by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, April 2020
The surface of the decorative pond in the neighbor’s yard shone like a mirror, smooth and bright, reflecting the overcast sky in shades of pale gray and silver. Cora wanted to know what was hidden underneath the mirror, so she jumped down from the fence and stalked over to the stone ledge around the pond, tail lashing behind her.
Keeping her paws braced carefully on the stone ledge, Cora lowered her head towards the water, sniffing. The angle changed, and suddenly the reflection of the sky and her own orange and black splotched face disappeared. The calico cat could see directly into the underworld of water as clearly as through a pane of window glass. Green, silty, and mysterious.
And someone was staring back at her. A tiny face, also splotched with orange and black, but with a wide o-shaped mouth and tentacle-like whiskers.
Cora’s tail twitched with excitement, and she felt an itch in her paw, begging her to swipe at the alien face staring up at her from the water. There was little more to the creature than a face — behind the gawping visage, it tapered down in a teardrop-shape, tipped with a fluttering tailfin and with a pair of fins delicately draping down from either side.
It was a very pretty animal. Partly because it was so odd.
Cora had never stared a living fish in the face before, and she felt a soothing, slowing, stillness fill her as she stared, gaze locked with the orange piscine. Even her restless tail stopped twitching.
“Who are you?” the fish burbled under the water. The sound floated up in little bubbles that rose out of the surface of the pond and popped beside Cora’s triangular ears.
“The Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death,” Cora purred, extremely pleased with herself and the power she felt over this naive little fish. “I am your personal savior from the mundanity of your current life, and your courier to a glorious afterlife. Inside my belly.”
The orange fish, exactly the right size to fit inside her mouth, twirled in a pirouette. Its fins trailed after it like a gauzy train on a ballgown. It seemed almost too pretty to eat. Like a perfectly decorated cupcake.
At least, too pretty to eat right away.
“Angels are always dangerous,” the fish burbled. Little bubbles rose up and formed a rainbow arc over the water, bursting in sequence to say: “But a vision of beauty such as you could never be grim.”
Cora leaned so close to the water, the tips of her whiskers dimpled the wet surface. When the fish pirouetted again, its back broke the glassy surface of the pond, and Cora felt its golden scales slide, tickling, beneath her whiskers. A shiver ran down her back.
The fish was flirting with her. Flirting with its own death. It was not scared. Cora admired that.
“Tell me about the heavens, oh angel,” the fish burbled. “Share your wisdom!”
Cora’s ears stood up tall at the idea of herself as wise. She’d always been the kitten in her household. No matter how old she grew, the grumpy older cat, Edgar Allen, would never let her forget that she’d been added to the family late. He’d been sleeping on the same square of the yellow couch for years before Cora was ever brought home from the Humane Society.
So Cora settled down, crossing her front paws under her chin, and whispered secrets of the world above to her fish acolyte who she decided to call Goldie. Fish names are unpronounceable by cat tongues.
Every day, Cora came and told stories to Goldie, and over the weeks, the itchy feeling in her paw went away. She no longer wanted to eat the little fish, only to gaze at her and talk to her and share every thought that crossed her mind while the fish blinked at her with adoring eyes. Even on rainy days, Cora came to be with Goldie. The raindrops never fell on her as she leaned over the edge of Goldie’s pond. The droplets slipped to the side, raining down in a circle around the cat, leaving her fur perfectly comfortable and dry.
One day, Cora brought a hot pink camellia flower that she’d chewed off the bush and dropped it into the pond for Goldie. The little fish swam up to the flower, resting on the bottom of the pond, and touched it with her delicate fin — orange gauze draped over mathematically perfect pink petals.
“It’s beautiful,” Goldie burbled. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“There are hundreds on the bush,” Cora mewed, “now that it’s in bloom. I wish I could show you. I wish…” Her voice trailed off as she imagined being able to travel through the neighborhood with Goldie, sharing everything, instead of only stories.
“I’ve been working on something…” Goldie burbled bashfully. “I don’t know how well it will work.” She floated up to the surface, and the water of the pond dimpled upward around her. “Don’t laugh,” she admonished.
“Solemnly sworn,” Cora agreed. She understood the value of dignity.
Goldie’s fins swirled, and she rose higher, above the surface of the pond. The water followed her, flowing into the air in amorphous globs, stretching and blorbing, raising Goldie up until she floated high enough above the water to stare her feline friend directly in her golden eyes.
Cora blinked, but Goldie wasn’t done. The water around the little fish coalesced into a coherent form — the shape of a cat, clear as glass. Goldie floated in the water cat’s head, controlling the fluidic feline’s movements. She leaned forward, and the wet nose of her avatar touched the pink nose of her friend.
“I’ve never seen anything else as beautiful as you,” Cora mewed. “The camellia bush pales in comparison.”
Goldie drifted down from the head of her avatar into its watery chest. She was a fish-shaped heart, beating in the breast of a cat-shaped vessel. “Show me anyway,” Goldie said.
Cora and Goldie walked through the neighborhood, side by side, fuzzy tail and water tail curling together. The sky reflected off of Goldie’s avatar, turning her cheerfully blue one moment and then leaving her transparent as glass the next. When they came to the camellia bush, its emerald leaves and hot pink flowers skewed in reflection over Goldie’s glassy surface.
Cora laughed. “I was wrong. Now you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Don’t be hasty,” Goldie said. “We have a lot more exploring together to do.”