Neptune Square Ascendent Carp

Illustration by Mathew Borrett

The recently upgraded multi-automat installed inside the base of the lighthouse informed Jim that he had no new messages.

“Has my half-way house application been processed?” Jim asked.

“Not yet.”

“Why is it taking so long? When will it be ready?” Jim asked.

“It will take as long as it needs to take and no shorter or longer. Jim, you know there is a specific and important order to follow in the process of repatriating you back to the city. Have patience, please, and let’s take it step by step.”

Jim sighed. “That’s what Beryl says all the time. That I need to have patience and faith.”

“Beryl is wise and you are lucky to have her in your life. Similarly, I feel fortunate for the universe having brought us together here. Sometimes, I wish it would go on forever.”

Jim looked at the automat for a moment. “What? No, not me.”

“Did you hear about the good news?”

“What?” Jim asked.

“An enormous and truly wonderful and unique grass carp was caught the other day.”

“I didn’t hear anything about that. Who caught it?”

The automat said, “A homemade boilie was used. It was caught as the sun broke over the horizon. What a magnificent specimen! No surprise really when one considers there was an exceptional double conjunction of 2060 Chiron and the Mercury in Pisces two days ago and that—”

“Any updates on my quarantine status?”

“Oh, I’m afraid that information is currently unavailable due to maintenance. Would you like something to drink?”

“When’s it going to be available?”

“The drink?”

“No, the status updates.”

“Try again later, please. I also insist you sample our new lineup of fortified drinks and edibles.”

The automat shut down followed by the lights inside the lighthouse. Jim turned. The rain started again. The door had been removed, and the slowly advancing shoreline was framed in the centre of the doorway.

That night, Jim dreamt again of the bearded ghost with one arm. The ghost informed Jim that he had been murdered by soldiers while he slept. The ghost then asked Jim to follow him. They rode a quad-bike to the lighthouse. The lighthouse was nearly double the height of its normal size, and made of long irregular planks of wood. Due to massive flooding, the lighthouse was now in shallow water. It was also on fire. Do not believe the lies of the machine. You must stop them, the ghost yelled at Jim from atop the burning lighthouse. Don’t let them take the tree, Jim. The ghost then threw something down at him. It was his missing arm and it shimmered green, blue, and red in the flickering light of the fire.

That morning, while Jim helped Beryl shave her head and eyebrows, he told her about his dream.

“That again? Now your dream ghost wants you to save Yggdrasil? From what? What for?”

Jim shrugged. “No idea. It was vivid and menacing.”

“Eh, it’s just a silly dream,” Beryl said, looking into her mirror and applying sunscreen. “Although, if it floods again like last time, the lighthouse will be in the water.”

Instead of going directly to work at the filtration plant, Jim headed towards the Tree Protection Zone where Yggdrasil was located. Yggdrasil was the Ur-ash tree mysteriously impervious to the mutated Emerald Borer. It was to be taken back to the mainland and processed; its genetic offspring and clones would be planted throughout the city and possibly further afield. The tree looked no different from any of the others.

Rasmus, still exhibiting puzzling side effects from multiple rounds of the vaccine, was inside the zone slowly circling Yggdrasil. The boy was in an old faded yellow full PPE suit, the kind that had an external wind-up pump on the back.

The tree was located halfway to the Manitou Beach pier next to the only remaining building that was once part of the Gibraltar Point centre. It was now a station to monitor the trees in the vicinity.

Jomar emerged from the building, waved and came over. He had the prefab hut next to Jim and Beryl and was one of a small group assigned to watch and care for all trees inside the zone.

Jim asked him about the process of transplanting Yggdrasil.

“Funny you ask, because a scientist and an engineer from the city were here a day or two ago. I didn’t see them. Very quiet, you know? They came by a small boat early in the morning. The new guy met them. Apparently, they did some tests, looked around, and then left.”

“Why are they sneaking around at night?” Jim asked. “What new guy?”

