Read The Inner City Online

Authors: Karen Heuler

Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction

The Inner City

ChiZine Publications


The Inner City
© 2012 by Karen Heuler
Cover artwork © 2012 by Erik Mohr
Interior design © 2012 by Samantha Beiko
Author photo © Tracey Sides Photography

All rights reserved.

Published by ChiZine Publications

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

EPub Edition FEBRUARY 2013 ISBN: 978-1-92746-934-7

All rights reserved under all applicable International Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen.

No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

Toronto, Canada
[email protected]

Edited and copyedited by Stephen Michell
Proofread by Samantha Beiko

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $20.1 million in writing and publishing throughout Canada.

Published with the generous assistance of the Ontario Arts Council.


Celia picked up a whole fish at the market, and she laid it out on the cutting board when she got home and looked at it closely. It had golden gills and silver fins, and copper scales and garnet eyes. “You’re quite beautiful,” she said. “I never noticed how beautiful a fish was before.”

“Don’t eat me,” the fish cried. “Throw me back in the sea and I will give you what you want.”

“I’ll do it,” she said, “because you’re beautiful and I don’t wish to see you die.”

She wrapped the fish up and took the subway to Coney Island, which was dark with rain and empty because of the chill. She walked along the boardwalk until she saw a pier and then walked out to the end, where the wind whipped the sea up into whitecaps and greencaps. She knelt down and unwrapped her fish, whose scales were brighter because it was near the sea. The garnet eyes turned ruby and hypnotic, the scales shone and the fins flashed and she felt as if she were riding the waves, rushing up and rushing down.

She had felt this way once before. “I can’t let you go,” she said. “I’m in love with you.”

“I will give you three wishes if you let me go,” the fish said. “It’s the lure of wishing that you mistake for love. Beware of lures; I myself keep mistaking hooks for love.”

“Three wishes?” she said, drawing back on her knees. Her eyes looked out at the water, which rose and swelled towards her; everything was coming towards her.

“I don’t know what to wish for,” she said.

“It’s easy as can be. Wish for wealth, wish for purpose, wish for love,” the fish cajoled her.

“But which is better?” she wondered. “Wealth or purpose or love? Or I could wish for immortality. Or something else I can’t quite think of now, that will seem to me so obvious later on. I’m always thinking of things later on.”

“You don’t have forever,” the fish said, and it flashed its scales and thrilled its fins. “There’s a time limit, as there is in everything. You have only two more hours, and then I’ll die and the wishes will die too. Do you want me to die?”

She lowered her head and closed her eyes. “Oh no, dear fish, I won’t let you die. I’ll wish for something by then; I’ll think of something, I swear. But for now, for now, I want to look at you and hold you and think of everything you can promise me.” And she picked the fish up and held it to her chest and began to walk back down the pier and onto the sand and along the shore, where the water rushed around her ankles and threatened to knock her down.

“Be careful,” cried the fish. “Drop me in the water, not the sand. I can’t live in the sand.”

She let the water wash around her ankles. She loved the feel of it, the way it lunged at her and wanted her. “This is the happiest I’ve been, with the waves at my legs and the roar of the water and the sound of your voice. This is what I crave, I think; I’m happy now.”

“You don’t have much time left,” the fish said. “If you don’t release me I shall die and all your wishes will too. Think of what you want. Ask for what your heart craves. What do you want most of all?”

Celia looked at the waves and looked at the fish in her arms. “I want to be you,” she said. “Why not be what I love the most? I wish to be you!”

At that her body stumbled back against the sand and the fish leaped from her arms and dove into the ocean. At once Celia felt the waves against her like a beautiful wall parting. I am a fish! she cried to herself and opened her mouth and wiggled her tail and plunged forward, her heart pumping wildly. Around her everything moved slipping around and up and down, silvering, pointing, scuttling. How extraordinary the sea is, she thought, because it was crowded with life, schools of fish, gnarled heads behind shells and rocks, long snouts and broad snouts. I must be careful, she thought; what kind of fish am I after all—am I good to eat? I should have asked.

She swam low where the water was coolest, but steered away from shadows where eyes and teeth might hide. Farther out, she slipped in among the schools of fish that rippled around her like skirts of fish, clouds of fish, shelves of fish, filling up the water. She picked up speed, just enjoying the momentum of being one in the pattern of fish, following the fish movements around her, quick drops, quick turns, the irresistible dash after a dash beside her. There was such a deep pleasure in it, in the riding of impulse, in the deciphering of sensation, although she was beginning to feel something else, a deep-rooted wish for, desire for . . . and then a small fish raced past her and she opened her mouth and gulped.

It glanced against her throat! She could feel a last wriggle in her gut! Even now she felt it swill around with the burst of water she’d taken, and there was no remorse! This was right, and this was so. She looked around at the school of fish moving away from her, darting industriously, and she caught the nervous stare of their fish eyes on her, round and focused, and it was an immense feeling, a new feeling, righteous and benign even as the little gasp within her died.

Fortified, she swam forward, moving to left and right, sighting future meals and watching for what might be dangerous. She knew there must be danger because new motions caused her to jump away from them, shadows from above caused an instant panic; reefs disturbed her with their possibilities in nooks and caverns. She saw, far off, creatures heading for her.

She thought: I know my second wish. It is to be a bigger fish, and she was stunned by the rightness of it, and how silly she had been not to think of it. A large fish, she thought, I know its name, I know its speed and the sharpness of its teeth, now what is it called again? She chased a small fish and gulped it. What is it called? I will merely say, I wish to be a larger fish, with larger teeth, and that will be it, she thought. Now I must go back and ask for the wish.

She flicked her tail easily, leaning into her fin and slicing through the water as if it were air—easier than air, much easier. She twitched to the left and then to the right, keeping her body in a curve, and she felt a great sense of power until she saw a bigger fish scattering other fish before him, and she remembered she must get back to the shore and ask for her second wish before it was too late.

She raced, then, flicking her head left and right, scooting down and then up to keep in sight all the directions where bigger fish could come for her.

She loved the way her body bent and moved, quick and accurate, and delighted in the look of a smaller fish as it drove away or as she caught it automatically, soothed by the feel of its ultimate wriggle. She hastened now back to the beach, to the sands where she had parted from her old life and become the fish. She expected it to be waiting there, for her, waiting to hear her second wish, and as she surfaced once or twice, locating herself along the first pier, and then following the trail she had taken along the sand, she saw her old body propped up against a piling, staring blankly at the ocean, and she leaped as far as she could leap into the air in recognition.

“I wish to be bigger!” she cried. “I wish to be as big as the biggest, sharpest fish! This is my second wish!” and she dropped herself down again in the water and wriggled closer to the shore, but not too close because it was shallow and as a bigger fish she might get stranded, even a fish with sharper teeth.

Of course size was relative, and she might already be a bigger fish, so she surfaced again, her eye above the water peering at her old body; she seemed no closer or farther than when she had announced her wish; she seemed no bigger or smaller. “My second wish!” she cried again, but the body propped up along the piling had no answer for her and she crept a little closer, rocked by the narrowness of the waves.

Her old self leaned limply and had no sparkle, no lustre at all. Her old body was drab and knobby and graceless; she didn’t miss it; all she thought of was getting her second wish and being off again.

“My wish!” she insisted and spun around in the shallows, ploughing up a massive splash of water to wake the nasty thing against the piling. The waves she made rushed towards it and it spilled over, fell over, into the shallows and she thought with relief that
would wake it, the ugly thing, but instead it lay there, washing a little back and forth as the sea came in and took a long scrape of water back out with it.

“My wish!” she cried again even then realizing what it was, that thing upon the beach, a dead thing creeping towards her with the backwash of the waves. “My second wish!” she cried again, furious that she had been so baldly cheated of a chance to be bigger, and sharper, and faster, and grim.

She swam up to it and nipped its lips; she wove around it and bit its chin. She nudged the eyes and flipped her tail between its hands, but all to no avail.

And while she swam back and forth, a bird swooped down at her and cried, “Another wish! I want another wish!” and she swam furiously away from it and away from its vile beak, nearing a yacht with a young man at the helm who called: “I know my third wish now, I want a seaplane, not a yacht, with golden wings and pearly seats, I want it now,” and he turned the boat and headed for Celia, who wriggled back ahead of him, getting close again to the shore, where another woman called out, “Fish, fish! You promised me a life of wealth and beauty but I am not happy, fish. That’s the last wish I have, I wish for happiness for I cannot go on like this, in misery!”

And Celia darted back and forth, trying to escape the cries of wishes all around her. Was it too much to ask, to have her wishes first and foremost? Was it too much to ask, to be relieved of all this urgent chatter? She raised her own cries to the wind: “My second wish! My second wish!” she cried, and all around her other wishes raised their voices too and came at her with hooks and nets and the willful madness of desire.

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