Fishkin

by Jaime O. Mayer

Land is never permanent for a fishkin. Two-legs and fishkin alike repeat this saying like the words are sacred, an undisputable truth and promise all in one line. But they’re just words—meaningless unless you want them to be otherwise. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. My brother Mhote doesn’t think as I do. For being twins, we aren’t much alike. My ears are worn out from hearing Mama’s constant, “Parrah, let your brother be himself.” Let him be fishkin, she means.

She never says the same to me. 

We are our father’s children, but raised by our mother. She hatched us from eggs procured by our father, bathed us as tiny fry in water bottled from the Silver Wash, and cherished us as her own. We’ve never known our father, but we are blood of his blood. Even after Mhote and I could assume two-leg form, being fishkin marked us despite sharing our mother’s golden skin: our temples glisten with iridescent scales, and no two-leg has slick, seaweed-tough ribbons of hair. But our mother loves us dearly, and the village of Silken Shore treats us well.

In a few days, it’ll be our Wakening Day—the day we reach fifteen and the age when a fishkin can enter the Silver Wash and travel to parts unknown—and Mhote’s been all but vibrating with anticipation. It’s not so different than any other birthday. It just means we can enter the Silver Wash. 

Can, not have to.

We’ve never known our father, but we are blood of his blood.

Wandering outside our small house, I find Mhote burning off energy harvesting the silkweed growing close to the shore. Mhote in fishkin form resembles a pike, sleek and quick and with a mouth full of pointed teeth. His silver-blue body darts through water faster than my chunky brown carp-shaped form ever could, and his jaws make short work of the filaments anchoring the silkweed to the rocks. 

“Help me take some bolts over to Birlii?” I ask, looking to redirect Mhote’s nervous energy. He quickly agrees, streaking to shore and jumping out of the water, transforming from fish to boy in the space of a heartbeat. I follow at a more sedate pace, and by the time I reach the path, Mhote skips from our house, arms full with woven silkweed fresh from Mama’s loom. 

The trip through the village is short, and Birlii’s small market shack lies nearly empty of its usual variety of wares. The fishkin trader is an oddity in that he’s worked the same trade route for the last decade, transient but never going too far. He trundles up and down a small stretch of the Cerulean Sea, collecting and selling whatever the locals have to offer. The few other fishkin I’ve seen visit our village never stayed nearly so long. 

Birlii takes the proffered bolts and hands me a few coins in exchange. “Your mama holding up?” 

My blank face is answer enough. Mhote loves Birlii’s stories. They tend to turn into long-winded explanations of “Things Fishkin Do.” 

“She’s a strong one, your mama. She knows our kind don’t stay.”

“Land is never permanent for a fishkin,” Mhote chirps. 

I tug Mhote’s arm. “We should be—”

“You feel it building, eh?” Birlii interrupts, his eyes on Mhote. “It’s going to activate on your Wakening Day, I know it. Lucky. It’s rare for it to open on the exact day you can go.”

“How many do you think will be there?” Mhote asks. 

“I reckon it’ll be close to a hundred. It’s been a quiet year for the Wash; hasn’t opened in months. It’s only open for a few minutes so folks are antsy.”

We could be here for hours if I don’t cut them off. “We should be going.”

“Always mothering him, aren’t you, Parrah?” Birlii laughs. “I’ll see you in the Wash!”

Mhote and I trudge home without speaking, each consumed in our own thoughts. He hums softy to himself, eyes on the sea instead of the dirt road.

 “Has Mama said anything to you?” I say.

“About what?” 

“Leaving.” 

“No, but I can feel it. Don’t you?” 

“Feel what?”

“Like we need to go. Like there’s a song in the current, but it’s too faint to hear the words. Yet.”

“I don’t feel anything,” I mumble, a hint of defiance coloring my voice. 

Mhote purses his lips, a pitying expression on his face. It’s the look of brotherly impatience he always assumes whenever talk of our ancestral ways comes up. I’m just his silly sister being difficult. I stare back, but he merely shrugs and resumes humming.

Mhote spends the rest of the day on the beach, sitting in two-leg form and letting the surf wash over him. He wavedrinks—scoops a handful of water and tastes it, sifting through the tones in the sea, listening for something. It’s a fishkin trait I’ve never gotten the hang of, one of many, Birlii assures me. Mostly I just taste salt. For my brother, it comes as naturally as swimming. 

