The School Stream

“I won’t hurt you,” Sally whispered to the giant catfish hidden under the rock ledge, extending her arm out with fingers wiggling in gentle supplication.  It was the third day of her job, dog sitting at the Millers’ house.  She had to walk a long ways across town and by her school to get there every day, and this day she’d made an incredible discovery.  Instead of walking back from her job on the sidewalk which circled round her school, she cut across the school grounds and waded through the stream that fed into the pond behind the playground.  Large rocks allowed one to hop across the wide stream boarded by reeds on either side.  She took this path during the school year to and from school, but had never taken it during summer because of how the reeds were grown—and also, because she didn’t want to go near school grounds in the summer.

Yet she loved the stream.  In the winter, it froze over, and she and her friends slid on the meandering surface pretending to skate.  In the warmth of spring and fall, the water was full of life: polliwogs sprouted hind legs and ate one another; dragonflies dipped down to touch the surface then piggy-backed on each other to spiral above the current. In the summer, it was a quiet place full of frogs and turtles.  Even in the cold days of fall and first melt of spring when ice crystals shivered on the black swirling surface, the stream was full of silent mysteries.  None of the children knew where it came from or where it went, although some said the river and others said the swamp, but it wound round the edge of their school world like a ribbon joining past, present and future.

Chance had led her here, and so she decided to see if she could catch some summer frogs.  Bull frogs could be as large as kittens, and were delightful to grab.  She caught them only to test her speed and cunning, to hear their startled chirp as she snagged them in her grip. She’d hold them around the waist and stare into their huge gold-green eyes, with horizontal pupils as dark as mail slots, that popped up and down in surprised blinks. Of course she’d always release them, letting them torpedo away under the water’s surface.  It was a fair game and their blustery machismo and ego the only casualty.  So it was with great stealth that she had crept, bent forward, through the seed-headed weeds, skirting thorny vines and the parting the scissoring reeds towards the stream’s edge.  But what she saw there took her mind completely off the frogs she was hunting.

There were catfish the size of real cats, with gold and silver scales, pink fins, and long whiskers swirling in the shallows and pools. These fish were unbelievably big, as long as her seven-year-old arms and as fat as loaves of bread.  They hadn’t seen her coming, so she caught a glimpse of about twenty of them before they splashed and wiggled away, down toward the deep pond below. Only one stayed: the largest one, hidden under an overhanging rock, eyeing her cautiously. He had been there, quietly watching her approach.

John entered the room, pushing forcibly on the heavy golden-grained wood door. There was a black engraved plaque pinned high up it, with ‘Principal’ in gold lettering, centered eye-level for adults.  The door swung open and an imposing empty desk greeted him, its back to the window and chair commanding a view of whomever would enter there.  It was his first administrative job: he’d been an elementary school teacher for five years, and then a middle school teacher for two.  But his fondness of young children—who were still curious about the world and not yet jaded—made him decide to return to elementary school.  He hadn’t intended to apply as principal, but he had proven himself good at coordinating the teacher groups he had worked with, he was organized, knew how to negotiate and resolve disputes, and he was generally popular.  He also liked to think he had a good sense of humor that could diffuse a situation.  The truth was, his humor was esoteric, and few people got it. Yet folks laughed politely because he was very likable and people wanted to please him, for the most part.  Still, there were always a few who had decided to dislike him no matter how friendly he was, so in the end he’d stopped trying with them.  Some people just had to judge you for things they had no right to.  After all, his private life was his own, not their business.

Swallowing hard, he’d decided to start anew here.

He walked to the window. It had a nice, central view of the enclosure between flanking sides of the single-story building leading out onto the ball field.  The windows were dirty, but he’d talk to the janitor about that when he came in.  Blue jays swept low over the open space and the sound of mowers and the smell of fresh-cut grass wafted in once he cracked open the upper window.  “Well, if everyone is getting to work and getting ready, so should I,” he said to himself.  “First order of business.” He used his large mass to move the desk to the side wall.  He would now sit with his back to the wall, and would have to turn to meet whoever came in rather than face them head on. This position allowed him a panoramic view of the outside, where he would be able to keep an eye on the children as they played. “Much better.”  He was on the adult side of a desk he’d come to fear as a child.  He wanted to change the perception kids had of such a desk. This school was named “Happy Valley” after all: it was time to live up to that.

