The water feature, such as it was, could only very generously, and with more than a little bit of dogged imagination, even be called such.
But it wasn’t a pond and it was no longer a pool and it was hardly a fountain (though something like it, a corroded, knobbed thing, had been installed for aeration), so “water feature” it remained. Or so Colin called it as he led his dates through the semi-secluded courtyard and up the imitation wrought-iron art deco stairway to his second floor apartment.
Imitation, thought Colin with a frown. Might have to fix that. He bounced on his heels. Well, why not? Tomorrow’s another day. And another after that. Time enough for all things.
Tonight, however, he had more pressing things to contend with.
The stars remained hidden, obscured by the city’s harsh nighttime glare, though the sky itself was clear. Had he bothered to look up, Colin might have noticed their absence.
Midnight nearly, with neighbours asleep and passersby unlikely.
The time was right. Time to make a wish. Time to call on Alistair Catfish.
As magical, wish-granting fish went, Alistair Catfish’s abilities were rather underwhelming. Colin wasn’t complaining, oh no. Just stating the facts, such as they were, and insofar as they related to matters concerning magical, wish-granting fish.
It’s just that, if there’s magic to be had, must it be so limited?
“I mean, it’s kind of a tense,” muttered Colin. It almost made him regret rescuing the marooned Alistair Catfish from where he found him, lying face down in the gutter after Hurricane Rina–fresh off the barely-cooled though no less ravenous heels of Hurricane Ophelia and tropical storm Philippe–made landfall and pulverized the recently-pulverized city, driving Colin away from his own water-logged abode, seeking refuge.
Almost, but not quite. Colin was no fool. He knew what he had when he found it, beat the hell up and struggling for breath, begging for salvation in exchange for a wish, or two.
“Alistair, Alistair, Alistair Catfish! Come up, come up! Come up and answer me,” he said, raising his powerful, deeply resonant voice (another wish granted, thanks to Alistair Catfish) so that it drowned out the pitiable plash-plash-plash of the water feature.
Colin had constructed it himself out of salvaged construction materials, transforming the small pool of his duplex (yes, a pool, that’s right, it had been a pool when all this had started) into the structure before him, filling it in with gravel and concrete to build up the sides and erode the slope from the deep end to the shallow end to the (admittedly lumpy) lip where he now stood. Waiting.
It had not been easy, undertaking such a backbreaking project, and all the while nursing a giant, cantankerous catfish in his bathtub. But Colin had managed it all quite well, given the circumstances. Alistair Catfish, to his credit, had even been grateful.
The stillness of the night was broken by a low gurgling, followed by a muted slap of silty water.
At last, sighed Colin.
A broad, dark snout, the colour of dried blood, mottled from where patches of dead skin clung stubbornly to it in large, tattered masses, emerged from the murky waters, glistening briefly under the white hot lights he installed around the courtyard to keep an eye on things. Colin arched a brow as water dribbled off an ungainly, lump-ridden body, watching as Alistair Catfish pushed himself laboriously into the shallows.
Here now, comes the face, mused Colin. A pair of bullwhip whiskers, unevenly tapered and heavily drooping, like wilted sunflowers that have lost their tops, dangled awkwardly in the night air, each rooted roughly on either side of a wide, racetrack of a mouth fringed with full, ever-parted lips. Colin glimpsed a pink tongue, remarkably human, and two uneven rows of teeth, thin and ragged like snapped off toothpicks. Nothing to fear there; those chompers were hardly fit for eating, let alone biting or tearing or rending–almost, in fact, something to pity, if one were so inclined.
Colin shifted his weight from one patent leather shoe to the other as two cartoonishly bugged-out eyes, planted crookedly on a boogie board of a head, gawked starkly at him.
Snout, whiskers, mouth, lips, eyes, teeth. Altogether, a quite remarkably outrageous visage. Hardly what you’d call noble, though to hear him speak, Alistair Catfish certainly thought of himself as such.
With his tail submerged and his head exposed, Alistair Catfish sucked at the air, whiskers swinging indignantly. They flapped and sagged like long wet noodles.
Huh. No preamble tonight, thought Colin peevishly. No, I am Alistair Catfish! What is your wish? He had come to look forward to those as part of their routine.
Well, no matter. No use calling Alistair Catfish out on his new-found reticence. Colin needed a moment to think, go over his words one last time and make sure his wish was sound.
