Flightless Creatures

 

Rain

One summer Sunday, in our town of Minotaur, NY, fish rained down from the sky. Most of them hit the ground alive, still wriggling in confusion. We lived 50 miles from the nearest lake, and we tried to imagine what it must have been like for those fish to be carried all that distance through the air. How disorienting it must be to find yourself, a fish, suddenly among the clouds. You are carried past birds while your home disappears below you.Your gills collapse and cohere like wet paper, and you suffocate slowly. When you land, you land on concrete, grass, rooftops. You strike windshields. You slam and bounce off awnings, umbrellas. You land on the sidewalk. You land in the open arms of the children who catch you. Their elbows rock gently into their torsos with the force of your fall, softening it for you, as though you are a water balloon, and you might burst.

The fish slapped about in the puddles the morning storm had left in the street, their rhythm like heavy hail. And that's what we thought they were at first: large, misshapen hailstones softening as they plummeted toward earth. When we first saw a fish flopping about in the grass, we wondered who had dropped it there in the middle of a hailstorm. Then another hit the ground beside it with a wet squelch, and we realized they were coming from above us. Soon, there were hundreds of them.

We poured into the streets. We braced ourselves under black umbrellas, clutching the poles with both hands as the canopies bounced with each thump of a fish. Children grabbed at them as though they were scattered candies. Adults carried basins of water out onto the footpaths. We collected them indiscriminately, paying no mind to how long each fish had spent on the ground, its wounds, or how close to death it was when we tossed it into a bucket with its traumatized brothers. They didn't swim around once they'd been returned to water. They hung suspended in the liquid which quickly grew foggy with the dirt from their bodies. Some went belly-up. Inverted, they looked like giant copepods, cretaceous. Others lingered near the bottom, where we could see them only barely. If we hadn't known better, we might have thought they had ceased to be fish.


Reasons

The meteorologist was shorter than the average American male, though he was exceedingly handsome by Minotaur standards, and as the face of local weather broadcasts, he'd achieved celebrity status within his ZIP code. Women often told him that he appeared taller on TV, though they also often went home with him, so he didn't much mind falling short of their expectations: he blamed camera tricks, not himself, for that. He had blue eyes and thick hair, and he was known for color-coding his ties according to the days of the week. Sundays were purple.

On this Sunday morning, the normally scheduled forecaster had been overlooked in favor of the more popular, blue-eyed meteorologist. The station reasoned that people would feel reassured if the explanation for this natural phenomenon came from him, and he readily agreed. For this broadcast, he selected a deep eggplant tie with a slight sheen. He thought that this was about as understated as a purple tie could be, and today's weather update was colorful enough without the added distraction of a loud tie.

The meteorologist had heard of such incidents as raining animals before. Fish in Moose Jaw a century ago. Tadpoles in Ishikawa more recently. What seemed strangest to him about these occurrences was not that creatures had fallen from the sky, but that the ones which had were all of the same species and genus. These Minotaur fish were small, freshwater perch—white-bellied with bright yellow stripes, an electric rain. There were no toads or guppies mixed in with them. No beetles or pondweed that might have come from the same body of water. The perch seemed so uniform and precisely selected that the meteorologist thought, just for a moment, that they might have been dumped from a plane.

During the broadcast, the meteorologist cited other examples of animal downpours, assuring viewers that although this was unusual, it was not unheard of. He gestured toward the green screen behind him, where the audience would see a digitized re-creation of fish spirited away by the winds of a storm. He explained what he had learned himself only just that morning: that the current theory for these phenomena was that the animals were carried by waterspouts. This made sense. The incidents generally involved light, aquatic animals. No, he joked in his newsiest voice, it has never actually rained—pause for emphasis—cats and dogs.

While he drank his coffee in the newsroom, loosening his purple-enough tie, he thought about what it might feel like to squash one of those fish into the grass with his bare feet. That was how he imagined a pressed fish: squashed. Not crunched or even crushed, but squashed. Some part of his brain forgot fish had bones when he imagined stomping them with his feet. They flattened in a soft, easy motion like dough, and pale mounds of yellow flesh rose up between his toes.

As they struck the ground, the fish deflated into perfect, yellow circles, maybe an inch thick. Their disc-like eyes still facing up and blinking furiously. The meteorologist saw them descending on people. They caught like gum in ladies' hairdos. They landed on freckled, summer breasts and conformed to the shape of the cleavage. The meteorologist smiled and then relaxed his fist, which had, apparently, been rather tense.


Play

The children greeted the new precipitation with a kind of excitement that was generally reserved for heavy snowfall. They cared nothing about meteorology, whirlwinds, or other scientific explanations. To them, the falling fish seemed like something out of a fairy tale, and they came to an unspoken agreement that the day's weather was somehow magical in origin.