Sally didn’t remember how long she stayed, moving her arm and hands in the water, talking softly to the big, lone fish.  The shadows had moved across the stream, and without the glaring sunlight, she could see the fish more clearly now.  It really was quite huge, and, moreover, had mobile, bulging and expressive eyes that watched her every move.  It seemed to be listening to her speak.  Finally, with great calmness, it approached her, swimming just within finger reach, allowing her to stroke it as it passed. “Wow! You are beautiful,” she exclaimed, and it turned around and passed even closer.

She realized it was beginning to trust her, so she pulled back her hands, and let it come to her. It nibbled on her fingertips.  After a while, she reached under its chin, where she knew fish liked to be touched, and started to stroke it.  She remembered reading about how Indians used to catch fish that way, tickle them until they relaxed and then they would grab them around the gills and pull them out of the water.  Just as she thought of that, the fish jumped, startled, and started to swim away.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “please come back.” Curiously, it did just that.  This time, she just let it nibble her fingers, and then on her hands again, keeping them limp. At one point, she reached her head out to see the fish closer, the fish responded in kind, lifting its head from the water, and gasping its mouth open wide, as if to taste the air around her. Its big bulgy eyes came out and looked at her too, then went back in.  This interplay went on for a while, making her laugh, and the other fish hovered around the edges, coming closer, watching.  Finally, she realized it was getting dark and she would be in trouble if she stayed much later. “I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise,” she told the fish, and then ran home, excited, her heart beating fast.

At home, she didn’t say a word to her siblings.  She knew that if they heard, they would want to come too, and the magic would be spoiled.  It was a beautiful enchanted place she had discovered, and as one of six children in a three-bedroom home with parents that fought nonstop, this silent, solitary space was a wondrous treasure she wanted to keep to herself.  So when they asked her what had kept her so long, she simply replied, “I was playing with the Millers’ dogs—they need to be played with as well as fed.” This wasn’t untrue, but it wasn’t exactly true either.  Her job was to take care of and feed the two dogs for two weeks while the family went on vacation.  She had one and a half more weeks, or ten days more to do this, but all she could think about was that it meant ten more days to explore the amazing world of these catfish.

The following days she went as early as she could after doing her chores.  As soon as she was back from those, she sped off to “take care of the dogs” and her mother watched proudly as her daughter ran to her new job.  She always did attend to the dogs first, but quickly afterwards, ran down to the stream to see if the fish were still there. They were.  She was almost always approached by the big one first, but soon the others started coming around.  At first they nibbled her carefully like the big one had, but finally they let her touch them, let her pet them under their tummies. They even vied for her attention.

Always, though, she ended up spending the most time with the large one, who often lazily swam, or just floated, in and out of her legs, bringing its head out to look at her closely, and she talked with it all the while, asking it questions about who they were.  One day, she asked the big one, “I wonder where you come from, is this your first time here? I’ve never seen you before—maybe you’re lost?”

The relationship had become so intimate, so matter of fact, that she wasn’t at all surprised when it answered, although it wasn’t in words.  “We have been coming here for many, many generations, for longer than you have been here.  We always come, we always go, we always return.”

This piqued her curiosity.  “How old are you?” she asked.

“I have been alive for a very long time. I am much older than you.”

She wondered about this, but then was drawn back to marvel at their graceful, dance-like movements. “You are so beautiful,” she exclaimed, looking over at the swirling group of smaller fish.  They seemed delighted with this and started playfully spinning up and down around the rocks and back and forth to her legs, tickling her with their lacy fins.  Their scales were large and silvery, like dimes laid over each other in overlapping rows, and in this play where they rolled in and out of the water, they sparkled all the more.  Their long whiskers made them expressive but also flowed after them like ribbons, curling and wrapping around their sides.  She had begun to recognize the fish individually, but when the moved in balletic unison they all looked like one—though the older one always stayed by her side.

