I swam back, trying to occupy my mind with something else. No boats. No hooks. No stars. No conspiracies. I wanted to forget what Justine had told me because I wasn’t sure if I was ready for what she had suggested. How could I live in these schools, knowing that we are all hunted, knowing that we could go to better waters, and whoever tries to help us ends up grilled? If I were to accept this, I would have to lead a double life: an inner life that is fully aware that my comfort comes at the cost of my freedom, and an outer life still completing the daily tasks demanded of me. Would it be better to live ignorantly, not feeling the need to bear this burden of knowledge? Or better to rebel completely and pay the price? Either option would be a release from this incredible responsibility. Is freedom not the release from responsibilities, to be as carefree as Jacob? Isn’t he the enlightened one?
Now I see Justine in a new light. I’ve seen that she cares more deeply than I would have ever imagined. She seemed as carefree as Jacob, until I found out that she knows, knows about it all. Yet she takes this burden, for what? How can she know about the boat, but still swim so happily? Could I ever have the strength to do that?
I am approaching the edge of the schools and every fish is asleep, dreaming about impossible things, or not dreaming at all. I twist around currents and arrive at my little stone house. I float down to my igneous sofa, awaiting another day of work.
The next day, however, only one of my students is lingering around the school. I find out from her that there is no school or work today. The students were excited until they learned that instead of work, there will be a big meeting of all the schools. Attendance is mandatory. I am also told that this meeting will be held on a weekly basis and that anyone who doesn’t attend will face consequences. I didn’t need to ask what those consequences might be.
I swam with the student to the center of schools and we awaited the arrival of Principal Flatfish. He swam in with a gentlefish we knew as John Pike, but Principal Flatfish introduced him as Pastor Pike. Pastor Pike greeted us all and thanked us for making time for the meeting of schools. He started by telling us that it had come to his attention that some of us were feeling a little fearful about hooks lately, and that we should endeavor to be calm and remain productive. He told us that in times of woe, when we are missing our hooked friends and families, that it is easy to let our souls sink, which Jerry Sole in the back of the crowd agreed was quite true. Pastor Pike told us about a concept that would resonate with our souls. Jerry Sole pricked up his earholes, thinking this advice was meant specifically for him.
Pastor Pike told us then about a concept called solevation. With solevation, we need never worry about hooks again. Now, it was more than just Jerry who was intent on listening. Death by hook was not just an act of nature, claimed the pastor, as we had previously been taught. Amongst the fish present, I was probably the most excited by this solevation idea. Whatever solevation was, it seemed now that the schools were willing to admit they were wrong, and finally we would know the truth. Was I responsible for this change of heart? Maybe Justine was wrong. Maybe what we all needed was a wake-up call, someone to tell the truth and accept the consequences. I was changing fish society and I didn’t even need to be a principal to do it.
Solevation, said Pastor Pike, came from understanding the truth. Once we could see the truth, we would enjoy an afterlife of swimming wherever we wanted to, for the rest of eternity. It was even better than I imagined. I wasn’t making things up. Not only would we not be punished for knowing the truth, we would receive great otherworldly treasures for it. I swam up close to the pastor, a wide grin on my face, ready to bask in the illumination of what I knew was true and right. The pastor gazed into the eager gleam of my left eye (which was all he could see with his right eye) and confidently continued.
“The fish who are hooked,” explained the pastor, “are not chosen arbitrarily. They are hooked because they are finners.”
This confused me, because until then I had thought the boat had been hooking fish indiscriminately. I asked what a finner is. The pastor told us that a finner is a fish like Jody. Always complaining. Always ruffling folks’ gills with her prickly temperament. Nods from the crowd affirmed that Jody in fact was a finner, for more than a few of the fish there had been hurt by her insensitive words. Jody’s family, who were still grieving, kept silent when they saw how many other fish agreed that she deserved her death.
The pastor’s lure was not enough for me to bite, however, and I asked how it was that the boat knew which fish were finners. He answered that it was not a boat. He told us that what I had called a boat was in fact the Almighty Cod, and he could spot finners because he knew everything. I disagreed and said that it was not a cod, but a boat. He asked me where I got this knowledge, and I replied that I had seen it when I went to where fish can fly to the stars.
“Fly to the stars? You are clearly delusional. Fish can’t fly,” the pastor pointed out. “Your whole theory makes no sense. Flying fish? Does anyone here believe a fish can fly?” No one in the audience, not even Jacob and Justine, would comply that fish could fly. The idea seemed ridiculous in this context, but I had proof. Well, my own proof, anyways.
“I can show you. If you will come with me to the stars, I will show you the boat, and how a fish can fly.”
“Delusional! Who could believe you? Here I stand, speaking the truth, and you interject with lies! From now on, no fish will be allowed to visit the surface and stare at the stars. Has anyone even seen these stars?” Again, not even Jacob or Justine would speak up in my defense. “No. Because you are mistaken. What you have seen is the shovel!”
Pastor Pike now held the audience. In proving my statements ridiculous, he was free to assert anything. He told us that the shovel is the last thing a fish sees before its head is bashed in. He told me that what I saw was the shovel, and if I persist in going to see it, or persuade others to do the same, I would be endangering everyfish on account of my shovel-worship. What he was saying was untrue! I needed to tell the fish the truth.
“No, it’s the people on the boat that have the shovel! The shovel is just a tool of this almighty cod you keep talking about!”
“You dare speak of the just and knowledgeable Cod this way? Do you want to deceive everyfish with your delusional talk and blatant shovel-worshipping? I hate to do this, folks. You’ve grown up with this young fish. He’s taught your children. For a while you loved him. Now he has gone crazy and become a shovel-worshipper, and he will endanger us all. He is no longer with the fish, he is against us. His soul has been replaced with the soul of the shovel.”
Not surprisingly, it was Jerry Sole who began the murmurs of dissent. A shovel worshipper among us? He must be stopped before we all get our heads bashed in! There was clamour and confusion. A fin grabbed mine and off I flew backwards, surely towards the zenith, or whatever other grisly fate awaited me for my impassioned outburst against the pastor.
I struggled against the fin clamping on my hand and turned to strike against it. Before I knew it, I was knocked out cold. What beautiful dreams followed in my captivity, dreams distorted by visions of head-crunching shovels!
A final thought grilled my mind before I lost consciousness completely and could feel no more. I have died telling the truth. Now, am I free?