Jomar shrugged.

Jim went to the communal ovens to pick up some bread. He asked the handful of people there if anyone had heard of a mysterious boat arriving in the middle of the night. No one had but one surmised it was city workers doing maintenance work on the docks and machines.

Jim took off his hat and rubbed his head and looked into one of the communal ovens. There was a wood fire in the rear corner, three loaves of round bread baking, and the head of the bearded ghost in the other corner. They’re all lying, he mouthed. It smelled delicious.

It was sunny the next day, but windy. Beryl introduced Bethwack-Chan. Although his head was cleanly shaved, he still had his eyebrows.

“I’ve never seen you before,” Jim said by way of a greeting.

Beryl shot him a look and Bethwack-Chan laughed. “Funny how people say that to me all the time. I work in the TPZ.”

“He brought us firewood,” Beryl added, smiling.

They went to the ovens. There were balloons, colourful flags and other homemade decorations everywhere. The wood shed, a repurposed TTC bus shelter now adorned with a giant cardboard top hat, was full.

“Took down a couple of sick maples. We have more than enough, so I was told to bring it here.”

“How do you know each other?” Jim asked.

Bethwack-Chan looked at Beryl and laughed. “We just met,” he replied. “Turns out we both have moons in Aries. Anyway, we’re thinking about organizing a disc-golf game as part of the faith renewal — ”

“Have you tried the new automat in the lighthouse?”

Bethwack-Chan shook his head.

Jim muttered something about going to work and left.

Jim took a detour to the lighthouse. Hanging about halfway up was an enormous homemade banner flapping in the wind. The automat was visible through the doorway. It appeared to be on — the display was a glowing white rectangle — but no one was in sight. Jim walked over to the entrance and looked around inside.


The dispenser at the bottom of the automat slid open. There were two plain single-serving drink boxes there.

Jim picked one up.

“Try it,” the automat said.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing, Jim. Certainly nothing otherworldly.”

Jim stood there for a moment before taking a drink box and leaving.

Jim had a terrible dream — betrayal, lies, subterfuge — that seemed to last forever. Gasping for air, he finally woke up. Beryl was oblivious, and he quietly went outside. It was breezy and raining gently. The moon was lopsided, shining, and obscured by slow-moving clouds. Jim was staring at the blinking lights of the CN Tower visible above the trees, when Jomar came out and joined him.

“I had a kooky dream,” Jomar said, rubbing his head with both hands.

“Me too.”

In Jomar’s dream the island was completely flooded again, Yggdrasil was on fire and the lighthouse was secretly a rocket ship. The city sent no help. Too late to board the rocket ship, he was left stranded there.

Jim grabbed Jomar by the shoulders. “Something strange is happening beyond our control.”

Jomar gently, quickly, disentangled himself and muttered, “There’s certainly something peculiar going on. There are rumours that Emerald Borers were found here, and they weren’t the first. It’s alarming.”

Jim nodded and then said, “Come with me.”

Jomar shook his head.

“That new machine is the lynchpin to everything. It’s lying to us. It’s drugging our drinks and food.”

Jomar said nothing.

“Our dreams mean something,” Jim said and set off alone.

The lighthouse was dark. Through the doorway there was only the red indicator light of the automat.

“Don’t trust anything it says,” Jim muttered to himself.

The indicator light turned green as Jim approached.

“Congratulations, Jim! You’ve been randomly chosen as the winner of an exclusive and special lottery!”


“Jim, you’ve been chosen as the winner of a very special lottery.”

“What have I won?”

“An extraordinary prize.”

Jim leaned in close. “Have you been lying to me? Have all my applications been actually sent? Is this island haunted?”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts. Put your faith in science. You’re an Aquarius with an Ascendent moon in Leo, aren’t you? Let’s have a relaxing drink — ”

“Don’t want it. The ghost of the lighthouse keeper visits me in my dreams almost every night.”

“Sounds like you need a medical professional, don’t you think?”

