Luminescence: A Short Story

I originally wrote this several years ago, but I thought I’d edit it a bit and repost it here. I don’t know if it’s sci fi or fantasy (or both?), but I hope that you enjoy it. Content warning for depiction of mental illness and self-harm. Photo above by Philipp Fahlbusch.


The girl comes every day when she thinks no one is watching. As the first rays of morning light filter through the clear water, her wavering image appears on the ripples of the surface. A girl with brown hair and a white patterned dress. Human faces all look the same to me, but I always recognize the sad and lonely look in her eyes as she gazes on the waterfall.

This side of the pond is still saturated with the dark of night, perpetuating my bioluminescent glow. I crouch inside my tiny cave, its rocky walls shimmering with purple light, and watch the sunlight spread across the pond. Every night, I swim in water colored like the faintest beginnings of a sunrise, and every morning I wait for the curse to be broken. I long to be made plain again.

I hide inside my cave, longing for the light, and the girl stares into the water as if she is longing, too. She watches the waterfall, and I watch her. She never speaks a word, but her expression changes, as if her thoughts are too loud to keep inside. Her frowns come and go like clouds drifting across the surface of the sun.

I watch now as her eyes close and scrunch together tight, as if she feels a sudden pain. It makes me think of hunger pangs, of flapping with a tattered fin, of the ache inside my heart when I remember what I should forget.

I wish she didn’t have to feel that way. I press my twin tail fins together, then rapidly draw them apart. They swing forward in tandem, pushing against the water currents so that I back into my cave still further. The last thing she needs right now is to see me.

I wish my cave was bigger. I wish my fluorescence didn’t glow so brightly. Still, I’m glad that she has never seen me. I like it when she comes here. If she caught a glimpse of me, even just a single time, she might never come back again.

I wish I knew what is wrong with me so that I could just hide that instead of hiding everything.

The sunrise is particularly beautiful this morning. The reflection of pink clouds dances on the surface as a koi fish’s tail flicks the water into motion. I lift my eyes from the image just in time to see that the girl’s eyes were focused on it, too. She smiles, not as though she’s happy, but wistfully perhaps. I wish that I could flap my tail fins and make the picture dance again, but maybe things like that are what make people hate me.

Brite Fish are bred to be companions, but I stayed at the aquarium long after my brood mates were adopted. And when my turn came, it didn’t last. Passed from one person to the next after just a week, I didn’t understand. Did I not entertain him enough? Did I spend too much time acclimating to my new environment and not enough forging a friendship?

I was determined, as soon as I splashed into my second tank, not to disappoint the woman who had placed me there. I swam to the front of the tank whenever she entered the room, dancing through the water with routines that I spent hours practicing. I listened whenever she talked to me, floating up and down to nod and tilting my body to convey emotion. When she wasn’t there, I chased the sun beams filtering through the window, absorbing so much light that I glowed like a purple moon at night.

But that wasn’t good enough. There must have been some flaw with me, something that I couldn’t see. I never saw it coming. One day, I was playing hide and seek among the rocks and plants and decorative ship wreck in her fish tank, and the next day I was scooped into a plastic bag and carried out past humans lugging cardboard boxes and loading furniture into a moving van. I wasn’t taken to a car. I was dumped into the nearest koi pond. Discarded like a waste of space.

I had done everything for her, and none of it was good enough. I’m not good enough.

I’m so caught up in the memories that I don’t realize the brown-haired girl is crying until she lets out a quiet sob. My heart jumps inside my chest, and I don’t realize that I’ve left my cave until it’s too late.

The girl’s eyes widen. “Is that… are you a Brite Fish?”

My eyes lock with hers, and my body freezes. I feel the sunlight on my scales and know that the accursed glow has faded away at last, but she still stares as if she can’t take her eyes off of me. In the instant I swam out, I was filled with nothing but compassion, but now it’s panic that speeds my tail fins as I dive back to the safety of my cave.

“Wait!” she calls out. “Little Brite Fish, wait!”

Inside the cramped little space, I swish my side fins until I turn around. The girl is down on her hands and knees, bent so far over the water that the ends of her hair are trailing in it. I blink in fear as I realize she is looking at me. I back up until I’m doing the splits with each tail fin pressed flat against the back wall of my cave.

