Welcome to the June installment of First Sunday Short Fiction. Please enjoy the story, and remember if you want to submit a story of your own, you can find instructions on our submissions page.
Big Fish by Decater Collins
Big Fish was a legend. Every child who grew up in Alligator, Mississippi knew the stories. They all had an uncle or a cousin or an older sister who’d seen Big Fish, usually as they drank on the edge of the river late at night. More than one unfortunate family member was rumored to have been swallowed by the deep-water leviathan never to be heard from again.
The stories said he was longer than the Mississippi summer and his mouth was wider than the Louisiana Delta. His appetite stretched as far as the moon and back. People whispered his eggs could cure disease and turn the elderly back into newborn babes. Every aquatic creature ever born could trace its lineage back to Big Fish. He was so massive he’d never been photographed in his entirety, not even with a fisheye lens.
No one doubted the legends were true.
Holly would often think about Big Fish on those lonesome summer nights spent skipping rocks by the moonlight. She figured he must be a lonely fish like her. Fish, as with people, were always scared of what they did not understand. This was especially true when what they did not understand could swallow them whole.
She comprehended even as a child her ideas about the world were too big for her parents, too big for her school, and too big for the entire town. She wanted to go someplace big enough to remind her how insignificant she really was. For most people in Alligator that happened in Sunday school, but not for Holly.
She’d waited all her life for the moment when she could drive away from Alligator the same way Big Fish swam the Mississippi, furiously but with intent. Now, here she was, with every possession that meant anything to her packed inside her Volkswagen with room to spare. She had no map, no plan, no destination, just a vague idea she’d like to know what it felt like to be lost somewhere.
On her way toward the county road, which connected to the state highway, which led eventually to the Interstate, Holly decided to make a final stop before leaving Alligator altogether. She wanted one last photo of the Mississippi moon. With her camera set on a tripod near the riverbank, the aperture held open for a long exposure, she waited for the moon to rise.
Holly was not surprised when Big Fish emerged in the shallow eddies near where she was parked. It was exactly the sort of thing that should happen at the start of an adventure. He was, however, more ill-natured than she had imagined.
“Come closer, little human, so I might eat you.”
“Why would I do that?” Holly asked.
“Because if you don’t, I will come and eat you anyway, and eat that car of yours, and eat everything you’ve ever loved.”
Even by the moonlight, Holly could see Big Fish was large enough to do so.
“What if I run away?” she asked.
“I will find a way to eat you whether you come to me or not. The Mississippi is a long river. Everything runs into it eventually.”
Holly wanted to escape, to find some hiding place where neither Big Fish nor her parents would ever find her, but she knew Big Fish told the truth. Everything does run into the Mississippi, even tears, and he would eventually eat everything she had ever loved including the moon.
If running away were not an option, being eaten alive also seemed a rather unhappy conclusion. “Before you eat me, perhaps we can strike a deal.”
Lucky for Holly, Big Fish was a bargaining sort. “What kind of arrangement do you have in mind?” he asked.
Hoping to appeal to his vanity, Holly offered, “Let me take a picture of you. All of you.”
She heard a loud rumbling sound, so deep it seemed to be bubbling up from China. Big Fish was laughing.
“There is no camera in the world wide enough to take a picture of me.”
“I have a fisheye lens.”
“Your fisheye lens could not even fit my entire eye.”
“That may be true, but at least let me try. If I can take your picture in your entirety, then you agree to set me free and not eat anything I have ever loved. If I fail, I will walk into your mouth myself and save you the trouble of chasing after me.”
Big Fish agreed, thinking this little human was not particularly bright. Then again, humans never were.
Holly dashed to her Volkswagen and started unloading her possessions. She hauled out the heavy-duty container that protected all her photo equipment. If her family were to make a list of things they could not understand about her, photography would be near the top. The people in her hometown didn’t understand much beyond their Sunday religions of football, fishing, and church.
Holly hurried back to her tripod and mounted the fisheye lens. “Now hold still. I’m taking this picture by moonlight so you can’t move or it will blur.”
Big Fish, despite knowing her efforts were in vain, accommodated the human girl. He stopped breathing and stayed so motionless he rivaled his only friend, Old Turtle, who might go years without drifting an inch.
Try as she might, Holly found Big Fish had been telling the truth. She could not even fit one of his eyes inside her widest lens. After an hour of unsuccessful attempts, she gave up.
“You honestly are the biggest thing I have ever seen. You can eat me now.”
