Water and sky were indistinguishable as he set out. Sea still asleep; unawakened by daylight, undisturbed by the squealing of the gulls, honking of the ships. Quietly, tide carried him away from the shore, boat gliding through the flat surface, his hands steering towards an invisible destination.
That night the sea was calm. There was nothing inducing waves, no wind nor rain. Tides didn’t whirl. Under his feet, water rocked gently, promising safety.
When he reached open sea, he anchored and picked the nets. His muscular hands, bulged biceps, used to the heaviness of the ropes, weight of drenched nets; but his palms, though wide and thick, had blistered. The decades of working at sea scarred him. Corrosive compounds in water had dried and bitten on his skin.
He plunged the nets overboard, rocked back to the cabin and brought out a large, metal bucket with a hollowed lid. He leaned overboard, submerged his hands and pushed the bucket into the waves. Weight of water leaned on his tendons. The sea was pulling him in. If he let go he would sink, so he withdrew, stood the bucket on the deck, sat next to it.
It was quiet. The summer delivered on the promise of a calm sea, gentle ebbs and flow; clear, starry sky. He looked at the water and thought of the nets and the frenzy happening within, the voiceless struggle he never witnessed. He imagined life below the surface, the underwater habitat: coral mountains, oddly-shaped glowing fish, and the remnants of lost lives, rust-eaten shipwrecks, shattered fuselages, scattered skulls. And as a pale line emerged and thickened on the horizon, sun rose, he drew the nets.
There were dozens of silver herrings in the nets, enslaved. Ropes coiled around their heads holding them tight, as though barbed wire. They wriggled, tales flapped, mouths opened, gasping. He pulled the nests to his chest and started untangling the fish. He coiled his fingers over their slippery skin feeling their pulse rushing under his thumbs, then picked a knife and slashed each one. But when he saw a small fish, a youngster with its husk white, still growing; he put the knife away, and gently released the fish. It was half of his palm. Transparent fins flicked weakly, slippery body wriggled, trying to free itself. He held it gently, as if it had been newly hatched, turned it checking it was unhurt, its husk undamaged, then slowly placed it into the bucket. And as the fish swam near his feet, whole and safe, he picked back the knife, slaughtered the rest.
Marina buzzed when he arrived back. Boats crowded the pier, fisherman whistled stacking plastic containers full of crabs, shells, silver fish. Salty smell lingered. He moored on the side and started unloading his catch. He shoved bloodied flesh into the crates and wheeled them to the seafood market. The stall owner poked through the silver fish and praised the flesh, then pointed at the bucket and questioned if there was something special for dinner.
He waived a dismissal and left back to the marina wheeling his empty crates; then dropped them on the boat and headed home. He stepped through cobbled alleys, near the village church and the old cemetery, past the graves of soldiers and those who had perished at sea. The bucket jittered in his hand, the fish fidgeted.
The night before he had blocked the windows in the bathroom, taped bits of newspaper on the glass, squeezed balls of crushed paper into the cracks. He knew sea’s waters were dark and murky; daylight at the sea bed scarce and to recreate the darkness, he had to divert sun’s rays away.
When it was dim enough and he could hardly see the tips of his fingers he leaned over the bathtub and picked out broken fishing rods, plastic buckets, shreds of nets he had accumulated over the years, then took off his rubber boots, socks and climbed in the tub. He scattered salt and soda around the tub and with a thick brush scrubbed the rims, scraped clumps of dirt, mould, and polished the walls, till they shone.
He knelt over the bucket and looked at the fish. It clung to the wall, its small, silver body casting a long shadow. He tilted the bucket, poured water into the tub then picked the fish. It leapt and plunged into the tub, unaccustomed to being held, to the warmth of human hands and looped rubbing against the walls, its gills contracting rapidly. He feared the fish would be unadapt to white walls, the brightness of daylight, man-made surroundings, so to comfort it, though he knew it wouldn’t understand, he stroked its fin and whispered You’re safe.
In the afternoon he set out to the town centre. He sat at the café, at the table with the widest view of the beach and ordered stout. The shore was crowded, like most summers. Sand was covered with stripy towels, whisper of the waves silenced by laughter. It was tourists, tired of the buzz of the cities seeking quiet and peace; sun-hungry locals, and children learning to swim. He understood the appeal: warm, glowing sun; inviting, calm water, and remembered the first time he had swum in the sea, and the feeling when seaweed had braided around his angle, the pulling force he had found difficult to fight off.
He sipped and watched people. A young, muscular man plunged from a rock and swam towards an open sea, his white shoulders emerging and disappearing, arms pulling the water, leaving the shore behind. As he watched the man swimming away, his throat constricted, as if the stout had turned into a lump and made it hard to breathe. He observed, how the strong body he saw minutes ago lost shape, turned into a drop and diluted on the horizon. For a few seconds he held his breath, scanned the horizon searching for the swimmer, feeling the lump in his throat expand till the spot reappeared, recovered human shape, his throat relaxed. And as the swimmer walked out of the water onto the beach, the sea spat him back, he took a large sip and thought of the fish.
