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Fiction #246
(published September 29, 2005)
The Imitation Fish
by Lucy Clifford
It lived with three or four imitation ducks in a cardboard box, to which there was a glass lid. It was about an inch and a half long, and made of tin; one side was painted a bright red, and the other a deep yellow. At the end of its nose was a very little bit of wire, and this bit of wire sadly puzzled the poor imitation fish. The ducks and the fish were all packed in soft cotton-wool, and placed in a quiet corner of the toy-shop.

The fish would have had a comfortable sleepy time if its nose had not been always longing to touch a strange little stick at the other end of the box. The ducks had no such longing and aching, at which the fist wondered much, until it noticed that they had no tiny bit of wire at the end of their noses, and somehow it could not help connecting this fact with their placid peacefulness.

One day, the ducks and fish and the little stick (which, with the exception of about a third of an inch at one end, was painted a bright red) were all violently disturbed, and the next minute the lid of the box, in which they had slept so long, was quickly pulled open, and a fair little child with golden hair and large grave blue eyes stood looking at them.

"Oh, you pretty ducks!" he cried, in a voice so sweet that the imitation fish longed for a heart to beat at its sound. "Oh, you pretty ducks, and you dear little fish, I will take you home, and you shall swim in the nice cool water." And the lid was gently closed, and the little child carried the box home to a tall house by the sea. "No you shall have a large bath to swim in," the child said, "and you shall be as happy as the day is long."

And then the gay little ducks and the red-and-yellow fish were placed in the cool clear water, and bravely swam upon its surface. Ah, how happy they were, going round and round as the fancy of the child directed, listening to the gleeful voice, and sometimes feeling themselves taken up by the careful fingers, looked at for a moment, and then tenderly placed on the water again!

"Mother," the child asked, "what is the little stick for?"

"It is a magnet," the mother answered. And then she showed the child how to hold it close to the little bit of wire at the end of the fish's nose, and lo! in a moment, the whole of the imitation fish's being seemed satisfied, and it clung to the stick as if the gift of life were in it, or swam swiftly and recklessly after it, as if a whirlwind were behind.

"There is only one fish, mother," the child said presently, taking the stick out of the water, "but there are three or four ducks. Poor little fish! how lonely you must be, with no other—"

Then a voice was heard calling, and the child vanished, leaving the fish and the ducks aimlessly waiting in the bath. Presently the mother came, and lifted them all out, and put them once more into their box.

"The dear child!" she said lovingly to herself; "all things are real to him as yet; even this foolish bit of painted tin he does not dream to be without life or feeling, for he knows nothing of things that are false."

And she placed the box on a shelf, and left the fish wondering greatly at the words it had heard.

The next morning the ducks and the little fish again swam about the bath, and chased the strange stick round and round, while the child laughed with glee, and was happy; but the fish was not so bright as yesterday, for it remembered the words it had heard, and wondered much. And yet the child loved the little fish far more than the placid and contented ducks that troubled themselves not at all about anything.

"Don't be lonely, little fish," the dear voice would say, while the tender fingers put it away in the cotton-wool. "I will come and see you again to-morrow."

One day the little fish heard the child ask—

"Do all the fish live in the sea, mother—in the great sea which is before our windows?"

"All real fish do, my darling," the mother answered.

"And when they are taken out, mother, what then?"

"They die—the real fish do."

And the poor imitation fish feared lest its falseness should be betrayed to the one heart that knowing no falseness, thought it must be real; but the mother said nothing more. And many times that day it was taken from its resting-place, and looked at long and lovingly, and kissed. And once the soft voice said—

"Ah, dear fish! you shall not be lonely long. I will not let you die, because I love you; to-morrow I will take you back to your great home, the sea."

Then the little fish, having learned to love the child, trembled, for how could it bear to leave the one thing that cared for it?

And when the morrow came, the child took the fish once more from its soft little home, and looked at it for a few minutes with sorrowful blue eyes, and then gently carried it away—away from the stick and the imitation ducks and the little cardboard box in which it had lived so long, and out of the house by the sea, which was the child's home.

The sound of the waves came nearer and nearer, and on and on the child went, until at last he stopped at the end of a long pier, beneath which the water rushed and foamed. Then the child looked at the imitation fish again, and kissed it for the last time, while his tears fell upon its red-and-yellow sides.

"Farewell, dear little fish," he said. "You shall never be lonely more, or live in a stupid little cardboard box; you shall go back to your home in the sea, and dwell among others like you. I love you, dear little fish—farewell!" and the child dropped it into the deep water beneath. For one moment the poor little imitation fish dimly saw out of one painted eye the sweet face above, and then the waves tossed it away and away, farther and farther out to sea.

"Ah, dear child," it cried in terrible fear, "your purity has been the ruin of my false self. I was not made for things that were real; now I am indeed lost."

But no one took any notice of the poor toy, and the living fish swam past it with scarcely a glance; even they knew it was a sham; and when the fisherman cast his line into the sea, the hook at the end did not touch or hurt the imitation fish; all around it was heedless of its presence, only the waves went on tossing it day after day, week after week. Sometimes the sunlight came, and the real fish swam into the fisherman's net; but nothing pleased or hurt or harmed the imitation fish—only the waves went on tossing and tossing.

At last, after a long, long time, the waves seemed to be going on and on, always in one direction, and the fish went with them, until at last it was thrown on the shore among the pebbles and seaweed, and the little pools of water that collected between great stones; and the little fish was thankful, for it had escaped from a great loneliness, and the quiet of the shore seemed a blessed thing after the ceaseless tossing of the waves.

How long it lay there it never knew, but one day there was a sudden sound of a voice, and the little fish was lifted up by hands almost as tender as the child's.

"It is so like a toy my darling love!" a voice said; and a great happiness stole over the poor little fish, for he knew the voice of the child's mother. "He had a little fish that pleased him more than all his other toys, but he thought it was real, and threw it into the sea to make it happy," and she raised it to her lips, and kissed it passionately again and again, and bathed it in her tears. Then the little fish was sad, and yet thankful and glad to feel itself going back to the child.

And the mother put it in a soft hiding-place, and looked at it many a time, kissing it tenderly; for the sound of the child's voice was hushed, and the blue eyes that had so lovingly watched the imitation fish watched it never again—grave blue eyes that were closed for evermore.

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