Susan W. Kemp
A threespine stickleback fish crawled out of the lake on its stubby fins, as awkwardly as a slug on crutches. It sucked at the air through thin lips, while its gills gaped uselessly. The stick-like fins gave out, and the stickleback flopped to the sand. The fall—a scant two centimeters—didn’t seem dramatic to us, but was fatal for the fish, since it couldn’t organize its fins to lift itself once more.
The moment the stickleback expired, three more emerged. These ones drew long, slow breaths, as if they’d always lived on land and were happy to be back. With their club-shaped feet, they plodded over the sand with more seeming self assurance than the first stickleback.
We didn’t realize the ecological importance of the walking stickleback fish immediately. After all, any deep ocean documentary portrayed amazing species that biologists had only recently discovered. Transparent, pulsating creatures that lit up like Sci-Fi Channel space ships. Worms that endured thousand-degree temperatures. An octopus that could shapeshift itself into a snake or an angelfish in an instant. In the realm of spectacular wonders, the three-inch, gray stickleback was barely noticeable, even taking into account the three tiny dorsal spikes to fight off predators.
However, the sudden evolution of the stickleback was momentous not only in speed, but in volume. Within a few days, many more threespine sticklebacks climbed out of the lake. Some survived, some died. Birds, cats, dogs, and raccoons tried to eat them, but got stickle-stuck. We wore shoes at the lake to keep from getting speared, and walked carefully even with shoes on to keep from squashing the desperate-looking crawlers.
Within a week, so many sticklebacks had emerged, scientists calculated that all the sticklebacks had now evolved and left the lake. By then, politicians and the media speculated that their evolution was caused by some kind of toxic chemical.
The lake was quarantined. We had already stopped going there because the odor of rotting sticklebacks remained on our skin even after we rubbed ourselves with soap or lemon. Instead, we frequented the beaches on our glacier-carved estuary, where there were no prickly fish bodies on the shore.
However, one day a purple starfish crawled from our estuary onto the beach. It traveled quickly, unlike a normal starfish. Then an orange one emerged, traveling over the sand smoothly and efficiently, as if it had purpose. A cocker spaniel barked and nipped at it until it flipped over. Its multitude of tube feet were abnormally long and rippled in a single direction, like wheat stalks blown by a west wind.
The ratfish emerged next. We had never heard of them and were astonished when a biologist told us there were 200 million of the snouty, green-eyed fish in our estuary. Once they began trudging out, however, we believed her. The ratfish kept coming, in masses and clumps. We backed up off the sand and onto the road for fear of being engulfed by the pale, slimy creatures.
From the height of the road, we examined the water, hoping to discover a clue as to why the starfish and ratfish had evolved. Many of us assumed radioactive materials had contaminated the water, and thought if we saw the water glowing, we would be right.
The water didn’t glow, but snowglobe-sized bubbles rose from its surface and floated above the salty water. Odd, coagulated strings hung from the bubbles. When we realized the bubbles were jellyfish and that they were floating towards us, we headed for our cars, bicycles, and homes before the stinging tendrils could trail their poison across our bare shoulders and faces.
Other creatures emerged and traveled overland. For a time, we watched the waves of migration from our windows, not daring to step outside. We were afraid of many of the creatures, like the sea slugs, because their audacious color combinations signaled that they might be poisonous. Baby blue and hot pink. Basketball orange and punching bag red. Neon green and grape jelly purple.
The wolf eels and moray eels terrified us as well. Some evolved feet and legs. Some didn’t. All slithered and slinked and looked at us with evil intent.
The deep-sea creatures were the most disturbing. They traveled at night, the sun too bright for their bulging eyes. Headlight lanternfish with bioluminescent lures staggered along, confused in the streetlight glare. The fanfin seadevils worked their oversized jaws, and walked on oversized, stilted legs, like fishy zombies.
Other sea creatures didn’t frighten us. Rather, they threw off the natural order of things. We weren’t used to seeing salmon and trout crowded around puddles, ponds, streams, and swimming pools to drink, looking in rather than looking out. To us, that was like looking at a photograph negative.
We weren’t used to seeing hoards of seahorses climb into our trees and bushes. They preferred evergreens, self-ornamenting them as if they were Christmas trees. They nibbled the pine needles and holly leaves until something startled them, then camouflaged themselves, like lights turned off.
Like birdwatchers hiding in a copse, we tried to match the fish we saw to photos from our computers. We excitedly identified the yellows of the copper rockfish, the reds of the painted greenling, the whites of the grunt sculpins, and the domino spots of the kelp greenling. After days of this, we grew weary and stopped marveling at the diversity of colors, sizes, and shapes.
We also tired of thievery. Sea creatures were particularly adept at squeezing through the holes and cracks in our buildings. The octopi roamed through our houses and opened drawers, cupboards, refrigerators, and jam jars. Tiny fish scuttled like cockroaches through our walls and hid in our cupboards, boring into packages and feasting on the contents. Plankton hovered in our living rooms like gnat clouds, filling the space and chasing us to other rooms.
The noises the new land inhabitants made disconcerted us. Roars, clicks, grunts, squeaks. Some called to each other with mournful cries that carried for miles. Sometimes the human ear didn’t register the sound consciously, but when a chill came over us, we were sure that some odd creature or other was making its way along the road or through the yards, fields, or woods.
