Professor Surly’s Automatic Fish – A Story

(This is a work of fiction, and takes place outside the imaginary town of Abdera, Florida.)

“Anger is an energy.” John Lydon

Two rows of brightly colored flowers bordered the path to Professor Surly’s gate. I had finally arrived at my destination and my nerves were about to get the best of me.

My reasons for visiting Professor Surly were two-fold. The reason I told everyone, including her, involved commissioning a series of illustrations for S– A–. We were in the midst of launching a series of popular science books for our subscribers, and I recommended Surly as our illustrator. The second, and more private, reason for visiting Professor Surly was to declare my love.

Tied to the top of the elaborate wrought iron gate I found a note. I removed the rolled-up paper and untied the string holding it. As I unrolled the document I breathed in the rich aroma of magnolia and swamp rot that saturated the tiny island off the west coast of Florida.

“Dearest Benjamin – Welcome to Surly Swamp! Please use the first room on the right to store your luggage. Once you have used the facilities to recuperate from your travels and have made yourself presentable please join me in the greenhouse through the back door. I trust you will have no trouble locating it. Look around as you desire, but it is best not to leave the grounds. The alligators are a pretty sleepy and well-fed lot, but can occasionally be a bit pesky. Signed, Stella.”

I followed her instructions, used the facilities (which, due to Professor Surly’s ingenious improvements, I found to be better than many first-class hotels I’d visited), and changed out of my travel clothes. I packed for the clime and adorned myself with biscuit colored linen slacks, a lime-green short-sleeved cotton shirt, and some brown leather sandals I purchased in Tampa. I decided in the process that there was no reason to wait. Instead of asking her about the illustration job first, I would cut to the chase and tell her how I felt and the real reason for my visit.

Despite my curiosity I did not wander through her home, though it took all my willpower to resist. I knew her house would be impeccably designed in the most ingenious and bizarre manner. Professor Surly’s imagination is world renowned. I saw it time and time again in the illustrations I purchased for S– A–. I had been a supporter of hers since she was a college student, though she often seemed unaware of my position in the world. I stayed focused and found my way.

Inside the greenhouse the atmosphere was thick with humidity. I was surrounded by a jungle of blooming and fruiting plants, and an explosion of greenery. A rich aroma filled the air and caused me to sneeze. Two banana trees, one with orange bananas and one with green bananas stood to my left, and to my right I heard the low murmur of a flowing creek. Small birds with red and black feathers darted among the eaves and the tops of the trees.

“Benjamin! I hear you sneezing. I am here by the creek.”

I found her kneeling by a small river which ran through the property.

“Professor Surly. I am happy to be here. Please let me extend my deepest appreciation for your hospitality.” I bowed slightly and did my best to hide my nerves.

“Oh, Ben. Please call me Stella. This is not the place to stand on formalities.” She stood and extended her hand. A brightly patterned scarf held her dark hair back and away from her tanned face. She wore denim pants, cut off at the knees and some sort of dark blue slip-on boots. The front tails of her white blouse were tied into a knot and she had cut the sleeves at the elbow, leaving them ragged. She was of medium height and slim build and her hands were strong, callused, and tan.

“What do you see in the water?” I nodded toward the creek.

Stella frowned. “Yes. A bit of a problem, actually.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe. My attempts at a solution have so far been unsuccessful. Here, let me show you.” Stella knelt next to the creek and beckoned me to do the same. She reached into the stream and plucked out a fish who scales shimmered rainbow and bronze. “Here,” she handed me the fish.

“What is it? Some sort of trout?”

She laughed. “I don’t really have a name for it yet. I suppose you could call it Professor Surly’s Automatic Fish, though that is a bit of a mouthful. Maybe I’ll call it a Gulfcoast Surlyfish. How’s that for a name?”

“That’s a wonderful name, but I’m afraid I don’t understand the reference.”

“Look closer.”

I did as she asked. “I still don’t…” I turned the fish in my hand and picked at one of the scales. “Is this…? This scale feels odd…” I took a closer look at the fin. “Is this… Is this a fish!? What is this? Is this an automaton?”

She laughed again, somewhat ruefully. “Yes. Yes. I must admit some little amount of pride that it fooled you for even a moment. This is an example of my new project. I’ve been developing a form of automated fish.”

