Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview
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Chapter 7 - Exodus
The Smug wasn't bothered in the least about Ambrosius' plight, for it shone with cheerful disregard through his shack window and made the dust motes dance and sparkle like a thousand tiny stars. Ambrosius sat up and rubbed his red-ringed eyes. He looked around the familiar interior of his room. Books and dust. Some kind person had wound up his line and neatly and placed it on top of his Box of Things, which they had left in the middle of the shack floor.
He wasn't hungry, but he ate a breakfast of Hookfruit biscuits. He wasn't thirsty but he drank a quart of water. He splashed the rest of the water over his face in a sorry excuse for a wash, which just left the sweat of a year and a week more evenly distributed over his clammy skin. This sorry, fishless man crawled back into bed and pulled the covers over him. There was dark silence, and he could almost pretend that he didn't exist, were it not for those troublesome idiotic thoughts that insisted on their histrionics on the stage of his mind.
Enter the players: Self-Loathing, a small, dark, well-educated character who has a melancholy disposition and is thoroughly unlikable; Embarassment, a corpulent old fool with gout who won't stop his infernal gabbing; Shame, a surprisingly persistent and base rumour-monger; Uncertainty, perhaps the most evil villain to ever grace Life's stage. There were more in this diabolic cast, more demons to mock and torment, but to describe them would make this book a depressing affair. At the bottom of the scrambling heap of emotions that clawed for prominence in Ambrosius' mind, there was a poor, crushed, wingless butterfly of a creature called Hope. When Ambrosius tried to help it out from under the pile he noticed that it had a sting to its tail, which it viciously applied to his helping hand and cast what was possibly the worst pain through his soul. He knew what he must do. Life held no promise for him, he had become like the dead. He must go down to join his kind; he must walk the Mist forever.
With this in his mind Ambrosius got out of bed, picked up his satchel and left his shack.
The spectators were there, perched on the higher branches and lining the main bough. They looked, for the most part, sad and sympathetic, but an errant peal of malevolent laughter from a young and unruly Piscador stung Ambrosius' ears. There was, although Ambrosius did not pick up on this at the time, something else written in the expressions of the crowd as they stood there. Indeed, their faces themselves had changed from what they were a year and week ago; where once they were plump and jolly they were now gaunt around the cheeks and serious. Yes, seriousness was there, along with concern, worry, and our evil actor Uncertainty. Something above and beyond disappointment at Ambrosius' failure to land a Bass filled the populace. Something that Ambrosius had once dismissed as superstition.
Ambrosius knew where he was going. He must collect food for his solitary exodus into the land of mists and ghosts, for within him there still smouldered stubbornly the will to live, if all else had fallen away. He made his way to Bough 36, which he knew to be in fruit. He gathered the windfalls, not bothering to climb the tree and select the choicest Fruit. He walked morosely over to a Fish vendor and bought some smoked Fish, wondering vaguely why the price was so high. His satchel bulging, Ambrosius couldn't see any reason to wait. He looked over the edge of the bough. How easy, he thought, to take a single step and save all that careful climbing. But that wasn't for him. He would live, for he wanted this sorrow that consumed him to last a lifetime; only then could his misery express itself fully. Swinging his satchel over his shoulder, Ambrosius cracked his knuckles, stretched out his arms and gripped the rough bark of the nearest Hooktree's main trunk.
“Not quite yet,” came a voice. Ambrosius looked up and was confronted by the weather-beaten crinkles of Leatherskin Wrinkly. Wiseman Cobweb was next to him, playing with his beard agitatedly and looking at Ambrosius with a look that could only be construed as vindictive.
“What do you want?” asked Ambrosius of Leatherskin. “All I want is to disappear into the mist forever.”
“I wish I had my violin, for I would play you a tune,” said Leatherskin sarcastically. “You really haven't had any news for the past year, have yo u?”
Ambrosius shook his head. “I don't care for idle gossip.”
“Nor do I,” said Leatherskin. “But the news I bring is gravely important.”
Wiseman could contain himself no longer. “You've gone and made the Fish disappear, you Mist-breathing idiot!” he interrupted. “I knew this would happen, I knew...”
“Yes, thank you Wiseman,” said Leatherskin. “You really haven't heard of this, Ambrosius?”
“Well, as Wiseman was so delicately putting, we are in the midst of a pisconomic downturn.”
Ambrosius' memory flagged up a conversation that had occurred just over a year ago. He remembered his reprieve from being expelled on the condition of the fishing staying good.
“You've cursed us all!” announced Wiseman.
“Really?” asked Ambrosius, numb to any more negative emotions. “I can't say I care. How long has this been going on for?”
“The past month. We were going to... tell you earlier, only it is considered bad luck to interrupt a Fisher looking for a catch. Then you hooked that fish. That was quite some game, by the way. You've won a lot of respect, you know.”
