HERE was a little sea-fish of good family; the name I cannot remember, you must get that from the learned. The little fish had eighteen hundred brothers and sisters all of the same age; they did not know either their father or their mother; they had just to take care of themselves at once and swim about, but that was a great delight to them.
They had plenty of water to drink—the whole of the sea; they did not think about food—that would come of itself; every one would do just as he liked, every one would have his own story—but none of them thought about that either. The sun shone down into the water, and lighted it up round about them; it was so clear, it was a world with the most wonderful creatures, and some frightfully big, with enormous mouths which could have swallowed the eighteen hundred brothers and sisters; but they did not think of that either, for none of them had been swallowed yet.
The little ones swam about together, close up to each other, as herring and mackerel swim; but as they swam about in the water, doing their very best and thinking of nothing, there sank from above right into the middle of them, with a frightful noise, a long, heavy thing that would not stop coming; longer and longer it stretched itself, and every one of the little fishes which it struck, was squashed or got a blow which it could never get over. All the little fishes, and the big ones too, right from the surface of the sea down to the bottom, swam away in alarm: the heavy, monstrous thing sank deeper and deeper, and became longer and longer, miles in length-throughout the whole sea.
Fishes and snails, everything that swims, everything which crawls or drifts with the currents, noticed this frightful thing, this immense, unknown sea-eel, which had suddenly come down from above.
What kind of a thing was it? We know what it was! It was the great league-long telegraph wire, which was being laid down between Europe and America.
There was a scare and a great commotion among the lawful inhabitants of the sea where the wire was sunk. The flying-fish sprang into the air above the sea, as high as it could; the gurnard flew the length of a gunshot above the water; other fish sought the bottom of the sea, and fled so quickly that they arrived there long before the telegraph wire had even been sighted: they frightened both the cod-fish and the flounder, which were swimming about peacefully in the depths of the sea and eating their fellow creatures.
A pair of sea-cucumbers were so seared that they vomited their stomachs out; but they still lived, for they can do that. Many lobsters and crabs came out of their good harness, and had to leave their legs behind them.
Among all this fright and commotion, the eighteen hundred brothers and sisters got separated from each other, and never met again, or knew each other; only about a dozen remained in the same place, and when they had kept quiet for an hour or two, they began to get over their fright and become inquisitive. They looked round about, they looked up, and they looked down, and there in the depths they thought they saw the terrible thing which had frightened them, frightened both big and little. The thing lay along the bottom of the sea as far as they could spy; it was very thin, but they did not know how thick it could make itself, or how strong it was. It lay very still; but this, they thought, might be its cunning.
“Let it lie where it is! It does not concern us,” said the most cautious of the little fishes, but the very smallest of them would not give up getting to know what the thing could be. It came down from above; up above would therefore be the best place to get news about it, and so they swam up to the surface of the sea. The weather was quite calm.
There they met a dolphin, a kind of acrobat , a vagrant of the sea who can turn somersaults on the surface of the water; it had eyes to see with, and it must have seen and would know all about it. They inquired of it, but it had only thought of itself and its somersaults, had seen nothing, could give no answer, and so was silent and looked haughty.
Thereupon they addressed themselves to a seal who just then dived; it was more polite, although it ate little fishes; but to-day it was full. It knew a little more than the dolphin.
“I have, many a night, lain on a wet stone and looked towards the land, miles away from here. There are clumsy creatures there, who in their language are called men; they hunt after us, but oftenest we escape from them. I have known how to do that, and so has the sea-eel you now ask about. It has been in their power, been upon the land, no doubt from time immemorial; from there they have taken it on board a ship to convey it over the sea to another distant land. I saw what trouble they had, but they managed it; it had become so weak with being on shore. They laid it in coils and twists; I heard how it rattled and clattered as they laid it; but it escaped from them, escaped out here. They held it with all their might, many hands held fast, but it slipped from them and got to the bottom; it lies there, 1 think, till later on!”
“It is rather thin,” said the little fishes.
“They have starved it,” said the seal, “but it will soon come to itself, and get its old thickness and bigness. I imagine it is the great sea-serpent, which men are so afraid of and talk so much about. I have never seen it before, and never believed in it; now, 1 believe that this is it,” and so the seal dived.
“How much he knew! How much he talked!” said the little fishes, I have never been so wise before!—If only it is not a lie!
“We could swim down and investigate!” said the smallest one; “on the way we may hear othersÕ opinions.”
“I won’t make a single stroke with my fins, to get to know anything,” the others said, and turned about.
“But I will!” said the smallest, and set off into deep water; but it was far from the place where “the long sunken thing” lay. The little fish looked and searched about on all sides down in the deep.
It had never noticed before how big the world was. The herring went in great shoals, shining like big silver boats; the mackerel followed, and looked even more magnificent. There came fish of all shapes and with markings of all colours. Jelly-fishes, like half -transparent flowers, allowed themselves to be carried to and fro by the currents. Great plants grew from the bottom of the sea, fathom-high grass and palm-shaped trees, every leaf adorned with shining shells.
