Scales


The nets flew across the cool mellow bay and the pescaderos pulled them in with red eyes and sinewy arms. They started early with pints of rum to fight the morning chill. Daegan saw them return shit-faced but didn’t know why. The surface of the water was beautiful, but who knew what was below. Some days his ache for home or wife took him away but he came back every time. He couldn’t remember where he went or why. You could see it in his eyes as he stared into nothing. His heart grew tight again as the star collapsed back into a hardened earth. Into this dry, lizard-infested land. The birds fought every evening, the big ones invaded while the little ones complained. The grackles strutted like gangsters with fierce yellow eyes and flapped their foreboding black wings. They squawked around the fountain, bullying anyone who interrupted their dance. They were always trying to impress some ladybird, but only Daegan watched them bathe. He sat on the bench and tossed them old tortillas.

He’s been here for months. Since Ana Maria hired him to clean fish for us he has been lost in a storm of scales planning his escape. I knew it would happen. He used a fork to scrape the mangrove snappers and flakes of scales concealed the sun like snow. He thought the pain might end when a place felt like home but nowhere will ever be a home. It was not the place before or the place after. It was not where his heart was because his heart was faltering. Brains tumbled out to sea. They could float for years before anyone noticed. Castaway brains might wash ashore trapped in fishing nets or knotted on a buoy. They might be found on land dissolved in the belly of a whale, sucked into alligator jaws, shat out the ass of frigates.

Could a heart be spread across multiple threads of a universe? These things were only organs, fancy meat. Livers and kidneys and bladders too. This world was slowly unraveling itself. This thread was a car crash in slow motion, slammed into by a freighter, meal and meat ripped apart then slowly sewn back together into some kind of symmetry. At some point the world must have learned rigid surfaces and squares were a mistake. That mushy amorphous bodies were all we need, bodies that could tear themselves apart, not unless you have triangle tips, a corner of a cube. Mushy formless bodies were perfect for what they are used for. Sacks of guts, and strings and ectoplasm wrapped in pretty flesh made sturdy with bird bones. We spent lifetimes picking up the scraps while leaving more scraps behind. This heart and his too, big as a baboon’s, thought perhaps it’s big enough for everyone. His heart pumped wine, some kind of braising liquid, and the bits he’ll leave behind are to simmer and tenderize, absorb all the goodness before breaking down again.

There was no goodness in there anymore, all that has pickled. I knew it would happen. I saw him under that shroud of flies. They scared the bees away. There was nothing in this town but lizards and cactus and everything smelled like fish and death and salt. Under that sun he couldn’t think, there was no more thinking, only bits of heart and liver and kidney spread to the farthest seas, and soon his bag of bones and blood would deflate. He would not quench his thirst or relieve the ache. He will need a tourniquet, he will need applied pressure to the wound.

Dónde le duele?

—I don’t know.

Dónde está el dolor?

He placed a scaly hand on his chest.

Aqui.

He was not a thing, he was clean now. Some days his heart had returned, his brains beached. When they held steady no angry sea or hungry caimán or mad woman could take those away, not the kidneys or liver or anything else in that sack of guts and blood.

He flopped a tuna onto the table. She had already been bled and gutted. He stuck the knife into her belly. Her skin sparkled sequined silver. He cut a line ass to fin and fin to head. Sometimes he chopped the head off first, but when he left the backbone and brain intact it was easier to toss the carcass into the ocean. He had another two hundred pounds to clean.

—The smell of fish blood is a small town in California, he said.

He rode his bike to work in the morning before the star when the fog was thick with sea lion barks. He arrived at a bakery where everything smelled like butter and sugar and yeast. He lived with a woman he wanted to fatten up. They had fig trees and roses, snap peas, champagne grapes on the fence line, tomatoes too. They ate well fucked like rabbits (—Explosions of fur, he said). She was a painter, he fixed the faucet, cooked meals from scraps. They lived out an unwritten poem and decided it would never end, but of course it did because poems can be tedious once they get too long. He drank her and she him (—Serenity, he said). They sank naked into bed sheets and traced vertebrae with greedy fingers. But he dreamed of another world, and every morning he woke filled with guilt and shame.

Daegan slid his knife around the collar, along the back, under the belly and down the lateral line. He flipped the filet onto a sheet tray, shoved the heads and bones into a bucket. I took the bucket to shore to feed the eels and crabs. I threw meat into the sky as the birds honed in and grazed my skull. Blood turned the ocean the color of a bruise.

—It hurts.

Entiendo.

—I mean then.

Si, I know.

The woman made tea after a nap.

—The world smelled like moss, he said, but now I think it was mildew.

He cried as he shoved the scimitar into the tuna’s ass. He stared into her shiny eye and his reflection in it. A pool of black lined with grey, lifeless and sad. I had an ache for him. He heaved another tuna onto the table. A morose light dangled above him as flies weaved and dodged around it. Fish blood dripped onto the floor, onto his shoes, splattered across his apron. His arms and beard were sticky with the stench of sweet iron.

He may elope with me if I considered him a man, but I am convinced he is more fish that wished to be man, and a pickled one at that. The blood on his arms should be blood in his veins. It stunk like slaughter and tasted like metal. The blood was blacker than I remember, no thirsty sucker would swallow, so black and shiny you would swallow yourself. There is my reflection rolling down your throat. Does it tickle or is it razor sharp? Does it tickle or is it hardened heart?  

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