Seeing him wavedrink, a prickle of cold runs down my spine, but I don’t know why. He’s my brother. We may be fishkin but we’re also a family.

“Like we need to go. Like there’s a song in the current, but it’s too faint to hear the words. Yet.”

On the morning of our Wakening Day, I rise to find Mhote already gone. Mama sits at the kitchen table, staring out the window at the Cerulean with vacant eyes, her expression grim but unsurprised. Only I had thought my brother might stay.

“Mama.” I gently touch her shoulder.

Slowly, she turns to look at me, but her grim expression remains. “My Parrah. Have you come to say goodbye?”

Anger blooms within my chest. Mhote broke up our family and didn’t even think to say goodbye to our mother first? “No, Mama, I’m not going to leave. Mhote will—”

A sob tears from her throat at my brother’s name, and I bite my lip to hold back more words.

“You will,” she whispers, tears running unchecked down her face. “You’ll hear the call and you’ll go too. It’s in your blood.”

“No, it’s not. I’m going to stay with you.”

“My sweet girl, you are fishkin. Don’t worry about me. I knew this day would come.” She gives me a watery smile. “Your father took me out in a boat once, so I would know. Even two-legs can hear the call sometimes.”

She pats my hand once and turns back to face the sea. Resigned to lose both of her children because that is the transitory nature of fishkin. Fifteen years of a family, all lost to the call of the Silver Wash, and she accepts it as her lot for falling in love with a man she knew wouldn’t stay.

I am not so understanding. “I’m going to bring him back. We’re a family.”

She gives no sign of hearing me. I should’ve known that Mhote would act foolishly. We might be fishkin, but he should’ve known better than to be so selfish. 

I kiss the top of Mama’s head, then leave for the sea. 

“You’ll hear the call and you’ll go too. It’s in your blood.”

All fishkin can sense the Silver Wash, even a dull-blooded one like me. But its song, the infamous call, none of it puts a thrill into my blood, no inescapable desire to leave for a distant somewhere. A fishkin’s destination holds little value because it’s never final. The magic in the current ebbs and flows, but always it returns and lures fishkin in and onward to another place. Uprooting lives, destroying families, dissolving bonds that can only ever be one-sided. 

Mhote will understand if I can find the right words to explain. If I can make him see the pain his error has caused, then he’ll come home. Somehow, I’ll break the hold of the Silver Wash and its trickery. I’ll remind him that he cares about us. 

The Cerulean spreads out before me, the trail to the holding ground for the Silver Wash standing out from the murk. Amongst the blue-green gloom a ribbon of grayish-silver beckons, winding around clusters of silkweed, skimming over the coarse sand and rocks of the ocean floor. It dances before my eyes, its lyrical call echoing faintly in my head. I can even smell it, a mix of brine and smoke and something musky that I can’t place. A hint of the Silver Wash’s upcoming destination perhaps? I never paid much attention when Mama told us about our fishkin roots, but I know enough: the current will activate sometime in the evening for a handful of minutes, and I can’t let Mhote enter. I would never get him back, get him out, once the Silver Wash came to life. All fishkin know this. 

After what feels like miles, I reach the sunken city serving as our local holding ground. Birlii took Mhote and me out here a few weeks ago in anticipation of our Wakening, but now the place is almost unrecognizable. Dozens upon dozens of fishkin mill around the derelict buildings. More fishkin than I’ve ever seen in one place. Being surrounded by so many of my kind, ages varying from my own to a small group of elders, scales grizzled and steely gray around the edges, is dizzying. It is one thing to know in a vague sense that there are many of your people, and another to live the experience. Everywhere fishkin talk and laugh, old friends reunite and complete strangers gesture with excitement at the open water, all waiting for the Silver Wash to call. A hundred bodies brimming with an enthusiasm shared by all save me. 

I see the jubilation around me and want to scream.

Runaways. Unfaithful. Selfish, all of them. How many families are about to be torn asunder, how many friends left, loved ones abandoned, by these, my fellow fishkin? They don’t think in these terms, with the feelings of others in mind. They think only of themselves, and of what new adventures await. Some, like Birlii, like my father, hang around for a while, but eventually they leave. Perhaps they’re worse—the longer they stay in one place the more likely others are to become attached to them, but the feelings are never reciprocated. 

I spot Birlii the same time he notices me; the catfish-like whiskers he bears in two-leg form don’t suit his narrow perch frame as a fishkin either. He beckons for me to join him and a pair of older eel-like fishkin.