His office was almost complete: all the office equipment was in place; his drawers were filled with a stapler and extra staples, pushpins and paper clips on one side, special forms on the other.  A basket was on the top for work to be put in, and another for work to be put out.  He had his actual feather pen and inkwell that his grandfather had given him in high school when he’d studied calligraphy, and a calendar on the wall with important dates already marked.  A framed certificate of his academic credentials hung as well, along with a signed autograph from Babe Ruth. He’d loved baseball, loved playing it, and watching it—mostly loved the psych-out games between pitcher and hitter, but he’d never been very good.  Nonetheless, he hoped this would be a conversation piece to help him connect with grade-school kids.  On the other wall, he decided he would put student artwork. That, too, would help generate a sense of pride for the kids.  He didn’t want his office to be a place to dread, as it had been in his day—he wanted it to be a place where kids could come to talk. He was really looking forward to the beginning of school year.  Already, he had seen a young girl down by the stream playing in the water, and the presence of this young person felt like a good sign, like the first robin of spring.  It would be better than when he was in school. Of course, maybe his experience had been an exception.  He was different after all, and certain boys in school had not let him forget that.  He still had scars.

It was getting hot in the room, so he opened the window, but that just made it worse.  A brutal heat blew in and he immediately regretted wearing his knit pull over. He made a mental note to have the janitor put a fan in his office, and hurried out to his car.  Down by the stream, he saw his robin, his young girl again.  She seemed to be talking to something in the water. He smiled, remembering all the things he’d imagined as a kid, and felt optimistic again as he drove off.

That day it was so hot the pavement scorched her bare feet, and she couldn’t wait to get to the stream to cool off and see the fish. However, when she came, only the older one came to greet her.  She asked where the other ones were, and at first he did not answer.  Finally, he told her to come with him to the deep pond.  She resisted, because she knew there were leeches there, and the minute one got in they attached.  She tried to explain this to him, but he didn’t seem to understand.  He just kept telling her, “It will be fine, come with me.”  Hesitantly, she waded down into the deep muddy dark green pond area, being nudged by and following her friend.  Almost immediately, she felt a leech attach.  However, just as quickly, she was surrounded by the missing family of fish, who swirled around her, kissing her and removing the leeches as they attached.  She started laughing out loud, being kissed all over by feeding fish, and they splashed in and out around her, some leaping joyfully from the water as she did.  The pond was cool and the water flowed all around with the motion of the circling fish—it was heaven.

In the water, she lost the sense of being separate from them. They were one large cloud of joy and movement.  The dark water that had frightened her from above with its menace now was her secret home and these wonderful beings, who tickled her with their lips and fins and playful rolls on the surface of the water, were her family. They were completely accepting of her and she of them.

John was on his way out—the new copier had been installed, windows cleaned, and he really had done all he could do until the beginning of school; he felt a sense of accomplishment along with great anticipation.  He was halfway to his car when he heard laughter—a girl’s laughter—from down the hollow. His knew there was a dangerous pond down there, and walked over to the edge of the precipice overlooking it.  He was immediately alarmed to see the young girl floating, arms out, and spinning around, giggling. His first thought was to yell at her to get out.  But the smile on her face was so sweet and she didn’t seem in any danger.  He watched for a minute, envious of a child’s abandon, and then headed home.

A few days later, she realized she would not be able to visit the stream soon as the Millers were coming home, and her mother would not let her go there without a reason.  She told the elder fish that she would be leaving soon, and not back until school began, which wasn’t for a couple of weeks.  The elder fish didn’t answer for a while.  Finally, he said that they would be going soon too, as it was time for them to head to their other place downstream. It was a sad realization, and they didn’t say anything more that day. Sally was upset to think she might not see them anymore. Before she left, she tried to imagine how far the stream stretched, where it went to, where they would go to.  She imagined it flowing from someplace up in the hills, someplace older than time, where there were no houses, where small rivulets boarded by clover and fairy flowers came together and fed this one stream, growing larger, larger, larger, till it spilled into this hollow and emptied into their pond. She wondered as she left if she they would ever meet again.  As she walked, she imagined the stream of her life carrying her forward, pulling her away from this place.

The Millers came home, and her mother brought her over in the car the last day, so she didn’t get to say goodbye.  Summer was coming to a close, the first leaves of fall swirled: half green, half colored to the ground. She thought about going by the stream, but was terrified of finding them gone already, as the fish had said.  Nonetheless, when her first day arrived, she ran excitedly to school, hoping that perhaps they might still be there, that they might have waited to see her one last time.  They had.

