Thursday, 5 March 2015

Fish. Bird. Lake.

This is a half-remembered story. Someone told it to me. I can't remember who.

But I remember it. Because it has meaning, and a lesson.


There was a little lake high in the mountains, not much bigger than a pond. It was so high that in the winter the surface of the lake would freeze over. But it was a deep enough that the water below got really cold, but did not freeze. When it got that cold, the fishes slowed down, became less active, and waited patiently for the waters to warm up again.

The fishes had lived in the lake for many generations and many winters. Seasons passed, the waters rose and fell with the seasons, and turned cold and warm with the seasons.

The younger, more vigorous, and more adventurous fishes swam up the streams that fed into the lake, and came back reporting that the waters ran faster and shallower as they swam up, until finally, the waters ran too fast, or too shallow, or were blocked by ice.

The Little Lake and the streams that fed into it was the whole world to these fishes. And it was good.

But one spring as the ice thawed, and the waters warmed, the streams that flowed into the lake did not swell as much as it usually did, and the waters did not rise as much. In the heat of the summer, the waters grew warmer, and receded from the shore, further than it had ever before.

That winter when the water froze, the water that remained water was very much lesser than usual. The water also felt stale, and the fishes moved slower and more sluggish than usual. Many fishes died that winter.

Spring came again, the streams melted, and the water flowed faster, but there was noticeably less of it. Some streams ran briefly, then dried up. The waters receded further from the shore. At this rate, winter would see more death.

Some fishes began to speak of the unthinkable: the end of the lake.

Some other fishes refused to think that. It was just hard times. Not end times.

Other fishes swam up the streams looking for... something that might help them.

Then, a fish fell out of the sky.

It smacked down hard on the surface of the water and began to sink. The sound of it hitting the water could be heard throughout the lake. Most of the fishes swam for cover, but a few brave fins went to have a look.

They found the stranger, for though there were many fishes in the lakes, everyone knew everyone, but this was no fish anyone had ever seen before.

"Who are you?"

"Where did you come from?"

"Why are you here?"

The fishes were curious and ask the stranger many questions. But the strange fish was mortally wounded and could only give short answers. And then he died. The fishes that heard his answers argued over what the answers were and finally agreed that the stranger came from another place, another lake, and he was brought to this lake by an "Air Swimmer". But that he had struggled and fell out of the sky as the Air Swimmer was passing this lake.

But what did it mean?

The fishes brought this question to the older, wiser fish.

The fishes knew of the "Air Swimmers" of course. Schools of them often stop by to drink from the lake on their way to other places. They had huge pectoral fins which they use to swim through the air, whereas the fish used mainly their caudal fins or tails to swim. Their pectorals were used more for fine steering.

On some occasions, Air Swimmers had scooped fish from the lake. The fish had two theories about why they did this. One theory was that Air Swimmers (or at least some of them) ate fish. Most believed this. But a few believed that the Air Swimmers had scooped up those fish for some other reason. After all, Air Swimmers must be amazingly advanced to be able to break free from the confines of the water and soar in the waterless void. So perhaps they picked fish to be taught the secrets beyond the waters. These fish were called Believers in Air Swimmers as Superior, or B.A.S.S.

When the leader of B.A.S.S. heard about the fish that had fallen from the sky, his faith in the Air Swimmers was strengthened. He was sure that the Fallen fish was a Chosen one who had perhaps failed the Air Swimmer's test and was sent back to the waters.

But more importantly, the news spread quickly among the BASS that the Fallen had came from other Waters and that an Air Swimmer had brought him. Hope rippled through the small group. If there were other waters, perhaps the fish of Little Lake could survive there. All they needed was a way to get there.

"We need to ask the Air Swimmers to take us to the other Waters," the leader of BASS concluded.

For the next few days, the Believers search for and tried to approach any Air Swimmers they could find. It was not easy. Most of them ignored or did not notice the fish trying to talk to them. Or they were too far away. Or were busy preening themselves.

But finally, on a sunny day around noon, a large Air Swimmer was sunning itself on a large rock when the fishes finally caught his attention.

He was confused for a while because they addressed him as "Noble Air Swimmer". Then he realised that to the fishes, flying was like swimming in the air. They probably thought his wings were very large fins, he thought to himself amusingly.

