The Fisherman returned to his village, and brought the night with him. He walked with his eyes lowered, acknowledging the greetings from his peers with only the faintest grumble. One of them whistled at the size of the headless fish the Fisherman carried over his shoulder, which caused the Fisherman to quicken his pace, as if embarrassed.
The fish weighed nearly 50 lbs. – the largest single catch the Fisherman had ever brought home. He pressed his hands against the small of his back and popped his sternum as his wife prepared the fire. The children had gathered around the fish where it lay spread across the sheet of thick paper.
“It’s a beast,” the son said, “it must have put up a struggle!”
The Fisherman did not respond.
“If I come with you next time, do you think we could catch another?” the son said.
The Fisherman said nothing, standing with his thumbs in his pockets, looking out through the open door at the forest of black masts by the water. His daughter poked the fish with her finger.
“Hello, fishy!” she said.
“Get away from there,” the Fisherman said sharply. His daughter obeyed. The Fisherman’s wife looked at her husband.
“What has gotten into you?” she said.
“There’ll be no more talking tonight,” the Fisherman said.
They consumed their fish in silence, all eyes cautiously guarding the Fisherman, whose eyes never left his plate, and whose jaw worked its way down and up and back and forth as if it were a part of a machine rather than a man. After the meal, the Fisherman and his wife cut and placed the remains of the fish among the ice.
The silence remained unbroken until the Fisherman lay down to sleep, his wife having waited for some time in their cot, watching her husband smoke his pipe by the doorway and looking out over the water. She had watched his grim eyes in the light of the match as he thoughtlessly lit and re-lit the rough-cut tobacco, barely drawing any smoke into his lungs. Now, when he was under the blanket with her, she rolled over to her side and looked at him.
“What is it?” she said. “You can tell me.”
“Go to sleep,” the Fisherman said.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Because you wouldn’t believe me.”
“I promise you, I would. You’re a good man, and I know you wouldn’t lie.”
The Fisherman sighed. Then, without averting his eyes from the wooden beam in the ceiling, he recounted his story.
“You know we’ve had little luck with our nets since the iron ships came and went earlier in the year. Most of us have taken our poles and hooks up the watercourse to the lake, but the ground there is treacherous, and the waters are dark and filled with debris. I’ve caught nothing but trunks, moss, weeds and twigs for the last four days, but tonight I rowed further up north, to the shallow waters fed from the hills. I searched the most narrow crooks and bends, thick with reeds, hoping to catch an old pike, until the sky turned red above me, and the trees grew black with dusk. It was then, in that perfect stillness, that I felt the tug at the end of the line, and saw the float dip into the water.
“What I pulled out of that water, out of hell itself, was not a fish. By all means I thought it was, when I first wrestled it into the boat, but when I turned it over to unhook my line from its mouth, my eyes were met by another pair, set in that cold, scaly face, yellow and black, but human, yes, human as my own eyes or yours. They stared at me with terror, with stupidity and shock, and as I held that fish around the neck, I may as well have been staring into the eyes of a newborn child. I expected it to speak, no, I dreaded the very thought of it, and hoisted it high above my head and clubbed it against the seat of my boat, killing it instantly. Taking my knife from my fishing box, I cut its head and its human countenance from its body, and lobbed it into the water.
“The blood ran from the body – still its black little heart beat inside it – and I sat in the blood as I rowed with the strength of ten men, far away from the shining, shapeless thing that bobbed among the reeds. I wore its blood on my legs as I walked into the village, and I poured it from my shoes before I entered our home. The innards I rinsed out and threw to the gulls. What I brought, what I killed and what we ate tonight, was not a fish, but a man.”
The Fisherman turned to his side. His wife could tell from his breathing that his eyes were streaming. She placed her hand on his shoulder and spoke.
“A trick,” she said. “A trick of the mind, that is all. And not to wonder, either, you being so weary from all your toil into the late hours. And you know the light on the water in summer, and the tricks it plays on the tired eye. The ghosts come out and make a fool of a poor fisherman. You should count yourself lucky, in fact, that they did not capsize your boat, or bereave you of your oars.”
She rolled onto her back and added, “Or worse.”
The Fisherman did not respond. His wife could tell by his breathing that he had fallen asleep. She lay there and listened to his breathing, and lay there still and listened to it when the first light of dawn fell upon their window.