from Quizzical Fish, a novel:
Whipping around, Mahina found herself face-to-face with a pair of large hazel eyes, peering out from the most familiar of faces.
“Humphrey!?” She stared at the pufferfish.
“Mahina, what are you doing here?” he inquired politely.
Relief and gratitude flooded her. Such a beautiful voice he had. Deep and resonant, it rolled towards her in generous waves. And his dear face… Humphrey contemplated her quietly, as if he had just asked her a question and didn’t mind waiting forever for her answer… Oh, yes—what she was doing here….
“Oh Humphrey, I wish I knew. Norm was after me—he follows me everywhere. I was in my room, and he—I mean I— Oh, I don’t know!” Mahina gave up. “What are you doing here?”
“Now, that’s a very good question. I come here often actually.”
“Oh yes, I like the ocean—very spacious. Much better than that tiny box in your room.”
“Oh.” Mahina felt a pang of compunction. “But really, Humphrey, you don’t know better. You’re always there. I mean, besides now,” said Mahina. “Which doesn’t count,” she added, uncertainly.
“Oh am I? Very interesting. So when you see me, you know I’m there. And when you don’t see me, still you assume I’m there.”
“Humphrey, I never knew you were so logical.” Mahina felt a strange sensation inside, as of a door swinging open. “Humphrey,” she said, changing tack, “you must know how to get back.”
“Oh if only I were—logical, that is. But everyone in my family is much more logical than me… They’re always teasing me.”
“The rest of your family? You’ve met them?”
“Oh yes! That was my main reason for coming here. We pufferfish are solitary creatures for the most part, but such solitude as I experienced in the aquarium, now that is too much. Of course, talking to you relieved it somewhat.”
“You never spoke to me.”
“Very interesting… Because you didn’t hear me, you think therefore I didn’t speak…”
“Well, you could have spoken more clearly then. Or loudly.” But Mahina realized that wasn’t the issue.
“No, no, it’s all right. You see, glass was the problem, not being the best transmitter of sound. But here we are in the ocean together, and water is an amazing carrier of sound. Transmission is no longer a problem.”
The two hung silent. Mahina watched Humphrey twirling his fins, marvelling that they should find themselves suspended together in the same element.
“So,” Humphrey resumed (clearly he enjoyed conversation), “you were saying, it must be strange to live in a box of water…?”
Mahina’s mind groped for a moment; then she remembered when she’d asked Humphrey this very question—the day the wall had given way to the ocean for the first time. How long ago that seemed!
“Yes…” she said, trying to pick up the thread, “I was just wondering… Even a big aquarium, like where my father works…” She hesitated, remembering. “I suppose it’s still nothing like the ocean.” She saw again the long corridor with its row upon row of tanks, the whole thing narrowing steadily till it diminished to a point. “It’s still a box I guess.”
“And you can’t really box the ocean, can you?” offered Humphrey. “If you take a piece and wall it off, is it still the ocean?” His eyes rolled up as he thought about this. “You know what, Mahina…” He hesitated. His voice dropped and became even more resonant; she felt it thrum in her own chest.
“What?” With a small kick, Mahina swam closer, not wanting to miss anything. How incredible it was to be so close, with nothing at all between them except this liquid, permeable and absolutely transparent.
“I don’t know. It’s hard for me to express, but when I lived in that aquarium of yours, I knew that something was wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“No offense to you, my dear girl, because you do take good care of me, and you’re a whiz in the provision of peas… It’s just that—I knew something was missing. I felt, this little box I live in, it’s a piece of something much bigger. And this piece had broken off. That,” said Humphrey with conviction, “was the problem. I was caught in what felt like a shard.” He stopped. “Oh, but that makes no sense. Dear me, you see why my family complains.”
“But I think I know what you mean.”
“You do? Oh, it would mean a lot to me if you did,” said Humphrey, his deep voice quavering, a gorgeous vibrato. “We pufferfish are supposed to be solitary, independent creatures. Still, I’m glad to hear that you understand.”
The two of them were silent for a moment. Humphrey’s words continued to resonate inside her.
“So, Mahina.” Again, the pufferfish hesitated. His fins began to twirl faster. “I’m reluctant to tell you, but I don’t think I’ll be going back this time.”
Her heart sank.
