PERITO PRIZE 2022: Joint 3rd Place Story ‘The Parable Of The Glass Horizon’ By Rhys Pearce
PERITO PRIZE 2022: Joint 3rd Place Story ‘The Parable Of The Glass Horizon’ By Rhys Pearce
by | Nov 02, 2022 |

The Parable of The Glass Horizon

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will suffocate trying to make you proud.”

Once upon a time, in a distant ocean far into the future, a bird will be born to two fish parents. Now, this bird won’t be like any of the other birds you might be familiar with – they won’t have a beak, or talons, and their wings won’t be that typical pair of feathered collages, but rather a series of flattened out pyramids along their spine, like a mountain-range seen in profile. In other words, this bird born of fish heritage will look exactly like a fish, at least on the outside, but they will know from the very moment that they are born that despite how appearances may deceive, they are, in fact, a bird. At first, they will think that everyone feels like this: when they fall asleep at night, or when their attention wonders off as they drift lazily in the currents, they will dream not of the glacial, murky, depths, nor of the salty expenses that stretch from coast to coast, but of open air, of the wind and sun against their skin, of a bright, clear world beyond these waves and tides. They will feel that there is something deeply, unutterably wrong with this life spent flitting around in half-darkness, like their parents and their grandparents and their ancestors before them, and perhaps most tellingly, but also most painfully, they will constantly experience an inescapable sensation of burning, as if they were always on the very edge of drowning. And they will assume, because they will of course have no other experience to judge by, that all of this is universal, and that they are no different from anyone else. That we are all born into lives we never truly feel belong to us, that we all feel like imposters in the only world we have ever known, that we are all given bodies that are awkward, uncomfortable, as if a few sizes too small or the wrong style of cut or … something, that something is ever so imperceptibly off about all of us, and can never be righted.

Because although they will be a bird, they won’t really know what a bird is. Fish, you see, spend their lives dashing from side to side and they have eyes on the sides of their head, so even though they may be plucked out of the ocean by a seabird if they stray too close to the surface, no fish ever lives to tell the tale; and the rest of fish society just try not to think too hard about these unaccountable disappearances. They concern themselves only with what they understand, what their traditions and norms teach them to be unquestionably true. And there will be one idea in fish society especially relevant to our bird. Fish aren’t completely stupid, of course, and although they will discourage each other from talking of the other world, and convince themselves that to even speak of the surface is to risk bringing its atavistic danger upon yourself, they will of course wonder whether if only the threat could be braved, that there might be something more out there to be discovered. But whenever a fish began to get this idea in their head – for it will be, if nothing else, hauntingly compelling, they need only remember the undeniable truth instilled in them from birth – they are meant for the ocean and only for the ocean, and all you have to do to know this is look at them. For they have dark scales on top, and lighter ones underneath, and it this design that keeps them safe by camouflaging them from predators – if looked at from above, they blend in with the darker water stretching down to the ocean floor, while from below they seem to melt into the brighter water that filters down from the light of the surface. Now, if they were truly meant for anything other than life in the ocean: why would it be so secure?

Our bird, like all members of fish society, will have heard these ideas growing up, but unlike the others they will not be so easily assured. The beliefs they will be brought up to have will not make them happy, they will not give them an optimistic or cheerful perspective on life, but they will find it impossible to fully reject them because they cannot conceive of what exactly the truth might instead be. And as this bird grows up, and starts to contemplate themselves more and have deeper conversations with their friends, they will start to realise exactly how unique they are, and how lonely that uniqueness is. A school of fish, you see, move as one unified body. They quicken and slow when others are too far or too close, they sense the pressure others make and perfectly adjust to balance out the whole, they twist and turn in unison as if wheeling around a magnetic core that ripples out pulses through all of them. They do not learn to do this, per se. Of course, they get better with practice, but there is an initial aptitude for it they are born with so that even the most entry level participation would be unreachable to someone born without. And our bird, of course, looking exactly like a fish but not being one, will be born without. And so they will be left to themselves.

Their parents will of course notice this, and be worried, but no matter how much they love them – and of course, they will love them – the advice that they will give them could never have been helpful to them because they simply will not have what it takes to make a success of this mislaid existence.. No matter how many hours they spend learning to oil their scales or clean their fins with coral, – tasks that fish know how to complete instinctually – no matter how their parents try to build up their confidence with schooling by practicing as just the three of them, they will simply never have the capacity to learn. These tasks will remain as impossible and unknowable to them as shapeshifting or turning invisible. And all the while, that feeling that they are just about to drown, that from the very instant of their birth they had begun an excruciatingly slow asphyxiation, will never entirely leave them for so much as a second.

And so the bird will find themselves spending rather a lot of time alone, and passing the hours just drifting aimlessly on the currents. But after a while, they will start to notice something strange – they, unlike all the other fish who stay pretty much in place, drift only upwards, and so climb slowly but steadily the more time they spend drifting. And one day, they will fall asleep and find themselves on the surface by the time they wake up – not only on the surface, but turned on their side, a completely new way of looking at the world. One half of them will still be in the water but the other half will be on the other side of the veil through which no member of society had ever seen, into the world that exists beyond. And in that other great ocean of air and sun that runs parallel to their native ocean of water, they will see one of their own kind for the first time, and they will begin to realise who they really are.

And suddenly, with half their mouth open to the air, that burning sensation that has haunted them for their whole life will disappear, because as it will turn out, the things on either side of their head that looked exactly like gills to everyone else were always, in fact, a pair of lungs, and it was this surface world that they were truly destined for. And so, a plan will start to form inside their head – a plan to make the greatest of all escapes.

Because upon seeing another bird for the first time, and observing how it cuts through the sky, almost as if swimming, they will start to see no reason that they could not do the same, if they could only find a way to swim vertically – not adjacent to the horizon, as they had always seen it done, but straight up and through the surface. Vertical aquatic manoeuvres are a complicated art, especially when there is more than just gravity to be struggled against, but they can be mastered in time; and our bird, left out of most every activity, will of course have nothing but an ocean of time.

So they will train, with so much more dedication than they had ever mustered when going through with their parents’ attempts to help make them become a normal fish, because with this they can see that it is not a fruitless endeavour, as that was, but rather the purpose they were born for.

And once they have it perfected, they will go. They will escape the world that had always condemned them and find the one where they belong, and they will sail through the sky in a glorious celebration of this fact. And they will realise in that moment that if you look up at them from below, their light underbelly would blend in against the pale canvas of the afternoon sky; while looked at from above their dark upper half would seem to merge with the murky backdrop of the boundless sea – in short, the camouflage that everyone else had always taken as gospel proof of the fact that those born with the pattern of an inverted horizon are not meant to leave the ocean worked just as well in the sky. It all depended on where you looked at them from, and if any nearby fish will look up at that moment, they would know this to be true. But of course, our intrepid bird will be the only member of fish society to have ever looked up, so no one except them will realise.

And in the moment after that, right as they reach the full zenith of their arched trek across the heavens, they will feel the talons of the very same bird that once inspired their escape close around their body and pluck them out of the air. And the bird lived happily ever after.