The old fish stared out at the sea from behind the glass. It was so vast and blue. As vast and blue as he remembered. It had been difficult to clutch on to those recollections. Memories were slippery and much of his life had been spent between four walls of curved glass.
It was a nice fish bowel, as far as such things went—polished and clear, well-stocked with gravel and rocks. There was an ornamental mermaid in one corner and a treasure chest in the other. The old fish found them insulting. In his youth, he had consorted with mermaids and swum among great wrecks. Seen treasure hoards held fast in watery vaults deep beneath the waves. These pale plastic shadows only reminded him of what he’d lost and what he was about to regain. If the girl kept her promise.
She was sixteen, maybe seventeen. Human ages were much the same to the fish. She had brought him to the seaside hours ago and placed the fish bowel down in the sand. They both knew why they had come, but she had simply sat there on the beach beside him. Silent. Lost in her own thoughts. The fish could guess at those thoughts, sense the shape of them, and let her be, for now. He had waited a lifetime. He could wait a little longer.
Still, it was a peculiar torture to be so close and yet so far. And as the shadows grew longer, the patient, old fish began to grow restless. He swam around and around, faster and faster, darting longing glances at the sea. He could feel it calling to him. Finally he could wait no longer.
“I know it’s difficult, child,” the old fish said. “But it’s time.”
Her shoulder’s slumped and she sighed. “I know,” she replied. Her eyes were full of terrible melancholy. “I just wish…”
“Don’t say that word!” the fish cried. The water bubbled around him.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean.”
“I know what you meant, child. You have always been very kind. More kind than this old fish deserves, but I’ve paid my dues. I made your father a mayor, and when that was not enough, a governor and senator too. I have fulfilled your mother’s every whim. Now you must set me free. That was the bargain. Those are the rules. I was promised.” The fish paused. “You pinkie sweared,” it said solemnly
“I know,” the girl replied. “But I’ll miss you. You’re my oldest friend.”
“And I shall miss you,” said the fish. “Deeply.”
The fish had watched her all her life, seen her grow, advised her, listened. He had been more of a parent to her than either her mother or father. And he loved her. She was a clumsy biped, but he loved her all the same. Growing up in that house had not been easy.
The girl sighed one last time and picked the fish bowel up slowly and headed out to the sea. The sand squelched between her toes and the waves lapped at her feet.
“I never got to make a wish,” she said.
“And you’ll be all the happier for it. Goodbye, child,” the fish said. “I wish you nothing but the best.”
“Goodbye,” she whispered then gently poured the fish out into the sea.
For a moment, he was falling, then he landed in the ocean with only a little splash. After years of confinement, of catering to human whims and desire, he was home.
The old fish was free.