I am taking a break from painting this week as I help my wife with an apparel store window design gig she’s working on, but I want to try something on the blog: a serialized short story. Starting with this post and finishing with the next, I will show a story I wrote a few years ago as part of a series of fabulist tales I didn’t finish, but am thinking of taking up again now. I think these tales would all work with watercolors, which might be the perfect medium for fabulism. I would love to see these illustrated by different artists, maybe several editions of each story with a different painter.
This story is called “Fish.” It came to me as an image, captured in the first sentence and unchanged since I wrote it in my notebook while eating lunch at work. The rest of the story followed over a few days and was barely edited. It was such a pleasant writing experience.
Please let me know if you like the idea of getting a story this way, or if it’s too much for a blog. I might like to continue this practice if it works out to help me finish off the series.
Here it is. Thanks for reading. I hope you like it.
Fish: Part One
In the days when white cicada shells still hung on the trees, two boys were fishing in a yellow stream. They had never caught anything, but that hardly mattered. They were where they wanted to be. They cast their lines and waited for the current to take their flies. Then they cast them again. Time passed and the water rippled around the rocks.
“You know, yesterday before you woke up, I caught a fish the size of your head,” said the taller one, who was known as George.
“That’s nothing,” said the other, the one called Ant. “Last night, after you went home, I caught a fish the size of your head, and your head is bigger than mine.”
They both knew they were lying, but it was a forgiving afternoon.
Not far upstream, an abandoned railroad bridge slowly rusted into the landscape. Trains used to pass by regularly, smoking into the trees, but the boys had never seen one. Some said that the tracks were blown up on the other side of the hills. Some even claimed to have seen it happen, but no one knew for sure.
“I dare you to climb the bridge,” said George.
“Well I dare you to climb the bridge with one hand behind your back,” said Ant.
The two boys put their hands to the rusted metal. Despite his willed handicap, George made it to the top just before Ant and stood triumphantly upon the rails.
It was then that the stranger appeared, walking down the tracks, backlit by the sun.
“Are you a soldier?” asked the boys.
The stranger looked down at the wildflowers creeping up through the sleepers. “Is there a war out here?”
The boys liked the stranger and they asked him all manner of questions to which he would not give a direct reply. This only made them like him more.
“You know, the planes flew over here once. I saw them,” said George.
“And they had great big shiny wings,” said Ant.
The stranger nodded. “Come here, let me show you something,” he said and reached into his pocket, retrieving his fist. “What do you think I have in here?’
“A gold coin,” said George.
“A grenade,” said Ant.
The stranger opened his palm and the boys took a step back expecting a cloud of smoke to rise. It was a tooth. A human tooth.
“Is it yours?” cried the boys.
It was a molar, a little yellowed with a cavity, but the four cusps were sharp and intact, like a soiled crown or a mountain range.
The stranger smiled, opened his mouth, tilted his head back so the boys could see inside all the way back to his throat. All of his teeth were present and accounted for. The boys were fascinated. They prodded the stranger’s jaw, poked his mouth with sticks, until they determined to their satisfaction that it was not his tooth.
“If you bring me some food, I will tell you all about it,” said the stranger as he took a drink from a flask at his hip. “Only, if anyone asks, you never saw me.”
And so George and Ant returned to their subdivision impacted against the hillside and clad in vinyl against the elements. They opened their pantries and refrigerators and took out all of the food they thought would help the stranger—canned food, biscuits, cold cuts, bread—enough to last him for a long time if he ate sparingly.
As the sun fell over the hilltops and rooftops, catching the chimneys alight, the boys ventured out once more into the woods and by the stream, past the rocks, up the embankment and onto the bridge. They called out to the impending night sky, but received no answer.
George bent over and picked up some rocks scattered amongst the wildflowers on the tracks. “Maybe he was captured,” he said, handing some of the rocks to Ant.
Ant reached his arm back, ready to throw: “My dad said he once threw a grenade into a pond, and when it blew up, all the fish rose to the top.”
“No way,” said George. “My dad told us that. Why do you think I was giving you the rocks?” Somewhere, an owl cried. “Go on, throw it. I bet you can’t make it splash as high as that bush over there.”
“I bet you can’t make it splash as high as that tree,” replied Ant.
One by one, the boys threw their rocks into the stream. “Did you see that?” They said to each other, “My splash was huge!” But of course, they could see nothing. The moon was too far away to light the water precisely.
A voice called out from behind them. “Stop. You’ll scare the fish.” It was the stranger’s voice, somewhere back in the woods. “Follow the tracks,” he told them. The boys were able to make out a fire burning and the form of a man leaning against the tree, chin to chest. “Those fish would have been my breakfast tomorrow if you hadn’t been carrying on like that.”
“Come on Mister,” George told him. “Everyone here knows there’s no fish.”
“Where there’s water, there’s fish. You just don’t know how to find them.” The stranger sipped from his flask. “Did you bring what I asked for?” They showed him everything they took for him. He looked hungrily at the spread before him and thanked the boys sincerely.
They stared in anticipation of the story about the tooth. After another drink from his flask and a few mouthfuls of food, the stranger remembered his promise. “Teeth are the most painful part of the body to remove. That’s why no one does it without lidocaine.”
The stranger’s fire was slowly dying. He spit a mouthful of whiskey and it exploded in front of them. “A trick I learned along the way,” he explained.
“A tooth is locked into the jaw bone with a ligament, and it won’t come loose easily. You need to break the bone. There is nothing louder in this world than the crack of a human bone. Have you ever heard one? And to break the bone, you need tools—instruments—burnishers, calipers, elevators, carvers, chisels, excavators, forceps, condensers, curettes, files, knives, gags, scalers, depressors. You need those and sterilized assistants, all bent over the body.”
The stranger paused again and kicked the fire. “This tooth was pulled with nothing but bare hands and a pair of rusted pliers.”
The boys grabbed their jaws in phantom pain, but they were excited. They asked the stranger all manner of questions. “Did he talk? Did he spill enemy secrets? Did he give you the location of the bombs?”
The stranger only laughed and took another swig. “So, did you believe all that?” They nodded and asked more questions, but the stranger brushed them off. “Well, if you believed that, you’ll never believe the real story about this tooth. You come tomorrow with a bottle of whiskey each, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
(End of Part 1)