I thought at first my eyes deceived me, but no, there it was, glinting in the shimmersphere, about two dolphinlengths down. A hook. A bright, crudely twisted piece of silver with some sort of grub impaled on its wicked point. It looked like a mangled sewing needle, and I quailed at the thought of it lodged in the throat of one of my little subjects. Or worse yet, in my own stomach; after all, it would be a foolish fish indeed to be crossing this part of my realm, in that peckish hour after naptime.
I ascended toward the sun, approaching the hook slowly, feeling a huge grin spread over my teeth as I saw the frayed white fishing line, leading up to a small, elliptical, telltale shadow. It bobbed uncertainly upon the surface, betraying its light, solitary cargo, so very fragile… I decided I would first give the line the merest tug, because who knew when such an opportunity for mischief would present itself again? I reached one hand up, framing the hook in the triangle of my claws, but just as I was about to pull, I heard the most alarming sound.
Startled, I peered up at the underside of the boat. An absurd apprehension came over me. Was that the sneeze of a child?
Ke! Ke! Ke!
A little girl child? (When I traveled amongst the humans, before the Recission, I often noted the distinctive coughs of little girls. I wrote a poem about it in the Land Annals of Ao Kuang; Volume 3, I believe.)
I don’t know how long I floated there, gazing up at that impossible boat, all tangled up in questions. What was this child doing here? Alone! In a part of the sea no sensible fisherman would ever cast a net, much less a ridiculous twisted sewing needle, baited with a grub? Sick with a cold, no less! Where were her parents? Her brothers? Ah, perhaps it wasn’t a cold at all, and they were all dead of some plague? But surely there must have been some uncle or cousin who would’ve tried to dissuade her from this insane fishing trip. At the very least, had she never had a wise old grandmother to teach her about the terrible citizens of the sea, and their awful King, whose favorite dish was said to be deepwater hot-pot with fresh little girl, cuttlefish, and crab? (A most uncouth combination, to a discerning palate.)
Suddenly, in the midst of my baffled reverie, the hook zipped up to the surface, disappearing into the light. Then two oars dropped — pu-tong, pu-tong! —into the water. I stared, dumbfounded, as the boat began to make its slow, stubborn way landward. For 70 whalelengths, I swam along behind her, until I had reached the uncrossable border of my kingdom. I did a thing then that I have not done since Qianlong ruled under heaven: I raised my head, recklessly high above the surface, and let myself be seen.
The girl was far away by then, but I could see her smile. She pulled in her oars, and waved. Then she coughed, and rowed away.