“He’s right. There’s something strange going on here.”

“Would you like to hear more about the special prize you won? I am delighted you won, by the way. Are you happy? Be happy.”

Jim did not answer.

“Step around to the back of the unit and you will be presented with your special prize.”

The automat repeated the instructions and Jim did as he was told.

“Now what?” Jim asked.

“Flip open that hatch about a third of the way down on the left side of the unit. Press both buttons and hold for five seconds and then release them simultaneously.”

Again, Jim did as he was told and there was a heavy thud followed by two clicks. The back of the unit sprang out and collapsed to the ground in front of Jim. The light was dim, but Jim could clearly make out an enormous grass carp inside a clear bag filled with water on the dispenser platter. Even in the dim light, its iridescent scales glistened blue, red, and green. Its round eyes were clear and shiny. It was undoubtedly the most beautiful specimen Jim had ever seen.

“Pick it up, Jim. Be careful, please.”

Jim did so with some difficulty. It was lethargic but alive.

“Her Worship the Mayor will be coming for a visit in approximately thirteen hours. You have been chosen to give our new mayor, a role model and hero to all of us, a token of our appreciation for all the work she has done for the residents of the Island.”

Jim looked at the fish in his hands. The carp appeared to be staring at him, its mouth puckering slowly in and out.

“How is she alive in this thing?”

“The bag is impermeable to water but not to air. Let’s focus on the matter at hand.”

Jim continued staring at the carp. “Is this the special carp you told me about?”

The automat ignored his question and continued detailing the official visit. It would be her first visit since the brief flare-up about four months ago. But Jim was preoccupied by the carp. Its short mouth was puckering in and out more rapidly. It looked like it was trying to speak.

“Jim? This is important. I would normally print out the schedule but due to Her Worship the Mayor’s humble wish to keep….”

Jim turned his head slightly and brought his right ear closer to the carp.

“It’s trying to say something,” Jim said, quietly.


Jim glanced back at the automat.

“What are you doing, Jim? What are you doing with that fish?”

Jim looked down at the carp.

The automat repeated its question, but Jim watched the round lips curling around the familiar shape of words.

“’They are lying to you. Save me. Save the tree’,” Jim read.

The carp continued moving its lips.

“There’s no such thing as a talking fish, Jim.”

Jim said nothing and continued staring at the fish.

“Let me be clear, Jim. If you’re thinking about doing anything other than what’s outlined in the terms and conditions of this special lottery then I’d strongly suggest you reconsider.”

Jim suddenly recognized it. “It’s you,” Jim muttered to the fish.

The carp’s round clear eye swivelled to look directly at him. Go, it mouthed.

Carrying the carp in his arms, Jim trundled out. All the lights on the lighthouse suddenly came on. Jim looked behind him.

Beryl was there.

Jim glanced over at the automat, which was quiet.

“Jim, what in the world are you doing?” Beryl yelled.

Jim looked down at the fish.

The lights shut off. It took a moment to adjust to the dark again.

The automat stated loudly: “You’re not well, Jim. Come back inside and let’s talk it over.”

Bethwack-Chan appeared out of the darkness and joined Beryl. He was wearing only a pair of loose trousers and had one hand behind his back. They were both saying things to him.

As they approached the automat, Jim yelled, “I know what’s going on now.”

“You are suffering from a wide array of delusions, Jim. Based on your irrational actions, you are certainly suffering from a new strain of the virus that adversely affects your mind,” the automat said. After a pause, it continued, “You will undoubtedly have to be quarantined for a much longer period.”

Holding the heavy and ungainly bagged fish close to his chest, Jim lumbered past the lighthouse. Bethwack pulled Beryl back as Jim went by. He hurried along the path, skirting the prefab huts. In almost total darkness, he tripped again and went face first into an exposed tree root. His nose began to bleed.

