Literary Orphans

Ahuizotle Learns to Fish
by Megan Beals

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My sister is teaching me to fish.  I know she is teaching me, because she hasn’t chased me off of her island of bricks and concrete with thrown rocks and screamed insults in a language lost to all the living but her.  She has not threatened violence, and I am sitting so close that I could touch her if I dared.  We are friends, I think, but if I touch her she may still try to drown me.  She has yet to look at my face for all the time I’ve stayed by her side, and I’ve been studying hers.  It’s amazing, her eyes are so steady.  She watches the ocean as it laps against the sheltered little concrete beach in the interior of her island.   My sister can watch the ocean for so long without blinking that I start to count my own blinks and become ashamed that I cannot stop thinking so many stupid thoughts while she sits with a single beautiful thought so sharp and pointed that it fills the island with purpose:

I will catch a fish.

I have caught fish before.  My way is simple.  I drop a line down into the water from the bridges in the city and they nibble at the guts until they eat the hook.  An overzealous bite hooks them and I drag them out of the water flopping and scared and they flip through the air until they reach the bridge, then I kill them with one swift club to the head.  I’m good at it, too.  Good at most things, really.  Naturally gifted, my father would say.  My half-twin would say natural advantage with a fake-sly glance at my third hand.  He was lucky like me, though.  Neither of us was changed too far.  None of my family were changed to breathe only seawater, or melt against the heat of the day.  My sister, though, this secret person hidden away on her own little island is a whole and perfect human.  The only one whole with real skin and all her parts after the world ended.  But she is changed in different ways.  Savage, and wilder than the dark toothy fish that stalk our little boats when we drift too far to sea.

I see a little glint in the dark water, a flash of silver, and my tail twitches, the third-hand at the end poised over the water faster than I can think to strike.  The silver vanishes, and my sister leaps at me, barking.  Her clawed hands purchase under my collar bones and she throws me backward onto the hard packed dirt and concrete beach.  Her face is so close to mine, those perfect square little teeth bared at me while she growls a low and evil warning.  Do not act without my consent.  All of my hands tremor and I nod.

“Bait!” she barks at me, shoves my shoulders into the ground, then gets up to retake her position over the water.  I don’t know if it was a word or a broken animal sound.  I have never heard her speak any but her own tongues.

I slowly pick myself up from the ground and run a hand over the back of my head.  No blood, but already a soft spot is rising.  I shift my long hair to keep it from pulling at the welt.  It is a sharp and sticky pain, but I keep my breath steady behind clenched teeth.  Noise upsets my sister.

I am strong.  I have a longer reach, and a third hand that she cannot fight.  But she is wild and vicious and her ferocity will tear through ten of me.  I crawl toward the water, and sit back down to wait.

She is watching me now.  Her eyes dart over me, picking out all my imperfections, my muscles too thin, my limpid long hair always in my eyes.  She sees all my weakness, my wretched twisted hands.  I close them, wrap my tail in close to my legs and lean forward to look down into the water.  She rolls onto her heels and crabwalks to me.  She cups her hand, dips it into the pool, then pours the seawater over my shoulders where her nails drew blood.  I draw breath at the sting of the salt, and close my eyes to wait for her to hit me again for the noise, but she places her hand against my chest to quiet my heart, and presses her nose to my head.  As I open my eyes she leaps away from me and dives into the dark pool under her island, the motion so fluid that she might have always been the ocean’s extension.  Then the water breaks again and she flings herself onto the little concrete beach, wrestling with a fish the size of her arm.  I grab a small length of pipe from the littered corners of her island’s interior and loom over her to bash in the fish’s head, but she kicks at my legs and thrusts her chin over to the dainty little net that I thought was just for show.

“Bait!” she barks again, and holds the writhing fish out to me with both hands.  I grab the net and drop it over both her hands and the fish, and she pulls at one of the ropes to cinch the net around her catch.  She throws it onto the ground where it flops and gasps and I roll it back into the water, one long fat tail-finger still hooked around the net.  My sister ties a sheath around her waist, and reaches down to take the fish from me.  Her beautiful little fingers brush against my warped and gnarled hands, and I draw away so quickly that I nearly lose her fish.  She glares at me and snatches my hand, the one nearest her, the one on the end of my left arm, and squeezes the three fingers tight, then jumps into the water.  I fall in after her, and splash about spitting at the taste of the salt.

“Sh!”  Her teeth glint at me in the low light.  I sink down into the surf, and choke out the last of the water in my lungs.  We bob together there, while the fish darts this way and that, running into my leg, then hers, then brushing my hands.

