We emerged from the black woods into a clearing engulfed by a huge lake. Its surface was glass and reflective like a mirror, the bright sun bounced up as the mountains on the far side shimmered inside of it. The lake was so massive I couldn’t see the far shore. We stood at its side for a while, looking down at our reflections. The surface so serene, I swore to myself that this must be the world’s largest mirror. I couldn’t be sure that this was even water.
“There are stone fish down there at the bottom, do you see?”
“I can’t see past our reflections, the sun is too bright.”
He sighed heavily, took the pack from his back, and pulled out a telescope.
“Here, look through this right above where my head is reflected and you’ll see them. Focus on the water rather than what it shows and it’ll come to you.”
I took the telescope from him, extended it, looked and saw a close up of the glass. Eventually the glass faded away and sure enough, way down below the surface I could see them, a large school of what looked to be bass frozen solid, each one curled into a “J” as if they had solidified in mid swim.
“Oh yeah, I see them.”
“We have to help them, reanimate them, you’ve got to go down there and bring them up”
“They are at least two hundred feet down; I can’t hold my breath that long”
Again he reached into his pack and withdrew a snorkel.
“There is a float at the top that will hold it above the water, as you go down the snorkel telescopes, every three feet it releases these.” He pulled the snorkel from each end and two small plastic fans popped from its sides, each encased in a metallic square frame and attached to the sleek black sides. As they extended they began to spin madly, chewing up the air. “It’s a turbo snorkel; the fans force air through the tube so that you can draw enough oxygen to stay alive down there indefinitely. I’d go, but I bleed like a demon every time I break the surface of this lake.”
I stripped down to my shorts, placed the snorkel in my mouth, and jumped onto the surface. I stuck there for a moment as the water slowly broke under my weight and eased me grudgingly down beneath. As I sank I could hear each segment of the snorkel snap open and the little fans churn the water above me, leaving thousands of small eddies in the liquid as I swam lower.
I could see them down there in the distance more clearly now that I was inside the lake with them. They grew larger in my sight as I drifted closer. Dozens of them like stones lying peacefully on the smooth, mossy bottom. There was a faint murmur inside my head. As I descended closer to them it grew into one big voice.
“Why are you here?” The voice asked.
Inside my head I responded “I have come to help”
“Help us? How can you help, we are fish that swam too deep and the weight of the water has turned us to stone.”
I was down to them now. There were dozens of them but I was sure somehow that they would all fit inside the net that I had tied to my shorts.
“I am going to take you to the surface so that we can reanimate you.”
“We are not so sure that we care for that idea. It is not so bad down here on the bottom, we no longer get hungry and the reception is good here. We know many things now and quite frankly do not miss having to swim about all the time.”
I was loading them into my net as they spoke to me; they became all jumbled and heavy inside the nylon ropes, linking tails together like fishhooks. The mass hung at my side as I began to ascend. Each segment of the snorkel snapped back into place as I kicked toward the surface. The small turbojets clicked and disappeared one by one as I rose. The fish continued talking inside my head.
“Still, possibly returning to our old state may not be too bad, with what we have learned on the bottom perhaps we could really shine now. You see, we have become metrosexuals.”
“Really, that’s interesting, how do stone fish become metrosexuals?” I asked
“As we said, the reception is very good on the bottom, and we get more channels down there, we…….”
I snapped through the glassy membrane and the big multivoice inside my head stopped. I hefted my way across the glass to the shore.
“Here, they’re metrosexuals.” I said handing him the net.
“Of course they are, they are stone fish, and what else would you expect them to be, Lutherans?” he replied taking the net from me.
The sky had become overcast while I was at the bottom of the lake. As I dried myself I asked him “How do they know about that stuff, they’re fish.”
He pointed with the net out to the center of the lake. There was a large satellite dish a few hundred feet offshore where the zenith of the sun had been reflected earlier. Now that the sky was dark I could make it out.
“Hmmm” he said thoughtfully drawing one of the fish from the netting. He sat at the table there and placed spectacles upon his nose. He began examining the thing as if it was a diamond and he was a jeweler. “See here,” he said as I walked closer to them “The weight of the water has crystallized inside their gills turning them to stone. You must remove all of the glass from their gills with this.” He reached into the pack at his side once again and withdrew a dull white stick with a buttonhook end. “This is a special bone hook that will draw out all of the impacted material. I’d do it but my old hands are too shaky.”
I sat down across from him and took the bone hook. The thing was light and felt very natural in my hand, it was covered in old glyphs that I couldn’t understand, the harder I focused on them the stranger they became. As I sat mesmerized by the kaleidoscoping thing, an orange cat darted from the underbrush nearby and made for the fish. I moved my hand out to snatch the fish away but was too surprised. The animal sank its teeth into the stone skin and recoiled hissing in pain. It shot back into the brush from whence it had come.
