Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
He was a child the first time he bore witness to small deaths being dealt in the gloom of a yet emerged sun. The hollow, purling concussions. Welters of foam and seething tidewater. Concentric ripplets telegraphing over the float glass shallows. Declaration of minor destructions.
As his surrounds fell back into still and calm he watched for the next savagery. Ranging his gaze to the far impenetrable shore, blued with warps of shadowed mangrove and a weft of thin, hoary fog and then away to the incurvate boundary of the world where demarcation is lost. The perpetual Delphic entwine of heaven and main. He sought the color and the shape, a glimpse, of those grave creatures that reaped amongst the thalassic plains.
Be patient. They will give it up, said his father. Don’t take your eyes away. The words soft and heavy in the autumn crisp held in his ears a long time.
Violence continued to punctuate that equable twilight, and each transgression was as unrevelatory as that which had preceded it. Only the boiling aftermaths remained.
At length, as the slaty dusk began to dissolve into the mandarin whirling and curlicued exhaust of the rising sun, a seam was torn in the amalgamation of shadow and glare plating the water ahead of him. His eyes cut for sign amongst the blisters of air jerking atop the minute vortices spun out in the commission of the act. The vitreous beadlets racing away in random scatter. He would not take his eyes away from the slowly diminishing chaos.
For a moment there was nothing. Then at once an epiphany of color rode above the surface. A minor orange scalene trimmed at one side in ultramarine. The small pyramid, suspended just above the waterline, was perfectly still in that windless morning. And then it bent just so. A forge fire bloomed where the translucent fin rays caught in the early light. By degrees the tail began to rise and rise and rise until the delicate caudal architecture could be seen almost in tis entirety. The jet ovoid, false eye rimmed in scales miniature and golden, stared across the distance between them.
In the compounding inertia of that moment neither he nor the fish could be seen to move. With the benefit of years he would return to this memory often. He would consider that tail, that fish, static before him, and the course that his life might have taken had that stasis they shared been interrupted in a different fashion.
You should cast, his father said. Don’t wait.
He set his feet and made a cast.
Florida Bay lay before them. The wide, shimmering saline pan of it quaking in the midday heat.
Mangrove cayes, scattered in their yawning archipelago ran away to the south and east. Pixellated and dark under a cloak of haze and distance. Eel grass islands rafted out of the spent, brown chaff of far away grassbeds wandered carelessly in the streaming tide. Pliant headlands formed where the mats caught in the fetters of seafloor crowning the channel edges. Eastbound currents coursing out of the open Gulf flooded the paddocks of turtlegrass in their seemingly boundless sweep from the swampy acreage of the mainland out beyond the blue ether riding the low contour of horizon. Silt and etiolated detritus swept up by the fresh tide bleached the incoming water to the bloodless grey of pulverized bone.
Like lodes of unmined halite in some ancient seabed made desiccate over the millenia, yet still blue and miraculous through a trick of the light, great unmoving crags of swollen cloud studded the sky. There was not a single blemish by way of vessel or other man upon that great basin and for a moment it seemed as though the whole of it had been bequeathed to the two of them alone. All of it severe and dazzling under the chlorine light that burned away in the colorless apex of the vault.
At the helm of the skiff sat the taller of the two men. He was thin and dark of the face and hands from countless hours spent operating beneath the near-tropic sun. With a practiced ease he palmed the throttle a few small degrees forward. The apirian droning of the outboard engine trilled faintly higher and then receded back into the vague murmurings of combustion. Easy in its pacings the skiff tended gradually forward. Water popped at the chines and the slick report of it played them forward as they idled into the channel.
The other man, short and wide, was smoothing sunblock into the skin at the edges of his beard when he caught at the nape of his neck. The mosquito he found was crushed flat and black as wet ash where it centered a wipe of fresh blood. Its edges already polluting brown with oxidation.
“It’s easy to forget,” said the shorter man.
