family stories: flying fish (pt. 5)

“It’s okay to eat fish, ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.”
-Kurt Cobain

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.


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?

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.

family stories: flying fish (pt. 2)

I woke up after the experience, vague memories still brushing my mind. I knew I had been there, but it was all fuzzy. I can remember the dare: to be free. I remember thinking all sorts of things, and having some pretty strange delusions. Now, however, it was time to go to my school. I felt elated until I realized that everything was exactly the same as before, except now I had huge green bags under my eyes.

One of my coworkers commented on my eyes. Asked me if I’d been up all night. Then I acted in a way completely uncharacteristic of my former self. I snapped back by saying, “You know, it’s not about the looks. We’d all do a lot better to focus more on the important things.” My coworker just smiled, and agreed, swimming off with his team.

It was a long day, longer than I remember these days being. My mind kept floating off, thinking about the stars and when I would get a chance to see them again. I was training a new set of fish on how to properly swim after food. I found myself changing my usual speech. When I should have told them how to dart after the food, I ended up blurting out “You know, gathering food’s not the be-all-end-all of existence. There’s more to life than just swimming after food.” My unusual retort caused some fish to chuckle. One fish raised its fin and said, “So what you mean is that we should give food to others?” I thought about it for a moment. “Yes, we should be charitable.”

This was met with approving glances from most of the students who understood what I was saying. Be charitable. Great idea. After the warm feeling flowed through the school, I was met with a stern command from Jody, which was an order to visit the school principal.

I swam half-heartedly to the principal’s quadrant. The flatfish looked at me with his one working eye, wearing a giant frown. Mind you, it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking, because flatfish are always frowning. He began to part his bulging lips to say something, but I could not contain my outburst. “I know there’s something different about me,” I began in my own defense.

“Different, indeed. Jody tells me you’ve been changing the training, the training we have spent so many years establishing. You don’t need me to tell you how unusual this is.” I began to interject, but I had already been impolite, and something in the principal’s eye suggested I should hold my tongue. “Now the students are talking about charity…. and we think this is a wonderful idea! How could one fish persuade an entire class to become more productive, and gather more food? Your genius is undeniable. You should start the program at once. Your rations, naturally, will increase with the students’ productivity.”

A commendation from the principal! And a promotion! The principal winked at me as I left his quadrant, and I was feeling puffed with esteem, glad that I had for once done something unusual. Maybe our society isn’t as conformist as Jacob would have me believe. But there was still something nagging at me. I should feel on top of the sea at this point, so why did I still think something was wrong?

As I left the quadrant, I noticed a change in the way other fish were looking at me. They were either proud to know me, or jealous of my success. Either way, I was a superstar… stars

What had I learned last night? I had learned that I needed to be free. Obviously, learning about freedom was an important step, and my change of thought had brought on my current happiness. But it was something the principal had said that netted me. It was his use of the word persuade, perhaps, as though I had pushed the students to think something that they would not have otherwise considered. But that can’t be a bad thing. Maybe it was the words to become more productive. Were we really being charitable? Were we really thinking about others’ needs, or our own? Either way you sliced it, I was now thought of as the charitable fish. I was the one with the halo, the one who was doing some good in this sea. I could tell others about my charitable works, and easily appear to be the best fish in the school. This was a great power, and as I began to thank the stars for my newfound power and wealth, a thought dogfished me: Is it enough to simply be thought of as being good? Is it even desirable? What does it really amount to?

That night, I again strayed from the schools. I reached the surface and I saw something terrible. Lights were coming from the sky, and it was not the light of the stars. Nightfishing. A line dropped into the schools. I saw a fish, screaming and wriggling, being lifted out of the schools. I recognized her face before she disappeared into oblivion. It was Jody.

The lights were out. I peered up to the sky, looking for an answer. I thought of my commendation and promotion. Regardless, if I would have stayed in the schools that night, that could have been me screaming and fighting the taut line, instead of Jody. My success would have been worthless. Whatever good I had begun would be for naught.

Before the massive carriers above us belched their dark grey smoke into the water, signaling their departure, I saw something else. It was like rain. No, pebbles. Then it dawned on me. The same vessels responsible for fishing us out of the schools were the ones responsible for dropping the food. They were keeping us there in our own little protective ball, just so they could fish us out when they needed to take us away. I saw into the stars, and a new message appeared:

You are not free.