Plenty of Fish
by Casey E. Hamilton
“Tell me about the Skyfish Ladies,” said Hero that night, when Mother tucked her into bed. The excitement still coursed in her veins from this afternoon, and she wiggled a foot under the covers because she couldn’t lie still.
Until this afternoon, Hero didn’t know if she believed the tales, that Skyfish Ladies existed. But there was one at the parade, sitting in splendor on a throne of red crepe, insisting on her reality.
The Skyfish Lady made the same collection of crepe floats and shiny cars as last year seem new. The golden threads of her dress glinted as the dappled leaves of the trees lining the streets slid over her. The woman’s hair bobbed and swirled with the wind as if she were underwater.
The fish, a brilliant orange, opened and closed its mouth like Hero’s father did when he was angry. The woman took a pearl from a pocket in her dress and gave it to the fish, whose lipless jaws closed around it and a crackle of light spread across its body. Already they had burned themselves into Hero’s brain. A flash of gold, and her heart thudded harder.
“I have to tell it again, Hero?” said Mother.
Mother sighed then settled herself against the pillow. Hero tucked her head into Mother’s shoulder where she could listen to her voice rumble as she spoke the story.
“Once or twice in a generation,” Mother said, “there is a golden woman born, a chosen one. She is a woman who can hold a fish. The fish come to Coastown every year like a rainbow rain in the spring, flying out of the atmosphere and then disappearing as they come.
“A woman will reach out her hands to one, and the fish will stay. The crackling aura around the fish grants her magic when they link together. The woman and the fish are more than what they are alone. Together, they are extraordinary.
“That woman is important now, and her life will never be the same. Kings ask for her advice. Engineers use her for the levitation talents granted by the fish. People everywhere crowd close to see the electricity crackle around their bodies. She is exalted, and she wants for nothing.”
“How do the fish choose the women, Mother?” said Hero.
“I don’t know, Hero. I know there is a beach, and an institute to train girls for the task. There are grandstands on the beach, and some people watch.”
“Will we ever go see it?”
“No, Hero. You have to buy tickets. And it’s far away. Father and I could never afford it. But perhaps you will get there someday, if you work hard enough and become a successful businesswoman. My Hero can be whatever she wants to be,” said Mother, “even a woman rich enough to buy a seat in the stands at the Skyfish beach.” She ruffled her daughter’s hair and kissed her cheek goodnight. Then she blew out the oil lamp and closed the door.
Hero let the silvery moonlight settle across her bed, and replayed the parade in her mind. She clapped with the crowd and waved her flag. The Skyfish Lady rolled down the route with her palm extended upward, golden fish bobbing just above her fingers, a look of serene beauty on her face. Bits of loose paper from the float fluttered behind her.
Lightning crackled over the scales of the fish. Hero gasped.
The lady should have been too far away to notice a single small girl in the crowd, but she had turned to look at Hero. The lady’s eyes were a deep, ocean blue. She smiled.
Hero buried her head in the billowy fabric of Mother’s sleeve.
She didn’t look up again until she felt Mother pulling her away from the street that was now empty but for a mess of confetti and crumpled, bright New Year trash.
* * *
The institute came to town only a month later, following the path of the Skyfish woman. The day was hot. A man in a golden turban prodded Hero’s sweaty palm for an hour, and then nodded to the woman behind him.
Mother clapped and hugged Father. She danced to Hero and swept her up. The two of them twirled around the room like seaweed in the current. The laughter bubbled from their lips; frantic jubilation.
“We would like to take her,” said the man in the turban.
“She will go,” said Father. Even his eyes sparkled with joy.
The woman from the institute draped Hero and her mother each with a golden cloth. They took Hero away in a black car with slick wood on the doors and windows that went up and down with the push of a button.
She saw the reflection of herself waving in the window, the slim figures of her parents framed in the doorway beyond, also waving. The leather seats of the car felt smooth and sticky under her legs as they pulled away. She closed her eyes and tasted the memory of the woman in the parade again, golden in the dappled shade. It had happened. Hero’s dreams had come true. Now, they would be golden together.
The institute was a white stucco castle in the middle of a forest of vines and palm. A round, sandy driveway cut through a lawn of scrubby grass. Inside, the school was a vast and drafty building of wood paneling, wide windows, and gilded wallpaper.
Hero was the last girl to arrive. They all knew each other already, all eleven of them giggling to each other at the long, straight dinner table. Some of them smiled at Hero, but no one said hello.
That night, Hero made a tent over herself from her white bed sheets in the dormitory she now shared with the other girls. “This day was history,” she whispered into the white folds. Maybe next New Year she would be in the parade herself, her fish suspended over her outstretched palm, her metallic dress hot in the summer sun. She fell asleep clutching her golden sash.
In the mornings, the girls walked in single file to the dining room. They all wore the same uniform of blue.
Madame Able spoke to the class as they all sprawled across slick wooden desks in various states of slump. Her form was silhouetted against the long classroom windows rimmed in dark polished wood.
The leafy tops of the trees behind the panes of glass made Hero want to jump into them and swim on the air, anything to save her from the monotone of Madame Able’s lecturing voice. She smoothed her sweaty palms on the skirt of her jumper. She leaned her head on her hand.
“If a fish does not want to claim you, it won’t,” Madame Able said. “There is nothing you can do. However, there are things a girl can do to make herself more welcoming to the fish. This semester, you will learn to clear your mind and to put it in the proper state. Next, we will cover proper poses, and then it will be quite time for you to try your luck. If you discipline yourself, you will have your best chance to succeed.”
“Sit and clear your mind,” Madame Able told the room again and again. “Focus on the hush sound of the sea, and do not think. Fish care nothing for your humanity. You must learn to block it out.”
Hero adjusted so her back was straight and breathed all the feelings out of her body. By the end of the second week, her racing mind was quiet when she asked it to be.
“Note how straight Hero is standing,” said Madame Able a few months later. “Note the angle of her palms to the sky is exactly parallel to the ground. Stand in the mirror and work toward this pose, girls... It is perfection, dear.” Madame Able patted Hero’s shoulder.
The other girls played clap games without her now. When they braided each other’s hair in the dormitory, Hero ached to feel the gentle pull of someone else’s hands through her tresses. She was never asked to join them. Instead, she tucked her sheets over her head at night and stared into the whiteness.
If Mother were here, she might have told Hero that it was better this way, because Hero did not want to be friends with a group of girls who were that shallow. Besides, once Hero held a fish, she would be going away to learn to use magic. She would never see these girls again; they did not matter.
* * *
It was time for the ceremony before she wanted it to be. They all went down to the beach together in a single file line. None of the twelve smiled. Some of the girls held hands. Hero’s heart beat hard. She tried to clear her mind, but still the thuds sounded in her chest and there was nothing she could do to silence them.
Hero flexed her palm, opening and closing it like the mouth of a fish. She looked around at the other girls beside her, their white cotton dresses blowing in the hot breeze, their feet bare on the sand. She wondered if the expression on her face was anything like the crinkled frowns of concentration they wore, or if they felt the weight of hundreds of eyes from the stands gleaming far in the distance. A bead of sweat trickled through her fingers. It wouldn’t be long now before she would know.
On the beach, the sun began to rise over the copse of trees that rimmed the beach. Hero’s heart swam. Her moment of destiny was on the horizon, descending like rain from the orange clouds above her. The wind rushed across Hero’s shoulders and blew her hair into tendrils. The cloud was dark like a thunderstorm, but the color was lurid and there were crescents in it that wriggled, flashing silver, then dark. The brightness covered all of the sky, coming at her over the horizon and blanketing the tops of the trees.
She could see the cloud crawl towards her in the wind. Bits of sand flew up, stinging her bare legs and shoulders. She buttoned her eyes closed and stood straight and tall, as she had been taught. She pressed her palms high and waited for something to change.
And then she waited more.
Things blew by, slick and hard, hitting her arms and thrusting them out of position. It was hard to keep her arms upright in the gusting wind. Her shoulders began to shake and throb, but she knew that if she stood long enough, she would open her eyes to the flash of a silver body twirling above her palm. The things battered her arms until every inch of them was sore, and the roaring of the wind filled her ears.
It was over as soon as it had started. The wind stopped and the light behind her closed eyes became brighter. She unbuttoned her lids and saw no cloud. Aside from the tiny dots of blood on her body from where the sand had pierced her, nothing was different than it had been before the dawn came and the wind picked up.
There was not a sound from the stands. Hero had not even seen a fish in the swirling wind. She had closed her eyes too soon, when it was all just a formless cloud. A wailing rose up around her. The other girls were sobbing in the sand, little white islands of despair where they had collapsed into their skirts.
Hero felt for the tears she knew should be hiding deep in her gut and found nothing there. There was nothing; not tears or dismay or even disappointment. She found only a hole. The hole ached, and the ache circled back on itself with no end.
None of the girls held a fish. They would all go home.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Casey E. Hamilton