THE FISH GODDESS
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
Menon, Governor of Syria, was troubled in his soul. Throughout the night he had courted sleep, yet rest came not to body or to mind, for the air was close, and vexious thought stood sentinal beside his couch.
When the cool of dawn came stealing down on Syria, he left his heated pallet, clothed himself, and wandered along the lake shore where the freshening breezes blew. He sprawled at ease upon a shelving stone, cast off his outer robe, and watched for a ruby sun to spring from out the east.
Behind him lay the village of Ascalon, where dwelt the herders of sheep, the tillers of the thirsty soil and the wardens of flocks and herds. Before him stretched the lake, deep, green and chill, the palm and pomegranate casting ghostly shadows from its shores. On the further side, in the gloom of shrubbery and trees, the temple of the fish-god Dagon seemed but the end of a morning mist that trailed across the waters. In the shallows beside the rocks swam countless fishes, now darting to cover beneath the stones, now leaping at some luckless fly that swung too near the danger line. From end to end the surface broke with myriads of fins, while ever and again a louder splash proclaimed some monster’s upward rush, the widening ripples cut by minnows in a scurrying flight.
They dwelt in peace, these denizens of the deep, for the Syrians eat no fish, nor may they snare them with hooks or nets lest the wrath of Dagon utterly destroy such fools, together with their flocks and herds, their wives and children, their soil and the fruits therein. And thus the fish lived on and multiplied.
There were men, as countless as the fish of Ascalon, who envied Menon as one on whom the gods had smiled; yet now he sat with his chin upon his palm, with a foot that tapped impatiently on the wave-bathed shore, while he scowled at the glory of a coming dawn.
Wherefore should he scowl, this favorite of the gods, Chief Governor of Syria, a warrior beloved of men, a youth watched covertly from many a latticed screen till his careless passing caused a yearning sigh? Wherefore should he mutter curses in his palm and dig his heel into the sands? Had he not on yestereve received a scroll from the King himself, wherein that monarch praised him for his services afield, and, more, for his crafty rule? Had Ninus not made offer of a high reward when Nineveh should be builded at the end of two short years? Ah, here the sandal galled! Full many an older man, for very joy, might have danced upon the lake shore happily, yet Menon muttered curses in his palm and digged his heel into the sands.
Ere another moon was dead, the waiting messengers must return to Nineveh and with them bear an answer to the lord of all the lands. Agreement to the King’s desire meant cruelty more bitter than he dared to dream. Refusal dragged the keystone from his arch of hope, to crush him beneath the very walls his youthful strength had raised. To seek delay—
Of a sudden Menon started from his revery, as a round white pebble struck his knee and bounded into the lake. He looked to learn whence the missile came, but all was still. Behind him in the distance stretched the rolling hills, with herders following in the wake of drowsy sheep; to the right, the lake’s rim lay in peace, barren save for a fluttering bird or two, while on the left a fringe of bush ran out on a point of rocks, too low, it seemed, to screen a human form. Still wondering, the Assyrian rubbed his knee and gazed reproachfully at the fishes in the lake, when a flute-like laugh pealed forth—a joyous, bubbly laugh—that rang along the shores till every rocky ledge took up its notes and flung a mocking echo across the waves.
Menon sprang upon a stone, to explore each nook and crevice with a hunter’s circling gaze. With body bent, with every sense alert, he swept the shores for the jester’s hiding place; and at last, when hope was well-nigh spent, he caught the gleam of a wind-blown lock of hair from the rocky point close down by the water’s edge. Menon smiled, then seemed to become engrossed in the sight of some floating object far out upon the lake; yet, the while, from the tail of his crafty eye, he watched the point whence mischief hid as behind a shield. A silence fell. No sound was heard save the splash of plunging carp, the yelp of a shepherd’s dog, and the harsh, shrill cry of a crane that passed in lazy, lumbering flight.
From the water a form rose noiselessly, while a pair of dancing eyes looked out through a leafy screen; a rounded arm was raised, and Menon wheeled and caught the second pebble as it came. For an instant the two stood motionless; the one surprised at her swift discovery, the other stricken speechless with amaze at the bold, unearthly beauty, of a water nymph.
“A goddess!” he gasped at length, and stared in the wonder of a dreamer roused from sleep.
She stood at the water’s edge, a girl just budding into womanhood, her fair skin glistening with the freshness of her bath. A clinging skirt from hip to knee, revealed her slender symmetry of limb, clean, lithe, and poised for nimble flight. For the rest she was nude, save for a tumbling wealth of flame-hued locks, tossed by the rising breeze, half veiling, half disclosing, a gleaming bust and throat. Above, a witch’s face, Grecian in its lines, yet dashed with the warm voluptuousness of Semitic blood; a mouth, firm, fearless in its strength, yet tempered by a reckless merriment—a mouth to harden in a tempest-gust of scorn, to quiver at the sigh of passion’s prayer, or fling its light-lipped laughter in the teeth of him who prayed. Her eyes—a haunted pool of light, wherein, a man might drown his soul, and, sinking, bless his torturer.
