By the time L.B.T. realized he was himself, he also realized he'd once had something but that it was lost. By the time he was old enough and wise enough to look in a mirror and say, "You are L.B.T.," he was also too old to remember, or no longer wise enough to configure, what had been lost or how to get it back. In fact L.B.T. was in a serious fix. Or was he?
Taipei is a big place, crowded with others and teeming with mirrors, and there he was in the middle of it, clear on the point that he was L.B.T. and clear on the point that something had been lost, but not at all clear, entirely unclear in fact, on what was lost or how he could find it. Where was it? What was it? If he knew so little about it, how was it he sensed so clearly it had gotten lost? Maybe it was really nothing. Maybe it was just an illusion, or a kind of mental condition.
Standing before the mirror, L.B.T. put his hands to his cheeks and pulled down on them, making a strange face. There was some hint there in that strange face, some hint in the fact that his face could be deformed in this way, his cheeks pulled down and his eyes glaring out absurdly. But the hint was not enough to get him very far. He let his hands drop and let his face return to normal.
Maybe the trick was there in the very sentence he'd said: "You are L.B.T." Maybe that sentence in itself was part of the trick they'd used to pilfer from him the crucial thing he couldn't be sure of. Or was the trick maybe in the very normality of his face--in the fact that he took it as something normal? Was that some kind of trick being played on him? Were his face and the name L.B.T. maybe things that had been used to pull the wool over his eyes?
L.B.T. wondered if other seventeen-year-olds in Taipei had a similar feeling that something had been lost. He knew he could ask his friends about it, but never did.
Things became clearer after the coming of the Charliefish. L.B.T. first got the Charliefish from his friend Michael, who'd won it at a night market by tossing a ring round the bowl where the Charliefish swam. Michael was trying to win something for his girlfriend Amy, who stood next to him as he tossed the rings. In the rows of bowls were toy lasers, stuffed dogs, keychains and other night market trinkets. Some of the bowls had goldfish and some had Siamese fighting fish. L.B.T. remembers how Michael had already tossed six rings without winning anything: the rings had all bounced off the bowls he aimed at. And the seventh ring didn't land on the toy dog he wanted, but landed on the Charliefish instead.
"A winner!" cried out the man who ran the game. He patted Michael on the back and smiled jovially, showing his gold teeth.
"I got a fish for you," Michael said to Amy.
"You think you're a winner because you got a fish?" Amy said. "I wanted the dog!"
The man with the gold teeth picked up the little bowl, poured the water and the fish into a plastic bag, and handed the bag to Amy. She held it up to the light.
"Wow!" Michael said. "Really an interesting fish. Is it a kind of goldfish?"
"It almost looks a little like a dog," L.B.T. said, poking Amy in the side. "It looks like a kind of bulldog with fins. So Michael did get you a dog."
"It's the ugliest fish I've ever seen," Amy said. "It's not even a goldfish."
"It's kind of skin-colored," L.B.T. said. "You can see the veins in its body. It's like a ghost fish."
"I don't want it!" Amy said. Then, turning to the man who still stood next to them: "Can we trade this one for a different one? This one looks like it's going to die before we get it home."
"Sorry, Miss," the man said with a grin. "What the ring goes around is what you get."
"Well I don't want it!" Amy said, turning back to Michael. "You keep it. It's too ugly."
"In that case," Michael said officiously, "since the gift I won for my darling isn't acceptable, I decide to do the honorable thing and offer it to my best friend. L.B.T., this is for you."
He took the plastic bag from Amy's hand and forcefully put it in L.B.T.'s.
"Gee, thanks," L.B.T. said, glancing down indifferently at the pale shimmering thing in the bag. "I'm lucky to have a friend like you."
And that was how he got the Charliefish.
The fish didn't die on the way home, and when L.B.T. got into his family kitchen he carefully poured it into a fishbowl his sister had used when she'd had fish. He put the fishbowl on the nightstand next to his bed.
Since his mother was already asleep, he'd have to wait until morning to feed the fish. He couldn't find the fish food, but his mother probably knew where it was.
The next day, after his mother had given him the little shaker of fish food, L.B.T. put the fishbowl on the windowsill in his room so he could see the fish more clearly. Once he'd done so, and when he'd gotten a good look at the fish, he decided he was actually glad to have it because, in fact, it really was the ugliest fish he'd ever seen. It was such a strange fish that L.B.T. thought it would be interesting to watch it grow. Looking at it he got the idea it wasn't yet fully grown: it's skin was too translucent. Or maybe it was a rare species of some kind. It didn't look like anything he'd seen before, and certainly it wasn't a goldfish. The face was almost flat in front, and the eyes almost looked forward instead of looking out from the sides like the eyes of most fish. And what was even stranger was that while L.B.T. looked at the fish it stayed steady, facing him through the glass, almost as if it were looking at him too.
