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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
The first sound I heard was gnawing.
The gnawing entered my nascent head until I was gnawing too, and then the egg shell opened, and the world became a place outside myself.
Near me many tiny new-borns, still transparent as jellyfish, were having a debate. I was smaller and less-formed than any of them, and I listened to them speak a long time before I dared say anything.
"Have you ever seen a black marlin?" said one. "I saw one pass by an hour ago. It was a splendid thing, with a soaring dorsal fin and the most magnificent nose. I can't imagine a creature more beautiful. I'll be one before long."
"Well, I saw a shark," said the next, and the group listened, impressed. "A whale shark, no less. A flattened head and a mouth wider than a marlin is long. I'd say it was easily fifty feet long."
"Where did you see that?"
"It was before your time. Perhaps two hours past. I've been saving my strength, and then I'm off to find it."
Some of the other newly-hatched fish started clamoring in excitement, and soon the group was divided into those who wanted to find the marlin and those who wanted to be whale sharks.
"Excuse me," I asked a hatchling near me. "What are you discussing?"
"Don't you know anything? You've just been born, and now you need to decide what to become."
"Become? Why, what am I right now?"
"Right now," it said, "you're nothing." And it swam off to follow those who had left in search of the shark.
I looked over myself carefully. It did indeed seem like I was nothing. I had modest pectoral fins, soft dorsal rays, a tiny, shapeless tail, and all over a translucent grey skin so ineffectual I could see my own internal organs. I was barely larger than the tiny egg case I had left behind.
Behind me, more of my amorphous kind were gnawing their way out of the egg cloud. Ahead of me, the last of the hatchlings had set off to find the marlin. I didn't know which way to go. I struggled up into the green water column in search of something to become. Beneath me the sea floor, which I was never to see again, faded into darkness.
The early days were hard, and I learned rapidly. My first instructors were zooplankton, whom I met at a depth of about two hundred meters. By day they stayed down there, fanning their bizarre collection of flagella and cilia, and by night they slowly rose up to the surface to feed on algae and phytoplankton. I followed their pack for a while, learning that algae was not good to eat, and zooplankton only mildly better, but I couldn't find anyone worthy in their numbers to emulate. Nevertheless, they were company, even if unwelcoming.
"What are you?" asked one of the vertical migrators when I joined their crowd. "I've never seen a fish like you before."
"I don't know yet," I said. "I haven't found anything to be."
"What in the ocean do you mean? How can you be anything but what you are?"
"I mean I don't know," I replied. "No one has told me."
"You don't need to be told," said the zooplankter. "You just know."
"Then what are you?" I asked.
"I am an arrow worm," it said proudly. "An arrow worm of the genus Chaetognathia. See my teeth?"
"They're very impressive," I said, wondering if arrow worms were good to eat. "Who told you what you were?"
"I've been saying that no one had to tell me. I was born knowing. Do you mean you weren't?"
I didn't answer. I put the arrow worm's confidence in its identity down to its being such a simple organism. Nevertheless, for the next few days, I anxiously tried hard to find something to be, or at least aspire to, in order to have a reply to similar such uncomfortable questions. The largest of the vertical migrators were shrimp, but within weeks I was already larger than the largest of them, and it didn't seem appropriate to emulate them.
After I saw one paddle by one day, I was briefly excited at the possibility of being a green sea turtle, but when I mentioned this the zooplankton burst out laughing.
"Turtles are reptiles," they said. "And they're quadrupeds. Where are your back flippers?"
After that I was known by the nick-name ŚTurtle,' a joke that spread quickly amongst the plankton.
"It's not my fault," I protested humbly. "I'm very young yet."
In the meantime, I was learning constantly about the known world. I was in the middle of an ocean known as the Pacific. I was learning that there were currents and gyres which were more powerful than I. I was learning I was not a strong swimmer, barely stronger than the plankton, who were defined by their inability to propel themselves under their own power. Since my hatching, I had seen none of my own kind, although it often crossed my mind that by now they might well be marlins and sharks. I cursed myself for not following them when I had the chance, but deep down I knew that I didn't want to be a marlin or a shark. I wanted to be something else. Something beautiful.
