Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview

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Chapter 2 – The Fall

It is said that when you are about to die (or very nearly so), your life flashes in front of your eyes. This was indeed the case for a young Piscador called Ambrosius Codwich as he fell from a branch of one of the tallest Hook Trees after slipping on a carelessly discarded rotten Hook Fruit. And what better place to take up his story, for we can use his fall and its associated recollections as a kind of slide-show of his life. An excellent way of becoming acquainted with him as a character.

As Ambrosius started his fall he was overwhelmed by terror and his mind did a sort of very fast rewind until he was in the womb again. He was given the unique experience of being able to replay his very first thought. Bizarrely, this was “I deny absolutely everything.” It occurred to Ambrosius that perhaps he had committed acts of such scurrilousness in a previous life that his embryonic musings were still centred around escaping their consequences. This would explain a lot, in terms of bad karma, about the misfortunes of his current life, and perhaps about the unfolding of its end. But more on both of these in a short while.

Passing the utmost branches of the Hook Tree, Ambrosius' mind jumped forward several months to the day of his birth. The labour was a long one. On the birthing bough, the doctors and nurses gathered, using subtle simples of herbs to alleviate the mother's pain and speed the birth. At last the child was born, and in the tradition of the Piscadors, the baby's second name was chosen according to the first thing the mother saw. Well, it had been a long labour and one of the doctors had become peckish. On the sill of a window, pooled in a golden circle of sunlight that made it quite unmissable to a woman seeking inspiration, there it was: a half-eaten codwich (the codwich is the second most favoured culinary creation of the Piscadors and consists of a fillet of Infinity Fish between two slices of bread made from the ground husk of Hook Tree fruit.). After that, the first name was simply chosen as the child's father's second name (whose mother had allegedly seen the much more glamorous light of the divine as she lay back with babe in arms, for Ambrosius means “divine”), and so it was that Ambrosius Codwich came into the world.

Ambrosius fell through the canopy, Hookleaves whipping at his skin. His next earliest memory hit him like a slap in the face. He was two years old, and just starting to learn to fish (at about the same time as he was learning to walk, but that is comparatively inconsequential). All the other boys and girls were catching small fry and reeling them up dancing and glittering in the morning sun, like jewels of happiness. But Ambrosius' line dangled empty from the tree into the mist. No fish would bite. He stayed long after all the other young Piscadors had left, hoping that he would catch something, but the Fish shunned his Bait. Even at such an early age he felt useless.

The fall continued and in his recollection Ambrosius was six years old. He had by now learned that his uselessness at fishing was something permanent and not, as he had hoped, something he would grow out of. He was on the broad playbough at school and the other children were dancing round him, singing and chanting.

“Oi, Codwich, caught a fish yet?” That was Hook Fist, the school bully. Ambrosius could take that. “No, didn't think so. You better give me all your dinner today otherwise I'll punch you on the nose!” Ambrosius gave him all his dinner and got punched anyway.

“Stop being so horrible to him,” came a voice from one side as Ambrosius cowered on the floor. “Are you okay?” The voice was directed at Ambrosius. The owner was Sunbeam Lightning. This was the first time she had spoken to Ambrosius and it would be the start of a long lasting friendship. She was a strange girl, plain looking, with a good heart, although stormy as her name would suggest. At the time Ambrosius had been glad of someone to feel sorry for him, but later he would rue such sympathy. The memory faded.

Ambrosius was clear of the canopy now, and could see the bare trunks of the Hook trees that stretched down starkly into the floating blanket of mist far below. He reached for a passing branch but just succeeded in taking the skin off his fingertips. With the pain came another echo from the past, floating wraith-like in front of his eyes. Ambrosius was twelve years old and standing crying in the gimcrack treetop hut his forefathers had built many moons ago. All his relatives were there for this most sombre day. His father had choked to death on a fish-bone, so the doctor had said, and today was his funeral. Ambrosius knew that the doctor's pronouncement was only partly true – his father, Rainstorm Ambrosius, was a partaker of the Stone (the Stone of the Hook Fruit contains a potent drug which, when ground up and insufflated or smoked induces wild visions and a sweating, all-encompassing feeling of power. It is ironic that this feeling of power is accompanied by a great weakness of body and mind which leaves the user quite useless), and had died from the habit to which he had dedicated so much of his life. There was a fish-bone found in the back of his mouth, it is true, but the question of whether he would have choked on it were it not for his heavy intoxication remained unanswered.