“I can’t bear it any longer,” Humphrey continued. “If I were to go back, this time I’d die. Oh, here I go again,” he said, rolling his eyes. “My family is always telling me I’m overdramatic. I blow things out of proportion. Perhaps it’s because I lived for so long in an aquarium. All that solitary confinement has made me a little crazy. They’re convinced that some day I’ll get myself in real trouble. And maybe they’re right. The truth is, I’d rather die than go back.”
“Humphrey, don’t say that!”
“No, Mahina, it’s true. If I were to go back, I wouldn’t survive. I’d suffocate, waste away. A skinny pufferfish. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? You don’t want to, believe me. A depressing sight—as if a greyhound had a potbelly, only in reverse.”
“But how will you survive here in the ocean? Look around, there’s nothing here for you to eat, Humphrey.”
“Now, that’s interesting. Because we don’t see anything nearby, we think there isn’t anything anywhere. Reminds me of when I lived in the aquarium, I used to think that way. But, Mahina, the ocean is very big. And it contains many possibilities. Especially when the moon shines, you realize this,” he said, giving her an enigmatic look.
“But who’s going to feed you peas? You need your peas, Humphrey. You’re used to getting them. You really like them. They’re so soft and round and nicely packaged. Bite-sized. You wouldn’t like to go without,” Mahina finished hopefully.
“So not liking to go without is the same as not surviving. I see I’m not the only dramatic one here. You know, I do think I’ll survive without them.”
“Of course that’s true but—” Mahina hesitated then blurted out, “What about me? You liked me feeding you,” she insisted, then added, uncertainly, “didn’t you… don’t you? Humphrey?”
“Mahina, Mahina, of course. Pea-time was an important ritual with us.”
“Yes, it was, wasn’t it? I wish I had some right now,” said Mahina sadly.
“That’s quite all right.”
“I was running away from Norm. I didn’t know you’d be here. I didn’t plan—what am I talking about? I don’t even know where or what here is. I don’t know—”
“Mahina, what does Norm look like?” Humphrey interrupted.
“—what I’m even doing here. I mean, why—”
“Mahina, listen, does Norm live in some sort of aquarium?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look—over there.” Humphrey rolled an eye. Mahina spun around, and there was Norm, his contraption very much like an aquarium, or terrarium rather. He was still a ways off but approaching rapidly.
“Humphrey! We’ve got to go!”
“Anywhere! No, I mean the opposite direction. Come on!” Mahina started swimming frantically, her arms and legs flailing as if she were falling belly-first from a great height.
“My dear girl, do calm down!” said Humphrey, composed, twirling the small fins on either side of his trunk-like body.
“Why? how? You don’t understand, I have to get away!” Mahina continued to scramble in the water. She was not advancing in the least.
“Slow down and you’ll make more headway,” suggested Humphrey.
This made Mahina think of Zdena. She calmed down instantly and hung suspended.
“That’s better. Now, let’s go!” said Humphrey with a snap of his stubby tail. “Can’t wait all day.” They started to swim at a brisk, controlled pace, Mahina thrusting herself forward with long limbs, her body slipping through the water like an eel, Humphrey’s squat body maneuvering beside her, a fast-flying blimp.
“Tell me, who is this Norm and what will he do to you?” asked Humphrey, swiveling his large, curious eyes in her direction without slackening his pace.
“He’ll—he’ll—” Mahina hesitated. “I just know I have to get away from him.” She kept glancing over her shoulder. Norm was looming larger and larger.
“Oh, I know,” said Humphrey with sudden dismay. “He wants to put you in an aquarium! Hey! Watch out!”
Mahina, whipping her head forward, saw the school of tiny, silver fish just in time and stopped abruptly. Again they had come out of nowhere. All around, the water had been empty, sun-filled; the ocean seemed to contain no creature besides themselves. Then here, suddenly, was a school of fish darting about, catching the light and sending it flashing in all directions. The whole mass flickered on and off, and then something extraordinary began to happen.
“Humprehy, do you see what I see?”
When the fish turned their shining bright sides in her direction, they formed a picture—it flashed into view; then it was gone. A frame hung around the picture, and suddenly Mahina realized the whole thing was a window pane.
Peering through the glass, she beheld what was clearly a kitchen. There, contained in the ocean, Mahina could clearly see walls lined with cabinets, a kitchen sink and counter, a table with chairs. By the sink, stood a young couple.
“Oh yes, Jim and Delila,” said Humphrey. “I see them once in a while.”
“Jim and Delila??” Mahina swam closer. The fish swivelled slightly so the window disappeared; then it flashed back into place. The man had his back turned to her, but the woman’s face shone clear. Delila. No, it couldn’t be.