At last the little fish spied a long dark stripe and made towards it, but it was neither fish nor cable—it was the railing of a big sunken ship, whose upper and lower decks were broken in two by the pressure of the sea. The little fish swam into the cabin where so many people had perished when the ship sank, and were now all washed away except two: a young woman lay stretched out there with a little child in her arms. The water lifted them and seemed to rock them; they looked as if they were asleep. The little fish was very frightened; it did not know that they would never waken again. Water-plants hung like, foliage over the railing and over the lovely bodies of mother and child. It was so still and lonely. The little fish hurried away as quickly as it could, out where the water was clearer and where there were fishes to be seen. It had not gone very far before it met a young whale, so frightfully big.
“Don’t swallow me,” said the little fish, “I am not even a taste, I am so little, and it is a great pleasure to me to be alive!”
“What are you doing down here, where your kind does not come?” asked the whale. And so the little fish told about the long, wonderful eel, or whatever the thing was, which had come down from above and frightened even the most courageous inhabitants of the deep.
“Ho, ho!” said the whale, and sucked in so much water that it had to, send out a huge spout of it when it came up to the surface to draw breath. “Ho, ho!” it said, “so it was that thing which tickled me on the back as I turned myself! I thought it was a ship’s mast which 1 could use as a clawing-pin! But it was not at this spot. No, the thing lies much farther out. I will investigate it; I have nothing else to do!”
And so it swam forward and the little fish behind, not too near, for there came a tearing current where the big whale shot through the water.
They met a shark and an old saw-fish; they also had heard about the strange sea-eel, so long and so thin; they had not seen it, but they wanted to. Now there came a cat-fish.
“I will go with you,” it said; it was going the same way.
“If the great sea-serpent is no thicker than an anchor-rope, I shall bite it through in one bite,” and it opened its jaws and showed its six rows of teeth. “I can bite a mark in a ship’s anchor, so I can surely bite through that stalk.”
“There it is,” said the big whale, “I see it!”
He thought he saw better than the others. “Look how it lifts itself, look how it sways, bends, and curves itself!”
It was not it, however, but an immensely big conger-eel, several yards long, which approached.
“I have seen that one before,” said the saw-fish; “it has never made a great noise in the sea, or frightened any big fish.”
And so they spoke to it about the new eel, and asked if it would go with them to discover it.
“Is that eel longer than me?” said the conger; “then there will be trouble!”
“That there will be.” said the others. “We are strong enough and wonÕt stand it,” and so they hastened forward.
But just then something came in the way, a wonderful monster, bigger than all of them put together. It looked like a floating island, which could not keep itself up.
It was a very old whale. Its head was overgrown with sea-plants; its back was thickly set with creeping things and so many oysters and mussels, that its black skin was quite covered with white spots.
“Come with us, old one,” said they; “a new fish has come here, which is not to be tolerated.”
“I would rather lie where I am,” said the old whale. “Leave me alone! Let me lie! Oh, yes, yes, yes. I suffer from a serious illness! I get relief by going up to the surface and getting my back above it! then the big sea-birds come and pick me. It is so nice, if only they don’t put their beaks too far in; they often go right into my blubber. Just look! The whole skeleton of a bird is still sitting on my back, it stuck its claws too far in and could not get loose, when I went to the bottom! Now the little fishes have picked him. See how he looks, and how I look! I have an illness!”
“It is only imagination” said the young whale. “I am never ill. No fish is ill!”
“Excuse me,” said the old whale, “the eel has a skin disease, the carp is said to have small-pox, and we all suffer from worms.”
“Rubbish,” said the shark; he could not be bothered listening to any more, nor the others either, they had other things to think about.
At last they came to the place where the telegraph cable lay. It had a long lair on the bottom of the sea, from Europe to America, right over the sand-banks and sea-mud, rocky bottoms and wildernesses of plants and whole forests of coral. Down there the currents are ever changing, whirlpools turn and eddy, fish swarm in greater numbers than the countless flocks of birds which we see at the time of their migration. There is a movement, a splashing, a buzzing, and a humming; the humming still echoes a little in the big empty sea-shells, when we hold them to our ears. Now they came to the place.
“There lies the beast,” said the big fish, and the little one said the same thing. They saw the cable, whose beginning and end lay beyond the range of their vision.
Sponges, polypi and gorgons swayed about from the bottom of the sea, sank and bent down over it, so that it was seen and hidden alternately. Sea-urchins, snails, and worms crawled about it; gigantic spiders, with a whole crew of creeping things upon them, stalked along the cable. Dark-blue sea-cucumbers (or whatever the creatures are called—they eat with the whole of their body) lay and seemed to snuff at the new animal which laid itself along the bottom of the sea. Flounders and cod-fish turned round in the water so as to listen on all sides. The star-fish, which always bores itself into the mud and only leaves the two long stalks with eyes sticking out, lay and stared to see what the result of all the commotion would be.
