By A.M. Stickel, Editor
Our future smells fishy.
Hiking through the
countryside, I’d purposely sought those places where roads never go. For two
days, I’d seen no sign of humanity, but my luck could not last.
minute the afternoon sun shone down on me where
I’d paused to fill my lungs with fresh air and appreciate the sparkling ocean from
amid a wide meadow full of long grass and summer flowers. The next, a cloud hid
the sun and I noticed that the meadow ended in a village. Perched on a tongue
of land above the sea, the jumble of brown buildings blended with the soil. From
a huddled center, they spread out among a hint of green plantings and scattered
like crumbs on that tongue, to the land’s edge—a cliff above a beach, I assumed.
Before I could
stop them, my traitorous feet took me to the edge of the grass and onto
occupied ground. The narrow streets were empty. Siesta time? I easily found the
building, a little taller than the
others, that appeared to be a chapel (indicated by a charcoal smudge resembling
a cross high up the wall nearest me). It adjoined a tiny plaza or town square.
I decided to pause for a prayer. I’ll
just sneak in quietly. No one will ever know I was here.
I circled the
windowless building. No door! Maybe
I’d been mistaken and this was a ceremonial center, or even cool storage
approached via underground passage. To my dismay, a boisterous crowd, clad
mostly in white, was approaching. I tried my smattering of languages on several
of them, only to be told, “Nuncapisco.” Grinning and babbling, they motioned
for me to join them. Soon blaring, off-key music played on makeshift
instruments—heavy on percussion—made vocal communication impossible.
nodding at them, I tried to blend in, while looking for an escape among the maze
of hovels. I pretended to join the merry throng that filled the square and
spilled over into alleyways, but it was difficult to maneuver, and I just could
not find an exit, other than one leading downhill.
To go closer to
the ocean made me uneasy. I’d never been a swimmer and felt sure that a
salt-water drowning had to be the worst way to go. I enjoyed the salt-air tang,
warm sand, and the sight of the mighty deep from
a safe distance. Although I loved to eat fish, I did not want to be fish
My fears were
interrupted by a comical sight. A gray rat shot past, a skinny black cat in hot
pursuit. A slender white hound ran, barking, after the cat. A small, sunburned
boy, who looked like he’d been rolling in grass, chased the dog, trying to call
it back. The revelers laughed and went on with their fiesta. Deciding to help
the boy and make a friend, I followed him. Our way led into ever narrower, more
stifling alleys, until I realized I could not keep up with those flying feet.
Gasping, I sank down on a low wall, and was surprised to see greenery and a
stream beyond it. I was out of the maze at last!
I could no longer
hear the booming drums, blaring horns, or clacking shells of the celebration,
only the sighing of the sea. It sounded no hungrier than I felt (ravenous after
all the running), and the sun was low on the horizon. I didn’t want to impose
on anyone or disturb their crops, so decided to chance the beach and use my litho
stove to heat some stream water for tea and a rehydrated meal pack, before
Later, safe within
a hollow where three low dunes met, full, drowsy, and cozy in my sleeping sack,
I watched the full moon rise above a calm ocean. The descent from the inhabited
tongue had been easy and uneventful. Best of all, I had my holy isolation back.
I said a prayer in the star-lit cathedral of nature and drifted off to sleep.
The moon had not
moved far when bladder pressure woke me, and I groggily wormed my way out of my
sack. Cresting one edge of my shelter, I was on the verge of blessed relief
when I noticed the silence: no wind, no sea, nothing. Have I gone deaf? I peered
out toward where I’d heard the surf and
seen the glistening, moonlit waves.
At first, I saw
only inky blackness. This was followed by what I thought was a trick of my
night vision—lots of tiny, glowing dots—some green, others blue, and still
others, gold. The dots grew into huge eyes, along with a stench like a million
rotting fish, and (if only the deafness had been real!) sand-slapping, squishy shuffling.
The odor overwhelmed that of the hot urine that shocked me into action. I scanned
behind me for the best escape route.
The way up was
occupied. Villagers streamed down who didn’t need lights to show them the path,
just their own glowing eyes and pearl-white teeth, as they stumbled in drunken
nakedness toward their sea-kin. Chanting in guttural tones (that made me think
of drowning souls), they beat drums, blew conches, and clattered strings of
The reunion on the
beach made me glad I’d been born a neuter in the sterile chambers of an
arkology, like most of my urban contemporaries. For modern, landed society the
war of the sexes had ended in nuclear ashes eons ago. But odd remnants
remained, or had arisen from the embers, and here was the proof.
I nearly jumped
out of my skin at a touch on my sleeve. There stood the little boy, webbed toes
dug into the sand, and wearing my pack! I quickly pulled up my britches, but
not before he’d seen how different I was.
chest, he gurgled his name, which sounded like ‘Pel-agh-yus.’ I offered my own,
along with my hand, “Hi, Pel...uh…,” pointing to myself, “Aphe Pollenectar.”
“Iffy,” he tried,
then bowed his head in frustration, “Nuncapisco.”
Instead of shaking
my hand, Pel’s strong webbed fingers grabbed my wrist, and he pulled me along
after him up a route that must have been secret. We entered a long, dank
tunnel, his vision and the slime-green glimmer of its walls lighting our way. When
he rolled back an enormous stone as if it were nothing, we emerged from below
into a large room, a mixed pile of children and dogs and cats curled in sleep
against its walls. He sealed the entrance just as I heard the roar of rushing
water, not only up the tunnel we’d used but above
us as well. The sleepers hardly stirred.
Pel threw my pack
against the wall, grinning in triumph. He reached into one of his own deep
pockets and pulled out two small, silvery fish. He tossed one in the air, his
neck lengthening for an instant, gill slits along its sides exposed, and gulped
it down, passing the other to me. I decided to try it. He clapped and barked
just like a seal I’d seen in a vid once.
It might be awhile
before the waters of the tidal wave from which the boy had just saved me
receded. I closed my eyes and curled up against the wall whose outside bore a
smudged symbol. I pictured that sign, finally realizing that it was two fish
like Pel’s, one crossed over the other. So, being in a chapel, I prayed.