When he caught the fish, he was just thinking of a meal. He was growing weary of the beetroot salads and the beet soup and the beet casserole and he longed for something he could really TASTE, something that would melt in his mouth differently than the beets. He’d gone fishing out by the river, borrowed his friend’s pole and his lures and gave it a shot. He’d waited for hours for a bite and when it came, there was a great thrashing of his line and reeling it in took all of his strength and focus. When he finally pulled it onto the dock, he watched it flop helplessly against the wood and pictured it on the platter they hadn’t used in ages, garnished with herbs and not beetroot. He wasn’t sure how he was going to fit it in the small bucket he’d brought. He’d imagined bringing home a few small fish, flurrying amongst each other. Not this enormous carp. This carp was going to change everything.
Which, of course, it was.
As the carp thrashed on the dock, the hook through its lip, the man began to notice a strange lisping sound, a blubbery, lisp of a noise. He looked around, didn’t see anything. It sounded like someone calling “Wait, wait, wait” but not those words exactly. He looked at the fish and it seemed as though the sound was emanating from its mouth. He’d been out in the sun for some time, and so assumed he was delirious with sunstroke, with the effort of reeling in the fish, with joy at the thought of eating something besides beets.
As he bent to remove the hook, though, it became clear that the sound was centered here, that the fish was shouting, not words, no, of course not words, but shouting. He carefully pulled out the hook and the fish smacked its lips together, then pulled them in toward itself, looking for all the world like it was feeling the damage; its eyes shifting back and forth.
The man was grateful for the quiet – grateful that the fish had stopped thrashing so violently. He was just about to sit down next to it to contemplate how to bring it home when the carp opened its lips again and a very strange watery voice said “ouch.” The man fanned himself with his hat, took a sip of water and then looked back at the fish, which had begun to move its lips all around, then seemed to look right at him. “Clever trick”, it said.
The man took a deep breath and looked right at the fish. The fish’s eye looked at him steadily but with an odd sense of bemusement. The fish spoke again in that watery blubbering way. “I’d heard that there was trick food out in the bright end but I just didn’t believe it and now – well. . . it’s hard to breathe here, isn’t it?”
The man was finding it a bit hard to breathe himself but he was no fool and he knew the fish that was suddenly speaking to him would not be speaking long if he didn’t get it in some water quickly. The carp began to thrash a bit again, looking at him pleadingly, with some confusion.
“Hang on” the man said as he grabbed his bucket, filled it with water and dumped it over the fish. The fish calmed for a moment while the man looked around for options. He was not going to throw back a talking fish, not yet, no, he couldn’t. Nor could he eat it, not yet. Not before he solved its mystery.
Was it a wish granting fish? He’d heard of those in stories. He looked around urgently and spotted a little pool, where the river had ebbed away for the day. He picked the fish up in his net and said, as he carried it: “I’m going to put you back in some water but I want to keep talking with you. Could you please not stay under once I put you back in?”
The fish looked confused but blinked it eye in what appeared to be agreement.
With a hurried splash, the man dipped his net in the small pool nestled between two rocks by the river and the fish moved in the limited space of the net in what could only be described as great relief. After a few moments, it popped its head above the surface again and looked at the man. “Thank you” it said.
“You’re welcome.” said the man.
The fish dipped its head under but came back up again.
“Can I repay you?” the fish asked.
“I’m not sure” said the man, “Are you a wish fish?”
The fish blinked its eye a few times – “A what?”
“A fish that grants wishes. There are stories.”
There was a bubbling gurgle that must have been a laugh. Then the fish said, “No, no. I’m just a fish. No special wish powers. I mean, I wish I were; I’d do some wishing of my own but no, I’m just a carp.”
The man was disappointed. Visibly so – his body sagged. He hadn’t realized that he’d already planned his wishes, that he’d pictured himself at a table full of a wide variety of delicious foods (not one beet root to be seen) next to a beautiful woman in a giant house. But as the fish acknowledged no power to grant wishes, that vision vanished as quickly as it had unconsciously snuck in.
The fish blinked, taking in the image of the man disappointed and said, “I can see that you’ve lost hope.”
The man looked up, ready to deny it – then sank again, to sit on the rock by the pool, his head in his hand.
He sat there, the picture of despair. The carp made a soothing bubbly sound. “I see that I have spoken the truth. I have noticed that truth will silence many creatures.”
The man looked up at the carp, still looking at him with its bulging eye.
“My fellow carp will often swim the other way when they see me coming. They don’t say anything to me but this frog friend of mine has told me they call me the Truth. He told me it’s not that they don’t respect me, it’s just that they don’t always like to hear the truth.”
The man looked at the carp quizzically. “Do you know lots of truths?”
The carp blinked and said, “Yes. There are the truths of the creatures, the truths of the deep, the truths of the beyond, the truths of the shallow, of the bright, of the big, the small, the future, the past.”
The man’s eyes lit up. “Do you know the future?”
The fish dipped back down into the pool for a moment, then re-emerged. It chewed on a bit of algae and blinked. “I know some of the future,” it said.
The man shifted his position on the rock, some hope slipping back into his body. He gripped the pole of his net as if it were the fish’s hand and said, “Can you tell me my future?”
“Things will get better,” said the fish.
The man smiled and loosened his grip on the net.
“Then they will get worse.”
The man let the net go entirely and sank back on his rock.
“But then,” said the fish, “it will get better again.”
The man sat neither forward nor backwards, just poised in the middle.
“Yes,” said the fish, “that is right. It will bob in both directions, like a bit of algae.”
The man stared at the fish for a moment. “That’s the truth?”
“I think so,” said the carp.
“Well,” said the man, “tell me this. Will I take you home and eat you for dinner?”
The fish dipped below the water. It swam around its contained area for a moment then re-emerged, blinking its eyes. The carp spoke slowly. It was an old carp, one who had learned quite a bit in its days in the deep. The carp looked at the man and said: “You want to. You want to eat me. You are very hungry for my flesh. But I think you will not take me home and eat me for dinner and this is why: There is no one there who will tell you the truth. So I think you will lift me again and return me to the flow of my home. Then you will return over the next passings of the time and the river. You will drop this circle here in the flow and I will emerge to tell you more truths.”
It was the man’s turn to blink. He couldn’t decide if this was, in fact, the truth or the carp’s attempt to save itself. Or perhaps, he thought, it was both at once. As he thought, the carp dipped back underwater, swimming back and forth. The man pictured himself pulling the fish from the water, watching it die, cooking it up, then sitting down to eat. He imagined the smell, the flavor, the clear absence of beet on the table. He saw the bones on his plate, saw himself trying to make meaning from the bones, to read them the way the fortune teller reads chicken bones. Then he saw the next day, when the fish was all gone and beets were on his table again and he’d have to smile and pretend they were what he wanted most in the world.
The fish had popped its head out again. The man said, “How do I know that you will come when I drop the net?”
The carp blinked dispassionately and said, “I tell the truth.”
With that, the man picked up his net and the fish in it, flopping as he did and walked it toward the river’s edge.