The sun has reached the far edge of the pool, flooding through even my shallow cave. Without my glow, I should be hidden. My purple scales have long since lost their shimmer. Dark and dull, they blend in with the shadows of the cave. But was she watching as I fled? Keeping her eyes trained upon the spot so that she can pick out the slightest flicker of a pectoral fin or a speck of light reflecting off the wide black lenses of my eyes?

The girl is usually gone by now. I should be out gathering my breakfast from the plants that grow among the rocks and dodging glances from the koi. Only the threat of starvation drives me out this way. I have no choice but to brush fins with my neighbors. I can wait until the human leaves.

She stays perfectly still, her eyes meeting mine. Finally, a cloud passes through her face again, and she stands, brushing mud off of her palms.

My heart pounds as I see how crowded the sea weed groves have gotten in the time since the sun has risen. I stay inside my cave, stomach groaning until the hunger grows enough to overthrow the fear. I rush down to the bottom and devour the nearest plants in sight.

I can feel their eyes on me, the koi who see me as a freak. I know that I was not like them to start with, but I’ve gotten less and less so. I’m thin with lack of nutrients. My scales cloud up and flake away, collecting on the floor of my cave. And now I’m chomping in with all the gracefulness of a rabid shark.

Thoroughly ashamed of myself, I swim away. I know I’ve ruined everything. The other fish all hate me, and the girl is never coming back.

And yet she does. Before the sun has even dipped its toes into the pond, her face appears. I barely recognize her with eyes that don’t stare into the waterfall. Instead, they dart over the surface of the water. Looking for something. Looking for me? I stay deep inside my cave, motionless, desperately hoping she won’t find me. I keep all of my muscles tense, guarding myself against the mistake that I made yesterday.

In spite of all my efforts, her eyes come to rest on the place where she saw me emerge yesterday, and the corner of her mouth twists. If I can see her, she must be able to see some small part of me. I feel my tail grow warmer.

“No, no, no!” I think. But I can’t stop the light. My purple glow spreads out, illuminating the cave entrance.

The girl gasps in a breath. “It’s beautiful.”


She smiles and settles down into her usual place beside the pond. She looks into the waterfall and then grows sad again. I think that she’s forgotten me. Perhaps the waterfall truly is the only thing that soothes her sadness. A tiny sliver of my presence is acceptable so long as she has that.

I am thankful for the waterfall. It means that she’ll keep coming back.

When I see her coming the next morning, my glow expands again.

“Good morning, little Brite Fish,” she says.

The next morning it happens again. And again. I can’t stop myself from doing it. The bioluminescence is an involuntary reaction; I can’t control it any more than I can stop my heart from beating.

One day she looks down at the purple glow outside the entrance to my cave and says, “My teacher told me that Brite Fish shine because a chemical inside them interacts with sunlight in the day, so they can’t help but glow at night. But she told me they were bred from fish that live in schools and that Brite Fish put into a big lake use light to find each other when they’re separated. They glow brighter when they’re looking for a friend. Do you have any friends, little Brite Fish?”

I gurgle out a laugh, and the bubbles dance up to the surface.

“I don’t see any others like you. Teacher said you’re not supposed to be kept on your own.  Are you lonely without a school?”

I feel the ache of it in my heart and close my eyes. Is this what the girl feels when she makes this expression?

“Why don’t you ever come out? I won’t hurt you.”

My light fades back to normal size. I know that she won’t hurt me. She won’t rub off my scales or damage my fins or drag me up into the air where I can’t breathe. But I also know she wouldn’t like me.

She doesn’t mind my glow. Maybe she’s curious about my species. But what about the rest of me? I know there’s something wrong with me. I know. I don’t know what it is, but, if she watches me enough to see it, her rejection will hurt ten times more than a tail fin ripped off of my body.

The girl frowns and says again: “I promise I won’t hurt you.” She tells me she’s a vegetarian. She never goes fishing, not even to catch and release, and she never wants to either. She empties her backpack to prove she isn’t carrying even the smallest net. She offers me a bit of bread crust from a sandwich she had packed for lunch.

Finally, her nostrils flare out into a sniffle. A hand swipes across her cheek, and, even through the distortions of the water’s surface, I see her eyes puff up.

“Please,” she says, “I only want a friend.”

Regret and shame sweep in like a cold current over the surface of my scales, and I feel my light blink out.

“No!” Her eyes close into that grimace of pain that’s so familiar.

