Once a month the universe tosses him a get out of jail card; allows him a ruffle and a blow dry from the sopping subaqueous saga, and shines a torchlight on the shores of hope.
He was never overly dramatic, but he can’t help but chortle and whistle as he sloshes from the waves onto the wet rocks, pinches his cold cheeks, and shakes his gills in anticipation. Ah, there it is! The sweet fragrance of unfiltered dehydration pole-vaulting through his veins, turning the small cogs of his vestigial saliva glands. Without waiting for his toes, he stomps ahead through the red carpet low tide. He doesn’t want to miss a minute.
Look, he said to the wife before he headed for the shore, that’s fine if you don’t want me to go, but don’t complain to me that there’s nothing to eat around here. I’ll go back to sleep.
She’d blinked at him like she was swimming through petrol, and for a second he thought his ruse had backfired. Fortunately she was having none of that today. She needs the grub as much as he does, it goes without saying.
Think of the kids, she said.
Right, always the kids.
It also goes without saying that she’s a jealous fish, and nothing in the vast ocean void is going to change her attitude. If it weren’t for the time limit she’d never let him go, and they’d all starve. That he’s sure of. Keep an eye on the time, was the last thing she said to him. You too, he said.
The hourglass! He fumbles around in his pockets — grit, pearl seaweed — produces a small, opaque object, and gives it a flick. In the ashen hue of the moonlight, he sees the first granules of sand tripping into the empty chamber. Yes, I’ll keep an eye, he mutters, and the memory of himself in a faraway land flapping in the shoals, lungs excoriating, gasping for air makes him shudder.
He whirls around one last time, like an employee checking if his master’s door is locked. To make sure he can get back inside, or that his master cannot follow him, he’s not entirely sure.
Dipping in and out of street lights, finding his legs, he watches for cruising vehicles, follows a pod of Japanese tourists across the pedestrian crossing, then breaks away towards the sparkling city aurora. Imagining himself seated in one of the many restaurants he passes, deftly operating a knife and fork, and making passes at dark, two-legged strangers, engorging himself and smiling like a cannibal. He has aspirations borne of status envy, this he knows, and the weakling in him wishes the moon shone as brightly every night so he could wash ashore and leave the responsibilities of marriage, fatherhood… of providing, behind.
He touches his forehead in subtle greeting at the crooked heap of rags lurching over a rubbish bin. A scaled man pitches backwards in barely controlled delirium, thrusts a crumpled bag of scraps in the air. Better than mouthful of mud and lead, the man declares. Another harbour bottom feeder stuck in his ways. Some never learn.
* * *
Here, his name is Brendan, a name he once heard being shouted at a boy who ventured too far into the breakers. Here, he can be whatever he wants. A man. A worldly traveller. An expert in chess. Still, he’s learned it’s better to remain consistent and under the radar, especially when you’ve got a good thing going. A nice name, Brendan, Deirdre always says, and he agrees with her because he must. If he’d told her his real title she’d probably choke on her tongue trying to pronounce it. Oxygen saturation must do peculiar things to mammals as well.
* * *
The smell of it hits him first. Rushing over the hard lawn, barely noticing the pine cones underfoot, he wobbles over to that corner of the park where the single flood light burns. The gravy pots are out, and already a few of the regulars are loitering like warm jellies around the front of the van. None of his folk. Not yet. And for that he is grateful. Another few minutes spared from their lamentations. Here, under the soaring lights, surrounded by wrought iron fences and schools of traffic, he can be Brendan. The person he wants to be. First he’ll take his fill, have a belly-full, then scuttle in for the hamper. He knows all it takes is just a wink or a flap of his fin for Deirdre, the plump, pink thing from ‘a few blocks west’ as she says, to produce another paper plate piled with runny sludge for the family, and she’ll smile knowingly and say, as she does, that, though she’s only supposed to dish out one apiece, one per head, per mop, per melon, she’ll make an exception for him.
Fascinates him to no end, the way they set themselves in order, mill around the drinks barrel, joke and nudge each other with their free-swinging elbows. Where he’s from, moods run high during feeding, and for want of elbows, heads bang, bodies swarm in flashes of chaos. Here everyone is calm. Here they want for nothing. They take everything.
A man who calls himself Seamus parks his trolley, and joins the line. Cockroach eyes, straw hair. ‘Tis a fine night for it, he says, his voice plummeting to a broken glass cough. He looks like the next breath could be his last. Clear sky, Seamus continues, full moon to boot. Nowhere to hide but under a bridge. Are there any sandwiches going?