The tall man looked at him, then away to the east. Late summer convecting off the molten bightwater. Squat mangrove promontories segregating the distant bays bucked and swayed in the oscillating heat.
“We’re in hell.”
“Yes it is,” said the tall man. “Yes it is.”
The tall man levered the throttle forward until it came nearly flush against the dashboard. Gravity accelerated as the transom sank into the water. Pinned to his seat the short man leaned forward against the force working against him. In a bolt the skiff shot forward. Glancing easily against off small, tidal chop rolling through the channel.
Cormorants and gulls waited atop the chemical green markers delineating the deep swale incising the shallows stock-still as shelved taxidermy. Heads cocked skyward. Black eyes fixed on them and starting in the orbits of their hollow skulls as the basic intoning of the outboard drew near. With short leaps each of the watchers would resign its post, and rigid, tip down towards the water before maneuvering onto the slight wind and winging away to some other roost.
Ospreys ran sorties against the mullet swarming at the margins of the channel. The wide ambit of their wings carving the afternoon. The air heavy. Sectilic. Their orbits growing ever smaller before gathering the whole of themselves into a single shape and falling from the sky. The plumed aerofoils unfurling in that last instant, prelude to a life being taken.
They had been running for some time when the taller man drew back against the throttle. The engine pitched low and fell to a muffled idle and was keyed off. The skiff settled and coasted towards the southern border of a miles long verdure of seagrass. The two men stood at the bow of the skiff in survey of the immense heath.
Far away on the flat, the shallow rim where still exposed grass met the encroaching tide was beset with the gangling shapes of wading birds. Herons stooped to feed. Egrets stepped tall above the inches deep water. Orange and willowy the long shanks of their legs were recommitted to the water with such rehearsed calm that it seemed they were not moving at all. Until the instant passed and they were again aligned arrow straight. Heads ratcheting about in their searching atop long meandering necks. And such was the power of the high sun that each of those stately creatures stood mantled in a strident overexposure of their common white.
Anterior to the snowy fowl where slightly greater depths were afforded, two triptychs of high, darkskinned fins swept over the flat in search of any wayward prey that had fallen behind. Though reduced by their remoteness more of the dark tantours could be seen combing the distant limits of the flat.
The tall man nodded. He motioned with the flat of his hand towards the north and west.
“We’ll come in here. Work our way up.”
“I’m already mad at ’em.”
Save those words there was little conversation passed between the two men. And what words were exchanged were out of necessity and not requiste for the job at hand. Such was their way. And such is the way for all who have stood by with another before their quarry time and again.
The tall man took up the pushpole and climbed atop the poling platform. He started them forward onto the flat. The mire of biotic matter hidden beneath the turtlegrass grinding beneath the heel of the pushpole and transmitting the rough code out the steel cap.
As they pushed further onto the flat the short man arranged behind the low, forward platform on the foredeck a sheet of rubber knobbed with conical stalagmites. Then he drew from beneath the gunnel his favorite among the fly rods they had stowed away. An 8-weight. Crenulations in the wrapped carbon fiber blank sharpening and sharpening in the light until the chestnut length of it gleamed electric. The brushed alumnium reel luminescing with faint white nebulae. He unhooked the peacocked fly, shaped from hair and fiber and bulging plastic eyes into an elongate teardrop, from the hook eye and played line from reel onto the neon mat waiting on the below him. With a long shot’s worth of the taupe fly line mended over the elastic bossing he stepped up onto the casting deck.
The stark gnash of the swifting graphite cleaved the brief hush. A long ribbon of monofilament spun from the top eye of the spinning rod and arced long and away. Once inanimate, the tail squirmed in its watery traces. Cavitation bubbles bloomed about the slashing bronze peduncle. In a drop the small rubber lure ended it’s track just beyond the redfish. A foot. Two. The damp tick as it perforated the faultless bightwater. The flat crack of the bail spring falling shut. Rasping in its circuit of the reel body the rotor blurred, and sunstruck, sparked in pearl and silver.
