Rabbit stared over the rosy folds of Elder Humphead’s bumpy cheeks and thought for the first time that he should lie. His lungs stung, each inhale plummeting a tornado of gannets into the rioting sea of his chest, stabbing at it as it would as school of clueless sardines. “Oh yes I’m fine,” Rabbit replied. “I’ll have no problem starting a new story tomorrow.” Pointed teeth blunted over years of biting tore a smile across Elder Humphead’s scaly skin. The bulge of Elder Humphead’s forehead intimidated most of the other Fishies, but he never missed a week. Rabbit’s promise swirled colours in her cheeks, and the tangled streamers in her hair, which had been drooping over her faded floral dress just moments before, shot to life like electric eels on the hunt. Guilt crept behind him, its fin slicing water, but he scared it off.
He had his duty.
Every structure in Reef needed smiles. Fleshy pockets adorned all the walls, but without his work, and that of his fellow Fishies, they stayed empty. Smiles attracted the seeds drifting in the wind and planted them in the pockets, where petals then burst vivid as rainbows, strengthening the limestone. That was his job. Make them smile so they could snag the colours vagrant in the breeze.
However, he had not given his best effort to Elder Humphead today. She lived in her own penthouse of Mussid design, and although it was ridged like an enormous brain and swelled sideways to hog the skyline for itself, it was domed and compact; Rabbit forgot how much work it was to get such a bulbous and stocky frame to catch seeds. He had just come from working in Mesopelagia, deeper in Reef; the oldest neighbourhood, it was shaded by roofs of ancient Acroporan mansions, which branched like rutting moose to commandeer the sky. It was easy to catch the seeds of colour in such a mushrooming plate.
The sharksucker of sleep darted toward his eyelids, frantic to latch on, but Ms. Water’s apartment needed cleaning, and it was only midday. A tremulous itching pulled him down, sinking his insides, but pride collided with these more mutinous emotions when the work he had sowed exploded in his eyes. Flowers waved from the walls of every home, a carpet of colour attracting legions of straying souls to Reef and comforting those who had made their home. Lanes of rippling violet twirled along spindly towers, between which bushy orange dwellings spread like polydactyl hands. More apartments were down the street, mauve humps that gurgled like boiling water petrified while bursting. The souls of Reef were as diverse as its architecture, from the skittish Madame Angel running for food to the brusque Captain Grouper on his patrol over the fringes of town. Rabbit and the other Fishies kept this diversity alive.
Rabbit’s coughing echoed through his hollow chest while sputtering red speckles to the ground. Didn’t matter. Everything looked so drab on this corner. Something was wrong; he had to work. Ms. Water needed him; her home had been patchy with colour on his last visit. A good cleaning would make her happy.
Rabbit shuddered. Yellow, blue, now purple spewed out of his lungs. A pile of fallen petals was ahead, velvet cushions the buoyancy of clouds… No! He can rest later. Ms. Water was just across the street…
“Bleached?! Clear the building! Now!”
“Get everyone out! The quarantine is going up! This area is Bleached now.”
“Hey, you on the ground–can you get up?” A shadow blocked the blinding white sun.
“Don’t bother with him. Look at his coughing. Can’t you see he’s Useless too? Just save yourself!” The shadow evaporated and the sun’s infrared onslaught punched Rabbit’s eyes; he shut them, but they still burned.
A limp body dragged out of Ms. Water’s apartment. “Stop! I can make her smile…I can still fix it…” Rabbit flopped on the ground. The thunder of frenzied feet crashed against the shore of his consciousness, eroding it away.
A sperm whale of memories swallowed him, a house caving in, colours crumbling into pigmented rubble. It eventually spat him awake, where a harrowing rumble whisked a tidal rhythm across his chest. His own breath.
The triviality of his arms, marred by a foggy translucence against the starch-white pebbles of the road, shocked Rabbit to his feet. He lurched like a tower of kelp in the vestigial surge of a violent storm. Something moved ahead. Oh. Just the flicks of his own eyes. Jagged shadows corrupted his expectations for the skyline. Hunchbacked roofs had broken into shards of pointed teeth. Boulders usurped the empty road, leaking from a building, tall as a mountain, throwing a tantrum, the avalanche of its wild rage ignored. A window leered down with scrupulous emptiness, as if it had never intended to house souls at all, the ancient scenes of battles etched above it now sagging mockingly into shadows. Rabbit swung his head to shake loose some memory. He recognized nothing. The same forsaken frailty was cloned on every corner; architecture distinguished only by random cracks, patterns which coalesced into faces of fear, sadness, or loathing when you stared too long. Some houses were nothing but skeletons, a mesh of crumbling supports, devoid of any fleshy filling. Empty holes ignited his trypophobia. A green slimy sheen sparked Rabbit’s eye, but it coated everything with overbearing purification; a weapon for the monotony, not against it. There were no flowers. Nothing dazzled.
