I walked through the land for many seasons, but when spring came, I felt ready for a change again. My time with Ivanushka had given me my fill of humanity for quite some time. When I came the sea, still choked with ice, I felt a great longing for the cool depths of water, and the solitude of the ocean. I dove in, and as I hit the water felt my body turn smooth and scaly as I took on the form of a great fish. The water no longer felt biting cold, but simply cool and refreshing. The sunlight filtered through the waves in rays of blue and green, and the waves pulsed around me.
I spent days exploring the rocks and reefs around me; the ocean holds such great wonders, and since I had always spent my time in the forest, it was all new to me. I loved watching the schools of smaller fish flicker in and out of the light, responding instantly to any threat. The motion of the water was captivating, moving things back and forth to its own rhythm. Little flecks of gold and other minerals sparkled in the light, and the silence was welcome.
The hooks of fishermen were easy to dodge, though I often saw fish be snatched away by them. Fish are not, perhaps, the most intelligent company, but it was nice to be expected to interact or converse. And being away from the chattering world of humans was all I wanted, and the great ocean offered plenty of escape.
But one cannot escape forever, and the human world was fated to invade mine at every turn.
One day late in the spring, when the ocean was beginning to warm and the fishermen were out in droves, I was swimming lazily along. I had let myself grow complacent, and no longer kept a sharp eye out at all times. A strong eddy caught me off guard and I found myself swept into a net. I struggled to free myself, but the net was caught on my fins and scales, and I could not get loose. In a few moments, I lay gasping on the deck of a small boat.
Rough hands pulled me from the net, and tossed me in a bucket with a host of other fish. I cried out, and the fisherman turned around in astonishment.
“Please,” I begged. “Throw me back. I am not an ordinary fish. I will not feed your family well.
He leaned over and examined me through eyes dim with the glare of the sun on water. His face was red and burned from the salt carried on the rough sea winds, and his hands were calloused. “I don't believe I've ever caught a talking fish. I wonder how much you'd bring at market, fish?”
The thought of becoming a performing animal in some rich man's hall disgusted me. Swallowing my pride, I pleaded for my life. “Do not sell me. Please, I am far from my home and wish to remain in the sea.”
I could see the battle rage within him for a moment. After all, such a wonder would fetch a fine price, but he did not want to summon down the wrath of a witch onto himself either, should I prove to be a witch or other such creature. Finally, he sighed and picked me back up. “Have it your way, fish. I can't say that I like getting in the habit of tossing a good catch back, but I don't suppose there are too many talking fish in the sea.” With a heave, he threw me back into the water, and I felt the glorious rush of freedom. I quickly swam as deep as I could go, determined to stay there until I was ready to resume my ordinary form.
But that respite did not last long. The next morning, I heard someone on the sea, bellowing loudly. “Fish! Talking fish! Come back and speak with me; my wife would ask a favor of you!”
I wanted to ignore him, and for a few minutes I tried to do so. But his bellowing was painful to the ears, and it did remain that I owed my life to his generosity, so I swam to the surface.
“Yes, what is it, then?”
he leaned over the side of his boat with a look of surprise. I am not entirely certain he expected me to arrive, but he swallowed hard, then spoke. “Well, you see, I went home and told my wife that I'd caught a talking fish, but decided to toss you back when you begged for your life. And my wife, you see, well, she wishes we had a better life, and Lord knows I'd like to give her what she wants, but fishing's all I know, and it doesn't pay as well as she would like. And so she told me that I should have asked you for something in exchange.”
I considered this for a moment. “That seems fair. What would she like?”
He scratched his head, still seeming to be confused by the whole affair. “Well, she'd like to have a nice house, like our neighbors have. And she'd like a few good dresses to go with the house. She says it's no use having a good home if you don't look like you belong in it.”
I nodded. “Very well, fisherman. Go home. Your wife is waiting for you in your new home.” I cast a glamor toward the shore, where his house was, and ducked back beneath the waves.
Had it ended there, I would have thought nothing of it, and even been glad to do it. But humans can never be satisfied with what they have, or even what their neighbor has: no, they must have everything that can be had. I think it they were given the whole of the universe, with the sun, moon and stars thrown in for good measure, they would still not believe it to be enough.
The next day, as I was investigating some old shells at the bottom of the bay, I heard the fisherman's shouts again. Impatiently, I swam toward the surface again. “Yes?”
