Plenty of Fish
by Casey E. Hamilton
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
She waited in the hallway of the school that night, her back pressed to the cool stucco wall. The moon pooled through the windows and collected at her feet. The chubby girl opened the vast, paneled door and closed it behind her. The sound echoed through the hallway. “You can go in now,” the girl told her. The click of her shoes on the floor echoed as she walked away.
Madame Able sat behind a slick desk in the tiny room beyond the doorway. “You may sit,” she held her palm out, pointing to the vast armchair in the corner. Hero sank into the blue stuffing.
“I hear you did not cry,” she said.
“There is nothing inside me,” said Hero. “Not anymore.”
“We will try again with a new set of girls next year. You are a promising student, and I would like to offer you a place in that class. You should know, however, that there has never been a girl who caught a fish on the second try. But it is always possible. There is always hope. You may choose to stay with us instead of going home, if you wish.”
Another set of girls who would leave her out.
“I have a choice?” said Hero.
“You have always had a choice,” said Madame Able. “Would you have chosen otherwise?”
She hadn’t had a choice that day with the black car. No one asked her to go. They asked her father if he would give her to them. It seemed disloyal to make a point of that, though. Hero and Madame Able both knew her answer would have been yes, if they had bothered to ask a little girl.
“I’ll consider it,” said Hero.
She could always choose to return home a failure instead.
Hero sat in bed. The emptiness inside her sharpened and she found that she could not consider anything while the ache swallowed her. She pulled the covers over her head like a tent and stared into the white folds, silent, her lips moving up and down as she let the blankness take her.
The next morning, she felt old and achy, as if her soul was bruised. But she knew what she would do. Madam Able was in her office when Hero came in. Hero knocked on the doorframe, and Madam Able looked up.
Hero swallowed. “I will stay and join the next class.”
“I will tell the car not to come pick you up and take you home,” said Madam Able. “You may stay here during the interim, before the next group of girls comes.”
A man in a black coat thrust a trunk into the back of the shiny car and then opened the door. One of the girls slipped inside, and the black car rumbled in a cloud of dust down the dirt road. Hero knew all the girls that left could see her staring from the big bay window on the top floor, but none waved to her. She didn’t want them to.
The dorm was empty without them, and silent. She pulled one of the beds sideways near the window so she could see the branches outside waving in the breeze. She played tic-tac-toe with herself in the dust on the library shelves, and wandered the beach and looked at things in the pools at low tide.
“You will be happier when there are girls here again,” said Madam Able.
Hero was certain she wouldn’t be.
“It’s only a week now until they start to arrive,” Madam Able continued. “And tomorrow we will host the scouting party for dinner. Will you wear your best dress and your gold sash?”
“Who is the scouting party?” said Hero.
“Jadesh is the man in the turban, and we will also host the three Skyfish Women: Liedra, Obedi, and Plieal. We will choose the next batch of girls that night.”
This was not how Hero thought she had been chosen. Was it not spontaneous when they inspected her palm for hours that day so long ago?
* * *
That night she dreamed of the parade again. Pearl and spark, the lady in gold looking at her in the crowd. They were coming here for a whole night. Hero would find the lady who picked her and ask her why she stared at her in the crowd. Then, maybe the sores on her soul would heal. Maybe she would be able to fill the hole in herself with something.
They all sat at the long dining room table, an expanse away from where Hero sat. The lady who picked Hero was there, the one on the left; Obedi, with a dress that was still gold. Her fish was not here. None of the fishes were in the dining room.
“This is Hero,” said Madam Able. “Will someone pass me the roast?”
The voices of the adults crowded too loud for Hero to speak at dinner. And then her ice cream bowl was empty.
“You are excused, Hero,” said Madam Able. “We have business to discuss.”
“I...” said Hero.
“Goodnight,” said Madam Able.
Hero’s heels echoed. All eyes bore into her back as she walked from the dining room alone. She should have gone back to her bed, but she didn’t. She crouched down by the door in the shadows. She leaned her cheek on the slick paneling and prepared to wait for the grownups to leave so she could talk to Obedi. The hallway was dark as the bottom of the sea.
“So?” said Madam Able. Hero could hear through the door.
“No girls have it,” said one of the women. “Same as last year. It seems like magic just gets less and less out there... I don’t know why we keep doing this if we’re not going to have any successes.”
