Fish Story

It was a swollen, gasping, netherworld creature. We had no tub big enough for it. Men came over and placed lanterns on the ground all around it, like candelabra at a dinner setting. I hoped it would die before they skinned it. Do you ever think those days were different, that time had not yet been corrupted?

Image: Jonathan Bartlett

In the early 1960s my parents ran a service station about 60 miles west of Fort Worth. The gas station was in the middle of the country, along a reddish, gravelly, rutted road, on the way to nowhere. You could see someone coming from a long way off. Pumping gas was a hard way to make a living, and my father was never shy about reminding me about this. Always waiting.

When I was 10 years old one of my father’s customers had caught a big catfish on a weekend trip to the Colorado River. It weighed 86 pounds, a swollen, gasping, grotesque netherworld creature pulled writhing and fighting up into the bright, hot, dusty world above.

The man had brought the fish, wrapped in wet burlap, all the way out to my father’s service station in the back of his car. We were to have a big barbecue that weekend, and I was given the job of keeping the fish watered and alive until the time came to kill and cook it.

All day long that Friday—in late August, school had not yet started—I knelt beside the gasping fish and kept it hosed down with a trickle of cool water, giving the fish life one silver gasp at a time, keeping its gills and its slick gray skin wet: the steady trickling of that hose, and nothing else, helping it stay alive. We had no tub large enough to hold the fish, and so I squatted beside it in the dust, resting on my heels, and studied it as I moved the silver stream of water up and down its back.

The fish, in turn, studied me with its round, obsidian eyes, which had a gold lining to their perimeter, like pyrite. The fish panted and watched me while the heat built all around us, rising steadily through the day from the fields, giving birth in the summer-blue sky to towering white cumulus clouds. I grew dizzy in the heat, and from the strange combination of the unblinking monotony and utter fascination of my task, until the trickling from my hose seemed to be inflating those clouds—I seemed to be watering those clouds as one would water a garden. Do you ever think that those days were different—that we had more time for such thoughts, that time had not yet been corrupted? I am speaking less of childhood than of the general nature of the world we are living in. If you are the age I am now—mid-50s—then maybe you know what I mean.

The water pooled and spread across the gravel parking lot before running in wandering rivulets out into the field beyond, where bright butterflies swarmed and fluttered, dabbing at the mud I was making.

Throughout the afternoon, some of the adults who were showing up wandered over to examine the monstrosity. Among them was an older boy, Jack, a 15-year-old who had been kicked out of school the year before for fighting. Jack waited until no adults were around and then came by and said that he wanted the fish, that it was his father’s—that his father had been the one who had caught it—and that he would give me five dollars if I would let him have it.

“No,” I said, “my father told me to take care of it.”

Jack had me figured straightaway for a Goody Two-Shoes. “They’re just going to kill it,” he said. “It’s mine. Give it to me and I’ll let it go. I swear I will,” he said. “Give it to me or I’ll beat you up.”

As if intuiting or otherwise discerning trouble—though trouble followed Jack, and realizing that did not require much prescience—my father appeared from around the corner, and asked us how everything was going. Jack, scowling but saying nothing, tipped his cap at the fish but not at my father or me, and walked away.

“What did he want?” my father asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “He was just looking at the fish.” I knew that if I told on Jack and he got in trouble, I would get pummeled.

“Did he say it was his fish?” my father asked. “Was he trying to claim it?”

“I think he said his father caught it.”

“His father owes us $67,” my father said. “He gave me the fish instead. Don’t let Jack take that fish back.”

“I won’t,” I said.

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that, while not poor, we were right at the edge of poor.

The dusty orange sky faded to the cool purple-blue of dusk. Stars appeared and fireflies emerged from the grass. I watched them, and listened to the drum and groan of the bullfrogs in the stock tank in the field below, and to the bellowing of the cattle. I kept watering the fish, and the fish kept watching me, with its gasps coming harder. From time to time I saw Jack loitering, but he didn’t come back over to where I was.

