Previously published in “Sierra Nevada Review” volume 31
Jimmy’s shirt dampened from the six pack he cradled in his arm. In his other hand he carried a bag of ice that dripped a trail behind him. He kept his head down, focusing on the dock’s weathered planks, splattered here and there with gull guano, an empty crab shell picked clean, a fish skeleton bleached and prehistoric.
Looking up would only acknowledge that he knew he was being watched, perhaps by his neighbor gathering gossip disguised as concern – Jimmy, the sun not yet over the island’s trees, headed out on his little boat again, armed against his sorrow with drink. Or Rebecca waking to an empty bed once more, pulling aside their bedroom curtains, searching through the red oaks for her husband on the bay, like a fisherman’s widow.
Jimmy busied himself getting the boat ready, pretending to ignore whoever might be spying on him, whoever was watching him. He dropped the bag of ice on the floor of the boat, picked it up and dropped it again. The loudness of the ice breaking apart only gave them more cover, a chance to forage further through the tree line to get a better look. He switched on the battery, set the key in place, and trimmed the engine partway down before stopping to listen. The fenders squeaked, the ice dropped and settled in the cooler, a lofty breeze rustled the shoreline birches.
Jimmy just wanted to be alone, wanted to be left alone, wanted everyone to stop tele pathing how he’s supposed to act when a baby dies. Alive for two days and those two days carrying the burden of all his other days. Two days and he’s supposed to somehow know how to fix his wife, supposed to be happy about how she keeps clinging to him, talking wistful and abstract, as if nothing happened and everything happened.
He turned the key one notch but didn’t start it. Something about the low tide smell wasn’t right and Jimmy couldn’t stop himself from squinting toward shore. A confetti of silver flashed and winked from the mounds of rockweed. In the water, more glitter, like deflated mylar, bobbing and weaving in the morning’s gentle chop. Jimmy gulped air, felt his heartbeat quicken. Dead fish everywhere. In those first few seconds he didn’t disassociate the dead fish with whoever might be secretly watching him, momentarily believing they were all part of the same conspiracy. He stepped out of the boat, kneeled on the dock, and picked a dead fish from the water.
The fish looked like a pogie. Its body stiff and bloated, the fish felt hard, like flexed muscle. He stood, held the dead fish by its tail, and flung it back out into the water. On his phone he checked the tide chart, confirmed that the bay was still running to low. But what about the fish stuck on the beach, wrapped in layers of rockweed, like a fishmonger’s display? More resting on sections of ledge. Jimmy pictured himself returning in a few hours, comatose and numb. Rebecca would be waiting on the dock, scared and needing to be held, wondering if the world was ending, maybe bringing up their dead baby, as if the two things were one.
Jimmy went for the bait buckets stored in his shed. He again kept his head down, superstitiously believing that this would keep Rebecca safely in bed. Fish kills happened: chased to their death by stripers or bluefish or an overloaded trawler dumping some of its catch. Perhaps it was climate change, continuing its apocalyptic march by taking out the bottom of the food chain. It didn’t matter what killed them, what mattered was that Jimmy get the fish off the beach before Rebecca woke pining for him, searching for the source of the smell, descending the steps to their beach, wondering at the inexplicable mass of death.
Jimmy spaced six buckets along the beach and began filling them with pogies. He didn’t wear gloves. Most he grabbed by the tail, sometimes two at a time, and lobbed them into the closest bucket. Some, especially those peaking from under the rockweed, he clasped with his hand, feeling the scales pass through his fingers, stiff, wet, and slimy. When he had filled all six buckets he carried them down the dock. Jimmy’s recreational lobster trap took up the stern, so he moved it to the bow, under the blue dodger. Handling two buckets at a time, he stepped on the gunwale, and wedged them behind the console seat in the stern.
Once safely clear of the dock, he pushed down the throttle, then pulled back when the boat reached plane. To his right Fort Gorges looked like an antique battleship rising from the water, the granite’s efflorescence sparkling in the sun. As he approached the south side of House Island he could see several big white tents stretched tight, reflecting the sun back onto itself. Too hot to get married – and those poor guests being taxied from the mainland through a sea of dead fish. Not a good omen for a wedding. Not good at all.
Whitehead channel between Cushings Island and the mainland could be tricky and Jimmy always enjoyed knowing exactly where to go, how far he could push the edge of the channel without getting grounded or hearing that ugly scraping sound of a propeller hitting rock.
And then he was in open ocean, expecting the change in temperature when it came — the cool ocean air belting through the passage, evaporating his sweat, feeling like he had entered a different country. Here the swells expanded wide and deep and Jimmy pulled back a bit more, especially considering his cargo. He didn’t want fish spilling all over the cockpit.
He slowed, put the boat in neutral, and killed the engine. Waves crashed against the eastern ledge of Peaks. Two gulls circled the boat, cawing. He dumped the fish quickly. He wanted to see how they looked, before they dissipated and spread out. In the back of his mind he kept thinking of that N.C. Wyeth painting, Dark Harbor Fisherman. It was one of his favorites, the way the silver fish dominated the rest of the painting, as if a person could touch the painting and feel the wet and slime from all those baitfish, as if the fish were real and the rest of the painting was just a painting.
Jimmy made three more trips with his boat loaded with dead pogies, and without cracking a beer. He filled the six buckets one more time, looked around, and considered the beach clean enough. He might find another fish or two later, when the tide returned and shifted the rockweed, like a breeze shuffling leaves. He could explain a dead pogie or two to Rebecca.
As he carried the last two buckets down the dock, he lifted the one in his right hand close to his nose. By now he figured he carried the rotting fish smell with him and that didn’t bother him in the least. He wondered at Rebecca’s reaction if he were to take one of the pogies and rub it under each arm, down his shorts, and into his crotch.
He looked over his last load, debated opening a beer, but decided to wait until the last of the fish had been dumped.
“Jimmy! What are you doing?” Rebecca stood at the top of the gangplank, still dressed in her white cotton sleep shirt and shorts. She looked like a ghost, and with the wind carrying her voice, tristful and dysphoric.
“Fishing. I’m going fishing.” Jimmy looked at the six buckets filled to the top and realized how ridiculous this must look.
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
He waited for her to turn back to the house: a change of clothes, sunscreen, and water. He didn’t plan to wait for her. Later he’d be drunk and then whatever his reason for leaving her wouldn’t matter as much.
Rebecca didn’t go back to the house. She stepped on the gunwale and into the cockpit.
“You don’t like to fish,” he said.
Rebecca sat on the console’s bench seat, looked back at the pogies just once. She didn’t offer help with the lines, neither the bow nor the stern one.
Jimmy didn’t go the same way as before, fearing she might see all the fish that he had already dumped. He charted the boat northeast through Hussey Sound, leaving Peaks and Long Island to either side of their wake. The boat rolled softly over the swells, rising and falling, rising and falling.
“What island’s that?” she asked.
“Jewell.” They’d camped there many times before, before the baby, before any thoughts of a baby.
He angled the boat around the last red can and pointed toward one of the World War II watchtowers that rose from the island’s spruce canopy. The swells hit them broadside to starboard but not so hard that Jimmy feared capsizing with the added weight of the fish.
Closer to Jewell’s shore the swells diminished, cut off by the southern stretch of the island’s ledge. Jimmy pulled into the narrow cove, tossed the small Danforth off the bow, gently reversed until the anchor grabbed into mud. When he killed the engine, the silence made his ears ring.
Rebecca shifted on the seat, closed her eyes, and lifted her face into the sun. Jimmy hauled each bucket to the stern, lifted, and dumped. The outgoing tide pushed the pogies toward the open ocean but the sluice of dead fish seemed to attach to the stern slithering back and forth, like the body of a snake and they were it its head.
Jimmy sat in the bow on his lobster trap, felt the boat hang still on the anchor line. He couldn’t understand why the line of pogies hung tight to the stern, as if all the fish were connected to each other and to the boat. The whole thing unnerved him. Why weren’t they dissipating and moving away? He assumed it was caused by some sort of weird current, a scientific explanation. After a few minutes he’d had enough.