No, but there’s tea, and some coloured, sweet water. Help yourself. Brendan takes a bottle from the barrel, rips off the harmless, plastic ring, and negotiates his lips around the spout. In truth this water gives him gas. But he must keep both his hydration and his appearances up.
No sign of Deirdre.
Once he’d asked her to leave with him, migrate to some place up the coast. Get away from the meat bags. Get away from his kind too, the uncivilised and primitive. He’d been up north a few times, speared through the clean, warm currents, even found a small patch of wetland during one of this terrestrial walkabouts with a large pond and a flat piece of land for the hut for the monthly conjugal visit. A place he has started thinking about more and more, in his dreams, when he catches a glimpse of his wife and her horde of mouth-breathers, when his tail is snipped at by some diligent maliciousness from the deep. There is only so much time in one’s life he knows, and he explains as much to Deirdre, who informs him in an accent broad enough to cleave an iron pylon that there’s only so many fish in the sea to boot, and the one she has may be cold and wet, but it’s what the heavens have dished up to her and you do with what you’ve got. Maybe in another life. Confusion is one of the great motivators, and Brendan isn’t a quitter.
There you are, you slippery bugger! A pat on his back, with none of the force of gravity-fed muscle. The change does no favours for ‘Colin’, as he is known above sea level. His nose and ears droop like melted wax, and there are the faint smudges of scale, but only on one side of his face. Just made it in from up river, Colin says, after a long pull from his tea. Thought there’d be more game up that way, but dire it is, I tells you. With all the toing and froing on the surface you don’t know if you’re coming or going half the time. And the taste, he says, and rubs his fingers together. Like a liquid funeral.
Brendan shifts his weight, peers around at the growing line. Just you is it?
So far. Every day it seems things get thinner, if you get my drift. But, he says as he smooths his hair, we’ve got to thank our lucky stars for this place, eh? Like taking the bait right off the hook, with none of the dental work involved of course. Now, where are the sandwiches? Usually there are sandwiches.
The van’s door smacks open, heads turns, teeth are rubbed, spines straightened. Not Deirdre, but a small, perspiring man wearing a red and white woollen coat. He bobs around the serving table, turning gas knobs, arranging plastic forks. Waving a stiff arm, he orders the rabble into something resembling a queue.
Where’s the bird with the tight dress? Colin inquires over Brendan’s shoulder.
Ah, her. Brendan doesn’t flinch.
By the way, how’s the missus?
The missus is fine, Brendan assures him.
Who knows what they gets up to while we’re away, huh? Pretty, slender things, all on their own in the deep blue. Colin attempts a conspiratorial but clumsy wink, from which his eyelid barely recovers, remaining half-sagging over his eye.
That’s something Brendan has never considered. It flash fries in his mind for a second.
Alright, alright, here you go, ladies and gents, rumbles the man in the woollen coat. The procession shunts forward. Bread roll? Packet of chips?
What’s on the menu, boss?
Soup. All soup. Get it while it’s hot.
Soup, Brendan thinks to himself. Deirdre never brings soup. He didn’t go to all the trouble of clawing his way through a tide of stinking froth and cloying weed, growing skin and bones, and enduring the pain of marrow and hair for soup. He spends his days breathing the stuff. Unsurprisingly, the newly arrived fish in the crowd complain vocally. If they don’t like it, the man informs them, there’s another shelter in Parramatta and they are all welcome to take the bus and hope that there’s some left by the time they arrive.
It’d be faster to swim, Colin says, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Brendan hushes him. Beggars can’t be choosers, isn’t that what they say?
Yes, that’s what’s stitched into the side of the trawler nets, Colin retorts. How’s the missus? he repeats, as if it’s the question of the evening. And then between the shuffling silence — How are we doing for time?
The hourglass finds his fingers. There’s plenty of time left. Plenty of time. Though he wishes plenty were more. He has designs for this life, this night. This moon.
Now it’s his turn. He takes a paper bowl, palms an extra roll, and while he does, cannot help but think of the wife’s eyes and how they swivel when she snaps up the regurgitated crumbs. She’s probably there right now, waiting under that rock, waiting for her bread, seething and spitting and fretting. What’s taking him so long? she’s thinking. As if she can imagine what he has to go through. For her, this per mensem last supper is as regular and breezy as the south-flowing warmth.
