Penelope and the Fish
A Short Story by Carolyn Lee Boyd
While Penelope was being born in a small fishing village in the far north, a storm ascended from the surface of the ocean herself. Howling, raging, cursing, the relentless waves scattered the frail fishing boats that had sailed out on what had that morning been a fine summer day. From that day forward, water turned her wrath on Penelope's life. The roof over her bed always seemed to leak constant drips onto her face, whether she was at home or visiting, until water became to her a terrifying living being full of unknowable motives. More than once she tumbled out of the family fishing boat and had to be rescued, though this impelled her to learn to be a strong swimmer. Finally, as a young woman she won a scholarship to a university in the south but a month before she was to leave, a hurricane ravaged the campus and it closed indefinitely. "The ocean claimed you as a baby," her great-aunt told her, "and she will never let you go."
Yet, the ocean was not satisfied with her sacrifice alone. For years the fishing boats had brought in more bounty than the ocean could replenish and eventually the catches became too small to support the fishing families and those who made their living by selling to them. One by one, Penelope's parents, sisters and brothers left the village in search of more abundant ways of making a living until she remained alone in her family home. She eked out enough to feed, clothe, and shelter herself by making pottery to sell to summer tourists who summered in a nearby resort town, and the years passed.
At the end of Penelope's street was a bay, a small sanctuary that was born of the ocean, but still its own sheltered and tranquil realm. Yet, she could never bring herself to walk to the beach and step into the water. In fact, as the years went by, fear crept up her spine when she was farther and farther from the shore until she could no longer happily walk down nearby streets, or, finally, leave her house at all. One day she realized that she had not left her house or spoken to anyone for more than two weeks, and she thought of her great-aunt's words and the defeated look on her face as she said them.
The next morning, Penelope awoke before 6 am and walked down to the bay and into the water, then she swam the half-mile across it. At first she felt only the cold, but soon she realized that she was embraced by a feeling of homecoming that she had never known before, by a silence that was the absence of a voice that had never let her be from the time she was a baby. From that day forward, each morning Penelope swam across the bay.
After some months she noticed that a fish, pure silver with a glint of salmon color and about six inches long, was waiting for her every day, circling until she entered the water. It swam across the bay in a parallel path about two feet from her, then disappeared once she had stepped back onto land.
The fish had watched Penelope, whom she had first thought of simply as one of the beasts from above, swim across the bay many times before realizing that she felt no fear when this beast was in the water. This beast was different from other above-surface beings who noisily invaded the underwater world or who stood above to capture whom they wished, then left again with no thought of gratitude. This beast slid into the water and propelled herself across the bay slowly, as if each moment in the water was precious, then left without creating so much as a wave to disturb its inhabitants.
Only once, when she was just a young fingerling, had the fish jumped out of her home to try to see the heavens above the ocean's surface. She had been swimming near the bottom, following her school, when she noticed an object in the sand, covered but still recognizable. It was about her size, and it had a head that looked like hers, but the body was like the beasts who came into the water from above, did or took what they wanted, then returned home to the heavens. It was motionless, as if dead, but it never decayed and was hard when the fish brushed up against it. The fish had never known a living being like this, but then, she had never seen the full heads of the beasts. Perhaps everyone in heaven looked like this and could live in both land and water. Maybe some of them started out like her and found their way above, where they became like the creature at the bottom.
The fish swam to the surface and flung herself into the air. The light was far too bright for her eyes and not having water flowing past her gills was terrifying, even for an instant. She rejoined her school and stayed beneath the surface until she observed Penelope, a beast who was so different from the rest. She began to ponder the possibility that perhaps this beast could show her the heavens above the water's surface. At times the fish dreamed of leaping onto this beast's back as she skimmed across the top of the world, but each day the fish had only the courage to follow the beast till she stepped back onto land.
On the day Penelope fell to the bottom of the ocean, she never heard the boat before it collided with her, or felt its waves as it passed her by, its crew, out for a vacation sail, unaware that she had been struck. Penelope became unconscious for just long enough that she could not determine in which direction to swim to get back to the surface. The water was too murky in this shallow area to identify either the ocean's floor or the light from above so she mistakenly headed for the bottom, hoping it was the surface. Her hand grazed the bottom and she instinctively grabbed an object. Penelope opened her eyes and found herself gazing at the stone in her hand, which turned out to be a small and very ancient statue of a being with the head of a fish and the body of a woman.
The fish who had followed her for so long came swimming up beside her, stopped right in front of her face and seemed to stare at her, then broke away and began swimming again. Penelope, looked at the statue, then took off in the direction of the fish, sure somehow that it would lead her to the surface and life. As she began to swim skyward, she let go of the statue and it drifted once again to the ocean floor.
When the fish looked into Penelope's face, she saw that she did not have a head like hers and so she could not breathe underwater. She knew she must lead the beast to the surface again, though to do so meant leaving behind the fish's deepest instincts. As the fish guided Penelope heavenwards, her school began a journey without her to a small stream not far from the bay where her species had gone to spawn for uncountable generations. For the first time ever, a fish from the school was left behind.
Once Penelope was safely on land, the fish made her own way to the stream and was surprised to find that it was empty, though she had seen all her family and friends set out on their pilgrimage there. The fish swam, and spawned, then, not knowing what else to do, made her way back to the bay. As Penelope walked home, still shaken over her accident and wondering over her rescue, a truck raced by her with two men in it and a cargo of fish they had illegally caught by laying a net all around the spawning ground of the fish's endangered species, not caring that they had just destroyed the last generation as they counted in their minds all the money their catch would bring.
After that day, Penelope found her fingers forming images of the statue beneath the sea into the mugs and plates she created for the tourists. The gift store owners could not keep up with the demand for her wares and Penelope was comfortably well off for the first time in her life. Collectors of her work found their way to her door asking where the half-woman-half-fish icon had come from and told miraculous stories of how their luck had changed as soon as they had bought her pieces. "The fish-woman image came to me in a dream," she told them, knowing that if she told the truth the tranquillity of the bay would be destroyed by treasure-hunters.
With earnings from her pottery Penelope was finally able to travel beyond her small village on a tour of Europe. Museums of ancient art were her favorite destination and, one day, she came upon a statue much like the one she had seen in bottom of the ocean in her bay. The small plaque noted that the statue was about 8,000 years old and represented regeneration, both death and life.
When Penelope returned home and began her daily swims, she found that she was accompanied by not just one fish, but many, as the fish's spawn grew up and formed their own school, which was added to as each generation multiplied and the species that the scientists had thought had finally been fished to extinction slowly filled the bay once again.
As she swam, she remembered again the fish-woman goddess statue somewhere beneath her and she could almost hear her speak. "I am the spirit of those first fish beings who wanted to live on our glorious land, who evolved by stepping out of the water onto the land, and also of those humans they eventually became. To those who first made a statue in my image, I was regeneration, the bridge from life back to birth again. But I am more than simply physical rebirth. I am your guide to changing your fate, to rebirthing yourself, by finding it within yourself to make that first step out of all that is your world into the unknown."
As the voice of the statue faded away, Penelope and the fish finished their swim. The fish and all her descendants headed back to the deep water to prepare for their annual spawn while Penelope returned to her studio. That day she made her first completely original sculpture using images from her own, 21st century life. Still, though each piece was different, the woman who ultimately received it always came back to Penelope's studio to tell her how every time she looked at it and touched it, it made her they felt bolder, as if it connected her to something deep inside that was very, very ancient, but yet also completely new under the sun.