The first time, it was a leatherjacket that jumped out of the cool southern waters and attached itself to her coat; there it flapped and waggled from side to side as she tried in vain to coax it back into the ocean blue. But the leatherjacket was nothing if not stubborn and there on Johannes’s coat it remained.
There was nothing remarkable about that coat, other than it belonging to a dead man.
On Johannes, the coat had zipped up neatly at the top of his thigh. On her, it was unruly and tended to drag about her calf. She’d taken to cuffing the sleeves like fat doughnuts coated in seawater and rolled on each wrist. She thought about the weight of wet lining, the coat heavier about her hands than it needed to be, but. Aside from one left boot it was the only item of his clothing she had left. E wondered if the leatherjacket would have attached itself to any item of hers, or did it choose Johannes and his coat for a reason?
E considered the leatherjacket a pioneer of types. She understood the need to mix things up, but she’d also heard the expression fish out of water, so she encouraged the fish to move back to the liquid depths from whence it came. The leatherjacket only moved its head from side to side in a slow shake that travelled down both sides of its scaled body. In these moments she was – perhaps inappropriately – reminded of Big Mouth Billy Bass mounted on the wall of the Bada Bing’s back office in The Sopranos. Big Mouth, singing an electronically tinged version of ‘Take Me to The River’.
This was also something E understood.
The first night she spent with the fish filled her with anxiety. The fish was not interested in being dropped into the bucket of salty brine she’d schlepped home on the back of her truck. Unsure of what to do and with the tired muscles in her arms and neck hissing at her, she took the coat off and placed it gently on the couch. She noticed the fish appeared to watch the red, green and blue hues coming from the TV. E scrolled through the guide and found something on the Barrier Reef. She sat down. The fish stopped moving. Worried she’d upset the fish, she changed the channel to a random program, a documentary on TS Eliot. A lugubrious voice with an Oxfordshire accent intoned ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’:
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me.
The fish began to move its tail from side to side – rather like a dog, E thought. She sat back on the couch and watched the fish. It looked to E like the fish was listening intently to the poem.Later that night, when she’d wrapped the coat around the base of the bucket of water, poking the fish’s nose towards the top, she’d opened her laptop and queried Wikipedia, leatherjacket. Not one of Wiki’s better entries, she decided as she scrolled through the type. Oligiplites saurus, a species of jack in the family Carangidae. It voraciously devours small fish and shrimp. ‘Well,’ she said as she eyed the jacket, ‘we have that in common.’ E stretched, let out a yawn. She turned off her lamp and made a mental note to stop by the bait shop.
The boat ramp was empty when she launched. Launching on her own was a skill that had taken her many a wet hour to master. She felt Johannes’s absence most acutely at these times: two months he’d been gone. And so she took the boat out, partly to continue the conversation they’d begun. The memories of their speech together came back to her on the water, the gentle flow of back and forth. Now she took his part and added it to hers. It seemed such a natural progression out on the flowing waters of the bay. She looked down at his coat and the fish attached to it and steered the boat into deeper water.
Earlier that morning, while the fog was still curled about her boots, she’d gone to Johannes’s books and removed a slim volume from the shelf. Now, she pulled out the Selected poems, thumbing through the introductory two-pager. The epigraph was written in Italian. Something to do with Virgil, but the Italian was unfamiliar so she skipped it, reading: Let us go then …
The fish began to thrash; it fell to the bottom of the boat, taking her coat with it. E saw the iridescent hues on the scales of the creature. A cast of spectral colour against the interior of the boat. It thrashed a few more times before arcing against the falling light and plopping quietly into the water beneath. It worked! E was elated. Then, she realised, dispirited. She’d spent a great deal of time thinking about the fish. Now she was alone again, her thoughts crowding out silence. She no longer felt like fishing; she hadn’t actually caught a fish since the leatherjacket and technically, she hadn’t caught it either. The sun sank lower. Long lashes of light filled the horizon and spread down palms on the jewelled face of the water. Vermilion reds and purples inked the surface. Quartz flashing on a chop, the blue sky falling to a seam: the horizon. She watched the water straining from lapis to indigo, berry to navy. Denim. She reeled her line, stowing it with the others. She hadn’t even put bait on the hook. E sat a while, toes puddling in water and she watched the surface where the fish disappeared. There was no further sign of it.
