Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Those Strange, Beautiful Fishes by Marcel Admiraal

Joris Dekker stops on the way to work to watch an old man fishing with some unusual bait.

The morning started to creep in over the fields. Before the sun came out, the countryside looked dull and grey with the mist still hanging low and the sky somewhere between black and blue, but now it bathed in that strong golden light. Some of the brighter stars were still visible, but they rapidly faded as the sun rose. Birds tweeted as they heralded the first rays and the creatures of the night scurried in the low grass looking for their burrows in the damp ground. There was no wind rustling in the high grass or the leaves on the trees. The water in the canals was still and even though spring was well on its way, the clear, bright mornings still felt very cold.

Joris Dekker was on his way to work when he came across the big blue Ford station wagon standing in the grass on the side of the road. A little further down an old man sat on a piece of plastic at the water's edge, staring at a colourful float that sat quietly in the middle of the canal. Being somewhat early, Joris wondered what the old man was doing at this time of day, and decided to kill some time.

At first the old man didn't notice the young man approaching and he turned with a shock when he heard the young man's legs moving through the dewy wet grass.

"'Morning," Joris said with a slight grin. He was skinny and tall with dark hair and old dirty work clothes. The old man nodded and allowed Joris to stand next to him on the big concrete tube that connected two small canals.

"Are they biting?" Joris asked, lighting a cigarette behind his hand. He looked down his nose past the old man, watching the float. He had always liked fishing as a boy. Sitting quietly at the water's edge had always made him feel strangely tranquil and relaxed. Now most of his friends regarded it as a sport for older men.

"It's alright," the old man answered softly, "could be better."

"I used to come here." Joris explained.

"Did you?"

"Yeah, when I was a kid, we always had plenty to catch here. Mostly perch and bream, even a carp at times."

"Yeah, there's plenty of that here," the old man responded polite but short.

"Well, I just had those bamboo rods, of course. Nothing special, so a carp was already something. I always used to take them home to show my mom and dad."

"You live close by?" the old man asked.

"Yeah, not too far off. At the crossroads over there."

Joris waved his hand westwards without taking his eyes off the float. The old angler turned to see where he was pointing.

"Big, white house?"

"No, the one next to that. The small one."

"Ah, okay," the fisherman nodded and turned back to his float.

"Once," Joris started again, "me and a friend were fishing. And it was very early, but alright, we went fishing. And it was so cold, so incredibly cold, that we hoped the float would stay above the water for just a moment, you know. It went so fast. As soon as we had baited the hooks, they would go under. I believe we had over fourteen perches in an hour or something. Our fingers were so cold that they had cramped up and we couldn't bait the hooks any more. Oh, that was a bad morning!"

"Yeah, it can be mighty cold in the early morning," the old man said softly. "Especially this early in the year."

Joris nodded. He exhaled the last cloud of smoke and shot the butt of the cigarette in the canal from between his thumb and forefinger. It hissed as it hit the water and Joris realised only now that this would probably scare the fish away.

The old man didn't seem to mind. He patted his hand softly on the concrete a few times and gestured Joris to sit. He sat himself down and both stared silently at the float.

The old man only had one casting rod and a case with more floats, sinkers, tweezers, a knife and a cloth to clean his hands after handling the fish. Next to the rod lay a big, triangular net for the bigger fish.

"So, what are you fishing for?" Joris asked to kill the silence.

"Normally? Carp," the old man answered. "Usually, I put a worm right on the bottom for that. But today I'm fishing for something new. So I needed some new bait."

He grabbed the rod and pulled the line up so far that the bait came up just above the water. The young man could see a piece of meat on the hook. It looked white and bleak, dripping with water.

"That's human flesh," the old man explained. "It's the best." Slowly he lowered the bait back into the water. "It gives a good scent, but they're not biting today."

Joris felt like he just got punched in the stomach. The air had disappeared from his lungs and he looked pale around his nose. He had to swallow to clear a particular big lump. The old man didn't seem to notice.

"But patience, my boy, they'll come," he said simply.

