Once there was a young person who was apprenticed to a fish. It’s not as strange as it sounds – this was, it must be said, a very wise fish. The fish was an excellent master not just because of its wisdom, but also because of its patience. The apprentice was young, and as such was not particularly patient, but the fish was usually able to get through to the apprentice eventually.
The fish was also very sneaky, which might seem surprising to you or me. It certainly surprised the apprentice, who expected the fish to remain in the lake and not to appear in other places, like a shoe or a basin or the apprentice’s favorite tavern. The fish’s preferred method of teaching when it showed up like this was to ask a question several times, to see how the apprentice’s answer changed or remained the same, and then to wait and see what happened.
“What does the water mean?” the fish asked the apprentice one day.
It was a strange question. What did water mean? It didn’t mean anything, it just was. But while the apprentice was young and impatient, they were also committed to learning, so they tried gamely to answer.
“The water means nourishment,” the apprentice said when the fish appeared in their bathtub, thinking about how the plants in the garden and the trees in the forest relied on the rain to grow.
“The water means relief,” the apprentice said when the fish appeared on their couch one evening, thinking about the first swallow of cold, cold water after a long day of work.
“The water means prosperity,” the apprentice said to the fish (who had just shown up in the pantry), thinking of the routes of trade that connected the apprentice’s land to so many others.
“The water means life,” the apprentice said to the fish to the fish who was sitting next to them in a carriage taking the apprentice to the theater, thinking about the well in the center of town and the way it brought everyone together to talk and gossip and share their stories.
“The water means freedom,” the apprentice said when the fish poked its head from the cup, dreaming about ships crossing to adventure and lands yet undiscovered.
“But wait, master!” the apprentice cried just before the fish disappeared. “I understand the question, but not the lesson.”
The fish eyed the apprentice, who really had been as patient as anyone could have reasonably expected. “The water means many things to you,” the fish replied. “It is a symbol most of all, it seems, and symbols are good things. Be mindful, however, when you make a symbol for yourself out of someone else’s home.”
And with that, the fish disappeared, already thinking about where it would show up next.