‘Secrets of the Sea’, Jennifer Marie Brissett

Illustrations from CC-licensed photographs by Samuel Mann, betawolf311 and Bernt Rostad

 [ Fishing boats, CC-BY, via Flickr © 2010 Samuel Mann ] His son watched as he prepared for the day of fishing. He was one of the best in the village. He had to be. Fishing not only fed the family, the catch needed to be extra to sell in the market. He had been saving for a long time to send his boy to school and he finally had enough. The boy would begin in the next term. It would be expensive, so he had to work even harder to pay for the coming fees.

They did this little ritual every morning before the sun rose and the day became hot. The boy sometimes woke up before him to help prepare the equipment for the boat and then to wave a sad little goodbye at the dock. The child so badly wanted to go out with him. His father always refused. It could get rough out there and the idea of losing his son to the water haunted his dreams. Now that the boy was ready for school he had to admit that the boy was also old enough for the sea.

He wanted to be out on the water before dawn so that the ocean air could cool him from the sun’s heat. He could stay out longer the earlier he left. He knew of a place where the best fish swam. It was way out by the metal pole that stood like a giant spear in the water. People didn’t go there because they said the place was full of ghosts. They said those things because it was the past that haunted them, not spirits.

He spread his sun-cream thickly over his brown skin. It felt cold to the touch and had a chemical smell that didn’t go away until after a good wash. He looked in the mirror at a face surprisingly old, his skin dark and leathery. It seemed like only a little time ago he was still a young man. The boy sat quietly observing every movement of his father’s hands, every item placed in his pockets, and listened to every unconscious grunt.

“Pass me the thing over there,” he said and pointed. His son jumped down to get exactly what he meant among the many little items on the shelf, his pocket knife. He was a smart boy.

His father liked to rub his graying head when he was thinking which he was doing right now as he looked off into the distance. After a long time he asked, “Have you heard the weather today?”

“Yeah, Dad. No storms.”

“No storms. Hmph. Okay then.” He tightened his belt buckle around his skinny frame and picked up his gear.

“You’re coming out with me today.”

“I am?” the boy said with glee.

“Yes, it’s time you learned something useful.” He tossed the bottle of lotion to his son and watched the boy rub it onto his arms, neck, and face, nice and thick. He applied some himself to the places where his son missed. The boy’s skin was still soft to the touch. Luckily for him he took after his mother and would be good-looking.

An education, that’s what his son would have. The knowledge of this world would not escape his child like it did him. He never had the opportunity to go to school. The thickness of his calloused hands spoke of the labor he had to do just to survive. The boat was all he had to show for his many years in this world, that and his son. The boy would have better. He often pictured his son in his school uniform looking like a real gentleman with a shirt and tie. The child could read a little already and made his father proud when he sounded out the letters. He would also learn of the maths that told of the future.

He saw the maths in action once long ago when he was in the market selling his fish; he watched a young man doing his calculations on a piece of paper. The young man said that he could tell the tides and when the sky would darken with storms and accurately predict the heat for a month. He determined then that his son would know this mystery.

Those who knew the maths could work on the big projects in the inland cities. They were building something important out there, something that they were not telling the public about yet. But there were lots of rumors. The old men who couldn’t work anymore and sat around all day on the chairs by the dock spun tales of them building structures that only the elite could enter. Environments where it would always be cool inside and clean water would flow in a fake river and gold-leaf would cover the walls. He didn’t take what they had to say too seriously. He concerned himself more with the things he knew for sure.

Outside appeared like night though the moon had long dipped back into the ocean and the stars still faintly shone like broken pieces of glass. At the horizon a rising tangerine-pink spoke of the break of day. They passed the strangers with the heavy-lidded eyes who stood at the corner and waited for the man to come and choose some to do construction work for the day. The men had illegally crossed the border to the north and their language sounded like soft pausing drums.

Father and son hurried to their boat. Others prepared to go out as well. No one spoke. It was considered bad luck to talk at dawn. Fishermen believed that it would scare away the fish. Polite hand waves acknowledged the others’ existence.

They loaded the gear onto the boat then he gestured to the boy to put on his life jacket and to clip the tether on the loop around his waist. If a storm did come this would make sure that the boy stayed with the boat. The maths said no storms and he respected their predictions but understood their limits.