A lumbering shadow teetered through the rolling dust before tipping over. It lingered on the road, an immobile lump. Rabbit wheezed like an injured sea lion, bleeding for attention, but the petulant puffs of air scrapping his throat refused to form syllables. Terror slashed at his guts, but found there was nothing to attack. He could see through his own hand. He was empty too.
Rabbit took one step forward and slipped on the slime.
The fall brought him closer to the lump’s face, white and cracked with wrinkles redolent of the derelict abodes tumbling around them.
“Where…to…Reef…” Rabbit managed to spurt, enlisting every tendon of his diaphragm and throat.
The lump was an old fish, draped in torn black rags; clothing of no profession he knew; a withered face of no family he could remember. The fish’s lips parted, an abyssal trench in the making. “In the Bleached. Can’t return to Reef. We’re Useless. No point.” Utterances brandished from a mouth practiced in sharpening words out of wheezing. The fish’s head sank back to the pebbles.
Exhaustion crushed Rabbit’s desires into a crumb on his heart. The cloud exhumed from his fall sank onto his face; the dust did not even itch his skin.
As the setting sun snaked an expansive silhouette over his desiccated skin and shadowy tongues licked his dropping eyelids, something shook loose. A resilient impatience began scurrying around inside him, evading the lethargy that was seeping through every crack in his bones. Soon, not sure how he had even stood up, Rabbit was hobbling toward the broad shadow as if it were some inverse angler fish, drawing prey to a diffuse darkness rather than a bobbing light. Out of alleys, many eyes, poisoned by a potent pallor, glared jealous at his stifled walk. Rabbit yearned to collapse, like them, but wreckage after wreckage, he was pulled.
Each step devoured his haste; this final spark was running scared out his feet. Soon his legs would snap. But when night fell, something beat on his heart and stirred his flitting embers. The current carried a sob; the loneliness of the sound stung Rabbit’s neck where he had once been kissed.
Above him, blocking the last pink stragglers of sunlight, erupted the branching silhouette. Acroporan design.
Wisps of colour taunted him from beyond the border of fire coral blocking the way to Reef. Rabbit wavered on a precipice, the sinews of his soul tugging him towards an internal abyss. His innate desperation, which had been pulsating within him for years, now wound like a moray eel through the rocks clogging his upward momentum, hiding.
The night was still young. There was still time.
The eel struck.
Rabbit leapt through the burning forest of fire coral as welts erupted like volcanic islands on his papery skin. Those who put up this barrier expected him to be weak. The tanginess of salt in Reef’s air expunged the decay from his nostrils as he stumbled to the cold front gates of the mansion, gagging all the way but with no more colour to lose. The moon was winking behind the mansion’s thick branches. He had to get in.
A pink petal grazed his forehead. The floral stocks of the behemoth structure were snaping from their pockets and disappearing on the yawning wind.
He had to get to them. There was no more time.
“Hey! Who-Rabbit? What are you doing here? They said you were- Oh my god! You are. Useless! Get out of here!” Parrot. The most senior of Fishies. “Get away from me!”
“Get back to the Bleached! Now!” Parrot clenched Rabbit’s arm, tugging him away from his duty. “You have to go before you ruin it.”
Rabbit leapt onto Parrot’s shoulders. He fought like a Deepsea Fishie, slow and sluggish, yet imbued with the patient power necessary for work in the deep, dark trenches. “I…must…”
“Get off!” Parrot smacked Rabbit across his cracking cheeks, but Rabbit squeezed harder.
The moonlight spilled a pale paint over Mesopelagia, the perfect cover for its dying colours. His clients were alone in that house. “They need smiles! I can make them smile!” Rabbit thrust Parrot to the sand and strained for the gate. It was too far. Parrot punched him in the back, so Rabbit kicked Parrot in the gut. Parrot charged. A pile of petals broke underneath their plummeting bodies. “Stop it! My-” Gasping interrupted Rabbit’s soliloquy of rage, but a heavier wet heaving crashed from behind him, where Parrot lied, quivering and coughing colour.