John entered the school, walking the halls ringing with children’s calls and laughter.  He smiled and sometimes stopped and chatted, introducing himself.  Most of the children were friendly and talkative, though some were leery.  It was probably because he was so tall, he reminded himself.  At 6’2” and with a large frame, he was sure he must’ve looked like a giant.  But this was a good day: it was the beginning of a new era where he would create an accepting and caring environment.  Children are innocents, first and foremost, he reminded himself. Cruelty is learned.  It would not be learned here.

He felt empowered.

They waited for her.  Why did they wait for her?  Did the elder fish try to make them go, try to lead them onward, as they had every August? Try to urge them to leave that pond and head on, down stream? Did they refuse, having decided they must say goodbye first, or not wanting to say goodbye, wanting one last divine dance in the deep of the pond? Or did the elder himself decide to stay, missing his chin-tickling, curious-minded, salty, soft friend?  They had never been there before at that time, the start of September and the beginning of school, so why should they now, why did they wait?  The sound of footsteps splashing through the creek made them rush to it, delighted, excited, happy to have them back…

He sat at his desk, leaning back in his new chair which made a worrisome crack and squeak noise.  Note to self, have janitor look at chair.  The windows were dirty again where some mud had been thrown.  The previous day had rained, making the new grass a sopping mess and the clearing had become a mud yard.  Note to self, have janitor clean windows again.  He also made note of the face of the child who was slinging mud outside.

Anne, the secretary, brought in his coffee, folded her hands and inquired, “Do you want to do the morning announcement?  I have always done it in the past, but if you want to, it’s your new term.”

“No, you go ahead—I’ll leave it to a professional,” he replied with a warm smile.  He inhaled deeply, exhaled, and lifted his warm coffee to his lips as she left. Sugar. He’d told her no sugar, and there it was in double dose, sickly sweet.

Sally was silly with hope, yet she knew she should not be.  She knew they had never been there at this time of year before. She had never heard talk of them, these giant catfish, especially in such numbers.  She knew she had seen what no one else had, and taught them not to fear her.  Would they be there? Would they come to her as before?  She was so excited she couldn’t eat her breakfast and even forgot her lunchbox.  She ran to school while her brother and sisters took the bus, because the bus didn’t go by the stream, and she wouldn’t have an excuse to go otherwise.  She rounded the corner, came flying down the hill toward the stream . . .

. . . and was suddenly stopped in her tracks by what she saw.

Fish, and boys. Boys everywhere.

It wasn’t just that they were everywhere—though that was bad enough. She was terrified of the boys, as she always had been.  But these were the big boys and they had sticks, and they weren’t chasing her or one another, they were doing something inconceivable.  They were bashing the sticks in the water and they were putting things up, up in the trees, hanging things like ornaments. It took her a few minutes to understand what she was seeing.  The fish—they were hanging the fish. They were killing the fish.

There were dozens of them, swinging from the trees, with branches sticking through their mouths and out their gills. Others were on sticks, draped across boys’ backs.  More were on the ground, some half dead, some bashed through.  And the boys continued to take them from the stream where the fish kept swimming up to them.

Sally ran to them, roaring with a strangled yell to the biggest boy, who was in the middle of trying to stick a very large branch through the mouth of one of the fishes.  He dropped the fish and branch, and then told her to go away.  She picked up the stick and took off the fish, and ran with it back to the stream, where she dropped it in the water—but it was too late, the fish was flopping on its side and its eyes were rolling around while its bloody mouth gasped for breath.  She turned around furiously to see the boys continuing this activity.

Without hesitating, she took the stick—which was really more of a large, imposing branch—and started running at them, screaming and flailing the piece of wood like a switch.  She first cleared the stream this way, mock-hitting the stones near where the fishing boys perched till they ran, and then went after the bigger boys, blindly waving the stick in a circle above her head and beating the ground as she gave chase.  Whether it was because they truly feared this “crazy” girl or because the bell rang or a mixture of both, the small valley by the stream finally cleared.

Sally then tended to the fish. She tried to take down those that were hanging in the trees, some of whom still clung to life, but the truth was that the boys were bigger and had longer arms than her, and so most of the fish were hung too high for her to reach.  They were dying, it was clear.  Their gasping was slowing, and they curled their tales in painful spasms less and less. The ones she was able to pick up from the ground and put back in the stream didn’t seem to swim as much as be carried away by the current.  A few seemed to try to get upright once in the water, but the attempts were feeble, and the kept turning upside down or sideways.  She wanted to throw herself on the ground and cry, but the teacher on morning duty had noticed her there, late after the bell, and was yelling for her to come in.

