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Fish
by Michel Faber
 

Fish: M.G. SmoutTHESE DAYS, Janet let her daughter sleep in bed with her. It wasn't what child psychologists would have said was best, but there weren't any child psychologists anymore, and her daughter needed help just the same.
          Janet had tried forcing Kif Kif to sleep alone, but the little girl would scream with nightmares about God knows what - sharks, probably. Now she was sleeping dreamlessly, cradled in the curve of Janet's waist.
         All around the bed, the flywire was stretched taut from floor to ceiling, the support struts and entrance zipper glowing in the candle-light. Janet shut her eyes against the tick-tick-ticking on the wire and tried to drift off, but it was no use; there was always the anxiety that something was eating through the wire, through the canvas of the zipper, and you would open your eyes to find...
         She opened her eyes. Nothing had changed.
         There were still the same thirty or forty little fish (newly spawned wrasse, perhaps? - it was hard to tell in the dark) hovering in the air bumbling against the flywire, trying to get in. Individual fish bobbed off from the cluster floating up to bump against the ceiling.
         Janet drew another cigar from the box on her lap, wishing it were a cigarette, craving a cigarette. She struck a match: the fish scattered. The room was alive with shining little bodie5, flitting against the furniture, knocking ornaments off shelves, disappearing into dark corners. Almost immediately, however they began to swim back to the flywire, and the tick-tick-ticking began again. Kif Kif squirmed in her sleep, digging her hard little six-year-old's shoulderblades into Janet's side.
        'It's all right darling,' murmured Janet, stroking her through the blankets. 'Nothing to be afraid of.'
         Next morning Janet and Kif Kif dressed up in their camouflage to leave the house. The fish, which now lay gaping and dead on the floors of every room, had got in through the narrow gap between front door and hall floor. The little plank of wood which Kif Kif put there nightly had been levered out of place from the outside while they slept.
         An act of paltry sabotage like this might happen to them every week or so; the devotees of the Church of Armageddon (the 'Army' for short) didn't like to pass a house by without attempting to advance their cause. As far as major attacks went, Janet and Kif Kif had been lucky. Only once in the last year had they returned to their house to find it smashed open, all the windows and doors unhinged, and all the food and clothing taken. Dripping, blood-like, down the bedroom wall had been one of the painted graffiti slogans of the Army: THE FIRST SHALL BECOME LAST!