Rabbit remembered spying on her; she had seen him from her chair and had time to pad on makeup from her vanity to cover up the moisture blotting her cheeks. She returned to knitting, something she enjoyed; her patterns were displayed on walls throughout their home. Covering them up.
What are you doing, honey? Sneaking isn’t nice. Why don’t you come sit?
He loves you.
But when is he coming back?
Come closer, see what I’m knitting. Do you like it?
Good, because it’s for you.
Yes, because the happiness of my little boy is the most precious thing. Here, let’s wipe those tears; they mix up all the colours.
When Rabbit woke, a latent fruity smell left a sense of something waving in the breeze; the fringes of a dress, a toss of petals, or perhaps a lonely mess of hair.
A beacon of familiarity from across the Bleached street fractured the fog rising in Rabbit’s memory. He thought about going over, but instead he wandered down more parched streets, waiting for his knees to implode and his head to topple. An eternity passed before Rabbit tumbled near that structure again. By then his fear had lost its meaning.
Rabbit crawled up the stairs to find a large chasm gaping through the upstairs landing. A hoarse cackle echoed from the only room he knew. A frail demand followed, “Who’s there?” Elder Humphead beamed when she saw Rabbit slumping around the hole in the floor and beckoned him to sit. Her dome-like forehead had caved in and the rest of her body was as shriveled as her voice. “Rabbit! You looked exhausted.”
“Useless…” All he could mutter.
“Ah yes. I thought so. Here, eat.” Elder Humphead scooped a glob out of the green muck coating her chair. “Take a break. It’s important you eat algae.” Rabbit grimaced at the slime squelching in her hands. “Eat some!” A fit of anxious coughs hit her body like a breaching great white shredding a seal. For her sake, he sucked some into his mouth and rivers of muscles he had forgotten flushed the drought of his face. He grinned. With energy.
Rabbit shoved another handful down his throat. His heart revved. He did not stop until the peach rays of the sunset slanting through the hole in the roof reminded him again of his duty.
“Where…are…you…going?” Elder Humphead ended her inquiry with a longing gaze. She was Useless, like him. He couldn’t help her anymore.
“Make…smiles.” He hoped she would understand.
The Acroporan branches loomed close. He had forgotten the ecstasy that blood pulsing through legs aroused. The rush of running had been another sacrifice to the fugue of the Bleached. He burst through the fire coral, scratching away the pitiful welts. The gates were open, and there was no other Fishie around. His chance at last.
Rabbit dashed into the cavern at the mansion’s base, but a searing stench stalled his clamber. The echo of his dry breath tumulted off grey, bony limestone already abandoned by its vivid hue. Bleached.
Click here for Part 2
Behind the Science
James Robinson and colleagues examined 23 years of artisanal fisheries data and scientific surveys of fish and reef habitat in the Seychelles to investigate how heat-induced coral bleaching affects the productivity of coral reef fish populations. Many fishes depend on coral for food, but also habitat, as coral species grow skeletons of limestone, providing structure to tropical reefs. To get energy for growth, corals enter a symbiotic relationship with microscopic cells of algae called Symbiodiniaceae. The coral provides habitat for the unicellular algae while the algae photosynthesize, producing sugar to help the coral grow and multiply. However, high water temperatures can stress the corals, breaking down this relationship and causing the Symbiodiniaceae to leave. Since a coral get its colour from these symbiotic partners, once enough abandon it for the water column, the coral has “bleached.” Bleaching can be temporary, but if the stress is not reduced and the symbiotic sharing of sugar restored, corals will eventually die, followed by reef structural collapse. As such, recruitment of baby fish is expected to decline on bleached reefs and result in reduced fisheries productivity. In contrast, Robinson and colleagues discovered that after a mass bleaching event in 1998, some fish species survived on bleached reefs by eating the large algae species that grow over and replace dead or dying corals. On these bleached reefs, where living coral was replaced by carpets of green and brown algae, the stars were the fast-growing siganids, or rabbitfish (pictured left). These herbivorous fish sustained or increased fisheries catches, maintaining yield for artisanal fishers in the Seychelles. But there’s more: next week find out why this is not the complete story.