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Monday, October 31, 2005

Flying Fish

Category: Issue 1, Short Story Winners

He knew it might be foolish and would lead to trouble but it was an adventure. His paint-spattered fingers moved toward the brass catch on the porthole. The smooth metal was hot from the rays of the midday sun streaming into the cabin. Dust danced in this spotlight until extinguished by his shadow. Effortlessly he opened the porthole allowing exciting smells to flood; a heady mixture of salt and tar which reminded him of ropes and the smooth, caulked decks stacked above him.

His eyes fastened eagerly on the dark blue sliding quickly past him. Its surface spattered with flecks of white, the Indian Ocean leapt and sparkled and beckoned him. The heavy pulsing of the engines partly dampened the rush and roar of the waves as they parted for the ship. Spray dripped from the porthole glass and, as his face filled the empty hole, settled on his skin.

Below him, the dark water raged up and burst against the painted steel before falling away in frothy white showers. Occasionally, a small green-blue missile launched itself into the air alongside like a mad surfer chasing the perfect wave. Silver wings glittered in the water droplets before the heaving water swallowed the fragile body once again.

The dancing of the flying fish intrigued him and his head gradually appeared outside the ship’s envelope. The wind and spray blew the blond hair flat against his brown face as he looked straight down onto the pageant below. He wondered whether they were able to fly without the ship’s waves to help. How high could they fly? Would he be able to catch one? This was miles better than painting little plaster animals in the nursery. The jailers had been preoccupied with the other children and he had simply walked past them and into the corridor alone. He vaguely considered his parents’ disapproval, but this had slipped out of his mind as easily as it he had slipped into the empty cabin.

Gripping the side of the bunk bed he pushed forward until his left arm joined his head outside. Suspended in the ship’s slipstream he could look behind and up at the steel side. Occasionally a distant head showed itself above him. It might be that his parents were at that very moment standing above him, unconcerned, happy and enjoying the beauty of the sea.  He smiled at the thought of their faces if they could see him now. The red ochre streaked rivets near the waterline stretched endlessly aft.

What might be below him unseen in the depths? Perhaps there were ancient ships festooned with the bones of sailors long dead. The rigging ropes hanging limply or waving in the currents far below. The sailors of course, had become Shark’s food long ago. He shivered at the thought. The teeth tearing at men (or boys) bobbing helplessly in the water. He scanned the surface looking for a glimmer of white belly as it rose to the flying fishes’ runway. No. Nothing there. His father had told him of the eager scavengers lining up for a meal of rubbish thrown over by the cooks in the galley. Sometimes during the war, so he understood, the sailors used to use sharks as target practice for the ship’s machine guns. He would have liked to have watched such an event.

Bored by his restricted view, he pushed against the bulkhead with his free arm and slid back into the dry interior. Pleased with the success of his adventure, he cast his eyes around the beds and living area. He thrilled as another idea leapt into his mind. If he could get both arms plus his head outside, the experience would be so much better. It might be just as good as flying. He would feel the thrill he expected the flying fish enjoyed. He frowned with the dilemma. The porthole was high up. He dragged the chair from its position by the door. On his toes he could reach the porthole. Standing on the back of the chair his chest was now level with the opening. For one instant he froze. The cabin door swung open and banged against the wall. He turned quickly, guileless innocence on his face, immediately replaced by a frown. He jumped down and closed the door firmly. This time he would do it.

Carefully the boy put one of his arms outside. His head followed and by squeezing himself against the hard ridge of the porthole, could he achieve his aim. Finally, with a painful skinning of his elbow he straightened his arms and exited into the blast of fresh air. Gleefully waving his arms above his head he revelled in the wind blown spray and the hot sun on his skin as he projected like a splinter from the smooth, bright paintwork.

Waves rose up towards him and retreated again as if daring each other to snatch him from the ship. Water shot in geyser fountains to rattle on the metal. His hair flew behind him, grew wet and darker, sticking to his salt covered skin. In his exhilaration he spread his arms and arched his back. He waved his arms wildly and shouted mutely into the wind, the sound snatched from his lips and sent tumbling and breaking until lost in the slipstream. Below him, scattered froth played and cavorted and the flying fish joined him in his aerial game.

The heart bumping rush of adrenaline peaked and then, just as swiftly the feeling left him. The sun no longer seemed so hot and the sharp edge of the porthole dug into his flesh. The spray now felt cold. The flying fish had abandoned him and below the waves, the treasures of long ago pirates were replaced by unseen shadows of fear. He slipped. It seemed his moment of pleasure was to be repaid by tragedy as his body began to emerge from the side of the ship like a butterfly leaving the safety of the cocoon.