The soups smells of burning wood, is deep-ocean red. Is there any meat? he asks. Oh, yes, comes the reply, plenty of meat in there, my old darling. Peas as well, and you might well meet a carrot or two if the good Mr Campbell wishes it. Meat of the land, Brendan says, holding back his plate. The man behind the pot scratches his flanks, and a few red drops fall from the ladle onto the grass. Lamb, he says, you know, baa-baa, and does Brendan want some or not because he’d got two hundred bowls to fill and one less means one less minute he has to spend on his feet. Brendan offers his bowl and continues up the line, cursing himself that now he is known to the server. A second bowl might not be so forthcoming.
No sign of Deirdre.
Under a tree he stands, breathing in and out, preparing his tongue and stomach for the lumpy heat. Colin and a tribe of wet-under-the-ear guppies saunter over, slurping at their bowls as though it contains air. They all agree it’s not to the same standard as last month’s fluffy rice, and they ask Brendan if he pines after his meat bag valentine. If she’ll give him a kiss and an evolutionary ‘leg up the ladder’. Ha ha.
The same old jokes.
He’s here for the same reason they are, he says, meat bags or no, this the only food for leagues. The ocean is dying if they hadn’t noticed.
But Brendan is aware of how his whole being advertises his intentions— his exertions with their language, his attention to detail and knowledge of cotton, dairy and other land-based products. Why should he be ashamed? After all, others have done it. Beat the lunar shackles, dragged themselves permanently from the seas in the beat of a heart. At least that’s what the legends say. None of this he says in front of the fish of course, for they’d just take him for foolish. No one actually believes that nonsense, they’d say. Magic is sufficiently improbable, they’d say.
Colin waves his plastic spoon in large circles. It’s their fault we have to scrabble up the beaches, he says. The least they could do is lay out something decent. Something better than this bitter treacle. And for once, Brendan doesn’t think differently.
A commotion by the van. Grunts and incoherent insults. The line breaks up. A circle has formed. Here are the boys on their fancy-dress smash and grab, one of the guppies remarks.
Every month the sharks turn up somewhere in the city, mostly where the other fish visit, to hand out pointy grins and pointless vandalism. Making sure that everyone, including their land-locked contemporaries, knows their place at the crowded apex of the food pyramid. For them it’s a holiday. They don’t need to gamble their lives to feed — so long as flesh still wriggles, dives and falls into the seas, they’ll be fed up to the gills. But anyway they come. It makes them feel better, Brendan supposes.
They like denim and chains as an octopus loves its rings. Lance about, never staying still for more than second, scratching and poking their noses into the soup, knocking cups and cutlery onto the grass, while their pale remoras stick to their sides and snigger and pick up the crumbs.
Get back in your boxes, the man in the woollen coat barks at them.
The sharks scatter briefly, then round on him. The man knows what he can do with himself, they say.
Brendan, Colin and the guppies watch from underneath the tree, silently gulping their food down. Haven’t those guys got anything better to do? Colin says. As if there’s not enough misery in the world. We should leave, he suggests. There are other places. We could try our luck at the bakery across the bridge. They dump out the day’s unsold loaves behind the skip. Otherwise it will be a thin month by the run of things.
The guppies all agree.
Brendan takes stock, fondles the hourglass, stands there for a moment searching the clouds. Searching for some silver lining, some indication that he isn’t alone with his fantastical plans. Each has his place in the world, his father would say, the swimmer in a cloud of millions. You can change your scales, grow a pair of legs, but there’s no changing the thing deep inside you that tells you where you came from, where you belong. Push it down, let it sink, and it’ll just float to the top one day when you least expect it, and then… then you’ll have some explaining to do, you can bet your tail on it.
He licks his finger clean of soup, mashes down the last of the bread, safely stored. It won’t be enough. It never is.
Just as Brendan turns to find a path north, he hears the whine of a motor, and the muscles of his heart grip his chest.
Deirdre rolls off her bike, smooths her dress, wants to know what all the fuss is about. Those still in line stare accusations at the troublemakers. When Deirdre sees the sharks playing to and fro with Seamus’s shopping trolley and its harrowed owner, she whips off her helmet, coral sprigs of hair. Expletive, expletive. She goes to stir the soup, adds salt, shoos the man in the woollen coat aside. She’ll call the cops, she’s telling everyone who’ll listen. Every week she has to put up with this codswallop, she may as well set up shop outside the station. Where’s the respect?