For an instant more stood Menon, gaping at the girl, till humor gripped him, and he flung back his head and laughed.
“By Asshur,” he cried aloud, “a kiss shall be the price of thy sweet impertinence!”
At a bound he cleared the intervening space and stretched his hand for a wayward coil of hair, yet ere his fingers closed the girl leaped backward, turned, and plunged into the lake. In a flash she disappeared, to rise again and strike out swiftly in a line with Dagon’s temple on the further shore.
“Oho!” laughed Menon, “t’is then a fish’s game! So be it, saucy one, for two shall play it to the end!”
Not pausing to divest himself of clothing or the leathern sandals strapped upon his feet, he followed after, sank and shot upward, snorting as he shook his head to free his ears and eyes. With strong, free strokes he began the race, smiling happily because of its speedy end. What chance had she against his splendid strength, he who had breasted the swollen Euphrates, or stemmed the Tigris when its waters sang to the plunge of hissing arrow points? The chilling bath lent vigor to his limbs and sent the young blood bubbling through his veins. The shoulder muscles writhed beneath his skin, while his heart beat faster in the fierce exhilaration of pursuit. What joy to run such quarry down, that gleaming body moving with an easy sweep, the flame-red hair that barely kept beyond his reach!
Faster and faster Menon swam, with every grain of power behind his strokes; yet the maiden kept her lead, now pausing to fling a mocking glance behind, now darting forward till the ripples danced against her breast. And so the chase went on, till the lake was well-nigh crossed, till the temple, which had seemed to twinkle among the trees, now stood out boldly, and an image of the ugly fish-god Dagon watched the stragglers in stony silence.
Then the pace began to tell, even upon the Assyrian’s strength. His muscles ached; his hot breath broke between his lips in labored gasps; about his breast a band of bronze seemed squeezing out his life, and a sweat of weakness dripped into his eyes. He was gaining now! He saw with a hunter’s joy that his quarry wearied of her work. Her strokes grew feeble, while the flaming head sank lower among the waves.
“By Bêlit,” he wheezed, “the kiss is mine, or I rest my bones at the bottom of thy lake!”
The space of a spear’s length lay between the two, and inch by inch the pursuer cut it down, while the nymph had ceased to mock him with her laughter, and bent her ebbing strength to the effort of escape. For her the race was run. On came the panting hunter in her wake, remorseless, eager, a hard hand reaching for her floating locks. She ducked her head, eluding seizure by a finger-breadth, leaped as the struggling fishes dart, and regained a tiny lead. Once more vantage slipped away, and now was hanging on a thread of chance. Again and again the Assyrian’s hand shot out, to clutch the air or a dash of spray in his empty fist. His failure angered him. He clenched his teeth and worried on, yet splashing clumsily, for exertion now was fraught with agony.
“The kiss!” he breathed. “I’ll have the kiss, I swear, or—”
The oath died suddenly upon his lips, for the maiden tossed her arms and disappeared. With a cry the youth plunged after her, forgetting his pain in the fullness of a self-reproach. He reached the spot where her form had sunk, and strove to dive, but weary nature proved a master of his will. He floated to regain his wind, while scanning the lake for a rising blotch of red; but only the leaping carp made circles through the waves, and a ruby sun climbed upward from a bed of mist. The breeze hummed foolishly among the palms, and a blue crane flung an accusing cry across the waters.
Menon’s hope ebbed low and lower still, to die, to spring again to life at a peal of bubbly laughter, sweet unto his ears. Behind him he caught a flash of flaming hair, the gleam of a throat that shaped the taunt, a shoulder cutting through the ripples easily—the lake-nymph, fresh, unweary, an impish victor of the race!
By a trick she had lured him to expend his strength in the chase of one who swam as the minnows swim; and to Menon came this knowledge like a blow between the eyes. He turned him shoreward with a feeble stroke, striving to keep himself afloat, for his heavy sandals weighed him down, and languor seized on every fibre of his frame. He was beaten, spent. A blurred mist rose before his eyes, while the droning call of distant battle raged within his ears. A thousand flame-hued heads danced tauntingly beyond his reach, and laughed and laughed. The world went spinning down into a gulf of gloom, and a clumsy crane reeled after it—a steel-blue ghost that stabbed him with a beak of fire. He choked; he fought for life as he lashed out madly, till the foam-churned waters mounted high and fell to crush him in their roaring might.
For the space of an indrawn breath a white face rode upon the surface of the lake, then slowly the Assyrian sank.
It was easier now! He seemed to slide from the grip of pain to a waving couch of peace. The world had slipped from out its gulf of gloom at last, to rock through league on league of emerald cloud, and the crane was gone. The lake-nymph’s laughter, too, had died away. She fled from him no more, but stretched her arms and held him close, his limp head pillowed on her breast. She warmed his flesh with the coils of her fiery hair, and her child-voice rose and fell in a crooning slumber-song.
“The kiss!” sighed Menon, and the waters hung above him drowsily.