Fishlike

Reasons to Remain image: Fishlike

The hand of the swimmer holds a stone. It doesn’t help her swim. The stone, which is round and eggshell-blue and flecked with green seaweed, weighs the swimmer down, and makes swimming a little slower.

But the stone is eggshell-blue and round, and flecked with green seaweed, and the swimmer saw its oval shape in a patch of white sand deep into the clear lagoon, and took a fancy to it. She pulls strongly for the surface now. The arm which holds the stone finds it harder to reach upwards, but then she brings it down with a satisfying rush, and it seems to act like a counterweight to her other arm, which stretches long and graceful towards the air.

She breaks the surface. Water bursts around her, then settles. She treads water and looks for the boat. It isn’t there. In front of her, nothing but the placid blue surface of the lagoon.  In the distance, far beyond it, she can see the entrance between the headlands; the thin blue strip where the sea joins the lagoon. She is facing the wrong way. She turns, an oddly clumsy motion when set against her fishswift swimming. Like a seabird or a seal, suddenly ungainly on land.

She turns a half-circle, and the men in the boat are laughing. They’re only yards away, chuckling at her confusion. Behind them, she can see the thin yellow line of the beach, and above that the fat green swell of the jungle, stretching back beyond sight. Between the two, some brown squares and shapes are signs of the village: houses, boats on the beach, long wooden racks where fish are set to dry in the sun. That sun already sends waves of warmth to dry her hair on her scalp as she floats. To crust the salt.

The bottom of the boat is already lined with clams. And chunks of coral which the divers thought were pretty, and big fan-shaped shells, and a lobster that one of the men wrestled live to the surface to see if he could. It twitches suspiciously on the pile of clams, snapping with its blue pincers when one of the men teases it with a piece of stick. They laugh at this too.

“I saw an eel!” she shouts to the boat. “It was enormous, you should try to catch it! It can be friends with your lobster.”

The man who caught the lobster calls back. “I don’t think my lobster’s very friendly. He isn’t making friends with this stick.”

The other man calls out. “Did you get any clams?”

“No, I got this,” she calls back, and lobs the stone. The first man fumbles it, but the other darts out an arm and catches it before it falls in the water. He examines it; it is larger than a fist, and peacefully oval. Neither of them have to ask why. They put it with the clams and the coral and the starfish in the small wooden boat.

She bobs in the water for a while. She makes little waves with her hands and they splash against her neck and face. She gets some in her eyes and she splutters and laughs at herself. Above the water, her hair is matted close against her skull, pulled taut by the weight of the water and the weight of gravity. But the ends fan out on the surface of the water in countless strands like the fronds of a fine black seaweed, the intricate tendrils of a dark sea anemone. A water-borne carpet of glistening threads.

“Are you going down again”?”

She considers the liquid depths. They are soothing and homelike, but they will always be there.

“No,” she calls back. “I want to go eat!”

She stays still as her friends bring the boat to her. Then, with the aid of a proffered hand, she pulls herself in. Her waterlogged clothes cascade excess sea into the bottom, and the lobster wriggles away in protest. She flicks water from her sleeve at its roving eyes; in response, it waves its fat claws at her imperiously from atop its mound of clams. Its captor descends into giggles.

She wrings out her hair over the side as the two men begin to pole the small boat back. Their strokes are strong but leisurely, and they move steadily through the calm lagoon. The southern shore, to their left, rises to small cliffs, and at one spot a small waterfall tumbles from a height. Their own village is on the west, furthest from the sea. It spans both banks of a rivermouth which feeds the sea-lake. The jungle continues, far father than she has ever been, along both sides of the riverbank. It is sweaty, dark, a lustrous green tangle speckled with orchids and spiderwebs. Cornucopias of unknown fruit and great profusions of shining leaves of every shape.

She leans forward to pick up her stone from the litter. It seems a little duller out of the water, but still beautiful. A soft grey-blue which fades to a slightly darker shade at one end. The whole a perfect oval, amazingly smooth. She runs her fingers around and around it; the only bumps to tremble her fingertips are where tiny seaweeds have taken hold. She rubs them off with hands beginning to wrinkle from their time in the sea, until the stone is perfectly smooth. It sits snug and heavy in one palm, the size of a mango.

The lobster tires of its posturing and comes towards her on many legs. Its captor is busy rowing, so she takes command. She reaches over the claws and picks it up by the body. There are net buckets for crabs and lobsters fixed to the inside wall of the boat. She drops the grumpy creature in one, and folds over the hinged lid. It grabs the net on the inside with a weak claw, and waves its eyes slowly on their tiny stalks.

They are most of the way back. She turns back to her stone, whose surface is already warm from the sun. She imagines that it is really an egg, the egg of some mythic fish with extravagant ornamental fins and a sad and wise face. She imagines it hatching into a great serpent.

She remembers where it sat on the seabed, neat yet incongruous in a patch of white sand. She’d closed her fingers on its and lifted it from its bed, trailing fine grains behind it.

She reaches over the side, before the water gets too shallow, and slips the hand with the stone in it over the edge. The sea is warm, but cooler than the hot air on her hand. She lets go of the stone. It slips away. The water is clear but in the wake of the oars she can’t see where it lands after its slow fall. Maybe onto another patch of sand where another diver for clams will pick it up again; maybe even herself. Maybe it has fallen instead into a knot of coral, disturbing bright fish, where it will never be touched again. Maybe a huge eel like the one she saw before is already coiling its body around it, laying claim to a serpent’s egg.

Her friends have rowed all the way to the shore below the village. She hops out and lands with a splash in the shallows, to help drag the boat up onto the beach.

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