This piece was the 1st prize winner in the Creative Category of the 1st Terry Writing Challenge.
I met a coelacanth at a bar once. I saw him from a distance at first; I wasn’t sure which one of us had come in before the other. He was sitting alone at the bar, looking at the mirror with his huge baleful eyes.
He had a side salad in front of him, which he was pushing around, swatting at the fork with his tiny fins. He just kept staring at that mirror, munching lettuce and staring. I knew I might never see that fish again, so after a while I sat beside him and bought him a drink, which he declined.
“So…” I said. “What’s it like to be extinct?” I hadn’t meant to blurt that out like that. It came out all wrong. I wanted to get to know this coelacanth as an individual, to hear his particular view on the extinction, and then de-extinction, of his entire species.
He sighed deeply, his gills flaring open wide for a moment. “It’s not so bad. You get used to people not calling you. After a while… you don’t get any junk mail, so that’s nice.”
He waggled the stubs on his stomach. I think he was shrugging, or doing the best a fish can.
“We all thought it’d be so hard.” he said again. “At first. We were just so surprised to hear the news. There was this burst of memories- it seemed like just last week all of us had been swimming around, singing and making plans for the holiday- and then suddenly the species was dead. Yes,” he admitted with a tilt of his head, “it hurt. We all said we weren’t taking it personally, but in our private moments we’d glare hatefully at the boxes they made us pack our possessions in.”
I rubbed my chin and looked off at the mirror. The thing about the coelacanth’s eyes were that they were so large that it was impossible to tell where the fish was looking. I think that that one had been living in the city for a while- because his body language imitated humans- but it was eerie to look at the big blank circles on either side of his head and not know what they were seeing.
“They made us… can you imagine?” said the fish with bitterness, “They made us tape all the boxes shut. There we’d be, on the floor of the ocean, a circle of six fish, swatting hopelessly at a box of junk. Old trophies, prized rocks, perhaps some potted plants, they’d all tumble out and gently fall to the ground while the box danced above them. The circle would all try so hard to tape the boxes shut, but we just couldn’t. “In the end the people from Species Affairs had to do it for us. They acted like they were doing us such a big favor.”
With painful precision the coelacanth leaned towards the counter, and gently extended a fin the few inches it would go. The very tip of that fin pushed against the fork that lay wedged in the salad- and then with one sudden thrashing motion, the coelacanth threw his mouth down around the food. He began to chew it thoughtfully.
“They insisted that we account for nearly everything- every last thing that we had made, or touched. It all went into these boxes, and then the boxes got taped up, and then a huge truck took the boxes away. For a day or so we had to wander around our homes, blinking slowly at the empty rooms. There was a delay at Central Processing, they told us- and so for a day we wandered around, eating scraps of food.”
The fish calmly lowered his head to the straw of his glass- which I think was full of apple juice- and drank a long sip. Then he continued. “Not a lot of people know this, but the reason that my species is widely regarded as the calmest fish under the sea is that we are able to walk. It’s true. Look at these-” he said, turning briefly to me and waggling the two thick fins that he had used to push his salad bowl around, “- unlike any other fish we can lower ourselves to the ocean floor and proceed to put one stub in front of the other, pulling ourselves along. Now, most fish swim all their lives, even as they sleep. One kick of your tail pushes you forward- constantly moving onwards in some direction.”
Composing himself he scanned the room. I could see his eye that faced me revolve gently around. It was like watching currents in water. “Most fish are exceedingly impatient. It comes from movement, from constantly moving, and constantly being able to move. Fish are exceedingly stressful creatures, wracked with anxiety and frustration. But because my humble fellow-fish can walk, we know what it is to pull yourself along the ground step by step. Other fish don’t even know what steps are.” he spat ruefully. “In this way, over thousands of years, my people learned the virtues of humility, of patience and planning, none of which are usually
associated with fish. Perhaps I exaggerate, but we were definitely clever- for fish.”
Now he turned to me, to face me- though the point of his face was the only part of him that now turned to me. “I understand that on land, life is considerably different. Nearly every land creature must plan and I’m sure the ones that fly must- if you’ll pardon the expression- hatch even more elaborate plans. You humans think thoughts to yourself, thoughts about why you exist, about why anything is the way it is. Perhaps you find the lives of fish simple. Perhaps you’re even right about that- but we were never stupid.
“While we were extinct, they let us see things. We watched you, not as one watches their prey, but we saw your works through the top of the ocean, reflected. The buildings that you saw as constant and unchanging, to us they wavered and shimmered constantly. We saw your boats, and we thought that they must have been lonely. I suppose that all those thoughts were only the dreams of fish in exile, and maybe they don’t amount to much.
“At first we suspected that we had been rendered extinct because of something we had done- some sort of transgression. We fish- as you must suspect- have only a very simple morality. We hardly had the capacity to comprehend what we could have done to deserve this imprisonment. But we came to realize that we had become extinct for reasons that were not entirely obvious. Then we began to suspect a far harder truth- we had become extinct for a bad reason. Or, even more horrifyingly, for no reason at all. “In that other place, they didn’t tell us much. It was a mystery why we were there. We ached to go back, to return to our homes and our walking, and we would have done anything to be allowed back.”
Of course I knew that they had been, in the end. The coelacanth was famous for it’s vanishing act- it’s extinction and then, miraculously, it’s reappearance in the oceans of the world in the early 20th century. I had always harbored my suspicions that the scientists had been too hard on themselves- the official story was that they were wrong, that the fish had never been extinct at all. The fish vindicated my feelings.
He continued, with another deep sigh. This time it was a sigh of triumph, a bracing exhalation. “In the end we faced them down with one question. Nothing else had worked, and so we had just one option, to tell the simplest and most true truth about our situation- to convince them that this was wrong. “And so we told them ‘the world needs a fish that walks’.”
The fish paused, savoring the moment. His mouth flapped open as he tried to find the words. In the end he could say nothing about the moment except one thing. “It was glorious.” he chuckled briefly. “Our shadowy captors had no reply, and they froze. We streamed by the thousands, possibly more, into the ocean once more. Our entire species was there, a huge cloud of us, hanging in the water. And then as one we sank to the sandy floor of the ocean, and when we were ready, we walked away. We didn’t look back.
“It ended, but still I remember it- every one of us, fish at last back for good. Ten thousand fish striding purposefully along the ocean floor, bursting with a new reason to live. We were lucky- so lucky. For our species, the moment of philosophical question came and was answered almost immediately.” He clicked his jaw briefly and muttered, “My sympathies to you, incidentally.” Then he raised his voice once more, “And so here we are- fish at peace. We were extinct, but we escaped. That was what it was like to be extinct. “You, of course, might have a different view of it, when and if it comes to you. But then,” and he looked at me with that huge eye, “you are not a walking fish. Your purpose in life is nowhere near as simple.”
It was only after he had left shortly later, and I was looking into his half-full glass of apple juice, the straw jutting out, covered with tiny nibbles at the end, that I realized the mistake I had made. I had seen the fish sitting at the bar, alone, making movements around his salad, and I had thought that he had been staring at his own reflection in the mirror. But his eyes were on opposite sides of his head, gently bulging outwards, and he could see all around him.
He was watching us, all the people sitting in the restaurant, talking and eating, getting up and sitting down. He was watching us laugh and drink and wince. I should have asked him about that.