Our eyes look nothing like yours.
I only learned this recently, and since then have been increasingly fixated on why. We can see down here; your kind cannot. Our commonality lies in the tendency to move towards the light, even though I can’t handle much of it. If my people swim too far into brighter, warmer water, we risk ascension.
It’s common knowledge where I live that there is, in the most essential way of thinking, no such thing as death. So I have no fear of dying. But I am afraid of the unknown, which very clearly rests in the heights of shallow water, up in your realm, where we’ll someday be. Not for a long time if we’re lucky. We offer each other blessings and good wishes along the lines of here’s to many, many years in the water.
But if ascension is nothing to fear, even something to look forward to, why should I want to remain in the dark as long as possible? Questions like this make me want to be a scientist someday. We know little of your lives, beyond the surface; but I do know that you study the deep sea, possibly no longer knowing we exist, and that in some regard you’re studying yourselves.
We met a long time ago, somewhere deep in our collective history. There’s a lot we have in common, and going off the stone texts preserved in the trenches, even more that we do not. Cultural memory serves, but only in pieces. Our libraries, most located in the deepest recesses of the abyss, are ancient and full of stories. Among the tablets and formations littered with writing are stories of you, some from you. We’re familiar with your religion. Sometimes we can’t quite separate it from ours. We also can’t quite tell if you’re mortal or not. But we know for certain our paths crossed, in past millennia when we lived nearer to the surface.
It’s impossible to say much else about you for certain, because you remain murky to us, and therefore constantly wondered after. Water erodes even stone with enough time. Our libraries must be rewritten now and again, and knowledge gets lost in spite of our historians’ best efforts. We know you move differently than we do, and have bodies unlike ours, but not entirely.
We know you love the same, and hate better.
I am not beautiful, by your standards or mine. I think I’m pretty average looking. Slick and dark, thick skin, and eyes that glow. I want to be a scientist when I get older, and I don’t have even the most minute interest in wasting myself on any other occupation. I’ve known since I could think that the most interesting moment of ocean life comes when you go belly up. My area of expertise will be life post-ascension. I’ll conduct experiments, and ask unanswerable questions, which may make me a philosopher too. This is the plan, and has been ever since I was a child. I’m very focused like that. All I want to do now is go farther up, but it gets too warm so quick. Too bright even quicker.
I’m young and can only guess; but it seems likely I have a long time to live on the ocean floor.
My mother and father are very good. They’ve given me so much love, but no means of escape. They’re so content down here, and to avoid terrifying them, I’ve termed my craving for ascension, what one might call a death wish, a fascination with the light.
And maybe that’s all it is. I just like to know things. I like mysteries, and unexplained phenomena. I swam as high as I could the other day, but I’ll go higher soon, then higher, and higher. Tomorrow. I’ll ignore the pain and heat. As a child I was always too cold, anyway. There are vents down here, oozing water from warm to scalding. I love them all, and have the burns to prove it.
So I am, for the most part, average looking, but I am also scarred by my love of heat. And inside I am two things at once; I am an underwater scientist, and I am also pure light in fish form, living forever in the cool and cozy dark. I may seem like I’m made for life in the midnight zone, but I promise I’m really not.
My mother knows this about me, and understandably it worries her. She said to me today, “Promise you’ll only go to 5,000 meters. No higher than that. You drive me crazy.”
Any closer to the surface and I’ll risk ascension.
My mother says she loves me more than water. Water is what holds us, keeps us afloat but always covered. We talk about an oversoul; one spirit we’re all a part of. Maybe your kind is a part of it too. This is what water means to us. We all live in it, and it carries things. My mother says I’m like water to her, and my father says I may kill them both.
(This is, apparently, what it’s like to have kids. You’re ready to die at any moment.)
“I understand curiosity, and boredom. I’ve never asked you to stay in one place,” my father told me a few days ago.
Because it’s been getting worse. I feel so terrible for putting them on edge. They talk a lot about when I was born. We’re born from mothers writhing in pain, and then joy, just like you. But I don’t understand how this works with regards to ascension — it seems to be the case your kind is born in the light, born ascended, with no transformation necessary.
Which demands the question of what exactly you are. Something more than human? Your holy texts say everybody is made in the image of god. If so, am I part god, part fish? I’ve wondered more than once if we’re only an experiment of yours, left long ago to tire ourselves out.
I’m not sure anymore whether I believe our teachings — that when we ascend we’ll live forever at the surface. I might, hence the literally scalding need to see the light. But before any of this, before the blinding haze, we begin and end in the water.
