A Fish Story
Susan Stern

Sometimes it is not personal peril, wisdom, great costs or great gains that motivate us: sometimes it is only the inevitability of change...

Once upon a time there were two cities. The people of the cities were great whales. They lived in a bauble worn around the neck of a child and in the flicker between two breaths. They didn't know this, of course.

The bauble was shaped like a figure-eight laid on its side. A wall of thin crystal separated the two spheres that held the spires of the whales' homes. In one sphere, the whales swam in a clear colorless medium; in the other, the whales flew through blue air. Each group thought its own was much the superior means of getting around, and they quarreled constantly, ranged shouting in tiers before the wall, making the crystal ring and shiver.

One day the king of the winged people was lounging on his throne of clouds when there was a deferential nose-tap at the door. He nodded his ponderous head at his counselor, who opened the door. A young whale tumbled in. He righted himself and balanced upright on his tail in an attitude of respect. The king (for he was a humane king) waved one gray sail, and the young courier settled into a more comfortable position.

"Speak," rumbled the king.

"Sire," began the young courier, "Lord of the High Places, Bringer of the Blue Light, Ruler of the Tall Towers--" The king swished his ailerons (for he was an impatient as well as a humane king). The courier gulped. "Um... et cetera. Sire, the Winged People, the Best People, the People Who Do It Right, have sent me with a compliant. The complaint is this. This is the complaint. In short. The others, the Inferior People, the People Who Swim in the Colorless Void, Who Are Not the Best--"

"Get to the point," said the king.

"Er... yes. Anyway. The time has come (the citizens say) to do something about those shouters, those swimmers, those high-voiced criers, who make our days and nights tiresome by yelling at the wall that they are the ones who move by the correct method. When everyone knows what the truth of the matter is. Sire, it cannot be borne!" And the young courier became so passionate that he spouted a stream of rainbow-colored bubbles, which floated delicately into the turquoise air until they burst with a tinkle like the clinking of cordial glasses. The king politely pretended not to notice.

Now the king had no desire for war, but he knew that his people were getting restless, and a restless people are a dangerous people. So he did not dismiss the sincere young courier immediately.

"Let us think on it," he boomed, and the floor of the palace trembled. The young courier executed a slow-motion back-somersault and exited. It took him quite some time to calm down afterward, too.

At the very same time, surprisingly enough, the queen of the finned people was receiving a representative of her subjects. The graceful young messenger was as enthusiastic in espousing her cause as the courier had been in his.

"...I tell you, Majesty, Ruler of the Great Sea, Mistress of the White Waves, Lady of the Hidden Places--" The queen sighed and fanned one great fin. The messenger swallowed.

"To sum it up--yes. I have been sent with a petition. This is the petition. The petition is this. The Others, those fliers, those murky-aired floaters, those low-voiced rumblers--"

"Get on with it," sang the queen.

"Majesty," cried the young whale earnestly, "they believe that they are better than we! And it is well known that we do things the correct way. (Ask anyone. Anyone at all.) They pollute our currents with their foul assertions. Majesty, it cannot be borne!" And she flushed in the heat and conviction of her beliefs.

Now the queen in her sphere of water did not want a war any more than the king in his sphere of air. But her people were bored, and a bored people is dangerous people.

"We shall think on it," she chimed in a voice like a ringing dulcimer. She rose in the water, and her eyes glittered like garnets. The messenger performed a graceful forward somersault and exited. But she couldn't report the royal verdict directly, because she had hyperventilated and needed to catch her breath.

So in due time, the decision came forth in both spheres: War.

There was a problem, though, with the war concept, for the whales couldn't reach each other through the crystal wall. The rulers set the counselors (who had never before had an actual task) to working on the dilemma. Privately, they hoped that the whole thing would be forgotten before the old mumblers found a solution.

No such thing happened, of course. Eventually the counselors announced that they had found the answer.

"Song?" growled the king.

"Yes. We have discovered that the low pitch of our voices, while harmless to ourselves and our structures, is damaging to the others when played at high volumes. We have built special amplifiers, and when we all sing into them and aim the sound at the People Who Swim, the vibrations will cause shock waves that will kill the Finned Ones and destroy their city."

"You are sure about this?"

"Yes, Sire, Lord of--et cetera. We are sure."

"Song?" caroled the queen.

"Yes. We have discovered that the high pitch of our voices, while harmless and in fact pleasing to us, is at high volumes lethal to Those Who Fly. We have built special amplifiers, and when we aim our voices at them..." And so forth.

Thus it came to pass that on a certain day the whales of the two cities ranked themselves on either side of the crystal wall--wave upon gray wave of them, giants as far as the eye could see. There was a tight silence as though the very air and water held their breath. And then, as it was agreed by the toss of a clamshell that came up pearl-side-out, the people who flew began to sing.

And the hearts burst in the immense chests of the queen's people; the walls of her city crumbled, and what hearts were not broken by the song itself were broken by the ruin of the shining, miraculous city.

But the wall did not shatter.

Then the people who swam were allowed to sing. And their voices pierced the brains of the others like knifeblades of ice, and the winged people turned upon one another and fought as their city tumbled around them.

But the wall did not break.

This went on for many months. At length, almost all of the people of the two cities were dead.

And still the wall stood.

Finally the king and queen knew that they had to end the destruction. They agreed to send representatives to meet at the wall and pitch their individual voices against each other. The people of the one who survived would be the victors--although they no longer remembered just what they had sought to win.

The king chose as his champion the young courier--who had grown far older with grief and responsibility than his age would have indicated. The queen chose the young messenger, her smooth skin now lined with worry.

The day arrived. The courier and the messenger faced each other, their shattered cities and broken people behind them. He was still handsome in his scarred gravity. She was still beautiful in her grace and pride.

They took a breath.

They aimed their notes.

They sang.

And the two songs together created a song so wonderful, his fundamentals and her harmonics twining like living, flowering vines, that they broke off in astonishment.

At that moment, the child who wore the bauble lost interest in the toy. She dropped it onto the floor and walked away.

The crystal wall exploded.

The worlds were thrown into chaos. The media mixed.

In that winged second, the messenger thought she was swimming through clear air; and the courier thought that he was flying through blue water.

And they both knew, with pain, and grief, and the faint, prickly beginnings of hope, that none of it had really mattered, anyway.

Susan Stern came to Seattle from New York to attend the 1990 Clarion West Writers Workshop; she forgot to go home and has been in Washington ever since. When she's not writing multimedia text, she's usually doing theater stuff.

InterText stories written by Susan Stern: "A Fish Story" (v4n1), "Sea Change" (v4n6).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Susan Stern.