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.