I originally wrote this piece junior year for a creative writing challenge in which I was supposed to address ocean pollution through a short story. I figured posting an old story would motivate me to finish one of the many newer ones I have hidden in my computer!
A young fish darted through the reef ahead of his sister, gleefully bouncing on the assorted sponges and squeezing between the seagrasses as he pulled ahead. He stopped every few minutes to glance back and spot his relation in the midst of the coral. Nothing had ever captured attention of the small salmon so thoroughly. The beauty that enveloped him now contrasted so starkly with his recent journey through the river. The river was dirty, saturated with chemical waste, algae, and mud. He remembered how hard it was to breath the thickened water, and how the continual burning in his gills felt normal. But here everything was clean, living, and colorful - there must have been a million colors ranging from quiet purples to reserved greens and fresh blues, the water itself seemed to have a richer hue. He could breath freely. Arriving at the reef made this little fish realize how terrible the water in the river tasted, and feel that he would never return to his birthplace. After breathing the fresh salt water he wasn’t sure if he could ever reintroduce the murky filth back into his body. This novel place was his home, and this is where he would stay until mother nature herself forced him back up the river.
Little fish are just like little people. They wander. And, despite trying to stay within sight of his less energetic sibling, this little fish began to neglect his routine backward glances. His eyes were riveted on his new home, and the reef around him felt so familiar that the typical nervousness that kept him glued to his sister’s side no longer pestered him. Instead, he let the reef give him a tour of its complex passageways and exquisite architecture without a second thought. Not long after the fry had lost his sister, he became so dizzy with awe that didn’t notice the long limb of coral reaching towards him until he ran right into the briny tip.
The clumsy creature yelped ruefully then turned to see what he had hit. Immediately his stomach dropped from beneath him as he watched the tip of the coral topple and disappear over the edge of the reef.
“No” he whimpered.
The fingerling had arrived today and already he understood the sacred nature of its skeleton. The reef was ancient and living, it provided for and protected every fish that entered its boundaries. It was to be respected and revered. Now he had torn a piece of one of the ancient creatures who formed the unshakeable skeleton of the reef. He had broken an unspoken rule. All thoughts of his sister long ago laid to rest, the fingerling darted after the chipped coral in a desperate attempt to right the wrong he had committed. But when he finally reached the sheared piece it had acquired too much momentum for his developing fins to turn it around and return it to its resting place. Eventually, the young fish stopped attempting to amend his mistake, turned away, and slowly began swimming back to the reef. His eyes were downcast. He could only think of the terrible scar he had left on his new home. In his miserable introspection, he was oblivious to the slight current pulling him around the reef. He didn’t recognise the danger until the current had grown so strong that he could hardly fight against it. Suddenly, he saw a little cave appear on his right and he desperately dove for it. In an instant, the powerful current was gone, replaced by the piercing blackness of an inescapable cave.
“Hello?” a pause. Once again, “hello?” this time wavering and drawn out. Nothing. The cave was as silent as it was dark. The blackness around the fry began pervading his thoughts. He had heard of the things that hid in the dark. There was movement to the right. He had been too long dwelling on the possibilities, the little fish panicked and began flailing deeper into the cave taking wild lefts and split second rights. Soon he was hopelessly lost, his previous despondency over his encounter with the coral turned to anger at himself. Why did he leave the reef? Now he had lost his sister and was stuck forever in what was most likely his sightless tomb. Eventually, the fish stopped in an area that felt wider than the other parts of the cave. He stayed there for a while cursing himself and the oddly cold water in the cave, all the while reciting just what his sister would say to his language. In time he calmed and realized that there seemed to be the slightest hint of light coming from an area to the right. He got up and swam directly to the light, and ran into a wall. After regaining his bearings, he turned and began swimming in the other direction, across from the reflection.
. . .
Meanwhile millions of pounds of coral reef above, the lost boy’s sister was frantic. She had felt safe in the reef until she turned and saw her brother disappear beyond the edge of the reef. Suddenly, her breath caught and she knew she was alone. She darted to the edge of the reef. Never leave the reef, never leave the reef… she chanted to herself as she peeked over the steep decline. 3, 2, 1 Go. The little salmon plunged into the ravine swimming as fast as she could. Finally, the terrified fingerling reached the ocean floor. He’s not here. The girl frantically began scanning the ground, starting every time she saw a broken piece of the reef or an rock on the ground. She wouldn’t believe her brother was lying on the ground, it was impossible. And yet, she had no better ideas. Where else could he be?
. . .
Deep within the black cave, the lost child had found the source of the light. In a rush of excitement, the little fish darted into the opening. The light accosted him and forced him back into the darkness. His eyes needed time to adjust after the hours they had spent in the desolate caves. Slowly, he inched his way into the room, his pupils contracted, and he drew in a sharp breath. There was color everywhere. It decorated every wall and adorned every curve in the floor. The colors coated objects with no common shape. There was one hanging off the wall that looked like one of the large barrels they had passed on their journey to get here and another tucked in the corner with as many legs as an octopus. Every color was vibrant and every shape unique and yet somehow familiar. The colors pulled the tiny fish in and made him forget about his search for an escape. Suddenly, he forgot about his mistake, the terrifying current, and his black coffin. Nothing that mattered to him before mattered anymore. He lost track of time, and of himself, as he was taken on a journey through a room barely the size of a pond.
