Once a sardine was feeling kind of lonesome. That hadn’t always been true. Precisely the opposite emotion had characterized most of the sardine’s life. Rather than feeling at home in the swirl of fellow sardines, it had suffered from unwelcome bouts of claustrophobia at being pressed close by those with whom it was convinced it shared so little. Not that it nursed any illusions it wasn’t a sardine. Rubbing against one another in frenzied bait balls, it and all the others must appear identical in every regard. But this sardine had long been convinced such was not the full story. As far as it could tell, few of those around it experienced the same sense of alienation it did at a common assumption all sardines could be defined by what they shared. How many times had their unexamined confidence that it swam in the same waters they did threatened to swallow it up whole: the chummy mentality of the bait ball that “we’re all in this together,” proclaimed over and over again as if this assurance were a plus and its value beyond debate? To which “No thank you” had been the only response the sardine had ever felt was true to its personal sense of self. Going it alone, indifferent to the dangers, had been its own, confident guide. And it didn’t matter that “going it alone” might never have been more than straying a few feet every now and then from the bait ball. The sardine’s imagination served to extend those few feet to a lifetime, from the sunlit shallows to far beyond light’s comfort, down, down where nightmarish creatures carried their own light and savaged each other. In the abyss of the sardine’s restless dark swam another life that the frenzy of the bait ball held at bay only by shutting out anything that distracted its members from the endless task of veering about from fear to fear as though each abrupt shift wasn’t a repeat of the last in an unchanging pursuit of mere survival. From outside the bait ball, the hopeless futility of this convulsive drive hither and thither to no lasting gain was clear to see. Carried along by the force of a dizzying anxiety that bound them all together, forever worried about turning one way while the bait ball turned another, little wonder all eyes were directed towards any fish that seemed to know where it was going. Until directions changed, that is. Yet when this inevitably happened, the assumption that all should continue to follow the new trend never waivered. So they were off again in a flash as if they’d never been headed anywhere else from the start. At least out here looking in, the sardine had concluded, there was no blind confidence all was for the best. Or that life as a sardine was anything more than an iffy proposition at most. 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 your own monsters from the deep, there was no denying that, but the risk was worth taking. Without the prospect of endless expanses 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 and the mad rush of their futile ways? Was it really prepared to trade wide currents of its own choosing for those set by round after narrowing round of communal dodges for safety, until the limits one accepted to life were not much greater than a tightly packed tin? No, it wasn’t the expectation of safety in numbers causing the sardine to feel the renewed draw of the bait ball at such times. What, to return in hopes the dangers of the life you’d freely chosen might somehow be lessened by the sudden snatching away of a neighbor or two that lowered the odds of your own demise: actuarial roulette as a guide to life choices? The pull against the sardine’s liberty was of a different nature, the opposite in fact. Aware the ball of whirling disquiet within each member of the species could not be escaped as easily as the one in which they raced together against death, it sensed the cold bond of vulnerability cast over all their lives like a net no 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, the sardine had come to understand. Packed tightly in the bait ball or tightly in a can gathering dust on some shelf or even “swimming free”—once a sardine always a sardine was a truth that transcended any individual straining at self-definition. Yet this sense of confining, unwanted community didn’t lessen the loneliness that came at times to a life on the outside. Belonging and freedom still were an awkward match that neither lasted nor provided much comfort even in the short run. And a return to the companionship promised by the bait ball wasn’t a possibility for the sardine at this point, not after a lifetime of swimming in larger and larger arcs. At best, fading memories provided a shadowy link to the common point from which the sardine had set out, but both it and the bait ball had traveled far since then in directions neither could retrace. Neither could retrace.
Copyright © 2011 by Geoffrey Grosshans