Saturday short story: The Fisher, by Melanie Harding-Shaw
"Poseidon was far from home and searching for his lost trident": speculative fiction by Wellington writer Melanie Harding-Shaw.
It was Wednesday and a man was standing on a small rock jutting out of the ocean a few metres from the beach in Oriental Bay. He had a fishing rod in his hands and an old paint bucket by his side for when his luck found him. He was wearing a tatty blue and purple jacket that looked like it wouldn’t keep the water out at all.
Neil disguised himself in his wife’s old jacket and came down to the beach to fish one day every second month. His wife thought he was at work and his workmates thought he was at home. The stresses of both were lost in the noise of the waves crashing and the anticipation of success. At the end of the day, he would take his catch to a local homeless shelter, change back into his suit and go home for dinner.
His wife was grateful that he came home early every once in a while. They were more like flatmates than husband and wife these days. She would try not to start up old arguments that day, although her mind couldn’t help but save them up for the next. Maybe this was the Wednesday she would bring up having children again. Surely a child would close the gap that had grown between them.
In two months’ time, his wife would go for a walk along the beach and see him standing on a rock fishing. She would feel betrayed, but at least they would have something new to talk about.
Jack lost his job three months ago, right around the time his fourth child was born. He’d suffered a brain injury at work and never gone back. His jacket came from the free bin outside a thrift store and his hands ached from the cold. He walked an hour to the beach to fish every day. His wife was breastfeeding and needed the protein. He’d heard fish oil could help with depression. Sometimes he thought if he ate fish one more time he would scream.
Each night as he walked up to his front door, he wondered if his family would still be there to greet him. His wife was exhausted and kept asking him to stay home and help. She glanced sideways at Jack as they sat on the couch watching tv, but only when she thought he wouldn’t notice. She wondered if he would ever be the man he used to be.
That Wednesday, she took the kids down to the beach to see him. They dug for pipis in the sand and pestered their dad to sing. She rolled her sweatpants up and waded to his rock in the ocean to take his hand.
“Come on. Let’s go home,” she said.
Steve’s Grandmother taught him about kai moana, the foods from the sea, when he was a little boy. Her tangi was two weeks ago. He had not been home for years and he cried almost as much for the memories he had lost as for her death.
He’d called in sick from his city job to stand on that rock and fish. It was a different ocean to the one at home, but if he closed his eyes the sounds of the waves and gulls calling started to restore his memories. He hadn’t worn the jacket in ten years. Even all these years later it still smelled of teenage angst. Its scent mixed with the smells of bait and seaweed to make him feel slightly ill. That brought memories back too.
His boyfriend was reading a book further up the beach, wrapped in the red picnic blanket they always carried in the boot of their car. When Steve grew tired of standing on the rock, he waded back to shore and sat with him. He told him about the fragments of his childhood on a wild coastline that had returned to him, and his boyfriend added his own. They had never realised they had this in common.
Two years later, Steve would propose at that same spot and six months after that they would exchange vows and rings with the sea breeze blowing around them. The rock sticking out of the ocean was just big enough for two men to stand with arms wrapped around each other, smiling into the wide-angle lens that would capture all 180 degrees of memory-restoring ocean.
Poseidon was far from home and searching for his lost trident. He was hoping if he stood out of the water in disguise that Tangaroa would not notice his encroachment in this ocean. Who would think a God would wear such a tatty jacket?
He had followed the trail of earthquakes up New Zealand from Christchurch, through to Hurunui and Kaikōura. Now he stood on a rock in Wellington harbour hoping he could get the trident back before the next earthquake struck. He wasn’t against earthquakes generally, unless someone made them happen with his stolen property. He didn’t know who had stolen the trident. It could be Tangaroa for all he knew, but he hoped it wasn’t. That would be awkward.
As he stood there fishing, the rod bent and he started reeling in the line. His muscles strained and his eyes narrowed as he realised whoever was holding the trident might be as strong as he was. He’d been reeling for 10 minutes when he felt a tremor travel through the rock underneath him. He looked across the harbour just as the pier in the main business district crumbled into the ocean.
“Fuck,” he said, and started reeling faster. The water around him receded out into Cook Strait, leaving him stranded on a rock surrounded by sand. He could feel the ocean preparing to lever itself up to flood the city quays lined with high-rise buildings. A tsunami-warning siren wailed in the distance.
He sighed in frustration. He may as well make the most of it though. He fashioned himself a surfboard from the sands around him, melding it into golden glass. Then he rode the 20-foot waves into the city as if it had been his idea all along.
Kate lies on a smooth hard surface. The man, the fishing rod and the bucket aren’t even real. They are just a virtual construct created for a woman who yearns for the days when the oceans were full of life; days she hadn’t been alive to see.
Does the jacket have special meaning to her? Perhaps it came from researching her family history. Or perhaps it was just made up by the author of the construct to give authenticity to an environment he had never experienced. Just another line of code.
The ocean and the sky start to flicker and then disappear. Kate sits up in a room with plain white walls, ceiling, and floor and pulls her headset off.
“I wasn’t finished, I didn’t even see a fish,” she yells to the empty room. “And why the hell did you make me a man?”
Only static comes from the room’s hidden speakers. The door opens to tell her it is time to leave.
“Bloody budget VR companies,” she mutters as she returns to her apartment.
It won’t stop her coming back month after month though, spending her savings to search a virtual construct for anything that might make her life more real.
Jeremy lies in a hospital somewhere. The scene at the beach is part of a years-long timeline that plays through his head in the hours between when he loses consciousness and when he regains it.
He stands on the rock with his son, teaching him how to fish. It was a spur of the moment trip. He’d grabbed the jacket from a bag of old clothes they had cleared from his mother’s house after she died. He should have taken it to the dump months ago, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. They only stay ten minutes before the cold gets to be too much and he piggy-backs his son to the shore.
In a few hours, he will wake in the hospital to find he has never had any children. He will stifle his great heaving sobs in his pillow until his chest aches and he is dizzy from lack of air. One of the nurses will find him sobbing and hold him tight to her, even though she knows she shouldn’t.
Their first child will be a boy. Jeremy’s mother will come to stay for three weeks when he’s born. She will snuggle the baby close under her jacket to protect him from the wind when they take him for his first trip to the beach.
It was Wednesday and a man was standing on a small rock jutting out of the ocean wearing a tatty blue and purple jacket that looked like it wouldn’t keep the water out at all.
Next week's short story is by Daniel Smith, a New Zealand writer living and studying in California.