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From 'The Spectre In The Lake'

by Douglas Harding

PART ONE – BEASTON

1. HODGE

The villagers of Beaston, as you might guess from its name, were animals – and that includes birds and fish and so on. All except Hodge, who wasn't sure what he was. Certainly they made him feel that, if he was an animal at all, he was a very poor sort of one. The village idiot, in fact. Not up to their standard by a long chalk.

He didn't like being the village idiot one little bit. It gave him a tight sensation in his chest and a droopy feeling in his arms and legs. But there were advantages. It did mean that he got the simplest – if not the cushiest – jobs to do, like walking along trails to firm them up into paths. Also it left him with plenty of time for just hanging around and looking at things.

On the day when this story starts, he happened to be looking at the village pond. Gazing straight down into the water, to be exact. It was a windless summer day, and for once the pond was free of duckweed, so that its surface was as smooth as a mirror. He was standing on a large projecting stone at the very edge. This was a good place because the pond was deep here, and the water was clear and interesting creatures were liable to turn up in it.

He was watching a trio of sticklebacks playing chase-me-charlie so swiftly that all he could make out were flashes of steely-blue light as they darted about, twisting and turning. Then away they shot as an old acquaintance of Hodge, Snouty the Enormous Pike, glided majestically into view, blowing one solitary bubble and with fins very slightly a-tremble. As if he were too calm and unflappable and dignified to do anything more showy and unsmooth.

He glided on, was lost to view…

And then it happened! The Thing came!

2. PODGE

Yes, the Thing arrived!

The Creature this tale is all about (well, not quite all) showed up at the edge of the pond. At Hodge's very feet.

At first, it was a pair of eyes – but what eyes! – and practically nothing else. Great, staring, unblinking eyes they were, so piercing – so transfixing – that Hodge could take in little else, and nothing of a face (if there was a face) to frame them. Hit as if by a burst of powerful radiation he staggered, and almost toppled over.

Then, gradually recovering just a little from the initial shock, he did make out something like a face. But the face of what creature?

Was it a fish, or was it a frog? Or was it neither? Whatever it was, this weird specimen of pondlife was unique, like no other he'd seen, even in his most astonishing dreams, let alone in waking life. A sort of podgy Globe Fish or Bullfrog it was, puffing and puffed up till it was as round as a football. Everything about Fat-face was strange, and fascinating, and vaguely disturbing. It was even beautiful – in a scary, dangerous kind of way. In spite of the heat of the day Hodge found himself shivering.

The name of the Underwater Thing was Podge. That's what Hodge called it, later on. It was a good name because it was descriptive, and because it connected neatly with his name, and also because it left open the question of whether the Thing was more fish than frog, or frog than fish, or whatever.

The question was a moot one, all right.

For a start, there was Podge's skin. Yes, its skin – not scales as worn by fish. What a contrast between that burnt-sienna surface, dead matt and leathery like the skin of a poisonous toadstool, and Snouty's iridescent and burnished chain-mail!

On the other hand, there was the Thing's mouth. Its too-pretty, too-rosy, too-Cupid's-bow lips, pursed and rather prissy and pouting at Hodge in what can only be described as a coy and arch manner, all too easy in a fish, impossible in a wide-mouthed, thin-lipped old frog.

As for limbs, the Thing seemed terribly handicapped. If it was a fish of sorts it appeared to be finless and tailless, and if it was a frog of sorts it appeared to be armless and legless. More likely these appendages were there all right but secretly tucked away in the rear, and making up for being exceptionally small by being exceptionally nimble. In fact the Thing, by never turning its back on Hodge, made sure he never caught it with its pants down, so to say. It kept him guessing.

Another funny thing about this fishy frog or froggy fish. Normal and sensible pond-dwellers look ahead and sideways: this one was staring no way but upwards, as if to say, "This watery element is all very well, but give me air!", or even, "Let me out of here!" As for the eyes themselves, they were oval instead of saucer-shaped like proper pond-eyes, and they were fringed with black lashes, and the left one was blue and the right one was hazel. In short, either this was the fishiest of frogs or the froggiest of fish; or else (and more likely) it was neither, and just a monster or freak. A terribly attractive monster or freak.

What got to Hodge most of all, what continued to enrapture him, was the absolute steadiness of those staring eyes – staring at him the village idiot, and no-one else. Not for a split second did they glance away from him, or blink, or flutter.

Most surprising, and disconcerting, and – yes! – flattering. He felt all funny. Never, never before had he been really looked at, by any of the villagers of Beaston. They didn't bother, were far too busy, weren't the tiniest bit interested in him anyway. Always they left him with the impression that the less they saw of him the better. For them a good Hodge was an absent Hodge, an invisible Hodge, even a Hodge that had never happened. And now, if you please, one of them (if it was one of them, which he doubted) was going to the other extreme. So fascinated with him, apparently, was this mysterious pond-dweller that it just couldn't take its eyes off him for a moment. What's more, it was actually looking up to him! As if he were somebody! As if he were quite something!

Well, you can imagine what that kind of attention, seemingly amounting even to adoration, meant to Hodge! To the village idiot who had always been for hushing up and overlooking, or looking through as though there were nothing to him, nothing to see in the space he somehow suspected he occupied.

Was this the sort of love at first sight which didn't last much longer than that? Or the glad eye, a passion too torrid to keep up? Or perhaps a piece of wizardry or magic which, once the spell of it was broken, was broken for good?

In search of an answer to these dimly formulated questions, he went off to brood in the wood that bordered the pond. And came back after fifteen minutes – with mingled hope and apprehension – to the same spot, and looked down again into the water.

Yes, there was Podge, still. With no eyes for anybody or anything but Hodge, the village idiot!

To say that he was astounded and flummoxed and grateful, and scared, all at once, would be to put it mildly.

He was also trembling once more, for no reason he knew of – as yet.

('The Spectre in the Lake' was first published in 1996.)

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