stories

The Fish - Chapter (all)

What made its way out that afternoon from the scruffy grove of trees and onto the riverbank was a group of three'a boy and his parents. Judging from his height, the boy looked to be at least seven or eight. His parents, though, looked no older than their late twenties. The wife's way of speaking and gestures were especially babyish. She wore a white skirt made of some hard material.
It's so shallow, the wife said, looking into the clear stream. I'm taking my shoes off. I'm going to go in now, okay?
I see some fish, the boy said.
Any number of fish, each just a few centimeters long, glittered in the sun. There were a great many fish. No matter where you looked, the river seemed shallow for its width. About ten meters ahead was a sandbar. It was almost as big as a double bed, with either end forming a V-shape.
Let's go over there, the wife suggested.
Sounds good, the husband agreed.
The three happily took off their shoes. Compared to his parents, who were obviously in a silly, playful mood, the child seemed the most restrained. The husband hiked his trousers up to his knees. He couldn't imagine that the river would be deeper than that anywhere between the bank and the sandbar. The wife pranced about in the cold water, squealing something about how a fish had just brushed up against her leg. The family slowly made their way to about the halfway point, and the husband found that the water there came up, in fact, to just below his knee. The hem of the child's shorts was wet. But that was as deep as it got and the three soon climbed up on the sandbar.
All ashore, the husband said.
They'd been told that almost no one ever visited, although the sandbar was an expanse of sparkling sand free of fallen leaves or stray weeds. The couple lay on their backs on the sand, slightly apart. Pretty soon the husband grew drowsy. The child, his expression bored, wandered about the water and sand. A bird was singing.
Dad, I see a big fish.
The young father responded sleepily, Oh, yeah?
A few minutes later the boy, walking around quietly in the water, discovered a fish about ten centimeters long poking its muzzle against his shin. He chased the fish back to the sandbar, kicking at the water. Splash! The fish jumped up from the river and fell onto the sand. When its entire length showed this way, the fish looked more than twice as long as it had in the water.
Dad!
It was a desperate-sounding cry, bringing the father straight to his feet. He was half-sitting and half-standing, his body twisted slightly as if he were swimming, when he saw the fish on the sand. He reached out for it right away but the fish gave another jump. With a splash, it slipped through the water and away, evading the hand the boy then stretched through the water to catch it.
Damn! the father muttered.
Hey! the boy yelled.
The mother woke up then too.
Look, there are a lot of big ones around where you are, the father said, standing in the water and peering down into it. Go on over there, would you, and chase the fish over this way this time.
Okay. The boy went to the deep part, turned around and shouted, Okay, here I come!
What happened?
We let a big one get away. The husband held up the fingers of one hand to show her how big it had been. But look, those are huge.
Paying only the slightest attention to where exactly the fish were, the boy came splashing toward the sandbar: that was just how many huge fish there were everywhere. Whoosh! One leapt and fell into the shallows. The wife exclaimed and reached out a hand. Another fish fell onto the sand, but the husband didn't notice. Still another, about fifteen centimeters long, was coming toward the sandbar, the boy in pursuit.
Hey, get that one! the father yelled at the child. It's huge!
The boy, abruptly changing direction in the water, stumbled for a moment. Yeah, it sure is!
But the large fish disappeared upstream. The father joined his son in the water. Standing beside him, he looked down in.
There are lots in there, he murmured, his eyes glassy, then yelled at his wife who had finally managed to catch a fish about ten centimeters long. Hey, forget about that one! There are much bigger ones over here!
Dad, the water is rising.
Yes, you're right, the father said absentmindedly. Okay, we'll go after them, side by side. Look lively now!
At the father's command, the two started toward the sandbar, kicking up water with their feet. Big fish kept flying up from the surface.
Get it! the husband shouted at his wife.
Oh, geez! Look at that thing! the wife said uneasily as she stood at the edge of the sandbar. It's scary.
The father and son had chased several fish onto the sand but the wife, nervous about the way they flopped and bounced around, hadn't been able to catch them, and they'd all gotten away.
Yuk. It's soaking wet, the boy said, climbing up the sandbar.
It'll dry out soon. The husband also came out of the water, addressing his wife. Come on, what are you doing?
I can't help it. They jump all over the place.
Of course they jump.
Over on the opposite side of the sandbar, where the father and son had climbed on, a large fish splashed out of the water and fell to the sand, its blue-black scales shimmering. Without a word, the husband tackled it. The fish, covered with sand, writhed and struggled in the man's hands with all the force of a creature fighting for its life.
Look! What do you think, sixteen centimeters? Or no, maybe even seventeen.
