When you step into the grey boat it bows to the applauding waves and nods to those retreating and then it settles on its stage, poised to break into another round of curtain calls as the wind from the south hurls petals of spray. There are clouds flexing high and grinding so much sleet out of the air—it sparks against your face and tries to fill the boat like a great bowl of water, to be drunk by the ever-thirsty sea.
Your mother is wasting in her bed. Her skin is a poor, bedraggled blanket covering her body and her moans are the wind; they carry across the water as you bolt your feet to the centre of the deck, and even though the sleet is freezing your red flannel shirt to your back and the wind is tearing at its buttons, you find a certain stillness in all that storm.
For she thought she could manage to eat one fish. And there are five sleek flathead lined up on parade against the boat’s deck, their olive green skin covered with shining scales, spiked fins standing to attention.
‘Where are we?’ asks one flathead. ‘Our mother is calling us.’
They blink up at you in the burning air.
‘Boat,’ you tell them straight. ‘You’re on a boat.’
The flathead whimper and one of them begins to sing a mournful song about swimming across the underwater meadows, huddling in the sand’s corrugations and biting at fingernail crabs. The others join in. Listening to their chorus, you remember your own mother watching with care and concern as you played in the yard with your brother, the old swing surging. Pity flecks your thought; one by one, you pinch the jaws of four fish, their small teeth pressing into your skin, and flick them back into the sea.
The remaining fish looks at you with steady eyes.
You are feeling very hungry.
‘When you do it,’ he asks, ‘can you fillet my flesh?’
You slice your knife behind his fin, cutting away at the meat clinging to his backbone, and you swallow those fillets and bury what remains of his body in the waves.
When you ease back onto the jetty, everything is still.
You walk along the boards and step down into a second boat. It is a wooden clinker dinghy, tied up on the other side. There are no fish there.
You return to the first boat, but it has disappeared.
You walk back to the second boat and climb in.
The wind is easing and easting and the sleet has softened into light moths of fluttering snow. Now, there are four flathead waiting on the deck, shifting their stiff tails and bodies into crescents and arcs.
One of them looks up at you. ‘We’re on a boat, aren’t we?’ she says. ‘I’m sure we’re on a boat.’
‘Well,’ you say. ‘It certainly looks like you’re on a boat.’
‘We’re on a boat,’ she says again, and the four flathead begin to cry, small salty tears seeping from their eyes and pooling on their splayed faces, and she explains that they can hear their mother calling from over the hills of swell, a desperate cry that carries like the song of whales; they want to leap into the water, back into the comfort of her broad body, and you think of sleeping by your own mother on the torn brown couch, worn out by grief. You feel troubled by these fish; but also, still, a little hungry.
As you tip three of them back into the ocean, you are sure there is something you are forgetting.
The remaining fish stares at you with deep holes in her eyes.
‘Gut me,’ she says. ‘Rip out my guts and toss them to the gulls and pick around my bones for any flesh you want.’
You slit open her skin and tear out her stomach and her heart, and the juices and blood slick over your fingers as you throw her innards over your shoulder; then you nibble at her flesh and feel its soft wetness slide down your throat.
You get out of the clinker dinghy and walk back along the silent jetty.
The first boat is back. There is a small anchor sitting in the bow.
A seagull stands on a rotting post nearby. You watch him for a moment, then turn back to the boat.
The anchor is gone and a chain leads down into the water. You walk slowly down the jetty to the second boat. It is filled with a thousand fish in a flapping heap. Whiting, shark, gurnard, couta and trevalley—the gunwales are nearly taking on water.
You turn back to see that the first boat has disappeared, but there is another boat sitting just behind where it had been berthed, a yellow fibreglass runabout with glistening lines. The song of the flathead echoes in your ears and you spin around as though footsteps are knocking on the jetty’s planks. The song drifts out to sea and you notice that the clinker dinghy is empty now; it still smells strongly of fish.
You stride up the jetty and climb aboard the third boat. The wind has petered out its breath and the temperature is stretching into mild warmth. You pretend not to notice three flathead lying on the deck. One of them tries to catch your attention. ‘Hello,’ he says, waving a fin. ‘Hey, hello?’
‘Oh,’ you say. ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you there.’
‘What the hell are we doing in this boat?’ he asks.
‘Boat?’ you say. ‘I’m not sure this is a boat, I think it is … oh no, you’re right, it does seem that we’re on some sort of boat.’
‘Jeez, we shouldn’t be on a boat,’ says the flathead, coughing and groaning. ‘Our mother says that boats are just shit.’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ you reply. ‘My brother used to love boats. I guess it does seem to be a boat.’
But the fish beats through your uncertainty; he explains that they are sick, that there are lice burrowing into their skin and bleeding in their gums, and they can hear their mother calling from a small cave where they know they will be cared for and nursed back to health, and you remember stories of your own mother holding you in the night as you coughed and spluttered with drowning lungs, desperate not to lose another son; and how your home was dark, even as the windows were clear, bright eyes that waited for you to recover; the whole house covered in sheets and shivering, the whole house waiting for the fever to drop, hands in its lap, marking time in its tired old seat for the hours to pass into days, every day a notch of life to scratch out in their minds; the whole house tense and stressed, for there was nothing, absolutely nothing it could do; loved ones walking from room to room and all the rooms so dark.