“Respect?” spat Ambrosius. “I'm a fishless loser who can't even land a bass! How could I look people in the eye after that? No, people don't respect me, they don't even feel sorry for me. The mist is the only place for me now.”
“Well, think that if you like. I am not going to stop you venturing down into the mist. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was going to ask you to – make you, that is – go down into the mist anyway, for the good of the Hundred Boughs. I suspected you might be doing so anyway. I have something more to ask of you.”
“Go on,” said Ambrosius moodily.
“Wiseman here,” said Leatherskin, “reckons that our catch has decreased because we let you back up here after breathing the Mist. He thinks you are cursed.”
“Cursed, I say! Cursed!” reinforced Wiseman.
“As such, your expulsion into the Mist will solve our problem. I, however, take a more rational view,” said Leatherskin, with a superior look on his face. “I believe that there is some logical explanation for the current lack of Fish. I have a hunch that it lies in the Mist. That yellow monster you saw, the inscription on the side - Fish Stocks Limited. I think that the yellow monster is eating all the fish. I fear that expelling you on its own will not solve our fish shortage.”
Ambrosius shrugged. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“The monster must be stopped, and as such I have placed a reward of one thousand rupees on its head. You are the only one who will go down into the Mist. Everyone else is too scared. You must kill the monster.”
Ambrosius sneered. “You think I could kill that thing even if I wanted to? No, as far as I'm concerned you can all starve. I don't care, not about the monster or the reward or the whole of the Hundred Boughs.”
“Well, if that is your opinion then you may go. But I should perhaps mention that a certain young lady might be impressed if you were to return a hero. And if you didn't return... well, nobody can survive on Hookfruit alone.”
“You're trying to make me feel guilty about what might happen to Sunbeam?”
“No, son, I'm just telling you what you already know. If the fish stop biting then everybody slowly dies, including Sunbeam. You just might be able to save us from that fate.”
“I'm no hero.”
“But Fate has conspired to send you into the mist at our time of greatest need. You may become one.”
Ambrosius was silent for a while. “I don't want Sunbeam to starve.”
“But I am a natural coward. How am I to defeat the monster?”
“I think that maybe if there is a God then you will find that out when you need to.”
“I don't believe in God, or Fate or any of that old cod. If I defeat this beast it will be by my own wits. The only trouble with that is that those wits are not that sharp.”
“I have confidence in you. So does Wiseman.” At this, Leatherskin nudged the old coot.
“Ah, er, yes,” said Wiseman. He sighed, as if he were dealing with an unruly child. “You know, Codwich, I always felt sorry for you. Being fishless and all, must be difficult. You were always a good learner and I've a lways thought of you as something of my protege. That said I blame you for infecting us all with your fishlessness.” The old man struggled to remember what he was talking about. “What I'm trying to say is that I have confidence in you, but if you don't succeed it's all your own fault.”
“Thank you,” said Ambrosius. “If that is all...”
“You may go. Good luck,” said Leatherskin.
“Yes, good luck.” said Wiseman. “I will sing incantations to appease the ghosts and stop them haunting you as you make your way through the Mist.”
“I am a ghost,” said Ambrosius simply. A peculiar smile crossed his face and he nodded curtly at Leatherskin and Wiseman in turn. With that, Ambrosius Codwich grabbed hold of the Hooktree bark and, for the second time in his life, descended into the Mist.
It is an unusual sensation for a Piscador to have his feet on the ground. Within minutes it is like all non-terrestrial life is mere fantasy, that existence on anything less than this solid ground is so precarious as to be impossible. But, for Ambrosius, this feeling was coupled with a deep dread, for, reassuringly firm as it was, the ground was alien to him. The Mist rolled in great sheets around him, pressing home the point that he was very small, making him feel almost as if he would be ca rried along with its ethereal currents at any moment. Indeed, some things were. The Mist is a medium for many primordial things, little creatures that squiggle and squirm through its moist vapours. They feed off smaller squiggly squirmy things, and those o n yet smaller animalcules, until the members of this fractal food-chain are reduced to their simplest forms and there is nothing but molecules to feed off. Very acute scientists would be amazed to find that actually these molecules eat each other, but then we are straying into the précis of a different world. On Expiscor nobod y really cares that much, so molecules are left to be molecules.
