XXXII. IV: THE de FICHEY CODE
A story by James A. Clapp
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During the Eighth Crusade, under the leadership of France’s beloved Louis IX, the coastal city of Acre in Palestine had been under Christian siege for more than two years. The French were becoming dispirited. Another Summer had come and the Gallic knights were roasting in their armor under the merciless sun and torrid mistral. Their ammunition was as low as their morale. They were close to calling a cessation to the crusade and cede the city to the Infidel.
One evening, after yet another day of fruitless sweaty effort, one of the French knights, Sir Guy-Phillippe de Fichey, was walking along the shore of the Mediterranean dreaming of his faraway home in Fichey-sur-Loire, when he came upon the carcass of a very large fish. The putrefaction of the fish fouled the air for hundreds of meters in every direction. It was all the knight could do to keep down his meager ration of paté de fois gras and andouilles de Provence avec sauce Mousseline , washed down with a Côtes de Rhone of exceptional vintage, followed by . . . well, we haven’t got all day. . .
But the knight, Sir Guy, was not so distracted by the rotting fish to hatch a plan. By next day he had convinced the King of the worthiness of his plan, a plan that just might give the city, and honor, back to the men of the Cross. And so, gasping and gagging the Christian knights mashed the flesh and of the dead fish into a paté offensive to the nose and repugnant to the eye, and rolled the it into balls the size of apples. In the blazing sun these were loaded on their catapults launched their boules de poisson over the walls of the Infidel city to fester in the streets and suffuse their homes with horrible stench.
The French knights anticipated that the Infidel would not be able to hold out under such intolerable conditions for more than a few days. But as it happened the French had made a terrible military miscalculation, one to rival Agincourt and Waterloo. The French Crusaders did not know that the Infidel, their own food supply exhausted, were themselves on the edge of surrender when the rotting fish balls rained over their walls. Having already consumed rats, insects, and old shoes the taste buds and gastro-intestinal systems of the Infidel had survived sufficient assault to risk ingestion of putrid poisson.
Fortified with this rich, if most unsavory, windfall of protein the Infidel counterattacked, spilling from the gates of Acre, and with new strength and bad breath, they drove the surprised French knights into the sea. That night the remaining French knights dragged themselves ashore to be captured for ransom. But Sir Guy, fearful that the King would want his head for leading him into this blunder, clung to a piece of driftwood for two days. Rescued by a fishing boat he made the long way back to Europe in defeat and disgrace.
In the months it took him to reach his beloved France Sir Guy had thought often of his miscalculation. He came to the conclusion that, if the fish balls and allowed the Infidel to fight with such fury, the same fishballs might be used to fortify a force that would restore honor to the French Crusaders. He clutched this hope as tightly as he clutched beneath his tunic a clay jar containing six of the fisballs floating in briny water.
But here our story, taken from the memories of Sir Guy, becomes clouded. For, in passing through the city of Beaune, Sir Guy fell ill with a plague that was scourging these lands. The order of nurse nuns who tended the sick at the Hotel-Dieu found the knight delirious and near death in the gutter, clutching his jar beneath his ragged clothes. For days he lapsed in and out of consciousness.
All the while the fish balls remained in the clay jar beneath his sickbed, not far from his chamber pot. One day a new nurse mistook the one for the other. When she opened the jar of fish balls she gasped “this man must be very ill indeed!” Only when another nurse noticed and told her that the jar was the Sir Guy’s only possession did she replace them beneath his sickbed. Thus the story of the fishballs nearly ended in a toilet in the hospital at Beaune.
Sir Guy knew none of this, his mind being blurred with fever and delirium. And it was during his fevers that he had a recurring dream. In the dream a beautiful young woman in white appeared to him. At each appearance she would implore him: “Guy, Guy, you must not use the balls of fish as implements of warfare. Long ago I used to make the balls of fish for my son, whose fishermen friends would bring him fish from the Sea of Galilee. He and his friends ate the balls of fish with great relish. Except one, a vegetarian, named Judas. My son who was a teacher and a man of peace often said that if he knew which supper would be his last he would order the balls of fish to savor with his friends. I will spare your life, Guy, if you will give your balls of fish to a man of good will.”
“How will I know such a man?” murmured Guy in his delirium.
“You will know,” the beautiful Lady said, “you will know.” And she receded into the mists of his mind.
