family stories: flying fish (pt. 4)

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?

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family stories: flying fish (pt. 3)

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.”

“Oh, fine.”

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.