Fish: A Short Story in Two Parts — Part Two

When the tooth entered this story, I questioned myself. Was this really what I wanted to write about, a dirty human tooth? But of course I wasn’t writing about a tooth. I was writing about something broader– an exchange, a contract, the value of a story. In a sense, narrative is currency. As Calvino said, “In a narrative, any object is always magic.” So what magic is in the tooth, and what is it worth?

Here is part two. If you missed part one, click here.

Fish: Part Two

The next morning George and Ant woke early to mine the hopscotch courts with bang snaps. The low sun cast long shadows across the macadam, and sparsely gathered crows looked on from the jungle gym as the boys lightly dusted gravel over the their mines. The girls would be out after breakfast to play in their summer dresses, and the boys liked to watch them jump and squeak as the tiny paper-packets of flash powder exploded under their feet.

Still, as the clouds passed over and the sun rose and fell in the valley, the boys could think of nothing so much as the tooth. They waited impatiently all day for George’s mother to leave the house for one errand or another so they could take the whiskey. They turned out the kitchen, but found nothing. They turned out the closets, but found nothing. There was nowhere left but the basement, dark and unfinished, filled with concrete and cobwebs. The air conditioner fans stormed in the shadows of the naked light bulbs. “This is the kind of place where teeth are pulled,” thought the boys. They looked around cautiously as the fans cut in and out. The rusted bikes, the workbench cluttered with vises, chisels, and pliers. The reserve supply of bottled water and toilet paper and baked beans. And then they saw it. The whiskey. Exactly two bottles on a shelf far in the corner buried in lint between the pipes and clothes dryer. Two bottles. Within an instant they were up the stairs, bottles in hand, leaving nothing but the echoes of their footprints suspended in the particle-laden air.

Car doors opened and closed in the driveways and streetlamps flickered on along the measured sidewalks of the neighborhood. Dinner would be served soon, and the boys agreed to meet by the big tree when the sun and moon lit the sky together. George arrived first with the bottles and climbed into the branches to wait. He thought about a battalion of tanks rolling through the valley laced with power lines; how easy it would be for them to cross the stream; how he would see it all from the top of the big tree where no one else would climb; how he would shoulder-fire anti-tank missiles at them as they passed.

Down below, Ant called out for George, impatient to see the stranger. Green leaves fell on the crickets and wildflowers as George descended. “You can see the smoke from the city up there,” he said, offering Ant one of the bottles to carry. “And if you try real hard, you can even smell it.”

On the way to the woods, the boys talked about the stranger. They talked about the fights he must have been in to get his scar and broken nose. They talked about what he probably kept in his pack—a gun and a deck of cards with naked ladies on the back—and they longed to see them. But most of all, they talked of the tooth and how he twisted it out of the mouth of a POW or how he pulled it from his own mouth on a dare and grew a new one.

When they came to the bridge, they made birdcalls to announce their presence. “Over here,” the stranger replied from his fire. “You have my bottles?” He filled his flask and stored the bottles in his pack. The boys snuck an unfulfilled glance inside. “If you’re looking for the tooth, I don’t keep it in there. I keep it in my pocket. Always.”

The boys protested their innocence.

“Now,” said the stranger. “We had agreement. Are you ready to hear the real story of the tooth?” Smoke drifted up from the fire, flitting sparks into the moonlight. The boys nodded.

“I want you to look at the tooth closely in the firelight. Do you see this cavity here? It’s small, so you have to look so close that your eyes go out of focus. Then you’ll see it. Remember the cavity.”

The boys strained their eyes in the shifting firelight, but could see nothing.

The stranger continued: “That’s what he told me. Remember the cavity. He was an old man on a little farm on the other side of the world. His fields were all fallow and there was blight on the crops for longer than he could remember, but he survived somehow. He took me in for three days and fed me on fresh fish he caught in a dirty stream behind his house. I looked at that stream every morning, but I didn’t understand how fish could live in it, it was so shallow. There was barely enough water there to drink. Each day I played cards with the old man to help him pass the time, so when I had to leave, he felt sorry for me. He told me I would never make it across the fields without food. ‘You have been good to me,’ he said. ‘Now I want to be good to you. I have seen you wondering how I have so many fish to eat when there is no food for miles around.’ And then he showed me this tooth. ‘This tooth,’ he said, ‘is special. See this cavity? Always remember the cavity.’ The old man then told me that whenever I wanted to catch a fish, all I needed to do was place the tooth in a stream and count to three. The next cast would catch a fish without fail. At first I didn’t believe him, but then he showed me how the fish rose up from the silt and bit his hook, one after another. ‘I can’t take such a gift,’ I told him, knowing that it was the tooth that kept him alive, but he insisted. ‘Every gift should be given again when the time is right.’”

Scattered raindrops slipped through the leaves as the rattling of cicada songs rose and fell in the distance.

“Is the time right now?” the boys asked.

The stranger urged patience. “The tooth can only change hands when the moon is full. Tonight is too soon. Tomorrow will be better.” He paused and looked at them with a narrow eye. “What makes you think the tooth should be passed to you?”

The boys replied at once with all manner of reasons, but none of them would satisfy the stranger. “Those are good,” he said, “but this tooth is very valuable to me. If you want it, I’ll need something valuable in return. Something I lost a long time ago on the other side of the ocean.”  The fire hissed lightly in the rain. “A golden ring.”

In houses full of jewelry, a golden ring was not hard to find. In fact, as soon as their parents left, the boys found several. They carried them all day on their fingers as they wandered around the fields and the neighborhoods and hurled crabapples at the occasional passing car. They watched the moon slowly appear in the afternoon sky, and they talked of the craters formed on its face from massive explosions years ago, until finally the daylight fell away and they could see the ragweed and dandelion seeds held aloft in shafts of moonlight. It was time for them to claim the tooth.

Fireflies lit the trees and underbrush as the boys looked for the stranger’s encampment. They tried the places they had seen him the previous nights, and they tried the stream. They tried the bridge, and they even tried the hollowed-out tree trunks they imagined were washed-up submarines. And then from behind them, a voice whispered, “Have you brought the ring?”

The boys asked the stranger about his fire, whether he would leave tonight, but he only repeated his question, “Have you brought the ring?” George and Ant brought out their fingers, adorned in gold, for the stranger to see. He thanked them for offering him a choice, commending them on their kindness. “We had an agreement. One ring for one tooth. Now, which of you will take the tooth. I will take a ring from only one of you.”

George volunteered himself, and Ant put away his hands. The stranger examined each ring in turn, taking notice of how the moonlight interacted with the luster of the gold, until he made his selection.

“This is a fair exchange.”

George felt the absence of weight on his finger as the stranger disappeared back down the tracks, the breeze from his footsteps lightly bending the wildflowers that peered up through the sleepers. The words, “Always remember the cavity,” echoed faintly behind him until they too dissolved into the damp night air.

***

When Ant arrived at the stream the next morning, George called out to him, “You missed it! I did just as the stranger said. I put the tooth in the water and came up with a fish!” As the boys discussed the stranger’s last words and the supposed size of the fish, the ghost of a cicada shell landed softly on the water’s surface and drifted downstream towards the city.

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Fish: A Short Story in Two Parts — Part One

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)