In 1936 Ernest Hemingway went in search of a blue marlin. This is a letter to that fish.
Dear Mr Hemingway’s fish,
May I call you Marlin? Marlene, my apologies. What a lovely name and how well it suits you. I know it’s an unusual request but this is my invitation. Could we please change places? I know that being a creature of the sea you understand the nature of shape shifting and I have some experience of it myself, so I promise it will be painless.
You will be able to feel what it is to be dry and warm. Smell the bright crispness of oxygen unfiltered by salt. Get out of the depths. Take a walk. Eat steak.
And for me, you ask? What do I see in this transaction? Why, the sea of course. And the experience of being hunted. This is no ordinary hunt that I am seeking. This is the hunt of kindred souls. He with his beautiful words and his lover’s heart keeps his finest romantic skills for you. See what a siren you are.
In a photograph I have seen he is three years old on the jetty with a bamboo rod that dwarfs his size and he is beginning, even then, to form the idea of you. Then he is seventeen. All men are beautiful at seventeen. And how at home with the sea he looks even then. You must have seen a few like him gazing into your briny world. But none more earnest.
How is it to know yourself pursued by a man who has made of pursuit a vocation? He who knows he must lure you to the hook, he must haul you from the sea, or die forever yearning. Perhaps he will do that yet. For there have been many before you—striped and black and silver, smaller—but none larger. You are the mythical fish. The bluemarlin. You will be his great fish.
Do you know that he will stand upon the wharf while you are hoisted up beside him for the photograph? One of his children will run down to meet him coming in and stand beside him too, and he will show off your lustrous fishy skin, your large mournful eye that only so very recently was alive with movement and intensity. And he will be proud, victorious, and a little sad. For this is death. His own he glimpsed in Spain and again in Italy and it is never far behind him, and yours is behind you now. A little death. A big death. After death there is no glory for fish save that photograph of you and him—and in that you will be as immortal as a fish ever was.
Here is how it will be. He will wake at dawn and open the shutters. The sky is ploughed with pink. He surveys the rippling sheen of sea and knows from the pattern of water that the trade wind is coming early today.
He finds the clothes he has hung on the hook the night before and the moccasins he has left on the windowsill to dry, and he puts them on. He decides against the big breakfast that would see him through a long chase, and has a glass of vichy, a glass of cold milk and a piece of bread.
When he comes down to the pier, he is no old man of the sea, weathered and aged by salt and poverty and loneliness. He is a day short of thirty-six, vigorous and full of the stories told last night over martinis and a bottle of vermouth. He did not write yesterday, and he barely dreamed, but just before waking he saw you. He is between wives and so his call is stronger. He magnetises. He is a siren too.
He steps aboard and they push off. It is the regular crew. The men remark in low tones and with sleepy humour the breeze, the current and the passage of silver marlin that has slowed these past days, a sign the big fish are coming. They are coming from the east against the gulf stream. They are rising to the surface with the north-easterly trades. Their bodies are lavender striped, or in your case the blue of the Caribbean dusk, your fins the wings of the sea catching the air.
On the boat the icebox is half full of bait and half full of fruit and beer. As they leave the bay, the swell moves under them and they are quickly into deeper waters. His face is keen against the sky now and the sun also rises.
His legs brace against the lift and fall of the boat. They are strong legs, scarred with shrapnel. I have seen a photograph of him naked, and his body tells you he is a man honed by the pursuit of life on land and sea. To be outdoors is his natural instinct.
He is not yet the man who will win the Nobel Prize or fall from the sky in a light airplane. Not yet does he have the shakes and morbid humour of the true alcoholic. For now he is a man who separates writing and drinking, and writing and women, and all things he separates from fishing. And the fish he seeks is you. He is the master hunter. He has made of the hunt not simply a craft but an art. He sees you in his vast mind’s eye and we see him.
Now he comes across the deep waters of the gulf where I have never swum, until I traded places with you. This is water warm and effervescent with tiny fish and coral particles, with swimming schools that weave and dart, a hundred fish as one, dancing the currents, swimming the light. This is the world of big and small, hunter and hunted, and few hunt me. For I am not an easy woman. As you know, we are all women by my age. We all, if we live long enough, become female, we marlin. With wisdom comes womanhood.
I have evaded a hundred hooks and a thousand dreams. I have moved through water as a thing liquid and solid and neither. I have delighted in silence and particles and the chase of food. I have lived in water and never known that it is water. I have heard stories, for fish tell of such things, of reaching the light and never returning. Yet we seek the light. We seek the speed of running long down the rocklines against warm currents and back into cooler ones.
I have run the length of continents and the breadth of oceans, and he thinks to catch me though I am older than him by countless moon cycles. And today he feels he can. His blue marlin. Myth. Truth. He stares, his profile fixed, his mouth relaxed, his eyes are gentle and intent.
The lines trail the boat baited with mackerel and kingfish. The men on the boat share jokes, the same jokes, the same recollections, the fish that got away or was caught, but he says nothing. He folds his fingers together. After a while he turns from the breeze and rolls a cigarette and lights it. Someone offers him coffee from a thermos.
I trail the boat too, watching carefully the silvered bait, the man on the back deck in the white shirt, sitting and observing with such a gaze. And I know I want him. I want those dark eyes to look at me as they have looked at no-one before. I want them to see me as if I am finally seen. And so I take the hook he offers me.
I bite down on it with all my strength and instantly the line bucks and pulls. But it cannot be that easy. I see him stand. I rise up and take one long certain look at him—and dive. Of course now it is just purely him and me. He has the rod in his hands and he is fighting the line with all his power. This is the big game. He must out-distance me. He must run beside me and still have love to burn at the end of it. And so our courtship really begins. He thought he was wooing me with words and dreams, but now he must mesmerise the bull in me, hypnotise the snake, serenade the bird, lure the woman, land the fish.
Time becomes a ballad of undulation and return. We both tire and rise again to fight and lament and struggle again. There is an ocean between us and we are one end of the same line. I can feel the grip of his hands on the rod, his feet planted on the deck, the cigarette smoke upon his shirt. I rise and our eyes meet and the pain of submission ripples through us. We know that either one of us is lost, and either one of us might at any moment be found wanting. But we are a match, and our dance continues.
Perhaps it is a marriage, an affair, or a lifetime. I cannot tell. But he wants me in these hours of intimacy more purely than he has wanted anything, as we ride the line between life and death together. Then the sun is slipping and so am I. I want him to be stronger after all.
Now he is reeling me in. I gain the boat. I gain the air. I hang, for a minute, a thing of weight and immensity above these mortal men. I am on the wooden boards and my lungs are aching. He looks down at me with the lust and rage of victory, and then he sees it is no victory. It is surrender.
He falls beside me, also spent, and we quiver gently as the breath goes out of me and into him and he is filled with the memories of a lifetime in the ocean. The brightness evaporates from the horizon and the boat turns to land. My eyes are now his eyes, and we stare towards that notion of home. In this last fragment of life, we know nothing of time—for human or fish, we are merely water and air and light.
Originally written for the Women of Letters Event at the Tasmanian Writer’s Festival 2015.