The sharks snigger and bounce about. Trouble with the law of the land is the last thing anyone wants, but you wouldn’t know it. Reckless is reckless. Their leader, a sharp-nosed beast with knuckles the size of cowrie shells, makes his mark by throwing a wet bread roll at the van. Soon the others are hurling plastic bottles, stolen hats, and pine cones at the meat bags in the line.
He feels the cold in his bones, millennia of warnings bristle down the awkward jigsaw of his vertebrae. Frenzy isn’t the word. No one is being devoured, there’s no sting in the air, the vibrations are different — Deirdre is fanning at the troublemakers with tea towel while barking into her phone, people are looking on with bemusement, still slurping their soup. Yet there’s a familiar panic. The fish feel it, and are smart enough to edge away, gather some of the crumbs, and dart in all directions.
Is he coming or not? Colin wants to know. They’ll give us away. The law will come and you know what that means — suffocating under the pre-dawn light on a concrete floor isn’t a good way to go by any stretch, I tells you.
Yes, he’s listening. But he’s arrowed to the spot. Colin and the guppies leave him to his lost cause. Some fish never change, is the last thing he hears from them.
Deirdre spies him. Her eyes widen. Calls him over with a wave of the tea towel. Aren’t these your mob, Brendan? she asks him. And she squints until her cheeks shudder, as though she knows the whole truth of it. He forces his gaze, and in the second it holds the shark leader’s black eye he finds a tally of past, present and future annihilations. The crossroads. Is this his test? A word in the ear would make him look good in front of Deirdre, it might make her desire him, love him, if he were stupid enough to believe it. The moon be his witness! A word in the ear would also mark him for life, and his head would be floating independently of his body the moment his feet touched salt.
Ignoring the spasms of his innards, he slides over to the table, pretends for a moment to choose a packet of chips. Something chicken-flavoured, he says aloud. Offers a packet to the shark, a white flag, soon to be his devourer’s napkin. Something hits the side of his head. A pine cone. A paper bowl.
Get back in your cages, Deirdre shouts. When the cops turn up you’ll be sorry! The words are enough to scatter them.
The hand that touches his is warm, firm. He clasps it between his fingers. Are you alright, Brendan? she asks. It’s her skin, he thinks, like the surface of a pond. He dares not move in case the ripples dissolve her.
Yes, he replies. I’m okay.
He’s alright. But he can’t explain the stiffness in his legs, heavy and aching, though they are freshly baked. Has she really called the cops?
Not yet, she says. Not much use to anyone, but people gotta eat, and they should be able to eat in peace. And her voice snapped in mid-chorus, a bassoon blowing out wet cement, a much too trying lament for the evening. She rolls the loose metal watch band around her wrist, assuming the wobbling countenance one only masters squashed to the edge of it all. After everything, this is the last thing I need.
Oh, you know. I thought things were back to normal, but the thing with the house, his kids. I really think I got on his nerves this time. Sorry, I don’t mean to…
Without a thought between, he grips the hourglass in his pocket, wishes to smash it between his fingers. He feels a tingling in the tips of his fingers, a warmth in his throat. Is this what it’s like? To be human?
It’s about getting your ducks in a row, she says as she starts filling soup bowls. And marching on, isn’t it? You always said to me change is good for perspective, or something like that.
It is good for perspective, Brendan hears himself replying, though he doesn’t remember ever saying anything like this. His lips move as freely as an apprentice ventriloquist, he feels sweat pearling on the base of his spine. Oh, how he wants her! Can’t she decode his shivering pupils? His face, which morphs with every passing second back into an emotionless ogling? He breathes into his hand, smells of nothing. Asks her to dance with him over by the tree.
Oh, what cheek. She places her creamy hands on her hips and flicks away a sprig of hair. If she indulged every homeless romantic she ever met they’d accuse her of being easy. No, she’ll be fine. Her life is hard enough as it is. Besides, isn’t a nice bloke like him spoken for?
Minutes pass. An hour. His kind have come and gone. Slithered back to the coastline with full bellies, dragging the table scraps back to the starving masses. He sits on the grass, thoughts fermenting. Not long now. Colin is probably right — the wife has already looked to other, more reliable providers, someone more willing to obey. And the kids, they don’t even know his name let alone where the food comes from, the regurgitated mush with the alien tastes, too sweet by half. Promises of dreams. The world will soon be theirs, the whole stinking lot of it. The ocean — where life began and where it will end. Echoes of the cold deep flush back into its gullet. What a legacy.