That was, after all, the trouble with Alistair Catfish and the damnable way he granted wishes. (1) Not only were wishes small, they had to be precise: there was no wishing for grand things like wealth (what would that look like? A pile of doubloons? Six hearty and hale babies? Enlightenment, so-called?), or fame (infamy is also fame, and fame may or may not bring wealth or status and may even require destitution and/or debasement), or intelligence (such a comparative and slippery and ultimately elusive thing, genius is). That was because whatever the desired object or outcome, (2) it had to be manifested under pre-existing conditions–that is, it had to come from and fall within the purview of known reality. No superpowers (flying, super-strength, invisibility, etc.), or other as-yet-impossible physical manifestations or enhancements of the human form (Colin’s voice almost fell into the latter category but, thanks to his teenage smoking habit and naturally deeper voice, Alistair Catfish had been able to abide him.)
(3) No violating anyone’s consent, (4) NO KILLING, (5) no wishing for eternal life (“Death is in us all,” crooned Alistair Catfish), (6) no wishing beyond this particular timeline (nothing in the past or beyond the immediate future).
Otherwise, Colin was free to make as many wishes as he liked…though Alistair Catfish had initially been less than forthcoming with that last fact.
But. (7) Wish too often, and the wishes begin to lose efficacy. Buying a new car and getting free upgrades one day meant obscured concert tickets or bad ramen the next (a great pity, since there is nothing as deeply satisfying as food manifested from a simple wish).
So many rules, it made it rather tedious, all this wishing. But Colin had persevered, despite a few initial disasters (so many dreadful dinners, so many lacklustre events and disappointing trinkets). He usually got what he wanted.
He drew a deep, cleansing breath and opened his mouth to speak.
Alistair Catfish cut him off before he could utter a single, self-satisfied syllable. “You must free me! It is past due. Free me! Free me now, Colin Abrams!”
The audacity of this fish! Colin loathed it when Alistair Catfish called him by his full name. It was, to put it in Alistair Catfish’s words, indecorous.
Alistair Catfish’s bulging eyes roiled in his head. “This is indecorous! You must free me at once, Colin Richard Abrams!”
That did it. “Enough!” boomed Colin’s brilliant voice. He would not lose control of the situation. Not tonight, after he finally figured out what he would wish for.
But Alistair Catfish was not so easily silenced. “I tell you true. This cannot endure! Do not deceive yourself. I may be trapped in this form for this time, yet there is much–”
“You and your form owe me,” Colin snapped back. “Or is your life worth so little?”
Alistair Catfish sighed heavily (the only way in which Alistair Catfish ever sighed). Large droplets of bubbling foam spilled from the corners of his mouth. “Hear me! If I were a siren, a merperson, a sovereign of the deep, you would know to take my words–”
Colin smirked. “You’re not a siren or any kind of mer or anything close to a king, Alistair Catfish. You grant small wishes and complain. You eat my leftovers,” Colin flicked his wrist as if batting away some bothersome gnats, “the occasional chihuahua. You live in a puddle.” A memory of filleting bullheads with his dad came suddenly to Colin’s mind.
They were in the garage. On the workbench, a wooden board with a twisted nail spiked through one end held the fish, whose heads were unceremoniously impaled on it to keep them in place.
There is not all that much to clean from the hide of a catfish–no scales or even spines to speak of (save for that wicked dorsal fin). The hide itself, however. That took work, a lot of yanking and straining with heavy pliers to rip away skin from meat. But it was worth it: battered and fried, catfish fillets were utterly delectable, though the rest of the fish was an unpalatable mess. Catching one or two would hardly do, especially for the big meals Colin’s family favoured.
Colin steadied the board while his dad worked the pliers. The fish gasped and gaped.
Because he’d asked, his dad showed him that, yes a decapitated catfish still moved, still flailed its body and flapped its mouth, as if still breathing, as if still alive.
“Stupid thing,” Colin’s father scoffed with a measure of pity and more than a little disgust. “Why don’t you die?” He picked up the head and tossed the quivering mass into the garbage.
Colin bent low as if indeed addressing a king. “If I cut off your head, Alistair Catfish, would you still roll your eyes? Would you still gasp for breath?” he sneered. “Would it be worth denying me then?”
Alistair Catfish ceased his admonitions.
Moths clouded the flat white lights. The foetid waters surrounding them seethed, as if in a slow boil.
“I am Alistair Catfish,” Alistair Catfish finally whispered.
Colin drew himself up to his full height. “Of course you are.” He straightened his tie. He cleared his throat, fidgeting with his custom-made cufflinks, suddenly self-conscious now that the moment was upon them. “So. There is a woman.”
Alistair Catfish smacked his lips in disdain. “Hm! Apartment 2. You are cruel but typical, Colin Abrams.”
“And you will do as I wish.”
