I swam back as quickly as I could to the mass. Many fish had been awoken by Jody’s screams. Policefish were assessing the damage. They were muttering about an act of nature, which was commonly accepted as the only reason anyone died around here. I screamed towards the huddled clump of scaly bodies.
“No! It was not an act of nature! I’ve seen what’s really happening! Listen, please.”
The fish, many of whom recognized me from my charity program earlier that day decided to turn their attention to my plea.
“I didn’t tell any of you this, but I went up to see the stars last night. Then I went again tonight. What I saw there, I can barely describe. They’re sending us food! They’re hooking us!”
Constable Catfish interrupted. “What is that fish bubbling about?”
“Let me explain! We’re being used as food! Don’t take what they send you!” Before I could reveal who it was that was hooking us, I felt a fin reach around my head and cover my mouth. I tried to fight it, but I couldn’t. The fin just held more tightly. A voice I recognized called out from behind me. “Sorry, Constable Catfish. He’s my friend. He hasn’t been getting much sleep lately. I’ll take him home.”
The Constable sighed. “Thanks, ma’am,” I knew the voice behind me perhaps better than my own. “Oh, and if you please, make sure he gets some rest.” It was Justine. We had been friends for a while. We loved having conversations about the most interesting things. She always had the best sense of humour, and she loved to sing.
“Yes, sir,” she responded politely.
We made our way to my pebble shack in silence. Just as we reached the door, she turned around and looked me deeply in the eye. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll never mention that again.”
“No, Justine, you don’t understand. They’re killing us!” Again, Justine’s fin wrapped around my mouth, as her other fin touched her lips to indicate that I should be more candid. “Shhhh. C’mon, let’s go inside. We need to talk.”
I opened my door, embarrassed about the clutter everywhere. A few provocative issues of Muskellunge were lying on my stone coffee table. I quickly batted them under the table and sat on my igneous rock sofa. I instantly launched into my argument.
“Why won’t you let me warn you? Terrible things are happening.”
“Look, I know all about it.”
“There’s no way. You know about the food?”
“Yes, and the giant thing up there. It’s called a boat. In it, there are giant creatures that take us out of the water whenever they want.”
“If you know about it, why don’t you try to stop it?”
“I’m trying. But you can’t just run around yelling at people. You wanna know what’ll happen? You’ll be put out at the zenith.”
“The zenith?” The zenith is the prime spot for hooks. No one goes there anymore, but it is rumoured that long ago, fish were taken to the zenith as a punishment. I had taught the lesson a hundred times at school. There was a group of rebellious fish, and their minds were set against the schools. All they wanted was destruction and anarchy. They kept talking about a boat, and how we needed to relocate. For this, they were sent to the zenith, where they were quickly fished out. I could still recall the sounds of my students’ voices, speaking in unison, responding to my question in class: “And what should we do to avoid being sent to the zenith?” “Never rebel! Stay in school!”
“So you’re just echoing the lessons, then!” I accused Justine. “You’re the same as all the other fish!”
Justine crinkled her eyes. “No, I’m smart. And I’m right. If you want to make change, you don’t do it by flapping around and stirring up a tidal pool. Think about it. If you rebel and get put at the zenith, what have you done? You’ve only served as an example. You’ve reinforced the idea in the minds of other fish that rebellion means death.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“Do what I do. I sleep with one eye open, looking for hooks. I’m passing the tests, and hitting the marks. I’m keeping my head low while swimming up. Once I rise to the level of principal, I’ll be able to make changes and steer us into better waters. Until then, I do what I can to get by. And I suggest you do the same. Do this charity thing everyone’s talking about. Be beyond reproach. But when it comes to it, don’t forget what you saw.”
The tension eased, and soon we were talking about neutral things again. Making jokes. I loved to see her laugh again, and I couldn’t help but smile. Then I suggested something.
“Can I show you something? Follow me.”
“I promised the Constable I’d put you in bed.”
“Aw, c’mon. Just one little thing.”
I brought Justine to the edge of the schools and led her out quickly, fin in fin. She was pleading not to leave, but I pressed on. I really wanted to show her the stars. Once she saw them, she’d know what I knew: that there was something beyond this world.
Finally, we reached the surface. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Yes, I love them. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here. Jacob brought me here.”
“Really? Did you go into them together?”
“I’m not going to tell you what I did with Jacob.”
“No, of course not. Sorry.” There was silence for a moment, and I turned to her. The starlight radiated in her eyes as she stared out beyond the surface. I broke the silence abruptly, and judging by her response, my timing was terrible. “Will you go with me?”
Justine looked at me with soft, sad eyes. “I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s a special experience, going to the stars together. It really means something. It really meant something to me before, and I—” I hung onto her words, hoping she might change her mind. “Look. We’re really good friends. I don’t want to jeopardize what we have, because what we have is truly special. Once you’ve gone to the stars with someone, it’s never the same again. You can never look at each other the same way. And after, if you swim away from each other, you know you’ll never be friends again. I’m too close to you to want to take that risk. I hope you understand.” Justine began to head back toward the schools. I started to follow, and then I stopped myself. As she went off, I mouthed, “I understand.”
Of course I understood. What does it matter? There are plenty of fish in the sea. But what other fish would ever want to take the risk of flying past the surface? She was the only one I could imagine really understanding all this. I got a feeling in my gills that we would look out at the stars together again one day.