The truth was Big Fish had fallen asleep and all but forgotten his midnight snack. When he woke up to find a human willing to jump inside his mouth, he was very happy indeed. Life as Big Fish never ceased to be rewarding.
Holly rushed to empty her camera case. The case was like an old-fashioned trunk, and she had always joked it was big enough to fit a person inside. She had never expected to use it for human cargo. After it was empty, she dragged the case into Big Fish’s mouth, and before lying in it herself, she filled up every bit of space with retail-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash she had hastily poured out.
She shouted up to Big Fish, “I’m ready,” then shut herself inside. Holly and the case were sent hurtling down the gullet of Big Fish.
When she had bought the case, the saleswoman said it was sturdy enough to survive a hurricane, yet resilient enough to comfortably ride over Niagara Falls. She doubted, however, it had ever been tested under the extreme conditions it was about to encounter. She was pleasantly surprised to find the case’s foam padding, plus the extra cushioning afforded by the empty plastic bottles, ensured her capsule was quite cozy.
Holly had no way of knowing when she would reach Big Fish’s stomach, except it was a journey that might take a very long time. While she waited, she dreamed about the moon, which came to thank Holly for not allowing Big Fish to eat her.
By the time the suitcase came to a stop, Holly had forgotten why she was running away and learned to miss her parents again. Using the inside latch she had never understood the necessity for, Holly opened the case and peered into the blackness. Somehow, it was darker now she had opened the case.
Amid the darkness, which pressed down on Holly with the weight of millennia, there was no light, no sound, no time. She could see nothing but the inside of her own soul. She had only her own thoughts to keep her company. She believed at that moment she was truly lost.
After despair gave way to resignation, and resignation to understanding, Holly realized there was one sense that hadn’t completely stopped working. She discovered the only way to navigate within a fish is by smell. The ancient mixture of aromas pointed her toward a possibility of escape, and she probed about the cavernous abdomen until she exited the alimentary canal and sniffed her way to Big Fish’s store of eggs.
Big Fish was born long ago, before animals needed to distinguish between males and females. Big Fish reproduced through a mixture of parthenogenesis and ancient magic. Big Fish, therefore, was not really a he. Holly still thought of him as male, because he believed he could solve any problem by eating it.
Holly was surprised to find despite his tremendous stature, his eggs were only slightly larger than normal fish eggs. She filled her bottles with as many eggs as could fit, ate a few hundred herself, then settled back in the trunk to wait some more.
Eventually, everything runs into the Mississippi. Eventually, Holly and her eggs were deposited in a marshy bank along the river’s edge. She was wet and stank like fish roe, but she was alive, and now she could claim she was the daughter of Big Fish.
Big Fish was immensely proud of himself. “I’ve given birth to many things, but never to a human. If you ever have a problem and need my help, call for me. I will come and eat the problem for you.”
Holly would never see Big Fish again. She returned to the river and found her car still there. She packed away all her belongings with room to spare and returned home. Her family had barely noticed her absence and, if anything, they understood her even less, but it no longer mattered. Everyone needs a family, even Big Fish.
Holly used the fish roe she collected from Big Fish’s ovaries to create her own branded anti-aging cream. The cream worked remarkably well and she became a millionaire. She traveled around the state and the country and the world as ferociously as Big Fish swam the Mississippi, but she never forgot her manners and never ate anything that wasn’t meant to be eaten.
Eventually, everything runs into the Mississippi. The river swept up much of Holly’s wealth, though she was still rich enough to be happy. Some people said she smelled of fish, and her family wondered why she had become so fond of swimming and swallowing her food whole, but they accepted her anyway. For her part, Holly realized the world is a bigger place than she could ever manage to gulp down, so she concentrated on taking each photograph as a small piece of the whole, rather than trying to capture everything all at once.
Best of all, nothing Holly truly loved was ever eaten, by Big Fish or anyone else.
story ©Decater Collins, 2017
photo by Ian Espinoza, courtesy of Unsplash
About the Author:
Decater Orlando Collins is a writer, photographer, and videographer who lives in Portland, Oregon. He began writing when he was 10 years old and hasn’t stopped. He recently finished his first collection of short fiction, entitled They Both Loved Vonnegut. Quitting The Grave, his first full-length novel, was published in 2015. He has previously released Picasso Painted Dinosaurs, a collection of microfiction, and Ahab’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Currently, Decater spends most of his time at the beck and call of his beagle. Follow them both on Twitter and Instagram. For more information, visit his homepage.