David Watson looked around his rural surroundings for human eyes. Even though he was in the middle of the thawed Sea of Mortla, he couldn’t be too careful. Not that he thought what he was doing as wrong, but he knew he could get in trouble for it.
With the kayak paddles tucked in the bungee chord behind him, David had a small tackle box open on the sprayskirt that covered his lap. Bobbers and lures were organized by color, and he picked up the top shelf of the container to reveal a small glass jar. Inside the jar was a reddish powder, looking in appearance to paprika or cayenne pepper.
The worm daggered on David’s hook thrashed around in the powder, attempting to bury itself in the spice-colored dirt but unable to hide underground. All the worm found was hard glass at the bottom, unable to escape.
Once the worm was sufficiently coated with the illegal powder, David closed the tackle box and tucked it into the dry box by his knees. Two common fish the size of his hand were tied loosely to the chord by the dry box, and they gleaned wet against the warm sun overhead. He secured the fishing pole at the front end of the kayak and dropped the dusty wiggling invertebrate into the cold, clear saltwater. And waited.
Paddle in gloved hands, David brushed the black teardrop-shaped blade against the surface of the sea. Just a little so his vessel glided. His eyes shifted from the dragging fishing line to the area around him to his paddle blades. They reminded him of whale fins and imagined how much bigger the fins of marine mammals would be.
As David began to wonder if he was foolish to buy the crushed plant, and thought maybe it was just saffron and red pepper flakes, the fishing line became taut, drawing a straight line to the water’s surface. David felt himself choke on the brisk air in his lungs, and he set his paddle on his lap. He reached for the pole, but before his fingers grazed the stick, there was a strong tug on the line from the side of the boat.
David had either shifted his weight with excitement, or the catch was simply strong enough, but the kayak tilted, tilted, flipped, splash!
Fighting the urge to release the oxygen from his throat, David saw through the freezing water. His earlier two catches hadn’t been tied tightly, and now slipped off the chord on the kayak and drifted gradually down from the light blue to the darker mesopelagic. The gradient of brightness unnerved David as his eyes stung, looking down at the unknown black, wondering what hid beyond the light. He felt much like the worm in the powder.
Regaining sense, David positioned his arms and torso to the side of the kayak, close to the surface. He grabbed his paddle and set it perpendicular to his kayak. Bracing his body, he pushed down against the water, forcing his hips into the seat of his kayak. As the vessel snapped up and the water poured from his face, he sucked in the fresh air. Upright, he immediately felt the sun warming his cold skin.
His tackle box was still secure with his drybag, and surprisingly, the fishing pole was still held in place in the notch at the front. If only the fish had been tied better, David thought as he reached for the pole. The line was still in the water.
Hands placed on the hard, plastic string, David pulled the line toward him. He felt resistance, and couldn’t help smiling. Reeling the line back in as slow as his eagerness allowed, he looked around to see if he was still alone. Of course, he was.
The surface of the water was broken by a variety of colors in the shape of a fish. It was the size of the tire of a small car, with an oblong round shape. The scales were green, red, and yellow, all vibrant and glistening against the sunlight. A beacon or disco ball to show the world what David had done.
Grabbing a bag from his dry box, David wrapped the fish up so none of the colors showed. Unfastening the front of his sprayskirt, he tucked the ba in between his legs. He could feel the blood pumping in his arms, his breath exhaling in shallow spurts. Fixing his sprayskirt and grabbing his paddle, he barely felt the chill on his shirt as he set his eyes on the horizon. The town of Itcha Navark could barely be made out above the end of the sea. David wasn’t worried as the sun was already drying his clothes and hair.
He barely noticed the long haul back to shore. All he could think about was the rare jewel at the bottom of the kayak. His legs could feel the rustle of the bag, and he felt giddy. Was the meat exactly how fishers described it? Or would it taste just like tuna or salmon? A sickening ache dropped in David’s stomach as he thought about the possibility of disappointment. All this struggle, the money he spent on the powder, just to catch a fish that only appeared special. The thought disappeared from his mind as he reminded himself that the main thing he cared about, the one thing that kept him going, was the chase.