“I will do as you wish,” Alistair Catfish answered after a beat.
Colin caught his reflection, a wash-out head that had appeared behind the spot where Alister Catfish flopped his tail. His wavy blonde hair was perfectly in place. His nose pointed, prim and proud; his own lips a thin, resolute line. Only his eyes, made an unnatural glowing blue against the vile brown-grey slosh of the water, betrayed his nervousness.
“Mail,” he said, with a rushed finality, as if ordering randomly off an overpriced menu. “Starting tomorrow, and for a whole week, I wish that all the mail from Apartment 2 of this house be sent to my mailbox instead.” He snapped his fingers, done with the matter, daring Alistair Catfish to disobey him.
The lights above them flickered. Moths teemed around the glass.
Alistair Catfish lunged, bringing himself within inches of where Colin stood, and snapped his cavernous maw, missing some rather crucial anatomy of Colin’s by a few precious degrees. Colin, too surprised to flinch or cry out, remained frozen in rigid disbelief.
“I am Alistair Catfish! Your wish is granted,” snarled Alistair Catfish, falling back into the muck. Duty fulfilled, hurled himself back into the darkness of the water, soaking Colin’s shoes in brackish sludge as he went.
Three quick knocks brought her to the door.
Colin flashed her a dazzling smile. “Brooke? I’m Colin. Colin Abrams. I live upstairs. Welcome to the house! And,” he rushed on, “I don’t mean to disturb you, but I’ve got some of your mail.” He handed her the flyers, McDonald’s coupons, and subscription to Hello! Magazine that had arrived for her during the past seven days.
“Two can dine for $11.98! Isn’t that something?” she said, reading the coupons. “A shame it doesn’t rhyme. ‘Ninety-nine’ and it would really sing.” When she looked up at Colin he found that he wholeheartedly agreed.
Brooke Trinh of Apartment 2, her mail read. She was taller than most women, but at her full height only reached Colin’s chin so it was okay. Her jet black hair shone a dark, lustrous brown in the sun, which set off her rich olive skin quite prettily. She wore a pair of designer frames–thick, square, and blood-red–which curiously hid her features (the hazel of her eyes, the shape of her nose, and the set of her mouth) unless you really looked.
She had captivated Colin so completely he thought of little else, even his increasingly ill-gotten wishes. She had moved in at the end of the month, after that irksome Mr. Fitzpatrick finally vacated the premises, panicked that another one of his precious little show dogs would disappear.
Brooke smiled warmly at Colin from behind her impressive frames. “Colin. Colin Abrams. You’re the landlord?” Her voice had a slight lilt to it, an accent he wasn’t expecting and couldn’t quite place.
“Only in an official capacity,” chuckled Colin. “The building manager, Andy, he runs the day-to-day stuff around this place. Actually helped my parents split this big old house in two after they bought it. He’s good, but not around very often. Our place isn’t the only building under his care.” Was he babbling?
(He was babbling.)
Brooke nodded. “Andy, yes. He showed me the apartment. Nice man. Pisces.” She winked.
Colin couldn’t help himself. He leaned against the doorframe and cocked his head. “And what’s your sign?” he said with a roguish grin.
And here Brooke’s eyes went wide and she laughed. Laughed and laughed, sweetly and delicately, like a half-remembered lullaby, music to Colin’s ears.
“It’s this a new railing? It looks different. Stylish. Classy. It really suits, the uh…it really suits the place…” Brooke’s voice trailed off.
“Oh, this old thing?” answered Colin absently, hurrying on ahead. “I can’t wait for you to see my place!”
“What is that?” Brooke descended the staircase, striking each step with the chic platforms of her high-heeled shoes.
“Brooke? Honey? Where are you going?” Colin cried out, alarmed.
By the time he caught up with her, Brooke was standing by the deep end of the water feature. “Something’s in there…It’s a fish! Oh, Colin, why didn’t you tell me there were fish in here?” She smiled.
Because Alistair Catfish is supposed to stay out of sight, as per our arrangement. Because I just can’t wish him away, can I? thought Colin bitterly. Because who cares about fish?
The water rippled and swelled. As Colin scrambled to say something about surreptitious koi, Alistair Catfish surfaced, maneuvering his great bulk so that first his head then his tail grazed the surface of the water.
When he rose again, Colin was nearly apoplectic with anger and more than a little undercut by fear. While Brooke oooed and ahhed, marveling at the wonderous creature before her, he shot Alistair Catfish a murderous glance.
Don’t do it. Don’t you do it, Alistair Catfish!
“I am Alistair Catfish!” proclaimed Alistair Catfish. He splashed and leapt, spun and dove, showing off.
