Ellen sits on the shore of Lake Tahoe.
There’s a splash. A fish lands on the beach next to her. It wriggles in the sand.
“Fish, ” Ellen says. She raises an eyebrow.
“I am a magic fish, ” the fish says. “If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”
“I don’t have one,” Ellen says.
“Oh.” The fish thinks. “I could give you a free ice cream.”
Ellen picks up the fish.
“Mind the tail!”
Ellen throws the fish back in. It wiggles, happily, in the water. After a moment, Ellen receives a free ice cream.
Ellen leans back. She looks up at the sun.
There’s a splash. A fish lands on the beach, a bit past her. It wriggles in the sand.
“I am a magic fish,” it proclaims. “If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”
“Oh,” she says. “You’re a different fish.”
It looks embarrassed. “This has happened before?”
Ellen indicates the ice cream wrapper on the ground beside her. “I got ice cream.”
“Funny heart’s desire, that,” the fish says. “Well, I can give you a subscription to Popular Mechanic. If you like.”
Ellen picks up the fish. She throws it back in. The fish uses its powerful flipper to stand, for a moment, on top of the water.
“I’ll need your address,” it says.
“Just deliver it to needy orphans,” Ellen says. “With an interest in science.”
The fish dives under the water and is gone. Ellen dozes off. The sun goes down. The sun rises. Ellen rubs briskly at her arms to warm herself.
There’s a splash. Then a whoosh. Ellen watches a fish glide by, attached to a paraglider formed of shells and small stones. It is aerodynamic but insufficient; the fish flops to a halt not far past her.
“Nicely done,” she says. “That’s the best distance yet.”
“I am a magic fish,” it declares proudly. “In addition to my obvious technical ingenuity. If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”
“I don’t have one,” she says.
“Oh.” It looks at her sidelong, which, being a fish, is the best it can do. “Did someone else get to you first?”
“I got an ice cream,” she says, “and a subscription to Popular Mechanic for some orphans. But I already didn’t have a heart’s desire. I lost it a couple days ago.”
“That’s too bad,” the fish says. “I’ll give you a get out of jail free card.”
“I’m rarely arrested,” Ellen points out.
“Sell it to terrorists,” the fish says. “Or captains of industry!”
“Fair enough,” she says. She picks up the fish. She throws it back in.
She looks at her slim metal wristwatch. She times it. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes before the next fish flies by. It’s on a primitive rotary aircraft, which putters and shudders vigorously as it moves past her. Moved by a vague generous impulse, she follows it to the tree line. The aircraft is not powerful enough to rise above the trees. After weaving past three trees, it crashes, and the fish flops to the ground.
“Are you a magic fish?” she asks.
“I like to think of myself more as an innovator,” it says. “But yes.”
“I don’t have a heart’s desire,” she says. “But I’ll throw you back in.”
“That’s decent of you,” the fish says.
“It’s kind of like a calling,” Ellen says. “I sit on the beach, fish fly past me, and I put them back in the lake.”
“It’s one of those jobs you pretty much have to luck into,” the fish observes as she picks it up and walks back towards the lake.
There’s another fish flopping helplessly on the sand. Ellen picks it up with her other hand. She heaves the first fish back in.
“What are you doing?” she asks the other.
“We’re trying to reach the sea,” it says. “We’re salt-water fish.”
“Oh,” she says.
“I’m magic,” it says. “Thus, you know, why I’m still alive. If you want, I can grant your heart’s desire.”
“I don’t have one,” she says.
“Maybe you should go to the sea,” it says. “I mean, that’s my heart’s desire, and it seems like a pretty good one.”
“Huh,” she says. “That seems kind of arbitrary.”
A fish ascends tremulously from the lake in the gondola of a hot water balloon.
“It’s not arbitrary,” answers Ellen’s fish. “Just think of all the salt!”