At first, they do not speak. They stare at the Jewfish, open-mouthed. Some begin to mutter under their breath. Most remain silent. He is able to look at them and is struck by how similar they have become to one another. It is difficult to tell them apart. He thinks that he sees Mrs Bleen toward the back of the crowd, but the woman’s face is fuzzy and indistinct. It may be someone else.
They say: “Do you know why we are here?”
He looks to the fish for guidance, but it makes him no reply. He must answer alone:
“Yes. I think I do.”
“Are you afraid?” they say.
“Yes,” he says. “I am very afraid.”
He cannot tell whether this answer pleases them or not.
He does not feel the pain at first, only the sensation of several sharp blows. What he notices is the blood, splashing. Tiny red specks appear on the white tablecloth, a fine spray of red dusting the sea urchin and the glass jars of asphalt and benzoine. He looks up at the impassive face of the Jewfish and sees that large sticky circles of red have stained its flank. He falls to his knees. It is then that he observes the pool of blood beneath him, growing larger splash by splash. It is then that he begins to feel the pain.
He says: “Why? I still do not understand. Why like this? Why this?”
The Jewfish says: Do you not see? This was always available to you. It has been waiting for you since the beginning. You paid for it in advance of delivery.
He begins to understand. He wishes the blows would cease, just for a moment or two, that he might reorientate his thoughts around this new understanding.
He says: “But where was the hook? I didn’t notice it. I was looking, but I didn’t see.”
The fish seems to smile. It says: I have a secret for you, if you have ears to hear it. This is the secret you have yearned for. The secret is that you are wrong. You have mistaken your role. You are not the fish. You are the hook and you are the worm.
He says: “But these people, surely, are the fishermen, setting their hooks? Surely I have been caught by them?”
The fish replies: These are not the fishermen. They have no plan. They have set no traps. Were you to ask them to explain their actions, they could not. They have seen something glittering far away, they cannot but pursue it. They are the fish. They do not know why they seek you.
An enormous clarity has burst upon him, as though the sun had risen once more. He sees it now. He feels himself wriggling, speared through with a curved blade. He watches as the people around him start to nibble.
He says: “And the fisherman? Who has set me as a hook and worm?”
The fish utters a large and perfectly round bubble. It says: How can I answer such a question? I do not know the fisherman. I am simply a fish.
He notices, calmly, without fear, that there is water all around him. The water is blue, and the Jewfish is swimming away. It is remaining in place. He is beneath the water. His lungs ache as though he had been kicked and beaten, but he knows that it is only lack of oxygen. The water is pressing against his lips, demanding entry. He is alone. He is among a crowd of people. He notes that their faces are without understanding. They will not breathe under water. At last, at long last, he knows it is time. His understanding is partial at best, but maybe it will be enough. Another sharp pain strikes his lungs, his kidneys, his stomach. He opens his mouth and inhales.