One day Zuzana was walking along the banks of the Danube. She was singing the song Katyusha. It was a gray November day, cold, but dry. Great was Zuzana’s surprise when drops of water hit her face. She heard a splashing sound and a voice:

‘My black haired fay, you are the one who can undo this curse.’

It was a fish. A talking fish. The fish was moving so energetically drops of water kept jumping out of the water.

‘A talking fish!’, cried Zuzana. ‘Have I accidentally put magic mushrooms in my omelet this morning?’

‘You are not hallucinating. I have been waiting for you. An old witch called Hroznaja Putinkova has turned me into a fish. But she said I will become my old self if you let me lie in your lap.’

‘You are a fish, sir. If you lie in my lap you will simply die.’

‘Not true. In anyone else’s lap I will surely die, but not in yours. The old hag told me so.’

‘An old hag turns you into a fish and then you believe she gives you reliable instructions on how to undo the spell? For a smart fish you are quite naive.’

‘I swear it’s true. Let me jump into your lap. You will see. I was a Teutonic knight in 1244. I will become myself again in your lap.’

‘With your armor and helmet? That will be heavy in my lap!’

‘Zuzana, Queen of Dough, you have to let me be revived in your lap.’

‘How do you know my name? And why do you call me Queen of Dough?’

‘Because you are a pastry chef. The hag told me so.’

‘This is all very strange. And I have very little time. I have a cranky boss. He will yell at me if am late to bake pizzas.’

‘Please consider it. You have nothing to lose. In the worst case I die, but I have been in the water since 1244. And it gets more polluted with each passing year.’
‘So you are a fish who cares about the environment. I most certainly ate paprika chips laced with LSD or something… Am going now.’

‘Please come back later. We can discuss this further.’

Zuzana went to work. Her boss yelled a bit.

She said: ‘Sorry, but I got held up by a talking fish with strange requests.’

Her boss: ‘You shouldn’t be drinking this early in the day! That’s the problem with kitchen staff all over the world. They all love drugs!’

Zuzana produced pizza after pizza and kept thinking about the fish.

I should at least have asked his name, she thought. I am usually much more well-mannered.

After work she went back and yelled out:

‘Fish are you sleeping? I have brought a slice of pizza Napolitana!’

‘Is there fish on there? Cause I have made friends with some and don’t want to eat them.’

‘You’re a picky fish. What is your name?’

‘Wilhelmus Of Flanders.’

‘That’s quite a mouthful for a fish.’

‘It is my name. If you make me human again I can even write it for you. I can write it with a pen under your tattoo of Rune symbols.’

‘How do you know about that?’

‘The hag told me so.’

‘What else did she tell you about me?’

‘That you have a pure heart and love justice. If I can convince you to restore my humanity, then I shall have earned it.’

‘This is all most quaint, yet fascinating in a way.’

‘So can I jump in your lap?’

‘Am wearing my favorite pair of jeans. Before I risk letting you stain them I will need more information.’

‘Ask me anything.’

‘Why did she turn you into a fish? Tell me the truth.’

‘I will always tell you the truth. The hag said it would be my only chance.’

‘It really is. I am an honest woman and I value honesty above all things.’

‘She turned me into a fish for stealing food.’

‘I am not liking this. Why did you steal food? You were a knight. What kind of knight steals food?’

‘We were a band of Teutonic knights. We were wandering around. Looking to fight the Mongols. We had been trekking through dense woods for weeks and had a lot of trouble hunting game. It was winter. Eventually we stumbled upon a wooden house. We entered the house and took all the food we could find. We gorged ourselves on it. What was left we stuffed into our pockets and our saddle bags.’

‘Terrible. You are a thief.’

‘Honestly, the only thing in this world I want to steal is your heart.’

‘We will see about that. What else happened? When did you run into the hag?’

‘Well, before we rode off the family who lived in the house arrived. They had been collecting wood. They looked thin and pale. It was a woman and her son. When I spotted them I felt sorry for what we had done and returned most of the food I had taken. The others kept all they had stolen and rode off. I apologized to the woman and to the child and gave them one of my daggers as a form of compensation. The woman tried to attack me with it, but me and my horse stormed off.’

‘Of course she attacked you. So would I. She had no use for a dagger until you took her food.’

‘I know.’

‘And the hag? I suppose the woman you robbed was not the hag.’

‘Well, ironically she took the dagger to the hag. It was excellent steel and quite expensive. She used the dagger to pay the hag to curse us.’

‘All of you were turned into fishes?’

‘No, all the others died of food poisoning. They suffered horribly for five days. I was there and saw their horrible ordeal. They coughed up blood and eventually coughed up their intestines. On the sixth day I found myself in the water of the Danube. As a fish. The hag found me and explained she hadn’t killed me, because I had returned most of the food I had taken. But she did punish me and left it to a woman similar to the one I had robbed many, many years in the future to decide if I had been a fish long enough.’

‘I will have to think about this’, said Zuzana.