A slimy eel about a hand's-length long hit Ambrosius on the forehead, peristalsising in indignation before scuttering o ff quickly about its business, leaving a patch of green slime on Ambrosius' brow. He didn't bother to wipe it off. He was the lowest of the low, and he would wear this foetid insignia to declare it to the world. A placard would have been good, but he had not thought of that. Expiscor's Greatest Loser. Yes, that would have been perfect. Now that he was on his own he could get down to some serious wallowing in his self-pity. He walked on, away from the trunks of the boughs, out onto a large flat plain that seemed to be devoid of Hooktrees. There were the occasional clumps of Mist Kelp and Fog Wrack, but apart from these sparse signs of vegetation the place seemed lifeless. Still he trudged on, into this desert wasteland. He could not see the Smug through the Mist, but he could get a vague idea of the time by the diffuse luminance that filtered through. It must have been midday by his reckoning before he stopped with sore feet and aching legs for lunch. Smoked Fish. It tasted like ashes in his mouth, this hated foodstuff, but it gave him strength.
Lunch finished, he travelled on. The light of the Smug slowly decreased until the Mist became dark and it was impossible to see. When this happened Ambrosius lay down without attempting to make a shelter and shivered into a fretful sleep that was haunted by his dead past life in the treetops. When he woke up he felt more tired than ever, but he forced himself to walk on once more. Late in the afternoon he came to another patch of Hooktrees. They came as quite a surprise, looming out of the mist as they did, all but their great buttresses invisible in the fug.
It occurred to Ambrosius that he should be feeling proud; no Piscador from the Hundred Boughs had ever seen another island of vegetation. Still he felt wretched. He considered climbing one of the great Trees, but the thought of meeting people at the top and having to explain how his journey had come about made him feel even more lousy. People, after all, were the source of all his problems. So he roamed on through the trees. As he ventured further in, the bark of the Hooktrees became older-looking and the secondary vegetation more dense; strange, rope-like creepers dangling across the path and nameless, lush shrubs leering hungrily for light between the moss-bearded tree trunks. The Mist-dwelling creatures here seemed bigger and more bizarre too, their bright colours belying their true venom. Things bit Ambrosius' bare arms and made his skin itch. Still he traipsed on, the discomfort coming as a strange kind of relief.
How many days and nights did he spend in that jungle? Certainly the obscured Smug rose and fell many times. The food in his satchel lasted so long, then he had to rummage about on the floor for windfalls. He would not be able to survive on Hookfruit alone for very long, and, with this in mind, Ambrosius hunted for other sources of food. Now Ambrosius was pretty useless when it came to physcial pursuits, so hunting the Mist-dwelling animals as they floated past was out of the question. This said he had a certain kind of ingenuity. It had caught his attention that certain animals did not bob along in the mist as others did, but crawled along the floor. Taking a fallen branch that had not yet rotted from the forest floor, Ambrosius used it as a digging stick and made a hole about ten hand-spans deep and ten wide. He broke a huge leaf off a nearby plant and placed it over the hole. Then, as it was nightfall, he retreated a small distance and slept.
He awoke disorientated and it took him some time to determine where the pit was, but when he found it he was pleased. The leaf had fallen, along with a large round evil-looking scuttler with a thick shell on stop. It looked like a Mist Crab (which sometimes had taken the Fisher's bait and been hauled up into the treetops), but it had dome-shaped armour on top and no pincers. Ambrosius poked it with a stick and it twittered.
“Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,” began Ambrosius, relating an old poem. He paused, trying to remember the rest. Then, “Oh who cares,” and, with a swift motion he brought the stick down on the creature.
“Die!” Once more, the stick.
“Die I say!”
“Oh, who am I kidding,” Ambrosius said in defeat. He picked up the creature out of the hole by cupping its shell and set it down on the forest floor.
Ambrosius sighed. How did something with such a tangible lack of any drive for self-preservation exist? He shook his head and walked on. It was difficult not to notice the noise of twigs crackling behind him. Ambrosius turned. The creature was following him. He ran through the undergrowth for a short distance and stopped, turning round. Leaves shook and twigs crackled and the peculiar crab-like thing emerged with what could only be described as a hurt look about it. Typical, thought Ambrosius. Just when I thought I could have my glorious solitude.
In a storybook, Ambrosius would have reluctantly developed a heart-warming affection for this little creature, they would have gone on exciting adventures together and then, just in his moment of direst peril, the little crab-type-thing would have saved our hero's life. Unfortunately for the crab-type-thing, real life differed somewhat. Ambrosius approached the thing with a friendly look on its face, at which it tweedled affectionately, then with a deft movement he flipped it on its back and left it helplessly flailing its many legs in the air. Ambrosius walked on and forgot about his would-be companion. It is a sad fact that shortly afterwards a giant pig-like creature came along and pitilessly ate up the crab-type-thing in several cruel crunches. Such is life.
The tweedle-tweets of the crab-type thing faded into the distance, and Ambrosius was alone once more. He trudged on until the S mugshine faded and darkness ruled, then hunkered down to another uncomfortable night in the Mist with the cold and the insects.