“The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish” by Octavia Cade

“The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish” by Octavia Cade

Everyone deserves a last meal. Mine was fish, Syllabub laughing her arse off as she served it up. Not goldfish, because that would have been bad luck—the kind of bad luck that comes from gossip about a last meal getting back to her Ladyship and being taken as insult. Instead a poor skinny muddy thing in a thin soup, flounder I think, or catfish.

“They’re not at all the same,” says Syllabub, critical, but they’re fish, aren’t they?

“I didn’t think there was going to be a test,” I said, and if I’d any room left in me for panic I would have panicked then, because the Lady and her tanks are the only thing between me and a bloody end instead of a scaly one. And if I’m to be examined on fish before I’m allowed to become one, then I might as well offer myself up for gutting now and be done with it.

“I thought you’d show a bit more interest than that.”

But it’s all I can do to show any interest in the food instead of fate, the blackened little strips of fish all doused in spices to hide the old flesh. I can taste cumin, pepper, the burn from dried chili—improperly ground, Syllabub’s always been a careless cook, but spices cost near as much as fish and there’s not enough to cover the taste of ammonia. Syllabub gorges anyway, and I pick enough at the burnt edges to pretend diversion before fronting up to the Lady of Scales.

No one knows her true name. Magic has never encouraged exchanges of confidence and so we named her for her skill, and left the past—whatever it might be—well enough alone.

If she objected to her trading name we never knew it. I’d often thought, passing by the shop front and seeing the bright shape of her through the glass, that there was enough of a sense of humor there to play up to it. The orange robes floated around her, and there were gold scales embroidered about the hem. She even bulged a bit in the middle, though that was due more to pastry, we thought, than the attentions of a man. Not one of us had ever seen any of them come courting.

“Well, you wouldn’t, would you?” says Syllabub. “You put your cold feet against her of a night and like as not you’ll wake up without them.” She eyes me over her bowl of broth. “I can see the upside, is all I’m saying.”

“Oh fuck off,” I say. “Haven’t I been wearing the damn socks?”

“Gran made them specially,” she says, smirking. The socks are blue and orange, carp swimming in lake water with surprised expressions on their stupid faces.

Neither of us ever stopped to think that Syll’s old granny spent as much time with her tea leaves and clients as with her knitting needles. And that we took tea with her every Sunday. I’m almost sure the old bitch saw this coming. Me with my life savings, such as they are, and a plate of sugar buns, silly socks on both shaking feet, and a contract coming close behind.

Pick the wrong pocket and suddenly transformation starts to seem like a decent option. Even if it’s transformation into a fish.

“I saw her stuffing sweet buns again,” she says. I don’t need to ask who she’s talking about. “She’s getting fatter by the day.” This in tones of admiration. Syll enjoys her own round flesh, wants to plump up enough for fashion, but we don’t always have the cash for the cream cakes she prefers, the butter tablets and duck fat and soft cheese. “All soft and glowy. You don’t think she’s pregnant, do you?”

I can’t think by who. The worst-kept romance on the Street of Endings is between the baker and the Lady of Scales, and both of them are women.

“Maybe she’s stuffed full of eggs,” says Syllabub, pettish. “Maybe if you open her up they’ll all be clotted in there like caviar.”

Neither of us has ever eaten caviar. It’s a lack that Syllabub takes personally. The little dishes, the elegant bowls of black roe, of chopped boiled eggs, the tiny spoons of sour cream, the finely chopped watercress… how would it all taste, mixed together for mouths? Do the little eggs pop or crunch on the tongue? Curiosity’s a curse, they say, and I reckon they’re right. It certainly hasn’t done anything for me lately.

“You’ll be the one cut open if the Lady hears you talk like that,” I say. Though really, it’s the baker I wouldn’t put it past. She’s got a long reach, that one, and if it weren’t poisoned profiteroles turning up on the doorstep—I can’t tell myself that Syllabub wouldn’t swallow them down without thinking, it’s not just greed, we’re simply not in the position to waste food—then she’d find herself offered up to tanks anyway, her dead body laid before a lover in the certain knowledge that transformation doesn’t work on corpses.

One of us having to beg sanctuary off the Lady of Scales was enough without the other being offered up as well.

“I’ll wait for you,” says Syllabub, and there’s sincerity on every line of her pretty face but I’ve got my doubts. Theft calls for patience as well as nerve but there’s always an end to waiting in sight, and the Lady of the Scales is no thief. She guarantees nothing of returns. Just that there’ll be one, one day, probably, if she doesn’t over-chlorinate the tanks, or forget the feeding, or elope with the baker whose shop sits just two doors down from her own, give up aquaculture for sugar-work. “One day” might be tomorrow. It might be next century. I’m no fan of luck but I’ve learned to calculate odds, when I’ve got a dress out of pawn for trips to the gambling houses, and my calculations say that there are a lot of girls with warm feet in this city, and none of them are about to be goldfish.

