Sometimes in spring, when the big river flooded its banks and made lakes of the meadows, and the little rivers flowed deep, old Peter spent a few days netting fish. Also in summer he set night-lines in the little river not far from where it left the forest. And so it happened that one day he sat in the warm sunshine outside his hut, mending his nets and making floats for them; not cork floats like ours, but little rolls of the silver bark of the birch tree.
And while he sat there Vanya and Maroosia watched him, and sometimes even helped, holding a piece of the net between them, while old Peter fastened on the little glistening rolls of bark that were to keep it up in the water. And all the time old Peter worked he smoked, and told them stories about fish.
First he told them what happened when the first pike was born, and how it is that all the little fish are not eaten by the great pike with his huge greedy mouth and his sharp teeth.
On the night of Ivanov's Day (that is the day of Saint John, which is Midsummer) there was born the pike, a huge fish, with such teeth as never were. And when the pike was born the waters of the river foamed and raged, so that the ships in the river were all but swamped, and the pretty young girls who were playing on the banks ran away as fast as they could, frightened, they were, by the roaring of the waves, and the black wind and the white foam on the water. Terrible was the birth of the sharp-toothed pike.
And when the pike was born he did not grow up by months or by days, but by hours. Every day it was two inches longer than the day before. In a month it was two yards long; in two months it was twelve feet long; in three months it was raging up and down the river like a tempest, eating the bream and the perch, and all the small fish that came in its way. There was a bream or a perch swimming lazily in the stream. The pike saw it as it raged by, caught it in its great white mouth, and instantly the bream or the perch was gone, torn to pieces by the pike's teeth, and swallowed as you would swallow a sunflower seed. And bream and perch are big fish. It was worse for the little ones.
What was to be done? The bream and the perch put their heads together in a quiet pool. It was clear enough that the great pike would eat everyone of them. So they called a meeting of all the little fish, and set to thinking what could be done by way of dealing with the great pike, which had such sharp teeth and was making so free with their lives.
They all came to the meeting—bream, and perch, and roach, and dace, and gudgeon; yes, and the little ersh with his spiny back.
The silly roach said, "Let us kill the pike."
But the gudgeon looked at him with his great eyes, and asked, "Have you got good teeth?"
"No," says the roach, "I haven't any teeth."
"You'd swallow the pike, I suppose?" says the perch.
"My mouth is too small."
"Then do not use it to talk foolishness," said the gudgeon; and the roach's fins blushed scarlet, and are red to this day.
"I will set my prickles on end," says the perch, who has a row of sharp prickles in the fin on his back. "The pike won't find them too comfortable in his throat."
"Yes," said the bream; "but you will have to go into his throat to put them there, and he'll swallow you all the same. Besides, we have not all got prickles."
There was a lot more foolishness talked. Even the minnows had something to say, until they were made to be quiet by the dace.
Now the little ersh had come to the meeting, with his spiny back, and his big front fins, and his head all shining in blue and gold and green. And when he had heard all they had to say, he began to talk.
"Think away," says he, "and break your heads, and spoil your brains, if ever you had any; but listen for a moment to what I have to say."
And all the fish turned to listen to the ersh, who is the cleverest of all the little fish, because he has a big head and a small body.
"Listen," says the ersh. "It is clear enough that the pike lives in this big river, and that he does not give the little fish a chance, crunches them all with his sharp teeth, and swallows them ten at a time. I quite agree that it would be much better for everybody if he could be killed; but not one of us is strong enough for that. We are not strong enough to kill him; but we can starve him, and save ourselves at the same time. There's no living in the big river while he is here. Let all us little fish clear out, and go and live in the little rivers that flow into the big. There the waters are shallow, and we can hide among the weeds. No one will touch us there, and we can live and bring up our children in peace, and only be in danger when we go visiting from one little river to another. And as for the great pike, we will leave him alone in the big river to rage hungrily up and down. His teeth will soon grow blunt, for there will be nothing for him to eat."
All the little fish waved their fins and danced in the water when they heard the wisdom of the ersh's speech. And the ersh and the roach, and the bream and the perch, and the dace and the gudgeon left the big river and swam up the little rivers between the green meadows. And there they began again to live in peace and bring up their little ones, though the cunning fishermen set nets in the little rivers and caught many of them on their way. From that time on there have never been many little fish in the big river.
And as for the monstrous pike, he swam up and down the great river, lashing the waters, and driving his nose through the waves, but found no food for his sharp teeth. He had to take to worms, and was caught in the end on a fisherman's hook. Yes, and the fisherman made a soup of him—the best fish soup that ever was made. He was a friend of mine when I was a boy, and he gave me a taste in my wooden spoon.
Then he told them the story of other pike, and particularly of the pike that was king of a river, and made the little fish come together on the top of the water so that the young hunter could cross over with dry feet. And he told them of the pike that hid the lover of the princess by swallowing him and lying at the bottom of a deep pool, and how the princess saw her lover sitting in the pike, when the big fish opened his mouth to snap up a little perch that swam too near his nose. Then he told them of the big trial in the river, when the fishes chose judges, and made a case at law against the ersh, and found him guilty, and how the ersh spat in the faces of the judges and swam merrily away.
Finally, he told them the story of the Golden Fish. But that is a long story, and a chapter all by itself, and begins on the next page.