We weren’t alone in our plight. Communities throughout the world experienced the same problems we did. Places more distant from water had fewer fish visitors at first, but it didn’t take long for them to become overwhelmed as well. Mathematicians explained the lack of space by comparing ratios of the two-dimensional Earth surface with the three-dimensional ocean that covered three fourths of the globe, but we could see it for ourselves by the masses of fish that jostled about for space.
We debated about what caused the sudden transformation. Some said global pollution, some said God. Some made hopelessly elaborate theories involving a combination of natural selection, internal chemistries, and water pH.
Scientists tested the water and descended in submersibles to look for the cause of the mass exodus from the world’s water bodies. They had plenty of theories but needed time and data to substantiate them.
We demanded help from our local government, which supplied snowplows to clear the roads. We called them fishplows, and watched them slowly urge the complaining fish off the roads.
We emerged from our houses to resume our lives, carrying umbrellas to fend off the jellyfish, and tying perfumed scarves over our noses to mask the smell. We accidentally stepped on cuttlefish, which were experts in camouflage and liked to snuggle themselves into gravel, lawns, and gardens. We misstepped and they sprayed ink on us and scuttled off.
The fish left bits of themselves everywhere. Bright red scales glittered in ditches. Shards of transparent skin, like fairy wings, were draped across bushes. Discarded fins stuck up from lawns like tiny boat sails. A gelatinous goo of fish eggs lined paths, like piping on a birthday cake.
Just as it seemed we would be able to cope with our newly changed world, larger fish began to emerge from the water, some as heavy as five hundred pounds. Tuna, swordfish, and marlin evolved hooves, and charged like buffalo through our cities and towns. Swordfish and marlin snouts caught in fences that ultimately couldn’t hold them back, even when electrified.
Land mines and other explosives were barely effective against so many fish, so we fortified our houses with concrete and steel until we felt as if we were jailed inside. We cheered when each type of fish moved to more promising territory, and fretted about the ones that refused to move on.
Then came the sharks. At first they only attacked other former marine animals, but soon they favored cows and pigs. As was the case when we used to swim among them in the sea, they avoided humans for the most part, but attacked us when we were at our most complacent. We paid shysters large sums of money for shark repellent that made us stink like chemicals, rejoiced when it worked, and raged when it didn’t.
Pods of 100-foot-long blue whales staggered through our towns on stegosaurus-style legs. They destroyed any remaining fences and gardens, and crushed our wooden houses in search of the plankton that fluttered there no matter how hard we’d tried to eradicate them from our living rooms.
With time, the most reclusive ocean inhabitants emerged, the ones we’d known as sea monsters. Some of us had once denied their existence, while others had hoped and made documentaries with grainy photographic proof. Now, thousands of dragon-headed creatures emerged as if to prove the eccentrics right. The creatures’ long, scaled tails had a tendency to curl themselves around light poles, tree trunks, and overly curious biologists.
By the time scientists calculated that all the fish in the world’s water bodies had evolved and climbed onto land, our lives and homes were in ruins. We were crowded into shelters. Our normal food sources were cut off, so we ate the fish, but evolution had made them tough and bitter-tasting. We’d been poisoned, poked, shocked, sprayed, bitten, and nibbled. We were tired.
We plotted ways to un-evolve the fish and force them back into the water where they belonged. We watched for signs of weakness and talked of taking back our land, but it was all talk. We were too demoralized, traumatized, and fractured to act on our grandiose plans.
We had always loved the sea. We built our cities next to it, and made sure our houses had a view of it. We marveled over the endlessness of length we couldn’t see across, and the depth we couldn’t plunge to. Yet now we loved and marveled over it even more. We went to its edge and watched it, presumably to find a reason for the mass exodus, but in truth to be close to it. We gazed into it, as if we might be able to see the kingdoms the aquatic animals had left behind.
Hoards of us crowded the water’s edge, soaking our tired feet and scooping the water with our hands, heedless of any damage it might do to us. The stinking air was thick and stifling. We felt filthy, dried out, heavy. We desired the shimmering emptiness of the water. We longed for the feeing of compression it would bring as it surrounded our bodies.
We swam in the water, weightless and free. We dived underneath the waves, remaining longer and longer, until the day we no longer needed to surface. The light beams filtering through the water cut and stung us, so we descended from the sunlight zone to the twilight zone, and from there still further to the midnight zone.
We felt our eyes enlarging, growing to a proper, more comfortable size. Parts of us that we didn’t have a name for opened up and invited the water in, while other parts pulsed it out. Our sense of separateness dissipated, and we understood the water as if it were a part of us. We comprehended its currents and temperatures as if we had generated them ourselves, and perhaps we had.
We descended still further, to the abyssal zone, where we cavorted in underwater waterfalls. We gravitated towards the heat of underground steam vents, watching their crystal chimneys and black smokers, and brushing against feathery, long discarded, tubeworm plumes.
We slipped down into the ocean trench, finally feeling that we’d come home. We became luminous and transparent. We spent our days delighting in our radiance, and feeling the cooling comfort of the water pressing on us, holding us together, giving us a reason for being.