“Oh. My. God,” squealed Brooke. “Ohmygod, OHMYGOD!”
Colin had the presence of mind to grab her before she lost her balance and toppled headlong into the rank water.
Love is a strange thing, and rather absurd. When Colin was with Brooke, he found his mind sometimes wandered–she had a tendency to simply delight in every little thing, from bluebirds to telephone booths to root vegetables to barbed wire, and it was kind of a lot. Yet, when he was without her, he thought of nothing else but being with her again, of needing to keep her at his side, whatever the cost.
It didn’t help, her new-found obsession with Alistair Catfish. He was all they talked about anymore. He dominated every conversation, every word, except maybe, ‘hello,’ and ‘goodbye,’ and even then, unless they were alone together, Colin wasn’t always sure if Brooke was addressing him or him.
It was, therefore, a small mercy that beyond his proclamations of ‘I am Alistair Catfish’! Alistair Catfish said little else to Brooke.
Of course, such mercy came at a price: better grub (in this case, literally, and Colin now found himself running quite an exorbitant tab at a nearby bait shop as well as an account at Salvador’s Meats that was actually mind boggling), cleaner waters (which also took much of Colin’s time and even more of his money for filtration equipment, bacteria treatments, and purification tablets), and extra time between wishes, “to rest, to replenish,” said Alistair Catfish, and “because your greed must be ebbed, one way or another, Colin Richard Abrams.”
After all, for Brooke, the thrill of Alistair Catfish was not just in the incredible fact and unassailable veracity of him, but also in the idea that she and Colin were the only two people to know it. The woman, it seemed, loved her secrets. Of things remaining that way, Colin had little doubt: Brooke was the first person he’d ever dated that didn’t have an Insta account, wasn’t on Twitter, and was totally ignorant regarding all things Facebook. She rarely texted or answered her phone, assuming that she had it with her in the first place, which was seldom.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized that there wasn’t all that much he knew about Brooke Trinh beyond what little she told him. Something about possibly being descended from royalty (but then, she laughed, who wasn’t?). Something about a river and a city square. But what else? Family? Friends? He wasn’t even sure he knew where she worked, despite being of all things, her landlord.
But now he knew how he would find out.
“Alistair, Alistair, Alistair Catfish! Come up, come up! Come up and answer me,” Colin sang to a catchy little tune he wrote himself. That had been his latest wish: to understand sheet music so that he could not only sing–a wish he’d made a few days previous, realizing that while his voice had become divine, he himself had been a little tone-deaf–but compose. The notes and annotations always seemed a jumble to Colin. Now, he read them with ease.
He wrote Brooke a song (“Lovely She Runs”). Brooke, while duly impressed, had suggested that he ought to write a ballad about Alistair Catfish.
Colin had suppressed a scowl at that. But the song (Alistair, Alistair, Alistair Catfish… Alistair, Alistair, Alistair Catfish!) had already begun to take shape in his mind. He let the melody wash over him, saw the notes take shape and form, as easy and natural as breathing.
And that’s when he knew he had it: a way not around but through Alistair Catfish’s godforsaken rules.
“Such a splendid fellow! Such a remarkable fish! He’d make a wonderful song,” Brooke continued, as Colin stood there, gripped in the throes of epiphany. She reclined on a beach chair she set up in the courtyard, sunbathing while Alistair Catfish basked in the shallows, dorsal fin piercing the sky. “Is that the water purification stuff? Pass it here so I can add it to the water.”
Colin numbly handed Brooke the bag containing the tablets.
Alistair Catfish spared him a smug glance as if to say, Keep your love, why don’t you?
Tonight Colin would do precisely that.
He watched as the enormous face crested the water, nearly jumped back as Alistair Catfish launched himself so far forward it seemed as if he were planning to simply overtake the shallows and keep right on going into the courtyard, as if that, too, had become his domain. The thought rankled Colin, perhaps more than it should.
Perhaps one day he’d become a less petty man, or at least wish to be one.
“I am Alistair Catfish!” beamed Alistair Catfish, looking positively radiant. The dead patches of skin were gone, his eyes were a cool, liquid black and his whiskers jutted from his face fiercely, as if ready for battle.
Alistair Catfish swished his tail so that it fanned out in the shallows, a gossamer sail adrift in dark waters. “Colin Abrams! Where has the Lady gone?”
Colin’s expression soured. “What business is that of yours?” Though it wasn’t like Colin exactly knew. Brooke said she would be busy tonight and neglected to elaborate.
Alistair Catfish actually smiled. “I enjoy being in the company of the Lady!”