My life started with immense happiness, and gratitude. My parents wanted a baby for a very long time before I was born. I’m afraid of hurting them. So I only take little trips. Higher and higher each time, as close as I can come to ascension, and then back down to the world I know. My friends love hearing about it but never want to come. I have a lot of friends, despite the fact that all I like to do is talk about myself and try then inevitably fail to figure out the innately unknowable. Must be something about me.
Today, Meera asked me, “Can we go to the caves?”
Every day, she wants to go deeper and get more lost, just as I want to go higher, further out into the open.
“Why?” I asked. Whined.
Our voices have a way, in the water, of translating to a sort of humming. More vibration than sound, but we still hear each other perfectly well. Our scientists have long since discovered that even our language is shaped by the water we live in. This is another reason I want to go all the way up; to hear what the surface sounds like, away from the trenches and caves. You can get lost in them, which is nice, but you’ll always find your way out.
And that’s a problem for me.
“I just like to hide and talk,” Meera said. (This is not, in any way, abnormal.) “You’re never happy with what you’re doing.”
It’s not that. Really. I’m rather singularly minded, that’s all.
I’ve started to plan my days vertically. How far I want to go and when. Today I’m feeling brave and selfish. I’ll stop home now, for a while. Tonight I’m meeting friends. To talk. In the abyss you really only have the ones around you. So all we ever do is talk.
“We’ll miss you if you’re late. Try to be back in time. Please,” my mother says. It’s so little to ask, and she says it like I’m a lost cause.
“Yeah,” I tell her, no argument or promises. I tell her I love her, then swim away.
Down here, girls wear little lights tied around their tails. Little glowing balls, like the rod of an anglerfish. Without those, we’re a flash of black fin and see-through hair. Defined by tea-saucer eyes, just barely luminescent, but with no sense of our edges. Without the lights, you can barely see us when our backs are turned.
I like being invisible. I like going without my lights. But my mother insists sometimes. Occasionally. Today she’s in the mood to worry and ties them on. So she can see me as I swim away, growing dimmer. It comforts her. It comforts me a little too, in a strange way. Then it turns sad.
I can see her eyes from far off. I can watch her watching me, until a cloud of microorganisms comes between us. Then I’m all by myself. It’s a beautiful and frightening thing to look up from where I am. It makes me feel full. Nothing else can make me feel this way, so I’m always chasing more of it. Higher and higher, until there’s nowhere left to go but beyond that sacred threshold. It’s a struggle, as everything is, to get so close without going somewhere from which fish don’t return belly down.
Down here I can catch outlines and white smiles in the dark. Anything fluorescent. Looking towards the surface, nothing is glowing. I’m staring up at empty space for quite a while, because I’m still too close to home. Swimming fast but barely aware I’m moving at all. Until I reach a certain point, an indeterminable distance from both the surface and the ocean floor: I see something, just a bit of brightness. Not even light. Just less intense black.
Then blue. It’s hot. It’s getting too hot, but I like it.
It’s light enough that my tail looks dark against the water. Down where we live, it’s so hard to see that I’m covered in perfect scales, smooth and small, now glowing in the uplit water.
I have never been this far up before. I’m staring at myself now, and only myself. At parts of my body I’ve never looked close at. Burns here and there. I never learned. I never learn. Worse than that––when I was little, no matter how many times it happened, I would swim over the same vents. Into the same scalding water.
Burning is better than freezing. I am perfectly evolved to tolerate the cold. I’ve just never learned to self-soothe, and never will. So I swim higher.
At some point I stop registering the heat. I’m barely able to open my eyes anymore. That’s how light it is. How close to the surface I am. Just not close enough. It’s getting more intense, and the lights around my tail look dim, but I can’t look at anything for longer than a second or two. My eyes are not made for this place.
And I think of my mother, bright eyes in the dark. Following me. Fading very slowly. I almost turn and go back down, for her. I promised I wouldn’t be late. So much implicit in that promise. I’m sliced in half, with oily, dark things spilling out of me. Part of me is good. The other part is just taken by whatever this is.
So I go toward the light. I am enveloped, never more comfortable or less safe. Far from my mother and father. Far from birth and everything since then. I do not feel ready to ascend, all the way up. You can never come back down, and I know this.
But I’m melting into beauty. Growing more tired. Something is filling me up, and I hope to the gods it’ll take me somewhere good.
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