Syll’s always been good at netting things. She’s good at catch and release as well. But she’s tender-hearted for all of that and so she’s come along with, her nose pressed against shop windows, and all I can think when I see her is how she’ll look from the other side of the glass. I pretend not to notice that two of the sugar buns have found their way into her pockets. I’d eat one myself if I weren’t about to throw up.

“You believe me, don’t you? That I’ll wait?” she says. She wants me to believe her, but I reckon that’s as much guilt as anything else, because it was her that I was trying to steal for and we both know it. Her suggestion: that one, he looks rich and stupid, wouldn’t notice if an ox stumbled into him, got that look of distraction I think not.

I should have known better. It’s always the skinny ones that are the most grasping. He’d been a spiny stick insect, that one, for all his suit was silk, and no one with money who walks down the street refusing oysters and grilled mango with honey, whitebait fritters, and milk balls does so for any reason but greed for his pockets instead of his stomach.

Of course he felt my fingers in his pockets. But the catching wasn’t enough for him, nor the boxed ears, nor the appeals to the justice because they’re easy enough to work around, a night in the cells gets you out of another. The contract came out of spite. Not for trying it on to begin with, but for not recognizing him enough to stay away. For a certain type that’s more insult than anything else, but the wealthy have nothing to do with me, how am I supposed to know them? You’d have to work in a bank or business to be stupid enough to thieve from that sort. The petty stealers, the ones that live small like Syllabub and I, well. We’ve more sense. We stick to the moderately well-off, the ones who can afford to lose the price of a meal but not hire vengeance for it.

The better targets were usually plumper. More ready to sample the noodles, the street dumplings. I should have remembered, but Syll was whispering at me, hot breath smelling of red beans and rice with a little onion for flavor and all I could think was how we’d planned to visit the caviar shops for her birthday but we’d gambled away the price of those piled glossy eggs, those neatly chopped sides all laid out in their prim little bowls, and lost the money to a mark that didn’t pan out because we were the marks that time, and too stupid to see it. Hence the need for some quick cash, because “I want to know,” Syll had said one night, tucked into each other as we were. “Whether they pop or crunch. I want to know for my birthday.”

“Clever girls like you should have no trouble,” her granny had said, knitting needles clicking away and her cat’s-arse mouth prim as if she disapproved of our particular brand of cleverness. Not that she ever set that disapproval for much when it came to sharing the spoils; half of Syll’s takings went to keeping the old bitch in tea. A little appreciation wouldn’t have gone amiss, is all I’m saying.

“Well, wouldn’t I wait for you?” I say, as if our situations were reversed. And she hums happily enough, seeming to miss that I didn’t answer anything and didn’t offer any promises neither, because they’re dry things, are promises, set out to bake in the sun like betrothal bread, and all my coming days are wet.

“You always liked to swim,” says Syllabub. She’s used to making the best of, but how she remembers that now I don’t bloody know, seeing as we’ve only been swimming the once. Only a blind fool would go swimming in these waters, and they’d have to lack a nose as well, or be so stuffed up from ‘fluenza that they’d do just about any idiot thing.

Or be drunk. We were drunk, that one time, on foreign wine that tasted of kerosene and lucky not to catch the cholera.

“I’ve never seen girls so stupid,” said granny, when she came to fish us out. Accusations of cleverness were well in the future then, after she’d had a chance to read our cups over, the pair of us shifting and sifting leaves different together than separate, apparently.

Her granddaughter never had the same stomach for the hook. She’s more a hindrance than a help in the Lady’s shop, after I’ve handed over the buns and all the little savings I have, not enough for black eggs but enough to buy transformation and fish flakes for generations, perhaps, because the Lady is good with investments if choice gives her the chance. She says I’ll get half back when I change again so she’s not cruel with it, won’t ever put someone out on the streets with nothing. The rich pay everything they have, same as the poor, it’s the time spent away that pays off in the end.

If some other poor fool driven to this fishes me out tomorrow, I’ll barely have enough for a week’s rice flour. Not that it’ll matter, I’d be dead before sunset anyway, no miser worth his salt would let a grudge loose that soon; they pinch onto pride tighter than pennies. “But if you’re here for a hundred years even your coppers can become something more substantial,” she says, as if the thought of windfall is enough to compensate for everything I’ll have lost by a century’s swimming.

I can only hope the bargain will pay off, and that the same can be said for the fish I’m about to net. That’s the other part of the price, the put-off payment. There are dozens of goldfish in her tanks, hundreds of them, and only space for another if one is taken out again. Guess who gets the responsibility of choice, along with a net?