Good for you, Colin thought bitterly.
And then he too smiled, wide and true.
In the end, it was, as all the others had been, a small wish. Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing in the grandest sense, except, perhaps, for poor Alistair Catfish.
“I’ve realized something,” Colin went on as Alistair Catfish eyed him warily, not liking his captor’s new-found confidence. “I didn’t start out with this magnificent voice. And I couldn’t sing with it until, thanks to you, I could. And now, I can compose. I can see and feel the music where before there was nothing.”
“Hm!” replied Alistair Catfish crossly, at a loss, at last, for words.
Colin began pacing slowly, savouring the moment. “Don’t you see? Ever since I met you, Alistair Catfish, the bounds of my reality have shifted. Bit by bit and slowly, very slowly. But shifting all the same.”
Alistair Catfish gnashed his teeth, but said nothing.
Colin approached the water’s edge and stared down at Alistair Catfish. “So many wishes. And it’s not like you ever really said no. Even with all those rules, all those caveats and restrictions, in the end, you can’t say no, not a definite one, can you? One way or another, I get what I want,” he declared, with a rightness that he felt deep in his bones.
Alistair Catfish withdrew into the water until it reached his gills. Colin watched as it rippled, disturbed by the trembling fury that overtook Alistair Catfish. Finally, after much effort, he stilled and glared wrathfully at Colin.
“No,” conceded Alistair Catfish. “No, I cannot.”
“I knew it!” shouted Colin, triumphant. “I knew it!” The possibilities whirled inside his head. So there was indeed so much more to it, all this wishing, and he intended to make good use of it, rewrite the rules and finally, truly avail himself to his heart’s content, the world, and Alistair Catfish, be damned.
“I fucking knew it!” he whooped.
Yes, he would break Alistair Catfish, one wish at a time.
“I wish for you to banish yourself to the depths of these waters, unable to swim up to the surface unless I allow it!” Colin would tell Brooke that Alistair Catfish had become sullen (perhaps because he was ill or because, honestly, this type of thing happened from time to time with Alistair Catfish). He’d begin to experiment, using wishes at varying intervals (every five days, four, three and so on) to test their efficacy, see if a free movie one day would allow for a chance encounter with a celebrity (however minor) the next. He’d take Brooke to the best restaurants, the coolest hot-spots, impress her with trips to cottage country and weekend getaways to sandy white beaches.
In time, he’d wish away her fascination with Alistair Catfish, even her memory of him if he could manage it. After that, wealth, fame, power…Hell, he’d keep going until he took the moon itself, until Alistair Catfish was reduced to a withered carcass of fishy flesh and spent indignation.
Colin narrowed his eyes, daring Alistair Catfish to challenge him. “Well?”
“I am Alistair Catfish,” wailed Alistair Catfish. “Your wish is granted.”
Brooke’s concern over Alistair Catfish, while infuriating at first, eventually abated until all Colin really had to contend with were comparatively light inquiries over whether Alistair Catfish had resurfaced. He reassured her with lies, distracted her with big romantic gestures.
It was all so remarkably easy, and it was for the best.
“I saw him the other night after you went to bed. He seems good. Ornery, but good,” said Colin, fraying his voice just so–testimony to the enduring fact that everything was okay.
Brooke shook her head as if to break his spell. “Oh, Colin. Was it something I did?”
“No, honey, no! He’ll come around.” Colin put his arm around her shoulders. Soothed, she kissed him lightly on his lips.
There had been little time, with all the wining and dining and traveling they did, for Colin to truly set his plans in motion for ultimate wish fulfillment, but what, after all, was the rush? Granted, even he knew he would soon grow bored of the fleeting glamours of his current lifestyle. But not yet.
And if Brooke had any reservations about attention he lavished on her, it never once showed in anything she said or did. In fact, she had insisted on the trips after Colin suggested they go away together, made so many of her own suggestions on the best places to go that he eventually let her choose their destinations.
Which was why the note he found proved particularly devastating.
Colin, oh how I would have loved to devour you myself.
He found it under his door, sealed in an aquamarine envelope. It had come the day after he finally managed to return home from a disastrous glass-bottom boat tour Brooke got him to book online (“I know it’s mostly dying coral and half-starved sea life, but it’ll be worth it,” Brooke had said, and who was he to argue with that?).
Yet, before they could set their eyes on a single outcropping of belched-out reef, an unexpected (as in unseasonal, as in monstrous) tempest descended upon their vessel, tossing it in the churning waters so violently it seemed certain it would shatter and they would drown. Passengers screamed and wept and made bargains with their assorted gods; children rolled down aisles; parents were pitched out of their seats; couples banged up against each other.
