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Original Issue


In his 21stidyll, written in the third century B.C., Theocritus thus related the first ofthe countless fish stories in history:

Two fishers, on atime, two old men, together lay and slept—they had strown the dry sea-moss fora bed in their wattled cabin, and there they lay against the leafy wall. Besidethem were strown the instruments of their toilsome hands, the fishing creels,the rods of reed, the hooks, the sails, bedraggled with sea-spoil, the lines,the weels, the lobster pots woven of rushes, the seines, two oars, and an oldcoble upon props. Beneath their heads was a scanty matting, their clothes,their sailor's caps. Here was all their toil, here all their wealth. Thethreshold had never a door, nor a watch-dog; all things, all, to them seemedsuperfluity, for Poverty was their sentinel. They had no neighbor by them, butever against their narrow cabin floated up the sea.

The chariot ofthe moon had not yet reached the mid-point of her course, but their familiartoil awakened the fishermen; from their eyes they cast out slumber, and rousedtheir souls with speech.

ASPHALION. Theylie all, my friend, who say that the nights wane short in summer when Zeusbrings the long days. Already have I seen 10,000 dreams and the dawn is notyet. Am I wrong, what ails them, the nights are surely long?

THE FRIEND.Asphalion, thou blamest the beautiful summer. It is not that the season hathwilfully passed his natural course, but care, breaking thy sleep, makes nightseem long to thee.

ASPHALION. Didstever learn to interpret dreams? for good dreams have I beheld. I would notleave thee to go without thy share in my vision; even as we go shares in thefish we catch, so share all my dreams. Sure, thou art not to be surpassed inwisdom, and he is the best interpreter of dreams that hath wisdom for histeacher. Moreover, we have time to idle in, for what could a man find to dolying on a leafy bed beside the waves and slumbering not? Nay the ass is amongthe thorns, the lantern in the town hall, for, they say, it is alwayssleepless.

THE FRIEND. Tellme then, the vision of the night; nay tell all to thy friend.

ASPHALION. As Iwas sleeping late, amid the labours of the salt sea (and truly not toowell-fed, for we supped early if thou dost remember, and did not overtax ourbellies), I saw myself busy on a rock, and there I sat and watched the fishes,and kept spinning the bait with the rods. And one of the fish nibbled, a fatone, for in sleep dogs dream of bread, and of fish dream I. Well he was tightlyhooked, and the blood was running, and the rod I grasped was bent with thestruggle. So with both hands I strained and had a sore tussle for the monster.How was I ever to land so big a fish with hooks all too slim? Then just toremind him he was hooked, I gently pricked him, pricked, and slackened, and ashe did not run, I took in line. My toil was ended with the sight of my prize; Idrew up a monstrous fish, lo you a fish all plated thick with gold! Then feartook hold of me lest he might be some fish beloved of Poseidon, or perchancesome jewel of the sea-grey Amphitrite. Gently I unhooked him, lest ever thehooks should retain some of the gold of his mouth. Then I dragged him on shorewith the ropes, and swore that never again would I set foot on sea, but abideon land, and lord it over the gold.

This was whatwakened me, but for the rest, set thy mind to it, my friend, for I am in dismayabout the oath I swore.

THE FRIEND. Nay,never fear, thou art no more sworn than thou hast found the golden fish of thyvision; dreams are but lies. But if thou wilt search these waters, wide awake,and not asleep, there is some hope in thy slumbers; seek the fish of flesh,lest thou die of famine with all thy dreams of gold!

From thetranslation by Andrew Lang