Attract the fish. Nibble. Lick. Bite. Catch… and onto the next big prey on his list.
Back at the shoreline, David shoved the bag further inside toward the front of the boat. Once he packed all the equipment in his truck, he placed the bag under a pile of tarp in the truck bed. Empty, the dripping kayak was set in the bed, as well.
The car heater blasted against David’s cold hands on the steering wheel. The cracked paved roads were empty as he made his way back home. His little house sat in the second lane over from Main street, and he hoped his neighbors wouldn’t ask how his trip was.
From the looks of it as David pulled up in front of his house, one neighbor wasn’t home and the other had one car in front. The car was red, which meant the woman currently home was too busy drinking to come out and ask questions.
Through the rusty wire fence, David carried his equipment to the tiny shed behind his house. The shed resembled a much smaller version of his house, both made of grey wood that could use new roofing and paint. Hanging the kayak up, David could smell the faint sweet odor coming from the bag. He hurried to unpack and lock the shed and went into his house, carrying his prize.
The fish rested in the yellow fridge as David changed into dry clothes. With sleeves rolled up, he set the fish up on a cutting board near his kitchen sink. He held his carving knife with a shaky hand and set the blade behind the head of the fish. He could feel the skull end in line with the pectoral fin, and he sliced down. The head came off with a tug, the scales sparkling from the dim light above the sink. The window in front of David was covered with a short cream-colored curtain, patterned with repetitive red barns and buckskin horses.
David inserted the blade an inch into the dorsal side of the fish, and cut along the back toward the tail. The dorsal fin fell away from the flesh, flopping onto the cutting board. Just past the dorsal fin, David pushed the knife through the body and applied pressure as he sliced the rest of the fish all the way to the end of the tail. After the finishing cuts on both sides, the fillets were separated and set to the side to rinse before cooking.
Examining the meatless body of the fish, David noticed a strange protrusion in the stomach area. At first, he assumed it was an organ encased in the thin lining separating meat from guts. When he poked the protrusion, it felt rock hard, not flexible like the rest of the anatomy.
He placed his knife against the protrusion, feeling the blade scrape against metal. Carving open the fish’s stomach, he pulled the slimy object out and looked at it under the light. The round golden mechanism was a compass. Worn from salt water, and the screen cracked. The needle no longer moved.
Turning the compass over, David could see words inscribed in the metal: A. LOCKLEAR. It was a name, though not familiar with David. Not many names were familiar with David, though, as he tried his best to keep away from townsfolk.
Setting the compass to the side, David finished cleaning up the fish carcass and making sure to dispose of it discretely. He washed and prepared the fillets, and set one in the fridge and cooked the other up for dinner. As the steam rose from the pan, he reached over to the phonebook on the table by the phone and looked in the ‘L’ section.
“Locklear, Locklear, Locklear…” He read out loud, running a large index finger over each name, “Adam Locklear.”
Partially listening to the crackle of butter covering the fillet, David picked up the phone and dialed the number next to the name. It rang twice before received.
“Oh, ‘ello?” Said a gruff voice on the other end.
“Hello, is this Adam Locklear?” David glanced at the stove.
“What you want?” The man said with a tone not grumpy but cautious.
“My name is David Watson, and I found a compass on the sea. I believe it may be yours.”
There was a long silence, but David knew the man hadn’t hung up as he could hear other voices in the background on the receiving end.
“Found it on the sea, you say?” Said the man.
“Yes, are you Adam?” David asked, smelling the sweet-tart aroma filling the tiny kitchen.
“Yes.” There was another long silence before Adam spoke again. “I’ve missed the piece-of-shit metal that past few months.”
“I live off of Main Street,” David said, glancing out the tiny bit of window showing the late afternoon light, “If you want to swing by and pick it up.”
“Sounds good,” Adam said. “David, is it?”
“I’ll come around in about an hour,” Adam said, sounding happy. “You got beer?”
Glancing at the closed fridge, David grinned. “Sure. I’m the house with the truck.”
“A truck and beer?” Adam gave a dry laugh. “Just like every other jackass in town. See ya soon.”
The line clicked, and David hung up the phone on the wall. He turned the stove burner off just as the fillet was turning golden brown, and he slid it off onto a blue-rimmed plate.