Wet, covered in mud, and desolate, Sally sat in her first day of her third-grade class. The speaker crackled with the morning news and the familiar voice of the school secretary.  Kids were whispering and pointing at Sally, and even her new teacher was peering at her, when the intercom announced her name. “Sally Ahearn?” it said as if in question. Then: “Sally Ahearn, please report to the principal’s office.”  A lot of the kids broke out laughing. Sally just stared.  She was stunned at hearing her name, confused at what it meant, but the girl next to her nudged her and said, “That’s you, right? You have to go.” She knew she should be embarrassed, afraid, nervous, and tried to feel those things, but all she felt, as she walked out and down the hall, was numbness.

She went in to the secretary’s office and was told to wait. She had not yet met the principal—he was new, having just started that year.  She had heard things about him, that he wasn’t married for a certain reason, but didn’t know what that meant.  The things that were whispered sounded bad, like he was mean or criminal.  It was also said that he was bald and fat, as if that were proof positive.  So when she went into meet him, she had no idea of what to expect, and was a bit afraid.

Mr. Dern looked startled when he saw her.  “Robin?” he said.

“No, sir, my name is Sally. Sally Ahearn.”

And the principal was kind, and spoke in a gentle, questioning voice.  “I understand you were chasing the boys around this morning trying to hit them with a big stick. Can you tell me about this?”

She suddenly felt free to tell the truth. “I wasn’t going to hit them, I just needed to scare them, to get them away. But it didn’t work.”

“Why? What didn’t work?” Mr. Dern came out from behind his desk and sat on a chair beside her with his hands held on his lap.

Sally told him about what they were doing.  She told him about the fish, and how they had been her friends during the summer, how they were peaceful and gentle and liked kids.  She also told him that they probably came to the boys because she had taught them not to be afraid of people, she had taught them to like people.  And then the boys killed them.

She cried. She didn’t expect him to believe her, but somehow, he did. And he let her cry.

When she had finished, he took out a handkerchief and made her blow her nose, then wiped her eyes.  “Now what can we do to keep you from chasing the boys around with a stick?” he asked, as much of himself as to her.

“Stop them! Stop them, please, from doing anymore.”

“I’ll make an announcement, okay? Now you go back to your classroom and have a good first day.”

Sally left, breathing through her mouth and digging her nails into her palms so the pain would stop her from crying anymore.  They expected her to keep moving, so she did.

He watched her as she went, distressed that, despite his comforting, her face was contorted and lips stretched tightly over her still-open mouth, as though she was crying without sound.  It reminded him of a baby bird he had tried to rescue once, but who had, in spite of his hourly feedings, still died, head back, beak and eyes only half shut.  He shook off the memory.

Mr. Dern had the secretary make an announcement that no one was to go near the stream for any reason.  Then he put on his sweater and took a walk. He hadn’t really anticipated, despite the little girl’s explanation, the number and size of the fish nor the scene of carnage in front of him.  It took him a while to absorb it all, and he stood looking at the sticks, at the multitude of fish on the ground and in the trees. They were as big and as beautiful as the little girl had said, despite the fact that many were twisted in final death throes, their eyes, even dried and glazed over with the cloud of lifelessness, showing traces of the intelligence that had been. He groaned, feeling all the past coming back, rushing into the present, somehow tainting the future. He couldn’t help seeing the stream now as a source of pain, for the heart-broken young girl and for him. All those painful memories lurking in the water, memories of when he too had fallen in love for the first time, a love which should have been joyfully celebrated and greeted with happiness, but was instead shunned as a horrific sin.  The worst part was that he had lost the person he loved.  The fallout had been too extreme; they had had to separate.

As he stared at the fish, he felt a flash of anger with himself. He should have called her out of the pond that day, told her to stay away from the stream.  But then he realized it was water under the bridge: he couldn’t have known, couldn’t have prevented this. Still, it was horribly unfair—where was the lesson in this? It was pure and simple brutality, the cruelty he’d hoped to keep at bay.

But he had to believe in the future.

He didn’t know what he would do now, but there was only one thing he could do. So he rolled up his sleeves. He started with the ones still gasping on the branches, putting them back into the stream.