“It’s okay to eat fish, ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.”
I am not dead.
I guess I was just dreaming all this. There was no Pastor Pike or greedy fins pulling me to the zenith. There was no talk of an almighty cod or finners. Mind you, I have one heck of a headache. What happened last night? And why am I on someone else’s couch?
I’m in a sparsely decorated home, but there is no light shining through. It feels like a woman’s abode, although little thought has been put into décor. The door before me begins to open. I can make out the face…
“Shhh. Keep your voice down.”
“I had this weird dream, there was no work that day and— oh, I should get ready!”
The now familiar feeling of her fin covering my mouth revisits me. “I said, keep it down! They’re looking for you!”
“The townsfish. You’re the enemy of the lake.”
I mumble something, restricted by Justine’s fin. She uncovers my mouth and touches her lips. “Shhh!”
“I said, we live in the sea.”
“It’s an expression. Your outburst last night nearly cost you your life.”
“So it wasn’t a dream. Why is everyfish after me?”
“Obviously you don’t understand how fear works. You’ve been labeled a shovel-worshipper. That means you may as well be the shovel. Every time fish look at you they will see their heads being bashed in. You gave the pastor that power by not minding your words. Now you’re here. You may as well get comfortable.”
I settled into the rock couch and Justine drew a breath, sinking back towards the door to grab a food pebble for me. “Oh, I understand fear. You were afraid, and so was Jacob, to speak in my defense! What kind of friends are you?”
Justine let a momentary look of rage grip her face and pass. She tossed me the pebble, but I felt too indignant to eat it. As I pouted, she eyed me condescendingly. “Friends who are smart enough to know how to help you. If either of us had said anything, we would be in the same hot water you were in. I wouldn’t have been able to help you escape, and all three of us would be on the hook. A real friend must still make good choices. I’m glad you’re alive. You should be glad for that, too.”
I thought about what she said and realized that she was right. If anything, I had been a bad friend to them. I was so lost in thinking I could stand for truth that I forgot about my friends, and what consequences might face them if they felt compelled to defend me publicly. I ate the pebble, visibly ashamed.
Justine continued. “You’re going to have to learn a few things. I think I’ll have to start from ground zero for you. First rule: Know nothing.”
“Why know nothing? By knowing about the boats, I know more than most. If I become ignorant, I will be just like the other fish.”
“I never told you that you should be ignorant. What you have found out is unacceptable knowledge. You can know it, but you must not speak of it, even if you are powerful enough to do something about it. Keep it in your heart and act according to your knowledge without speaking about it. It is unmentionable. The reason it is unmentionable is not just the threat of embarrassment. It’s worse. The consequence of this knowledge is death.”
“So I should pretend not to know about the boat?”
Justine breathed out a tired sigh and launched into a full explanation. “No, but to keep yourself safe, you should admit that you truly do not know the full situation. You know about the boat, according to what you saw. Within your mind you are perfectly aware that you have seen what you have seen. Regardless of what you think about the boat, you must only know what your eyes have perceived, and nothing more. You can be free to change your mind whenever new evidence presents itself. This keeps you from filling in details to make your perception understandable to you. What if you can’t completely comprehend the situation from all angles? I’ll tell you. Another fish will use an angle you have not considered and hook you with it. If you have not considered that angle, and how to respond to it, it is too easy for another fish to completely refute your entire claim. That’s what happened with Pastor Pike. He saw the flaw in your argument. Most fish don’t know about the boat, or flying, or stars. You don’t even really know about those things—not really. Pastor Pike used the schools’ ignorance, and yours, to make the claim that you’re deluded—and worse—dangerous.”
Justine’s muscles deflated, and her energy subsided. “Now I’m tired, and I need to sleep. I hope you do the same. Rest awhile, try to think of better waters, and whatever you do, don’t leave this house. I’ll try to figure out a way to clear your name, and we’ll work on how you can know about the dangers of life while still participating in it. Good night.”
Justine left and I began thinking. I thought myself into a spiraling dive and concluded that to truly understand what she had told me I would have to make another visit to the stars. If I ran into anyfish, I would have the chance to prove to Justine that I could put into action this dual life, of knowing about the dangers, but still maintaining an acceptable façade. I waited until I knew she was fast asleep, which wouldn’t take long in her tired state. I rushed out the door and swam up through the schools, doing my best to remain unnoticed. There were guards on watch at the edge of the schools, but they hadn’t spied me. I took the chance and gathered as much momentum as I could. Now the guards could see me, and they raced towards me, but I was too quick for them. I came closer and closer to the surface, the full prism of the light from those magnificent stars beaming down into the water. Three, two, one, break!
In these past few days, I had forgotten how good this felt, to be free of sounds and voices. The cool feel of the air surrounded me as I broke, and the new breath entered my gills. I breathed in the glistening diamond stars as they radiated around me. Music entered my earholes, an icy polyphony of crystalline dissonance. Ccrrriiickkk-crak-ssssssich-sakkkkk. Metal thud. Rock thud. Glisten click like ice smashing on the sea floor. Build, drop—steadyyyyyy. Then the message hit: Freedom comes at a cost.
“What cost?” I scream and wispy bubbles of vapour vibrate my gills. In a reply to my query, eyes appear, and a shadowy face.
You must sacrifice that which you love most.
“Society? The schools? My job? My life? Gladly! I will do it!”
No, that’s too easy.
“What then? What is harder to sacrifice than these?”
Much, MUCH harder to sacrifice is this…
“What? What is it?”
You might not be apt. This is the greatest sacrifice.
The eyes are getting clearer and more penetrating. They are green and grey marble reaching into the depths of my likeness. They are gripping my insides. The pain of anticipation is cleansing me dry. I flap and reach, looking for something to hold onto, but there is nothing. The tangible is now completely dissolved and I am only a vessel for this approaching word.
“Sacrifice release?” With this I am sent screaming down towards the water. There wait the guards who quickly swim me away from the surface, away from the stars, and directly to the zenith. No one is here to see my demise. Justine, you are sleeping. Jacob, you are dreaming. The principal, the pastor, and the whole network comprising this rotted, infested clump of scaly bodies— all are unaware that a hook is descending. The lights of the boat, sad replacements of the stars’ scintillating luminescence, get nearer as this painful prick drags me upward, out of water, onto wood, and the last thing I am aware of before the lights go out is a shovel quickly descending to end my life.
I am not dead.
I am staring into those eyes, but nothing tangible separates us but a word.
“This is what I must sacrifice?”
To be free.
“Am I still alive?”
You are always alive in me.
“What is next?”
What do you want?
“Let me be human. Let me be as those who are free from the schools, the conformity, the ceaseless chasing after pebbles of food, the meaninglessness of existence, and the threat of the hook.”
I can make you human, but the rest I cannot promise.
I am falling into a new pool. I feel safe and comfortable. Now I am breaking through the surface. I am screaming. I am crying. I am calmed by the pat of a fin, no, a hand. I am growing. I am learning. I am falling and getting up. I’m looking for Justine so I can tell her about everything I have learned. I am sacrificing the one thing I love most.