by Edward Ahern
The thigh-deep tide rip pushed his right leg into his left, teetering him. He braced himself with each step, waddling out bandy-legged, further and deeper.
Danny pushed into the ebbing tide to stretch his time at the end of the shoal. He knew without looking at shore lights where he was by the bottom sand, then gravel and stones, then mussel beds, then round rocks covered in weed. Sometimes it helped to try and count the sluggish paces, but he always lost track, diverted by a fish splash, or another fisherman, or his own inward twisting thoughts.
The shoal grabbed toward the Penfield lighthouse but never reached it, knuckling southward into boulders and deeper water where fish sometimes lay. Danny had about four hours to fish before slack low water. He fished the ebb and not the incoming. Several fishermen had stayed out too long on an incoming tide, been washed off the slimy rocks, and drowned.
His favorite hours were between midnight and four o’clock in the morning, the dark stillness when striped bass were active. There was rarely anyone else at the tip of the reef, except, from time to time, for Ralph. Danny kept wondering if he and Ralph were too much alike, given that Ralph was at least eccentric if not a little crazy.
Ralph was there that night. And that night he showed Danny something.
The moon’s crescent was emptying out, but there was enough light to see Ralph’s face. Concave cheeks sloped into wrinkled lips and missing teeth. Danny thought again that if Ralph wasn’t a meth addict he should have been.
“Any luck?” A politely meaningless question, Ralph’s rod was bent in an arc indicating a fish of perhaps four or five pounds.
Danny stopped two yards shallower than Ralph, not wanting to interfere with Ralph’s playing the fish.
The striper splattered water as Ralph reeled it in. Then, uncharacteristically, Ralph gave the fish slack and it was off.
“Not like you to lose a fish, Ralph.”
“How long have we seen each other on the reef, Danny?”
“Maybe five, six years, now and then.”
“You fish like I do. Live like I do too. Ex-wife, kids gone. Still no job?”
“Not yet. Surviving on workman’s comp. Why the hell else would I be out here at one in the morning trying to catch dinner?”
“Yeah. Dunno about you but this time of night, when I can’t sleep, it’s better for me to be up to my ass in water with nothing to abuse.”
“Something like that. Not many people are stupid enough to be out here with us.”
Ralph paused. “I think I need to show you something Danny, but you have to keep your mouth shut.”
“Easier if I show you. Stick with me.”
The instruction wasn’t necessary. Ralph had a peculiar way of fishing, but he was usually into stripers or blues, and Danny shadowed him. Ralph studied the mottled surface of the water for a minute, then shifted twenty yards to his left and cast.
He hooked up immediately with another small striper and reeled it in. With smooth, unconscious motions he tucked his rod under his right arm, grabbed the fish’s mouth with his left hand, and twisted out the lure with his right.
Dropping the lure into the surf, Ralph fisted a knife slung on a lanyard around his neck, slashed the little striper’s gills and tossed it back out.
The fish didn’t live long enough to bleed to death. Three- and four-foot blue-black ribbons surged at the fish and tore it apart.
“Jesus, Ralph, what the hell was that?”
“Dogfish, spiny dogfish.”
“Did you know they were there?”
“They’re out here a lot of nights when I’m alone. I was surprised they hung around when you arrived. When somebody else shows up they disappear. When they stayed I figured they wanted me to show you.”
“Holy crap. And you feed them?”
“Yeah. I keep a big fish to eat, but toss out maybe a dozen small fish during one tide swing.”
Danny had caught dogfish when he fished with bait at night and had worried every time he had to reel one in. Over three feet long, snake-skinny, with mildly poisonous spines, shark teeth, and black, shiny eyes. Sometime other sharks in the school would follow their packmate in, waiting. Even with pliers Danny had never tried to take out the hook, and had just cut the leader.
“How many stripers tonight, Ralph?”
“One for me, maybe six or seven for my friends.”
“They never bother you, or the fish on the stringer?”
“Never. If I watch close I can see them in the water. There’s one old shark that’s easier to spot. He swirls so I can see him, then sets up at an angle, like a hand on a clock face. If I wade toward where he’s pointing I’m almost always into fish. He gets what I don’t keep.”
“Come stand next to me. Look where I’m pointing. Really look. Look through the surface, into the water, It’s dark blue on black, but when he moves you get a glimpse of his belly. There, see it?”
“Goddamn. That’s a shark?”
“See where he’s pointing?”
* * *
They both brought fish ashore that night. Danny came back to the reef two or three nights that week, but only saw Ralph once. And the fishing while Ralph was there was good. Danny had tried to get Ralph to tell him in advance when he was going to the reef, but Ralph claimed not to know until just before he left his little apartment.
“I just get an urge, a feeling, and I come out to the reef.”
Once when the fishing had slowed Danny moved closer to Ralph. “I don’t care, but why do you feed the sharks? They just scare away the other fish.”
“No, it’s the opposite. The sharks are here because the other fish are.” Ralph cast and slowly retrieved his swimming lure. “What do you know about dogfish?”
“Nothing, other than I don’t like catching them.”