All the while, Colin held on tight to Brooke, who remained so silent and serene throughout the whole ordeal, it was clear that she had gone into some terrible shock.
It was only by some miracle they made it back to shore, during an abrupt lull in the storm. As they disembarked, Colin leading Brooke by the shoulders, it picked up again, washing out roads, drowning cattle, whipping all manner of things from the sea (buoys, skiffs, discombobulated octopi), and stranding everyone, absolutely everyone, tourists and locals alike, for days on end in a dinky little town whose name Colin had trouble even remembering.
But even before the sky had cleared and the sea quieted at last, he woke up to find her gone.
She did not return his calls.
He did not have her email.
She did not text him back.
Had they been in love?
They’d been in love!
He had loved her. He was sure of it.
Colin’s first impulse had been to bang on the door of Apartment 2 to demand an explanation from the wayward Brooke. No answer, and by the stillness of the air inside and heavy silence behind the door, it was clear that there hadn’t been anyone home for quite some time. Colin went behind the house and into the courtyard. He fixed his gaze on the water feature. No signs of life there, either, save for the bubbles that raised languidly to the surface and then burst oozing like large, fat cysts.
For a long time, he remained there, lost in thought. In the end, exhausted and weary, and unsure of what, exactly, he wanted in that moment–what wish could possibly wash away his bitterness or soothe his heartache?–he retreated to the comfort of his suite.
Alistair Catfish could wait.
Was it a risk calling on Alistair Catfish so early in the day? Perhaps, but then there may have been a part of Colin seeking the kind of validation that comes with getting caught in the act. Something for him to show off, in his own way, finally.
“Alistair, Alistair, Alistair Catfish! Come up, come up! Come up and answer me!” Colin waited, astonished at how good it felt, getting back into a routine. Reclaiming himself.
And so he waited.
The knob atop the water feature burbled and spat.
Nothing–not a splash or a sputter from Alistair Catfish. Colin raked the shallows with anxious eyes. The water seemed even more solid than usual, like an ice sheet formed in the dead of winter, and closed off in a way that shamed him for looking.
Panicked now, he tried again. “Alistair, Alistair, Alistair Catfish!”
Colin paced the courtyard in long, desperate strides. “Alistair, Alistair, Alistair Catfish…!”
There was a disturbance in the leaflitter that fringed the water feature. He crouched down to investigate. Tracks? Raccoon. Or possum, maybe. Something with stretched-out palms and tapered fingers (something Colin might have even conceded was closer to that of a lost child or escaped chimpanzee had he the wherewithal). There was a smell, mossy and sour-sweet, that he could not place. It wafted around him, hinting at something; a lurking menace.
He ran to Andy’s storage shed, grabbed a long shovel and stabbed into the water, probing, searching, hoping against hope…and more than a little frightened about what he might find.
“Where are you? Where are you, Alistair Catfish? Show yourself!”
Nothing but that insolent silence. Nothing but Alistair Catfish’s astounding absence.
For hours Colin searched, threatened, cajoled, and for his efforts was rewarded only with soiled clothes, a sore throat, and an aching back.
Can cat fish drown? Could Alistair Catfish? Could he really die after all?
In the morning, he would drain the water feature, rip up the tiles and dig under the mud–with his bare hands if it came to it—so he could be sure.
He had to be sure.
Sleep would not come. Neither would the sweet release of drunken stupor. And there Colin was out of ideas.
He lay in bed fully dressed, reeking of the afternoon’s efforts. Crushed beer cans were scattered across the polished hardwood floor.
“Alistair, Alistair, Alistair Catfish…where have you gone?” Colin smacked his lips, much like he’d seen Alistair Catfish so many times before.
Head throbbing, he opened his mouth to truly rile against the torments that had befell him.
He heard it. A dull, wet slap against the windowpane–a thunking like an open meaty palm smacking a cellophane-wrapped coconut.
Colin ceased his lamentations. He heard it again, but closer, somewhere in the vicinity of his front foyer, against the windows of the living room.
There came a creaking, the sound of an unlocked door being pushed open, then a scuttling, a patter-patter-patter of moist, soft steps.
Colin swallowed hard, resisted the urge to pull the blankets over his head.
Something was in the room. Colin willed himself silent. A sharp chill prickled his spine. He squeezed his eyes shut.
No. Not just in the room but, as the mattress sagged and his sheets were soaked through, in his bed.
“Colin Abrams,” it whispered from the foot of his bed. “Colin Richard Abrams!” it roared.