But he had been raised to be polite, so he kept his amusement and mild annoyance (at having his sunbathing and afternoon nap interrupted) to himself and asked for the reason for the conversation.

The fish were beside themselves with excitement and floundered over their explanations, until finally the leader of BASS silenced them all and summarised.

"Oh Noble Air Swimmer, we humbly beg your help. Our little lake is shrinking and has been doing so for some time and we fear it is only a matter of time before there is so little water left that the fishes cannot survive."

"Well, I could bring some water in my beak the next time I fly here, but I don't think that would help very much," said the large bird.

"Oh no, we don't mean that at all," said BASS leader. "Noble One, we have heard of other lakes, other waters where fishes might swim and live. Perhaps as the Noble One swims through the air, the Noble One might have seen some of these other lakes."

"Why yes. I have. But how would these other lakes help you?"

"We humbly ask that you help us get there."

"You want me to teach you how to fly?"


"Swim through the air."

"That is called "flying"? Er... Can you teach us how to fly?" They asked hopefully.

"No. You don't have the... 'fins' for it."

BASS leader then explained that all they wanted was for the bird to take them to another lake. The bird would take a few fishes in his beak with as much water as he could hold and fly the fishes to another lake. If he would do this over several trips, eventually, all the members of BASS would be transferred to their new home.

The bird was silent for a long while after the fish made their request. The fishes waited quietly. They knew that they were asking for had never been done. In fact, it had never been asked. There was no reason for the bird to agree to their request.

"Are you crazy? He's a fish-eater! He's not going to bring you to a new lake. He will swallow you whole! Why should he bring you to a new home? What's in it for him?"

The loud, angry, frightened voice came from the back of the gathering. It came from one of the elder fish. He was not a member of BASS. Like most of the fishes, he believed Air Swimmers are fish-eaters. He had happened to be swimming by when he saw BASS members talking to the Air Swimmer and his curiosity overcame his fear and he listened to the fishes make their request to the Air Swimmer. And his fear grew as he heard their request.

"No! He is a Noble Air Swimmer! A supreme being! He knows the secrets beyond the Waters! He knows how to fly! He knows how to live out of Water! He knows things that no fish knows! He can save us if we only but ask! He can save us! We just need to put aside our pride and our fear!"

The furious defence of the Air Swimmer took the elder fish by surprise, and he was shocked into silence by the strength and the depth of the BASS leader's conviction.

Then the Air Swimmer spoke.

"I need to think about what you ask and if I decide to help you, I will need to find a suitable lake. I have noticed that this is not the only lake that has been drying out. If I do decide to help you, it would not do for me to bring you to another lake that is also drying out. I will let you know my decision in two days. Come back here then."

Then he unfolded his wings (what a magnificent sight it was to the fishes gathered there! Even the elder fish could not help but be awed), and took off into the air, his wings beating the air into a small windstorm that rippled the waters.

Two days later the members of BASS gathered again by the large rock to await the decision of the Air Swimmer.

They came early even as the sun was just warming up the day. They waited. The sun rose high into the sky. Still they waited. The sun began to drop towards the western mountain ranges. The heat of noon gave way to the cool of late afternoon. Some of the fishes had drifted away, their patience deserting them even as they deserted their cause.

The BASS leader wanted to chide them, but he was too anxious and too worried. The absence of the Air Swimmer could well mean that his answer was no. Even if he did show up, he might still say no. Why hold the fishes here only to disappoint them. If there were good news, he can tell them later. If there were bad news... well, bad news travels faster than good and they will find out anyway.

Besides the BASS members, the elder fish was also waiting to see what other horrors and stupidity the BASS members could come up with. And perhaps to save them from their stupidity.

Off to a side, were a group of younger fishes who were curious about this strange plan with an Air Swimmer. They expected the Air Swimmer to turn up and eat all the BASS members. If they had cameras, you can imagine all of them with cameras and tripods - the fish equivalent of paparazzi. But even without cameras, they could still tell their children and their children's children about the day they were there when an Air Swimmer ate the foolish BASS members. They were there out of morbid curiosity.

So they waited.