At their parents' insistence, they wore brightly colored gumboots, even though it had stopped raining. They stepped carefully across their front lawns so as not to squash any fish,  stretched their arms toward the sky, and tried to catch some as they fell. Their mothers called out to them to be careful, so they placed their hands above their upturned faces, shielding their heads and eyes. The sun drew glowing, pink lines from palms to fingertips. Fingers parted just a little, and eyes were filled with light and fish. The children went to collecting perch in their buckets.

They bent forward, hands on their muddy knees, and peered at their captives. They spoke to the fish and made promises to take good care of them. They gave the fish names, personalities. Bubbles, Shimmer, and Jasper poked their heads above the water, and it meant they were friendly, eager. Goldie and Jaws hung low out of shyness. Mango had a way of opening its mouth which showed how easily it could fall in love.

The biggest fish were no more than 4 inches long. The children brought them back to their houses to keep them as pets. Some were placed into large, glass bowls which the children pulled against their foreheads. They tapped on the glass. The perch began to fight, to eat one another. Their magic seemed more sinister then. The children cried at the sight of it.

Other fish avoided this fate altogether. Before they had even left their buckets, they were removed from the homes by annoyed parents. They were discreetly hidden and left to asphyxiate behind the garbage. At night, while their parents thought they couldn't see, the children watched from their bedroom windows in the dark. They saw their mothers and fathers bury the fish in their gardens.


Origins

The Cock 'n Bull had previously been an old toll house. Although Minotaur no longer had a tollgate, the stone building, once home to a toll collector, had been left standing. It was eventually converted into an inn and restaurant. The name was intended to be indicative of the cuisine it served, while also coyly paying homage to the town's mythological namesake. On Sundays, the inn opened later than usual—just in time for brunch—so there was no one around when the fish arrived, except for the statue in the courtyard.

Local legend claimed that before the town had been founded, colonists in the area lost scores of cattle to disease. They disposed of the many carcasses in the southern valley. The bodies caught the attention of the indigenous people, who then lined the path northward with the animals' skulls. Settlers described the winding trail as a kind of graveyard for minotaurs, and in doing so, they infused their community with a much older mythos.

Punishment was the minotaur's purpose. Its very existence was a curse against Crete for a king's selfishness. He was meant to sacrifice a white bull to Poseidon, guardian of waters, but he kept the animal for himself. The minotaur was retribution, born to the queen and fathered by the same white bull which had been promised to the god of the oceans. It throbbed at the center of a labyrinth where it fed on human flesh. It had no moral compass, and so it had no motive other than its own instinct to satisfy hunger. With no human head to temper its nature, the minotaur was just a monster.

The statue stood black and naked with the well-muscled body of a man and a huge and bestial head. Its horns and nose were large, and they jutted forward menacingly. It was upright and proud with its back straight and its arms resting at its sides unchallenged. Its was the first many young girls in the town had seen of the male anatomy: the penis hanging smooth and thick like a diving inkfish. Perch had gathered unwillingly both around and on top of the statue's pedestal. One even had the misfortune of landing on the minotaur's head in strange perversion of a cowbird on bison, though with just a few flicks of its tail, it rolled down the bull's snout and toward the ground.


Cats

Many feral cats lived in an abandoned factory. They were likely related, as most of them sported tail deformities––malformed, hooking and twisting at half the length of a cat's tail. Some were left with only little nubs, rabbit bottoms. Unfortunately, they bore no familial affinity for one another. Each hissed its suspicion at its siblings if it felt they had come too close, stared too intensely. Otherwise, they lived in strained tolerance of one another. They had a fierce and hungry look—all lion yawns and sinew. When their eyes caught the glare of headlights in the dark, people thought they were raccoons. Their home was generally avoided.

Sometimes, on their way home from school, the neighborhood children placed leftover pieces of tuna salad sandwiches by the sides of the road. The cats remained still, but let out low growls if the children tried to come nearer. They refused to reveal their interest in the bits of school lunch until the children demonstrated that they weren't planning to stay.

The factory had once been sea foam green, though one would now have to stand very close to it to see any remnants of that color. The sign on the side of the building, as well as the vat out back, retained a mustard glow and the thick, black lettering which read, "Mione Powder & Hand Soap." The building was made of metal which had cracked and rusted over with time. When the fish fell, they battered the roof and walls, booming like thunder, shaking the cats from their repose. The cats jumped with their legs unbent, claws exposed. They hissed and prepared to run, but they were not sure where to direct their fear or where they should go. The hair on their stumps bristled with agitation.

The cats crept cautiously through a hole in the back door, one which had been made gradually from natural decay. For a moment they stood invisible, considering the unusual weather. Their eyes were wide, pupils dilated, and their tattered ears perked up. The fish, in contrast, were unaware of the cats; they had big enough concerns already with their unfamiliar, terrestrial surroundings.

