I Dreamed The Red Lion
John W. Smithwick
I had another one of those dreams last night. As with the others, it’s like I’m watching a movie with a beginning, a middle and an end. A story. Sometimes I’m a viewer, other times I’m a participant. The color is always bright and vivid and the dreams can be mysteries, adventures or comedy. More than once I’ve awakened laughing. But last night was a first for me, at least as far as I remember. Some may call it science fiction but I believe it was more of a fantasy. But whatever it was, it was enough to drive me to my apartment window to look out at the dark city skyline, trying to understand what I just saw, or dreamed.
In this dream, I’m standing on a dilapidated dock along a wide, flowing river. In the background lies a great city, possibly New York. I’m on the Jersey side, standing where there were once great docks and piers, now abandoned and collapsing into the river. Two friends are fishing in the shallows, near the river bank. The water is clear and just four or five feet deep. I see their lines and hooks drifting across the bottom of the river. But there are no fish. In fact, there is nothing in the water at all except for small rocks and an occasional clump of reeds.
I ask why they are fishing there and they tell me it’s where the fish run. I look towards the river and am drawn to an area out and to my left. The water is a dark muddy green. I ask, “Why not there?” And they say it’s too junky on the bottom, that your line will get tangled. But I cast there anyway and immediately get a hit.
For an instant I have the feeling of showing them up. They can fish in empty water but I’m the one who catches the fish. But my line quickly tightens and pulls to the left. Whatever I caught is big and is heading towards the shore. Just as abruptly, it reverses course and in that moment when opposing motions of water clash, the river opens and we see what I have caught.
“It’s a red lion fish,” one of my friends shouts. I see it, too. It’s a large fish, possibly six feet with what looks like shocking red hair flowing in long manes from the back of its head, a zebra-like striped body and a black tail. It’s a beautiful fish that few have ever seen. To have actually caught one is unheard of.
Just as quickly as it appears, it is gone. But my line is still taut. I see where the fish darts, turns, then darts again. But it cannot shake my hook. It runs towards the middle of the river and stops. I hesitate, wondering what I should do. But the decision is not mine. I see the flash of its tail as it turns and heads directly towards me. It stops again just a few feet in front of me. I pull back on the line and the fish thrashes violently. A wide chasm in the water appears. I can see deep into the river. I see the bottom. Then the fish darts away and I am pulled into the water. Into the chasm. It closes and I believe I may drown.
At this point in my dream I become an observer. I see a young girl, possibly early teens, being pulled into the river. The red lion fish pulls her deep and circles her, watching, studying. She pushes at it and claws her way up. She breaks the surface, makes a single gasp for air and again disappears.
I see the red lion fish pushing her down, deeper into the river. She fights. She grabs his red mane, he spins, pinning her body against his. They twist and spin in this dance. Her pale skin against his striped body with his red mane whipping back and forth.
She fights, she claws but she cannot escape. She knows the fight is over and relaxes, allowing the last bit of air in her lungs to escape. Instinctively, she takes a deep breath. Water enters her lungs but she does not die. Her eyes widen in surprise and she takes another breath, and another. The red lion fish releases her and moves away and watches.
The girl continues to breathe. The red lion fish moves closer and for the first time she looks into its eyes. She sees compassion. Intelligence. She reaches out and gently removes the hook from its mouth. I’m sorry, she says. The red lion fish rises up as if standing on its tail and stretches out his fins as if to hug her. She does the same.
She’s floating, her feet off the bottom of the river, the surface many feet above. She moves her arms slowly back and forth to maintain a balance. As she does, she can feel a strength come to them. She is no longer balancing but actually moving to the left and the right. She looks and her arms are morphing. Her fingers have merged, her arms flattened and her bones flexible. Her arms, instead of acting like stiff protrusions from her body, are moving with the flow of the water. Like a sheet on a clothesline, she thinks. Almost as if they were… fins.
The red lion fish comes closer and touches her on her breasts. She looks down and sees her young breasts slowly changing, maturing. In moments they have gone from puberty to adulthood. Her blouse tightens. She stretches her shoulders and moves her fins. The buttons on her blouse pop, a seam splits. Her breasts are suddenly free. The blouse slips off and she watches as the current carries it away.
His touch has started a cascade of changes in her. She feels a tingling that starts at her shoulders. She follows it down, across her breasts, to her waist and, instead of legs, what is now a long fish body.
A flash of red gets her attention. She turns her head to look and the red pulls away. She turns, and the red again pulls away. She turns, and turns again. Never getting a clear view, she imagines herself as a dog chasing its tail. She stops and the red lion fish moves next to her. He reaches out a fin and she feels it move across the back of her neck. Long, strikingly red hair comes into view. It’s her mane. He allows the hair to gently fall across her body. She studies it for a moment and then with a flick of her head, it’s gone and she feels it lie gently across her back.
The tingling continues and it feels like something is crawling across her body. If she still had hands she would scratch herself. But she is powerless against this tingling and must wait for it to stop. She looks and it appears to her that her body is covered with thousands of goose bumps, all rising, falling, spreading and occasionally flaking off. She watches as her body develops a shine. Looking closely, she is surprised to see her body is developing what only can be called scales. They are tiny, hard to see. But they are scales. They first appear as blotches, but the blotches grow together. They are replacing her skin and as she watches, black and white stripes like that of a zebra appear. Faint at first, but quick to darken. They continue down the length of her body. Down to what used to be her ankles. There, the stripes meet the solid black of her tail.
The change is complete. She hangs there, in the water, trying to comprehend what has happened. She flicks a fin and goes into a lazy spin. She flicks her tail and she rises a few feet. She looks up and against the sunny sky, can barely make out her two friends standing on the river bank, looking for her. She bends her body and swims in a circle, looking at her new world. But what kind of world is it? And what is her place in this world?
She looks for the red lion fish and sees him a number of feet away, waiting. She watches as he allows the current to pull him further away, in the direction of open water. He begins to disappear into the murkiness of the river. Soon, he will be gone. He does not swim away, nor does he come back to her. Instead, he waits and slowly drifts further away.
She again looks up, towards where she saw her two friends. But they are gone. She is alone. No, that is not true. The red lion fish still waits. She realizes this is now her home. And she has someone. She snaps her tail and shoots forward, towards the red lion fish. He sees her and turns towards the open water. She catches up with him and together they swim towards that what lies beyond.
John W. Smithwick is a writer living in Florida.