There are moments that transform men’s lives, when they pass a threshold from one way of thinking to another. This, for me, was one of those transformative moments. The possibilities of what humanity might accomplish expanded for me in that instant. I lost myself in examining the extraordinary detail of the mechanical fish. It continued to occasionally twitch in my hand, just as if it were alive. Each scale was exquisitely formed, and it held the build and weight of a fish.

Stella soon drew me from my reverie. I held the fish out to her. “It seems so real.”

“It is real.” She took the fish from my hands and did something at the base of the neck that made it stop wriggling.

“I mean it seems alive.”

“Parts of it are alive. Let me show you.” She carried it to a potting bench and I followed. I smelled my hands. They smelt of fish.

Stella laid the shimmery fish on the table and pressed her fingers into its belly. After a moment the fish opened and she spread it flat on the table so we could see its insides.

The organs looked surprisingly realistic.

“In here,” she pointed to the abdomen, “all that is alive. The guts are repurposed from other animals and inside are full of tiny animals and plants. There is a whole micro-world inside this fish and it partially influences the fishes behavior.”

“Remarkable.” I leaned over to look more closely. “Little plants and animals?”

“Well, microscopic. You can’t see them with the naked eye.”

“Oh, I see.” I straightened myself and faced her, slighted flustered at her casualness before this remarkable creation. “You mentioned something about a problem?”

“Yes.” She frowned and stood in thought before making a quick nod at some internal decision. She looked me in the eye. “Follow me.” She took a step, but stopped abruptly and turned back. I nearly bumped into her. “But first, I’m so happy you are here!” She clasped my hand, smiled broadly, and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. I almost confessed my love at that moment. “But, more of that later. I’m afraid this is a matter of some urgency.”

She traipsed quickly out of the greenhouse, down the path to her house, across the porch, and into the parlor. She moved a woven bamboo bench off an elaborate oriental rug, then flipped the rug away from the floor to reveal a secret entrance to an underground room.

“Basements are rare in Florida since we are so close to sea level. However, thanks to a ceramic invention of mine, I am able to contain this whole room without worries that it will dampen. Is is also filled with a series of bladders so it does not rest heavy on the ground.”

“Then,” I slowly pieced together what she was telling me, “your house is built on this basement which rests on water. Your house floats on water.”

“Yes. That is correct. This is a small island. Frankly, it’s not much more than an overly ambitious sand dune.”

I followed her down the steps into a well-lit room I recognized immediately as part art studio part science laboratory. My head swiveled back and forth to look at the many items around the room that caught at my attention and prompted my curiosity.

All of that fell away when I saw the western wall. Completely made of glass, or something as clear as glass, it allowed an unfettered view into the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I watched a turtle swam leisurely above a cluster of yellow tubular plants as some small black-and-white striped fish picked food from the piles of rock emerging from the sand.

“Beautiful, isn’t it.” I startled to realized Stella stood close at my side. For a flash I eagerly anticipated solving the problem facing her so I could have her attention to express my feelings.

“It is amazing what you have done here. Why don’t more people know about this? This is far more impressive than anything coming out of the Edison labs.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Please. I do not want to speak of Edison. He only moved to Florida because I did. That man has had maybe two original thoughts in his life. He is not an artist, he is a barbarian. Most of what you see I have patented, but some is still secret while I get it perfected. It was not my intention to show you this room during your visit, but I really do need your help and so you’re seeing it. I can only trust in my judgment of your character that you will never betray the confidences I am sharing with you.”

“I would never betray you, Stella,” I said, perhaps a bit too earnestly. “Now, what is the problem, and how can I help?”

She leaned in closer to the glass, peering into the distance. “There,” she touched my elbow. “There, do you see it?” With her other hand she pointed into the Gulf.

It took me a moment, but soon I saw it. “That fish. That looks like one of your fish. Is it?”

“Yes. I’m afraid several have escaped.”

“And you want to catch them? Do you need me to help you catch some fish?” I brightened. I can say without bragging that I am a superior fisherman.

“Well, yes, but I’m afraid it’s a little more urgent than that.”

“How urgent?”

“You see I’ve managed to make the fish reproduce.”

“Repro…I don’t understand. They are automated. They are mechanical fish.”

“They are not completely automated. I didn’t want to simply build a representation of a fish. I wanted to make something real, something living.”

“You sound like Dr. Frankenstein.”

She glared at me. “Perhaps,” she responded coldly, unhappy with the comparison. “But now is not the time for judgment. I need your help.”

“Of course. Fortunately I am an excellent fisherman.”

“We can’t fish these fish out of the sea. We’ll have to destroy them.”

“How?”

“With that.” She pointed to a large contraption I had barely noticed in the abundance of strange machines scattered throughout the laboratory. “It is a special kind of engine,” she answered my anticipated question.

“And what will that engine power?”

“I made these fish sensitive to a certain frequency. I built a sonar amplifier and that engine projects the sound through the sea. I thought I would be able to generate enough power alone, but my efforts have so far been unsuccessful.”

“I am here to assist in any way I can.”

Stella wasted no time and immediately began preparations. My heart swelled to watch her in her habitat. I desperately wanted to resolve this little problem (though as I thought about it I realized that it had the potential of being a very big problem indeed) so that we could return to my original plan. I wanted to confess my love to Professor Stella Surly.

In less than an hour she returned to the lab (she had been in and out of the lab during this process, while I mostly stared into the beauty of the sea and surreptitiously watched her work) with the announcement that we were ready to begin.

“Sit here.” She sat a stool near the mysterious engine. “I’m going to place something on your head. Please do not walk away without removing it, and please do not remove it while we are working.”

Once she was done situating the device on my head she sat a stool opposite mine and placed on her head a metallic helmet with many wires connecting the helmet to the machine.

“You never said. What kind of engine is this?”

“It is a machine powered by human emotions.”

“Remarkable. How does it work?”

“After we are done I can explain it to you.”

I stared at the engine in awe.

“Benjamin.” She took my right hand in both her hands. “Benjamin, look at me.” I felt my heart skip a beat “Thank you for helping me with this. I must confess I feel a bit embarrassed. I can’t believe I let those fish escape. But, I need your help and I need you to seriously work with me. I need you to focus. The best way to get the most energy out of this prototype is going to be through anger. Anger is the emotion with which I’ve had the most success.”

“You’re saying if we get angry we will power this machine and it will amplify our energy and drive the speakers you’ve set up to send out a particular frequency which will kill the fish that have escaped.”

“Yes. Yes, that’s it exactly!” She smiled and my heart became hers eternally.

“How do we get angry?”

“However we can. We must anger each other.”

“Stella. I can’t be angry with you.”

“Then be angry with the world. There is more than enough injustice. You must. This is our only hope. Imagine if those fish, like an invading army, start to kill the fish natural to this environment, and without any predators. It could change the balance of nature forever. In the worst possible outcome it will kill this sea. We mustn’t let that happen. To stop it we must find a way to become angry. We must become enraged.”

“How do you start?”

“What angers me is how children are mistreated. Working in factories. Working in mines. Forgotten in orphanages. While the millionaires indulge in every fantasy. It is inhuman!” I could hear the anger creeping into her voice. I resisted the urge to placate her, to calm her down. Anger did not come easy to me, but I searched for it within my heart.

“One of my colleagues made me angry recently,” I offered hesitantly. “He lied directly to my face. He didn’t know I’d know he was lying, and I couldn’t tell him I knew, but I became irate.”

“Yes! Yes! Think about that. Remember how you felt. Bring it all back.” Her eyes moved from my face to the engine to monitor the amount of energy we generated.

Once I allowed myself to feel the intense emotion of anger it became easier to locate things that made me angry. Meeting a grossly racist woman on the train to Tampa, the slaughter of the buffalo out west, the way my father treated his children and his wife. My face flushed, and I became quite furious, as did she. The volume of our voices increased. The whine of the engine became louder.

And then I made the greatest mistake of my life. I expressed anger at Stella Surly. I didn’t even know I carried it within me, but it was there. And, with my guard down, it came unbidden to my lips.

She responded in kind.

I could have never imagined she could be angry with me. I had done nothing but shown her every kindness through our acquaintance. But, I learned, I often treated her and her work dismissively, and was quite arrogant and patronizing.

We fought. I felt my fist clench and my lip curl. Spittle flew from her mouth as she berated me. Our fighting became more intense.

I can’t tell you how long this went on. It felt like hours, as if it took all afternoon, but I doubt it lasted more than a quarter-hour. We revealed our hearts to each other, and figuratively tore them to shreds.

