What are those two doing?
Goby is twitching about again, his big eyes popping left and right with his little head. Shrimp is under him, furiously kicking out sand. They shouldn’t be working right now. It’s evening, and Cuttle and Eel will be out soon. I can see the last rays of light filtering through the blue-white waves above.
I don’t think it’s wise, sharing your hole like that. My hole is my own and I will share it with no one. Mother taught me it’s dangerous to trust strangers in the reef.
“You are a clever fish and a safe fish,” she said to me, “so don’t ever think you need anyone else.”
“But what about the schools?” I said. “They rely on each other.”
“The schools stay safe by sacrificing the slow, and the young, and I will not sacrifice you,” she said. “That is why we live in the reef.”
I nudged her thankfully and swam into the hole. Daddy was inside, cleaning the walls of algae that would soon overrun us if not for his efforts. I settled into my bed of cool, soft, sand next to my many brothers and sisters.
I remember hearing them talk that night.
“The algae is getting worse,” Daddy said.
“It’s just a phase, the waters will cool again soon. And if they don’t, we’ll move on, like we always do,” mother said softly and sweetly.
We did move, the following year. We crossed the Barrens, the Bleach Wastes, and Blue Void. We moved North to this small reef in the Great Sea and they said it would keep us safe.
I miss them.
What is Shrimp doing now? He’s leaving the pit. Doesn’t he know the light is almost gone? I suppose not. He is blind after all. It doesn’t matter to him if it is light or dark. It matters to me. I will hide away in my hole until morning.
In the night, I hear little. Perhaps the soft beating of the waves, perhaps the slither of Eel… hard to say.
It is light again and I am hungry. I see some flecks of flesh and plankton, it looks tasty. I am so hungry, but it is early, and Cuttle might still be out… but I am so hungry.
I will risk it.
It is tasty. My friends, Clown, Tang, Trigger, and Damsel have also come out to eat.
Goby is looking at me.
“What do you want?” I ask.
He says nothing, I realize his eyes are not watching me. They are watching Shrimp.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Goby just watches Shrimp. I don’t know how. Shrimp is almost invisible against the red rocks and white sand. He blends in as he scuttles about. What is he doing out on his own?
“Why do they do that?” Tang asks, “Goby should be smart enough to get food for himself. If Shrimp is not strong, then Goby should not help him.”
“I think it’s sweet,” said Clown.
“You are too friendly with the Anemone,” Tang spits.
Clown ruffles his fins and digs in the sand for more food.
“What do you think, Damsel?” I ask.
“I like Goby, he’s very funny,” she says with a giggle. She twirls her long fins and dives for a bite of food.
“He talks to you?” I ask, following her, but I am really more surprised that she talks to him. She doesn’t talk to me unless I talk to her first. I look at Goby, but he doesn’t look back at me.
“Yes, he talks to me when I swim by his hole every morning. I ask him how he is doing and he always says, ‘we are well’. Never ‘I’ am well. Isn’t that cute? Isn’t that funny?”
“It is strange.”
“You’re so funny!” Damsel says as she bites at a plankton.
I am alone in my hole, watching the reef fish flit between the coral. A shadow passes- a reminder of a distant danger. Shark passes high above us, waiting for a foolish gull to land on the surface. He will not descend unless he fails.
Look at Shrimp! He is so far from his burrow. How did he get there on his own?
Oh, I see now. Goby is tending to him. Shrimp lays one long antenna across Goby’s back. Goby is guiding him around the seafloor. Shrimp has shells in his claws, no doubt to support the walls of their burrow. It would take Goby ten trips to do what Shrimp is doing in one… but they are still slow. If Cuttle were to appear now…
I don’t want to think of it.
It is evening, and the sea is verdant. Green plankton drifts in the water, ascending from the deep void beyond the reef. I eat my fill with Trigger, Damsel, Clown and Tang. Damsel is spinning gaily around a crimson pillar. Golden shimmers from the surface dance on her silver scales, reflecting red and green glints.
She is dazzling.
“I have never seen so much food!” Tang says, already bloated and jolly.
“It’s wonderful!” Damsel chirps.
Clown and Trigger are silent. Trigger is always silent. His single large tooth hangs out menacingly.
It is wonderful indeed. I turn to look at Goby and Shrimp, but they are not there.
Are they in their hole, now? When there is so much food to be had?
“Where are Goby and Shrimp now, eh? They are missing the food,” I say.
“What do you say to that, Damsel?” I ask.
But she says nothing. I turn around.
