2023 Short Story Competition

The Trail

Disclaimer: This piece deals with the death and killing of animals, namely fish. Although it is not
overly explicit, the action of hitting it over the head, as well as blood is mentioned.

The seagulls cawed while the waves sloshed against the boat, polluted by the mechanical hum of
the engine. The water reflected the depressing mood of the sky. It was an awful day to go for a
walk, but a perfect day to go fishing. As uncle revived the engine with the snap of his wrist, it
sent the boat skidding, challenging the waves, rhythmically slapping the water with each interval.
It was almost no longer functional with small cracks littered throughout, some screws hanging on
for dear life. I gripped both sides of the bow, steadying myself. The boat was a small thing, and
although it could fit about six people, uncle said the engine couldn’t take more than two grown
adults. The paint was chipped off showing the metal siding, looking as if it had been through
many battles. The wind pressed against my cheeks, flicking particles of moisture into my face. It
was icy yet refreshing, also tickling my tongue with salt. The engine began to sputter and cough,
eventually coming to a halt.
“This is the spot.”
The ‘spot’ looked like nothing special – we were in the middle of the ocean. The ‘spot’
could have stretched hundreds of kilometers for all I’d known.
“Eric, look here.” He gestured to the GPS. “These circles are where the ocean floor gets
higher, and is where all the fish are.”
“What’s that red line over there?”
“That’s– that’s the protected zone. You ain’t supposed to fish there, but we’re so close
that if we get pulled over we can tell ‘em we drifted in. It’s okay. Go on. Let the line out.”
I raised the composite rod from beneath me, repositioning it to my left. With the click of
the reel, the lure descended into nothingness. The sea seemed empty, almost hollow. The line
wiggled as if it were a soundwave, quickly being eaten, no longer being heard. The rod rattled unpredictably until the line sat still, the lure signaling the bottom with a thunk. It didn’t take long
before I felt a tug.
I could only imagine what it was like to be down there. It must be dark, empty, and quiet.
Must be real quiet. Thud, thud, thud. The lure broke the silence. I broke the silence. It was as if I
was abruptly beating my rhythm into them, showing no sign of stopping. Did they simply bite
because they thought it was food, or were they trying to shut me up? I looked it in the eyes as I
reeled up, but it didn’t look at me. It couldn’t.
When it first bit, I jerked the rod as hard as I could. It pulled the rod down and swam
sporadically, but not for long. For each second that passed, its strength waned until there was
none at all. At about halfway up the rod still lurched over the side, but that was it. I reeled and
reeled, my thin arms feeling as if they’d give in at any minute. Suddenly, a splash of brownish-
orange appeared at the surface of the water.
“Darn. Another rock cod.”
“Is that bad?”
“The limit’s two. Two rock cod per boat. He’s a lil’ small too, so it’s probably best to let
‘em go. Swing ‘em over here.”
I watched my uncle grab him by the gills, maneuvering his hand around a bulge of
protruding flesh, yanking the hook, dislodging it from the mouth. It barely flinched. He tossed
the cod over his shoulder with one hand and I watched it struggle away. Its eyes were protruding,
almost like an alien of some sort. The bulge was its stomach, my uncle told me. Something about
how the change in water pressure gets to rock cod, and that being why they give up halfway. I
studied it, swirling in imperfect circles, tail slapping around as if it forgot it was a fish. It eased,
eventually drifting off farther and farther, now with no protest.

As the day progressed, whitecaps began to crash into the boat, shoving it side to side.
Uncle slowly turned his hand so the engine let out a constant hum. Looking at his GPS, he told
me the boat had started to drift further into the protected zone, and with the line down, we
contested the waves. The tip of the rod snapped down. I jerked with what energy remained in me.
“The drag! Adjust the drag!”
“What’s the drag? How? How do I adjust it?”
“Here!” My uncle grabbed a dial atop the reel and turned it. The rod just barely relaxed.
Line continued to be stolen from the reel.
“Must be a ling. Ain’t a rock cod. Ain’t no way.” The reel felt as if it was an old man,
limbs creaking, just barely getting by. But if the reel was an old man, then I was surely dead. My
arms were quivering, resulting in the rod’s butt shooting up into my armpit. My uncle ripped the
rod from me, bringing himself to stand with his feet as wide as the boat allowed. I studied as he
reeled, jerking the rod up and down with precision like an orchestra conductor. Even when I
could see its earthy brown scales appear beside the boat, it refused to give up.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about. That was a real good fight. That’s all it’s about. Eric, net
‘em.” The lingcod fell into the boat, flopping on top of my toes, still refusing to accept defeat. It
looked up at me, its face painted as if it knew what was about to happen. Uncle rummaged
through a toolbox under his seat, eventually pulling out a thick, dagger-sized, plastic stick. He
crouched over the lingcod and raised the stick above his head. Bang! He struck right between its
eyes, the lingcod thrashing, forcing the boat side to side. Uncle raised the stick above his head
once more. Bang! The lingcod wiggled its tail, eventually its whole body coming to a halt. Blood
pooled at my feet. It was maybe seventeen pounds, a good size for eating, uncle said. I stared at
its lifeless eyes once more, my toes stained with blood.

I gripped the bow as the engine sputtered to life once again. As the boat skidded on top of
the water, the air felt thick, the salt sticking to my skin. Water droplets flew into my mouth, the
metallic taste of blood settling itself within me. I cranked my neck, looking behind us. The water
no longer reflected the depressing sky, but was painted red, filled with an assortment of
carcasses. Behind us was a trail of waste.

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