Later in the evening, before dark, but only barely, a woman I thought was probably Jack’s mother—I had seen her talking to him—came walking over and crouched beside me. She was dressed as if for a party of far greater celebration than ours, with sequins on her dress, and flat leather sandals. Her toenails were painted bright red, but her pale feet were speckled with dust, as if she had been walking a long time. I could smell the whiskey on her breath, and on her clothes, I thought, and I hoped she would not try to engage me in conversation, though such was not to be my fortune.

“Thass a big fish,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, quietly. I dreaded that she was going to ask for the fish back.

“My boy and my old man caught that fish,” she said. “You’ll see. Gonna have their pictures in the newspaper.” She paused, descending into some distant, nether reverie, and stared at the fish as if in labored communication with it. “That fish is prolly worth a lot of money, you know?” she said.

I didn’t say anything. Her diction and odor were such that I would not take my first sip of alcohol until I was 22.

Out in the field, my father was busy lighting the bonfire. A distant whoosh, a pyre of light, went up. The drunk woman turned her head slowly, studied the sight with incomprehension, then said, slowly, “Wooo!” Then she turned her attention back to what she clearly thought was still her fish. She reached out an unsteady hand and touched the fish on its broad back, partly as if to reestablish ownership, and partly to keep from pitching over into the mud.

She had no guile about her; the liquor had opened her mind. I could see she was thinking about gripping the fish’s toothy jaw and dragging it away, though to where, I could not imagine. As if, given a second chance at wealth and power, she would not squander it. As if this fish was the greatest luck that had happened to them in ages.

“You don’t talk much, do you?” she asked. Wobbling even in her sandals, hunkered there.

“No, ma’am.”

“You know my boy?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you think your father was right to take this fish from us? Do you think this fish is worth any piddling $67?”

I didn’t say anything. I knew that anything I said would ignite her, would send her off on some tangent of rage and pity.

“I’m gonna go get my boy,” she said, turning and staring in the direction of the fire. Dusk was gone, the fire was bright in the night. She rose, stumbled, fell in the mud, cursed, and labored to her feet, then wandered off into the dark, away from the fish, and away from the fire. As if she lived in the darkness, had some secret sanctuary there.

I kept watering the fish. The gasps were coming slower and I felt that perhaps a fire was going out in the fish’s eyes. Lanterns were lit, and moths rose from the fields and swarmed those lanterns. Men came over and began to place the lanterns on the ground all around the fish, like candelabra at a dinner setting. I hoped that the fish would die before they began skinning it.

Moths cartwheeled off the lantern glass, wing-singed, sometimes aflame—like poor, crude, awkward imitations of the fireflies—and landed fuzz-busted on the catfish’s glistening back, where they stuck to its skin like feathers, their wings still trembling.

A man’s voice came from behind me, saying, “Hey, you’re wasting water,” and turned the hose off. Immediately, or so it seemed to me, a fine wrinkling appeared on the previously taut gunmetal skin of the fish—a desiccation, like watching a time-lapse motion picture of a man’s or woman’s skin wrinkling as he or she ages, regardless of the man’s or woman’s wishes to the contrary.

The heat from the lanterns seemed to be sucking the moisture from the skin. The fish’s eyes seemed to search for mine.

The man who had turned off the water was Jack’s father, and he was holding a Bowie knife. My heart stopped, and I tried to tell him to take the fish, but found myself speechless. Jack’s father’s eyes were red-drunk also, and he wavered in such a manner as to seem in danger of falling over onto the dagger he gripped.

He beheld the fish for long moments. “Clarebelle wants me to take the fish home,” he said, and seemed to be studying the logistics of such a command. “Shit,” he said, “I ain’t takin’ no fish home. Fuck her,” he said. “I pay my debts.”

He crouched beside the fish and made his first cut lightly around the fish’s wide neck with the long blade as if opening an envelope. He slid the knife in lengthwise beneath the skin and then ran a straight incision down the spine all the way to the tail, four feet distant. The fish stopped gasping for a moment, opened its giant mouth in shock and outrage, then began to gasp louder.