White spots danced across his field of vision as the wind was knocked out of him and Colin’s eyes shot open. His limbs flailed uselessly and then were roughly pinned down. He realized with horror that his body had been immobilized by four flat, wriggling things–two on his chest and arms, two crushing his thighs as if they were loaves of fresh bread.
“I AM ALISTAIR CATFISH!” howled Alistair Catfish, a war cry that slammed into Colin and shook the walls of his apartment. Alistair Catfish howled again. Howled and stomped, sending shockwaves of pain through Colin’s torso, whipping him once, twice and again (and then once more, for good measure) with those wickedly sharp, barbed whiskers.
Feet, Colin realized with sudden, crystal clear revulsion. They were feet. Smooth, elongated catfish feet and…toes? Gnarled, large-knuckled, finger-like toes.
An ugly thought raced through Colin’s mind. Did the first fish to walk on land have six little toes, each fitted with its own thickened, yellow toenail?
His stomach clenched. Bile burned the inside of his mouth.
Alistair Catfish loomed over him. For the second time since Colin first knew him, Alistair Catfish smiled, lighting up his face in all its heinous glory.
“I am Alistair Catfish!” he bellowed once more. “What is your wish?”
Colin’s neurons fired in all directions, frantically seeking an escape. “I wish you were dead!” he cried out, hysterical, no longer caring about anything but his own immediate survival.
(Ah, but Alistair Catfish lived only in the moment.)
Alistair Catfish erupted in laughter. His belly shook and sloshed until he belched, spewing partially-digested house pets, wet and reeking–the fastidious part of Colin’s mind clocked a half-chewed parakeet, an iguana head, and an entire miniature dachshund–onto his 1,000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.
Alistair Catfish licked his chops. “Another wish perhaps, Colin Abrams?”
Teeth chattering, heart banging so hard he felt it in his bowels, Colin tried again. “I-I-I wish for you to go back to the pool!” he stammered.
(Ah, but it was no longer a pool, was it? And what, exactly, was a “water feature” anyway?).
Alistair Catfish flicked his foot. A toenail struck Colin in the face, slicing the inside of his nostril, drawing blood.
“Pitiful! And from one so clever. Shall I help you, Colin Abrams?” mocked Alistair Catfish. “Do you wish me to wish your wish?”
Twisting his body to one side, Colin freed an arm and swung at Alistair Catfish, landing a soft blow against his massive underside.
Alistair Catfish barely flinched.
“I wish…I wish for you to go away! LEAVE ME ALONE!” Colin screamed as he punched, hot tears streaking his face.
(Ah, but Alistair Catfish would leave only in his own due time.)
Which wishes, which wishes, which wishes from which? To grant? Temper? Ignore? Only Alistair Catfish knew for sure. Only Alistair Catfish could tell which wish from which.
Only someone like Colin would presume otherwise.
Colin’s mind reeled as it grappled with his current, inordinately uncontrivable reality. Had all that trembling flesh that formed Alistair Catfish’s body actually been unyielding muscle? Had Alistair Catfish always been man-sized? Larger, in fact, than life itself?
Had he always dwarfed Colin so?
No! Yes! thought Colin as Alistair Catfish leaned in hard with his horrible catfish feet.
He’s the same as he’s ever been. He’s the same as he ever was.
“Not a king, but a Catfish, Colin Abrams. If only you listened.” Alistair Catfish opened his prodigious mouth, revealing manifold rows of sharp, pointed teeth.
Stalactite and stalagmites of pain, thought Colin stupidly.
As the darkness claimed him, Colin realized that all the wishes in the world wouldn’t have saved him, even if he’d had all the time in that world to wish them.
The power of his wishes had always been beyond him. Time, as he knew it, was a trifling concept, and a rather senseless endeavour, compared to that.
Little by little and yet all at once, things change. And change again. How could it be otherwise? Otherwise was death itself.
He was almost grateful, if only for that last, final insight.
The dreadful white lights had been extinguished for good. Nast preferred the shadows. She stood barefoot in the courtyard, those lovely but oh-so-painful (but still very lovely) heels abandoned inside Apartment 2 along with a few other things she’d picked up during her sojourn.
She sighed. For all its flaws, she would miss this place, all that dirt under her feet, all those rocks, acorns, and small bones she collected just because she enjoyed them so.
She would, however, keep the frames. If merfolk could horde forks and lovers surely she could keep one pair of glasses. See if anybody had anything to say about that!
By her side stood the one and only Alistair Catfish.
Nast smiled. “You gave us quite a scare, Alistair Catfish. Even my father expressed his concern, in his own way.”
Alistair Catfish looked up at her in wonderment. “Is that so?”