Whatever Rainstorm's habits, Ambrosius still loved him as a young son does his father. It was with sleepless, tearful eyes that he approached his father's casket. He had been dreading this moment. All eyes were on him for the fulfillment of the sacred tradition of the Laying On Of Fish, which fell to the next in the family line. As the only child and heir, that meant Ambrosius. The Fish had to be caught by him and placed on his father's chest, otherwise his father's spirit would not be able to rest. Ambrosius had been up all night with his Hook and Line, desperately trying to catch something. But it seemed the Fates would have no mercy on him even now. No Fish had bitten, and it was with unspeakable shame that Ambrosius approached his fathers casket.

“Father, I'm sorry,” he said with a trembling voice. All around him heads shook and tongues clicked in disapproval. “This was all I could get. Please, forgive me...” Ambrosius lifted something small out of his pocket and placed it on his father's chest. It was an intricately carved fish made of Hookwood.

“I carved it myself.”

He knew it was not good enough, and so did everyone around him. His mother tried to smile at Ambrosius to say it was all right, but the tear at the edge of her eye told of her disappointment. They rolled his coffin off the funeral bough without a real fish to pacify his father's soul and the Mist enveloped him for eternity. From that day on the Mist held a special terror for Ambrosius, for somewhere in it lurked his father's restless soul. This terror pressed upon him like a knife point as he fell now towards the wispy whiteness below.

The wind whistled in his ears and his memory threw another bite at him. Suddenly he was fifteen. He was sitting in the darkness of his family's hut, a look of intense concentration on his face. He was carving again.

“What are you making now?” came a voice the doorway. It was Sunbeam, and she made Ambrosius look up from his work.

“Nothing,” he said curtly and carried on working quick strokes across a piece of Hookwood.

“If it's nothing, why are you wasting a day like this indoors? You should get out more, you know.”

Ambrosius sighed. “If you must know,” he said pompously, “it's an adding machine. You have rods like this,” (he held one up), “and beads like this,” (he held some up), “and the beads slot on the rods and you can move them across to represent different numbers and do sums on them. I read about how to make it in an old book that I borrowed off Wiseman Cobweb.

“Wiseman is a crazy old coot. You know, there's a new codwich bar opened on tree seventy. I thought you might feel like inviting me along sometime...”

But Ambrosius hadn't heard. He was too busy carving.

“Then again, maybe not,” said Sunbeam after a while. “I may not have many potential suitors, but I'm not going to ask you on a date twice if you can't even acknowledge me the first time. Maybe I'll ask Fathead Treegirth instead. My dearest Fathead. At least he can fish.”

Ten seconds later this comment sunk into Ambrosius' consciousness with a sting and he looked up, but Sunbeam was gone already. He felt a sensation of loss, for some part of him realised he had missed something important. But the shame that comes with years of fishlessness had forced him to quickly subdue his emotions, and he went back to his carving without really realising just what had passed him by.

The feeling of loss hit Ambrosius as he fell past the middle branches of the Hook Tree, and he realised he had been a fool. He had spent hours at his abacus and reading his books, and he had acquired an ethereal, useless type of wisdom. He could predict the movements of the stars, calculate the number of fish required to feed the population of Expiscor for the next ten years or even work out how many stories high a shack could be built without it collapsing, yet he had nobody to share these things with. If only he had set aside more time for Sunbeam...

The next memory was on him before he had much time to be sad. He was eighteen and it was the Great Dance that marked the end of his formal schooling. Everyone had a partner to go with. Ambrosius had left it until the last minute to ask Sunbeam to accompany him, for he knew that she was plain and clever and so unpopular with the other boys, so he wouldn't have much competition. So he had taken her for granted and not asked. He was mistaken. Fathead Treegirth was her partner, so no, she couldn't come with him. Ambrosius stayed at home with his abacus.

Ambrosius could see the Mist Sea rolling vast and opaque below him now, and he was terrified. He had never really spent much time thinking about death, but now he was making up for lost time. It seemed to him that if there was some kind of judgement for his soul then he would probably be found wanting. As he watched his life play out before his eyes he certainly felt like a failure.

“You're getting married?” he remembered himself saying, one eyebrow raised and a look of disbelief on his face. He was twenty two years old.