“Have you seen my brother?” I blurt out by way of greeting. 

“Came to your senses then, eh?” Birlii nudges the female fishkin with a pectoral fin, and they all guffaw as if he’s delivered some punchline. “She’s the one I was talking about. This is Parrah, Mhote’s twin.”

The pair of eels coo softly. “Poor child. Growing up without a proper parent. Good thing you had Birlii to keep an eye on you.”

Gritting my teeth loses its effectiveness in fishkin form. “I’m here to bring Mhote home. To our family.” Where he belongs, my tone implies.

They hear the chill in my voice, exchange knowing, condescending glances.

“That’s not a very fishkin thought, dear.”

“Two-legs got to her.”

“What is wrong with you?”

I flick my fins. “Where is he?”

The male glances at Birlii. “She’s got that two-leg insolence. Don’t they teach respect in that village?”

Birlii snorts. “Guess one twin came out all fishkin and the other came out all two-leg.” He eyes me. “Mhote’s over by the old tower with the others of-age. Maybe your own blood can talk sense into you.”

I don’t thank him before swimming away. 

“She’s already here,” Birlii mutters behind me. “When the call comes, she’ll go. Two-legs can’t change blood.”

I swim faster. 

“That’s not a very fishkin thought, dear.”

“Nosy old salt-drinkers,” I grumble under my breath. What do they know? Acting as if Birlii was my uncle instead of a not-so-close neighborly sort who stopped by from time to time. Not like he supped with us every night. Sure, Mhote likes his stories, and look where that got us. My fellow fishkin. Maybe Birlii only stuck around as long as he did waiting for our Wakening Day so he could take Mhote with him. All his talk about being fishkin and blood bonds; I wouldn’t put it past him.

Groups of fishkin my age are scattered around the dilapidated tower, each buzzing about the upcoming call. I spy a flicker of familiar silver-blue; Mhote and a trio of fishkin gambol about at the tower’s base. Mhote races a similarly pike-shaped, yellow-speckled boy. They zip through jagged holes in the tower, skimming over the rotten wood and algae-covered stone, while a pair of calico ornamental carp girls cheer.

I swim forward, determined.

“Parrah!” Mhote cries, abandoning the race to dart up to me. “You came! I didn’t think you would. Doesn’t this make you feel alive?” He abruptly halts, faces back toward the main gathering, pectoral fins spreading to indicate the dormant ribbon of grayish-silver current running through the holding area that will activate into the Silver Wash. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

No. “I’m not here for all this.”

He doesn’t hear me. We join the others, and Mhote gives a flurry of introductions, none of which I remember. The calico girls are identical twins save for their mouths: one has black lips while the other has orange, like lip paint. Mhote and Speckles the Pike Boy rattle off their predictions for the upcoming destination, while the Lips Sisters squeal in agreement. 

“Mhote.” I swim in front of him, commanding his attention. “We’re going home.”

The utterly blank look he gives me, the lack of comprehension plain upon his face as if he simply cannot understand the how or why behind my statement fills me with a spitting fury. 

“Did you even stop for a moment, a single moment, to consider what your running off would do to our mother? How it would hurt her?” I snarl.

The confusion vanishes from Mhote’s face, his expression going stormy and defiant. For being siblings, we usually don’t fight so much as we have disagreements. This will be a fight. I can see it in the way Mhote goes still, fins clamping tightly to his body. My brother of constant motion, all of that energy pent up in anticipation, ready to be unleashed upon me. I’m always the one to cave first, disengaging when we inevitably make Mama cry. Then we carry on as if nothing had happened, not dwelling on right or wrong, not exactly forgiving but moving forward.

Not this time. Our mother’s tears are my motivation, the resignation in her voice driving my anger. I will fight for her where Mhote will not. 

“You think I left without saying goodbye to her? That she didn’t encourage me to go?” Mhote says, disgusted.

I hesitate—I hadn’t considered that possibility, but won’t let him dissuade me. It doesn’t matter if Mama told him to go, that she would be all right in our absence. Why can’t he see that?

“She wouldn’t ask us to stay. She isn’t selfish like you,” I say, confident.

“She’s not afraid. Don’t you remember all the stories she told us about our blood?”

“I’m not afraid!”

Mhote sneers, pulling his lips back to reveal pointed teeth. “No, that would mean you wanted a part of this but were too scared of the change. You probably can’t even hear the call.”

“I can, I just don’t want to go with it.”