He directs his gaze at the moon, falling across the granite sky, takes a final mental snapshot of his surroundings. Of her. Rubs his knees, already sore, gets up to bid farewell.
Deirdre half waves to him. She is occupied with a gas bottle, smiles at him as though he’s on a death march, which he is in some definition, though it is a slow one. Already he can sense the regression taking place, the thinning of his organs, and the resignation in his limbs. Magic is only magic when it’s fleeting, he muses.
Until next time I suppose, he says at the table as he passes, to no one in particular, but loud enough so she can hear him. Until next time, he repeats to Seamus, who is still complaining about the state of the world over his upturned trolley. One last act for the day, he helps with the trolley. After all, he is fed and has the strength for at least that. With the trolley back on its wheels, and the plastic bags arranged just so, Brendan exchanges various nods of understanding. Turns to leave.
No one says a word when the shark, the one with the nail through its ear, pops from the shadows, and deals him a bloody nose. Reeling like a snapped ribbon, the pain is there but he can’t pinpoint its origin.
Right. That’s it. Deirdre whips out her phone. I’m calling the cops. She dials. Speaks.
The shark is not stupid, but he is stupidly proud. His place at the top wasn’t won by cunning or bravery, but by stubborn force.
The cops. No, it’s alright, Brendan says, holding his nose. A cold trickles between his fingers.
That’ll teach you for defending the likes of them, says the shark. There’s a natural order, no one gets a choice, least of all a scaly worm like you.
Darting here and there, Brendan is blocked by faces, none of which he can decipher. Concern, fear, helplessness, all the things he thinks he understands are mere ornaments on the mantle of his instincts. He hears the rattle of sand in his pocket, senses the sharpness in the air.
Suicide isn’t the word for what he does next. More like calculated decline. He twirls like a leaf in the wind, presents himself to the shark, which, as it should in any linear ecosystem, confuses the flow of events. The shark grins and slices the air, snaps at him to get lost.
But he doesn’t. I’m already lost, he mutters.
What’s that, silver boy?
The night’s over, Brendan says, and you’d better leave before the law of the land arrives. A friendly tip in disguise.
The shark trumpets and twirls on the spot as though he’s just caught a whiff of something raw, a challenge. He squares up to Brendan, neck plastered to his shoulders, smiles, teeth like ceramic shards, ready to deal another blow.
Five frames per second. And now he thinks like a human. As the shark’s eyes roll back into its head, as Dierdre gasps for breath, as the leaves rustle in the waterless wind, Brendan slips to his knees, a whoosh, the stench of the attack jetting over his shoulder. He sees the tiny bulge in the shark’s top pocket, lunges for it, and hears the glass smash beneath his knuckles. The shark just has time to flick out a leg, and catch him in the hip. But the effect is immediate — pink slips to grey, articulated cries turn to hisses, gasps, thrashings, and the shark flips on his back and under the pale wash of the moon returns to himself, the magic undone. It’s the meat bags who react first. They retreat in bewilderment into the greying scrub, beyond which the city is waking with shuttering blue lights.
He turns to Deirdre, clasps her rigid arms, ignores the questions. But he can’t say the words. Love me, save me. She fusses over his nose, tells him to stay put until the police are done, but he knows that by the time they’re through with him it will be too late, and he’ll be on the floor with the shark, two wet Romeos looking for a stage.
Where are you going? she asks him.
By way of reply he shows her the hourglass, points east, kisses her hand. It’s not over, he says, not yet.
* * *
This was the beach that had made him, rubbed its salt into his landlubber wounds, scoured out his lungs with sand. On all fours now, waiting for dissolution, coughing up blood and the last of his supper. Beside him, whistling in the dawn light, a man tipping out a crate. Bottle caps, string, plastic flags, reverse jetsam. No-one has use for this junk, he says with a grin the size of next Tuesday.
Brendan spits, stretches his arms into the water, heaves in a mouthful of fizzing ocean, then slips between two sheets of foam. The muscles reforming under dawn’s mellow caress, and the only thing guiding him home is the lining of his stomach. What will the wife say? What she always does, if she’s there, if she’ll have him back this time — they’ll all starve for the likes of him.