His red face seemed to be a shade or two redder than usual, and he seemed ill at ease. “It's my wife again, if you please.”
“Did she not like her new house and clothes?” I could feel my anger rising, and struggled to keep my temper in check. It would not do to destroy this simple man or his wife, no matter how tempting I found it.
He held a shapeless hat in his hands, and seemed to be twisting it nervously. “She did, at first. But after a night in the new home, she wondered why she had only asked for a nice little cottage like the neighbors have. She think she should have asked for a larger home, like the sort the tax collector has. If she had that, she believes she’d be content, and most grateful.” He finished quietly, as if not willing to complete the thought.
I knew that it would do no good. Such a person can never be happy with what everyone else has: she must have all that, and must also have what no-one else has. But that was neither here nor there, and the fisherman was waiting for my response.
“Go home,” I said wearily. “Your wife is waiting for you. Her house is as fine as the tax collector's, and more.”
He hesitated for a moment, then turned his boat around and quietly rowed back to shore. I already knew what he would find there: a large house, made of stone and plaster, with fine rugs on the floor, and a wife who would greet him with a pinched face and wonder why he hadn't asked for more.
I swam back into the depths of the ocean. I had no need to sleep, as a fish, but I found myself daydreaming sometimes about my old home. I had never had a house, and had no desire to have one. In the Summer Realm, I simply slept in a hammock of vines in the middle of my garden. It was open to the winds and the gentle rains, and full of the smell of jasmine and other flowers. Many of my people built houses, and of course the Queen lived in the palace, with its walls of fine stone and labyrinthine gardens. But each of us lived in the kind of place we liked best, with no thought of comparing our own dwelling to another's. I could not understand this burning of the heart that made the fisherman's wife despise everything she was given. I thought of it as a poison in the blood that gradually reached the eyes, causing them to see things not as they were, but as she wished them to be, and blackening her sight of things that were.
Soon enough, another day had passed, and I was already at the surface of the sea, waiting for the fisherman to arrive. He sat silently in the boat, looking out over the surface of the sea for a long time.
“What has she asked for this time,” I asked him. I was surprised to find myself feeling a little bit of pity for him. His sadness was evident even before he spoke a word.
“Fish, my wife would like to be a great countess, with the house, jewels, and clothing that go with such a thing. She wishes to be robed in rich furs and invited to dance with the Tsar at the palace.”
“That is easily enough done,” I replied, “but she would do better to learn to be content with what she has. I think there is more.”
He nodded miserably, eyes still fixed on the faraway horizon. “She...she says that I am no fit husband for her as I am. A countess should not be wed to a poor simple fisherman, she says, and she wishes for me to ask you to make me a great count.”
I watched him for a long time, seeing how his eyes played over the face of the water, and how his hands deftly plied the oars to keep his tenuous position on the water. The love of the ocean was deep in his blood, and I did not think that clothing him in furs and silks would cover up the fisherman.
Finally, I broke the silence. “Do you wish to be a great count, fisherman?”
He threw up his hands in desperation. “I am a fisherman as my father was before me, and his father before him. I grew up on these waters, and I think I might die if I ever left them. I make enough for us to live on, and I am content with my life. But my wife says she will not be happy until I am suitable for her new station.”
“Then why not leave your wife to her folly? Surely you can build a new cabin for yourself: I can even give you one, if you prefer.”
He shook his head sadly. “I love my wife, fish, even though I wonder if she has now gone mad. She may leave me behind, in her quest for gems and gold, but I'll never leave her, not so long as I have breath in my body.”
“I do not understand such things, fisherman, but I will give your wife what she wants. Go home; she is a great countess, with a closet full of furs and silks, and an invitation from the Tsar is on her table.”
He began to turn his boat around, then stopped. “You are not making me into a count? What shall I tell her about that?”
“Tell her that I cannot perform such a deed if your heart does not desire it.”
I was growing tired of life in the sea. It was beautiful, but one day differed little from the day before it, and I was anxious to see the sun again and feel fresh earth beneath my feet. I resolved to return to land when the fisherman's wife had reached the end of her grasping covetousness.
Again, the fisherman rowed out, and again I was waiting for him. “What is it that she wishes now?”
“If you please, fish, she...well, she was out dancing at the Tsar's palace last night, and she was so struck by everything she saw that she now wishes to be a Tsarina. She wishes to live in a palace by the sea, made all of fine stone and hanging with silks and tapestries, and have a hundred maid servants who obey her every wish.” I could tell that he did not want to speak such a brazen request, but felt bound to the promise he'd given his wife.
