Phil was complaining today that there wasn’t enough algae on his section. It’s just not fair, he told us, I require more food, you know, and with this limited supply, my fins and tail are getting kind of dull-looking.
Old Joe and I rolled our eyes and told Phil to be quiet. He has no idea. We old guys––that is, Old Joe and Gene (me)––have been through the Hard Times. Some really hard times.
Don’t you remember what I told you, Phil? About the Hard Times? Don’t complain, I told Phil.
Old Joe said, Of course he doesn’t. He doesn’t care; only thinks about his pretty scales and flowing tail. Oh, and of course he spends all day preening his fins. Why would he care about the Hard Times?
I guess Old Joe was right: Phil muttered, while checking his reflection in the wall, What hard time? I really shouldn’t have wasted my time back then, telling him the story. I should have saved myself the pain of recounting the horrors over again. Yet when this topic comes up, I can’t help but think it over again…
I remember I was only a hatchling. Old Joe; back then he was simply Joe; hadn’t picked up the Old yet. There was Sary and Gary, Liz, Annie, Bob, Steve, Georgine, Ralph, Fred, Daria, Jamie, Vern, Bert, Herbert, Christine, Kassidy, Wanda, and so many other ones. I remember we forgot each other sometimes. The atmosphere was a wriggling mass of golden-green scales; there were so many of us. There was a copious amount of food every morning. Of course some wouldn’t get any sometimes, ’cause some of us (ahem) liked to (ahem) eat a lot. But still, there was always food to count on.
I also remember that the ground was smooth. There was also a huge black sucking thing in the corner of that place, always humming and bubbling and sucking. I do remember that frail little Rosie got sucked up into the big black thing. She got gulped right up into it. All that was left was one side of her gills and a couple dull-looking bronzey scales. She was not even gold yet, only greenish brown. Poor Rosie. But a death like that was nothing compared to the Hard Times.
It started out one day, after we had all done the usual: Sary and Gary pushing and shoving to the Top, trying to get all the food. I was nearly always third or fourth to the Top, but although I wasn’t the fastest, I always got a lot more food than everyone else. Then everyone else came up and got their share, but––ah yes, that’s who I missed––Bubba, Francine, Henry, and Nate never got any, as usual. Herb(oh, nearly forgot about him) always brought a little down to them, so they survived, at least barely.
There was a frenzy as the Net came out of nowhere in our midst. I remember that everyone was going crazy in their fright, darting about, screaming, eyes whitening with terror, tails and fins and mouths getting all tangled in each other. Maybe half of us were taken. Me too. All I worried about back then was Rita, my sister. She got taken first, since she had never been a fast swimmer. One by one it hunted us down. I tried my best to be trouble, and not get taken, but after one of my scales got ripped off from trying to escape, I gave up. I was being hauled up and out into a bare, thin place. It was the AIR, the dreaded AIR, as the Old Folks in the tank (which we never took seriously, but oh, we should have) told us about. I felt my gills open and close, but everything was so thin, my body couldn’t grab it. Pulsing dreadfully with pain was the section where my scale had been ripped off; I could even see the white, raw, exposed skin. It was terrible. I remember being blind with pain. Stuffed in a small tiny place with Old Joe and several others––can’t even remember their names now. Rita was with me, half paralyzed with shock. I tried to comfort her as she cried, but I was so shaken myself and going crazy with pain.
Then we were tied up into a little, thin-walled world, where it kept changing shape. Sometimes it was very narrow and we were bumping into each other, and it was extremely hard to draw in oxygen. Other times it was wider, with more freedom to move. Finally we were released from those terrible close quarters, and set back into a world like our previous one, thick and easy to grab with our fins, but there were several major differences.
There were towering green fluffy things above us that shed. They shed greenish flat things that floated on the surface of our world, blocking us from the bright, penetrating warm light of a huge glowing orb that hung above us far away. Some of us found that if one swam below the orb without the protection of the greenish flat things, their scales would become burning hot.
We were safely isolated from the AIR, here, thankfully, but the atmosphere was suffocatingly hot. Rita died then, and was removed from our world by a Net. I still dream of that horrible day, as I hopelessly blew bubbles on the surface of the world, hoping that Rita might be returned to me. Of course she wasn’t. The next few months were terrible. Old Joe and I were closer friends now, but we were always hungry. I remember that one of us had grown sick and died, I think it was Wanda, and in our frenzy we ate her. The flesh was sweet and white, and now I think it detestable. But at that moment we were dying, so nothing mattered. How could moral standards live in a world so cruel and violent? Besides, our brains might have been messed up because of the intense heat of the giant, heat-throwing orb.
But then suddenly it grew frigid. The atmosphere was cold, and the heat-throwing orb simply faded away into the colors around it: a murky, greyish-white. Freezing, we huddled together for warmth, but that did not help much. It was terribly cold. So cold, that the upper atmosphere of our world grew hard and impenetrable. We hardly ate or moved. Many of us had died. But Old Joe and I lived. We lived because we grew to be skilled hunters, eating anything that fell from above, once the atmosphere became normal again. We ate larvae, that wriggled in our stomachs. We ate insects, that protested loudly. We ate all these, only because it was for survival.
One day the Net came again, borne by the Great-Food-Bringer. By this time we were ready to die. But death did not come for us.
We were carried for a long time through the AIR. How we survived I do not know, but then we were put in here, in this small space with transparent walls. Just Old Joe, and me, were left now. The rest had perished from disease or the elements.
Yeah, it is true that the Great-Food-Bringer only brings us food once a week, sometimes once every two weeks, but something’s better than nothing, right? At least we are alive, and usually not hungry.
I remember it was several weeks (or was it months?) before we fully recovered from the shock. I still suffer from dreams of Rita, and the Net. But we are safe here. It is never too cold or too hot, and there are never any diseases. There are also no larvae or insects, as it was long ago when I was a hatchling.
Phil gets five pebbles to suck on every day. He has never had to resort to cannibalism, never watched anyone die, and never lost a scale. He gets exactly one-third of the food (when it comes). He has only been carried through the AIR once in his lifetime.
So, don’t complain, Phil.