The book of poems was tucked into her pants, digging uncomfortably at her ribs. She removed it, wiping the sweat that transferred from her flesh to the plastic covering. She opened it; the glue binding had moved at some point, staining dark brown down the spine. The cover crackled as the glue split. E turned to the back. His name, signed in an adolescent scrawl with a number ten and the letter C appended after it. A book he studied when he was at school then. She realised just how little of his life she had knowledge of. She wondered whether the C was a random letter assigned to his class. Or whether the alphabet was in order of merit? She caressed the cover. A linocut of the poet in beige, brown and black. Very 1970s. She turned the book from back to front and opened it again: ‘Do you know nothing?’
She stopped and looked up. A gull was circling, a raucous and incessant squawk issuing from the depths of its orange beak. A disturbance at the side of the boat caught her eye, then gone. E placed the book carefully on the bench and moved towards the side of the boat. Leaning over, she stared down, focusing beneath the movement of water. Under the surface she saw a large snapper floating, its snout held just beneath the meniscus. She moved her body back on the plank, glad she had not made a sudden move and disturbed the fish. She picked the book up once more and read. Again came the disturbance, this time further out and there were many small ripples, tiny bubbles surfacing. The gull overhead screeching its cacophony. E wondered if she would be inundated with gulls if she chose to remain. The last warmth from the sun’s rays was reaching out in long tendrils; she felt the flesh on her arms turn to bumps. She shivered, attempting to circulate the blood round her limbs – gone to needles.
E walked a wayward track back to the house. Each step was heavy, the dead and composting leaves compressing beneath her footfall. Her mind was flat and stale. She’d gone through the trees to shake off the fog that was hounding her. Some days she found more difficult than others. This, E decided, was a difficult one. There were moments when she got stuck. Earlier, it had been the coffee. Unthinking, she’d made enough for two. She could barely hold the weight of the pot as it grew heavy and shook in her hands. She sat down, numb on the chair, waiting for her blooded pulse and ragged breath to calm.
Remembering the last time she saw him, the weight of his hand in hers.
Over the months of his final illness, she’d watch him shrink until he diminished into the bed. The phrase husk of a man echoed through her bones but the reality was bed sores, the pus and piss, his paper-thin skin that took any opportunity to rupture. When they tried rolling him over to wash the sores, he screamed. She yelled at the doctors, do something! They gave him morphine and Johannes sank, leaving her standing, trapped in her own slowly failing skin, holding onto his weight.
She rounded the corner to her house and saw the box trailer loaded up with his things, just chucked in the back like that. Something searing hooked her throat. His sister – she recognised the round face and long dark mane from an old photo – had come, used the spare key tucked under the mat and was in the process of dumping the contents of their shared life – of his possessions – by the carton load in the back of the trailer. She saw his prized fishing rods poking through a pair of flannelette pyjamas, a jumble of trophies and the huge claret glass he used to display the matchbooks his father still sent back from the old country. Clothes, and more clothes. And his books! E rounded on her with a howl, yanking at the most recent box being carried from the house. Then, the ensuing tug-of-war over one of Johannes’s old fishing coats and a dusty Timberland boot. They pulled and yanked at the box. She screamed thick words like, ‘No right,’ but the sister with her ties of blood and two decades or more of shared familial memories looked at her blankly. She’d driven off – hair whipping out of the driver’s window, leaving E with Johannes’s old fishing jacket and the boot in her quaking arms.
When E finally went inside, she inspected the damage; the shelves were a tumble of books, there were blank squares etched on table-tops and sideboards, the dust pattern pointing to the shape of what had been. She went to the shelves: large gaps like teeth missing from a smile. A pile of books next to fireplace. She slowly rearranged their spines and stood them upright on a cleared shelf, her hands moving as if blinded, feeling her way over surfaces and around edges as she corrected each one. Gently, E began the process of setting things to right. But some things can never be right. The house was no longer the home that Johannes left one evening, never to return.
The full moon rose, E looked up and saw it bright and low on the horizon, gold flecks marking its watery flight to the sky. She peered down and saw the very tip of a fish’s mouth cresting out of a fin of water. Further out, she noticed a splash – and another. The next moment, a decent-sized Spanish mackerel jumped into her boat. It flapped about the bottom before she managed to pick it up. It attached itself immediately at the sleeve. Then she heard another disturbance, A John Dory and a silver trevally arced out of the water and flopped into the boat, E wondered about their weight on the coat and just how much room was going to be left in it for her, but before she had a chance to consider, more fish flew out of the water. There was the large snapper she had seen earlier and, she was pretty sure, the original leatherjacket. It timed its swan dive perfectly and landed next to the coat she’d placed on the bench. It flopped sideways and popped back onto the front, just above the pocket. E looked down at the leatherjacket. She thought it looked back at her as it wagged its tail.
She sat on the bench once more and took out the book.
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