“It’s awfully quiet today, don’t you think? Sparky?”

You wait. After a good sixty seconds, the sturgeon’s tail twitches. Sparky’s mouth seems to twitch, too. Is this fish…grinning? Are you imagining it? You blink rapidly, but you still can’t shake the image of a fishy grin.

Sparky speaks at the same speed as molasses from 1955 poured onto a tree at 5:00am on a winter morning in Michigan. “It is…

…a little bit…curious…yes. Quiet…


…a lab coat…

…when will…

…can you see the chart…”

Sparky sounds like a radio flipping channels, tone of voice even changing a little between sentence fragments, and you’re more than a little alarmed now. Sparky’s words grind to a halt, and you wait there, all tension and apprehension.

That grin appears again. Sparky slowly reaches up, and takes off that worn out, greenish straw hat. Sparky holds it out to you.

You feel like you’re in a daze as you take it. You don’t just hold it in your hands, to feel how rough and dangerously thin it is: you put it on your head. Against all better judgment, you put that thing on your head.

A memory hits you like a blast of wind. You are somewhere else, suddenly. You are not here, that’s all you know, that’s all you’re aware of, as you taste water and salt and see blurry, bubbly shapes all around you.

A voice tells you to hush and be quiet.

Your vision clears. You’re aware, now, that’s it’s stiflingly humid, and your skin is unpleasantly moist and sticky. Wherever you are, it’s dark. You look to the side. A dark, fluffy bird stands next to you. She’s much taller than you are.

Another bird is standing on your other side. Just as tall, this one, a little less fluffy. More jagged and glowy.

You look straight ahead. You think you’re in a cave. You touch the ground beneath you; it’s stone, and it feels cold, even though the air feels so horrendously hot. Straight ahead there is a pool. Murky has never seemed like such an appropriate word for a body of water. It’s practically green, and it’s entirely opaque.

“Jump in,” says the glowy bird. “You have to jump in.”

“This is what fish do,” says the fluffy bird, “they live their lives with daring and grace and zero hesitation. You are a fish, still. Remember what it was like to be a fish.”

“This is a vital step in your training.”

“A very vital step.”

“You will be a better fish, after this.”

“A much better fish.”

“Do you still trust us?”

“You ought to trust us.”

“We won’t let you down.”

“Not ever.”

You feel a sinking sensation, and then you gasp as your vision goes utterly black. You feel like you’ve been jerked backwards: your eyes fly open, and you're by the pond again. The pond you know, the one that’s full of orange-black-white koi. You breathe deep, trying to feel steady again. You feel like you’ve been swimming. Sparky is still sitting in front of you. The sturgeon looks smug, now.

You notice the hat is back on the sturgeon merchant’s head.

Did that bizarre hat show you something meaningful? Was it from Sparky’s own life, that memory? Or was it just nonsense? How do you even know it’s a memory? You feel so sure it is, for some reason.

Your head hurts.

[Urgh.] 5.