The old man put the rod in between them, so softly and controlled, that Joris started to wonder if he had heard the old man correctly. Suddenly, the old man gave him the creeps, even though nothing had changed about his demeanour. He kept his gaze pointed at the float and was still sitting on the same piece of plastic, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees in that same concentrated pose as when the young man found him.

For a few moments they sat there silently, watching the float together. Unsure of that to do and not about to seem rude or to make the old man suspicious, Joris broke the silence:

"I once caught an eel here."

"Really?"

"Yeah, I was a much younger, then, maybe eight or ten years ago. I had the bait right on the bottom and at one point I had to go home. The float had not even sunk. But okay, I pull on the rod and it was stuck. So I pulled it carefully and when I got it up, there was the eel. It was all wrapped around my line and I really didn't know how to get it off. Ugly little creatures, look too much like snakes." He briefly shivered. "Finally I got it off, but it wasn't pretty."

The old man chuckled.

"Yeah, I had that," he said. "I had one and I got it onto the grass and as soon as they get grip on the grass, they're gone. I had just as much trouble getting it out of the grass as I had getting it on the shore!"

They were both laughing now and Joris started to relax again. He decided he probably misunderstood the old man all along. Of course it could not be that the old man was sitting here fishing with human flesh. Besides, he suddenly realised, it was probably time to get to work.

As he got up, he started to excuse himself, when suddenly he noticed the float slowly moving away towards the reeds where it dipped once or twice, before it sunk completely.

"You have something!" he whispered.

"Easy," the old man said and got up from his seat with surprising agility.

The float had sunk so deep now that they could not see it any more. With the skill of the trained fisherman, the old man put the back of the rod against his hip and slowly turned the wheel. The float came back up, but kept circling in strange and unpredictable ways. It turned away from the couple and then came towards them again and the old man slowly turned the wheel to reel the line in. Every time it turned away again, the wheel rattled. The tip of the rod bent so deeply, Joris thought it would break.

"Let the fish do the work," the old man said softly, more to himself than to the young man. He whispered some inaudible words and ground his teeth. Joris noticed the grim look on the old man's face and the squinted eyes following wherever the float went.

The first time they saw the fish was when it breached the surface and jumped almost half a foot into the air. Joris could see the hook stuck in its cheek and the piece of white meat still hanging from its mouth. He had forgotten all about work or the time and noticed nothing but the line and its load.

He had never seen a fish more beautiful. The light from the rising sun reflected off its scaly skin and broke into colours of green and purple and red. The drops of water glistening on its hive, splashing back into the canal, and its fins outstretched like the wings of a bird. Just by the size of the fish, Joris understood how strong the man must be to keep his catch in check.

With surprising ease the old man landed the fish. It came alongside the concrete tube and Joris carefully caught it in the net. He brought it up and laid it out on the grass. The old man had chosen the perfect moment to hook his prey. The hook, as big as a thumb, was lodged nicely in the cheek. Nothing but the mouth was moving.

They looked at each other and grinned widely.

"What a beast!" Joris whispered in awe. He had never seen any fish like this before and suddenly he realized that his childhood adventures did not even compare to the old man's experience.

"He fought well," the old man nodded satisfied.

He wetted his hands in the water and before Joris even noticed, he had taken the hook out. With an old folding ruler, the old man measured one meter and fourteen centimetres.

"Beautiful!" Joris said again. He couldn't help himself.

The fish briefly protested when the old man took it in his arms. Careful not to trip and fall, the old man brought it back to the reeds. With the utmost care and attention, he lowered himself until his arms were submerged and as he opened them, the fish gave one flap of his mighty tail and swam away. Together they watched the broad back of the fish disappear in the darkness of the canal. What remained were the distant cries of far-off water birds.



The old man wiped his hands clean on the old rag.

"To be honest," he said, "it should have been you taking him off the line. You've fished here more than me, by the sound of it." He threw the line back in the water for it not to get tangled and turned to his case.

"Oh no!" the young man answered, "you're fishing here now. I just came to watch."

