Peter’s Fish

This is a children’s story. I wanted to capture some of the excitement that people must have felt 2000 years ago. So I used a fish to retell part of the gospel story. It was written a while ago but there are some touches which I really like. I especially love the image of the fish seeing the underside of Christ’s feet as he walks on water. I use foreshadowing and irony in the introduction but my main objective was to get the story told without the ending being guessed. There is no conscious message to the story except for the ‘be yourself’ message – I find this message so inobtrusive that I don’t think children mind it. 

 

Coarse fishing experiment.Let the dreadful engines of eternal will, 1998 watercolour 120 x 240cm (sold)

Peter’s Fish

There was once a fish named Zack who lived in a huge lake in Israel. The fish of the lake knew that their world stretched for miles. They knew that the River Jordan flowed in from the north and out to the south. They didn’t need people for anything. And they had better things to do than spend their days trying to make money like humans do. After all, why would fish need money? What kind of fish, in all of Lake Galilee could be bothered even with a single coin?

 

Zack struggled to keep up with the rest of the shoal. He could never feel as though he was part of anything. He was knocked once again out from the shoal and struggled to swim back among them. Suddenly the whole shoal turned again. Zack was taken by surprise and he kept going and banged head first into another fish.

“Ow!” shouted Zack.

“You’re trying too hard,” a voice said behind him.

It was Daphne.

“You’ve just got to use your instinct a bit more. “ Daphne came close to him.

Zack wasn’t happy with the advice.

“That’s easy for you to do!” replied Zack. He was tired. He didn’t need this female telling him what to do. “You’re so full of good advice Daphne but maybe you should try leading by example, I don’t see you swimming so well.”

Daphne didn’t reply. She knew that the shoal was going to turn again.

“Get ready to turn left,” she whispered.

But Zack didn’t listen. As the shoal swung to the left he was knocked away.

He couldn’t take any more.

Using his fins he darted away from the others causing a ripple in the water. He ignored Daphne’s shouts behind him.

“Where are you going?”

“To someone who understands,” whispered Zack to himself.

 

Zack swam towards a deeper part of his shoal’s territory and thought about the last few weeks. Strange things had been happening. There was something in the water. It wasn’t anything you could feel or see – it was more of an atmosphere, a sense that something important was about to happen or was already happening. Zack thought about it as he swam alone. It seemed to have started a few days ago when there had been a storm. That wasn’t unusual in itself, they were used to waves and currents and the strange, alien world above them growing dark and menacing. It had been a ferocious storm and the shoals had huddled together, trying to find sheltered areas to wait it out. Waves were bobbing the fish up and down and down and up and rain was pelting the surface. But, just as the huge lake had been at its worst, at its most frightening (and they were all frightened), the storm had suddenly stopped. None of the fish had ever seen a storm do that before. The bulging, swirling waters around them became completely still in a moment. And the sun came out. The storm clouds had been as dark as a boat’s shadow, but suddenly it had been day again and all was calm. It was as if the lake and the storm had been told off. But the magic, the sense of expectancy in the water had remained.

 

There had been other things happening. Stories of entire shoals getting caught by nets from the boats near the land. Fish got caught; it was a fact of life. Theirs was a life of survival. But some shoals had completely disappeared in one go, entire shoals with no survivors.

 

Zack looked around the deeper waters. He had arrived at his destination.

Meg was a catfish. She was also one of the oldest fish in Lake Galilee and she liked to gossip. Zack swam up to her as she basked deep in her hollow, a rocky cove, secluded and hidden. Neither of them said a word for five minutes.

“Extraordinary thing,” Meg was the first to speak. Her cat-like whiskers swayed in the gentle current.

“Absolutely extraordinary,” Meg knew Zack would take the bait eventually.

“What is?”

“You haven’t heard the news then?

“No. What news?”

“There’s a shoal of dead pigs floating in the lake.”

“Pigs?” asked Zack.

“Land animals from the world above. It was even stranger than the storm.”

“What happened?” asked Zack.

“One of the fish was out near the human cities. He was just swimming about, like you do, when suddenly there’s a huge splash next to him. Well, as you know it’s steep on the banks over there. Guess what had landed in the water? It was only a pig!”

“Can pigs fly like the birds in the world above?” thought Zack out loud.

“No little fish, they can’t. All around the fish these pigs dived down into the water, their trotters paddling frantically. It was all bubbles, snouts and squeals from all accounts.”

“What happened to the pigs?”

“Well, they all drowned. But come on – it was their own stupid fault wasn’t it?”

It was a strange story but Zack was glad he had come to talk to Meg. At least she had taken his mind off his problems. Flying pigs tend to do that.

“I’m telling you,” said Meg, “there’s something going on. You can feel it in the water.”

 

That night the entire shoal was resting deep down where the currents wouldn’t disturb them.

And Zack had a dream.

In the dream he was somewhere he had never seen before. Around him the water was warm and weeds like ribbons were attached to the ground, swaying gently. It was shallow and the sun shone through to the sandy sea bed. Hazy beams of light made patterns on the floor.

“Zack.”

Zack heard a voice calling to him, a voice like the sound of whirlpool.

He looked up and his mouth fell open in surprise and there was something round and shiny in the water coming straight towards him.

 

The next morning the shoal was already swimming around hunting for food.

“Come on! It’s time to catch the morning flies!” they shouted.

Zack swam up to them and tried to keep up as best he could. But it was the same as usual, he couldn’t concentrate, he couldn’t turn at the right time, his thoughts were elsewhere.

Later, he decided he would go and see Meg and tell her about his strange dream. The other fish were used to Zack going off on his own by now. It wasn’t long before he was back alongside the old catfish.

