Rule number one is don’t stand out. Rule number two is stick to your own. Rule number three is swim in the same direction. Rule number four is follow the first three rules.*
Ray learned the rules early on. His best friend Artie was a plump jack with blue-tinged fins. Ray was always a bit more narrow and reflectively silver in color. Therefore, after awhile, Ray and Artie only saw each other in passing as they shoaled and schooled in different circles of fish. There was the pretty angelfish, Sabrina, who was from the same coral patch. Ray loved swimming along with her under the drifting kelp and racing through the currents that surged over their reef. Ray would stare at her beautiful blues and yellows and those long trailing fins for hours. Sabrina didn’t mind hanging out with Ray and the other jacks. She stood out, though. That rogue barracuda appeared out of nowhere on the very last day that Ray knew her.
Don’t stand out. Stick to your own. Easy enough. But swimming in the same direction?
It’s so boring, thought Ray. Constantly moving in the same direction, like one mega fish, was demoralizing. Ray had his own ideas and desires. Sure, schooling** wasn’t all bad, the food was nice and he had a lot of great friends, but shoaling*** was more Ray’s style. He could flit across the reef and explore, while still being part of the group. Now and again he could sneak off and visit some of his more reclusive friends, like Eli and Ezekiel, a couple of eels from over on the deep side of the reef. Ray longed for independence, but he knew the risks. He’d seen it.
Oscar and Edna were odd ducks, as far as jacks go. You could tell by looking at them. There was just the tiniest amount of crazy radiating from their big dark eyes. They were nuts too, darting from the school to snatch random bits of flotsam and jetsam out of the deep blue, like scavengers, only to drop their tiny treasure in the next moment.
Oscar liked to do long, swooping circles away from the safe boundary of the school, while Edna liked to shoot up to the surface and then dive straight down like a pelican crashing through the center of the school. One afternoon, Edna darted to the surface. Ray noticed a shadow briefly darken the water, but it was gone just as fast. Edna never returned. A few weeks before that, Oscar had been in mid-swoop when that dolphin happened past. It just didn’t pay to break the rules, but Ray really couldn’t stand the monotony and the boredom and the homogenized existence.
And all that togetherness. Sure it’s safe, but at what cost?
When that freak storm battered the reef, Ray knew immediately that he had an opportunity. He was no ass, that jack.
The destruction was primarily along the deep side of the reef. Eli and Ezekiel were OK, but a lot of coral had been shredded. A number of boats and their anchors raked the top of the reef, decimating the anemone fields and the delicate antler coral. Most importantly, the tidal currents had thrown entire schools into disarray and even relocated a number of schools from further down the reef. A silvery group of jacks caught Ray’s eye. They were slender and silver and sassy, with just a hint of salmon coloring, (pinkish, but not enough to throw off the silver overtones). Ray imagined that he would fit in nicely. It was time for a change.
Ray notified his leadership council. The typical arguments about respecting similarities and group cohesion were made, but Ray held firm to his beliefs, stating that a change would do him good. Dissent was discouraged and dealt with harshly. Ray suddenly found that his opinions were not considered and he wasn’t surprised when he found himself nudged to the outside of the school and often left behind during shoaling. A bait fish. He was no longer wanted.
He accepted his fate with dignity.
After introducing himself to some relocated fish and proving himself to be adept at finding food, Ray knew he would be accepted by the new school. He suggested to his new group that they follow the reef north, to search out less populated waters for a new start. The yearly barracuda gathering was under way and Ray figured it was a good time to move on.
Ray dropped down the deep side of the reef to say goodbye to Eli and Ezekiel. They didn’t say much, but they never did. The shadowy movements of the lurking baracuda spooked him and he swam quickly to the top side. Just as he edged over the upper lip of vertical coral he ran into his old school. Startled, his old companions moved in unison off to the left and then descended the deep side of the reef. Not a one spoke or wished him well. He swam to his new group and the last preparations were made before departing for the north. Ray took his place proudly near the head of the school and with a silvery flash they were gone. None of them noticed the circling predators whipping the remaining schools into a frenzy.
In a matter of minutes the round and the thin and the silver and the yellow and the blue were annihilated.
Eli and Ezekiel lived to be very old eels. They often reminisced about the little jack fish who occasionally visited them on the deep side of the reef. They never saw him again. New schools had come and gone many times over, but none of those fish had been curious enough or independent enough to seek the old-timers out. It was business as usual on the reef, week in and week out. Unless you had a deep hole to hide in, the barracuda always returned and when they did there was pretty much nothing a fish could do. Some things never change.
*This is a work of fiction. Obviously.
**Schooling is when fish swim as a united group, often turning on a dime as though they were a single, giant organism, not one made of hundreds of individuals. It is safe and threatening to would-be predators.
***Shoaling is when fish group together and kind of do their own thing while still enjoying the safety of numbers and similar coloring. It is confusing to predators because they have trouble discerning where one fish ends and another begins.