“I can do it, but I will tell you already, she will not be happy in it, and tomorrow, you will be here asking me for something further. She had best learn to be contented now, or her greed will drag her down into madness.”
He shook his head. “I fear she is already there, but I will tell her. Who knows, perhaps this time she has enough to quiet her restless heart?”
That night, I swam up the bay to the place where the river meets the sea, beside the great stone palace of the new Tsarina. It was full of light from lamps burning in every window, and there were lamps hung in the gardens as well. Servants rushed to and fro, carrying things, cleaning things, and doing the hundred little tasks that keep a palace running.
Silhouetted in the grand room of the palace, I could see the fisherman's wife. She was short and pale, and not entirely thin; a pleasant enough look, save for the pinched look that I knew her face must wear. Greed is one of the hardest things for a human being to hide: it always comes out in the face as a sort of hunger.
She was shrieking at one of the servants to bring her something, and the poor girl was hurrying as fast as she could. Apparently, the task was not completed to the Tsarina's liking, because she picked up a hairbrush with a silver handle and threw it at the maidservant. It missed, and I could hear the brush clattering along the floor as the girl ran out of the room crying. In a few moments, she was outside the palace, and standing on an outcropping of rocks that overlooked the bay. Her dress was soaked with the spray, and I could see the look of desperation in her eyes. I drew myself out of the water and spoke to her.
“do not cast yourself into the sea, girl.”
She looked startled, but not even the wonder of a talking fish could alleviate her despair. “If you please, fish, my mistress has become such a hard creature. She was once my neighbor, and always greeted me and my mother when we met at market. Then one day she had a fine new cottage, and she no longer said hello to us. The next day, her cottage had turned into a fine house, and she hired me to help her keep it. She barely spoke to me, except to criticize the way I cleaned. And then she was a countess, and she struck me for the first time. Now she is Tsarina, and I am afraid she will take my life, and leave my mother all alone with no-one to care for her.”
She had sunk down to sit on the rocks, and dipped a foot in the water, heedless of the crashing waves.
“And what was it that you have done today to earn her ire,” I inquired.
“If you please, we went for a walk earlier today. She bid me bring her best silks to wear, and I clothed her as befitted her station. As she walked in the midst of her retinue, a cloud came up and rained for a few moments. When it passed and the sun came out again, her silks were ruined by the water. She blames me for letting it happen.”
furious, I sought to keep my anger in check, lest I frighten the girl. Gathering myself, I spoke again. “Go home to your mother. Wait there during the night. Your mistress will not long have such power, I think, and you will be free to be happy again soon enough.”
I waited throughout the night, raging against humanity, which could not keep itself from such greed. When the fisherman came again, as I knew he must, I could see the fear and dread on his face.
“I am terribly sorry, fish, but she would give me no peace until I ventured back on the waters to find you.”
“It is not your fault, fisherman. I know from whom the requests come, and she is the one who must pay. What is she demanding this time?”
He hung his head, and let his boat drift with the waves. “She is angry at the rain for ruining a dress she wore yesterday. She...fish, she wishes to be all-powerful, a goddess, to control wind and rain and all the forces of nature.”
A swell swept under the boat as if to underscore the hubris of the request. There was silence on the water for many minutes. Then I spoke again.
“I told your wife to be content with what she had, fisherman. She would not listen. Now she will have to learn it the hard way. Go home to your wife. She is in her simple clothing, in your old fishing hut.”
He nodded slowly, but did not speak, and made no move to guide his boat back to shore. Eventually I swam away and left him there.
It was the last day I spent in the ocean. I had had enough of the cool dim water, the sound of waves, and the company of fish. I was eager for the warmth of the sun and the feel of grass brushing my legs, and the smell of green and growing things. I swam close to shore, and restored my original form before climbing up on the rocks. I sat for many hours, letting the sun dry my robes and hair. At midday, I saw a strange form in the water. I waited, letting it drift closer.
Finally, I saw that it was the body of a woman, drowned and battered by the waves. Her hair was wild, and one arm was outreached, as if to claim the sea itself. She must have jumped from the rocks when the news of her restored poverty reached her: the tide drew her out and the tide was slowly returning her to her home.
Out on the open ocean, I could barely make out the shape of a small boat, drifting aimlessly toward the horizon.