at it on the map.”
“Pah, not at all,” laughed the Sheatfish. “You spend too much time looking at maps. Where’s the shape of a whale ? What’s the shape of a whale ? I’d like some more ham and, if possible, some cheese. I too would have the shape of a whale if you drew me on a map. No, the water is salty because of the Saltwater River. Which river, pay attention here, Theodosius, you’ll laugh, is only salty in fact after it passes through the salt mines. That is what makes the ants believe they have rights over the water in Whale Gulf. They claim that the salt is theirs. Some more wine, please.”
The Catdog rose and poured wine into the fish’s aquarium. In doing so, he noticed that the six counsellors were squirming in their chairs and pointing at their mouths.
“Are you hungry ?” asked Gavriil the Catdog.
The fishes nodded repeatedly. Theodosius took some trays of appetisers from the table and, with the aid of a fork, emptied the food into the aquaria, taking care to share it out as fairly as possible. The counsellors fell to eating at once, with tears of gratitude streaming from their eyes.
“Well,” continued the Sheatfish. “The question of desalinisation of the river came up a few years ago. I was against it. A part of the authorities at Petrila is in favour of closing the salt mines. That, you will realise, would automatically transform the Saltwater River into a freshwater river.”
“And how will they make a living if they close the mines ?”
“That’s their business. As it seems to me, that is not the issue. It’s a question of principles : the Gulf stream carries the salt across the lake almost to the other shore. Not much salt, it’s true, but a certain amount. Tell me, in strictly legal terms, whose is the salt carried by the Gulf stream ? The ants’ ? So don’t be surprised if they lay claim to that as well, tomorrow or the day after.”
The Catdog had relaxed and began to laugh.
“You do what you do and in the end the treaty with the ants still does not suit you. It is plain from every word you say.”
“Doesn’t it ?” said the fish with his mouth full.
“Aha, you say, but it doesn’t suit me at all. That is, if they close the mines, it’s one thing : I couldn’t care less, that’ll be the end of my resort, but that’s how it goes. I’m not going to do myself in because of it. But there will probably start to be an exodus of the unemployed to Filiaşi. The implications of commuting are dreadful. Think of the traffic of ants over the lake from dawn to dusk. It’s clear to you that they’ll be commuting over the lake day in day out.”
“And then ?”
“And then my delegation negotiated with that part of the leadership which doesn’t want to close the mines. Simple. You wouldn’t believe it, but you find a lot of Purple Ants who despise the Green Ants from the west and who want to split the province. Personally, I don’t understand them, for me all ants are the same, blonde or brunette, it’s all the same to me, I find them all repulsive alike and I detest them all alike, with those muscles of their like balls and those antennae waving all the time. Ugh, they make you want to puke.”
“Please,” the Catdog gestured, “we are eating.”
“Pardon me,” said the Sheatfish, “I couldn’t help myself. I only wanted to give you an idea so that you can understand what I feel at the thought of boatloads of such creatures sailing up and down my lake. However, to resume. I sent a team of negotiators. And they negotiated and I signed a treaty stipulating that the mines will remain open, and I think that in a year or two the Whale Gulf will become a paradise of underwater resorts.”
“I understand,” said the Catdog. “That is, I understand partly. You say you negotiated. I am convinced that the ants who backed your cause received certain bonuses on your part.”
“Naturally,” the Sheatfish Protector agreed, leaning back and extracting a toothpick from the pocket of his caftan.
“I would be curious to know what.”
“Ah, a mere bagatelle. I promised them I would organise wee adventures for their political opponents whenever they try to cross the lake.”
“And will you organise them ?”
“Don’t ask, I haven’t got a clue about technical details of that kind. I signed an agreement of principle. It’s possible that you will hear or read in the papers that such and such a vessel bound for Filiaşi suddenly sprang a leak and that the crew were forced to abandon ship and so on and so forth, but I repeat, I won’t have any concrete cases on my conscience.”
“And did you promise them anything else ?”
“I promised them effective support so that the government favourable to me will remain in power and rule the Green Ants henceforth for long and happy years.”
The Catdog could not have been more amused. The Sheatfish Protector too began to smile.
“Do you know what amazes me ?” asked the Catdog. “It amazes me that you never pose the problem that an unfortunate accident might also befall you, and then all the strings you have been pulling, all your arrangements and all your calculations will blow up. I have been wondering for a long time whether you are a politician or an intriguer and now I think it is starting to become clear to me.”