“Not that one!” Syllabub cries, just when I’ve got one of them trapped in the corner of a tank, my net almost around it. She pouts in my direction. “It looks sad. Don’t you think it looks sad?”

“It’s a goldfish,” I say. “None of them are very bloody happy, are they?” Whether or not this one’s going to be happy to be rescued I’ve no idea. I can only hope enough time’s passed for whoever it was. Time enough and not too much; it can’t be luck to start my own transformation by sending some poor bastard out to death or a new life in a world with nothing familiar in it.

“Some of them look happier than others,” she says, and I have to wonder just what was sprinkled on those sugar buns because they all look the same to me, those goldfish: vacant little faces, trailing fringed fins behind them with an expression like they’ve forgotten what’s following behind.

I hope they don’t bloody know what they’re swimming away from, what they’re swimming towards. I reckon it’d be tolerable, being a goldfish, if it’s goldfish all through. Goldfish with human feeling, though, human memories…

“If it’s sad it’s probably because it’s had enough of living in an aquarium,” I say, determined to believe it and lunging with the net, but a small jostle from the girlfriend and the goldfish escapes to swim another day, merging with the rest of school at the other end of the tank.

“Sorry,” says Syllabub, shrugging, but it doesn’t take a magician to know that she isn’t, really. She skips out of reach, the floor shaking beneath. It makes me wonder what happens in earthquakes. The shop is rickety and bowed at the corners; I can see clear through cracks in the floor to water. One good shock and suddenly the sea’s full of little fishes, with no way of returning to their old selves.

I’d like to think the people who caught them would bring them back to the shop; come bearing soup bowls of seawater, carp in the chamber pots. More likely would be goldfish skewered over an open flame; the little bones ground up for tonic, just in case medicinal efficacy crosses over between species.

“Maybe if they want to go off cold-cocked,” said Syllabub, sniggering, when I was foolish enough to confide my fears. She’s got a hard-on for frigidity jokes lately, but when I bury my feet between her thighs and wriggle toes it’s usually enough to shut her up for a bit.

The Lady of Scales is laughing in the background. I wish I could say it was mean laughter but it’s like she finds us genuinely funny, her own little romantic comedy duo. There can’t be many of those played out in this place, but perhaps I’m giving us more originality than can be credited for.

In fairness, no one’d ever seen her laugh at the fish-that-were, the people she’d turned back and sent off, fair flummoxed and stumbling over thresholds.

We’d all seen them, and none of us were much for laughing either. There was something in their faces—not a remnant hint of scales, no. Nothing so unsubtle. It was the disorientation that gave them away. The slight stagger, as if the balance was just returning to new-old limbs, a rolling gait different than that of sailors, for the Street of Endings was built over water, the thick sweet scent of salt. Built that way for suicides, for the walking off of piers and the quick retrieval of bodies for the organs, ground down and sold on for sex aids. Why you’d want a drowned man’s cock powdered into your tea I don’t know. It doesn’t seem a very stiffening thing to me, but perhaps men see it differently. The trade’s a brisk one, that’s all I know.

It’s brisk enough for goldfish, too.

Not that I’ve seen too many of them. Still enough, it seems like there’s one or two every year, come back from the tanks.

How many years will it be for me?

“I could be dead when you’re fished from the tanks,” says Syllabub, considering. “I could be old.”

It’s hard to think of her as old. There’s too much flash and quickness to her. Too much of the flexible, too much greed for the new.

“I’ll be all wrinkly, with my tits down by my knees. And age spots, probably. Gran’s got lots of age spots.” She giggles. “Like a civet cat, but I don’t know that the smell’s the same.” She’s lifted some perfumes of late, spraying the ones she didn’t sell over the bed linens and rolling over them until all her flesh smelled of musk. “You’d love me when I’m old, wouldn’t you?” she says.

“I’d try,” I say and she clicks her tongue, pouting. As I said, romantic—though it was a practical romanticality, if there’s such a thing. Someone would come along sooner or later. Someone not me, someone warm-footed, and she’d find a way to call it fate. Maybe even a series of someones, and me not even recognizing her when I came back, if I came back, staggering along the Street, new-born to bipedalism and blaring it to anyone who looked.

But it wasn’t just the walk that told what they were. It was in the way their mouths hung open, gaping open and shut with drool coming down, and them not bothering to wipe it away. Course they could have been country folk, staring at the Street with wide eyes as though they’d never seen the like, mazed by the mix and bustle of it. If it weren’t for the drool and the walk, and the possibility that they really didn’t know where they were.

No. That’s not true. The Lady of the Scales has had her shop for generations and it hasn’t moved a meter. It’s not the street geography they’re lost in, poor fish-mouthed creatures. It’s the time: the consciousness of years passed. Or not passed, but if they turn back too quickly the disorientation doesn’t have time to confuse them.

Confusion doesn’t long outlast a knife through the throat. Grudges tend to fall off after a few decades, people find better things to do or get knifed themselves—the kind of person who carries blades and pays the kids pennies to watch and tell if a fish comes back out that door doesn’t do so well with associates, I reckon. Relationships are an inconvenience sometimes.

“It’s not always the crooks though,” said Syllabub. She’s a romantic streak.

I thought the people who had themselves turned all over scales for a bad love affair were missing their brains as well as their legs. No wonder their matches turned sour, wedded as they were to the dramatic before anything else. If you could make the decision to give up everything in life—friends, family, even the nodding acquaintance and all the sights and smells of a neighborhood grown familiar through time—enough to swim off into the future, then you could make the decision to give up one person.

I reckon it’s only hysterics that makes anyone choose the former. The desire for attention, to wallow in grief. I thought so before I’d come to the Lady of Scales and I thought so even more now, knowing what I had to lose and not actually willing to do it for anything less than life.

Turns out there’s something more than hysterics to it, something sickening. I’d thought she weren’t cruel, the Lady, but when the goldfish I’d finally chased down and netted is turned out onto the floor, there’s a girl in a soaking bridal gown stepping out of scales and crying like her heart would break. Jilted, poor thing, and run off to life as a fish so she wouldn’t have to see him again.

“Gods, didn’t you have a mother?” I say to her, helping that warm weeping weight up off her knees. “Didn’t you have any friends?” Being thrown over’s never pleasant, but we’ve all been there and surely a few solid weeks of drink and whining could have made the difference. Her gown’s old-fashioned but even I can tell it cost a lot, all fine with lace and little pearls sewn on so she could have afforded the indulgence, could have sold the pearls for months at a brothel with men more skilled than the one that dumped her, so you think someone would have been there to take her in hand.

“I didn’t think,” she says, sobbing, and it turns out the silly girl did have support about her but she ran off straight from the temple, humiliated and miserable and in just enough shock to throw her life away for nothing, for the Lady of Scales took her bridal necklace and hocked it, turned the poor wailing thing fish-face before she had a chance to think better of herself.

It doesn’t seem decent, somehow.

What seems even less decent is the way Syllabub’s staring at her, all pathetic and sorry-like. “Your dress is very out of date,” she says, and that’s enough for me to see where this is going. If that were last season’s wedding gown, last decade’s even, there’d be people for her to go back to. But it isn’t, and there won’t be, and I wonder now how often the mama of this little goldfish came to Lady of Scales, wanting her daughter back and not being able to get her. Hundreds of shining fish swim here, all of them identical, and she could only bargain with her own life for one.

“Is her mother in one of those tanks?”

The Lady of the Scales looks at me, considering. “Do you really want to know?” she says.

I don’t.

It’s the bloody Street of Endings, that’s what it is.

No one ever said any of the endings would be happy.

Except one of them is, because this is the moment Syllabub’s bitch of a grandmother wanders past, up off her arse for the first time in bloody-ever, and when she sees her grandchild with her arms around this poor lost creature—this poor lost rich creature, her flesh all heated even though she’s just come out of the chill and wrapped in lengths of wet silk—there’s a smile there that speaks of tea leaves and I’m a clever girl, I am, it doesn’t take long to realize that I’ve been screwed by two members of the same family.

No wonder that skinny mark was so set on his vengeance. No wonder I never recognized him, even moving in different circles as I do. She probably paid him off, pawned everything she owned because she saw pearls in her tea leaves, and goldfish. I’d like to think it was all a scam but she’d leave nothing to chance, and I’m damn sure that after the pawnbrokers she gone to make another bargain, and bloodier.

And me, halfway through my own, and stuck with it because there’s a place in the tanks now the little bride is out and the Lady of the Scales doesn’t care for pikers. Our bargain’s sealed already, with sugar buns and fish nets. She’s taken my coppers and even if I can gouge a confession out of granny it’s not going to make a difference for me.

“I’ll wait for you!” says Syllabub, for the last time before she’s booted from the shop, because as spiteful as I’m feeling right now I’m not going to make her watch me change, blowing kisses through the glass while I blow bubbles. She’s innocent in all this, never could lie to save herself, and she’s promising to wait because she truly believes that she will.

I wonder if it’s crueler to let her grieve over a goldfish than a gutted body. If it’d be worth letting her grieve a grandmother as well, or if I should let the old bitch teach her disloyalty, and how to do away with guilt.

“Don’t wait,” I say.

The scales come.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold stories to Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Shimmer, amongst others, and her latest novella, the horrifying Convergence of Fairy Tales, was published by The Book Smugglers. “The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish” is one of a series of interlinked stories she’s writing about a very strange street—you can read another, “The Ouroboros Bakery,” in an earlier issue of Kaleidotrope.