The Fish, the Sea, and the Channels

Presenting, slightly edited at the author's request, a guest post from reader Unconcord:

the sea

The Fish, the Sea, and the Channels

Once there was a village on the edge of a deep inland sea. When the sons of the village neared manhood, and the daughters neared womanhood, they climbed the steep ridge to the edge of the sea. There, they would seek fish, the young men with boats and spears, and the young women with rod and bait, and the fish they caught there would leave them fed for a lifetime, and leave them forever changed.

Usually, they came back from the sea with a new vigor and radiance that stayed with them all their days. But some came back haggard, bitter and careworn. Others came back having caught no fish at all. And these unlucky ones blamed the steepness of the ridge. 

“It is too steep to climb,” said the hungry ones. 

“It is too steep for a woman to climb,” said the haggard women, “without a man to hoist us up at times along the way – like a sack of meal. Then we stay on the shore, like a sack of meal, to catch our fish, and the fish we find make us haggard.”

The haggard men, too, remembered how they had hated the exertion in helping the women over the ridge, and regretted the exertion of the hunt, but they kept their silence. They knew these words would only anger the haggard women, and in this, they wanted cooperation.

It had long been observed that there were little fetid pools at the foot of the ridge, and sometimes fish were found in them. They were sickly fish, it was true, that sickened those who ate them, but certainly they were of the same species as the fish of the inland sea. It was deduced that the pools and the sea were connected underground.

Beginning at these pools, the work of the channels was begun. 

First the pools were extended, to prepare the way and also to display their existence to the village, and it was observed that the fish came in. “You see,” said the channel-diggers, “these fish have always desired to swim under the ridge, and now they have the chance.” They were still sickly fish, it was true, but no one could deny that the fish had come into the extended pools of their own free will, and that many more fish kept to the inland sea.

The young villagers and villagers whose fish had strengthened them saw this. Some said: “These channel-diggers have sickened the fish of the inland sea.” But others said: “These fish were diseased already, and if they were on the other side of the ridge, they might have made their eater haggard.” And they could not make up their minds.

“Then we have the remedy,” said the channel-diggers. “If the channel has sickened them, then let us give them broader passage back to the sea. If they come to the channel because they are sick, then let them more easily find their way home when they have recuperated, in the light where they may be seen.” And they began to carve channels above the pool, into the ridge itself.

Now the elders of the village grew alarmed. “If you do that,” they cried, “you will empty the sea itself!”

“We do not know that unless we try,” said the channel-diggers. But they ceased their work, and it was found that the young men and women still crested the ridge to the sea to get the fish that changed them forever and sated them for a lifetime (though curiosity drove them far more often than before to the long sickly pools after they had caught their fish, and then they were hungry once more). In the meantime, the channel-diggers told ceaselessly of their noble work to the children of the village. By the time the elders had died, the children had grown, and many of them had little wish to climb the ridge, and all they could rest their eyes on was the carved notches so long abandoned, and they set out to finish what their earnest forebears had begun.

They carved channels through the ridge, but only for those who wished them. Those who would go through the needless exertion to climb the ridge for their fish, could. Those who preferred not to climb, need not. The division was about half and half, but the half that fished in the channels felt much superior to the other, for they were the ones trying a new thing.

The fish, however, were creatures of the inland sea, and the channels cut through the ridge, boxing them in and choking the clear sea-water with mud, were no better for them than the pools that tunneled under. But this did not raise alarms as it would have in the generation of the first channel-diggers, because three things had happened.

First, it was far easier and more usual than it had been, to fish without climbing the ridge. When they spoke of the character faults of those who ate fish from the little fetid pools, it was fishing in the pools that was regarded as their prime character fault. But when half the young men and women of the village were eating the sickly channel-fish, it felt churlish to call that, itself, a fault in their character, and besides, they were human, and had many other faults as well. Some were greedy. Some were silent at times when they ought to have spoken. Some wanted quarrel at any excuse, and some wanted peace at any cost. It was for these reasons, said the villagers, that the channel-fish had disagreed with their digestions.

Second, in all this recounting of faults, a welcome thing had been discovered. The fish that did not sate for a lifetime were fish that left those who ate them unchanged! The fear of eating the fish of the sea only to become haggard had always haunted the young men and women of the village, and now that channel-fish were so easy to come by, they thought it best not to take the chance. “I will not become haggard,” said they, “and neither need I move with a new vigor and shine with the radiance of a soft candle (if indeed such people exist; perhaps they are really haggard at heart and struggling each day to hide it). For good and for ill, I will be myself, only myself, forever myself.”

