This to Which We’ve Come
The man’s shadow stretched long and easy over the sand to a length ten times his stature. Half a sun hung hard to the left, low and quivering, its tangerine tongue licked the watery horizon to wake his side of the world. For as long as Gus had been here, he’d been the first. First to feel the warm yellow-orange spill along the length of his calves, his knees, his thighs, penetrate the thicket of gray-red hair curled to a thousand tiny slip knots on cracked-leather skin. First to glimpse the white foam lapping against the purple sea. To taste the salt in the air. To feel the crunch of shell, black and gray and colorless, beneath bare feet on the last first step of the boardwalk. First to feel the cling of the not-yet.
He patted for the lure in his shirt pocket then wiped his brow beneath his ball cap with a cotton cloth, dingy and gray. And thus began the walk he’d made at just this hour in just this way to just this stretch of shore so many times now that his gait would have tilted slightly to the right even without the weight of the bucket. A sure step with the left foot, a slight drag of the right. A sure step left, slight drag right. Sure left, slight right. Sure and slight. From above, a series of dots and dashes in the sand. A pattern. Code maybe. Or story. Anymore, not even Gus would have known which.
Still and silent, the first hours passed lulled by the thousand white whispers shooshing against the sand and Gus’s arthritic toes. The fishing line, cast in little hope of a catch, lolled limply with the tide, bait sometimes there sometimes not when Gus reeled it in. And he, perched on the bait bucket in quiet contemplation, standing only when necessary to replace the bait and recast, occasionally looking to his right. Not yet.
From about a hundred yards east came the clanging of mallet to post, a familiar sound, a sound of hope at first, and then anger, sometimes desperation, eventual submission. A young wife unpacked an overloaded beach cart and baby wriggled to free himself from the clutch of the stroller harness, while the young husband, the source of the clanging, pounded the base of a beach umbrella. Clang. Clang. Never moving. Clang.
“It’ll never hold,” Gus muttered, chuckled, shook his head. Still looking at the ocean. Talking to no one but the waves. “You gotta drill down deep— Down deep to get the teeth in. Got to catch it in the deep and dark. Can’t just go hittin at it. It’ll never hold.”
He considered putting down his rod and walking over to the young family. Could save them a lot of trouble. Lot of frustration, he thought. He watched the woman point here and there and up at the sun and down to the sand. Gus couldn’t hear her, but he knew what she was saying. Hurry up! And The baby’s getting fussy. And Don’t you know what you’re doing? And Oh my God! Let me do it. And the man, who kept pounding at the pole, who was sweating and cursing, who threw down the mallet and looked to her and raised his hands and shrugged his shoulders and thrust his palms to the baby, who sweated and squealed, and to the mother, who said We shouldn’t have come. I knew this wouldn’t work. So stupid, and to the pole and to the endless, cloudless sky as if some answer was there that he and she and they were all looking for.
“The answer ain’t there,” Gus muttered, stared still at the waves, and reckoned it best to stay where he was. “It ain’t here neither.”
The heron ruffled its wing slightly at the sound of Gus’s voice. Ruffled it just enough Gus caught the movement out of the corner of his right eye. Its other wing clutched tight to its side as if held there by a sling, never moved.
“Well hello there, Blue,” Gus acknowledged. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
Standing in his usual manner, the heron cast no shadow he could call his own. Statued there on a stick leg, only one, spindly stretched-out claw covered and uncovered by the tide, the heron nodded to him, turned back to the waves. To the line. To what might bite onto the end of it. Gus turned to look at the bird, haggard, dagger-like beak slightly parted—hungry or tired, Gus could never tell which—neck a loose S, knobby, lopsided S, like a snake falling from a tree. Like a knotty shoelace. Gray-white-brown colored, shades of defeat.
“Never occurred to me how much you look like Fuller,” Gus said. “Skinny, lanky fella. Long neck. Hair slicked back in front, all regal-like, greased like he was some kind of gangster in one a them movies, only it wouldn’t lay flat in the back. Always a black tuft sticking out from the back of his head, the rest of it gray.”
The heron scanned the horizon. He’d grown used to the man’s voice by now. Used to his movements, the grunts and curses, the zips of the line being cast, the clicks of the reel that brought it back in again and again. And again. The stills and silences that always won out, eventually.
“One-legged, too. Lost it in a card game. What he always said anyway. I never believed him. Lyin’ sonofabitch. Could tell a hell of story, though.”
Truth was, Gus hadn’t seen Fuller in a decade. Not Fuller or Sipes or Newt or any of the guys. Not since he’d left.
“Squawk! Squawk!” A heavy-set woman, arms flapping, voice cackling, beer lapping over the white rim of a red Solo cup, came running-stumbling over the dunes at the man and the heron, trying to run it off he supposed. Gus cursed her under his breath.
“Shoo! Shoo!” she shrieked, squawking at the bird trying to get it to move. Man and bird craned necks to the left just enough to see her lose her balance, to see the red cup fly, to hear the dusting of displaced sand thud against their feet and the bottom of the bucket. To hear the shriek, the laughter.
“Boozin’ already, Brenda?” Gus said flatly, not sure whether she could hear him and not caring.
“Why not?” she asked, grunting to right herself. Time and leisure had not been kind. “Not a whole lot better to do. It’s why we’re here, ain’t it? Why we been here all this time? Relax? Unwind? Get away from it all?”
Brenda hadn’t adjusted to their new life. To the beach, sure. To the heat, a bit. The shiny winters were a far cry from the gauzy wet-gray she’d known before in Kentucky. But to the nothing to do and no one to do it with, she’d grown resentful. He took her and she came thinking they’d escape together. She eyed the bird. “Squook! Shwawk!” a last flap of the arms, attempt at running in place to scare it off, before collapsing to a seated position in the sand.