What kind of fish is this? the wife almost wanted, for a minute, to ask her husband, till she remembered that he never knew things like that. And in front of the child, too. Not that anybody could be expected to know the name of a fish just from the fact that it grows to sixteen or seventeen centimeters long, has a bluish-black back and swims upriver in schools. That was what occurred to her, but the boy might not give him the same benefit of the doubt; the boy might look down on a father who didn't know one fish from another.
We should have brought a plastic bag or something, was all she said, finally.
Each of us can carry one. Let's take them back to the hotel, the husband replied. He was in high spirits, full of anticipation. They'll be delicious.
Are we going back in the water? the boy asked, apprehensive. It's rising.
The area of the sandbar had shrunk to two-thirds its original size. But the father barely noticed.
Nope. No need. Look!
The fish were jumping of their own accord onto the sandbar, even with nobody chasing them. Some fell on the sand and then leapt back in the water. The three shrieked with laughter. They kept laughing as they gathered up the fish. They caught the smaller ones only long enough to check their size, and then let them go. Even the one they'd caught before sixteen or seventeen centimeters long now looked small by comparison. The biggest one they'd caught so far was over twenty.
The wife screamed. A huge fish, twenty-five centimeters long, had hopped out of the water onto the sand by her feet. The husband let out a yell and went over to her. He threw away the fish he was holding, then crouched down and grabbed onto this other one, pinning it to the ground. Then another fish, the same size as the one he was clutching, fell onto the sand right in front of him. Or rather than falling, it was more like the fish had charged through the water and dashed up the slope onto the sands. It made the husband think of a fish warrior come to rescue its fellow. The fish opened its red mouth, which was studded with minute white teeth. The husband felt it glaring at him and he recoiled, sitting heavily down on the sandbar.
I tell you! If looks could kill.
They caught both of the giant fish. The boy carried one.
Let's go back now, the wife said nervously.
The sound of rushing water grew louder. The current was picking up speed. The sandbar had shrunk to about the area of a single bed.
Hey, the eyes on this fish? They're human, the boy said, peering at the fish from straight on.
Yeah, let's go back, the husband said. Everybody got their fish? Okay, so hold on now. Don't let them go.
Easier said than done.
The husband, leading the way, took just a few steps through the water and stumbled. Wow! Watch out! The current's pretty bad.
All three were clutching fish in both hands, which made it hard to keep their balance. They all kept lurching this way and that.
We better speed up. The boy held the fish over his head like an offering, kicking steadily through the water. He zipped past his parents and stood for a minute in the middle of the river, his shorts completely drenched. Hey! I'm getting totally wet!
The wife tended to wobble, so the husband stuck close to her. They made slow progress. Her skirt and his trousers were both wet straight to the top of their thighs.
Hey! The wife suddenly let go of her fish and grabbed onto her husband.
Oh! Oh well, the husband said, looking dispiritedly after the fish. It didn't occur to him, apparently, to let go of the fish he was holding or to support his wife. Okay, grab onto me.
The boy had reached the bank now and was standing there watching. Come on! Hurry up.
O-o-ow! The wife leapt up with a yell, then, even though they had just made it almost halfway across the river, started back for the sandbar alone, churning up the water as she went.
Huh? Wait! Where are you going? The husband ran after her. When she got to the sandbar, the wife took a look at the back of her leg. She had a shallow horizontal cut about two centimeters long, stained with a drop of blood.
What happened?
A fish bit me.
Fish don't bite.
But look at this.
The husband knelt down and looked at her leg. He traced the cut with a fingertip. So a fish skimmed past your leg. But why'd you turn around? We were almost halfway there.
The wife glared at him. This was closer.
You stupid ___ The husband stopped himself just before the words could slip out. Yeah, but you know, he said, we do have to get across at some point.
No, I don't want to.
The couple stood up and helplessly looked at their son, who was on the opposite bank.
What's the matter?
It's your mother. She says she doesn't want to cross the river.
Why?
Just look at that! The wife started crying. They're everywhere.
There were more fish now. They swam upriver in schools. Every so often one would hurl itself out of the water and dive back down.
You better hurry up. The child spoke calmly, putting on his shoes.
At last the husband released the fish he was still holding. All right. I'll carry you.
No way! the wife said, practically shouting. What if you fall over, what will happen to me? I'll fall in, that's what!
So what do you suggest?
The husband and wife were both at a loss for what to do. The boy stood staring at them, aghast.
We'd better get across now, the husband said gently. See? The water is rising.
I see that, the wife said in an irritated tone. She yelled over to her son, Go back to the hotel and bring somebody!
They'll laugh at us, the husband said with a half-smile.
Do what? The child frowned and hunched his shoulders, curling his body up into a corkscrew shape.
Go! the mother said.
Yeah, go, his father added. Go get somebody. Anybody.
All right, all right. The child started for the grove.
Hurry up!
Okay.