Third, the channel-fish were now so numerous that a good angler (and all the village now strove to be anglers) could distinguish between them. The thinnest and puniest among them sated only for a day, but did not, usually, make their eaters very sick, so many of the villagers favored them. Larger ones would sate their eaters for a season, a year, a decade, but then they were vomited up with great suffering indeed-- but many of the villagers thought it worth the cost. And some fish, not readily distinguishable from the decade-fish, were especially hearty ones that would have wrought wondrous changes if they were not drawn from their sea. Even these did not much change those that ate them, but they did manage to sate their eaters until they died.

Everyone who fished in the channels with a good eye and a sure hand was getting precisely what they sought, and it was their own fault if they saw poorly or aimed poorly or didn't like what they were getting after they got it. 

The channels were expanded again, until they ran through every meeting-place in the village.

Even so, some were still going hungry, and lived hand-to-mouth on wild herbs and roots. These hungry ones would most often have tended a garden or a herd for their food in the days before the channels, and through their care gained something like the radiance that the sea-fish so often granted, but the sight of the fish running through all the village filled them with despair. The women among them simply shuttered their windows and their eyes against the channels, but the men found themselves maddened at the sight of fish, fish, everywhere they turned, and not one that would feed them.

The ground around the sea was made of good sound rock, but the ground around the channels was earth, and grew soggy and slippery with mud at the border of the channels. Sometimes, a villager would fall into the channel without meaning to. Sometimes, when it rained and the mud swelled beyond its usual bounds, a house would crumble. But this was the mud. It was nothing to do with the channel itself.

Certain of the weaker fish, the fish that were for a day or a season, grew mad in the channel, and found a taste for human flesh, and those that slipped and fell into the channel did not always come out again. The mad fish liked the flesh of children best of all, and women if that did not sate them. They fed on men too, but rarely enough that it was not always believed that they had been devoured. And the children were not usually missed, for their parents had vowed to be forever themselves, and children gave the lie to that vow. But the dead women were lamented.

This was, of course, on account of the mud the victims always slipped in, and the fault of the mad fish. The channels themselves had nothing to do with either. The channels had now been cut into the ridge three generations. The village knew nothing else. A longer and broader channel might have kept the fish from madness. 

And so they enlarged the channels again, broadening them to the size of creeks and lengthening them until they ran by the stoop of every house.

Half the village was born to sickness. The mud grew ever thicker and slimier. If fewer of the villagers fell in it now, it was because so many of the villagers, awake to the perils of sickness and mud, simply stayed shuttered away, hungry, at home.

Whenever a villager sickened with the channel-fish, another would console them that there were “many more fish in the sea,” but the well-wisher always meant the fish of the channels. The true sea was now all but forgotten.

But there were a few, even after three generations, who had not forgotten. They dammed up, with stone, the channels about their house. They vaulted and picked their way over the channels they could not avoid. They tended gardens, and herds, and strengthened their limbs that they might, with no regard for the beguiling ease of the chasms, climb the ridge one day. They looked peculiar and pitiable to the others, but they did not care.

Most even of these adventurous few had sickened with channel-fish already. When they did crest the ridge, they found the sea drained, reduced to a mere deep lake, and the clamber downward was as strenuous as the climb up. The fish in it had often been in the channels, and sometimes the sickness of the narrows and the mud lingered in them. The craft of fishing from ship or seashore was known to the young villagers only in snatches. It was often long years before cresting the ridge and coming to the sea resulted in the catching of a fish, and then they had to make the double climb, up and down again, before they could cook it.

Yet the fish they caught and ate, in the end, fed them for life, and changed them for ever.  And each drop of water that retreated from their house fell back into the sea, pure and clear sea-water once more.


  1. (The last line was a mistake. Microsoft Word is clunky and cut off just at the bottom of the page. Sorry about that.)

    1. No apology necessary. I thought it was a stylistic flourish. Fixed!

  2. This deserves more conversation. I'm still chewing my way through it so I know exactly what I want to say.

    Until then, thank you Unconcord for writing it, and Brian for hosting it.

  3. A wonderful story to ponder this Memorial Day. May renewal be granted to our own wayward nation likewise!
    Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go repair a few leaks in the dams of my own channels.