This is your fourth visit to the botanical biosphere. Something always draws you back here, even though you have only one hour of leisure time. You scan your wristband and enter the glass dome.
The biospheres are teeming with healthy plants and trees. Mechanical bees flit between the groups of coloured flowers. Today, you’ve come to see the rainforest exhibit, but first, you pass through the Japanese gardens.
An elderly woman sits on a bench overlooking the koi pond you like. The white and orange fish swim around in their docile dream, barely causing a ripple. She’s been on that same seat each time you’ve come here. The chatter of other visitors filters through the bushes that shelter the pond from the main pathway.
You clear your throat. “Hello there.”
She looks up with kind eyes as if she’d been expecting someone. “Yes, luvvie?”
“I noticed you often come to look at—”
“The fish? So beautiful,” she says. “Blissfully ignorant of what’s around them.” She coughs into a handkerchief and smiles apologetically.
The woman is right. Those fish exist within the confines of their pool, just as the vast majority of citizens live their entire lives in one place, their movements monitored and controlled. You’re one of the lucky ones who can travel.
“It’s my medicine, see?” she says, gesturing with her hand. “Three hours every day because of the grey-lung.”
One day, it will be you sitting on that bench with a prescription for natural air because of respiratory problems. When you ask if you can join her, she shifts to create more space and pats the seat next to her. You wonder if she remembers anything about life before the Federation and if she was part of the nomadic workforce like you. She’s mysteriously familiar. Is her homestory anything like yours?
When you were born, a unique piece of code was added to your identity chip. Everyone has one. It was written by the Scribe, the supercomputer that generates a narrative based on individual DNA. The code is your homestory. Homestories must not be recorded, only told from one person to another, shared when the human connection is strong enough to do so. As you sit, you decide to share yours with the woman in the Japanese gardens. She looks like an older version of you; same broad nose, same thick hair, but she radiates an aura of calm.
“Can I share my story?”
She looks straight ahead at the koi pond and smiles. “Of course.”
So many times you’ve thought of writing your homestory on a folded piece of paper and leaving it by the fish pond, but if it were discovered it would be eradicated. You once found a homestory in an air duct you were upgrading. It was written on the wall in Morse code. Transcribing a few sentences each day was thrilling. It’s probably been erased by now.
Others try to tell theirs to everyone they meet, blurting it out and not caring how the other person responds, but it’s rare for you to tell your story. You face the woman and begin. “My tale is that of the Fisherwoman, born hundreds of years ago, on an isolated island.”
The woman sits up a little straighter. Perhaps she remembers a time when there was land still surrounded by the sea. When the last island was connected via earth bridges built by the bot fleet, the Federation announced it with much fanfare.
“While her husband went in search of new lands,” you say, “she would fish the wide ocean inlets and the deeper trenches contained within the brilliant blue reef. Her people called the island the Jewel of Giants, as though her corner of the earth was held together in the turquoise necklace of some greater being.”
The old woman sits with her hands on her knees and her head tilted, interrogating each sentence for meaning. The irrigation system nearby sprays out a light mist.
“In her boat,” you continue, “she took a net, a flask of water, a hat for when the sun beat strong, and a pail for her catch.”
In your world, there are no personal possessions, not even flasks of water.
“Each day she fished in a different place, casting her circular net high and watching it drift down into the sea. While she reeled it in, she hummed the tunes her mother had taught her, loud enough for her to become part of the soundscape, but not so loud she scared away the fish. When her pail was full, she would return to the village.”
You’ve never tasted fish. Animal consumption was outlawed last century. The last wild animals were lost and huge droves of insects now roam the earth. Modern cereals are immune to them, other plants are not. Unfarmable areas are devoted to growing oxygen-producing bushes, designed to poison all pests. The Federation exists in perpetual chemical warfare with its own land.
“And when do the giants come?” the woman asks.
You’re surprised she interrupted. “Have you heard it somewhere before?”
“I know it from another perspective,” she says.
Your heart swells. If her narrative connects, she might be a blood relative—a great-aunt, or a second cousin. You’ve never met a relative before, although you spent many nights wondering who they are.
“Sorry,” she says. “I’m holding you up.”
There may not be time to visit the Amazonian biodome, but it’s more important you deliver the homestory as best you can. You gather yourself and continue. “After many months away, her man returned and together they had a baby girl. She took the child fishing in her canoe, hoping that the songs she hummed would pass down, along with the joy of being a fisherwoman. They lived happily until one day men in bigger boats arrived at their island.”
When you were a child, you lived underground in an orphanage. Days were routine, with no time allocated to discover or dream. They said you were fortunate to learn a trade and provide a service to the nomadic workforce of the Federation.
