I read in a book once that neighbors ask each other for cups of sugar, and it is a Sunday afternoon, and I have nothing else going on, so I shrug into my jacket and head out my door.
It is too warm for my jacket, a hardy green thing that’s fended off more than a few angry creatures’ angry claws, but I haven’t ever left my home without it, and today does not feel like the time to try two new things. I am already overwhelmed, because I cannot remember which book taught me about neighbors and cups and sugar and because I have never talked to my neighbor before, and the weight of my jacket is a minor comfort.
The sun is relentless, even though it is barely spring, as I make my way down the dirt path that leads away from my quaint home— quaint, not cramped or tiny or miserable, because I am working on positivity and trying new things, which are maybe one and the same. The trees lean their leafy heads together and gossip as I pass underneath their grasping branches, but I ignore their whispering in favor of listening to the sound of my boots on gravel. My boots are hardy, like my jacket, made for fending off angry creatures’ angry claws, and I let myself settle into the familiar comfort of gravel crunching underfoot.
I am carrying a cup in my hand because the book did not explain, or maybe it did and I do not remember, if my neighbor will offer the cup once I arrive or if I’m meant to supply it. I do not own many cups, so I grabbed a mug, hardy, like my jacket and my boots, a mug meant to be dropped a few times, except now I am looking at the mug and wondering if it is too big and hardy and if it will look like I am asking for an entire mug of sugar and if my neighbor, my new neighbor, will think I am greedy. But I have already made it so far, and by that I mean I have put on my jacket and my boots and grabbed my mug and walked down the dirt path from my not-cramped home and started my way down the road, and if anyone is watching, they would think me silly for doing all of that only to turn around and head home. So I keep walking and hope that I will have time to explain that I only need a little sugar, a neighborly amount of sugar.
The trees are thick, and so I cannot see my neighbor’s house until I am practically standing on their mailbox. The mailbox is short, so low that it opens around my ankle, but I suppose that this is normal for neighbors, to be different heights I mean. I check the mailbox for a name, but the new neighbor, or new neighbors, must be so new that they have not had time to announce themselves.
I turn down their path and find myself up to my ankles, but not up to the tops of my boots, in water. It is a sharp drop but a short one, so I only stumble a little. Still, I scan the surrounding forest to make sure that no one is around to see. No one is, or at least, if they are, they don’t announce themselves.
I go to take another step, but I left my waders at home because I was not expecting to walk into a river this morning when I left my house, and so instead I wait. There is no door for me to knock on, so I settle for rapping my knuckles against a nearby tree.
The tree is not an oddity because the forest has not stopped. The water path is only around two feet wide, and it snakes between the trees toward an unseen destination. It seems very fancy and rich to me, this carving of a water footpath through the forest, and I think that maybe asking for an entire mug of sugar is the right thing to do because maybe I will look poor if I ask for any less, but then maybe they will think I need an entire mug of sugar because I cannot afford it, but maybe if I ask for only a little then they will think I do not use a lot of sugar because I cannot afford it or because I cannot get it so far out in the forest, and I am about to turn around and give up because I have not studied enough for this when a small fish approaches me.
It is only the length of my pinkie finger, a small, pale, pink thing with big, black, fish eyes that stare up at me.
I clear my throat. “Hello. My name is Ranger. I— um— I live next door.” I am about to ask for the cup of sugar, but the fish is already swimming laps around my legs and then heading back toward where it came. I assume that this means “follow me,” so I follow it.
The water gets deeper and deeper, first spilling over my hardy boots and then reaching up to the bottom of my hardy jacket. I try at first to keep myself as dry as possible, because who could have guessed that I would be wading into my neighbor’s yard today, but then I realize that maybe my hesitation is rude. I let the bottom of my jacket get wet and muffle a gasp as the cool water of this manmade— fish-made— footpath— fin-path— soaks my skin.
The tiny fish does not slow down as the water inches up my neck. I try to ask it to slow down, but I cannot get the words out, and I do not know if it is because anxiety or cowardice or the beginning of drowning is choking my words. It is only when my mouth is entirely covered by water that I finally speak.
“Please, slow down—”
My words bubble away from me and burst in the ears— do fish have ears? in the sides of the head— of the fish. I expect nothing, but the fish turns— slowly, sarcastically, if a tiny fish can convey sarcasm— and looks back at me.
“I can’t breathe underwater—”
Except I can, I realize, because even as I speak the clear water of the footpath bullies its way into my lungs. I grasp for my throat before my social niceties can catch up as though I will be able to pull the water out, but my hands are distracted by the thin slits that have appeared on the sides of my neck.
The fish does not wait for me to continue my question. It abruptly turns and continues down the ever-deepening footpath. I do not finish my question. I follow.
We are deep enough that I cannot find the surface, even when I reach my hand up and search for air that I do not need, when the path widens without any warning. I do not know what I expected, but it was not this: a gaping hole, deeper and darker than I have ever seen, sunken into the bottom of the footpath. The dirt wall that frames the edges of the footpath circle the edge of the hole and signal the end of our journey. Far, far above, the trees lean in to watch whatever is going to happen.
“You have a lovely home,” I say.
The tiny fish does not answer. It swims over the hole and then back to me.
“Like I said, I’m Ranger. Do you have a name— I mean, of course you do— sorry— what is your name?”
The tiny fish swims a lap around my waist and then a second lap around the edge of the hole. It is not a wide hole, short enough that I could probably touch the other side if I reached, but the fish’s lap feels like it takes a century.
“I wanted to come over and say hello and also borrow a cup of sugar. Do you… have sugar?”
The fish swims around my head and then around my neck, pausing for a breath only to examine my new gills.
“The gills are— um— they’re a lovely gift. Are they… reversible? Not that I don’t appreciate them.”
The fish gently touches my gills with the tip of its face. They tickle. I suppress a giggle because giggling does not feel appropriate right now.
“Um… thank you. Is that— can I come in?”
I do not want to enter the hole, but it feels rude to stand outside the fish’s home after it has led me all this way and gifted me with gills, and my question excites it. The fish swims another lap around my head and then swims another lap around the hole.
“Do I… Do I jump? Or swim?”
The fish does not answer. It has never answered me, so I do not think that this is weird. Maybe it is weird how much I am talking.
“Sorry if I’m saying too much. I’m not used to having neighbors. It’s just been me and the forest creatures for so long. I’ll, um, I’ll go in now, if that’s okay with you.”
The fish taps its face against my gills once more. I cannot suppress the giggle this time, so I have to jump before the fish can see my blush.
I fall faster than I expect to, so I hit open air before I have time to recognize the growing light beneath me as sunlight. It is only when I am falling through the blue, blue sky, more blue than anything I have ever seen, that I realize that I no longer have any water to breathe. I rip my hands at my throat, but the gills do not disappear as easily as they appeared, and even if they had, I am falling, falling towards the forest that I have called my home for so long. I do not have time to look closely, but I think that I see the softly glowing eyes of forest creatures looking up at me. I have spent enough time in the forest to know how to protect myself from them, but my hardy jacket will not protect me from the fall.