Earlier this week I talked a bit about perspective and narrative in a story, and now I want to present a short story I wrote a very long time ago using the first person perspective.
I think the first person perspective is a great tool for storytelling. It allows the author to describe in detail the main character’s thoughts and feelings from the character’s own perspective and allows the reader an unsurpassed insight into the character’s personality, motives, whims and thoughts.
First person perspective is excellent for stories which revolve around one singular character. It is also useful for limiting the reader’s knowledge of other characters and events beyond those that the main character experiences. Want to keep your reader in the dark with the main character? First person helps.
So this story was, as I mentioned before, written a very long time ago. I have memories of writing it on our old computer in our first house, which we moved out of when I was 15. I’m 24 now. This story is nearly a decade old. 🙂
I wanted to play a little bit with a story told from the perspective of a child, from the perspective of another culture, and from the point of view of someone whose cultural beliefs and mythologies are as real to them as anything else.
The main character sees a catfish in this story, but can you decipher what the catfish really is?
When night falls, the sea becomes a great wide mouth, the mouth of the river catfish. The sea spray becomes its whiskers, reaching forward as waves to feel for food, and the rocks its teeth, to gnash its findings down. The port becomes deserted. Fishermen dare not tempt the gaping mouth of the catfish. They’ve too long poached her children to now beg safe passage.
Grandmother tells me the sea is angry. The catfish has grown weary of our presence on its lips. She says, we must be eaten or move away. But the sea is our life in Singapore. Tonight the fishermen tie up their boats and tomorrow they will set sail again, as the catfish sleeps.
Tonight I sit by the window. Through the thatched shades I can see the wave caps roll into the harbor, gilded by lanterns hung along the docks. Hundreds of eyes stare back at me, and then they wink and disappear. I have heard the fishermen’s stories at the docks, stories of two great eyes glowing in the depths of the sea. They say that when a man has taken too much from the catfish, she takes his life in turn, and swallows him down with eyes alight. Mother says these are sick fantasies. Grandmother says they are true.
“Xiayin,” she says as I curl into bed that night beside my sisters, “be wary the catfish mother. She is wary of us. We take too much and give too little. She is wary of us…”
“Xaiyin! The clothes! Before they wrinkle!” I nod at Mother and take the basket of laundry outside. Our world exists on the very edge of the sea. Beyond our front door, there is planking and no railing. Beyond the planking beneath my feet, the sea swims. Waves roll beneath our floor as we sleep at night. The rocks on our borders protect us from the worst of the weather, but it is not the weather we fear.
Today the sea is calm. The sun colors it fair and bright and I shield my eyes as I hang Mother’s skirts up to dry. A breeze blows the hanging lanterns along the planking. Paper lanterns are hung to guide the spirits of men lost at sea back home. Grandmother says that my mother does not believe in spirits. She says that Mother only hung the lantern so that Father might not be so far from her. She says Father took too much from the sea, and now he is sleeping beside the catfish.
When the clothes are hung and pinned I take a walk. The fishermen have already set sail and so the docks are empty. I stroll to the end and squat down. My shadow creates a ripple of darkness over the sea. The waves loll by, effortless and silent. I strain my eyes to see down beneath the surface. I wonder, if I looked hard enough, if I could see my father asleep…
“Xaiyin!” My uncle sweeps me away. He does not approve of my excursion. He tells me the sea is dangerous and that I should not tempt it by leaning so far out. I find myself back at home and Mother yells at me, too. I sit in the corner and play with my doll’s hair. Father brought her to me from China. That was the last time I had seen him.
That night after dinner, I crawl into my grandmother’s lap and ask her to tell me the legend of the sleeping catfish. Her cobwebby face tautens a bit, and her dark eyes flicker in her skull. As my mother leaves the room, she speaks:
When the earth was created, Xaiyin, the gods left the realms of earth, sea and air separate. No being was to cross these realms. But man was greedy. He wanted to be master of all realms. He conquered the land and turned his eyes upon the sea. The gods liked their solitude. They feared man’s desire to mix the elements of earth and water and air. As man stood upon the edge of the world and looked upon the kingdom of water, a spirit approached him. The catfish told man that he was the emperor of the land. Why should he seek further? The gods would not allow his greed to soil their beautiful creations. But the catfish was too familiar, and man waved it back into the sea and ignored its warning. He built a boat with sails, and using the air, he conquered the water.
The gods sent the catfish once more. The spirit appeared at the side of man’s vessel and told him of the gods’ displeasure. The catfish said that the sea was a shrine, and that man’s fishing and whaling was disrespectful. Man ignored again the gods’ messenger.
The gods were furious. They observed man’s blatant mistreatment of their earth, water and wind. They could not right this wrongdoing, but they could punish it. Again they sent the catfish, but this time it offered no words. It swallowed ships whole and drowned cities at the edge of land and water. At the end of its rampage it slept. It wakes when man has again taken too much, allowed his greed to defile what the gods created in harmony.
That is why, Grandmother says as she tucks me in to sleep, we must be respectful of the sea. We are guests in the realm of gods, and we will do well to remember it.
I close my eyes but I cannot sleep. Catfish swim across the blackness of my lids. I think of all we take from the sea and I shudder. In the next room through the thin wooden walls I hear my mother berating my grandmother for the tale she overheard. I plug my ears and try to dream.
The next day the sea is calm. I am leaning against a support at the edge of the dock, hugging it as the breeze lifts my skirt. I watch as a fishing boat comes in to dock, sitting low with the weight of her catch. Men skitter to unload her and I watch, horrorstruck, as great bulging nets of fish are hauled onto the dock. The breeze turns into a wind. I reach out and shout to the fishermen: “No, you’ve taken too much!” I want to say “put it back!” but the wind steals my words. It blows so hard now that lanterns rip from their strings and fly into the waves below. People are shouting. The docks sway beneath me. Beneath them, the sea begins to gurgle. I know it is the voice of the catfish.
My world sways harder. The sea is rushing out. I watch it, anchored tightly to my post and terrified. Beneath me it passes in a blur of white and green. The ships in the harbor are falling lower and lower. The masts of a scuttled ship appear out of the waves. The sea flees the port, leaving beneath us wet shoals and rocks and the carcass of an old ship. The fishermen bellow from the docks, looking down at their ship that rests on rock where once water held it afloat.
Mother races out. She grabs me and wrenches my arms from around the pole. She is panicking. She picks me up and turns to rush back inside, but the wind bullies her. I watch the skyline where the sea and the wind meet. I see it. I see the catfish beneath the waves so far out. I see the great brown body thrashing, writhing, moving. I see the wave that is rising. I watch as it conquers the sky as man had conquered the earth. I watch as it rushes towards the land to swallow us whole, as man was intent on swallowing the seas. In the vast wall of angry blue I see the eyes of the catfish burning bright. I see the mouth of the catfish open wide, and as the wave hits the docks I see the culmination of our greed. I feel the cold mouth of the catfish close tight around me. Mother is ripped away. Darkness drags us down into the belly of the catfish, down to meet my father.