“They’d probably be in the top five most successful species: man, rats, cockroaches, then maybe dogfish. There are more dogfish than any other shark, despite that they’re heavily fished. Their fins get shipped off to the Asians and the rest is processed into pet food and fertilizer. They give birth to live babies, like we do, and their pregnancy is way longer than an elephant’s, longer than any other animal with a backbone. They hang out together. A small pack is a hundred sharks, a big one is maybe a thousand. Some live to be fifty. Survivors.
“I, I rely on them. They tell me where to go, where to fish. And I pay them back.”
Danny and Ralph sporadically talked as they fished, mostly about the obvious: divorce, lack of money, health problems — but not about everything. Like many men, they hinted at their shortcomings by the absence of information and, over time, in weaving together what had been left unsaid, they sensed the shape of each other’s demons, the ones neither wanted to be ashore with after midnight.
They fished together perhaps once a week. Ralph got skinnier and weaker that summer, and Danny, in an unobtrusive way began helping him on and off the reef, started towing Ralph’s fish behind him along with his own.
And then Ralph stopped coming. After a week Danny checked with the landlord, who opened up the flat. Nothing. A half a dozen changes of clothes, paperwork from Medicare and Social Security, a few family pictures. Old textbooks on chemistry and a framed diploma. In another life Ralph had been a chemist.. Nothing else. Danny called the cops, who grudgingly filled out a missing person’s report.
* * *
Danny fished for another two weeks with poor results, occasionally with other fishermen who knew nothing about Ralph. One night, fishing alone at the knuckle of the shoal, he saw the swirl of a big fish in the shallow water in front of him. Close in, maybe ten yards away. The fish didn’t move. Neither did Danny.
The fish seemed motionless but in an eye blink they had closed the distance between them to inches. It lay, all of five feet long, at the height of Danny’s hips, snout to crotch, but Danny didn’t back up.
Instead he reached out, avoiding the spines on the dorsal fins, and stroked the fish’s flanks, felt its skin rasp his palm. Then, without volition, he put his hand against its snout. The dogfish opened its jaws and gently closed them on the meaty ball of Danny’s palm. Danny felt its teeth snick through skin.
The shark, jaws still closed, slowly waved Danny’s hand back and forth in the water, churning blood into it. Around them were swirls and splashes as other sharks, many other sharks, swam through the blood cloud.
It’s their picture of me, Danny thought, their recognition. After three minutes the splashing subsided and Danny’s hand was released. The big dogfish, again without seeming to move, had backed off twenty feet and turned to face away from him.
Danny stood in the water motionless, numbed by what had happened.
The big dogfish swirled again, almost impatiently, and steadied back down, pointing in the same direction as before.
Danny realized that it was pointing toward fish, toward where he should cast. As best he could he mimicked Ralph’s actions in moving to the fish point, On his third cast he was into a twenty-pound striper.
Danny fished through that tide, ignoring the blood that seeped into the cork handle of his fishing rod. The next night, despite feeling none of the urge that Ralph had described, he was back on the reef. He caught nothing and saw no sharks.
Three nights later though, he awoke feeling the pressure of salt water on his legs, almost hearing the broken stone growl of surf. He reached the end of the shoal at 2:00 a.m. at dead low water, a notoriously bad time to fish. But the sharks were there. In the shallow, calm water they flowed like long black hair. His big dogfish was also there, swirling and pointing out to his left.
Danny lost track of the stripers he slashed and threw out into the water, perhaps 25, maybe 30. Around a hundred pounds of fish. Images came to him: a royal executioner, a holocaust prison guard, a priest giving out communion, blood and body all in one. He left satisfied, without a fish of his own.
* * *
After August had cooled into September Danny got a call from the Bridgeport police to come to the station and see a Lieutenant Hopkins. About Ralph.
“Have you heard from Ralph Loomis?”
“Nothing. Has something happened?”
“Was he into somebody for money? A bad drug deal?”
“He never said anything like that. Maybe. I dunno.”
“You filed the Missing Persons. He must have been a friend.”
“Yeah, as much as he had one. The first time I saw his place is when the landlord let me in to check on him. What’s happened?”
“We pulled a pair of pants off the breakwater in St. Mary’s. His pants. He ever go skinny dipping?”
“I don’t think so. He wore his waders like panty hose. I never saw him in the water without them on.”
“Was he all right mentally?”
“Crazy? No. Weird, for sure. He had cancer pretty bad.”
“That’s what the Veterans’ Administration said. Painful kind. So how come his pants wash up on the breakwater? Not torn, belt in its loops, wallet in the back pocket, money in the wallet. Like he undressed for bed.”
“Jesus. Did you find anything else, any remains?”
“Nothing. If you hear something, anything, give me a call.”
* * *
Danny had the urge again that night and waded out to the waiting pack. Fog was drifting in from mid-sound and he would soon lose sight of his sharks. The wind was down, the chop was soft against his waders. He could not quite see where he was fishing into.
As he cast and retrieved, cast and retrieved, he envisioned Ralph shucking his waders, then his shirt, pants and underwear. He wondered if Ralph had taken off his socks before wading out into the pack, fisting the knife still lanyarded around his neck, and offering sacrifice.
Copyright © 2012 by Edward Ahern