On the way back home, he strolled along the beach on the south side of the town. It had been closed to the public for years. After many accidents, concerns about strong currents even lifeguards couldn't fight off, authorities sealed it off, swimmers moved to a safer shore.
He walked up the shore and leaned over a tall, spiky rock, remembering how, four decades ago, he had strained his eyes to guard swimmers and looked out for people vanishing underwater. He recalled school children learning to swim, those young and scared submerged only to their ankles, and the curious and confident who plunged from the rocks; and how he had dived to save them.
Since the beach had been closed, nature had reclaimed it. Moss grew on the benches, dunes invaded the sidewalks. Gravel and sand were spattered with slimy remains of jellyfishes’ the seagulls fed on. As he came up to the edge of the sea, he crouched and put his hand on the sand, foam licking his skin, and picked what the tide left behind: small stones, shells, seaweed, and when his pockets were full he headed home.
In the bathroom, he leaned over the tub and put stones, shells and seaweed in the water. He assembled pieces of rocks and pebbles on top of each other and created small mountains and tunnels, recreating the ocean floor. The stones that had paled in his pocket recovered their rich colours underwater, crushed seaweed restored its softness, its blades opened up and swung. He then smeared mud and sand at the bottom and watched how the fish circled between the weeds, less timid, more at home.
From under the sink he took out a small plastic bag. Sour stench hit him as he opened it. Dead bugs, dried maggots and egg larva lay crushed inside. He dug his hand in, picked a handful and spread the bugs on the water’s surface, pushing a clump towards the fish and watched how it swam to the surface, fed.
That evening, he sat at the kitchen table, his neck arched, arms stretched, bent over a clump of white wax. He held it over a lighter felling the flickering flame heat up his wrinkled cheeks, feeling the wax melt then rolled it between palms and started moulding. He pushed his bulky, ragged fingers into the mass, twisted, squeezed and shaped an oval; then glided his thumbs along and smoothed unevenness. At the bottom of the oval, on each side, he attached two long pieces of wax, then shaped a small ball and stuck it on the top. He pricked the ball with his nail and shaped a small nose, lips, carved eye sockets. The sculpture was small. It fitted in his palm. He put it on the table and waited till it hardened and dried, then took it to the bathroom.
He lowered his hand gently into the water and slipped the figure onto the surface. It floated for a few seconds but it twisted, started falling to the bottom. He caught it, reshaped the corpus, stretched legs and lengthened the hands and placed it back on the surface. But the figure twisted again, its hands stretched as if pleading for help. Then it sunk, drowned.
Over the rest of the week, he set out to the sea early in the morning, caught dozens of herrings, and delivered their flesh to markets. Each day, before going home, he stopped by the beach to collect more shells and stones. One afternoon, as he walked behind the rocks he stumbled on four shoes. He crouched and touched them. They were dry. He looked up at the beach for signs of human presence, listened out for any sounds, and scanned the sea searching for any movements, struggle. There was none. The sea was quiet, calm, water flat. And suddenly behind the rocks, a woman and a man emerged embraced. They laughed and kissed, splashing water into each other, their bodies submerged to their necks. He jumped on a rock, waved, shouted Get out! They waved back grinned and shouted back to leave them alone, go away, it was safe, the sea was calm.
That night he couldn’t sleep. He lay with his eyes closed and listened to the plucking and burbling coming from the bathtub, the sound of water he had been taught to trust. He called back the day he had become a lifeguard and the certainty he had he could protect everyone; the illusion his hands were strong enough to wrestle with nature.
When the sun started rising, he got up, puts on his thick jacket and rubber boots, and walked into the bathroom. He drew the bucket from under the sink and scooped the stones, shells and seaweed back into the bucket then dipped his hands cornered the fish, lifted it.
He walked past closed shop fronts, empty stalls towards the marina, the bucket clinging in his hand. As he got onto his boat and switched on the engine, a man shouted at him from the pier it wasn’t time for fishing, the sea seemed calm but it was wild nature.
He drove past the lighthouse into the open water, towards the beach where, decades ago, he had worked as a lifeguard. The sea carried him gently between the rocks, slowly rocking the boat, like a parent’s hand swaying a crib. Once far away from the shore, where the water was tar, the sea’s depth unmeasured, he switched off the engine, knelt over the bucket and picked the fish. It flicked against his palms, still young, white, but a little stronger than a week ago, more resilient, he hoped.
He cradled it, as if clutching someone lost but found, and as he plunged the fish into the sea he remembered the hand of the child he had let go.
Lina Carr is a British-Polish writer with a particular interest in literary and psychological fiction. Her stories have been published in Idle Ink, Fragmented Voices, Clover & White Literary Magazine and Bandit Fiction. She lives in London. You can find out more about her at www.linacarrwriter.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @LinaCarr_Writer.