“Yes,” said Sunbeam. “I shall be Mrs. Sunbeam Treegirth this time next year, when the Smug is out and the Hookblossom falls.”

“But Treegirth...” Ambrosius thought hard about how not to be offensive. “You're sure he's right for you?”

“Yes. Well, sort of sure. As sure as one can be. How can one ever be sure of anything? I mean, nothing's sure. But as sure as anything can be sure, I'm sure. Sure.”

Ambrosius' expression must have spoken volumes, because Sunbeam didn't wait for a reply.

“I didn't expect you to understand. I just thought I better let you know, that's all. As a... as a friend.”

“Okay,” said Ambrosius.

“That's all you've got to say? Okay?”

Ambrosius shrugged.

“I'll never understand you!” spat Sunbeam, and Ambrosius winced in his recollection as she stormed out.

And that was it. Ambrosius hit the mist and felt the moisture condense on his skin. He didn't think to scream. It was over. Dead. He was the late Ambrosius Codwich. He felt the sickening jerk and a pain shot through his body. That must be the ground, he thought.

I'm a goner.

But that wasn't quite the case. There was a terrifying ripping noise, a quick but non-fatal deceleration and then a further fall of about ten feet, during which he was decidedly chilly. Ambrosius lay still on the damp, mossy ground for a good thirty seconds before he realised what had happened. By good fortune and the mysteries of Providence, a Piscador's Hook had caught on his trousers a short distance above the ground. Had he stopped instantly because of this he would have died, for such a quick stop would have had the same effect as hitting the ground. The Hook, however, had torn a line up his trousers, had caught on his waistband and with one final jerk pulled the trousers clean off him. The speed of the fall had been checked and, whilst knocking the wind out of him, his final contact with the ground was not fatal.

Recovering his breath, Ambrosius stood up shakily. The Mist was cold and damp, and he shook with the terror of it. Shapes coalesced and meandered at the edge of his vision, threatening spectres of things he could not describe. In his mind the tendrils of mist formed bats, rats, wolves, spiders, terrible monsters that were beyond classification. Above all other imaginings, however, he trembled because he knew that in the mist, somewhere, his father was coming for him. Was that really a fork of mist in the distance, or was it the fumes from a Stone pipe? His blood ran icy in his veins.

For the first time in his life he had his feet on the ground, and the bone-trembling, spine-chilling horror of it was indescribable. It was taboo to even talk about the ground up above, but he had heard the occasional furtive comment or whispered allusion. People said that the Mist was the ghosts of the dead, and that if you breathed it in you turned into a flesh-eating zombie. Ambrosius didn't feel like a zombie. He patted himself down. Only a few bruises. His father was there in the mist somewhere, high on Stone and displeased at Ambrosius' puny parting gift. He didn't want to meet him. How could he look him in the eye after his fishless funeral? Suddenly Ambrosius was very eager to get away, to run away from his failure to his father, to escape this world of fish and death. Panic did not come naturally to him, but certainly there was a more than pressing desire in him to get back to the safety of the canopy. The Hook Trees had rough bark, easily climbed by the strong hands, prehensile feet and tail of the well-adapted Piscadors. He could be back up in the land of the living in ten minutes.

Ambrosius turned to the nearest tree trunk and found a hand hold. He was just about to start his ascent when something made him take one last glance over his shoulder. Just what made him do this he would never know. Could such a careless movement of one's head change one's life for ever? What did those swirling mists hold that could channel the full force of fate into such a lowly outcast? He looked through the coiling vapours and blinked, trying to dispel the sleek vision that had materialised before him. But there was no mistaking the streamlined shape that undulated through the mist.

For just one millisecond, Ambrosius made eye contact with the Infinite in its own habitat. It is difficult to describe the effect of this. Suddenly every single atom of the world had meaning; all was connected and living; everything was pain and rapture all at once. The swirling of the mist was the swirling of stars, the scales of the fish reflected a thousand different Ambrosius' back at him. But most of all Ambrosius could see in that fish's eyes an everlasting blackness, a void of such unmentionable depths that it seemed to suck in Ambrosius' very soul. Suddenly the blood rushed from his head and the world swam fishlike before his eyes. Before he knew what was happening, Ambrosius collapsed onto the ground and the Mist rolled deathly pallid around him.