The sun had sunk so low it was almost touching the tops of the mountain ranges when they heard the flapping of large wings (or "fins" as some of them still thought of wings), and the Air Swimmer (bird) landed on the rock.

He looked tired. As he looked for the Bass leader. The other fish helped by drawing away from the leader so that he was alone in a circle of empty space where no fish crowded him. The Air Swimmer assumed that was the BASS leader (all fish looked alike to him).

"I will help you."

The cheer that burst out was so loud that all the fish in the lake heard it and were drawn to the large rock.

The bird explained that he had gone searching for a suitable lake. The other lakes nearby were also drying up and his search had taken him a day and a half. He had almost given up when he finally found a lake almost half a day away as fast as he could fly where the waters were fed not just by streams by by three large rivers. The lake was much larger - almost eight times larger than Little Lake before it started drying up.

He told the BASS leader that he would do a trial run with two fish the next day. He would take the two fish to the lake and let them see the lake for themselves. They could also check that the lake was suitable with enough food for the fish, fresh clean water, and would make a good new home. Or if there were any dangers that he might not have noticed.

Then he would bring them back so they could tell the other fish what to expect.

The elder fish held his tongue. He had wanted to say that the Air Swimmer could have just eaten the fish and no one would be wiser. But if he was bringing them back to testify to the suitability of the new lake as a new home, his suspicions would be laughed away.

The Air Swimmer asked the fish to choose two fish for the trial run the next day. As the other lake was far away, they will need to leave at dawn if they were to make it back the same day.

The next day, the two young BASS members who had been selected for this mission were ready. They must have been very brave to swim into the gaping beak of the Air Swimmer. On his part the Air Swimmer took as much water as he could before he closed his beak, and without saying goodbye (because he was a well-brought up bird who never spoke with his beak full), spread his wings and lifted up into the brightening sky.

The fishes watch him climb up and then peel off northwards as the first rays of the rising sun touched his right wing. They watched him soar above the northern ridge and disappear behind and below it.

The fishes that were gathered there slowly drifted away. But the BASS leader stayed there for a long time, sending hopeful thoughts and wishes of good luck to the two pioneers.

The elder fish was there too sending protective thoughts and wishes for courage and strength for the two fish trapped within the beak of the Air Swimmer. He wasn't sure if he would see them again.

For half the morning, the waited, in case the Air Swimmer and his "passengers" returned for whatever reason. If they did returned before noon, the trial run would have been a failure. But when they were not back by mid-morning, the hope was that all was going according to plan. The BASS leader and the elder fish left the large rock at the same time.

"They are very brave," said the elder fish to the BASS leader.

"They are, but they have faith."

"For such endeavours, faith is important."

"Essential even."

The elder fish agreed.

Around mid-afternoon, a small crowd had started to gather at the large rock. They drifted about in small groups, some making small talk. Others tensely silent. Some flitted from group to group seeking gossip or theories or speculation. Others offered words of hope and encouragement.

Some caught themselves speaking or thinking of the two fish as if they were not returning and quickly admonished themselves.

The sun dipped closer to the western ridges, but the northern sky remained empty.

The sun sank lower til it touched the ridge, but there was no sign of the Air Swimmer yet.

The sun was halfway below the ridge when a silhouette sailed across the northern sky! But it was just some other Air Swimmer heading to her nest before dusk.

As the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the mountains, a lonely sob pierced the twilight and was quickly muffled. Perhaps the mother of one of the two fish.

Twilight clung to the rocks and the trees but the darkness of night was patient and inexorable.

No one could be sure when the last bit of twilight was gone, but the moon was full and bright when the fishes started to disperse quietly into the night.

Joy is celebrated. Hope lost is lost in the heart. Despair is experienced alone.

BASS leader wanted to say something to keep the hopes alive, but he didn't know what to say.

The elder fish stayed by his side some distance away. A lesser fish might have said, "I told you so", but this was an elder fish and he was a wise fish, and one of the signs of wisdom is the ability to know when nothing is the best thing to say.

Some of the crowd drifted away, but BASS leader felt he had to stay, as did many other members of BASS.

"You were right," he said to elder fish.

"I take no joy in being correct," elder fish replied. "I wish you were right."

BASS leader agreed silently.