“Gavriil, you can think what you like about me. However, I assure you that, behind every move I make there stands the good of the kingdom.” The Sheatfish had solemnly placed his right hand on his chest. “What I am doing may seem a nasty trick, but I, in my own inner forum, know that I am inspired by the best intentions and one day you too will convince yourselves of this truth. It may be that when you convince yourselves, I shall no longer be,” added the Sheatfish Protector, after a tear‑jerking pause.
“What can I say,” the Catdog admitted defeat. “Faced with such statements I can do no more than to raise my glass and drink your health. Theodosius, let us drink to the health of the Sheatfish Protector and the Cold Lake, which, even if he does not rule it wisely, he rules driven by the best intentions.
Having said that, Gavriil emptied his cup and put it on the table. Theodosius drank too and felt that he was becoming sleepy. The Catdog leaned toward his ear and said to him in a hushed voice :
“I know you are bored, but I promise you that as soon as the party is over I shall take you to the ‘Little Lemon’ café and buy you two chocolate cakes, an éclair and a baklava.”
“What, does the ‘Little Lemon’ still exist ?” asked the Sheatfish, to keep the conversation going.
“Of course it does,” affirmed the Catdog.
“Hmm, I thought they had closed it down. Do you recall, we used to go to that restaurant opposite, also on the boulevard, what was it called…”
“The ‘Little Cherry’.”
“The ‘Little Cherry’, we used to eat steaks, drink until we were blotto and then go off to the ‘Little Lemon’, where there was a brothel.”
“Theodosius, you go off to bed now, sleep for a couple of hours, and after that we’ll go to the café.”
“Leave him be, Gavriil, don’t send him off. He ought to know too, that that was what they used to say, that it was a brothel.”
“There’s no way you could have known. It was only a rumour and, whenever you wanted to check, it would turn out that you were blotto, as you yourself say,” the Catdog put him in his place.
“That’s precisely the charm of it,” said the Sheatfish, whose speech had become slurred. “That’s the charm of it. To hear a rumour and not to verify it and to behave as though it were true. That’s the only way you can maintain order. I’m telling it only so that, just like that, so that you know.” The Sheatfish’s tone became confidential. “If I allowed myself to ignore or to throw into doubt a single rumour from all those that pass my ears, I would long ago have been a gleaming skeleton at the bottom of the lake. Is that or is that not so, conclave of plotters ?” roared the Sheatfish unexpectedly, turning on his counsellors. The latter dropped the forks from their hands and began to tremble once more ; while two of them nodded affirmatively, the other four shook their heads in negation.
“Leave them in peace,” said the Catdog in disgust. “Let us drink instead.”
“Let’s drink, by all means, but let’s make merry too and pleasurably recall our youth,” said the Sheatfish with misty eyes, and then went on to address Theodosius alone. “You should know, my beloved child, that at the ‘Little Lemon’ café there was a brothel on the first floor, and you used to go in through the café. But they didn’t let you go in just like that, any old how. Because it was only for customers of the house, those with an open palm, who used to go in innocently, walk up and down in front of the counters with cream puffs, éclairs, nougat, iced buns, fudge cake, tarts, éclairs – I’ve already said – and with an air that they were itching to buy, they would ask the fat woman vendor (what was she called, Gavriil ? Geta ?) with the moustache and headscarf, they would ask her if by any chance, besides all the goodies on display in the refrigerated display cabinet, she had any home‑made chocolate cake with cherries. Or with morellos, I forget which, because I’m old and as drunk as a hog (pour some more wine Gavriil). And then the vendor would make a hidden sign with her hand and the customer would vanish through the curtain towards the kitchen. And there, at the stainless steel tables, splattered with pastry dough, whipped cream and icing sugar, young lasses, in the fifth or sixth form at the most, summarily dressed, would be twirling rolling pins, touching the table with their tummies.”
“You’re a libidinous hog,” Gavriil the Catdog upbraided him, without much conviction, even smiling at the shadows of the past that were flitting through his mind.
The Sheatfish grinned and he too closed his eyes.
“I’m old, but I’m still in form,” he articulated with difficulty and asked for another glass of wine. “I could have looked after Theodosius. You have no idea, my boy, what you are missing, and that’s without taking into account that, living with me, you would have grown a lovely pair of gills on the nape of your neck and you would have been able to breathe underwater just as easily as us.”
“Or we could have lived here, in this house, and you would have grown a pair of lungs,” retorted Theodosius unexpectedly.
The Sheatfish gave a start, unpleasantly surprised.
