Gutting a pale fish with my father, the strongman. He turns it in his hands once, twice, plops it on the chopping block, belly up. Swallows the air. The thing about stinky little fish heads is their eyes even after ya split ‘em still seems like they’re giving you the eye. So he pops them out with his thumb and hands them to me where they roll to the center of my palm, touching—I realize—for the very first time. I pocket the pair. Plant those in the garden when ya get home and grow yourself another fish that’s how Jesus did it.
A metal club used to dispatch fish is called a priest. That’s a word in front of another word. Like how just there, the word dispatch stood in front of the word kill, bold and unashamed. (But to be fair, kill is slouching behind most words.) You ain’t done scaling till the body’s smooth don’t forget to scrape out the bloodline. He means the dark red line clinging to the spine inside the body cavity. He uses his thumb again then licks it clean. I use a teaspoon and keep track of the measurements. See what he’s made of. He’s got four lines in the water and a beer for each. I’ve got one and tend it like a watched pot. A line, that is. He calls me pissant for using a spoon. Says the thumb is what makes us human. I say no, you’re thinking of tools. We both piss overboard.
Next was head and tail, a split down the seam, slipping out the insides like stripping a sheet from bed. Good vittles in one bucket. Bad in another. One more round of sidelining then you’re at the knife. A bite on the line. He goes reeling. Happens faster the second time. The motion is so fluid, it appears as the fish is helping to swim through its own disassembly. Over and done with, my father, the strongman gestures madly. Get the lead out you’re up to chuck. Tiny scales cling to the underside of his big hands. When the light catches them, it looks like he’s holding two fistfuls of fire. Don’t spook ‘em little nibble.
Now it’s my turn for reeling. I start like a panic. He flashes his fiery hands, waves me down. Easy now no use forcing it he wants to pass on through you’re just holding the door for him real polite like. I bob and totter. Go slowly, as if winding a delicate watch. Pole gives, line shivers, and in a ripple, the fish is pulled from his world to ours. Ha-ah! It’s only but a squeaker. He plucks it from the line with one hand and slaps it on the block. The knife finds my hand. I get going for the neck. Nu-uh first things first the eyes. A breaker falls. Do it proper or don’t do it at all.
My thumb hovers over the lens of the thing. Pressure has made it bulge, the inky pupil inside its jelly casing. My vision blears. I push my thumb into the fish but the angle’s all wrong so instead of sliding out, it collapses inward. The mess hangs there deflated like a pierced piece of bubblewrap. Another breaker. Ha ha ha ha ha better toss that one back it’s bad luck to bury a broken eye got no meat to ‘em anyhow you’re as bad as me little strongman no grace about you go dump the slop bucket it’s a task more suited to your talents. With a flick of the wrist, he chucks the fish blind over his shoulder, like making a wish at a fountain. After heaving the slop overboard, I reach into my pocket and finger out one of the good eyes. Wiping the lint off its shell, I toss it into the sea half-hoping it might return to its owner. Or at the very least, give a warning glance to those swimming up, up, up to that glass ceiling.
We use worms, maggots, hoppers, and minnows. We use corn, dough, salmon egg, and pork rind. We use our hands. You can’t waste time out here because there’s no time on the water. When we get back to shore, everything will be in its same old place. It always is.
The soil isn’t taking well to the things I buried. That season I put 61 eyes in the ground. An odd number—because of the practice fish. A practice fish is a dummy you mutilate to get all your mistakes out your mother was a practice fish. The dirt’s gone gray in that spot. I don’t see how it will grow. But he insists. Why are you watering with tap stinky little fish eyes need saltwater my boy.
So I mixed a bucket and poured it over the dead dry dirt. Heaved it back and forth, full to the brim with brine. Left my arms gimp, but did it and did it proper all the same. Didn’t leave till the whole garden was sop and sunken. Overkill maybe but who am I to leave a thing to chance when chance is always sitting on her hands when you need her. It didn’t seep. Only slid around the surface like water on glass. Had no time for oh-wells because it was time to wash up our wrists for dinner.
The fish spits at me from the skillet. Thought I taught you about the oil. That’s true he did. And how to light the faulty oven, and how to burn without tripping the smoke alarm, and how when eating to feel for bones with your tongue. Each bone is a mistake, either in prepping or in chewing, and how more often than not, mistakes have a way of lodging themselves in the mouth. We each have an ashtray. That’s where the bones go. Whoever has more by the end of the meal has to do the dishes. It looks like a tie, but my father, the strongman says that my bones have split ends—a mark of sloppy craftsmanship—and those count as two.
At the sponge again. Tiny concentric circles, that’s the way. Watch for knives in the blind scum of the sink. Scrub, scrub. Skin red from the heat. In a mistake, I scratch at my eye, a mere itch, but with hands still soapy my vision stings and I go teary. What’s that whimpering in there? None and nothing. All good. No smoke without fire they say so why you hollering then? He’s got me pinned by his knees. His legs are long and bony like a grasshopper’s legs. He can trap me and still have two free hands. So with one hand, unwashed and still clay from earlier, he pries open my weepy eye. Ah see that’s your problem right there you’ve gone all milk-eyed like a blind boy. No no. Just suds. Really I’m fine. Nah I’m afraid it’s completely useless gotta be removed I reckon. Then with the other hand, he sticks out his thumb and moves it slowly towards the corner of my eye. I squirm beneath him but it’s no use. The hair of his legs, stiff with salt, pricks my skin. I begin to hate him. That is, I begin to hate the joke of life so often reverting to brute strength. His thumb brushes against my eyelashes, the wet globular pocket where the eye and face meet. He pushes a bit. Don’t move now this’ll take but a second.
I give everything I have to thrashing. My chest burns hot and slow like charcoal. I give everything I have to thrashing. My eye leaks like a spool of thin blue thread being unwound. I give everything I have to thrashing. My body sweats everywhere all at once. I keep giving but I’m stuck in the joke. I keep but I don’t remember the joke anymore. The salt of his thumb touches the white of my eye, and in this way I can taste my father, the strongman. It doesn’t taste good. He nudges the socket. Then I scream for my mother—he lets up.
He says oh come now it was only a bit of fun and strokes me real gentle, rubbing his palms over my ears we were having a laugh that’s what we were doing weren’t we? and nips at the loose skin of my neck no need to call for your mommy cause you’re a strongman like me and strongmen don’t need anybody but each other and wipes the soap from my eye with the calloused ridge of his hand. He affords me to worm free. I flop on the cot upstairs and cry mute into the pillow. It doesn’t make a sound you could hear from the other side of the door. It’s only for me.
If we grow up fearing our mothers how did all these men get in charge? She could beat you down with a metal coat hanger, and just when you thought you couldn’t know the force of her flesh any further, she’d put it on the stovetop till the wire glowed red. Her hands were soft and shriveled, waterlogged from too many dishes. They only looked normal when she made a fist. Her hair was boyish. Her meals were boneless. She carries me in a photo in her purse. You gotta grow a spine cut me some slack at the end of the day i always provide i always provide for you don’t i tell me i don’t provide for you?
Downstairs, the front door slams and I know I’m alone. I draw a bath. Father says only fags and women take baths cause they’re used to swimming in their own filth but I know he pisses in the shower, which must get all over his feet, so I don’t see how that’s any better. The salt falls from my body. I can hold my breath for a minute and a half before the lungs start to pang. It feels good underwater, watching the greasy sheen of grime and oil float above. That’s me floating up there. I stay till my skin shrinks up, then drain the tub and get the shower running so it doesn’t leave those coffee rings of human residue on the side.
In bed, I wait listening for the sound of the front door opening, but there’s only silence and cicadas. Where does he go when he’s going out? And why doesn’t he take me? He’s a bully that’s what he is. You shouldn’t place your trust in a bully, because they don’t know how to hold anything delicately. Michelle from class put her trust in Kurt, the school bully, and he ended up lobbing her ponytail off. He still has it and won’t give it back. She cried and said you made me ugly now no one will like me but he still wouldn’t give it back. Some kids say he must have made a voodoo doll out of it, because two weeks later Michelle and Kurt started dating. But I don’t think that’s true. I think they got together because being picked on can feel pretty close to being picked, and who doesn’t wanna be chosen? I hate Michelle. No, I just hate them together. If I dreamt, it must have been something small and weak, because I don’t remember anything the next day.
Light comes in strong from the window. It’s late, we should already be out on the water. For fisherman, the day is over almost immediately after it begins. He left without me. He must have. But walking down the hall to his room, I can hear his boorish snoring coming through the door. He’s still here. So I duck into the kitchen to start the coffee. While the press steeps, I rub crusty grains of sleep from my eyes. They plink on the counter. He never has a lie in. Says too much rest makes the baby go lame. Today must be a wash. But is he giving up on the catch, or on me?
I plunge the coffee and make two plates of toast, with saucers of olive oil and sides of herring. I do the dishes before even eating. Ahead of waking my father, the strongman I draw up the blinds to let the light in. And outside in the garden, exactly where I had been planting all summer, I see a mound of fifty or sixty fish, spoiling quick in the morning sun.
Chris Ames is a writer who also draws. Most recently, his work has appeared in No Tokens, Heavy Feather Review and Passages North. He can be reached @_chrisames.