It was some time after sunrise, when the fish that were still gathered at large rock heard the beating of huge wings, the rippling of the water from the down wash, and then saw the Air Swimmer land on the large rock, dip his beak into the water and opened it.

The two fish sprang out of his beak, and yelled so loudly that it was heard throughout Little Lake, "WE'RE BACK!"

There were questions and excitement and pandemonium as the other fish asked, "Tell us! Tell us! Tell us!"

And so the two fish told them their adventure, of how the Air Swimmer soared up the mountains and flew at his fastest speed for half a day to take them to the new lake. It was a ride of blind hope because the fish could not see where they were going. And beaks were not designed for comfort. In fact they were not designed for passengers at all, so the fish were jostled, tossed, and shaken by the time they reached the new lake.

But what a lake!

The two fish told of the depth of the lake, the breadth of the lake, the variations of the water, with fast flowing waters near streams and rivers, and warm slow languid waters that would be good for the fry, and water plants and food and insects.

They were so excited that they took a little too long to explore and left for the return journey a little too late.

The Air Swimmer flew as fast as he could with the two fish in his beak, but night fell before he could reach Little Lake, so he landed by a small pond and where the two fish could rest.

The next morning as soon as it was bright enough, they took off and headed back.

And there they were!

The fish cheered again and started a spontaneous parade with the two fish at the head of it.

BASS leader swam up to the large rock, where the Air Swimmer was resting. There was a look of satisfaction on his face and BASS leader was gratified and grateful.

"Thank you, Noble One. We have hope. We have a plan. We have your great and immeasurable kindness. I am humbled and deeply grateful."

"Your gratitude moves me, but this is only just the beginning. The two on this trip are young and strong and to be honest, they could have died. The trip may be too long for older fishes such as yourself."

"If you can save the young ones, I am content. I have lived a long time. To end my days here is not a great tragedy."

"Do not be so prepared to die, old one. On the way back, we stopped because of nightfall, and the two spent the night in a small pond. It is entirely possible for the journey there to be made in several small legs with stops in between. It may well be that even an old one like yourself would be able to survive the trip. Moreover, with several small stops, I do not need to carry so much water in my beak. With less water, I can fly lighter and not be so tired."

"Oh Noble One, you are incredibly wise and thoughtful. That you would think of my welfare and how I might survive..." If fish could cry, BASS leader would shed buckets then. He sobbed, and said, "I am most unworthy!"

The Air Swimmer was most discomfited by this outburst and did not know what to say. Finally, he tried.

"Please compose yourself. It would not be much of a plan if we saved only some. A good plan should save everyone. And if anyone deserved to be saved it would be you, for your leadership, your strength, and your belief in me. I find you most worthy. Now, I shall go take my rest, and tomorrow, we will start moving your fish. We will keep to two fish each trip and see how that goes over time. I will see you at dawn tomorrow."

And the Air Swimmer left (partly because he was embarrassed by the gratitude of BASS leader).

BASS Leader called a meeting and declared the plan a success, and that the BASS members can start moving to their new home two by two. He told the members of Air Swimmer's suggestions to make the trip more survivable, and the two pioneers agreed that a few rest stops in between would make the journey more tolerable and survivable.

As the details of the transfer were still being worked out, BASS leader said that the next few trips would still be by volunteers only. But this time he had no shortage of volunteers. He scheduled all the volunteers and they took all the spots for the next 10 trips.

That night there was a celebration of sorts as the friends and families of the two who were scheduled to leave the next morning said their farewells, and joked about leaving Little Lake, and what they think they might find in Large Lake. The two pioneers were still in the limelight being asked for tips and observations for flying in the beak of an Air Swimmer.

The next morning at dawn, they were gathered at Large Rock. A cheer rang out as Air Swimmer landed. He waved to the fishes, opened his beak and two swam in. He closed his beak and took off, without much ado.

Air Swimmer returned late that afternoon, and told BASS leader that the two had made it safely to Large Lake. And because breaking the long trip into a series of short trips, Air Swimmer did not need to carry as much water, he could probably try 3 fish the next trip.

BASS leader reshuffled the schedule and arrange for 3 fish for each trip.