Orange Lips gasps. “What kind of a fishkin are you?”

“She’s not. She’s a puppet,” Mhote says. “Scaled on the outside but a two-leg pulling the strings.”

“I don’t abandon my family at the first whiff of excitement,” I say, haughty. “I don’t leave the moment it looks like something better’s come along.”

“I love Mama.” Mhote comes in close until inches separate our faces. 

“Then why didn’t you put her first? Did you tell her you’d come back? Visit? Do you think she believed it?”

Fifteen years and not once have we seen our father, the man who supposedly loved our mother enough to give her the children she never thought she’d have. A token of his love for the absence he must have known would happen. Land is never permanent for a fishkin. 

Whoever had come up with that saying was wrong. I have a choice. Mhote does too. But he hides behind words long-held to be unequivocal truth, holds them up as a shield, excuses his self-centered actions and calls them instinct so he can run away without guilt. 

Not this time.

“We’re family. Either that means something to you or it doesn’t.” 

Mhote stares at me, mouth open, and I can almost see him wrestling with my words, turning them over in his mind. Contemplating. Hearing me for the first time. 

Speckles breaks the moment with a derisive laugh. “Why would family try to deny who he is? We’re fishkin. That means something too.”

The Lips Sisters chorus agreement.

Mhote glares at me. “He’s right, and Mama knew it. Stop trying to change me, Parrah.”

He sees only what he wants. How did I miss the depth of his selfishness? All the times we played around wavedrinking, speculating about the future, had the ease with which he would dismiss our family been born in my presence? How did we grow up together and I not know that he would be capable, willing, to abandon us?

“You are no family of mine.”

My words are a slap, and for the barest of moments I see a flicker of hurt in his eyes, feel my heart relent, but then his face goes stony and the moment severs as quickly as his teeth cut silkweed. 

“You’re not a real fishkin, so neither of us should be surprised. Go back, Parrah.”

His disdain stings, and his lack of feeling, his decision to say “back” instead of “home” and the meaning it carries ices my anger. Instead, my heart tightens with sorrow, and the ache of betrayal by my own brother. What is a home but the next destination for a fishkin? I gape at him, mind scrambling for words to bridge the gap between us.

The call rises in volume, igniting the ribbon of grayish-silver until it shines bright as the moon in a cloudless sky. The Silver Wash comes to life, a shimmering wave of molten silver rippling away through the sea. A cheer erupts from the gathered fishkin, but they quiet as the call crashes over us. The Cerulean fills with an energetic melody, an assemblage of voices blending together to form a perfect sound. The wordless song evokes a sense of familiarity within me, as if I know the tune without remembering why. The nature of my fishkin blood.

It calls to me, but it doesn’t dim the memory of my mother’s tear-streaked face. It doesn’t erase the reason for my being here. 

Fishkin race to join with the current, urged on by the frenetic rhythm flooding our ears.

“I told Mama we would come home. Together,” I say, desperate, reaching with my voice as I fear my physical touch will cross the fragile boundaries our arguing has caused.

“Hurry, before we miss it!” the Lips Sisters squeal before darting away.

 “She won’t follow us into the Wash.” Speckles glares at me before departing. “If you’re really a fishkin then once you’re in you won’t want to leave.” 

It’s just the two of us now. Mhote meets my eyes. Gone is the anger and the scorn from his face. Instead, he looks at me with a mix of discomfort and pity. “We’re not all like you, Parrah.”

He speeds away before I can counter, my shocked mind struggling for a response. He vanishes into the silvery current without a backward glance.

“You are no family of mine.”

Mhote is gone. I promised Mama that I would bring him back. I failed. 

I hang in the water, shock battling with grief. The last handful of remaining fishkin enter the Silver Wash, their scales flashing as the light envelops them.

I have to convince Mhote that he can’t go, not now, not yet. We can’t break Mama’s heart, be those fishkin that leave, can’t do that to her again. I don’t have the words, don’t know how I’ll do it, but I must get Mhote back.

The call wavers in a final warning. Already the current’s edge begins to darken. I recoil, desperation and dread warring within me. It’ll close soon, and then Mhote will be lost forever. But, once I enter the Wash there’ll be no getting out; all fishkin know this.  

I shiver. I’ve kept my mind free from plenty of “Things Fishkin Do” before. But, the chance is there. I don’t want to be lulled by the call. I don’t want the change it might bring because I like my life as it is, as I will it to be and not led by the expectations of others. Speckles was right; I am afraid. But I remember Mama’s tears too.