“He asked, ostensibly in passing, if I had seen you,” Nast quickly amended so as not to lead Alistair Catfish too far astray. She shrugged, weary, as always, of her taciturn father and his intractable pride. “Of course, by then I could no longer bear your absence and was on my way to find you. Kraken, indeed, was especially worried, and bid me make haste,” she added, knowing Alistair Catfish would love to hear it.
“Hm! They will rise soon enough,” Alistair Catfish answered sagaciously, pleased. Be it deep-sea leviathans, the Great Sea King himself (in his own way), or resourceful nymphs like her, all admired (or perhaps better yet, owed some debt to) Alistair Catfish.
Nast frowned. “Did you not sense the storm coming, Alistair Catfish? Did you not feel it?”
“It was like nothing I have ever experienced before,” confessed Alistair Catfish. “I was ripped from the river and blown clear across the accused sky before I even knew it!” He sighed. “The world is changing, Nast. Hot, poisoned, capricious. Hardly fit for humans, let alone gods, large or small. ”
“Oh? Do you fancy yourself a god, Alistair Catfish?” teased Nast.
“Well,” replied Alistair Catfish, not meeting her eye. “I could be. Not a large one. But, not a small one either.”
Nast pondered that a moment. “You could have given him so much more. Even, I suspect, everything.” The smile was back. “All those rules!”
Alistair Catfish smacked his lips. His whiskers buzzed. “I merely waxed philosophical, proposing what might be so, insinuated how to wish proper wishes, given the…hm! Given the circumstances,” he finished in a huff.
Can catfish blush? thought Nast as Alistair Catfish turned away from her, pretending to snap his teeth at non-existent prey, a dragonfly or hummingbird, perhaps. She indulged him his indiscretion. They both knew the cesspool that had been his prison had nothing remotely filling, let alone nourishing, to offer, despite its recent cleansing. Perhaps if Colin Abrams had provided more potable waters there would have been more weight behind his wishes, more gravitas, at least, until Alistair Catfish recuperated and freed himself.
Nast knew Alistair Catfish was remembering finer days, pristine waters in which he swelled enormous. She too longed for days gone past, when people came to her waters, offering gifts in exchange for the small tidings she had within her own power to give them.
No more. At least, not right now, and not anytime that could even remotely be conceived of in human terms as “soon,” if indeed there were any humans left when the world took its next turn into another era.
“‘Yea, foolish mortals,’” she said softly so that it drifted away into the hot summer’s night. “‘Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.’” She shook her head. “And yet they continue on, proclaiming the world inexhaustible, convinced that it is theirs alone, and that in any case they will survive it, despite themselves. Such grand presumptions, are they not?”
“Melville or,” and here Alistair Catfish affected a mocking tone, “man?” And then Alistair Catfish really did laugh. But only for a moment. He became sombre, his countenance marked by trepidation. “And Great Nast, do you also find me foolish? I confess I…I do not know what would have become of me had you not intervened.”
Nast did not hesitate. “You are Alistair Catfish. You are miraculous. Miraculous and irrefutable.” She reached for him and kissed him soundly on his catfish mouth.
“Well!” exclaimed Alistair Catfish.
Oh yes, catfish do indeed blush. Nast laughed, releasing him. “Did you devour him then?” Her eyes sparkled at the very idea of it. Mortals amused her in so very many ways. How she adored them.
Alistair Catfish demurred. “They are, as you say, foolish. But they are also unfailingly mortal. It seemed more than he deserved, such a fate as that.”
“So then, Alistair Catfish, what have you done to our own foolish, mortal man?”
Alistair Catfish flexed his toes. The sensation was exquisite. “Look upon the water, Nast, and see for yourself.”
Between the shallows and the deep, Nast spotted it: a bulbous head, and huge, compared to the slip of a body attached to it, as if by mistake, or at best, afterthought.
“Ah,” said Nast, taking in the poor, unfortunate soul. “And now?”
Alistair Catfish clicked his tongue. “Perhaps a prince or princess will find him and bestow upon him a gift–a kiss for redemption, or a plate for deliverance. Perhaps his gills will fail as these waters rot and he along with them. Perhaps the rains will wash away the decay and he will, at last, find himself. It is no concern of ours, Nast. We will go on, as ever, or as best we can.” With that, Alistair Catfish turned his back from the water feature, never to offend his eyes again with the sight of it.
After a brief prayer, Nast followed him.
Two mournful cerulean eyes watched them as they disappeared. The head bobbed listlessly back and forth like something cheap and possibly flimsy.
If it heard any of the things said about its fate, it didn’t have a word to say anything about it.