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Wet Stepping Stones
(Watch Your Step)

Short Story (1,860 words)

Ten years after his last visit in wartime the narrator goes to a village in Italy which he had known as a soldier. He talks to the priest, Father Rosario, who is called in when Giorgio, a villager, loses a watch which he is sure has been stolen by one of three friends with whom he has been drinking. The priest commands the thief to return the watch. Each of the suspects is sent away in turn for five minutes. At the end of this, Giorgio finds his watch has been returned, but does not know which of his friends was the thief. Father Rosario, however, has noticed that only one of the three has wet feet, the result of crossing Giorgio's flooded garden to replace the watch, and expects the thief at confession.

Although the setting is contemporary, drawing on Canning's memories of military service in Italy, the plot is pure folk lore. A version of it turns up, for instance, as "The donkey's tail" in Alice Geer Kelsey's compilation of stories about Mullah Nasreddin Once the Mullah (Longman, 1954). In that story Nasreddin's neightbour Hosein has had his new shoes stolen. There are nine suspects. The Mullah undertakes to set them a test. They are to go into his stable one at a time and pull his donkey's tail; when the thief pulls it, but only then, the donkey will bray. All nine men go into the stable and come out, but the donkey has not brayed. Now the Mullah sets the real test by smelling the men's hands. He has smeared spearmint on the donkey's tail. The eight innocent men smell of spearmint but the thief, who did not dare pull the tail, has no spearmint on his hands and now confesses.

First published in the Toronto Star Weekly, 27 November, 1953.
Reprinted as "Watch Your Step", Argosy, July 1954.
Included in the now discontinued collection Italy and the Balkans, edited by John Higgins,, 2010.
Included in the collection The Aberdyll Onion and other mysteries, Farrago Books, 2020.