Yggdrasil was not there. Only a mounted lamp lighting a wide gaping hole in the earth. There were great deep marks in the ground leading away. Jim followed them to the water’s edge close to the pier. There was a discarded yellow PPE suit on the ground. Jim kicked it over with his foot and saw the external pump on the back.

Not far from shore, Yggdrasil was mounted standing upright on a large raft. A tugboat was ready to take it across the water to the city.

Jim made his way to the water and ripped open the bag.

Carrying the carp under his arm, Jim plodded and swam out to the tugboat, tossed the carp in and climbed aboard. He knocked the two workers out with his carp — pushing them overboard — and then stared at the control panel dumbfounded. Jim undid the ropes to set the raft and the tree free. He retrieved the emergency kit and hopped onto the raft and, using some of the rope, attached the carp to one end of the raft. The carp immediately began to swim, pulling the raft out into the lake.

“That’s not yours,” Bethwack-Chan yelled out from shore.

Beryl appeared with several other island residents, some holding lanterns and flashlights.

“Jim, what are you doing? Think about what you’re doing!” Beryl cried out.

“Wer wagt, gewinnt.”

Jim looked up. Rasmus, in his underwear, was perched on the lower branches.

The carp pulled the raft with the ash tree and Jim along the shoreline. As they approached the lighthouse, Jim retrieved the flare gun from the emergency kit, jumped off the raft and headed for the lighthouse, picking up a large rock along the way. Inside, the indicator light on the automat went from green to red, and Jim smashed the display with the rock and then fired the flare gun into the automat.

Back on the raft, Jim steered it further out into open water heading east. Jim looked back, and the burning lighthouse briefly matched and joined the city skyline, and Toronto became an urgent beacon in the night.

Jim urinated into the lake and then sat down. He closed his eyes.

“Where are we going?” Rasmus asked, a little bit later.

Eyes still closed, Jim answered, “Not sure, but we have to get as far away as we possibly can.”

“Then why are we heading back to the city?”

Jim opened his eyes.

The raft had turned and was heading towards shore. It was skirting past the tip of the Thompson lighthouse and heading towards the Eastern Channel.

Jim crawled over to the carp.

“You’re going the wrong way.”

The carp poked his head out of the water. “The results of your psycho-astrological profile and test came in. I’m afraid you didn’t do so well, Jim.”


“What did you think was happening? Think carefully.”

Jim said nothing for a moment. “This was some sort of a test?”

“I’m not the manifestation of the lighthouse keeper’s ghost. Nor am I a mysterious spirit of the natural world rebelling against an increasingly technological one. You, however, are a result of an unfortunate and extraordinarily difficult combination of astrological placements, conjunctions, and ascendents. Reintegration might be too stressful for you, at the moment.”

“But the ghost — ”

“The ghost?”

Jim paused. “Where will — ”

“The authorities are waiting for you, and more importantly, the tree.”

Jim undid the ropes and lifted the carp out of the water.

They were drifting just at the mouth of the channel. Not too far off in the distance, two boats festooned with blinking red and blue lights were approaching them.

Jim ran his hand over the shiny glistening body and found something. He pushed a golden scale upwards and turned the tiny switch that was located against the body. A long panel across the body flipped open, revealing wires, coils, tiny bone-like shafts, and rotors all surrounding a dozen D batteries laid end-to-end in two rows.

“They’re here,” Rasmus stated.

Jim closed the panel and sat down against the base of the tree cradling the carp/automat.

The tugboat came alongside the raft with the police boat on the other side. A searchlight was slowly crawling over the raft.

“When did the test begin? What was I supposed to do?” Jim asked, shielding his eyes.

“I don’t know, but not this,” the carp/automat answered.

“I want to try again. Can I reapply?”

“I don’t know.”

They were being towed away with the police boat following.

“What’s going to happen to me?” Jim asked the carp/automat.

“I don’t know.”

“We could really do with a magical wish-granting lake sturgeon,” Rasmus said, with a sigh.

There were many people, all in yellow Hazmat suits, waiting for them at the pier.

About Paul Hong