         On that awful day, Kif Kif had kept guard with her machete while Janet restored the defences. By late afternoon the five-year-old was splattered with fish blood and muck, although she hadn't been attacked by anything too dangerous. Most of the fish she'd wounded had swum away, to die inside deserted buildings and gutted cars, but some had been hacked too severely to do anything but wobble slowly to the ground and die twitching on the crumbling asphalt. When Kif Kif had suggested that these fish should perhaps be taken to the Soup Kitchen for use as food, Janet had hugged her fear-shaken little girl and wept.
         Today Janet and Kif Kif locked the door behind them, as quietly as possible, for sound was so much louder these days than it had sounded in the days when there were things like cars, factories and people running.
         The million sea creatures moved noiselessly. Schools of barracuda swept without warning in and out of broken windows. Starfish wriggled on the bonnets of rusty cars. Octopi cartwheeled in slow motion through the air their tentacles touching briefly on the tips of barbed-wire fences and the tops of awnings. Even the open-mouthed shriek of a shark attacking would be obscenely silent, so there was actually no point in keeping your ears cocked, though you always did.
         At a cautious trot Janet and Kif Kif put a zig-zag of streets between them and their house, to confuse any Army members who might spot them. One day, of course, the Army might stop being nomadic, and concentrate on each occupied house they chanced to find, taking advantage of every occasion when it was left unoccupied, until at last its inhabitants had been killed by what they preferred to call the Holy Reclamation Of Nature.
         Then again, it was also possible that one day the Army would amend its religion to permit its devotees to do the killing themselves, rather than waiting for the Holy Reclamation Of Nature to do it.
         Far enough now,' said Janet, her breath clouding the dry, grey air.
         Kif Kif threw the plastic bag of dead wrasse into the gutteer where it burst open on the sharp edge of a broken wheelchair. A large eel floated out of a sewer-hole and slid through the air towards the spillage.
         'Hungry?'
         'Uh-huh.'
         Coming back from the Soup Kitchen, feeling warm and sprightly with the city's only hot meal in their stomachs, Janet and Kif Kif leapt and skipped towards home. Small fish of all colours and shapes cluttered the air around them, frightened out of their foraging places by the commotion. Carp nibbled at the plankton nestled inside an exposed auto-mobile engine. Barracuda circled a small dolphin which had become tangled in a shop awning and starved to death there. A manta ray of moderate size floated over their ducked heads and settled against the wall of a factory. Slowly it slid along a line of newly painted graffiti (ANY CRETURE THAT CAN READ THIS, YOU'RE DAYS ON EARTH ARE NUMBERD!), obscuring the words one by one. Janet repeated the slogan to her daughter on request.
         'He's reading it,' smirked Kif Kif, making Janet laugh. They both knew the ray had mistaken the moist paint for something edible, and would be lying maw-up on the ground by tomorrow morning, after which the Army would probably find it and eat it. Since the Church of Armageddon had no equivalent of the underground Soup Kitchen which kept Janet, Kif Kif and the other unbelievers alive with salvaged tinned goods, it subsisted by fishing; Army nets could be seen occasionally, spanned between buildings in intricate layers.
         It was rumoured that the Army didn't actually eat any of the tinned and packaged food they carried off from the houses they broke into. It seemed they merely confiscated it, to deprive Unbelievers of any unfair advantage. In the same way that they liked to crack the shell of an Unbeliever's house, to let the vengeance of Nature swim in, they liked to make food disappear to signal that God was no longer pre-pared to provide. At least not to human beings; there was plenty to eat, of course, for everything that swam.
        Accepting the divine wrath with bizarre enthusiasm, the Army were definitely on the side of the fish. There was hardly a public building in the city that was not marked with their commonest graffito: LET THE DRY LAND DISAPPEAR!
        'A bit quieter now, Kif.'
         Janet and Kif Kif were nearing their home streets. An acrid breeze started up, smelling of large, half-eaten fish. Janet's nose wrinkled with distaste. She reached out for Kif Kif and gathered her in as she walked.
         'Sorry it's so nasty,' she said, but, looking down at the child's abstracted, placid face, Janet realised the apology was wasted: Kif Kif didn't seem to have noticed the smell.
         Janet's mood soured as she considered that her daughter had grown up in a world which stank to high heaven. Kif Kif had never smelled air untainted by decay. She'd never seen a growing fruit or a flower as every form of vegetation was immediately eaten by the fish before it even came to bud. She lived shut up in an unheated, poorly lit prison, trembling and twitching with nightrnares every night. Even now as they walked along the deserted street, any of a hundred broken windows might suddenly spew out a deadly streak of grey, and then what could you do? Janet had heard from other Survivors what it was like to just stand there while a huge shark, its jaws locked open, glided through the air towards the smallest prey. The Army certainly wasn't wrong in thinking the world was no longer intended for hurnan beings. Kif Kif with her dinky little machete against the hatred of all creation-
Mummy, look!'
         Janet was jerked out of her brooding.
         'What? What?'