My moment came one spring day two months after I hatched. On that day I learned all that was beautiful in the world. It came as a great shadow, as a mottling of white and black and brown, it came as a nightmare of flight, and it wheeled through our midst, scattering the zooplankton in all directions and a great many of them into its gills to be swallowed. I had a momentary impression of two enormous horns curled in an attitude of prayer around a mouth lined with hundreds of vestigal teeth. Then it was gone, a dark flapping shape in the distance I was too stunned to follow.
"What was that?" I blurted excitedly.
A shocked zooplankter who had survived the harvesting of its neighbors said:
"That was a manta."
"A manta ray. A devilfish. A skeete. You better stay away from that one, Turtle, if you know what's good for you."
"Don't worry," I said. "It won't hurt me."
"Oh? And why not? Look what happened to my friends."
"Because," I said, "I am a manta."
I would never have caught up with the beautiful manta had it not been swimming in circles. As it was, I was so bewitched by its slow underwater acrobatics that I almost didn't manage to introduce myself. Finally, however, I gathered my courage and grabbed hold of its belly as it passed.
"Hello," I stammered. "My name is Turtle."
The manta did not reply, but continued to turn slow loops in the green water.
"It's not my real name," I said. "I don't really have one yet, but I want to be a manta ray. Please, will you show me how to be a manta ray?"
The manta said nothing, but so intoxicating was its powerful flight through the water that it was all I could do to cling to its belly and keep the plankton out of my gills. Very soon I didn't mind that it did not speak. It wasn't important.
There was an enormous amount to learn. The manta fed by filtering plankton and larvae out of the water that passed over its gill bars, a trick I could not yet manage. The horns on either side of its mouth were in fact lobes that it curled in all directions to channel the plankton in. I had no such lobes, not even the feelers of a catfish. Nevertheless I was not discouraged. The manta didn't use its tail at all while it swam, moving instead by giant trancelike flaps of its colossal pectoral fins. In fact, its tail was as ineffectual as mine, a fact that was immediately encouraging. I had found what I was going to become.
I was in love.
Riding on the manta's belly I covered great distances, always at the same stately flapping pace. We scattered pods of dolphins like they were plankton when we came inexorably through. Sometimes the manta breached, launching its entire thirty-foot body out of the water, and then it was all I could do to hang on. I was terrified of losing my grip and losing the manta forever.
The manta tested me harshly. As the weeks went by and I could not develop the ability to filter plankton out of the water nor get used to their taste when I swallowed them, I grew thinner and more desparate. The manta was deaf to all my pleadings for advice. I thought that perhaps, like the hundreds of teeth that lined its mouth, its voice had grown vestigial as well. Perhaps the manta devoted its life to thought and would not interrupt its meditations to answer my trivialities. Like a disciple, I crept closer and closer to its head to see if I could hear those thoughts through its skull. In this way I came close enough to its mouth to catch any scraps of food that it missed with its lobes, and I also discovered that it was plagued with several species of parasites, which in its lofty remove it had allowed to grow on its body. In an attempt to be helpful, I busied myself with general tidying up and eating any parasites I could find. I didn't expect them to taste good (though they weren't at all bad), but was devoted to my work.
It was certainly a noble aspiration to be a manta. With its majestic size, no other fish came near it. Except one shark.
The tiger shark came up from underneath one morning, angling to bite a chunk out of the manta, but the manta saw it in time and flapped a fin at its nose, shying it from its attack. Thereafter the shark doggedly followed the manta for the rest of the day. I was nervous at first, but since the manta was not concerned, I strived to affect the same nonchalance.