The fish meat was just as delicious as David had anticipated. The tales were correct. The juices mixed with the butter, re-melting in a pool of glory and euphoria in his mouth. He let out a groan, tilting his head to the side as if he was getting a firm scalp massage. Not fifteen seconds had passed after his plate had been cleared when he began to think of the next best creature he would capture.
David cleaned the kitchen quickly. As he washed the grease off his hands, he saw a large pickup truck park behind his, blocking the driveway of the woman with the red car. He watched a large figure step in through his fence and come up to the front door. He didn’t move from the sink until he heard the knock.
Opening the door, David was surprised to see a tall, lean man with a carefully groomed dark beard, set against olive skin. David had expected to see a man with a rougher appearance, and a large gut.
“David?” The man asked.
“Yeah.” David raised an eyebrow. “Adam Locklear?”
“Ya,” Adam pulled a hand out of his coat pocket and presented a hand, “Thanks for calling.”
After a quick greeting, David let the stranger inside. They immediately settled into the kitchen.
“Here you go.” David handed the compass out for Adam. “It’s all broken and beat up.”
Adam took the compass and held it in the palm of his hand like it was a snail, and he was watching to move inch by inch.
“You said you found it in the sea?” Adam asked.
“Yeah.” David popped the tops off two beers and handed on to his guest.
“Funny.” Adam took the beer and sat at the table. “I dropped it into the water. Must have been miles down on the bottom. You a diver?”
“No, no.” David leaned against the kitchen counter and took a sip. “Kayaker. And fisher.”
David noticed Adam’s nose twitch. Oh, I hope he doesn’t smell the fish. David thought, not letting his face show any concern.
“You’re from the village across the water, huh?” David asked, curious but also wanting to change the subject.
“How d’you figure?” Adam asked, running a hand through his dark, straight hair. “The way I look?”
Shaking his head, David looked away from Adam’s eyes. “No. I know you all have a compass like that one.”
“Oh, right.” Adam held the metal piece up and shook it like a bell. “Their traditions.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” David sat down across from the guest.
“It is.” Adam shrugged, taking a long sip.
“And ain’t it your tradition, too?”
There was a slight narrowing around Adam’s brown eyes. “No.”
An awkward silence erupted in the room, and David cleared his throat.
“Well, I’m glad you got your thing–”
“You know,” Adam interrupted, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table, “The last time I smelled a meal this sweet was when I was seventeen.”
David felt his skin turn to gooseflesh and ice. His nose had been overpowered by the cooking and the close quarters, so he couldn’t pick apart the fish smell from the normal smell of his kitchen.
“There’s a special fish in the sea,” Adam said, staring right at David, “That is forbidden to catch. The people of Sinaaq declared that for hundreds of years, and eventually became a law by the country.”
Adam took another sip, quick but agonizing as David felt frozen in his chair.
“The last known person to commit such a crime,” Adam continued, looking as if he was about to break into laughter, “Was me.”
Unsure of what to say, David furrowed his eyebrows and took a moment to finish his beer. Then he set the empty glass bottle down and looked up.
“What do you want?” He asked, wondering if he needed a weapon. It would only take a few seconds to break the bottom off of the bottle.
“Oh, nothing.” Adam sat back, grinning. “I’m just glad to find like-minded people in such a small town. Tell me, David, was the meat everything you dreamed it to be?”
Glancing at the empty sink, David felt his throat filled with fear and uncertainty.
“I’m not going to tell on you!” Adam let out a loud laugh, slapping the tabletop with an open palm. “That’d be against everything I live for, man. No, I’m proud of you for taking what you want from the world. We could use a man like you.”
“We?” David felt his mind clearing as well as his throat.
“My friends and I.” Adam shrugged and finished off his beer. “I’m meeting up with them tomorrow right mid-morning, down on the southwest of town.”
“What do you guys do?” David asked, his leg restless and fidgeting against the floor. “And why would you need me?”
“We…” Adam looked around the room before looking back at David, “We like to break the rules. Just like you.”
The image of catching a larger fish than the one in his rubbage bin flitted through David’s mind, and he felt a surge of motivation in his chest and arms.