In watering the fish all day, and into the evening, I had not noticed how many men and women had been gathering. Now when I straightened up to stretch, I saw that several of them had left the fire and come over to view the fish—could the fish, like a small whale, feed them all?—and that most of them were drinking.

“Someone put that fish out of its misery,” a woman said, and a man stepped from out of the crowd with a pistol, aimed it at the fish’s broad head, and fired.

My father came hurrying over from the fire, shouted, “Stop shooting, dammit,” and the man grumbled an apology and retreated into the crowd.

The bullet had made a dark hole in the fish’s head. The wound didn’t bleed, and the fish, like some mythic monster, did not seem affected by it. It kept on breathing, and I wanted very much to begin watering it again.

Jack’s father had paused only slightly during the shooting, and now kept cutting.

When he had all the cuts made, two other men helped him lift the fish. They ran a rope through its mouth and out its gills and hoisted it into a tree, where roosting night birds rustled in alarm, then flew into the night.

The fish writhed, sucked for air, and, finding none, was somehow from far within able to find, summon, and deliver enough power to flap its tail once, slapping one of the men in the ribs with a thwack! The fish was making guttural sounds now—that deep croaking sound they make when they are in distress, right before they die—and Jack’s father said, “Well, I guess we need to cook him.” He had a pair of pliers in his pocket—evidently part of the debt reduction required that he also do the cleaning and cooking—and he gripped the skin with the pliers up behind the fish’s neck and then peeled the skin back, skinning the fish alive, as if pulling the husk or wrapper from a thing to reveal what had been hidden within.

The fish flapped and struggled and twisted, swinging wildly on the rope and croaking, but no relief was to be found. The croaking was loud and bothersome, and so the men lowered the fish, carried it over to the picnic table beside the fire, and began sawing the head off. When they had that done, the two pieces—head and torso—were still moving, but with less vigor. The fish’s body writhed slowly on the table, and the mouth of the fish’s head opened and closed just as slowly: still the fish kept croaking, though more quietly now, as if perhaps it had gotten something it had been asking for, and was now appeased.

The teeth of the saw were flecked with bone and fish muscle, gummed up with cartilage and gray brain. “Here,” Jack’s father said, handing me the saw, “go down and wash that off.” I looked at my father, who nodded. Jack’s father pointed at the gasping head, with the rope still passed through the fish’s mouth and gills, and said, “Take the head down there, too, and feed it to the turtles—make it stop that noise.” He handed me the rope, the heavy croaking head still attached, and I took it down into the darkness toward the shining round pond.

The full moon was reflected in the pond, and as I approached, the bullfrogs stopped their drumming. Only a dull croaking—almost a purr, now—was coming from the package I carried at the end of the rope. I could hear the sounds of the party up on the hill, but down by the pond, with the moon’s gold eye cold upon it, I heard only silence. I lowered the giant fish head into the warm water and watched as it sank quickly down below the moon. I was frightened—I had not seen Jack’s mother, and I worried that, like a witch, she might be out there somewhere, intent upon getting me—and I was worried about Jack’s whereabouts, too.

Sixty-seven dollars was a lot of money back then, and I doubted that any fish, however large, was worth it. It seemed that my father had done Jack’s family a good deed of sorts, but that no good was coming of it; I guessed too that that depended upon how the party went. Still, I felt that my father should have held out for the $67, and then invested it in something other than festivity.

The fish’s head was still croaking, and the dry gasping made a stream of bubbles that trailed up to the surface as the head sank. For a little while, even after it was gone, I could still hear the raspy croaking—duller now, and much fainter, coming from far beneath the water. Like the child I was, I had the thought that maybe the fish was relieved now; that maybe the water felt good on its gills, and on what was left of its body.

I set about washing the saw. Bits of flesh floated off the blade and across the top of the water, and pale minnows rose and nibbled at them. After I had the blade cleaned, I sat for a while and listened for the croaking, but could hear nothing, and was relieved—though sometimes, for many years afterward, I would dream that the great fish had survived; that it had regenerated a new body to match the giant head, and that it still lurked in that pond, savage, betrayed, wounded.

I sat there quietly, and soon the crickets became accustomed to my presence and began chirping again, and then the bullfrogs began to drum again, and a peace filled back in over the pond, like a scar healing, or like grass growing bright and green across a charred landscape. Of course the world has changed—everyone’s has—but why?

Back in the woods, chuck-will’s-widows began calling once more, and I sat there and listened to the sounds of the party up on the hill. Someone had brought fiddles, which they were beginning to play, and the sound was sweet, in no way in accordance with the earlier events of the evening.

Fireflies floated through the woods and across the meadow. I could smell meat cooking and knew that the giant fish had been laid to rest above the coals. I sat there and rested and listened to the pleasant night-bird sounds.

The lanterns up on the hill were making a gold dome of light in the darkness—it looked like an umbrella—and after a while I turned and went back up to the light and to the noise of the party.

In gutting and cleaning the fish, before skewering it on an iron rod to roast, the partygoers had cut open its stomach to see what it had been eating, as catfish of that size were notorious for living at the bottom of the deepest lakes and rivers and eating anything that fell to the bottom. And they had found interesting things in this one’s stomach, including a small gold pocket watch, fairly well preserved though with the engraving worn away so that all they could see on the inside face was the year, 1898.

The partygoers decided that, in honor of having the barbecue, my father should receive the treasure from the fish’s stomach (which produced, also, a can opener, a slimy tennis shoe, some baling wire, and a good-sized soft-shelled turtle, still alive, which clambered out of its leathery entrapment and, with webbed feet, long claws, and frantically outstretched neck, scuttled its way blindly down toward the stock tank—knowing instinctively where water and safety lay, and where, I supposed, it later found the catfish’s bulky head and began feasting on it).

Jack’s father scowled and lodged a protest—his wife was still not in attendance—but the rest of the partygoers laughed and said no, the fish belonged to my father, and that unless the watch had belonged to Jack’s father before the fish had swallowed it, he was shit out of luck. They laughed and congratulated my father, as if he had won a prize of some sort, or had even made some wise investment, rather than simply having gotten lucky.

In subsequent days my father would take the watch apart and clean it piece by piece and then spend the better part of a month, in the hot middle part of the day, reassembling it, after drying the individual pieces in the bright September light. He would get the watch working again, and would give it to my mother, who had not been in attendance at the party; and for long years, he did not tell her where it came from—this gift from the belly of some beast from far below.

That night, he merely smiled and thanked the men who’d given him the slimy watch, and slipped it into his pocket.

The party went on a long time. I slept for a while in the cab of our truck. When I awoke, Jack’s mother had rejoined the party. She was no less drunk than before, and I watched as she went over to where the fish’s skin was hanging on a dried, withered mesquite branch meant for the fire. The skin was still wet and shiny. The woman turned her back to the bonfire and lifted that branch with the skin draped over it, and began dancing slowly with the branch, which, we saw now, had outstretched arms like a person, and which, with the fish skin wrapped around it, appeared to be a man wearing a black-silver jacket.

In that same detached and distanced state of drunkenness—drunk with sorrow, I imagined, that the big fish had slipped through their hands, and that their possible fortune had been lost—Jack’s mother remained utterly absorbed in her dance. Slowly, the fiddles stopped playing, one by one, so that I could hear only the crackling of the fire, and I could see her doing her fish dance, with one arm raised over her head and dust plumes rising from her shuffling feet, and then people were edging in front of me, a wall of people, so that I could see nothing.

>I still have that watch today. I don’t use it, but keep it instead locked away in my drawer, as the fish once kept it locked away in its belly, secret, hidden. It’s just a talisman, just an idea, now. But for a little while, once and then again, resurrected, it was a vital thing, functioning in the world, with flecks of memory—not its own, but that of others—attendant to it, attaching to it like barnacles. I take it out and look at it once every few years, and sometimes wonder at the unseen and unknown and undeclared things that are always leaving us, constantly leaving us, little bit by little bit and breath by breath. Of how sometimes—not often—we wake up gasping, wondering at their going away.