The cable lay without moving, but life and thought were in it all the same. The thoughts of men went through it.
“The thing is cunning!” said the whale. “It is quite capable of hitting me in the stomach, and that is my tender spot!”
“Let us feel our way!” said the polypus. “I have long arms, I have supple fingers! I have touched it, I will now take hold a little more firmly.”
And it stretched its supple, longest arm down to the cable and round about it.
“It has no scales,” said the polypus, “it has no skin.”
The sea-eel laid itself down beside the cable, and stretched itself out as far as it could.
“The thing is longer than I!” it said, “but it is not the length that matters, one must have skin, stomach, and suppleness.”
The whale, the strong young whale, dropped itself down deeper than it had ever been before.
“Are you fish or plant?” he asked, “or are you only something from above which cannot thrive down here amongst us?”
But the cable answered nothing: that is not its way of doing. Thoughts went through it; the thoughts of men; they ran in a second, many hundreds of miles from land to land.
“Will you answer or will you be snapped!” asked the ferocious shark, and all the other big fishes asked the same. “Will you answer or be snapped?”
The cable paid no attention, it had its own thoughts; it is full of thoughts.
“Only let them snap me, and I shall be pulled up and put right again; that has happened to others of my kind in lesser channels.”
And so it answered nothing, it had other things to do; it telegraphed and lay in lawful occupation at the bottom of the sea.
Up above the sun set, as men say; it looked like the reddest fire, and all the clouds in the sky shone like fire, the one more magnificent than the other.
“Now we will get the red light!” said the polypus, “and so the thing will perhaps be seen better, if that is necessary.”
“On it, on it!” shouted the cat-fish, and showed all his teeth.
“On it, on it,” said the sword-fish, the whale, and the sea-eel.
They hurled themselves forward, the cat-fish first, but just as they were going to bite the cable, the saw-fish drove his saw with great force into the back of the cat-fish: that was a great mistake, and the cat had no strength to bite.
There was a commotion down there in the mud; big fishes and little fishes, sea-cucumbers and snails ran into each other, ate each other, mashed each other and squashed each other, The cable lay still and did its work as it ought to do. Dark night brooded above the sea, but the millions and millions of living sea animals gave out light. Crabs, not so big as pin-heads, gave out light. It is very wonderful, but so it is. The sea animals gazed at the cable.
“What is the thing, and what is it not?”
Yes, that was the question.
Then came an old sea-cow. Men call that kind, mermaids or mermen This one—a she-had a tail, and two short arms to paddle with, hanging breast, and seaweed and creeping things in her head, and she was very proud of that.
“Will you have knowledge and information?” said she;
Then I am the only one who can give it to you; but I demand for it, free grazing on the bottom of the sea for me and mine. I am a fish like you, and I am also a reptile by practice. I am the wisest in the sea; I know about everything that moves down here, and about all that is above as well. That thing there which you are puzzling about is from above, and whatever is dumped down from up there is dead or becomes dead and powerless let it alone for what it is; it is only an invention of man
“I believe there is something more than that about it,” said the little sea-fish.
“Hold your tongue, mackerel,” said the big sea-cow.
“Stickleback,” said the others, and there were still more insulting things said.
And the sea-cow explained to them that the whole cause of alarm, which did not say a single word itself, was only an invention from the dry land. And it held a little discourse over the tiresomeness of men.
“They want to get hold of us,” it said, “it is the only thing they live for; they stretch out nets and come with bait on a hook to catch us. That thing there is a kind of big line which they think we will bite, they are so stupid! We are not that! Don’t touch it and it will crumble to pieces, the whole of it. What comes from up there has cracks and flaws, and is fit for nothing.”
“Fit for nothing,” said all the fishes, and adopted the sea-cow’s opinion, so as to have an opinion.
The little sea-fish had its own thoughts. “The enormous, long, thin serpent is perhaps the most marvellous fish in the sea. I have a feeling like that.”
“The most marvellous,” we men say also, and say it with knowledge and assurance.
It is the great sea-serpent talked about long before, in song and story. It is conceived and born, sprung from man’s ingenuity and laid at the bottom of the sea, stretching itself from the eastern to the western lands, bearing messages as quickly as beams of light from the sun to our earth. It grows, grows in power and extent, grows from year to year, through all the seas, round the earth, under the stormy waters and under the glass-clear water, where the skipper looks down as if he sailed through transparent air, and sees fish swarming like a whole firework show of colours. Farthest down the serpent stretches itself, a world-serpent of blessing, which bites its tail as it encircles the earth. Fish and reptiles run against it with their heads, they do not yet understand the thing from above, the serpent of the knowledge of good and evil, filled with human thoughts and declaring them in all languages, yet silent itself, the most marvellous of the marvels of the deep, the great sea-serpent of our time.