Your job in air filtration takes you all over the planet. Over the years, you’ve seen places you could never have imagined, heard the homestories of countless others—the Warrior Queen, the Great Jewelry Thief, and the Deaf Maestro. But, with so much exposure to unfiltered air, your lungs won’t last long.
“These men were giants, their hands callused from rowing across seas,” you say.
As if to participate in the story, one of the fish comes up for air and splashes water out of the pool.
“They were bigger than the fisherwoman had ever seen. The men destroyed her village. Roofs burned to black in seconds and the smell of the smoke tarnished the air forever. They killed her husband and took her baby, but before they thrust a spear into her belly, the fisherwoman held up her hand and cried ‘Wait!’ The men paused. ‘I will show you where the fish are,’ she said. ‘This island has a bountiful supply, but only I know where.’”
You try to imagine what tropical fish looked like. Were they flat and smooth, like the rays in the great botanical gardens of Singapore, or silvery and fast, like the shoals of mackerel in the Nordic Aquarium? You’ve visited so many public ecosystems, but the Japanese gardens are your favourite. You are drawn to their gentle form, like it’s in your DNA. You feel one step closer to the fisherwoman.
The old woman hangs her head, as if sensing further tragedy, but however her story is linked to yours, it can’t interrupt the ending of your tale.
“She showed the men her fishing spots and they brought bigger nets from their bigger ships. The nets tore the coral from the sea bed and dragged up sea creatures big and small. While they worked, she hummed the songs she loved, but in her head. The men rejoiced at the size of the larger fish and laughed at the smaller ones. They ate them all until there were none.”
The wristband on your arm vibrates, indicating your ticket has five minutes until it expires. You quicken the pace of the story. “After a time, all of the fishing grounds ran dry and the men left in search of new territory. The seas were empty, and nothing would grow in the scorched ground. The remaining villagers lived together, surviving on coconuts and dry roots. This was the fisherwoman’s punishment for saving herself.”
When you look up, the woman is crying. Large teardrops run down the tracks of her cheeks and onto the bench.
“Don’t cry,” you say. “It’s only a fable.”
She wipes the tears away with a sleeve. Her aura of calm is broken. Her voice shakes as she talks. “I know, luvvie. I know how it ends.”
It doesn’t matter that your ticket is running out, and that you won’t visit the rainforest exhibit. All you want is for the woman next to you to witness the end of the story, and to discover why it affects her so. Were you destined to meet? Orphans can go a whole lifetime without finding the stories that connect to theirs.
In solidarity, you close your eyes and live the fisherwoman’s past and future. Her song gets louder and clearer each time. You breathe her air and bear the burden of her decision.
“Wait,” the woman says. “Before you finish, I have to show you this.” She stands, lifts her right foot onto the seat and rolls up her trouser leg. Etched onto her calf is a small tattoo, its piercing colours contrasting with the metal bench. The image shows a woman in a broad hat, paddling her boat through blue waters. Barely visible at the back of the canoe is a pail.
Your wristband vibrates again but you ignore the warning.
Now you understand what draws you back to the Japanese gardens. A lump builds in the back of your throat. You want to live this moment forever, and cry together with the woman from your homestory.
Before you can finish, she tells it in her own way. “In trying to save herself, the fisherwoman had ensured the death of something more important. For that, she was stricken with guilt.” She dabs at her face with a sleeve. “One day, she paddled her canoe far into the ocean until she could not see land. She did not bring a hat, or a pail, or a flask of water.” She phrases the words exactly as you would.
The woman starts to hum the beginning to a song but erupts into a coughing fit. Although she must be younger, she has the withered frame of an eighty-year-old.
You remove a tissue and guide her back into the seat. “Relax now. Just rest.”
She agrees and you finish the story.
“Visitors to that place maintain that if you hold your ear to the wind on the shores of her island, you can hear the faint humming of the fisherwoman’s song.”
Each and every time you recount “The Fisherwoman,” you leave a part of yourself behind with it. It exhausts you, but builds a desire to hear the story of the person you shared it with. Especially this time. Moving closer, you reach for your biological mother’s hand. There is no more time to hear which forces took her away, and how her homestory connects to yours. Not today.
You help her to her feet and embrace the woman you’ve waited your whole life to meet. You are both part of this place, at one with the koi and the cherry trees of the Japanese gardens. But, she must stay and you must leave. “I’ll come back soon,” you say. “You can tell me your story next time.”
Copyright © 2021 Philip Charter. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Philip Charter is an English writing coach who works with non-native speakers. Philip's stories have won or placed in competitions such as the Loft Books Short Story Competition, The Oxford Flash Fiction Prize, and the Janus Lit Anthology competition. He is the author of two short fiction collections and his V. Press novella-in-flash Fifteen Brief Moments in Time is forthcoming in 2022.