“Look at him, Gavriil, what a cheeky little whippersnapper. And you’re laughing too. Laugh and you’ll only encourage him to speak to me in that tone. If I’d brought up him in the way I know best, he would have been a respectful young lad by now, without any nasty habits, he would have been obedient, Gavriil. And he would have ruled the kingdom wisely. First of all as regent – and I, his trusty tutor, would have guided him with my advice – then as king when he came of age – and again I, his humble counsellor, would have whispered in his ear my opinions founded on experience. He would have learned to treasure me, Gavriil, and see here, at this age he would have been ruling the kingdom without a care. But as it is, what a tangled situation ! His throne – Otto wants it ; his authority is the same as when you break a dish but not completely : cracked. The ants dream of an autonomous state and I swear to you, Gavriil, they will have it. By force of circumstances they will have it, and I am going to do all in my power, before you manage to sign any expanded treaty, I’m no ox to force things, but I, I,” screamed the Sheatfish without warning, banging the table and knocking the plates out of alignment, “instead of having a carefree old age, I have to wrack my brains, to sign secret agreements, and to obtain by subterfuge and tactical conjuring tricks what I deserve by rights. Two teardrops quivered in the scaly eyelids of the Sheatfish, as though in a Japanese cartoon. “I have betrayed you, Gavriil, I have betrayed my sovereign, but for his own good. I don’t care about you. Do you know how much I care ? This much. In the end I’m glad that you have dealt with bringing him up, so that everyone can see what a predicament the kingdom has fallen into : disorder, disintegration, tabloid scandals. You’ve lost your grip on the reins, you don’t even care about them, what have you been up to all these years ? You’ve gone fishing, you’ve cleared the forests from the royal estates – any servant could have done that, but you don’t have servants. You’ve taught Theodosius how to live on a modest income, like a servant. You’ve wasted your time trying to reconcile Kalliope and Samoil, two senile oldsters I would have done away with quicker than you can say fish. When I come to power – oh, how I’ll laugh then, because perhaps you imagine that moment is a very long way off, but I’m telling you it’s very close – when I come to power, those old bastards will hang as quick as can be, from two nice little gibbets. And as for you – you time‑waster – I’ll throw you in the dungeon at Filiaşi. You know, I go there at least once a week and, whenever I have time, and twice a week I go to the eastern shore of the lake to see the thick mossy walls of the gaol reflected in the water. And as for Theodosius, I’ll leave it up to him to choose whether he wants to be handed over to Otto, who keeps insistently demanding him (oh, how insistently he demands him !) or to remain king and obey me. In the end, how much do I ask ? Am I asking much ? How many years do I have left to live ? Understand me, Gavriil, in the years still left to me, I want to rule the kingdom, from the shadow. I don’t want Bucharest to be full of statues to the Sheatfish Protector. I don’t want my name in all the school history textbooks – that’s just a consolation for the vainglorious. All I want is to rule. To expand the waters of the lake. And for Bucharest to be submerged, so that I can, thank you very much, stroll over the bottom of a big lake as far as Mushberry Valley, which will be called the Duckweed Shore, that’s what I’m thinking of calling it, and north as far as the foothills of Ottoberg Castle, and east as far as Our Sea, for that is our wish, by the will of the Great Sheatfish Protector over the Cold and Salt Lake, stretching over the capital and over the Apple Orchards, which apple trees, under water, will bring to light rotten fruit.”
The Sheatfish swallowed the saliva at the corners of his mouth and rolled his gaze over those present : three of the six counsellors were casting uneasy glances, another two were stock‑still and seemed no longer to be breathing ; the last kept opening his mouth spasmodically and releasing, at regular intervals, a bubble of air. Gavriil had sat with his fists propping up his chin during the Sheatfish’s peroration and now he was slowly recovering from his astonishment. Theodosius had grown frightened and was avoiding the fish’s eyes. He was clinging to the Catdog’s waistcoat with all his might. The Catdog bent down and whispered in his ear :
“Let him be, he’s talking nonsense.” Then he added, “He not such a bad lad as he seems. But when he drinks too much, he says stupid things. You know,” he addressed the Sheatfish Protector, who, with his eyes transfixed in space, had remained prey to his own enthusiasm, “for those words I could throw you into gaol, not tomorrow, when perhaps you will be in power, but now, when I am. Or I could, legally, pull the plug out of your tank and let you suffocate slowly. Do you know that ?”
The Sheatfish smacked his lips with the indifference of a drunkard and, manoeuvring a lever under his table, caused the curtains that adorned the inside of the aquarium to unfurl along their cords and completely cover the windowpanes. In a short while a loud snoring could be heard from behind the drapes.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth