This past September I had the pleasure of reading a short story I wrote at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival as part of their Fringe reading. This is that story. Enjoy!
Catch of the Day
Da always said you could tell a lot about a man by the kind of boat he did his fishing in. I never should have gotten into Mr. Connelly’s fisher. With flaking paint and rusted bolts, his old boat looked like it’d be more at home on the bottom of the sea than floating on top of it. But float it did.
And against Da’s wisdom, I got on it.
I was already at the pier anyway and, besides, there wasn’t a whole lot else to do in small-town Port Morien, Nova Scotia. Population: 3,000. Excitement: zero. I’d made up my mind to skip classes—an easy decision, that—and headed down to the shore in search of…something. Something that wasn’t school. But most of the usual harbour bustle had already ended for the morning leaving the wharf pretty dead. So after rolling the last of my cigarettes and watching the riggings jangle in the sea breeze, I was bored. And there was Mr. Connelly checking his gear and revving up the motor.
The man was a fisherman through and through. His face was sun-darkened and salt-lined, the skin as tough and wrinkled as jerky. White tufts of hair stuck out from under his cap, from his chin, even from his ears. His smile was nothing more than a quick upward slash of his lips; the real smile lived in his eyes. Whenever I saw him in the fish market bragging about his latest catch, his eyes, blue and cold like the waves, were always smiling. Strange thing was, I never once saw him selling his day’s catch to the mongers—he was always there just to boast. Maybe he ate his catch himself.
His eyes smiled at me that day when he asked me to come along on the boat. “You look like you’ve got the sea in your blood, lad,” he’d called to me.
I gave a noncommittal shrug. Maybe I did; Da was a lobster fisher, like so many on the coast, and said someday I would be, too, that it was in my blood. But I’d never felt the sea in my blood before. It was just blood, plain and simple.
“You want to see something that will get the sea thundering through your veins?”
In retrospect, if the boat didn’t warn me, that question should have. But I wanted to feel the sea in my veins.
Connelly didn’t say much as we headed out to open water. That suited me just fine as I didn’t like to talk. I started out beside him at the helm, but drifted to the bow well before the familiar red of the Hopkins fishery was out of sight. The bow was my favourite. From there I could see everything from the empty horizon to the prow cutting through the water. It’s the best place to feel the boat dip through each wave.
I kept waiting for Connelly to drop a line or lower a trap, but we just kept moving deeper out to sea. He never seemed concerned about it, too busy fiddling with some kind of fish-finder devices that had seen better days. They didn’t look anything like the sleek, modern ones Da used. I’m not sure what the screens were showing him but he’d push a button or turn a dial, then adjust the wheel.
The open-sea air chewed through my hoodie easily and I shivered, hunkering deeper into the fabric. It wasn’t long before my skin was damp with spray.
Truth be told, I started to get bored again. I wished I’d brought a snack or something. I licked the salt from my lips but it didn’t stop my stomach from rumbling. Just when I was about ready to start eating my pocket lint, Connelly turned off the motor and called me to the stern. Please be lunch. I crossed my fingers. No such luck.
He had me unfurl a net from a large storage container. It was heavy, the mesh thick and sharp. I nicked by fingers on it twice and when I sucked away the well of blood, my skin tasted of fish. Gross. After removing all the tangles, we threw the net over the side. It sank out of sight, three sturdy cables tied to the stern the only evidence it existed.
“Now we wait.” He winked at me and I wished he wouldn’t. The gesture made my skin itch. “I’ve been wanting to share this with someone for a long time now. Just you wait.”
I scanned the water and all I saw was blue—no land, no other boats, no buoys. We were farther out than I’d thought. Farther than I’d ever been before. It was thrilling and yet… I chanced a glance at Connelly; he was staring at the cables with an expression I could only describe as hunger. Unease began to swell inside me but I shoved it away. There was nothing I could do about it. Not way out here. And anyway, I had yet to feel the sea in my veins like he’d promised.
Connelly went back to his fish-finder contraptions and I plopped down on his tackle box, my head against the rail, my eyes closed. At least I’m not at school, where the letters swim like krill. My head hurt just thinking about it. So I stopped thinking about it.
I was starting to drift off when the boat gave a perceptible lurch. Christ! My eyes snapped open.
“Fish on!” Connelly crowed and raced to the stern. He hit a button and, with a splutter and a puff of oily smoke, a motor started to crank in the cables.
The boat gave another pitch. It occurred to me that I probably should have asked Connelly what it was we were after. I asked him then.
But he just gave me a smile, that grimacing lift of his lips, and his eyes danced. “You’ll see.” He pulled a boat hook out of the storage bin and peered over the side at the retracting net.
Something hit the boat’s underside and I had to grab the rail to keep from stumbling. What was down there? “Er…Mr. Connelly? I think you might have caught a whale or something.” Whatever we’d caught, it was big. Too big to be legal.
He threw his head back and laughed, the sound making goose bumps break out over my skin. “Even better.”
The unease I’d felt earlier rushed back with the strength of a rising tide. “Mr. Connelly…?”
Then the surface of the water broke in a turbulent spray that sloshed over the rail, soaking my boots. I caught sight of a tail. My stomach turned, and it wasn’t from motion sickness. A shark maybe? Definitely not legal. Okay, so I’d wanted to escape school for a little bit, feel the sea in my veins like he said, but I didn’t think that would include jail time, which is certainly where this adventure was leading. I was already going to be in enough trouble with Da when he found out I’d skipped—again.
I swallowed hard.
“That’s pretty big, sir. Maybe we should cut it loose?” Before it downs the boat, I didn’t add. Before we get hauled off by the coast guard.
Instead, he hooked the thrashing net, now clear of the water, with his pole and pulled it into the boat. It hit the deck with a heavy, wet slap. The tail whipped out and smacked my legs out from under me. I fell hard, landing beside the thing in the net, and when I looked up I was met with a pair of angry yellow eyes. I screamed. And screamed.
A hand reeking of dead fish clamped over my mouth cutting off the sound I couldn’t stop. “Hush, lad. Ain’t she a beauty?”
For the first time I felt the sea in my veins, but it wasn’t exhilarating like everyone said. It thundered and crashed through my head at the wrongness of what I was seeing.
Twisted up in the net, writhed a creature with a humanoid face though it was covered in grey-green scales, with a slit nose and serrated teeth peeking from flat, wet lips. Lank black hair tangled in the net’s weave. Gills popped open and closed at its throat. Webbed hands tore futilely at the netting. Then a lean torso gave way to a long, muscled tail not unlike that of a shark but covered in the same murky scales.
It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t… But it was—
“A mermaid!” Connelly hugged me tight, painfully so. “Just look at her!”
I pushed from his grasp, ran to the side of the boat and hurled into the water until nothing came up. I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But there is was… The sonuvabitch had caught a mermaid! And I was his accomplice… I groaned. Oh, this was bad. This was very bad. When I turned back, Connelly was standing over his catch with a look that said Christmas had come early. It was a look that made all the hairs on my body stand on end.
The…mermaid—I still had trouble believing it was true—had stopped its thrashing about. Its tail flopped against the deck, its gills fluttered, its eyes rolled in terror. If there had been anything left in my stomach, I would have been sick all over again.
“Well, don’t just stand there, boy. Help me get her secure and then we can head back.” He bent and started putting weights around the net.
Da always said if you’re not going to eat what you catch, throw it back. Connelly wasn’t about to throw his catch back.
The sea in my veins turned to ice.
I couldn’t let this happen. At the very least, this was poaching… At worst… I didn’t even want to think about Connelly’s crimes. All I knew was I wanted no part of it. No true fisherman would. Not one who really had the sea in his blood. Like I now knew I did. Because I felt it, there inside me, raging.
As he moved to grab another weight, I picked up his boat hook, gripping it until my knuckles turned white.
“Throw it back, Mr. Connelly.” My voice didn’t waver, but I couldn’t stop the tremor of my hands. He straightened, looking from me to the pole and back again, his eyes dark with humour.
“And why would I do that?”
“Because it belongs in the sea.”
He took a step toward me. “You help me get her secure or you go overboard. Those are your two options.”
I chose option three.
And swung out with the boat hook, hitting the old man across the face. He went down with a grunt and didn’t get up.
I didn’t know what to do with him—or what he’d do to me when he woke—but I couldn’t think about that then.
Somehow, I forced one jelly-filled foot in front of the other until I was standing beside the net. The mermaid didn’t move, just watched me, eyes filled with defeat. With shaky hands I lifted away the mess of netting; then, with one of Connelly’s fishing knives, I cut through what I couldn’t untangle. For a moment when the net was clear we just looked at each other.
Then, in a blink, the mermaid lashed out with its tail, knocking me flat again. But instead of making for the water, it flopped toward Connelly, grabbed him by the pant leg and rolled overboard taking the fisherman with it.
Winded, I crawled to the side and looked into the dark depths but all I could see was waves.
Da always said if you’re not going to eat what you catch, throw it back.
The mermaid didn’t throw back its catch.
© Danielle Webster, 2014