Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview

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Chapter 24 – The Taffrail

“I suppose it doesn't really matter, being as we won't catch the fish in the next several millennia.” Ambrosius was stood by Stan at the taffrail, watching the horizon as it paled in anticipation of Smugrise. There were no colours banding the sky this dawn, only a gaunt light, as if the rays themselves were thin and moribund for lack of fish.

“So that's the best scenario,” replied Stan, his voice broken with tiredness and nausea. “We're on a completely useless mission on a ship that, if the captain"s record is anything to go by, is bound to sink. The worst scenario,” he croaked, “is that, against all probability, we actually find this fish and then we destroy the last great embodiment of goodness on this whole rotten planet.”

“Nonsense. Face it, Stan, all but one of the fish are already dead. What's one fish going to do? As a species we've really messed up badly. We've pretended the present is the past is the future for too long, now we're being given our just desserts. There's nothing supernatural about it, it's just the way things go.”

“It doesn't matter who's right,” said Stan. “Either Fate"s punishing us or nature is, whichever way you look at it we're doomed. We've got a hold full of ship's biscuit and dried herring, that should last us six mo nths or so. After that we're dead like everyone else.”

“Well, look on the bright side; if we catch the fish then we'll have some fresh food for a while,” said Ambrosius.

Stan shook his head. “Could you really enjoy your last meal knowing what it signified?”

“Fish is fish,” said Ambrosius.

“Deep,” said Stan, glumly. “But then maybe you're right. Maybe nothing is sacred. Maybe this fish is nothing special.”

“Special?” came a cry from behind them. A hand like a grappling hook clenched on Stan's shoulder. Fishmael was stood behind him, all straggle-bearded and goggle-eyed. “Why that fish is special, all right, to me. 'Tis everything I hate, right there in that fish. It flollops joyfully when there is so much suffering in this world that you can't walk down a street without treading on a poor starving wretch. It has that saintly, senile smile on its fishy face when the riches in this world go to the most heartless and the humble are treated like dirt. That fish, that drastic sturgeon, flounders and flips about all day in an ocean of silliness and frippery whilst the rest of the world toils hard for dinner and a roof over their head. Consider, I say, this fish o' the sea; it has no loom or yarn to spin, yet no king in all his glory could be decked out in all its finery. How unfair! Why should God afford his dumb creatures such natural pomp, whilst us Piscadors, so blessed with the gift of reason, are ashamed of our nakedness and have to don our beggardly rags each morning? This fish uses the whole world as its doss house, running like a madman undressed and unashamed, frolicking where it will – and we call this beauty? Special – this fish is special all right, but then perhaps that word is misleading. Aberrant is my word of choice.”

“You really hate the fish don't you?” asked Ambrosius. “I thought it saved your life?”

“Aye, 'tis true. I was cast o'er board like a bucket o' chum, and that fish plucked me out the mist and swallowed me in a gulp. Ye think it was out of kindness or mercy that it saved me? Nay, it was only for my future torment. For that fish is God's will made animate, and God knows every man to his innermost cranny. That fish, and that God, knew that I was destined for a life of madness and hardship after I was granted freedom in a torrent of fish vomit. It would have been better if I were dashed on the mistbed. He knew that I would be shunned, never to be accepted into that arrogant clique we call man again. He knew that I would suffer all my waking hours, and all my snatches of sleep be haunted by terrible dreams o' been trapping in that fish's belly once more, though this time for eternity. Perhaps those dreams are premonitions of the hell that is prepared for me. So be it. I will stand and wage my war against the fish so long as I may, and no man yet has had the fortitude to stop me.”

Stan looked at this grizzled salt that stood profanely before him. “You know, perhaps me and you are more alike than I thought,” said Stan quietly. “We both have a chip on our shoulders. Maybe my role in the city was just as blasphemous as yours, just as ungodly.”

“Aye, we all have our fish to chase,” said Fishmael, eyes narrow. He looked as if he were mulling Stan over, assessing his character. Despite Stan's appeal to their similarities, there was an indistinct tension between them. “But set them aside for now. There is only one fish that ye will chase whilst you be with me, that great white atrocity I have mentioned afore. You were a blackguard in the City? Well, you are a saint at sea, we all are. What could be more holy than a quest against the fish? Aye, ye look like that now, but think about her. People who go on a quest for God do so for a reward – be it in the praise they receive from their fellow men, or in the promise of bliss in some afterlife or another. Yet the man who fights against God, who still fights for what he believes in even though the Godhead may disagree – he receives no praise at all from his fellow men whilst he is alive and almost certainly will burn in hell for his convictions after his death. What, then, is more honourable?”

There was a silence.

“Ye think ye have shipped with a mad captain?”

“Er...” said Ambrosius.

“Er...” said Stan.

“No, I won't make you answer that. Har, look at you both, quivering like a pair o' haddock on the deck. You should know that the captains in this life are always mad; it is what sets them apart from their fellow men. If you're stark raving sane you are liable to realise that you are no better than the bloke next to you, that happiness is in unblazoned, unpraised insignificance. That and a fat bird, a few pipes and a pint o' grog! Nay, you two look sane to me, so be happy with the simple pleasures in life. Leave all the stress to those unfortunate skippers who compete to shoulder all the responsibility the world has to offer. Aye, 'tis a strange concept that, responsibility. Haul in a net full o' bass and every man's head o' the ship, claiming responsibility and wanting their fair share. Dredge a net full o' rocks and suddenly there's only one skipper. Yea, there's never a more powerful cap'n than when times is bad, if that man really wants such power. I wonder, before we talked about the highest power of all. Is God really only placed in such a lordly position by merit of him being willing to shoulder the blame for all that is bad? It would make a lot of sense.”

Stan and Ambrosius were silent, for Fishmael's face told them that he was not after an answer, but merely a mute audience for his monomania. For a while all three men were lost in the horizon and the rolling of the mist. Fishmael shook his head at some half-seen thought and, laughed to himself.

Fishmael, are you wise? Are your heretical arguments just? It is troubling that such convincing words can be uttered by such a blackened soul. So, reader, examine this lordly, unlordly man as he stands at the taffrail. This rail divides him from the uncertain mists of the world, and places him stark and clear on the decks of his own surety. So when you sail forth on an ocean of earth in a coffin ship with stone sail, think how the last configuration of your brain will then be forever set and preserved in the embalmer's formaldehyde. Before then, before your graveyard shift, do not let that organ be shiftless; instead let it roam about all those heights and valleys of mortal comprehension and seek out novelty where there once was dark incomprehension.

For your health, then, never be sure about anything. Fence-sitters get a lot of stick, it may be said – indeed, the fence they sit on is pretty much built of such sharp, verbal sticks - yet they should not let any accusations of woolliness get to them. The fool is certain of things, as is the convoluted sophist, yet one possessed of a happy level of intelligence that allows them to be most in touch with reality, ironically, is least sure of things. Perhaps this hints that there is a degree of uncertainty in reality, that to know anything one must confusingly be unsure. This thought, at this moment, occurred to Ambrosius, and, unfortunately, got snared in the tangle of his ideas about Quantum Fishics; strange, extremely logical ideas which, like a drug, promised mystical insights but left their user with a memory of excitement and a headache. The thought also occurred to Stan, who knew it already. Fishmael, when this idea of the nobility of uncertainty oozed into his consciousness, recognised it as what it was – an attack on his ideals – and spat noisily over the side of the boat before taking his pipe out of his pocket and chemically cleaning the inside of his head with it.