It didn't take long for the cats' fear to evaporate. They lowered themselves into hunched, predatory positions. They slinked toward the helpless animals. Even if the cats hadn't been hungry—which they were—the fish would have drawn them in. If they'd had proper tails, they would have twitched at the tips with mischief and instinct. They had realized what it was that was flopping about on the pavement before them. It is unlikely that they had ever seen a living fish before, but they recognized their smell.

Claws and teeth split into scales with delightful ease. With no real sense of malice, the cats played with their food as it died. They pierced the fish and dragged them closer, removed their claws from the fishes' bellies, and let them attempt to flop away.


Pale Rider

From her raspberry-colored, tufted chaise lounge, the widow watched a handsome meteorologist talk about animal rain on her television. She was skeptical of his scientific explanations, having seen nothing like this in her sixty-four years. It had been practically biblical.

Earlier that morning she'd been brewing coffee in her kitchen, wearing nothing but her silk robe, copper hair hanging limp and loose, when she thought she'd heard footsteps moving rapidly across her roof. The widow instinctively clutched at the lapels of her robe, pulled them tightly together over her breasts, and turned her face up toward the ceiling as though she expected to see something moving through it, down toward her stove.

Nervously, she ran to the front door of her house, stepped off her porch and onto the lawn. The grass was wet and cold on her bare feet. Her neighbors, too, were on their front lawns, gazing in confusion at the sky. Before she could ask any of them what had brought them outside, a fish fell to the ground in front of her. It brushed slick and cool against her wrist before hitting the grass with a damp pat, and she released her grip on the front of her robe. Fingers splayed, palm opened. Fish settled into the ground all around her where they squirmed and gasped. The widow pressed her hand to her throat and inhaled slowly, then moved back under the shelter of the veranda.

She turned off her TV and went into the bathroom. While she waited for her claw foot tub to fill with warm water, the widow pulled the lid of the toilet down and sat rubbing at her ankles with a hand towel. Small bits of wet grass had stuck to the bottoms of her legs. When the bath was full, she turned the water off and let it settle. The only sound was the occasional drip from the faucet into the tub: a soft, high, calming ring.

The widow shed her silk—a chrysalis onto tiled floor. Under the water she closed her eyes and touched herself, and she thought of the man on the television. His blue eyes, his firm voice, his youth. She stopped, drew circles in the water with her fingers. She then thought of the fish and wondered what they meant.

If they were a plague or a punishment, it was not clear to the widow what she, or her neighbors, were being punished for. The widow had asked similar questions when her daughter was born half a lifetime ago, then again thirty years later when she died. The widow opened her eyes. The ceiling tiles were silver-painted rosettes. Their repetition made her head ache.

Perhaps the world was ending, she thought, or maybe just this town, soon to be erased from maps by cartographers. What would happen to the people then, she could not know. She wondered how she would die, whether it would hurt. She would be carried into death in the arms of a pale horseman. She could see the rider: a minotaur, her husband's body. His horse's skull is porous. Its bones are made of gossamer. They fall to pieces in the rain.


Cleanup

By the following morning, Monday, all of the fish were gone. The city had cleaned the remaining perch from the streets, and those that had landed on private property were removed with the trash. It wouldn't normally have been trash day, but an exception was made due to concerns about the smell. We smelled fish for days, and it took nearly a month before we were able to look at seafood without losing our appetites.

We lived in a time when science was able to rationalize this occurrence. There are engravings from centuries ago that depict fish falling over towns, and to those people, it might have seemed like a curse, even an omen for the end of the world. Or a miracle. If they had been hungry, and the fish ended their hunger, surely they would have seen their gods as merciful or themselves as blessed. Perhaps those wouldn't have been such horrible things to believe.

We did feel sorry for the fish. Try to sympathize. Even if you don't die, you will be swimming in circles in a very small bowl in a child's bedroom. Needless to say, it will not be your natural habitat, and the only reason you will still be alive is because you were lucky enough not to have been placed in a bowl with another hungry perch.

But you do die. You are eaten by stray cats in the street. There is nothing left of your body but your bones, which are crushed into the asphalt by passing cars. You are buried alive in a flower bed. You are buried dead in a flower bed. Either way, you suffocate to death. Your body fertilizes the  soil, and the molecules of your flesh become roses. You smell better now. You  decay along with other fish and meats and things in the town dump. You smell like you belong there. Had it not been for the storm, it is very likely that you'd have ended up there anyway, one way or another.

 

 


Cole Bucciaglia is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Timber Journal and Extract(s). She is one of the founding editors of Psychopomp Magazine (psychopompmag.com).

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