Fish and Theology, by Coelho Neto

(A translation by Francis K Johnson of Nas águas do mar, which was published in the collection A bico de pena in 1904.)

H

is most eloquent pulpit wasn’t adorned with precious carvings or gold leaf, had never seen chisel or gouge, wasn’t ensconced in artificial foliage, and no cherubs circled it in jocund rout, blowing trumpets and playing the lyre. No, the pulpit where he was most eloquent was a huge, rugged cliff, bare and black, rammed into a narrow beach. The waves seethed at its foot, which was swathed in putrid seaweed. That’s where the seagulls landed when the sky was blue, where the petrels took refuge when gales lashed the seas, and it was from that spot that the saint spoke to the fishes.

Anthony wasn’t a friar of the depths, although it’s true that the deep emerald waters do possess religious congregations. Heine mentions two or three marine bishops who got washed up on the cold northern coasts by the force of some heretical wave or were caught in a daring fisherman’s net.

Anthony had been born in Lisbon. He was a Capuchin friar, and the reason his biographers give for his penchant for preaching to fishes is salutary: humankind – incredulous and inattentive – didn’t listen to his holy words. In vain did he call them to the path of virtue, in vain did he promise them beatitude. Ungrateful humankind found vice more pleasurable and preferred life on terra firma to that other, merely hypothetical life hypothesised by preachers. ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,’ they’d say. The most assiduous church goers were the flies.

So that’s why the saint decided to preach to the fishes.

As soon as he emerged at the top of the cliff, the waters filled with shoals of fish, and the green sea took on a silver hue. Rock-bass, grouper, sardine, whiting, the monstrous whale, the voracious shark, sole, ray, octopus, eel, all the representatives of the scaly people hurried from their hideaways, rose to the placid surface of the sea and listened devoutly to the friar’s sermon.

Anthony’s speech was inspired, with references to the ephemeral and treacherous pleasures of life, and when he alluded to heaven the inflammatory power of his word was such that the fishes started to flagellate the sea with their flippers, that being how fishes show enthusiasm.  Some of the most susceptible converts burst into tears and the noise of their clamouring for baptism was deafening.

Anthony came down from the cliff and, as his catechumens were already in the best of fonts, he limited himself to saying the sacramental words, giving each the name that came to his lips at that miraculous moment, and that’s how the fishes got the names by which they’re known to this day in the markets.

Having finished his sermon, the saint dismissed the congregation and stepped down from his rocky pulpit, and immense was the joy in the sea. Convinced by the promise of peace the saint had given them, the fishes swam happily away through the moonlit waves. The whales blew frothy fountains, the porpoises turned the most stupendous somersaults imaginable, the rays jumped and did resounding belly-flops on the water and the sardines swarmed in their thousands like golden sandbanks, shimmering and resplendent.

The only one who, instead of departing triumphantly like his brothers to spread the news about the preacher’s benevolence and eloquence, the only one who swam down to the deepest cavern, through the thickest seaweed, the only one who slid into the labyrinths of coral and stayed there quietly to see how things would pan out, was an old swordfish, prudent and distrustful.

That’s where Mr Swordfish was when he saw a fat grey mullet passing, a very well-appointed grey mullet, swishing her tail as if on her way to some urgent pleasure.

‘Sister Mullet,’ said the crafty old fish, ‘you’re looking very perky. What’s the hurry?’

‘What’s the hurry?! What a question! I’m going to enjoy the wonderful moonlight up above and inhale the aroma of the earth gardens.’

‘And would you not be afraid of the fisherman’s hook and net?’

‘The hook and net? Didn’t you hear the saint’s sermon, Brother Swordfish?’

‘I did, I did, Sister, and here I am in this cavern because there’s none deeper in these seas; and I think you’d do better to stay between the rocks where you were born. Never mind about the moonlight or the aroma. He’s fooling you, Sister Mullet, he’s fooling you.’

‘Don’t you trust the saint, Brother Swordfish?!’

‘The saint is a man and I’m a fish, Sister.’

‘So what?!’

‘Ah! It’s obvious you’re very young, Sister. The God of humankind died for them, not for us. It was humankind that brought him to earth with their cries for mercy. And what did they do? They nailed him to a cross. And the consequence of such ingratitude? Do you not think that humankind deserved to suffer the most terrible punishment?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well then, Sister, the punishment came, but it was the fishes who were punished – the fishes who had done nothing. When humankind commemorate the sacrifice of their God, they lay into us without mercy; they lay waste to the seas…  but you know all that. If we had a God, we’d also have a lent and during lent we could take our revenge on humankind, but we’re fishes, we don’t have a God, we don’t have politics, we don’t have anything.’

‘So you think St Anthony…?’

‘I think St Anthony’s up to something. Words from a man like that… to fishes… Hmm! There’s a catch in it, Sister! When a superior being starts slumming it with the riff-raff… don’t trust him! You’ll be lucky to escape with your life. As far as humankind are concerned, fish heaven is in a pie. He’s fooling you, Sister Mullet. Let the others go up to the surface.’

The next morning a terrified stray sardine passed by the old swordfish.

‘What’s up, Sister Sardine? What’s up? Why the kerfuffle?’

‘Oh! Brother Swordfish… the friar’s sermon… the friar’s sermon…!’

‘The friar’s most beautiful sermon! An admirable sermon! A masterpiece of style!’

‘A wicked trap! The nets swept the sea from shore to shore and, because we believed in the promise of peace, the haul was huge. I don’t even know if there’ll be any fish left to continue the species in these parts.’

‘I can’t vouch for the others, but I can guarantee there’ll still be swordfish and sardines – sardines can escape the nets, and swordfish don’t believe in words. Words, words, words…!’

And it seemed as if the soul of Hamlet had reincarnated itself in that wise old fish.

Ever since that time, the fishes have never wanted to hear sermons. And that’s one of the reasons why miracles are becoming rarer… and voters don’t turn up for elections.

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