2022 Short Story Competition

Exotic Fish

It is a starved town. Bone-white houses pave the beach like conches and oysters, although these oysters are bereft of pearls. Towards the edge of the town most distant from the beach, a thin train track etches its way through the sand to a run-down station and a dosing ticket-taker. The metal rails of the track are faded and frail, like the ribs of cattle skeletons that warn of a desert’s heat. Trains pass by the town infrequently, billowing out waves of smoke and silt which mix with the sand and vanish in minutes. Boats lie, grounded, anywhere between the beach and the station, some boarded up and full of frayed rope, some glistening with brightly painted hulls and crisply folded sails. They look like lost beach toys, but there are very few children in this town.

In autumn and winter, the boats sleep. In spring, they begin to stir from their slumbers, growing restless. Birds stir up the sky in great flocks, forming ominous storm-clouds overhead with their murmurations. The ticket-taker brushes coal dust from their vest and rubs at the veneer of their teeth. Their finger comes away grey. Near the end of spring, the waters of the bay begin to froth slightly, as the migratory fish come home to its depths. Slowly, life returns to the harbour. The sun shines with more intensity. The town awakes.

Then, in the summer, the trains pull in.

The station fills with fishermen who crowd the town with their gaping mouths and hungry eyes. They pry their pasts off of themselves when they step off the train, eager to wash off the grime of their city lives. They spout praise like fountains. They dream of silver plaques and statues of their chiselled faces, lightly weathered by age but never wrinkled, immortalized in youth. They neglect to think of these same statues gone rusty in the rain, chipped back to a clean state, a face eroding to dust. No, their minds are aloof with pride, too high for such decay, made euphoric by their fleeting spells of fame.

The turn of the season brings the bounty of fish. The fishermen are attracted to their bodies like flies.

There are already boats in this town, down every road and beach and deserted alley, so nobody brings their own. The weathered townsfolk drag the boats down to the shore. Then the fishermen pick one from the boneyard and set out, swarming the harbour until only tiny glimpses of the frothing sea can be seen between the painted hulls. Water swells against the shore like the puff of chests, frothed to fury by their pride. Novices dive headfirst into the art of the hook until they can call themselves experts after only a summer’s work, for the summer works hard on the fishermen too, leathering their skin, tempering them, then proudly displaying their bodies in the golden swathes of sunlight. Yet they burn quickly, not sun-adjusted and tanned like the townsfolk. They jeer at the townsfolk’s callused hands.

The fishermen tear open the mouths of the things they catch and leave them to writhe on the floor of the boat. When the boats sail to shore, townsfolk trade their names like baseball cards until their faces fade and the corners are dog-eared into dust. Some fishermen disappear between the lines that are cast, but only a few, and they are quickly forgotten about. It is hard to pick out faces from within the crowds of townsfolk who gape, mouths open like those of the dead fish hoisted proudly above them. It lasts one season. By the time the leaves on the trees are thinning with autumn, most of them have grounded their boats and taken the train home.

But every year, a few men stay just a little longer past the departure of their fellows.

Three summers ago, a young man sailed through the harbour for the first time, one hand draped over the side of his borrowed sailboat and the other held aloft to shield his intelligent eyes from the summer sun. The small congregation of dark-haired children who soon followed in his wake were quick to eddy and pool in his shadow, in the imprints he left behind in the sand.

He is back this summer, swollen with anticipatory greed. This summer, he is a great, mythic cockatrice: half rooster-strutting, feathers pulled up with condescension, half draconic-slithering, with a thin lisp he’d developed in lieu of a foreign accent. This summer, he uses nets instead of fishing rods, for bait and line have long since sunk under his lofty standards. This summer, the eyes of the town appraise his value, and he glows before them, for them, all for their approval. He preens, and the town shows him the whites of their teeth.

Like all summers, this one has begun to fade.

There is a week left before the season turns and slips away. The townsfolk wait and watch along the shore, waves soaking greedily into their woven sandals. Shards of shell break through the handmade material and cut into the soles of their feet, but nothing matters besides the ache of the sun and the Calpurnia sparkling on the shore. It is his favourite boat. It is the one he has taken out to sea for three years now, although this is the first time he has stayed in town past midsummer. In the light of dawn, he stretches his limbs on the beach with the other fishermen who have stayed. Just a little longer, they say. Just a few more days. They ready their boats. The townsfolk watch.

Then they open their sails and push off.

Their boats break through wave after wave away from the quay. They’d never caught quite so much as they had in their first summers, and nothing has satiated them since. Desire rears its awful head. They let more wind into their sails, head out deeper, farther from the beach. They do not look back, so they do not see the way the townsfolk line the shore behind them like a palisade.

He can feel the maw of age behind him now, waiting for him to succumb. He can hear the way it creaks in his hands, his shoulders, the knobs of his spine. His sail flutters from the mast, a white flag. The sun beats down on his back, but he barely feels its heat. Idly, he notices the ships that sailed beside him seem to have dwindled in number. Yet he keeps the snarl of his wide eyes fixed on the horizon.

Wrinkles begin to tear through his forehead. Thin rivers run along his brows and mark out his scars. The spray of the sea etches deep, coarse lines through his body. The water traces through the ridges of his face, the way rainwater winds through ditches in its path towards the ocean, or the way a train can carve a long black line through the sand. Now, and only now, could he say that he knew the sea.

There are no fish in this harbour anymore. The wind dwindles, then disappears. His sail collapses, then flutters down to rest. His boat stills. He stops.

He looks back.

The townsfolk are a thin band on the shoreline. In the bay that stretches between them, there is a fleet of empty boats with sails that do not stir, no sign of their captains. Mirages dance on the surface of the water. Sweat tracks run down his forehead, down into the cracked skin of his eyelids. He closes his eyes. He burns.

The water is cold when it reaches for him, but it is colder when it takes him apart. Yet he finds relief as he is torn from the deck of Calpurnia and dragged down. He gasps, mouth gaping, letting the water in, and sinks.

The boats sail back to shore on their own, glistening in the sun, healed beyond brand-new. They whisper to each other. 

The townsfolk wade out to drag them to shore, water lapping around their tanned and wrinkled limbs. The old women herd the boats together and push them through the beaches and the sandy roads, scattering the boats throughout the town where they will wait until next year. One woman kneels with a rough cloth at the stern of Calpurnia, to scrub away the painted name.

Then we go home to our families.

 You may tell the police cars in the city to run their sirens all they like, but there is only one siren in this bay. We would not give the sea our children, and so we found alternative food. Now our children paint the boats a fresh coat of colour before we set them out every spring, in a holy, winding trail that leads to the lips of the shore. 

The sea is smooth and tranquil. It will be a long, quiet winter.

This short story by Aiza Bragg is posted in submission for the ESA’s 2022 Short Story Competition.

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