The Wash dwindles to a narrow ribbon of silver, my window closing before my eyes.

I dash forward. 

Bursting out on the other side, I’m in something like a glass tunnel. Rippling lines of silver flow past, lighting the way down to wherever the Silver Wash lets out. I pass several fishkin drifting along with the current, humming to the call’s now lullaby-like tune. Outside the glass tunnel the ground blurs, the world on the other side disappearing in the wake of the Silver Wash’s magic.

As I press on, I realize that many of the fishkin in the tunnel have slowed, enjoying the journey rather than racing to find the end. I pause next to a pair, hesitant, afraid to let my guard down in case the Silver Wash sinks its hooks into me, but curiosity beckons. Finally, I relent and open up to the call.

The music sweeps along with the current, filling my head as if I wavedrank. Sounds that never form into words flow into my blood until my bones ring softly with sympathetic vibrations. The connection shared between all of the fishkin in the tunnel is palpable even to me, our innate nature joining us into a greater whole. I share the feeling of togetherness. 

The call extends its hand to me. After all, I am blood of my father’s blood. The call offers, but doesn’t demand or force the designs of one mind upon me as I feared. An irrational fear, I can see that now.

I’d been so focused on making Mhote see that he could be different that I refused to look inward. 

“We’re not all like you, Parrah.” My brother’s parting words. Hardly a kind farewell, but it awakens a sense of grim understanding. I wanted my family to remain unbroken, yes, but my zeal led me to ignore a simple fact: I failed to hear my brother. And, I can’t be like him either. Perhaps I’ve been afraid of accepting that Mhote has found his place in the world, embraced it, and I haven’t. Anger is easier to face than fear.

The indignation and hurt on Mhote’s face at my accusations burns in my memory. Mama had given him her blessing, had accepted the nature of fishkin. They had made their choices. I realize, belatedly, that while she never told me to be myself, she never said to be like Mhote either, and the distinction matters.

The call brushes against my mind, warm and inviting. The beginning of a life filled with adventures. 

I made my choice long ago, but now I can fully understand and accept it. I wanted Mhote to cast off his fishkin roots, to shun them as I had. Except that isn’t really true; I didn’t cast off the wanderlust. You can’t resist what isn’t there. But he wasn’t the one who needed convincing after all. 

A glimmer of familiar silver-blue catches my eye.

“Mhote!”

He turns, shock clearly written on his face as I approach. He waves at Speckles and the Lips Sisters to continue on. We move to the side of the tunnel, letting others pass by unhindered. A few hundred feet beyond Mhote the tunnel ends in a wall of rippling silver, the final destination of the Wash waiting on the other side. 

“I didn’t think you’d come.” Mhote gestures around the tunnel.

“Well,” I hesitate, feeling warmth in my cheeks that will undoubtedly tinge my scales pink. If Mhote notices, he says nothing. “I couldn’t let you go with that kind of a goodbye.”

I nudge him with my head, awkward in my carp body but the feeling is there. 

“I shouldn’t have said those things.”

“Me either,” Mhote says, the relief in his voice loosening the grip I held around my heart.

He hums softly along with the call, then glances at me. “Do you hear it?”

“Yes,” I say, honest. “But it’s not for me. I was wrong to try and make you believe as I do.”

Mhote has a choice—I got that part right—but I’d gone wrong in convincing myself it had to be the same as mine. We can be fishkin and family. I can see that now.

“I’ll miss you,” Mhote says.

I smile. I can love my brother even as he leaves me. “When I wavedrink, I’ll listen for you.”

I watch my brother vanish through the end of the Silver Wash. No, we fishkin aren’t all alike though many are, and that is not a bad thing. And, I am not alone, not the only one to make a different choice. The call to the Silver Wash gives me that knowledge in its nature as an invitation, forever open, should I choose to accept. It gives me the realization that others have heard the call but chosen to refuse, as I do now. 

Fishkin like Mhote, ones who throw themselves fully into the call, who feel whole when their time comes, will never know that the tunnel of the Silver Wash is permeable to those who wish to leave. For it to allow passage instead of forcing all fishkin to move on, to allow that choice, tells me that I’m not the first. I hope others like me will follow.

Jaime O. Mayer shares her Seattle home with two needy cats and a patient husband. When she's not writing or buried in yarn, she enjoys exploring the world with her camera.