That night, there were again goodbyes, mixed feelings of hope, and anxiety, and separation, but then hope to be reunited some time in the future. One of those who would be leaving in the morning came before BASS leader and waited to be noticed.

"What is it, son?" asked BASS leader. The conversation around BASS leader died down.

"Elder One, I want to thank you for leading us and giving us this chance for a new life in a new home. In the morning when Air Swimmer comes, we would not have time to say goodbyes and thank yous. So let me say mine now. Thank you."

The other two that would be travelling the next morning also came forward.

"We thank you, Elder One for your leadership and your faith! We thank you for giving us a chance at new life!"

And then all the BASS members gather said it together, "We thank you, Elder One, for your Leadership and your Faith! We thank you for giving us new life!"

And just as he had discomfited Air Swimmer, it was Bass leader's turn to be discomfited. But he was moved. All those times when the rest of the fish thought the BASS members to be crazy, confused, and unbalanced, when even he doubted if what he believed was real or true, all that was worth it to see the fish here so full of hope and faith.

"Our faith sustained us in the dark times, and now it will deliver us in our darkest hour. Remember this and we will never lack for strength, for faith, or for hope."

And the gathering cheered.

Over the next few days, the transfers and the preparations for the transfers became almost like a sacred ritual, the celebration the night before as the travellers said their goodbyes and the rest gave their best wishes. The jubilant mornings when the travellers were lifted to the sky and winged away to their new home.

When BASS leader called the next meeting, the group was considerably larger. BASS had new members who wanted a chance at the new home and a new life there.

He took on the task of welcoming the new members to BASS and to explain the philosophy and understanding of Air Swimmers and why they were superior beings. He felt he needed the new members to properly understand and appreciate what it meant to be a member of BASS.

Some of the original members were not so happy. Some of these new members, they felt, were opportunists who chose to be BASS simply for the chance for new life, not because they believed.

But BASS leader silenced these critics. It is not important, he said, how they arrived, but once they arrived, they will know the truth. And the truth will prevail.

Still, the new members created a scheduling problem, so BASS leader had to learn to delegate. He set up a council to schedule the transfers. He had no shortage of volunteers for the job.

Elder fish watch all this with growing dread, but he did not know of a solution.

"Elder one, would you join us?" asked BASS leader kindly.

"I thank you for the offer, but I do not believe," said elder fish.

"That is alright. My brothers tell me that they suspect many of the new members also do not believe."

"That is probably true. But if they have no faith, they at least have hope. And perhaps hope is the sister of faith."

"That may be. You are indeed wise."

"And yet wisdom prevents me from believing, no?"

"Faith transcends wisdom. Might I humbly suggest that perhaps pride prevents you from abandoning wisdom to embrace faith?"

"That would seem like a step backwards."

"But your wisdom has brought you to an empty cave."

"If the cave is empty, perhaps it is best to see an empty cave."


And so the transfers went on, all through spring and summer and into autumn. The waters continued to recede. Streams ran dry. The water became murkier, muddier, and harder to live in. Little Lake was dying.

Finally, there was only BASS leader and elder fish. Air Swimmer would be coming the next morning. BASS leader tried to persuade elder fish to come with him.

"Will you come with me?"

"Thank you old friend, but I think my memories and my life is here."

"But there is no one here anymore. Memories, you can take with you. This," he said indicating the dying lake, "is not what you want to remember."

"Perhaps. But it is what it is."

"Your friends, you family are at the new lake. Come with us."

"I don't think so."

"Very well then, I will stay with you."

"I can neither ask you to go or to stay, but please do not stay on my account."

"You still believe that Air Swimmers are fish eaters?"


"But you would let me swim into his mouth. Are you letting me be eaten without an argument?"

"If I told you that you would be eaten, would you believe me?"


"Life is too short to argue beliefs," he said with a gentle smile. "Especially now."

"But it doesn't have to be! That's the point. You can have a new life, a new home."

"That is what you believe."

"But it is true!"

"Have you heard from any of the fish that are over there?"

"The two that went first, they came back and told us what they saw with their own eyes. That's a fact!"

"And since then?"

BASS leader wanted to say that they had sent messages through the Air Swimmer, but he knew elder fish meant a message that could be independently verified.