“Hope to see you then.” Adam stood up, placing his empty bottle next to the sink.
“Why did you catch the fish?” David felt the words in his throat before he formed them in his brain.
“Why did you catch the fish?” David asked again. “When you were seventeen?”
“Oh, well,” Adam gave another shrug and a lopsided grin, “To impress a girl. A woman, really. But she was just like the rest of ‘em. Set to her tradition.”
He turned to the front door and opened it. “Thanks for giving back the compass, even if it’s useless. It was the last part of Sinaaq I had all these years.”
David watched as his new friend left the house and walked over the yard to his vehicle. Once the headlights were out of sight, David locked the front door and turned in for the night. He wasn’t able to sleep as he thought about the sea.
The next morning, David couldn’t eat breakfast as nerves quivered the lining of his stomach. He wasn’t sure if he should be happy or scared at meeting “like-minded” individuals. What does that even mean? He wondered as he drove down Main Street.
With the new day, the few streets were busy with citizens. None of them really looked in his direction. Turning down a road, David steered the truck southwest. He drove for a bit, watching the houses turn into junkyards and warehouses. He noticed Adams pickup truck in front of one warehouse and pulled into the parking lot.
The warehouse had some windows, but all of them were either boarded up or covered on the inside with materials. The structure appeared to be decades old, but the large front doors were newer. One of them was open, the only pear of the building allowing the outside world to enter.
David walked inside and saw a massive collection of tools and equipment, many of them foreign to him. There were long wooden and metal poles with blades on the end. There were tractors with pulleys and ropes, tarps half-covering many of them. On the back end of the warehouse floor, there were rows of metal poles with wide girth, and a sharp blade at one end attached to a round capsule.
Polishing and tending to the equipment were three men. One was Adam.
“Nice of you to join us,” Adam called, stepping away from one of the tractors and approaching David. “Guys, this is David.”
An older man stepped away from another tractor and tossed the dirty rag he was holding over his shoulder. He reached out his hand to David and gave a grin showing only a few teeth.
“Sawyer, it is.” His grip was firm and greasy, and David resisted the urge to wipe his hand on his pants. “Adam here says we can trust you.”
“Huh?” David glanced at Adam, who was grinning ear to ear. “We just me–”
“And this, here, is Leo.” Adam shoved a younger-looking man forward, clapping him on the shoulder. “He’s good with the vehicles.”
“So…” David walked over to the tractors and hesitantly placed a hand on the cool metal, “What do you guys do, really?”
“Well,” Leo shrugged, giving a laugh, “This one here is to drill holes, you know, the big ones.”
David saw the steel spiral and noticed the barest amount of rust.
“This one is to load the harpoons.” Leo rushed over to another machine, tugging off the rest of a tarp. “The ones without explosives, of course.”
“Explosives?” David felt a tingling sensation run up his arms and legs, and he placed a hand over his face to try and wipe away the feeling of confusion. “Wait, wait, hold on.”
“Goddammit, Adam,” Sawyer turned with a stern eye towards the apparent leader of the group, “You didn’t tell him, did you?”
“I wanted to see if you could figure it out himself.” Adam laughed, crossing his arms over his chest. “Guess he has.”
“You’re poachers?” David felt his voice raised but doubted anyone could hear from the perfectly-planned location of the warehouse.
“Well, no we-”
“Yes.” Adam cut off Sawyer, staring down David with dark, confident irises. “We catch the biggest fish. You interested?”
Feet cemented to the ground, David glanced from Adam to Sawyer to Leo. The three men were all at different stages in life: old, young, experienced, novice, secretive, egotistical. How was David fit into this order? Would his barest desire match the goals of the other men? Even though their objectives were the same as his, would their individual reasons outshine his own?
On the other side of the warehouse, lining the walls, there were tons of sculptures and art designs made out of polished white and yellowish material. Bones.
At last, David straightened his posture and looked Adam straight on.
Gabrielle Rupert’s short fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine and Transfer Magazine. She is a marine biology graduate student at San Francisco State University. She was born and raised in Massachusetts and received her undergraduate degree from Framingham State University.