The next day, the shark was back. Most of the time it kept its distance, but whenever the manta stopped flapping and allowed hydrodynamic lift to keep it bouyant, the tiger shark sidled closer. Once the manta slept, and I confess I was frightened for us both.
"You'd better keep your distance," I piped up when the shark sniffed the end of the manta's whiplike tail. "A manta is nothing to be trifled with."
The shark was surprised: it hadn't noticed me.
"ReallyŠ" it growled. "And you? Doubtless you could fend me off as well."
"I may not look like much now," I said, "but I am young. One day I'll be the size of my master here."
"How is that? You aren't even a mouthful."
"I'm a manta too. Or at least I will be, one day."
"ReallyŠ" said the shark again.
The next day, the shark was back. The manta was flapping serenely across the ocean in its eternal quest for plankton. It utterly ignored the shark, just as it ignored me.
"You won't catch him napping," I said. "He's far too alert for that. He's much smarter than you."
"You again?" said the shark. "Why don't you be quiet, if you're so keen to be a manta?"
Latched on to the manta as I was, I wasn't afraid of the shark.
"I will be a manta. He already lets me clean him and eat from his mouth."
"ReallyŠ" said the shark. "Listen, I have a proposition for you. Why be a manta ray? A tiger shark is a far finer thing to be. Besides, you already look quite like one."
This hurt my feelings, as I had been concentrating hard on elongating my pectoral fins to one day approach the magnificent span of the manta. To avoid offending the shark, I said:
"I'm afraid it's too late for me to start learning how to be a shark. I'm been analyzing the swimming motions of a manta for a long time, and you use quite a different technique. I can see it's all in your giant tail, and I've been working on flapping."
"Nothing to it," said the shark. "You'd pick it up in no time, a gifted fellow like you. Why not come with me? You can clean me, and I'll let you feed from what I leave behind while you learn. When you're a shark, you go where you like, eat any kind of fish you like, and no one dares trifle with you. Everyone is afraid of you."
"Everyone, except the manta," I said.
Some weeks later, I awoke from a nap to find a strange fish attached to the manta on the other side of its mouth. It was white, and very streamlined, and its underside dorsal fin was shaped into a kind of suction cup, allowing it to stick to the manta's black skin.
"What are you becoming?" I asked, recognising one of my kind.
"Becoming?" it asked. "I'm not becoming anything. I'm a remora."
"I never heard of that," I said.
"You're one yourself. A suckerfish. I suppose you thought you were a manta."
"I am a manta," I said.
"I'm sure if that's what you want to be, you can be a manta," it said in a kindly tone. "In the meantime, do you mind if I stay on the other side of this one's mouth?"
"No," I said.
We shared months together, but the manta never spoke to me. I begged for just one word, a yes or a no, but it was silent. We crossed the Pacific and turned back again when summer became winter. We crossed the equator. We saw the sargasso sea and the kelp forests off California. Weeks went past when I said not a word but glided in mute silence. When, back in the northern Pacific, the shark returned, I had it out with her.
"Am I a remora?" I asked her.
"I heard you were a manta," she said, "though I think you'd much prefer life as a shark."
"If I come with you, will you make me into a shark?"
"I will. I'll tell you everything you need to know."
Above me, the manta flapped its slow, beautiful way across the endless depth of the Pacific. Would it even notice if I was gone?
"Goodbye," I said to it. "You have another fish to clean you now." I didn't know what else to say. I let go from its skin and fell back into the slipstream, where the shark opened its mouth wide to receive me.
Inside the shark's mouth cavity is very dark, except when the shark opens its mouth to latch onto a prey fish. Its great gills funnel in so much water I can always breathe, and I've tasted fish I never tasted on the manta: grouper, salmon, barracuda. I keep its mouth clean, and polish its rows and rows of well-used teeth, and I think about the manta. I wonder where it is now. I wonder, had it ever spoken, what it would have said to me.
The shark has yet to tell me how to be a shark, but that doesn't seem so important anymore.
I am a remora.