“So, we won’t admit a girl to the ranks of Skyfish Lady this year,” said Madam Able. “One of these years we will find one, you know. And the only way we can pay for that search is to fill the school. Think of it as a service to your future colleagues if you can’t think of it another way.”
“We’re doing this because without grandstand ticket sales, you have nothing, dear,” said Jadesh. “Do you like your fancy lifestyle?”
“Jadesh, please,” said Madam Able.
There was a pause, and someone cleared their throat.
“Since we hit Newtown, we’ll take poor girls from Forest City and Meadowview this year, so it looks random,” said another of the women. “The rest are trust fund babies who will pay bread and board. Liedra has the list.”
“And you’ll be by next week with the car to bring them in?” said Madam Able.
“Yes,” said Jadesh.
“Don’t look so glum, girls” said Madam Able. “They never have to know they didn’t have a chance.”
The wounds on Hero’s soul throbbed, tears pricked in her eyes. She was tired of being the quiet one, the obedient one, the good one. Nothing ever came of it but sorrow. She stood, and threw the door to the dining room open.
“You looked at me,” she said. “You fed the fish a pearl and you looked right at me. Why? Why did you pick me if I couldn’t succeed?” The hole in her chest was full now, brimming over. She slid to a heap on the floor and sobbed. Now that she had started, Hero was certain she would cry a whole sea. She could not stop the salt water from pouring from her eyes.
“Hero,” said Madam Able, her voice sharp. “This display is unseemly. You are embarrassing yourself, and you are embarrassing me. If you didn’t wish to hear unpleasant things, you should not have eavesdropped. Leave. Now.”
It was true. It was Hero’s own fault; all of it; from her gullibility to her certainty. She fled back to the silence of the dormitory, still sobbing.
It was hours later when the knock came and the door slid open. Obedi stepped through. Her dress did not look as golden close up in the light of the candle she carried. The candle created a pool of yellow in the dark bedroom.
“Hero, did you say your name was?” she said.
Hero sat up in bed. She nodded.
“Hero, where are you from?”
“Newtown,” Hero said.
“Where I did the parade?” said Obedi.
“Yes. You looked at me. You fed a pearl to your fish and I saw it crackle. You picked me out of the crowd.”
“I... Look, I know this is difficult to hear,” said Obedi. “I am telling you because no one was truthful with me, and it made me angry. You deserve better than what they are giving you. I did not pick you out of the crowd. If I looked at you, it was an accident.”
“No,” said Hero.
“Most people don’t know that it isn’t the fish that gives the woman magic. It is the magic in the woman that ensnares the fish against its will, plucks it out of the sky and cages it with her power. We only take them out for state occasions.
“You don’t have any magic, Hero. You don’t have it, or I would see it glowing golden inside you. If you had magic, you would not have come to this school. You would be living at the palace and learning to levitate boulders with one of us as your teacher.”
“Madam Able asked me to stay,” said Hero.
“I know,” said Obedi. “I don’t know why, but it isn’t because you might be a Skyfish Lady. Sometimes Madam Able keeps girls she likes to become servants in the house.”
“You’re lying and I hate you,” said Hero.
“I know, but I’m not lying. Hero... It was my fault they brought you here, but it won’t be mine that you stayed.”
Hero knew Obedi was speaking the truth to her. She had been listening to soothing lies for so long, and this had a different quality. It stung across her soul like alcohol on a wound.
Hero turned her face to the wall. She listened to the rustle of Obedi’s dress, to the swish of the door on the carpet as it opened and closed, to the click of the catch in the doorjamb.
“I want to go home,” said Hero to Madam Able at lunch once the slick black cars had driven the Scouting Party away again.
“When Jadesh comes next week, he will see you home,” Madam Able said.
A week later it stood in the driveway; the black car, the trunk, the open door. Hero climbed inside, pushed the feelings inside her chest down with the lump in her throat, and set her jaw. The wave that brought her out into the world was now the wave that pulled her home. She was a slave to the current like anyone else, and now she would drift with it, wanting. Always wanting as she struggled to build something unsatisfying from the brine she was left with.
Hero closed her eyes and felt the motion of the car propel her forward.
Copyright © 2015 by Casey E. Hamilton