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The Catfish King

by James Taylor

An ancient Hungarian legend tells of a mythical violin with strings made from the whiskers of a giant catfish who guarded the passage to the underworld and collected drowned souls from the mud. Over the years, this story passed from the collective consciousness and was replaced by tales of horsemen riding from the steppes carrying iron guylas cooking pots and from years of oppression from the larger power to the east.

The story was picked up again, during the bleakest years of communism, by a young student called Kiraly, a quiet, curious student who lived with his parents in an unassuming apartment block in Budapest. The violin had been left to Kiraly by an elderly aunt from Szeged and arrived in an odd, oblong-shaped box that seemed best suited for carrying antique plumbing tools.

The violin’s lucent strings reminded him of the iridescent sheen of mother of pearl. Picking up the bow, he was astonished to find his hands dancing uncontrollably over the strings, and a music emanated that both tingled and unnerved him with a tempo that ebbed and flowed. The motifs seemed at one moment claustrophobic and all-encompassing and, the next moment, translucent and infinite.

Putting the violin back in its case, he felt unsteady on his feet, as if returning to shore after a trip on a boat, and there was a distant smell of dead fish and marsh. He went through the motions of going about his daily business, returning to steal a glance at the instrument, pick it up tentatively and allow himself some moments in the music.

As much as he tried to keep his secret, it was impossible. The apartment blocks were designed for suspicious neighbours, and these people gossiped to their friends of a new maestro living in their midst while others claimed a new radio had arrived from the West and demanded to know where it was it on sale.

And so it was, due to public demand, he found himself standing on stage, holding the violin in a brightly lit concert hall in central Budapest, in front of the most important and musical and a scattering of couples who pretended to be either important or musical. Taking the stage, Kiraly put violin to his chin. Silence befell the audience and, somewhere deep in Lake Balaton, something stirred in the mud.

At once, the bow danced as before; the audience melted into the distance, and he was alone with the wind blowing through his hair and the faint tang of seaweed. Waves crashed nearby, and the melody of the violin seemed to describe the very flecks and patterns of foam. There was the rumble of bass notes, as waves rose and thundered down and, somewhere, cymbals smashed together and told of shipwrecks and murder.

As the audience sat transfixed, their feet began to grow roots covered with seaweed and the art nouveau ornaments of the theatre turned into clams and oysters. Brackish water ran across their feet, and the perfume worn by women in the audience was replaced with the smell of wet salty wood and the cries of distressed seagulls in the distance.

The violinist played faster and faster, and the audience no longer remembered who they had been but were instead living a shipwreck about to happen. Two men were fighting on the bridge of the boat, silhouetted against racing clouds and a full moon. A knife flashed, red appeared and one of the men collapsed. The crew tumbled across the decks like a carousel fairground ride cast into black and white by a strobe light. Somewhere, in a far corner of the world, an orchestra played as if their lives depended on it.

The waters rose, the audience gasped and struggled and, by their neck gills, appeared as if they were the first creatures to crawl out of the lagoon onto land. Their bodies comprised a transparent backbone through which all light passed to a pair of simple eyes, the music revealing Siva’s dance: life and death, the eternal cycle defined by the incessant beat of the music, of which the violin was but a distant memory.

The audience had now completed their evolution into glistening, aquatic, water-breathing creatures and followed the hypnotic beauty of the music, which resonated underwater in minor keys, grew quieter and then drew them down inexorably into the depths. Leaving their world behind them, they fell gradually at ease, the music returning to the melodies of the violin, with gentle rising and falling harmonies.

In front of the audience on the seafloor, the source of the music was revealed as the giant whiskered Catfish King, fully the height of two men, sitting on a pearl encrusted golden throne and playing a violin, his smile beckoning his family to approach. Lost to themselves, the audience fell gently through the water to become embalmed in the finest clays of the sea floor.

What happened at the theatre that night? At around 10:00 pm, the doors opened, and salty water burst out into the surrounding streets. Some told of seeing fish flapping and barrelling down the street into culverts, storm drains, and the river. Others spoke of darting shapes and strange amphibian figures. Inside the theatre was the dank wreckage of a storm: seaweed hung off the smashed seats, the ornaments had cracked and peeled, and parts of the roof had fallen in. The remains of an empty violin case were found on the stage, but the player and his audience had vanished.

Next morning, some of the audience awoke to find themselves inside the city’s sewers or on the river embankment, their fine clothes ripped and torn. Others were found wandering by the shores of Lake Balaton, covered in mud and putrid silt.

Speculation arose that too much brandy had been drunk and that the audience had lost themselves or perhaps taken an ill-advised late-night taxi ride to someone’s summer cottage by the lake. The student Kiraly and the violin were no more to be seen.

Copyright © 2017 by James Taylor

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