Some weeks later Sir Guy, en route to Paris, was passing through the town of Joigney. In his tunic he cradled the jar of fish balls, uncertain of what fate was in store for him, or the boules de poisson .
The moment of reckoning presented itself to Sir Guy as he was about to enter a tavern. Suddenly, sprawled at his feet was a young man who had been thrown from the tavern by its burley proprietor. “Voleur! Thief!” he roared at the prone young man. “You have insulted me, you have insulted my patrons, you have insulted France, but most of all you have insulted Bacchus!” And with that he kicked the young man in the backside, driving his face into the mud. “Take that, Monsieur Daveeed!” he shouted sarcastically.
“Are you injured?” inquired Sir Guy, reaching down to assist the young man.
“Mostly my pride, sir,” he replied sheepishly. He seemed a kindly, pleasant appearing young man to Sir Guy, although his nose seemed somewhat large for his face.
“I am a knight of the Eigth Crusade,” said Sir Guy. “You are a little man. If you wish I will restore your honor by beating that tavern-keeper within an inch of his life!”
“Oh, please do not harm him sir,” implored the young man, “there has been enough violence.”
Sir Guy was touched by the young man’s pacifism. And he was also reminded of the lady in white and her admonition. Noticing that the young man was very thin he offered him the only food he possessed, one of the boules de poisson . He could scarcely believe it when the young man wolfed it down and asked for a second one. Could it be the sign the lady in white told him to seek?
They spent the day together. Sir Guy told the young man of his adventures on crusade, and he was surprised to learn that the young man wished to go to the Holy Land himself. He told Sir Guy that he was a Hebrew and that his people had roamed Europe since the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. His family were vintners, but he was the only one left. To his misfortune he could not even give away his wine; everybody hated it, particularly the French;trop doux they complained. “That is why the tavern-keeper abused me, because of my wine,” he said sadly. “If only I could return to the land of my people, perhaps they would buy my wine.”
That night, as they prepared to sleep in the fields, the young man asked if he could have another boule de poisson. “I can only offer you a drink of my wine in return,” he said sheepishly, pulling his last bottle out of his sack. Sir Guy gave him the fishball and reached for the wine. He lifted the bottle and swallowed a mouthful. He gagged and winced, and wheezed to the young man: “Jesus! This stuff sucks!” He went to sleep and dreamed again of the lady in white.
In the morning he gave the young man another fish ball, but gently declined his offer of wine. Then he said: “We must part now, but I believe that you are a man of good will. I wish you good journey to the Holy Land, please take these remaining two fish balls to sustain you on your way.”
The young man had tears in his eyes, and not because Sir Guy declined to accept the bottle of wine as a return gift. “You are an noble man, Sir Knight, may your God bless and keep you,” he said choking back the tears.
“And yours, you,” said the knight.
They had only separated by a hundred paces when Sir Guy turned at called back to the young man: “Young man, I do not even know your name, may I know it to better remember you?”
“I am Mogen, David Mogen, Sir,” he called back.
“Mogen, David Mogen. Mogen, David Mogen,” Sir Guy mumbled to himself, “odd name, Mogen David Mogen.”
Then the young man called back: “Sir Knight, may I also have the honor to know your name that it may be spoken with respect throughout my homeland?” And for the first time since the defeat and disgrace at Acre Sir Guy told someone his full name. With newfound pride he called back, ” Je m’appelle Sir Guy-Phillipe de Fichey.”
But the distance between them and the rustling of the trees obscured the knight’s name. The young man did his best to remember how to pronounce it, and so he would begin and end each day with the prayer: “Oh Lord of us all, bless and keep our land and its people, and please bless and keep Guy-filtefishe.
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On June 13, The Jerusalem Post reported that for two weeks prior to their victorious Six Day War the Israeli Armed Forces were reputedly fed a diet exclusively of gefilte fish. Deputy Minister of Defense Dov Mogen was asked to confirm the report, but said the matter was “classified”.
©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.14.2006)
This story was originally titled “The Legend of Guy-Phillippe de Fichey” and was written for the birthday of a friend of the faith of Abraham. Despite the fact that I had for many years kidded my dear departed friend, Denis Sanders, about “gefilte burgers” and “Gefilte a l’Orange,” or my favorite, “Gefilte with Truffles and White Chocolate Sauce,” I must confess that I have never partaken of this . . . ahem . . . delicacy.