"Elder fish, let's say you're right and Air Swimmers are fish eaters. Then we are lost. There is no hope. Little Lake is drying up and when it does, and probably before it does, we would be dead. If you are right, then Air Swimmer eats us and we are also dead. But what if I'm right and Air Swimmer is bringing us to a new home? If I am right, we could live. Your beliefs provide no hope. Mine does! And in these times of helplessness, don't you think we need hope?"

"Of course we do. That is why beyond the first few times I tried to warn the fish about trusting the Air Swimmer, I have held my tongue. I have nothing to offer. Not hope. Only truth. And truth is a harsh mistress."

"But what you believe is just a belief. There is no facts to support your belief to make it true."

"There is, if you but see."

"Show me."

"It's the little things. First, his eyes. They face forward like a predator. He catches and eats things. Second, noticed the Air Swimmer has put on quite a bit of weight. Third, look at his beak. It is for catching fish. And if he doesn't eat fish, what has he been eating to put on so much weight? He is supposedly flying to a lake half a day away, so he needs a full day to fly there and back. He's been making a trip everyday. When does he have time to feed himself?"

"He is a supreme being. Maybe he doesn't eat like we do. Maybe he gets energy from the sun, or from the wind, or from helping us, or from our good wishes. I've always asked the fish to always have good thoughts of him and to wish him well for helping us in our time of need. Perhaps that is all he needs!"

"And that is my other point. Why is he helping us? What does he gain from it all?"

"He is an Air Swimmer, a supreme being. He may have his own reasons. Reasons we fish would never understand just as how we cannot understand how he swims through the air, or live outside water. Or he does not need a reason. He is not like us."

"Don't you see? All your answers begin with 'He is a supreme being'. And this comes from your belief that he is a supreme being. Your answers support your belief, and your belief supports your answers. It is all tied together."

"And that is a bad thing."

"It is if you are trying to find the truth."

"Sometimes, truth cannot be found with reason, but with faith."

"Perhaps. Perhaps old friend, you are right. But I am too old to change."

"You are a stubborn old fish!" But this was said, almost as a compliment. BASS leader added, "Very well, I will go to the lake, see for myself that our fish are safe in their new home, and then I will return and take you with me."

Elder fish smiled wistfully. It was good to have such strong faith. It gave you hope when there is none.

He watched as the Air Swimmer (bird, he told himself), landed on the same Large Rock, took his old friend into his beak, and took off. He knew he would never see his friend again.

Autumn was coming to an end. The days were getting colder. Soon the water would freeze and maybe this time all the water in what was now just a pond, would freeze through.

In the murky waters, elder fish was alone. It had been many days since BASS leader left. Then he saw the Air Swimmer resting on Large Rock.

"Hey bird," he called.

The bird looked around and saw the fish. "Hello. Do you want to go to the large lake?"

"Where is the last fish you took from this lake?"

"The leader of the fish? It was unfortunate. He was rather old and I was worried for him. I tried to fly as gently as I could, and to make as many stops as I could so the stress of the journey would not take too much of a toil on him. But, he was too old, too weak. But at least he held on long enough to make it to the lake. Because of the many rest stops, it took us the whole day to make the trip. We arrived as the sun was setting. It's rays striking the rippling waters of the lake, little gems of light bouncing off --"

"Oh cut the crap! You ate him didn't you? Just like you ate all the others, you fat, lying, murdering hypocrite!"

The bird looked at him for a very long time. And elder fish returned the gaze with his right eye. (Like many fish, his eyes were on either side of his head so he can't really return a gaze with both eyes. On the other hand he had no eyelids so he couldn't blink. Instead the bird blinked first which in most staring contest meant he lost!)

"It would be pointless for me to argue with you," said the bird. "Why don't I take you to them so you can see for yourself. Seeing is believing."

"I must say, you are consistent and persistent. Just tell me the truth. There is no one else here to hear you. It will be our little secret. Just you and me."

"But you already know the truth. Or think you know the truth. If I say, the fish are alive in their new home, would you believe me? Or would you only believe me if I tell you, as you want me to, that I have eaten them all? Would only this answer satisfy you?"

Elder fish did not answer.

He found that he wanted to believe that the bird had taken his friends to a safe place, that somewhere out there in another lake, his friends were alive and happy.

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