Slowly at first, but with increasing alarm, he felt his body moving forward, further and further out and away from safety. Instinctively he opened his legs as far as possible, bending them out against the joints as a human paper fastener. Half in and half out, he struggled to reverse the motion forward. He shouted as loud as his 3 year-old lungs would allow him but, as when he had played with the wind before, no-one could hear.

Fuelled by panic, his legs pressed hard into the unyielding cabin wall. Despite his fear, and the gravity of the situation, he became calm. Deep inside his mind he began to evaluate his options. If someone on the upper decks should look down, he may be seen. If he could inch his way into a more comfortable position he might be able to hang on indefinitely. The first option was unlikely. The second might work.  Grunting with the effort he tried to move his legs closer together, maintaining the pressure on the bulkhead. But as he did so his body began to move further out, forcing him perform a grotesque and frantic dance with his aching legs. Finally, he could risk moving no more and hung head down, against the cold metal. His eyes roved the moving hills of blue and white. There was nothing but water. Water and spray and now fear.

Way above the boy, his parents finished their drinks before descending to the nursery. Children ran, smeared in paint or plaster around the tables in a mad game of tag. His mother searched the melee anxiously without luck. Seconds later, mother and father sped, with the nursery manager, along the corridors and up onto the open deck. The Officers on the bridge were alerted.

Feeling had long left his legs and the sonorous beat of the screws thrashed into his head relentlessly. The spray had numbed his skin and the wind deafened him. It gave him an odd, grim pleasure to imagine how his family would miss him. He saw the tear stained faces of his loved ones as they realised he had gone forever. The noise and the water were now his whole world and he wondered calmly how long he would last in the ocean. His legs began to spasm and the pain made him yell. His world lurched and spun crazily around him.

The catches of the porthole scored into his flesh. His body jerked, twisted and pitched as his legs lost purchase on the wall of the cabin. A scream carried to him above the sound of the wind and engines as the ship’s hull disappeared from his view. Down he fell, and in his confusion, he thought he smelt his mother’s perfume and heard her voice. His father’s grim and worried face floated above her shaking shoulders.

He closed his eyes hoping it would last forever although, deep in his heart he knew it wouldn’t. Without a doubt, once she stopped squeezing and hugging him, he was really in for it.

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Old Comments

  • Beautifully written, but I do not think that a little guy of three years old (barely out of his day nappies) would have many of the thoughts expressed here. This would be more apt for an older child.
    The story is gripping and the suspense is kept all along.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/31  at  05:28 PM
  • I agree that some of the wording of the thoughts seems advanced for three-year-olds, but it was easy for me to imagine a 3-yr-old thinking something of the same idea.  I’m daddy to a pretty advanced one myself and I know she thinks about stuff that much.

    So I’m not clear whether this kid is still with us.  On one hand, it seems that he fell out of the window and is incapable of considering anything worse than mom and dad being mad at him, so the story ends with his last thoughts.  On the other hand, maybe the author was just toying with us using the ambiguous description of how he got unstuck from the porthole.

    The ambiguity of the ending doesn’t add anything for me.  I suppose I may have written it like that if only to get people to think more.

    Anyway, I really liked the story leading up to the ending.  And maybe it’s only ambiguous to people who think too much like me.  I keep reading it over and over trying to figure out if it’s supposed to be obvious that the author just tricked us with the penultimate paragraph.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/31  at  09:07 PM
  • As a mother of two boys I would like to think that the parents saved him in the last minute. Otherwise I would not be able to sleep! The last para. confirms this, I think. He smells his mother’s perfume and feels her embrace and hopes this will last forever, as he knows the reckoning is imminent.

    Should he have fallen into the ocean, the last sentence “... he was really in for it” would have to be different. The experience of drowning, the loneliness and fear would not have conjured up the thought of parental punishment (unless he had former experience of severe parental disciplinary action) - it would be of fear and loneliness and the wish that his loved-ones would be there.


    The more I read this the better I like it - a real short story with an ambiguous ending. However, the image of a three-year old calmly contemplating how long he would be able to survive in the ocean does not fit. I hope the author will think about this. Also, the thought of a father telling a three year old child of sailors shooting sharks with machine guns as a practice for war is - a little far fetched if not that tiny bit immoral. Having said that I must immediately but regrettably concede that war is with us wherever we go - most of all in toy shops and computer games where war games and shooting toys are the big money grabbers. hmmm

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  05:37 AM
  • Wow….

    Well done.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  01:17 PM
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