I watched the brush move where the cat retreated, then picked up the bone and set to work on the fish. It was delicate work; moving the hook lightly through the gills and watching the diamond shape fragments fall to the table. After a few moments I had the passages open and it began gasping. I took the fish to the side of the lake and slowly passed it through the glass top. It lay on its side just below the surface, floating under glass and trying in vain to force fluid through its gills. After a while it stopped all together and slowly cracked up through the glass, dead.
He looked down at the dead thing, no longer made of stone, floating on top of the glass. “Perhaps this was the wrong move.” He said walking towards his pack. “Our only recourse is to make them as happy and comfortable as we can, now that you have killed one of their own” He reached into the pack yet again and this time withdrew small tubes of what appeared to be model paint. He poured all of the fish from the net out onto the table top and began decorating them like Easter eggs.
“Since they are metrosexuals we will adorn them with colors and make them bright and shiny. They will enjoy the hip new look, they will be trendy.” He sat there for a long time laboring away at them, turning each their scales into custom designs.
Finally he sat back and admired his handy work. “Now let’s see how they look inside the lake” he said placing all of them back into the netting and walking to the shore. He placed the net in one big jumble on top of the water and waited for the glass to open. They sank, and as the water hit them, all of those bright colors oozed off of their scales and out into the lake. I picked up one of the jars and read the label; in small print it said “not waterproof”
Pulling the net up through the glass he said “Well, that wasn’t the answer either. We must make them a standard, something that they can gather under, bind themselves to, something in which they can take pride.” Again to his pack, this time pulling out material. Bright reds, blazing oranges, yellows, purples, bolts of the stuff, “I will make them a flag. They will set at the bottom of this lake and be known as the stone fish bound to the metrosexual spangled banner” He worked for hours with needle and thread finally producing a very professional looking fish flag. He fastened it to his telescope and stood back admiring it.
“Now you must take them back to the bottom and place them beneath their new icon, they now will have purpose.” I took the net and the flag from him and started toward the lake
“Wait!” he cried and rushed to us. Each piece of cloth he had used had a small label attached that read “not waterproof” he tore the “not” from each piece.
“There, now it will last forever down there.”
As we descended again the fish seemed morbidly silent.
“While we appreciate your actions we miss our fallen brother.” Was all they would say, until I loosed them on the floor of the lake. I arranged them as closely as I could to the way they had been originally and put the flag up in the center of the group.
“What is that?” they asked
“That is your new standard, to give you purpose”
There was a long silence then
“We……like it, we REALLY like it, this is a rare and dignified thing, we are happy. Thank you for this, we will never forget you for what you have done for us.”
I began to head toward the surface, the voice in my head chattering away to itself. When I was almost out of communication range the voice said “Tell the old man not to eat our brother” then the voice turned into that static hum that I had heard originally.
As I stepped back out onto land I saw smoke and heard wood crackling in a small fire that was surrounded by stones. There was a tail and head on one of the stones charring away in the moonlight. The old man sat at the table with the meat of the fish stuck between his teeth frozen solid, stone there in the moonlight.
Now dry and dressed I peered down into the thicket where the cat had disappeared earlier. There was a shape there in the underbrush, small and still. I waded into the thrushes and brambles finding that the cat had also turned to stone. He was frozen there in the thistles stuck in a running position. I picked up the rocky cat, turned it onto its back in my arms, walked back out into the dark moonlight, and made my way toward the embers of the fire. I stoked them up into a flame and held the cat down closer to the light dancing from the small blaze.
Clutched between its locked teeth I saw a fragment of stone fish scale. With a bit of work I was able to pry the thing loose from his mouth. His fur slowly began to separate as the rock hide melted away. The cat began to purr and rubbed its jowls along my hands and arms feverishly. I set him down and he circled my legs, rubbing his sides against my calves. Suddenly he stopped, tilted his head back and sniffed at the air. He sauntered around the fire to where the old man had left the remnants of the cleaned fish.
I watched as he sheepishly put his pink nose to the tail of the fish and consider biting at it, but his better judgment seemed to take hold. Instead of sinking his teeth into the scales, he plowed his front paws into the offal watching them turn to stone where the scales were caught in his claws. Purring and licking them, he sat warming himself by the fire, satisfied.
“Well, I’m heading home” I said to the cat and began making my way back down the forest path. The cat darted in and out of my path, up against my legs with my every step. His heavy front paws now thudding loudly in the dirt. I picked him up, placed him on my shoulder and together we headed back to my house.
And that’s why my cat’s name is mittens.