When she removed the helmet and turned off the machine her eyes were red. I realized that my face was wet with tears. Never before in my life had I allowed emotions to have such sway over me. I had never allowed myself to feel such rage, and after doing so, I knew I would never allow it again. It was too painful. I still bear the scars of that afternoon in my mind, on my heart, and in my soul.

“We’re done. It worked.” She pointed to the seafloor and I could see several of her shimmery bronze fish laying along the bottom.

I said nothing. She silently removed the helmet from her head and then my own, and then left the room. I don’t know where she went and in that moment I didn’t care. Stella Surly had said things to me I could never forgive. She had pierced my heart and I remained angry with her. No amount of understanding or rational thought could overcome the powerful negative feelings I carried for her in that moment.

Eventually I found my way back to my room and packed my things. I no longer felt comfortable in her world. I felt compelled to depart.

Many years later I realized that leaving was the second greatest mistake of my life. I should have stayed and talked to her about those feelings.

I never spoke to, or saw, Stella again. And, to put it bluntly, my heart was broken. My fantasy of a romantic connection had been shattered. Destroyed. Not only that, but I no longer felt like the same person.

We obviously felt strongly about each other. Only in retrospect did I realize that she cared enough about me to be angry with me. They say the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. She was not indifferent. I wish that in that moment I had not thought only of myself, but felt compassion for her and reached out.

I left that island feeling diminished as a man, as a human. Stella’s honesty ripped apart my heart and I wasn’t certain it would ever heal. Now, years later, I know it never did.

It has been twenty-five years since that afternoon in Professor Surly’s secret laboratory off the coast of Florida. I have re-lived those moments many times since. I set it down now because Professor Surly has vanished and is presumed dead.

In late October 1921 a hurricane struck the west coast of Florida, some thirty or forty miles north of Professor Surly’s tiny island. The hurricane did not strike her island directly, but witnesses say that in the aftermath there simply was no island there. Her home and laboratory had been built on what was was essentially a sandbar and the tremendous waves of the storm washed away the sand on which her home was built. I can’t help remembering she told me her home floated on the water rather than relying on anything like earth or rock, or even sand as a foundation. If that is the case then I believe it possible Stella Surly is still alive. Perhaps her home sank, or perhaps she found a way to relocate. Perhaps she disappeared on purpose. I would not put it past her. She is/was an ingenious woman, more brilliant than Edison, Steinmetz, Freud, or Tesla.

As for myself, I became a committed bachelor after that afternoon. I began to study philosophy, then the advances in psychology. I quit my job in the publishing industry and took work as a clerk in a small town library. I traveled when I could and taught myself to paint. I could never shake the things Stella said to me that afternoon. Things I knew were intended to cause anger, and that would have been cushioned or placed into context if they had arisen in a conversation in the natural course of a relationship, and yet I never could shake their harrowing accuracy. Surly revealed to me that day that I was not a good person. I was nowhere near as good as I believed myself to be. She turned my world upside down. Through her eyes I understood clearly I was not the person I pretended to be, and that my understanding of the world was distorted.

And so, while I never recovered from that experience, and never again felt comfortable pursuing a romantic relationship, I am deeply grateful for the gift she gave me. For that one instance, with the help of her unflinching gaze, I was able to see deep into my soul, and to get a glimpse of my true heart. For showing me there were more thresholds to cross I am forever grateful.

I never again saw any of Professor Surly’s amazing creations, but I learned after the hurricane that she had left her estate to her nephew who was already making a name for himself as a wunderkind at MIT. Perhaps one day I will reach out to him and tell him this story.

END
Tampa, FL
Jan. 27 – Feb. 16, 2019

Afterward – I loathe the song “My Way.” Anyone who can make it through life with regrets “too few to mention” is a narcissistic asshole. For anyone really paying attention life is littered with regrettable moments of action or inaction, of accident and ignorance. This is a story of regret, and of the challenges of self-awareness. It also has a mad scientist and her underwater lair!

This story started as an attempt to write a punkpunk story. Originally it was cast in a London bar in the 1970s and was framed like a White Hart story by Clarke, or even better, a Jorkens story by Dunsany. Since dieselpunk, solarpunk, atompunk are characterized by a type of energy I imagined that a punkpunk story would have to use anger as a form of energy.

That story never really jelled, but when I started having visions of Professor Surly’s automatic fish, and a giant glass wall looking into the Gulf of Mexico, I re-purposed the anger machine to help Professor Surly solve an burgeoning environmental crisis.