A Tale for Midwinter by John Andrews
"Sing what I heard you chant the other noon,
The Verse I keep, tho' I forget the tune.
"Cease, Pike, with Perch successful war to wage,
Their weary finns delude your idle rage;
Nor sleep expos'd, lest Frogs your lives betray,
And you unguarded fall an easy prey."
(Moses Browne 1773)
I have no memory of it raining when I stepped outside and later put it down as you might to bad grains in the porter or the distractions of a pretty bar girl, but whatever it might have been I was soon lost in the streets behind the inn. At first each corner seemed familiar, more familiar than the last so that the feeling that I was lost was momentary until I reached a dead end and felt a sudden terror at being more lost than before. I doubled back, laughing as I did so at my silliness, choking back the brief knot of fear that had climbed into my throat. But doubling back did no good. The iron railed maze grew thicker, and soon I noticed that the houses I was passing had no light falling from their windows. Nor did they have curtains to close upon the world at night. They were empty dwellings.
I did not remember when my walk turned from a scurry into a full-blooded run. The first fall hurt, the skin breaking on my knee and on my elbow. The velvet on my coat tearing as if it had been ripped by something sharper than stone. I scrambled back up and was sure I had seen a face briefly staring at me from behind a window and I called out but there was no reply. Not stopping to look behind me I rushed on and fell again as I turned the corner.
The light had gone from the sky when I awoke, unaware of how long I had been out for and felt the blood drying upon my temple and the dirty water in the gutter cold against my stomach. Pulling myself up I noticed nothing but one thing. How this street was suddenly so different to the others I had run down. It was not as long and it was not as narrow. It broadened out and at its end was a shop from which fell light. A yellow glow, an unnatural projection of warmth. I ran towards it and collapsed through the door. A bell sounded above my head as it did so, it startled me but not so much as the solid thud of the door closing fast behind me. I turned and looked up. Above a finely glazed and polished wooden counter was a long single shelf upon which stood a continuous row of sealed jars with pickled contents lurid in colour and mis-shapen in form, frogs with blistered throats and sticklebacks with mutant spines, outsize minnows and freakish mice, and some jars simply labelled 'eyes', 'organs', 'sweetnesses'. Every sixth or seventh label bore a description of a quarry, 'Christmas Morning Pike', 'Moonless Perch', 'Whitsun Trout'. All inscribed by a delicate hand in dark red ink. On the counter standing guard stood a crow, its beak like a thorn stolen from a Bible passage and its glistening black eyes like two drops of poison. It was tethered from the neck by a fine silver collar that appeared to be engraved and which led in turn via a linked chain to a brass loop that had been nailed into the floor.
I could feel my own blood pulsing as it was pressing against my temples. I was sure somebody other than myself had just entered the room but my eyes told me that I was still alone except for the bird on the chain. I could just make out a human voice, no louder than a whisper in the corners of the room either side of me. I swung round but there was nothing just my own reflection in the glass of the shop door. Oh, I did not recognise myself so mad did I look, so dishevelled, so fearful and reduced. Suddenly in the same reflection a shadow moved past the open doorway in the corner of the room. I turned and called out but my words were like dry sticks in my throat. This time I leapt across the room and through the door but was forced back. Even though the divide was no more than air the temperature was far colder as I forced my frame across the threshold. This antechamber was furnished simply with a table and chair. On the table was a candle that had been recently lit. The light from its flame flickered off the walls but barely reached the hearth opposite, which looked as if it was more a place where eels slept than a place to seek warmth. There was no evidence of what or whom had formed the shadow. My heart was now beating so loudly I could barely contain it. It felt as if I could take it from my chest and set it on the table so free of my body was it. I began to laugh hysterically and uncontrollably at this thought, images of my wife and child passing before me before the smell of camphor filled my nostrils, the light from the candle was extinguished and in the blackness and in the deep cold the eels I had imagined asleep in the hearth began to writhe and silently cross the floor towards me.
Able Critch's shop always remained closed on a Thursday with its door firmly locked from the inside and its blinds pulled down, so that fresh bait could be prepared in private. 'At the Sign of the Crow' spelled the legend on his gold edged trade card, and so said all who were asked by strangers where the best place was to buy meats and pastes with which to angle. It was said his recipes came from the annals of an angling club whose identity was so old and so secretly guarded that no one had ever known anyone be asked to join it. Rumour surrounded the whereabouts of its meetings, none of which had ever been reported. Critch's prepared baits worked better than any other accepted temptation and his disciples, of whom there were dozens across the city, never spoke of empty baskets. It was said that Able had not been seen beyond his shop since his wife had perished in a sudden fire, not even to visit their beloved daughter, a remarkably pretty girl who worked at The Folly Inn on the adjacent street and who had a reputation for her kindness to strangers. No, for all of his fame Able Critch did not fish, and preferred only the company of a crow for whom he had had a silver collar made on which was a simple inscription in the tiniest of hands which began,
'Sing what I heard you chant the other noon
The verse I kept though I forget the tune'