Once upon a time, a duck laid an egg.
While most ducks choose a nice pile of straw in some homely duck pen, this one chose the damp and draughty cellars of Wherwell Abbey, a monastery of some substance in the wilds of Hampshire.
Those wandering newsmen may have embroidered the tale a little. For duck, someone at some point substituted a cock’s egg. It added a suitably unnatural backdrop for what was to follow.
Anyhow, the egg was not incubated by anything with feathers. No: it was reputedly a toad which took on this duty of care, incubating it for the 28 necessary days, down there in the damp green-and-grey subterranean gloom.
No one relates what happened to the toad when the egg hatched. I don’t hold out much hope for it, myself.
Because what came out was a cockatrice.
The description of a cockatrice sounds like a joke. Two legs, a serpent’s body and a rooster’s head. But peasants in the village of Wherwell laughed like drains, right up to the moment it stared them to death, sco0ped them up and took them back to its lair for supper.
The ability to kill with a look: it’s there in our proverbs and our folklore. “Oooh, ” we chorused when someone crossed Margaret Thatcher on camera, “if looks could kill!”
Only a few decades after this incident, John Donne was weaving his arduous pentameter round the eye-beam:
“Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread /Our eyes upon one double string.”
Shakespeare has similar allusions. They refer to a stream of energy emitted from the eye which held the power to change. “So sweet a kiss,” runs a set of lyrics he wrote in The Lover’s Tears, “the golden sun gives not to those fresh morning drops upon the rose/ As thy eye-beams, when their fresh rays have smote the night of dew that on my cheeks down flows…”
The eye-beam was a powerful instrument, and the cockatrice had one which could prove fatal.
So: the cockatrice emerged from the cellar on a regular basis to select dinner. Lives were lost, and the villagers would not stand for it. In traditional fairy tale style, they got together and stumped up a bounty to slap on the cockatrice’s beaked head.
Cash was in short supply, but land was a possibility. The terrified villagers offered four acres of land to whoever could rid them of this nightmarish duck-spawn.
At which point a Mr Green came forward.
He was a servant with an ingenious idea. He got a piece of metal and polished it, burnished it, so highly that it offered a serviceable reflection.
And gingerly, in fear and trembling, he lowered it into the cellar which was the cockatrice’s lair.
Whereupon the cockatrice behaved much like the caged budgerigars of today: he began to head butt his reflection, attacking the other cockatrice which had come through the looking glass to invade his territory.
For what seemed like endless days, the people-slaying stopped; but great howls could be heard from the cellar as the cockatrice attacked again and again. Mothers clung to their children, and mens’ hands were constantly on the rude weaponry which would prove paltry if ever the beast came their way.
But eventually, exhausted, it fell to the ground, And Mr Green nipped in with a spear and finished him off. His four acres are called Green’s Acres to this day: and for many years the local church had a weather vane in the shape of a cockatrice.
It is said as late as the 1930s, villagers in Wherwell were not overly fond of duck’s eggs.
I’m not really surprised.