"It's quite smart," thought L.B.T. "Maybe I'll eventually teach it to do tricks and I'll be on TV."
He sprinkled some of the fish food into the bowl. The small grey body of the fish sped to the bits of food and gobbled them up.
Then he put the bowl on the nightstand by his bed and grabbed his book bag and school jacket. He decided he wouldn't say anything about the fish to Michael at school. If Michael asked he'd say he'd given it to his sister.
The fish grew quickly. L.B.T. was surprised to see it changing almost day by day. He told his mother he wanted to get a small tank for it and an aerator.
"That thing's so ugly," his mother said. "Why do you need to spend money on it?"
"I'm fascinated by it," L.B.T. said. "I don't even know what kind of fish it is. I want to see how big it gets. No matter what, I don't want it to die."
This vaguely scientific curiosity on L.B.T.'s part convinced the mother it was worth agreeing to a small fish tank.
"I'll get one for you this afternoon," she said. "You can set it up tonight."
"I want to go with you to get it," L.B.T. said. "Is that okay?"
"C'mon, I don't want to get a really big tank or anything. I just want to be able to pick out the stones and the plants myself."
"Alright, we can go together tomorrow afternoon."
So the next day L.B.T.'s mother bought him a tank, an aerator, and stones and plants.
Every night L.B.T. slept to the faint whirring of the aerator in the tank. He liked the soft sound of the bubbles that never stopped churning up to the surface of the water. And the fish continued growing, and even began to take on a stranger appearance than it had had before. When L.B.T. looked carefully at the fish's face, he almost felt a bit uneasy. The face seemed deformed, like it didn't really match the rest of the fish's body. It had gotten even flatter than before, and while the body had become a darker shade of grey, the face seemed to keep the same pale color the fish had had when he first got it. And in the middle of the face, above the lips, there was a little protrusion starting to develop. The fish looked ridiculous, or it looked frightening. L.B.T. couldn't decide. Maybe, he thought, it would be a good idea to take some pictures of it and show them to an expert. But probably the expert would tell him what it was and there would be no more mystery in watching it grow. So L.B.T. decided not to take any pictures.
But how smart was the fish? L.B.T. had never seen a fish stay for so long in one place looking back at him as he watched it. And when he glanced at the tank from different corners of his bedroom, the fish always seemed to be watching him through the glass.
"Maybe I should put some of my math homework next to the glass, and see what the fish does," L.B.T. thought, then laughed at the idea.
It was around two weeks later that L.B.T. learned of the fish's real intelligence. He'd just gotten into bed and turned off the lights. Staring up into the empty darkness of his bedroom, his mind was running through an exchange he'd had with a girl at school. He was mentally editing the conversation and giving himself the lines he should have said. Then he heard a faint gurgling from the tank, a sound different from the usual whirr of the aerator. Deciding it was nothing, he continued with the conversation at school, imagining the girl laughing and twisting with delight at his words. Then the gurgling sound came again, but this time there was even almost the sound of a voice mixed with it. L.B.T. thought he'd probably mumbled something unconsciously to himself, that he may even be half-dreaming already, but just to be sure he leaned over and switched on the light near his bed.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light. When they did he sat up at the side of the bed and looked into the fish tank. He saw the fish swimming with its head near the surface, almost as if trying to tread water. Did it need air?
The fish's lips broke the surface and the gurgling sound came again, but this time there was the clear sound of a voice mixed in with the gurgling. L.B.T. continued to watch, and waited. He felt his heart pounding faster as he watched. What could it be about? He'd never heard of a fish that could make noise too.
The next time the fish broke the surface the voice was louder. It even sounded like a voice, not like a sound a fish could make. L.B.T. thought the fish might be trying to sing, or talk. But that was impossible, no? He had an idea. Taking a ruler from his desk, he placed it diagonally into the tank so that it formed a kind of ramp. Half the ruler was out of the water and half was in. If the fish needed to get its head out of the water, it could easily swim up along the flat side of the ruler and the ruler would support it.
Soon after L.B.T. had positioned the ruler in the tank, the fish did just what he expected. It swam along the ruler up to the surface, and then, with another shake of the tail, managed to bring its head almost completely out of the water.
"I am the Charliefish," were the words that came out of the fish's mouth.
* * *
Golden Thread Students--
You are welcome to finish this story as you want. I'll give you no rules this time. Of course this opening could even be the beginning of a novel, couldn't it?
One student, Gustave, continued the story as follows (but don't read Gustave's writing if you're planning on doing your own!):
This page is at http://www.necessaryprose.com/