“Delila’s much older than that,” she said.
“Older than what?”
“Than this woman.” Mahina pointed into the moving school of fish.
“Interesting. Are you seeing her perhaps from the perspective of a single moment in time?” The tiny fish remained close, but they kept changing direction so that the scene flashed in and out of view, like an old-fashioned hologram.
“Of course, I am. From the perspective of the present. What does that matter?” Mahina said, crossly. She liked philosophy, but she was starting to feel overwhelmed. One moment, she was in her room in the Renaissance Preserve. The next, she was in the middle of a vast ocean with no idea how she got there and no idea how to get back. On top of it all, somehow she was able to breathe… No. Philosophy could not help her here.
“Well, it’s only one of many,” said Humphrey.
“What is? What are you talking about?”
“The perspective of the present.”
“It’s the most important,” Mahina shot back. “Isn’t it? It’s what’s right in front of us.”
“Oh, is it?” said Humphrey, musing.
The scene continued to show the young couple. They were holding each other tenderly. A window box appeared, instantly sprouting bright geraniums.
“Well, usually it is. This doesn’t count. This is, I don’t know, imaginary,” Mahina said, with irritation. In spite of herself, she kept watching the young couple. She couldn’t help noticing the expression on Delila’s face.
“How happy she looks,” Mahina said softly. Now the man was taking her into his arms. Mahina, feeling embarrassed, turned to Humphrey. “Should we be watching?”
“She never paid me no mind,” said Humphrey, who continued to take in the kitchen with his large eyes.
“Wait, how do you know her, Humphrey?” asked Mahina, suddenly curious.
“Oh, she feeds me peas.”
“What? here in the ocean??”
“No, of course not. In her aquarium.”
Mahina stared at the fish.
“Mahina, what you know about me is as little as a box of water compared to the ocean. Look, I know, it’s mysterious. You see, once I get to the ocean, I can enter any number of aquariums. I don’t have to go back to yours. It’s like your friend Zdena. She comes to snooze in your room. But is she there every day? Do you ever wonder where she naps on other days? She has to rest regularly, you know. Strange, actually, that she should choose a room of all places,” Humphrey added thoughtfully. “Unless—”
“Zdena? How do you know Zdena?”
“Everyone knows Zdena. Zdena’s been around forever. Anyway, my point is that I can travel from box to box. It’s the way of salt: I dissolve into the whole, then I reemerge. Sometimes, I’m crystalline, sometimes not. Water is the great carrier. Mahina, don’t tell me you don’t know this, the way you slip from place to place. How did you get here anyway?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. But she had an inkling of what Humphrey was talking about, and it scared her. She turned her attention back to Delila.
“So, this is Delila—” she said tentatively, “Delila in—in the past?”
“She seems very present to me,” replied Humphrey.
“Sure,” said Mahina impatiently. “But this isn’t real. The past has already happened.”
“What do you mean, happened?”
“You know, gone,” said Mahina, getting exasperated because she was finding it difficult to explain. “It no longer exists.”
Delila moved to the refrigerator and, opening it, stood in its glow.
“Interesting. So the past comes and goes,” said Humphrey as he continued to observe the fish who flashed the scene in and out of view.
“It comes and goes and stays gone.”
“Interesting. So that’s what you mean when you say it’s not real—it’s staying gone.”
That sounded funny to Mahina, but she nodded.
“And staying gone, I guess that means, out of sight. Because really, there’s nowhere for it to go—except out of sight, of course. And so it’s the same for the future, I imagine. You’d probably say that the future doesn’t exist either.”
“Yes,” said Mahina, doubtfully.
“So then the older Delila, she’s what? closer would you say?”
“I—I um,” Mahina mumbled.
“Closer to what, that’s the question. Not to us, certainly. Nowhere in sight.” Humphrey, fluttering his fins, shifted his tail to the side so that his body started to pivot. “Oh-oh!” Humphrey froze, his tail bent to one side, a stiff, stubby hook.
“What?” Mahina followed Humphrey’s gaze.
Norm, of course! He’d been gaining on them as they philosophized. No longer a small spot in the distance, he was growing larger by the moment.
Both Mahina and Humphrey lurched away, and in that very moment, the school of fish lurched towards them. There was nothing but light flashing all around, and the soft impact of silken bodies. Almost instantly, Mahina found herself tumbling over a linoleum floor, as if she’d been thrown across it by a wave.