The old man said nothing, but just smiled. Joris washed the net in the water and put it back in its place while the old man was fumbling around in his case. He felt very privileged that he had been part of such an extraordinary catch. Despite the chill of the early morning, his cheeks were glowing and his hands were warm. He knew these moments would all be over as soon as he came to the farm where he was working. There the other young men didn't care about fishing and the peace and sense of wonder it provided when catching something that people would normally not see. Who knew something as beautiful as this fish would live in these murky, calm waters? That was the real charm of the sport, he thought.

"Aww boy," the old man said suddenly while still going through his case, "it seems I have no more bait in here. Would you be so kind as to cut a piece of the chunk in the car? Here is the knife. It's in the back, okay?"

Without thinking, Joris took the wooden handle of the pocket knife and climbed up to the side of the road, to where the old Ford station wagon was parked. He was already halfway up to it, when he suddenly remembered what the old man had said about the bait and suddenly held still.

Slowly he glanced back, scared he would find the old man staring back at him, but the angler was busy reeling in his hook while inspecting the line. Joris swallowed hard and for a moment heard nothing but his own heartbeat and the rattling of the fishing rod.

Don't be a baby, he told himself and took the next brave steps.

What he expected to find, he didn't know or dare to think about, but when he opened up the trunk of the car, he saw nothing but a bucket of dirty water and an old carpet spread out over the entire width of the car. For a moment he held still, surprised, blinking at the empty boot. He glanced left and right, searched around the bucket to see if something was there, but there was no meat anywhere.

He stood with his hands in the sides, unsure of how to proceed, hearing the strange, absolute silence that hung over the fields. A chill went down his spine. He missed the birds or the low hum of a distant tractor, but most of all it seemed he was missing the rattling of the old man's wheel.

He quickly turned around and stared for a brief moment into the eyes of the grinning old man. They were green with a hint of madness and blood-lust.

"Wha-?" Joris started, but before he could continue, the old man pushed him back into the car. He bumped his head on the steel roof and dropped the knife. The old man bent over him and for a moment the boy smelled the ratchet stench of raw fish when the old man put a hand over his mouth. As he tried to wiggle his way out, the old man pinned him down with the weight of his body. Joris remembered the ease with which the old man had brought the heavy fish on land and tried to fight even harder. His hands were stuck under the old man's body and his legs flailed around outside of the car.

The old man grabbed the pocket knife, adjusted it in his hand before grabbing the wooden handle tight. The blade of the knife glistened briefly in the creeping sunlight and then disappeared into the chest of the young man. Joris briefly gasped for breath that never came.



"Alright!" the old man said and crawled out of the car. He wiped his hands on the filthy rag, glanced quickly at the east, west, north and south and blessed this early spring morning for its peace and quiet. He looked down on poor Joris who lay staring at the ceiling of the car.

"Poor guy," the old man whispered to himself. "So young, how could he have known?" He quickly pinched the sides of Joris' body. "Well, plenty of baby fat still left on his bones."

He groaned as he crawled back into the car with the knife in his hand.

"Oh, look at me now, an old man all doubled up in his car. It's a bloody shame, I tell you." He muttered along as he quickly sliced several chunks of the young meat off Joris' sides, washed them in the dirty water of the bucket and folded the blanket over the body.

He would take care of that later. With a bang, he closed the trunk.

Back at the water's edge, he put the strips of meat in his fishing case and baited the hook with a particular large piece. As he cast the line back into the water, the meat broke the surface with a deep and satisfying splash, and pulled the float straight up.

"So fishies," he said as he laid the rod next to him, "we're alone again."

For a minute it was dead-quiet, as if even nature had ceased to witness the horrible events. He enjoyed the silence and as the first birds commenced to sing again, he enjoyed that. There sounded the high-pitched shriek of a heron and the slight breeze that went through the reeds, sending ripples through the water, making his float bump up and down.

As all of life continued, the sun rose further above the villages of Holland's northern landscape; right in front of the old man a big perch jumped out of the water and the sun gripped the silver scales. It would be a wonderful day, and the old fisherman now had bait enough for maybe twenty of those strange but beautiful fishes.

4 comments:

  1. this is so good! brilliantly descriptive! great Story.
    well done

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. You "baited" the story quite nicely, and caught me hook, line, and sinker.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Brilliantly written and definitely creepy

    ReplyDelete