“I’m not a good swimmer,” I say.  My voice is harsh from the salt and the silence.  Her face softens, a look of pity.  I’ve never seen her without a scowl.  She reaches out for my hand and takes a deep breath, then lets it out.  I attempt it, and she gives a quick jerk of her head.  Yes.  She breathes in again, and I almost match her before she drags me under the water.  We stay there for a while, looking at each other through the water, her body more a haze of remembered shape than anything truly seen, then we surface.  She mimes to breathe, I follow suite, and we dip under the water.  She turns and follows the fish in her hand, dragging me after.

 

My tail whips up, it grasps toward the surface, then my fingers collapse together just as she releases my arm.   I vainly paw after her, desperate to keep her in sight.  She swims like a fish.  I swim like a brick.  The water slips through my fat fingers, glides around my too-small-palms, and I flounder as the water rejects me.  I surface a little ways off from my sister’s island, gulp at the air, then bob down again to find her.  I get further down this time.  The water looks red as it gets deeper.  A smudge of red, just below me.  I let out some of my air and sink.  There is blood in the water.  The silhouette of my sister moves across it.  A much larger figure crosses, sleek and evil, attached to her arm.  It is a fish, a big one.  One of the deep dwellers that surround our travelers and wreck our boats when we stray from the safety of our sky-scraper islands.  She wrenches her arm in close to herself, hugging the beast, thrashing with it.  I see the glint of her knife as she sheathes it in the fish’s belly again and again.

This is my sister fishing.

I arc myself downward, point my legs and tail up toward the sky, and thrust myself toward her.  I cup my ill-wrought hands and use all the strength in my skinny arms to reach her.  My ears start to hurt with the pressure, and she sees me, swims upward, grips my arm and grins at me.  Bubbles stream out from her teeth.  She finds my hand and holds it tight, her other hand is hooked in the gaping mouth of her catch.  My lungs hurt, my mind starts to cloud, and my sister kicks hard at the water and brings us all to the surface.

I cough out the bad air, and take in the new, along with a mouthful of seawater.  My sister is still holding my hand, she presses the bleeding fish toward my chest.  The fish makes a feeble flip of the tail, its eyes loll, and the last of its living drains out while we grin over the grandeur of her catch.  The fish is enormous, as long as I am, tip to tail, and thrice as wide.  And she has dropped it.  She swims back to her island as the fish tumbles and bobs and starts to sink and I catch its mouth with my tail-hand while my arms thrash to keep myself afloat.

My muscles flex and pull against the water as I clumsily copy my sister’s easy glide.  She has outpaced me, and left me to pull every inch toward the shore of her island out of the dead heavy fish.  It is so much food, and my sister doesn’t share her catches, and I hate her for leaving me.  She knows I don’t swim well, and I know she understands my words.  I kick and thrash against the fish and claw my lengthy fingers at the water.  She should be kind to me.  Sisters should be kind.

 

She has started a fire by the time I clamber onto the beach.  I stare at her, crouching, while the fish dangles in the water off the end of the fingers on my tail.  I am so tired from the swim.  I could so easily let it go.  She looks up from her fire and sees my face.  I do not make myself pleasant.  I do nothing to appease her temper.  Her eyes flit down to my hands.  My fingers clench, then go slack.  She leaps over the fire and hooks her arm into the mouth of her fish, knocking me away as she hoists the massive thing onto the shore.  With it safely beached, she grasps my arm and lifts me back to standing.  But she doesn’t drop my hand.  She holds it, tightly but gently, and stares at my face until I meet her eyes.  There is a need there, and something like love.

“Please,” she grunts and points my arm at the fish.  I bend over, and together we drag the bleeding thing over to her fire.  I let the flames dry the blood and salt into my clothes, into my skin, while she carves the fish into strips of meat.  I stay there, letting my legs cramp under me, watching her as she hangs the fish around me, until the carcass is just bone and guts.  She folds a piece into itself, ties it with woven grass, and places it next to my feet, then backs away to sit on the opposite end of the fire.

“Thank you,” says my sister.  “Bye.”

I pick up the piece of fish at my feet and place it at the bow of my canoe.  I wave to her as I shove off, but she doesn’t look up from her fire.  Her ways are dangerous.  It is better to use a hook and a line.

 

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Megan Lee Beals lives in Tacoma, Washington where it rains often, yet the city remains accessible even to those without a boat. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in the DadaoismStamps Vamps and Tramps, and Future Embodied anthologies. When not writing or drawing or collecting more hobbies, she works in a bookstore where she receives an ongoing and unconventional education in nearly everything fit to print, with a special studies in literature. You can find her online at beehills.wordpress.com.

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–Art by Peter Lamata