“Ahem, ” said someone from behind him.
The reverie snapped. The little salmon was no longer a fish lost in color but he was once again an intruder and that little sound was enough to send him flying into his second coral of the day.
“Ow!” Suddenly, he remembered the coral that landed him here in the first place and he quickly turned and stared at the rigid octopus shying away as if it were about to come alive. Nothing happened, the coral held strong. The rush of the day (had it only been a day?) came in a tidal wave. The other coral, his desperate dive for the broken piece, the current, the inescapable cave. He was still in a cave. There was another fish behind him. The kid returned to the state of terror from earlier that day and slowly turned around to determine how hard he would have to fight to escape this next dilemma.
His competitor was smaller than he was. She was a tiny purple fish with yellow emblazoned on her tail. The little fish tensed for a quick escape.
“Where you planning on going?” asked the sharp eyed hostess. “As far as I know you have never been here before, and if I could take a guess, I would say you have no idea how to get out.”
New plan. “Um, I’m sorry, I got lost, Can you tell me how to leave?” The suddenly very alert salmon stuttered. “Your house is beautiful.” he added suddenly then cursed himself internally, he didn’t even know this fish. He never talked to strangers. Then again, he had never gotten himself lost in a network of caves before either.
The purple stranger snorted disdainfully, “it is a wistful fantasy, that’s what it is. Follow me.” The old fish turned and began to head out of the cavern obviously expecting his younger captive to follow.
“Wait, can’t we escape through the opening that lights this place?” the tagalong asked startled that he was contradicting his purple and yellow guide. He didn’t even know her.
“Have fun with that,” his host replied. “The light comes through a hole the size of a small clam.”
“Then how is the light so bright?”
“I put up many pieces of that see through stuff that keeps appearing in the water, it reflects and amplifies the light.”
“Oh. What is this room made of?” The fish asked trying to delay his departure.
“Coral,” replied the fish as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“What about the coral at the top of the reef, that isn’t this colorful, how can they be the same thing?” came the doubtful reply.
The frustrated guide issued a sigh, “The colors are not made up of coral, that is all zooxanthellae. I created a haven for them down here so they could live. The water above was becoming too warm for them, they needed a cooler environment that had access to light.”
“It used to be this colorful outside too?”
“Yes, this cave is the only healthy part of this reef, everything else is either dead or dying. The amount of fish coming to the reef decreases every year. The magical beauty you see here was everywhere when I was your age. There were more fish, cleaner waters, and, as you saw, many more colors.” The two fish still hadn’t left yet. “ Come on, if you ever want to leave you are going to need first swim out of this room.”
The little fish looked back once more at the cavern then slowly began to follow his guide.
The two continued their swim through the living caverns in silence. As they swam farther away from the colors, the water became warmer and tasted murkier. The salmon was caught up in all the events of that day and the terrible brokenness of the reef outside. To think that he had thought it was the most beautiful and clean place in the world just this morning. After what seemed like an eternity in the endless darkness, the pair ended up back at the opening the little fish taken shelter in earlier in the day.
Suddenly frantic, the fish cried “Wait, I am not strong enough to fight against the current out there. If I leave this way, I won’t be able to find my way back to the reef.”
“Yes,” came the exasperated reply, “but if you would have looked up, there is a lip of coral that protects you from the current until you reach the top.”
“Oh.” Suddenly, there were no more excuses to stay in the cave. He had been anxious to leave the caverns earlier when his mysterious host had appeared, but now he hesitated at the door and replayed the conversation from the beautiful cavern in his head, the fish had said that all of the coral above was either dead or dying. It had all seemed so alive and strong when he had been out there before. Everything was colorful, or so he had thought. Now he was scared to leave this cave that led to a haven of life. What if she was right and now all he would see was the terrible death that surrounded him.
Finally, he left. He began his trek upwards, his body hugging the side of the reef so he wouldn’t be swept away once again. Every inch that he progressed towards the top of the reef instilled more and more terror in him. He was scared that when he returned he would see nothing but death. He was scared that something so beautiful and startling just this morning… or was it this morning? Could now evoke a feeling of powerful sadness and mourning. He was scared that something he had known to be true would become a lie, and that the ocean he had met so recently would become riddled with reminders of its fall from grace.
He had made it to the top. The now wizened young fish closed his eyes and went over the top. He cracked his eyes open and choked on a sob. What he had seen as awe inspiring and vivacious before was miserable and deteriorating. The dancing seagrass now looked sick, its methodical waving more of a surrender to the currents than a joyous celebration. The colors were all but nonexistent. His previous wonder at the subdued pastels had disappeared and now all he could see was the color that used to be there. The masses of fish that had previously been so overwhelming seemed somehow underwhelming. There should have been more, he could feel it. The beauty and life he had seen before had disappeared, now all he saw were the phantoms of what had disappeared.
There was a cry to his left and the young salmon jerked at the familiar voice. He saw his sister barreling towards him. The two collided and stayed that way. They said nothing at all about the day or the fear, the new discoveries and the pain. Both had seen Death’s fingers rake across their vision and the new life that lived in one another’s scales was comforting in the midst of the phantoms that surrounded them.