It always hurts me to see her like that. This time it hits like a pressurized current to my heart. I open my gills wide, trying to take in more oxygen from the water, and then she’s gone. I whip my head left and right as far as the walls of my cave will allow. I swim ahead far enough to poke out my head.

Nowhere. She’s gone. Gone forever. The pond water around me is cold and dark as night as I swirl around and swim back into my cave head first. I smash my skull into the rock. I did this.

I still my fins and wait until I drift down to the floor. The rough bumps scrape against the scales lining my belly, but I don’t care. I skip breakfast that day. And dinner. None of the other fish care anyway. I’m nothing but an invasive species stealing food. I’m a freak.

I stay up all night waiting for the brown-haired girl, glowing bright with hope that fades with each new ray of sunlight piercing through the water. Finally, it floods my cave. I was stupid to have hope. What’s wrong with me? Did I forget that I’m ugly and useless and nothing that I do will ever, ever make up for who I really am?

I flood my mind with self-hatred until every inch of me is trembling. Why couldn’t I just eat her breadcrumbs? She wanted me to. She was asking. What kind of Brite Fish is afraid to swim out of a cave? I’m a coward. A stupid coward.

I feel my eyelids growing heavy. My thoughts get more distorted and finally grow faint. I lapse into unconsciousness.

My eyes snap open to the sound of a human shriek. “Get away from me!”

The brown-haired girl is running past the pond. The sleeve of her dress is torn. Her face is panicked. Her foot falls into a divot, and she crashes to the ground with a cry.

A second human reaches the shore of the pond. She struggles to stand only to collapse again. He glares down at her, raising his right foot.

I take a mighty leap out of the water, sailing between them at exactly the right time. I slap against his face. He’s knocked off-balance, foot catching on a rock. He tumbles backwards with a howl.

The brown-haired girl cries out as he swats me into the grass, whimpers when she gets close enough to see a line of blood along my side. “You’re hurt!”

It’s so dry. The air, the grass, the earth beneath it. My lungs are burning. My fins twitch, and I flop against the ground, trying, ridiculously, to swim away.

Dimly, I’m aware of the far-off shouts of other human voices.

When I come to, I’m in the middle of the pond, surrounded by other fish.

“Are you ok?” they ask, inasmuch as they can ask such a question with body language alone.

I start laughing. Am I ok? I laugh again, barely able to see straight for the bubbles pouring from my lips. Oh, yes, obviously I’m ok.

I can’t believe it. That’s what they’re concerned about? So I jumped out of the pond and passed out from the lack of oxygen. So what? That was maybe two or three minutes of pain, physical pain that’s nearly drained away now. That line of blood? It’s just a scratch. Don’t they know that’s nothing compared to what I go through every day?

I swim back to my cave and keep as still as possible until the wound scabs over. I hear a lot of humans talking overhead, but I can’t make out their meaning through the pounding in my head. I fall asleep and wake up the next morning with more pain in my stomach than in any other place.

The brown-haired girl comes back with her ankle in a brace. She looks as sad as ever, and her voice trembles as she says, “Little Brite Fish?”

A quiver runs through me, and my light flashes off and back on again.

“I just wanted to say thank you. I’m not supposed to stay long,” she gestures at her ankle, “but I just…” She bites her lip instead of finishing the sentence.

I know what she wants. She wants to see me. She wants me to make up for my cowardice. For refusing her breadcrumbs. For pushing her away. She needs me to tell her that I didn’t turn my light off on purpose that day. I never wanted to reject her.

But the voice inside my head is screaming at me. She doesn’t want to see an ugly fish like me. No one wants me. No one ever wants me.

“You’ll save a person who’s in trouble, but you won’t…” She stops again. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know what I did wrong.”

My fins are trembling.

“I guess I should have known. I just… It was so stupid of me to hope.”

I swim out of the cave. I swim up to the surface. I swim over to the edge.

Every inch of me is shaking. My eyes are closed, shut tight against the fear of what I would see before me.

The girl can see me now. All my imperfections. Every single scale. She will finally reject me, but at least she’ll know that there is not a single reason in the world for her to ever feel like I do.

I feel bright sunlight warm the water in which I float. Perfectly still.

Everything is silent. Slowly, I open up my eyes.

The girl is looking at me. Slowly, our eyes meet. Above the surface, mine are dry and hers are wet and wide with revelation.

“I think,” she says, “that’s the bravest thing that anyone has ever done for me.”

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