“You had breakfast?” she asked.
“Had breakfast,” Gus said. He hadn’t, but it didn’t make any difference.
“When are you comin’ in?” she kept on. “I’d like to go shopping later, you know I don’t like to drive. Can’t anyway . . . not right now. Did you put on sunscreen? Gus . . . ?”
Gus had stopped listening, stopped long before now. Only studied the white-foam caps lapping in the distance, the turbulence beneath, and beneath that the deep deep still. A fish could be totally free down there, all that space, bigger than any freedom he would know. He listened again for the whisper. Looked for the sun, now white-yellow, high and hot. Felt the sweat drip from his nose. Wiped his brow again. Watched the line dance and slice through the waves. Felt the pull.
The heron straightened its neck, watched intently as the tip of the pole bowed down and up and down again. Gus’s grip tightened, the muscles of his forearms, long unused, found their purpose, pulled and tightened and reeled, and Gus stood and jerked the pole back, knocked the cap off his head and unsettled the heron and finally, pulled the fish up out of the water, hook buried deep in its yellow throat.
“Dammit,” the man said. “Gut hooked. Musta been hungry, huh fella?” he said, thinking he was talking to the fish. Until he felt the heron, its eyes fierce and dark, watching. “Now, hold on—”
He grasped it near the head, caressed down the silvery-blue dorsal fin. “Swallowed the whole damn thing. Hooked deep. Have to go in through the gill.” His thick fingers fumbled a second or two before the hook caught his thumb and the sight of blood set him off. The blood. The barbed hook. The delusion of rescue. And the more he fumbled, the more the fish wriggled to free itself, the deeper the hook went. “Just gotta pop it,” Gus said to himself, to the fish, to the heron, to the hot still air. “Just . . . gotta . . pop it . . . loose. Hold on, now hold on—”
“—Hold on, Mike, while I cut the barbed wire from his neck . . .”
Newt’s boy, Mike, he was only 13 when it happened. Could hardly talk at the sight of it, much less hold him up, but he tried. Tried to do what Gus told him, tried to help him save Tom, who was 15 and strong and as far as anyone was concerned, was fit to live forever as long as luck was on his side. He’d been driving the farm truck to his Papaw’s. The buck came rushing out of nowhere, caught its haunches on the front fender, sent the truck reeling and Tom through the windshield and into the fence. Barbed wire wrapped around his neck. Gus and Mike were first to find him there.
Gus stared at the blood leaking from the fish, flushing over his knuckles in waves—
Gotta get it out, Gus thought. Gotta get the barb out—
Get it out from around his neck— Might still be time to save him— Even though there wasn’t, and—watch out boy, don’t let him fall, lemme just cut this wire here, and you hold onto him, now Mike—don’t let him fall. But he doesn’t hold on and Tommy falls rubber-legged, face first into the muddy ditch and Gus hears himself yelling Goddammit boy I told you to hold him steady and not to let him fall. Git em up. Git em up now dammit, fore his daddy gets here. And he wiped the mud from Tom’s face, only the mud kept getting replaced by blood and the more he wiped, the bloodier it got and it occurred to Gus there’s no cleaning up a mess like this.
And the heron watched. Not yet. Not yet.
And the fish’s eyes, black, bulging pearls, screaming, pleading, reminded Gus of the black-eyed girl at the IGA counter—mascaraed eyes bulging, waiting on him and his deli sandwich and he stood there stupid, her shining black eyes waiting, and he forgot about the sandwich and about the work he had to do that day and all he could think about was blood and mud and barbed wire and he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye—special deal—Magic Bait—and he took it.
“Give me a pack a Marlboro Red and this here bait,” Gus said, digging for the $20 in his shirt pocket, and it shined in her big wet-black pearl eyes and he began to walk away and she waved his plastic-wrapped sandwich at him saying Sir, Sir, don’t you want your sandwich? Are you going to take your sandwich? and she wagged it at him back and forth and the sandwich started looking to him like it was kind of silvery in the fluorescent light and kind of wiggling like a fish—
—a fish, now in his hand on the beach, with its black bulging eyes and bloody mouth mouthing Take the sandwich, take your sandwich! Take it with you. Take it—
“I don’t want the goddamn sandwich!”
His voice stabbed at the still salt-air, and he remembered his fingers, calloused and bloody, holding firm the body no longer struggling, just waiting, perhaps even wondering whether it would ever again feel the ocean, taste it, breathe it. A fish can be a glorious optimist. And finally, hook and fish and finger now loose, red spatter on the sand, Gus stroked it like a baby’s head and cried and wondered where the fight had gone.
The heron raised its wing as if about to take flight, or maybe, after remembering it couldn’t, to make itself appear bigger than it was. It lowered its neck, tilted and lunged and hopped flapping its wing, a sorry lopsided sight in flight toward the old man still holding the fish who puffed out his chest and raised his head and stood stolid.
“You don’t want this fish,” the man said. “You don’t want it, and it ain’t yours. Ain’t mine either. But only one of us here gets to decide, and by God this time it’s gonna be me. I’ll decide.”
As quickly as the charge had begun it stopped. The heron, less than three feet away studied the man with the fish in his hand. The three of them, still now, breathed short and shallow breaths, none knowing what the others would do next. Gus was the first and only to move. Sure and slight. Sure and slight into the water. Crouched low to the water’s surface, smoother now, he slipped the fish through the sheen and held it there wishing, willing it to move again. Until at last a flutter so faint, a fragile lunge, the slow surrender of the shimmer into the yellow, the green, the black. And the heron watched and the fisherman watched, both and neither the same.
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