The red coral where Damsel was dancing is now gone. It is Cuttle! He disguised himself as part of our home and now he has sweet Damsel. He has her in his long arms. His suckers are so powerful they are pulling off her delicate scales, and now her fins!
She is gone.
Cuttle has done this all silently. He is gliding through the water, watching all with his black eyes like dark crevices into The Deep. He is searching for someone new. He is coming this way. I cannot move.
Cuttle hovers over the hole where Goby and Shrimp live. I see Shrimp now, he is hiding next to the hole. What is he doing out?
Cuttle reaches for Shrimp with a single arm, but Shrimp lifts his claw.
I see a flash of light and a bubble, then hear a snap like the sound of coral breaking! Cuttle’s skin turns brown and green and black and pink all at once and he backs away from the hole. He turns this way and flies through the water- faster than Shark, sleeker than Eel, deadlier than Hook.
He is coming for Tang, but Tang does not see him. I remember what my mother said.
I am a clever fish and a safe fish. I do not need anyone! I do not warn Tang. I swim back to my hole and hide. When I finally look out into the reef again, they are both gone.
The entire night passes before I dare leave my hole. When I do, I see no one. Clown and Trigger have not left their holes yet either. I do not blame them. It takes a long time to leave my hole, but hunger convinces me. I leave my hole and forage in the sand for something to eat. I find some bits of flesh. I do not worry about where they came from; I simply eat.
Trigger and Clown join me and we are silent, not out of respect, but because we have nothing to say. This is life in the reef.
“You did not warn Tang,” Clown says.
“Neither did you.”
He looks away.
“I don’t see Goby or Shrimp,” he says, changing the subject.
I follow his gaze. He is right. The hole is empty.
“Do you think the Cuttle…”
“I don’t know,” I interrupt.
I don’t want to know.
I do not see Goby and shrimp all day. The night passes with white light from high above and still I do not see them. I watch their hole all night and yet I see nothing cross the dismal sands, nor do I find tracks in the morning. Their hole is vacant when I approach it in the morning.
“Is anyone there?” I ask, but I hear nothing.
The hole is very small, and I cannot fit inside, so I turn my eye to the ground and peer within. Deep, deep in the hole I can see a row of small tunnels.
“Clown! Come here. I need you.”
He joins me at the hole.
“Go inside and see if Goby or Shrimp are within.”
Clown ruffles his fins, but he complies and descends into the hole. Loose sand collapses around the hole, and for a moment it looks like the whole of the pit will cave in upon itself, trapping Clown deep under sand and shells.
Fortunately, it does not.
When Clown emerges, it is with Shrimp. No, it is not Shrimp, it is Shrimp’s wife! Her abdomen is covered in small eggs, each no bigger than a grain of sand.
“You have not seen Shrimp?” I ask.
“Not since Cuttle took Damsel,” she said.
It is what we all feared.
We pile small stones in memory of Goby and Shrimp. Clown offers to host Shrimp’s wife until her eggs hatched, but then he thinks better of it.
Trigger’s home is too far away, and I… I do not offer. She stays in her hole while we speak of Goby and Shrimp, and how they always cared for each other. We speak of how Shrimp would carry shells while Goby led him, blindly, across the sea floor. We speak of how they shared their lives. We speak too of Tang and Damsel. We say how much we miss them, and will miss them. But this is life in the reef.
“Why are you all outside my hole?” Shrimp says.
It is Goby and Shrimp! We turn and see them returning over the dune behind us. Shrimp looks tired, but his black eyes are warm with affection. Goby is peering at us all with his big eyes and he, too, looks tired. They must have been traveling all night. Shrimp’s wife scuttles to him and rubs his face with her feelers.
“I thought Cuttle had taken you! What happened?” she asks.
“I saw Cuttle change shape and I hid. I warned Shrimp, and he defended the hold with his claw. He wounded Cuttle, but when Cuttle jetted away from the coral, he blasted Shrimp into the current,” Goby explains. “It brought Shrimp into The Blue Void and I followed immediately. It took me all day to find him on the seafloor. I am sorry you lost Damsel. We could not see her from the hole, and I had to follow Shrimp. You understand.”
“We understand,” Clown says.
Trigger blinks and nods his face, swinging his big toothy smile up and down.
I do not understand, but I am glad for Shrimp and his wife, and his eggs.
I swim to my hole and settle in among the cool sand. The day is nearly over and I must wait out another evening, another night, another day, another thousand days alone.
I hear the soft ebb and swish of fins outside my home. It is Clown.
He pokes his head in as the last rays of light disappear from the surface waters and we are left in darkness.
“Can I stay with you tonight?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, “You can stay with me.”