The child disappeared among the trees.
The couple stood next to each other on the sandbar, staring off into the gloom of the little stand of trees that had swallowed up the boy. There wasn't much they could do but wait. The sandbar had shrunk to the size of a rowboat now, and the water looked like it was still rising. The current got faster and the water blacker. But there was still some time left till sundown. Maybe the water was darker because larger fish had gathered now into shoals, and so the line of their dark blue-black backs was longer. Indeed, the fish that leapt out every so often, whizzing past their feet, were about thirty centimeters. Even at a glance, there was something brutal about their heads that gave the wife a chill.
Something white flashed through the waves washing against the opposite bank, shooting downriver like a ray of light.
My shoes got washed away, the husband turned another half-smile on his wife as if to suggest that it were her fault.
The wife was quiet. She turned pale and was fiercely biting her lower lip.
Right. Well, the husband continued awkwardly, I guess we should work some more on getting across, and not just sit here waiting.
The wife said sharply, What for?
Well, you know, he isn't so good at expressing himself.
The young father could just picture the hotel lobby beginning to fill with incoming tourists and the boy wandering around, unable to decide who to go up and talk to.
If he's not good at expressing himself, you know who he takes after! the wife said, her eyes glinting with scorn.
With the other hand, the husband scratched violently at the forearm that was nearer to his wife. Even if the hotel people come, maybe they can't get into the river, unless they have boots or something.
I'm sure they have boots at the hotel.
Yeah, they must.
What's so funny?
Nothing.
The pair fell to waiting again. It was only about ten minutes, but to the wife it felt more like an hour. Every so often her eyes flared up, as if she'd suddenly remembered something. The spray of the current started to wash over the couple's bare feet. Nobody's going to come, the wife began to believe.
He hates us, you know, she said.
The husband looked at her, surprised. After a second he started laughing again. No way, he said, putting an arm around her shoulder. Don't be an idiot.
I am an idiot. The wife shook off his arm and turned toward him. That's right. I'm an idiot, that's it.
A fish darted by, grazing their feet. The wife didn't scream this time. She had turned her horror elsewhere now, maybe to avoid being scared of the fish.
He thinks we're both stupid and so we'd be better off dead, the wife continued. He's clever, see? And so he hates how stupid we are.
The husband and wife tried to turn away from each other but there wasn't quite enoughroom now to stand side by side so they just stayed as they were, looking each other in the face.
Well, if that's the case I guess it's pretty clear that nobody's coming, the husband started to say, hoping to convince her to cross, but one look at the hard line of her mouth and he fell silent.
The swarms of fish moving upstream at their feet looked easily capable of attacking a human being. We'll get bitten if we go in the water, the husband thought. He was sure of that. Suddenly the sands were covered over and they were standing in the river.
Well, this is it. There's nothing we can do now. We'll just have to die. I'm willing to die with you.
When her husband said have to die, the wife's shoulder jerked upward in a huge shudder.
He continued, There wasn't anything we could do. I couldn't cross without you. Right? I mean, we're married and all. So we ought to die together. Come on. The young husband's tone was bitter, as if he were accusing her of dependency and babyishness but was completely unaware of those same qualities in what he was saying. I think we've about had it. The water's so fast and it's risen so high. We'll get washed away, for sure. Not to mention the fish. So we'll either get washed away, or drowned, or eaten alive by the fish. Who cares. Anyway, we'll be together. Right?
The wife started to cry. She tried to bury her head in her husband's chest. Just then a fish bumped its muzzle up against her heel.
She cried out, Ow! Oh, God! Carry me, will you? Carry me across to the other side! In order to keep from being bitten she was hopping from one foot to the other.
Let's go, the husband yelled. He grabbed her by the arm. He stepped into the water, looking grimly determined.
The wife followed him for a few steps, then hesitated. Aren't you going to carry me? she asked.
Nope. We'd both go under then. He pulled her arm as hard as he could.
Suddenly the water came up to their knees. And then to their waists. Fish bumped against their legs. The husband felt a sharp, stabbing pain, followed by a burning sensation, right by his knee. The wife seemed to have been bitten at the same time. She wrenched free from his grip and started slapping with that hand at the surface of the water.
Just then a swarm of even bigger fish swooped in. A few hurtled toward the woman's waist, and she toppled over onto her back. Her white skirt floated downriver near the surface, trailed by a clump of white bubbles. The husband was too caught up in his own pain to turn and look at her. He was trying to make it to the other side, and could think about nothing else. The water was up to his chest now. A shoal of fish was weighing him down. That same burning sensation broke out in about ten different parts of his body all at once; he tried to howl and wound up gulping in water through his nose and mouth. Could there be any more gruesome way to die? he wondered. But just then, mercifully, his consciousness flared up for a moment and died.