He peeled off his shirt, stepped out of his shorts, and balanced naked on the transom.
He dove into the thickest part of the pogies. Hitting the dead fish felt different than he expected. The pogies tickled his flesh like a stiff bristle brush. As he dove deeper the cold water pushed on his lungs and made his skin feel tight. When he swam for the surface he could see the dark outline of the boat’s hull and sunlight sparkling through the floating fish, as if he were looking into some far away galaxy of alien stars.
Jimmy surfaced in the middle of the fish, like through an ice bore on a northern lake. He treaded water, letting the fish close in around him, as if he were feeding them, a fish trainer. Rebecca had turned around in her seat, watching him passively, as if he played with dead fish every day. That pissed Jimmy off.
He grabbed one fish by the tail and threw it at her. Then another. The first two fish hit the back of the seat with a thud before sliding to the floor. He wanted to throw them harder but it was difficult to throw while keeping himself above water. The third hit her on the arm, another smacked her leg. The last landed in her lap.
Jimmy pulled himself out of the water, looked back at the fish closing in over the void his body had left. He stood before his wife naked and shivering, waiting, hoping for her anger.
Instead, she lifted the fish from her lap, held it in the air with both hands, and offered it to Jimmy. When he didn’t take it, Rebecca knelt on the floor, laid down the fish, and ran a hand along its body, as if petting a cat or a dog.
“What killed them?” Rebecca looked up at Jimmy and her bangs fell into her face. She pushed them away, leaving iridescent deposits of scale in her hair.
“Could have been a lot of things,” he answered.
Jimmy took an orange bait bag from under the console and began stuffing the pogies into the bag. As he was about to cinch it shut, Rebecca handed him the fish she’d been holding and he squeezed that one in, too.
Five pogies made the bait bag heavy and it took several tries to secure it to the trap’s black plastic cleat. Then he heaved it onto the port gunwale and pushed it over the side. He waited for the line to go slack before tying it off one of the stern cleats.
Rebecca gathered her auburn hair behind her head and set herself back into the sun. Jimmy sat toward the bow. His balls, salty and damp, tacked to the oxidized fiberglass. He wondered if she knew he was looking at her, if she knew he had no idea why he kept pushing her away.
The trap had been down only a few minutes, only enough time to catch a chick or a few large crabs. Jimmy began hauling it, pulling the length of rope into the boat. He knew Rebecca was watching and he hoped she might be disgusted by his naked backside, pale and hairy, as he struggled hand over hand with the line.
The trap blurred just below the surface. Cakes of mud fell from the top and splashed back into the water. Jimmy pulled and settled it back under, pulled and settled it in order to clean off some of the mud.
“What the..?” Jimmy said.
Rebecca jumped up next to him and he barely noticed her hand resting on his shoulder. A normal lobster trap weighed close to fifty pounds. Heavy enough to heave into a boat by hand. Even full of lobsters it still felt about the same. Jimmy couldn’t understand what made this time feel so much heavier. Was it his nakedness, his caution not to tangle his penis in the crisp, nylon line? Looking through the water’s surface, wavy and distorted, the color wasn’t right. Not black and brick but white and grey like a rock or a stone.
Jimmy leaned in and heaved the trap out of the water and into the boat.
“Holy Christ,” he said.
The tail of a fish slapped against the cockpit, the rest of the body stuck in the netting of the trap. Not a single lobster or crab, just the largest striper that he’d ever seen. The massive fish struggled to free itself, slapping and slapping. Jimmy cupped a hand over his balls.
Rebecca laughed so loud and clear it frightened him. At first he thought she was laughing at him, his startled expression and his nakedness. He pulled the fish out of the trap by the tail. The fish thumped and smacked against the fiberglass. Then he put one foot on its body, grabbed the gaff from the console, and hit the striper over the head again and again. The fish stopped struggling, a trickle of blood coursed from its head, its body pulsed faintly, like a quieting heart.
Jimmy thought the fish must weigh close to twenty-five pounds as he lifted it and dropped it into one of the empty bait buckets. He glanced at Rebecca and saw tears running down her cheeks.
“I…well…” Jimmy shrugged.
He opened his tackle box, pulled out his fillet knife and a rusty can of stick matches. These he put in the bucket with the fish, set it carefully floating to the port side of the boat. Then he jumped back in the water, this time staying away from the string of dead pogies, still trailing behind the boat.
He pushed the bucket in front of him, swam, and pushed more. He scolded himself for not grabbing the beer. He turned to see Rebecca cross both hands behind her back and pull off her sleep shirt, then pull down her shorts. His feet were touching bottom when he heard her splash.
They picked their way over the barnacled rocks and slippery rockweed until they reached the steep path leading to the trail of campsites. He helped her climb up over the ledge first, handed her the bucket, and followed up after her.
He felt bad seeing Rebecca shiver under the shadow of evergreens that hung over the campsite. So, he quickly, carefully avoiding the poison ivy, stepped into the tall grass and gathered pieces of weathered birch bark and pine boughs. He built a t-pee style fire and wrapped the bark around its frame. The first matched crumbled but the second lit the bark. Jimmy blew carefully until the fire crackled and popped. He added a few larger pieces.
Rebecca sat on a log in front of the fire. Jimmy pulled the striper from the bucket and laid it out on the picnic table. She glanced over once and their eyes met. She looked away when Jimmy began sawing off the fish’s head. The knife wasn’t the best and he cut slowly through tough skin, cartilage, and bone. Blood ran and pooled, staining the weathered wood of the table. He sliced behind gills, and down the length of its body, the knife tearing through scales like thick leather fabric.
He used a stick to lower the grate, pushed the fire around to settle it. He laid the first, then the second fillet skin side down. Within a few seconds the flames sizzled from the water or fat, he wasn’t sure which. But he liked that sound.
The log felt weathered and smooth on his skin, except for the nub of a long ago branch that poked into his butt. He shifted over and their legs touched. Slowly the fillets changed color, from red veins and translucent to flaky and white at the edges. Rebecca rested her head on his shoulder. The fire popped, a spark shot between their feet, but neither of them moved. A bell buoy clanged, seemingly close and far at the same time.
Jimmy leaned over the fire, pushed a finger into one of the fillets. The center pushed back but the edges yielded and split. He wondered about the dead pogies. Buckets and buckets of them that he had tossed back into the open ocean. A waste of so many fish lives.
Jimmy knew what Rebecca was going to say before she said it.
“I’m still sad about it,” she whispered.
Jimmy looked down at Rebecca’s leg, smudged black from the fire. He wanted to answer his wife with something comforting and profound. Yet, what came to him was nothing of the sort. All that he had was just one strange, simple hope: that this striper had eaten at least one of the pogies.
The fillets wouldn’t take much longer. It would taste fresh, a bit salty. He knew it would be the best fish they’d ever eaten. He wished it had longer to cook. He didn’t want the fish to be ready. He wanted it to cook and cook and never be done.
One of the fillets cracked along the center, both pieces now white and flaky. He knew the fish was ready. He just needed another minute to gather his thoughts, before he could pull off a piece and offer it to Rebecca.
But the fish continued to cook, and still Jimmy didn’t move or speak.
Finally, Rebecca leaned forward, pinched off a piece of meat from the skin that stuck to the grate. She set it gently in her hand. Jimmy watched the steam rising and wondered if it was burning her. She blew on it, waved her hand through the heat, then stretched out her hand to him.
“You have it,” he said.
Rebecca shook her head, held her hand steady.
Jimmy told himself to reach out and accept it. But his hands remained stuck in his lap. So he leaned forward, closed his eyes, and opened his mouth. Rebecca’s fingers brushed his lips and the hot flesh of striper singed his tongue. And Jimmy knew he’d been right just moments before. That striper was the best fish he’d ever tasted.