Tremors relayed up the monofilament. Through the graphite. The thrumming deadened in the dark pocket where his sweatslick palm wrapped the cork handle. Tiny boils chased the elastic shad as it paddled.
The tail interrupted its writhing. Went rigid. The angle of it cocked acutely to the horizon.
He swam the shadtail even with the redfish. As he did the bright orange continent of the tail sank and sank and disappeared below the waterline. He kept turning the reel handle. The speed even. Steady. His mouth shaping around mute entreaties.
Water began to rise after the shadtail. Acquiring out of the slick surrounds the bulge widened and began to quicken in its advance on the lure as it tracked back to him. He kept reeling. The hyaline dome, like tempering obsidian, black and lustrous and dynamic, mounting out of the glass calm swelled to a butte before the blunt skull of the redfish in its assault. Cutting through the gleaming skin of realizing dawn stretched atop the water, the eyes of the fish. Discs of amber firelight smoldering in urns of crystal humor. Their gaze yoked to the glittered, wobbling profile of the shadtail.
With a hard racing of its tail the redfish surged on the lure. The water boiled. The black nares keyholed in the thickset foreskull of the fish near to breaching in the charge. A last kick of the tail. The redfish shot its jaws. Pale lips flaring. Mouth stretched and gaping.
The reaching muzzle snapped shut. The shadtail without it. He kept reeling.
Again, the redfish sallied forward, inverting as it struck to oblige its inferior mouth. The wet choke of the surface cracking and fluing down the hollow gulch of its throat. Soft and wrapped in alabaster skin, the wide belly rolled at the surface in a flash of radiant defiance against the dark water of its occupation. The maw of the fish clamped shut in another failure to kill before riding down and away out of sight
Planted face down into lush seagrass, the fish pirouetting in search of equilibrium. The wide spade of copper tail penduluming above the flat. Like a top spun out, the fish fell horizontal back into the water.
Glare swallowed the redfish. Head. Fins. Tail. All. What remained was the churned water and the shadtail swaying where it hung from this rod tip. He watched the low crown of a solitary sine wave break from the commotion along a southerly attitude toward parapets of low, black mangrove islands stepped out across the horizon. Idling mullet jerked in slight convulsions of water as the redfish swam past.
“What’d you think,” asked his father.
He didn’t answer. He had not taken his eyes from redfish still waking its way off the flat. A trail of flourishes stirring in the millpond where the tail had swept in acceleration.
“Hey. I’m talking to you.”
He turned to face his father.
“That’s something else, isn’t it? They way they come like that?”
“I don’t know.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I wanted to catch to one.”
“You will,” said his father. “You will.”
He looked to the south again. The fish still had not stopped.
“No. I won’t.” He swung the rod and slapped the shadtail at the water.
His father smiled. Shook his head. Then he threw his chin towards the north.
“What about them?”
He turned after the gesture. A hundred yards away the black water quaking. Bristled with a swarm of bronze and lapis thorns that turned and twitched. The small colored barbs tipping into out of sight beneath the pinguid slick.
He watched the tails as they veered in slow circles. Eddies and surges of water rumored the mass and scale of each fish.
Something to disturb them. At once the entire lot of them starting. To the last fish. Every one of them indebted to the sentience of the school. The fish settled and so did the water. Bergs of fresh foam wandered amongst the tiny colored zentihs.
He turned back to his father.
His father stared off towards the milling fish and scratched at the fine gray stubble wrapping his neck.
“Can I catch one after you?”
He pointed the tip of his spinning at the school of fish. He shut one eye and held the butt end up to the other eye and sighted along the seven-foot length of graphite. His fingers wrapped around the reel seat as though it were the trigger on a rifle. The thin terminus of the spinning rod sagging gently with the meager gravity of the shadtail.
“I don’t think so.”
(To Be Continued…)