‘Please do. I think I have been a fish long enough.’

‘Of course you do.’

‘So may I jump in your lap now?’

‘No, you may not. And you are not getting this slice of Napolitana pizza after what you have just told me.’

‘That’s understandable.’

‘You will have to prove you are worthy of being saved in my lap.’

‘But how? I am only a fish.’

‘You made a woman go hungry, so I will cook soup from you and feed you to the homeless.’

‘That’s cruel.’

‘It is not. You have never tasted my soup. I am a great cook. I can prepare delicious soup.’

‘I mean it would be cruel towards me.’

‘In my home country of Ukraine women are at this very moment being robbed of their food. Do you see how this angers me?’

‘Yes, I know. I have heard.’

‘How have you heard? You are a fish! You have a radio down there?’

‘No, but many people go on walks along the Danube and I overhear many conversations.’

‘I see.’

‘How can I prove to you I am worthy of being saved?’

‘What will you do when you are turned into a knight?’

‘I will protect and serve you for the rest of your life as your devoted benefactor.’

‘And steal my food?’

‘No. I will not take from you what you do not offer me.’

‘How tall were you?’

‘It was the middle ages. We were not so tall back then.’

‘That could be a problem. I will look ridiculous if I have a knight protecting me who is smaller than me.’

‘How tall are you?’

‘176 cm’

‘Hmm, so was I.’

‘I tend not to wear high heels, so being the same height is still acceptable to me.’

‘So may I jump in your lap?’

‘Hmm. Describe me in five words and if they please me I will set you free.’

‘Hmm… You are inventive. You can make do with very little and be very economical. Whatever you are given you make more out of it.’

‘You are very lucky. If you had begun by saying I am beautiful or have sparkling eyes or that kind of cheesy words you would stay a fish forever. So go on. Four more.’

‘You are like a rose in the desert. No matter where you are you manage to add a touch of beauty.’

‘So far you are doing well.’

‘You treat everything in life as either a lesson or a blessing.’

‘That sounds like you got it from a meme on Instagram.’

‘I don’t have a smartphone. I am a fish.’

‘I know. Am joking. Go on.’

‘You will do anything for those who make you feel safe and treasured.’

‘Of course. So, come on, Wilhelmus of Flanders, one more.’

‘You are a strong, adult woman, but you have kept the child in your alive. You are still able to marvel at all the little daily wonders this world has to offer. You have not turned so bitter that you do not greatly appreciate flowers or the smallest acts of kindness such as the way someone arranges the food on a plate he presents to you with love and tenderness. Whatever you touch you touch deeply and whatever you let touch you is carefully selected and is firmly embraced by you.’

‘That was nice, but you shall stay a fish.’

‘What?’

‘Kidding. Sir Wilhelm of Flanders, did the hag tell you all these things about me or how do you know?’

‘I just feel it by looking at you.’

‘I do not understand how this is possible, but I feel you have painted a very accurate picture of me. So how do we do this? Can you jump all the way up or should I scoop you up and drop you in my lap?’

‘The banks of the Danube are quite steep. You will have to scoop me up.’

‘I will have to return with some fishing net.’

‘How I have always dreaded fishing nets. And yet how I have longed for you to turn up with one and make me into your knight.’

Hours later she returned. She had to correct her son’s homework so she needed a little time to go and get the fishing net.

She dropped the fish in her lap while sitting on a bench right next to the Danube. The fish lay there completely still and only kept repeating, ‘this is heaven, this is heaven’.

‘Are you planning to change into a knight any time soon, because if not I’d like to go home and prepare filled dumplings for tomorrow and kasha.’

Upon these words the fish kissed her thigh and instantly grew into a knight. His armor was a little rusty, perhaps from lying in the water for so long.
He pushed his forehead against her forehead to assure her that height-wise everything was ok.

They walked home together and were never separated from that moment forth.

He never stole her food, but did manage to steal her heart, not once, but tens of times each single day.

Every day she woke up to a new poem ready on her night stand.

He always slipped a small gift into her purse before she went off to work. For her to unwrap at her job. With colleagues staring and wishing they would also find a talking fish one day.

Every day upon her return from work there was a loving message for her on the kitchen table composed with Scrabble leters.

Every day she went to bed with kisses in the form of a cross, a kiss on her forehead, both her shoulders, the middle of both arms, the middle of her chest and right above her belly button.

Her knight always found more ways to celebrate her existence.

And most of all he liked to lie in her lap and read her poems out loud while she stroked his fins, well, not really his fins, but his hair.

She often checked if he did not smell like a fish anymore, but oddly he smelled more like buttercookies.

Every day on her name’s day, the 11th of August, they went to the spot near the Danube where they had found each other and organized a barbecue. They always made it into a feast, with abundant food, songs and dance.

Anyone hungry was welcome to join. The night always ended with him in her lap telling her it was the place where he belonged.

Hope you enjoyed this fairy-tale,

Much love,

William

rusalka

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