For some reason you no longer feel hungry. You nudge two of the fish back into the water with your boot.
The remaining flathead looks at you. ‘When you eat me, eat me whole.’
You hear the faint cry of your mother sobbing across the flattened sea, and then you swallow that fish in one great slurp with all its scales and slime. It scratches and slides and spikes down your throat, and then the fish is swimming in your gut and your stomach churns like a dead pool draining. You jump in a hurry from the yellow runabout like you are seasick, even in the flattening swell.
Where are the first two boats? There is a large ferry blocking the view. Busy fish are embarking in thousands of fluttering queues. You stroll up to the entryway and there is a bullshark with his broad chest and whippy tail.
You do not have a ticket.
You try to shuffle aboard with your legs bound together, arms angled from your sides like spindly fins, but the bullshark blocks your way. The lean light glints on his silver fins and his snout looks stern. His eyes are wide and teeth peer from his gums.
You back away, pat your pockets, look around for a ticket booth.
It is hard to tell on the jetty whether it is day or night.
‘Too late,’ says the shark. ‘Fuck off.’ And he grins at you maliciously. ‘Don’t forget your mother,’ he says. ‘Aren’t you forgetting your mother?’
He laughs as he closes up a netted gate at the end of the gangway. As the ferry begins to float away from the jetty, you run towards it, but all too quickly it is five, ten metres away. Skidding on old scales, you nearly slip off the edge into deep water; breathing great gusts, you bend at the raised edge of the jetty and form a fist, rasping your knuckles into the wood as the ferry slips away and the bullshark snorts across the waves.
When you turn back to the jetty all three of the boats have returned; they have been joined by a fourth. As you walk back with watchful steps the other dinghies blur and fade and it is just the fourth boat waiting there, a small purdon with peeling white paint, barely ten feet long with a tiny outboard motor perched on the stern like a mosquito.
You get into the fourth dinghy.
There are two flathead sitting on the deck. One is wearing a shirt and jeans, the other a light dress. They seem to have been whispering among themselves, but they trickle into silence when you get in beside them.
‘Hi,’ you say.
The fish look at each other.
‘What’s going on?’ you ask.
‘Nothing,’ say the flathead.
‘Sorry,’ you say. ‘I didn’t mean to interrupt. This looked like a nice bar. My throat feels kind of dry, so I figured I’d stop for a drink.’
‘This isn’t a bar,’ says one of the flathead. ‘This is a boat.’
‘What do you mean, a boat?’ you reply. ‘This is a bar.’
A phone rings. I have to take this, mouths one of the flathead. He answers the phone. ‘Mum?’ he says. ‘Yes, Mum, I know it’s late. It’s okay, my sister’s here, we’ll be fine. We’ll be careful.’
‘Hey, I’m talking to you,’ you say.
‘Huh … that’s nobody, Mum,’ says the fish.
‘Nobody?’ you say. ‘Listen, cunt, hang up.’
The fish start to look nervous.
‘Right now,’ you insist.
‘Mum,’ says the flathead, ‘I gotta go.’ He hangs up and looks up at you. ‘Come on man, do we have to do this?’
And even though your stomach is full, even though you are no longer hungry, you crack your knuckles and stretch out your shoulders.
‘It’s all for my mother,’ you say.
‘Don’t you mean your brother?’ asks the flathead.
You are suddenly confused.
This makes you even angrier.
The flathead looks resigned.
‘Make it quick,’ he says, ‘and please don’t hurt my sister.’
The weather is warm and the sun is shining bright.
You shove the flathead’s sister out of the way, fingernails scratching at her scales as she scampers into the water, and you grab the flathead and bash his head against the side of the boat and then you leave him on the deck for flies to strike hard.
As you get out of the dinghy you are breathing heavily and the sickness in your gut is becoming overwhelming.
There are dinghies of every colour down both sides of the jetty.
They are all empty.
You close your eyes, open them.
They are still there, but now they are filled with life jackets.
You pace slowly down the jetty, looking from side to side as though you are searching for the right address on a scrubby street. You feel a shadow behind you, a deep shadow, as though a large grey naval ship with a skate standing at a gun has eased into harbour and is lining up its sights. Anxious and panicked, you start running for the shoreline. You hear a clicking, a scratching. You’re not going to make it.
You jump into one of the dinghies at random.
It looks like your brother’s dinghy.
The life jackets are gone.
This is not a safe boat.
You’ve got to get out of there.
Trembling, you leap back onto the jetty.
Now, it is the only boat. The warship has motored off or sunk; but with its shadow lost, the sun is blinding hot and the jetty is searing your feet. You are choking on the dry air and blades of sunlight are slashing into your flesh. You can’t bring yourself to risk hiding in your brother’s dinghy, so you leap into the open water.
For a moment you hang in the air, listening to your mother gasping across the waves, and you remember—and then the deep drags you down and there is another longing cry beneath the surface, reverberating in your skin and down your throat, calling to your bones and your muscles, your heart and guts.
Beside you lies one last flathead with his ears cocked.
He waits as you cower in the sand at the bottom of the sea. •
Ben Walter’s debut novel manuscript was a winner in the 2017 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes. His latest book is Conglomerate, published as part of the Lost Rocks series.
This piece was the runner-up of the 2018 Peter Carey Short Story Award.