Once a sardine was feeling kind of lonesome. That hadn’t always been the case. Precisely the opposite emotion had characterized most of the sardine’s life, in fact. Rather than seeking the companionship of other sardines, it had felt uncomfortable being pressed close on all sides by those with whom it felt it shared little. Not that it nursed any illusions it wasn’t a sardine like the rest of its species. Darting about together in frenzied bait balls, it and all the others must appear identical in every regard. But this sardine had long been convinced such likeness was not the full story. As far as it could tell, few of those around it experienced the same doubt it did at the common assumption that all sardines could be defined by what they shared. How many times had others’ unquestioned confidence that it swam in the same waters they did troubled its peace of mind: their chummy conviction that “we’re all in this together” proclaimed over and over across the bait ball as if this assurance were a plus and its value beyond debate? To which “No thank you” had been the only response the sardine ever felt would do justice to its personal sense of self. Going it alone, indifferent to the dangers, had been its wish always. And it didn’t matter that “going it alone” might not have amounted at first to more than straying a few feet every now and then from the swirling mass. The sardine’s imagination extended those few moments of independence to a lifetime far below the surface comfort of others’ company, down, down where nightmarish creatures carried their own lights and savaged one another. In the depths of the sardine’s imagining lay another life that the frenzy of the bait ball held at bay only by shutting out anything that distracted its members from their frantic veering about among perceived threats. As though each abrupt shift wasn’t simply a repeated and desperate pursuit of mere survival. The futility of this compulsive drive here and there to no lasting gain was clear to see from outside the bait ball. Carried along by the force of a dizzying angst that bound all sardines together (constantly worried about turning one way while their companions turned another), little wonder all eyes were directed towards any sardine that claimed to know where it was going and could provide the lead others gratefully followed. Until directions changed, that was. Yet when this inevitably happened, the assumption that all sardines should now follow a new leader never wavered. So the entire school was off again in a flash, as if they’d never been headed anywhere else than they now were. From the outside looking in, the sardine had concluded, at least there was no blind confidence all was for the best. Or that life as a sardine was anything more than an iffy proposition. You were doubtless better off on your own, whatever the increased risks. Following your own direction within the bait ball was impossible. Following it outside could leave you prey to horrors from the deep, there was no denying, but the risk was worth taking. Without the prospect of endless reaches to explore, what was “ocean” supposed to mean? So why did life as a sardine apart leave this one occasionally longing again for the press of the crowd? Was it really prepared to trade struggles of its own choosing for those set by round after narrowing round of reflexive dodges for safety until the limits of one’s life were not much greater in the end than a small metal tin? No, it wasn’t the expectation of safety in numbers that caused the sardine to feel the renewed draw of the bait ball at such times. What, return in hopes the dangers of existence might somehow be lessened for yourself with the sudden snatching away of a neighbor or two by some fleet predator, thus lowering the odds of your own demise? Actuarial roulette as a guide to life choices? The pull against the sardine’s desire for independence was of quite a different nature. The opposite, in fact. Aware that the personal ball of whirling disquiet within each member of the species could not be escaped as easily as the desperation with which they raced together against death, it recognized the cold reality cast over all their lives like a net no individual effort could break through. This shared reality none of them was spared, regardless of how much any one fish might believe it deserved to be excused. Nor should it be excused, the sardine admitted. Packed tightly in the bait ball or tightly in a can on a cupboard shelf or even “swimming free”—once a sardine always a sardine was a truth that went beyond all independent efforts at self-definition. Nevertheless, this sense of a fate shared at a distance didn’t lessen the loneliness that came at times to a life on the outside. Belonging and self-definition still formed an uneasy balance that neither lasted nor provided much comfort even in the short run. And a return to companionship by default within the bait ball wasn’t really a possibility for the sardine at this point, anyhow, after a lifetime of swimming in larger and larger arcs away from the point where it had set out on its own. Both it and the others had traveled far since then, in directions that none could retrace. That none knew how to retrace.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans