Saturday, 18 August 2012

A Fisherman's Tale

I'm not sure whether this is a self-contained short story or the first chapter of something bigger. I haven't quite worked out what happens next. Bon appetit.


Gaius was hungry. He twisted the coarse fibres in his hands, and hefted the weight of the net again. He'd been fishing all afternoon, and as he turned, coiling his muscles, he could feel his strength waning.

He watched as the net bunched and flared, carving diamonds into the water and closing like a flower. Despite his hunger and fatigue, the beauty of it still moved him.

As the net sank, Gaius' hungry mind compiled a hypothetical inventory of the waters beneath him. He thought of the darting minnows that would escape his clutches, and the sleek, fat mackerel that would futilely struggle for freedom in the narrow places of the net. And deeper still, the prehistoric introverts of the sea floor, gnarled spider crabs and sea urchins that had to be cracked with a rock, like a nut, before yielding their flesh.

He began to haul in the net with the unassailable optimism of the hungry fisherman. When the slack was gone, Gaius raised his eyebrows in excitement, for the net at the bottom of the sea was heavy.

Very heavy, in fact. Surely heavier than the largest spider crab he'd ever seen - now distorted with time and memory, the enormous crab his father and uncle had caught when Gaius was just nine years old. They had carried it back to the village between them, such was its weight. The diminutive Gaius had stared at this leviathan for hours, reconstructing the splinters of its shell by firelight, after the entire family had been satiated.

These memories flooded through Gaius' mind as he bent his tired limbs to the chore of hauling the net in. He could not possibly believe that he had caught anything so heavy. The net must have just snagged on a rock.

But a fisherman is by his nature superstitious, and a hungry brain is an unpredictable creature. Gaius was unable to completely extinguish his hopes of so large a meal. He sweated as he hauled in his net.

After several minutes of feverish effort, his shoulders slackened. The water was dark with the dying day but clear, and he could see that the net contained nothing more than a large, round rock. Gaius sighed, and hauled his catch ashore. At least there was bread at home.

The rock was somewhat larger than a man's head, and as it emerged from the sea Gaius' interest was re-engaged. What a perfect pattern the sea had wrought on it! The ceaseless efforts of tides and sands had created luxuriant curls over its surface. In the water and the evening sunlight, it shone like marble.

The dragging net rolled the rock along the sand, and Gaius was transfixed. An eye. An unmistakable eye stared at him through the crust of sand.

No spider crab this, but no round rock either. The fisherman's cold hands clumsily freed the head from its confinement and brushed the sand from aristocratic cheekbone and flowing beard.

Gaius looked around thoughtfully. He would not carry the head home, not on an empty stomach, not to an expectant family who would see him bearing a burden in the half-light. He returned to the small grotto, little more than a hollow in the rocks by the shore, where he had earlier placed his knapsack, canteen and pocket knife. Removing his belongings from the small shelf, he placed the head there and returned to his net, coiling it about his arm.

As he turned for home, he felt a pang of the same superstition that had made him keep hauling that net in all day, the superstition that had been so intense following that final cast. The head stared at him reproachfully, sand on its wide brows, sand still in the artful curls of its hair.

Gaius took his canteen from his knapsack and finished what little fresh water he had left, before kneeling on the rocks and filling it from the sea. He carried it over to the relic and, with a reverential air that made him feel self-conscious, poured the water over the head.

The saltwater pooled like tears in the blank, marble eyes. The oblique evening light pooled in the water and lay there winking. The great grey eyes blinked.

Gaius took a step back, convinced that the light was playing a trick on him. The eyes blinked again and their marmoreal emptiness vanished. They were the colour of oceans.