He wondered how he would start, but Meg spoke first.

“Did you hear about the feet?” asked Meg.

“No.”

“This one will make your gills tingle, I wouldn’t have believed this one myself if I didn’t know the fish involved. And he’s not the kind of fish to make something like this up. Anyway. Feet. This particular fish was near the surface by the shore. It was deep into the night and he was half awake. He was swimming along as normal when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. There was something moving up on the surface. Swloosh, something landed over his head.”

Meg gazed up towards the surface, “Swlish, something else. The fish I’m talking about was curious so he went to take a closer look. You’ll never guess what he saw.”

“What?” asked Zack.

“He saw the underside of a human’s feet, dark silhouettes in the moonlight.”

Meg nodded soberly and her whiskers swayed making her look very wise.

“I’m telling the truth. This is what the fish said. He saw the underside of a human’s feet on the surface of our lake. They stepped clean over him and carried on.”

“What did the fish do then?”

“What would you do, little fish? He followed the feet. So these feet kept walking on the surface, swloosh, swlish, swloosh, swlish and this fish kept swimming underneath them. He followed the human feet for a mile or two until he reached a boat. Then, after a while, a second pair of human feet appeared from the boat. All this was too much for the fish; he got scared and swam off in case they had nets.”

Meg was silent then and Zack decided that this would be a good time to tell her about his dream.

When he had finished Meg took a deep breath of water.

“So, this place,” said Meg, “You say it was warm and shallow, weedy too?”

“Yes,” replied Zack, “What should I do?”

The old catfish let her whiskers feel the sea floor. Then she said, “I have an old proverb that I use to apply to this kind of situation. Over the years it has served me well.”

“What is it?”

“If in doubt, no nowt.”

“But shouldn’t I see if I can find this place? And what about the shiny round thing?” Zack didn’t like to be doing nothing.

“I’m telling you little fish, some strange things are happening in and around Lake Galilee. You should stick with the shoal.”

 

Driving next to Lake Galilee a money changer cracked his whip across the back of his horses. His wagon was stacked with bags of coins. He was on his way to the temple in Jerusalem. Each coin in the bags was a day’s wages for most people in Israel. They rattled and clinked next to each other. It was the money changers job to change one currency to another. He would charge money each time he did this. And he got rich this way. He could always be sure of making loads of money in the temple. Of course, the money changer’s business wasn’t always fair, but who would want to upset things when they were going so swimmingly?

 

Zack had decided to go for a swim alone. He went much further than he usually did and it wasn’t long before he was lost. No matter what he did he couldn’t get his bearings. But suddenly he recognised the place in his dream.

 

The wagon clattered over a hole in the road. The money changer heard some of the coins rattle free of the bags behind him. Then the horses galloped over a bump and the wagon lurched. The money changer never saw the coin which got flicked up from inside the wagon. It flirted up and out and fell down just behind the two horses. One hoof kicked back and flung the coin high into the air again out towards Lake Galilee. The coin was flicked up towards the surface of the lake.

 

Zack knew for certain it was the place from his dream. There were light patterns on the sandy ground. There were weeds like ribbons. The water felt warm and was shallow. Remembering what had happened in his dream next, Zack looked up. Something round and shiny plopped into the water overhead.

“Oh-oh!” Zack opened his mouth to speak.

Gulp.

The coin fell straight into his mouth. He swallowed instinctively and the coin went further in. It slipped down a little and then stuck. It was lodged in the back of his mouth. Fish are designed so that they breathe through their gills, so the coin wasn’t about to kill him. But it was uncomfortable.

No matter what Zack did, the coin wouldn’t budge. He swam, shook, turned and twisted. He tried leaning forwards, flipping over, rubbing in the sand, wriggling and floating face downwards. He even tried leaping up out of the water, but the coin still wouldn’t budge. In a panic he swam and swam and swam.

 

He swam so far and for so long that he was well out of his territory. He swam so much that he felt tired and ferociously hungry. He swam until he reached the waters by the human town of Capernaum. He swam towards the shore, thinking he would retrace the shoreline back the way he came.

But what was this? There in front of him a worm was floating in the water. Zack swam up to it and wondered just how he was going to swallow this one. Instinctively he ate it but something caught in his mouth. He tried to swim away but felt something sharp tug into his mouth and pull him back. The hook pulled Zack up to the surface. Then, suddenly, he was lifted up out of the water. He was dangling in mid-air. He flipped and wriggled but couldn’t get loose. Then he felt a pair of human hands grip him. One of them pulled the hook out of his mouth. A man peered down at him. He put his little finger into Zack’s mouth. At the same time Zack felt his whole body convulse. He coughed up the shiny coin into one of the man’s hands. Zack felt so relieved that the round thing was out of his mouth. But he didn’t relax because he wasn’t sure if he was about to be eaten or not. His gills were going like mad. The man looked at the coin in the palm of his hand. He looked back at the fish.

 

Zack couldn’t read human expressions but if he could he would have seen a man looking amazed. The man’s mouth was open in surprise and he looked a bit like a fish right then too. Then the man gently lowered Zack back into the water. As soon as Zack felt the water around him he flipped and wriggled even more. The man released his grip and Zack got his bearings and then swam for all he was worth.

When he got back to the shoal he told them the entire whole story. Daphne and Meg and the others were very impressed and for the first time Zack felt like he was part of something big. Other things happened in and around Lake Galilee after that, but when Zack swam with the shoal they were always very proud of him because he had been to the world above.

 

Jesus said to Peter: “’…go to the lake and drop in a line. Pull up the first fish you hook, and in its mouth you will find a coin worth enough for my temple-tax and yours.”

Matthew 17:27

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