         Kif Kif pointed over the roofs of the houses, half-way across the city. Horrified, Janet watched a blue-black killer whale emerging from the low grey clouds, followed by another whale, and another and another. They hung huge in the sky like black zeppelins, and the air seemed to grow claustrophobically dense with their displacement of it. Janet would have sunk to her knees but for the grip she had on Kif Kif's shoulders. At her back there was nowhere to hide, only more crumbling streets, more fragile, half-broken buildings; a mile of ground a whale could cover in less than a minute, and, beyond that, the empty sea. The killer whales began to move, towards Janet and Kif Kif's part of the city. Their tails swept the air lazily. They kept together. They were attacking.
         Not far from the street where Janet and Kif Kif stood, there towered an old building which had survived intact, marble statues and all. The foremost whale wove through skeletal office blocks with a grace that belied its massive size, and passed very close to this old building, almost clipping it with its aeroplane wing of a tail. Then it loomed on, its shadow spilling straight towards Kif Kif and Janet. By the time it reached where they stood it was swimming about thirty metres above the ground, the motion of its tail blowing their hair all around their faces. Directly overhead, blotting out the sun with its monstrous bulk, it opened its mouth. A thousand needle-sharp teeth swung down like the hatch of an aeroplane. Water clattered on the asphalt: saliva in the wind. Janet screamed.
         But the whale glided over them altogether its great shadow smothering them as it passed.
         'It's coming back! It's coming back!' shrieked Janet as she watched the whale describe a slow semi-circle and cruise towards them again.
         Once more, however it passed them over and headed towards the old building, while the other whales floated in formation nearby.
         Turning again, it swam back towards Janet and Kif Kif, but in a smaller arc this time, so that its shadow didn't even reach the street where they stood. It was heading for the old building once more, and this time it did not pass it by. Some decision seemed to have been made deep in the creature's brain, and it hurled itself straight at its target, ramming into the stonework with its massive head.
         Amid the noise of a muffled thunderclap, the old building shuddered, stones falling out of their pattern in small clusters. A pale statue swayed on its perch and toppled to the street below, smashing unseen and unheard. The other whales, following the example of their leader attacked the building with him, ramming and ramming it until crucifixes cartwheeled down through the air and bells rang with chaotic lack of rhythm. At last the church fell in on itself with the tremendous racket that only collapsing buildings make.
         For an attenuated minute the whales circled the ruin, then they swam off towards another part of the city, their tails beating up clouds of shimmering debris.
        Janet let out her breath shudderingly, then gasped at the pain of frozen muscles thawing. She wasn't really very gratelul to be alive; life had been conceded too far beyond the extremity of terror. To be unconscious in the long gullet of a whale: that would have been real mercy, not this ghastly approximation of survival.
         Only, she must pretend to be alive, pretend to have hope, spirit, feeling, for the sake of her daughter, so that her daughter wouldn't give up. She must be strong for her daughter, comfort her, get her home to bed, carry her there if need be.
         Janet looked down at Kif Kif for the first time, and was shocked to see that the child's face was radiant.
         'Oh, Mummyl' marvelled the little girl. 'Wasn't it amazing?'
         Amazing?' echoed Janet incredulously. 'Amazing?'
         Anger started up deep inside her like convulsions, getting more violent as she let go her hold on it, until she was shaking with fury.
         ‘Amazing?' she yelled at last, and began to hit Kif Kif, flailing at her with the flats of her hands. The child fought back, and in a few moments they were in a real tussle, pulling each other's clothes and hair until a warning shout from Kif Kif ended it. Janet found herself being pulled along the street by the wrist.
         'Come on!’ shouted the panting child crossly. 'Stupid'.'
         Janet stumbled along, stumbling parfly because she was too tall to be led properly by a six-year-old. She glanced over her shoulder to see what the child had already spotted: a school of moray eel gathering twenty yards away, attracted by the commotion of the fight and the smell of human flesh.
         Janet gained her stride, scooped up her unprotesting daughter in her arms and ran and ran.
         In bed that night, safe behind the flywire, Janet tried to explain why she had been so angry.
         'I thought you were terrified of sharks and big fish like that,' she said lamely, hugging the slightly alien child tight to her side. 'You have nightmares every night . . .'
         Kif Kif pawed sleepily at an itchy cheek and nose.
         'I have nightmares about other stuff,' she said.

1998 Michel Faber                                           
spanish translation | catalan translation

"Fish" appears in Some Rain Must Fall, published by Canongate Books,Oct. 1998See the BR review. Book ordering: Internet Bookshop

This electronic version of "Fish" is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with Canongate Books and the author. This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

Michael FaberMichel Faber was born in Holland and grew up in Australia. Since 1993 he has lived on a farm in the Scottish Highlands where he writes short stories, which have surfaced in several reviews. ‘Fish’ won the 1996 Macallan/'Scotland on Sunday’ Award and ‘Some Rain Must Fall’ was a winner of the 1997 Ian St James Awards. He is currently writing a novel.

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