There were times when the maths said that it would be a clear day and by the time his boat sailed to the middle of the water the sky had darkened to a deep gray and the sea bucked like an untamed animal so that he could barely pull back to the dock in one piece. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard at the thought of his son floating away in the sea. The vision of his child’s body bobbing on the waters sent a cold prickling feeling down his forearms. He shook his head and reminded himself why he was doing this today. It was time.

The day indeed looked calm. The vastness of the ocean spread out before them, the oil-slick brown water lay flat except for the occasional ripple. It was as if nothing and no one else existed. All was just dank water and salt and spray sprinkling their faces. They sailed northwards while the other fishermen went south. The others would catch a good harvest. But to the north he would catch bigger healthier fish. And he wanted his son to see the pole.

“Put on your sunglasses,” he whispered to the boy as he put on his own. It would be piercing hot today, the heat already coming through.

They sailed until the dock was so distant that it disappeared into the water. The chug-chug of the motor sounded loudly. Water splashed against the hull. A yellow haze peered behind a sky of unforgiving gray. In the distance, the marker of the great metal pole speared out of the sea, solid and thick.

“Here,” he said and he stopped the motor.

He showed the boy how he laid out his nets, carefully tossing them over the side. Then he showed him where to sit on the boat and how to wait for the fish to come and how to tell the location of home by the direction of the wind.

“You know, there used to be these things called birds. I used to see them when I was your age. They were still around then. They flew in what we used to call flocks. You will learn about them in school.”

The boy nodded and looked up at a sky empty of sound.

“In school they will teach you many things. You will learn the maths.”

He touched his father’s weathered hand. The boy’s soft unblemished skin contrasted with the swells and breaks of his father’s whitened knuckles.

“I’d rather learn from you, Dad. Maybe I don’t want to go to school. Maybe I should be a fisherman like you.”

This made his father smile inside.

“No, my son. This is not for you. To be working hard and getting nothing. To age before your time under the hot sun, your skin becoming thick like mine. No, no. Not for you. You have a good mind. That’s why I send you to school. So you will learn the maths and make the world better.”

“You smell that?” he whispered.

The boy whispered back, “Smell what?”

“The past,” he said. He pointed to the pole in the water. “You know what that is?”

The boy nodded no.

“No one likes to talk about it. No one likes to come here either. Which is good for us. We get to catch the fish.” He smiled and the boy smiled back at the wisdom of his father.

“I want you to see something,” he said to his son. He went to the side of the boat, the side where there were no nets and said, “Look into the water and tell me what you see.”

The boy did what he was told.

“I don’t see anything,” the boy said.

“Look again.”

The boy stared into the ocean and tried to see past the murky water. Schools of fish swam deep beneath the waves. Then he saw rectangular dark shapes all neatly squared going down down down. Fathoms lower he saw pathways crisscrossing in all directions and the broken remains of structures. How he could see this far down the boy wasn’t sure.

And then he was there together with his Dad. He looked up at the skyscraper that appeared to sway for the size of it. High above the spear which was its pinnacle, a flat gray sky spoke of rain. The air was humid and sick with the smell of the ocean. There was no break for the sun, only a stillness, a menacing calm. The immense city surrounded them as if they were inside a cavernous valley.

The boy held his father’s hand as they walked on the flat unmerciful concrete. His feet ached. Mannequins stood frozen in storefront windows positioned in everyday activities, their clothes colorful and sharp. The boy stopped to study the form of an artificial child posed as if it would soon throw a ball. His father pulled him on. The place where they needed to be was around here somewhere and they were going to be late. His father held a map and studied the numbers on the doors, counting the distance to their destination. He mouthed the names on the stores as they hurried onward. He asked his father, “How did we get here?”

His father turned to him and said, “What do you mean?”

A piercingly shrill siren blasted. It seemed to come from all corners. Down the avenue that was crossed by streets and filled with cars and people and lights, a wall of sheen appeared, clear like glass, high as the highest building. A wave of water wide enough to encompass the city, solid as if built by human hands, stood still and silent. Maybe it had always been there and the boy had never noticed. He was unsure and pointed to it.

“Look,” the boy said. His father turned. In a mad panic he picked up his son and ran. People ran with him, knocking into them as if they weren’t there. The shadow of the wave covered everything in its path in an eerie dark light. The water moved over their shoulders. His father’s strong arms held him close as it enveloped them. The boy gasped for air.

“Easy,” his father said and tightened the belt around his son’s waist. “You will be okay.” The boy coughed hard to clear his lungs then stared into his father’s concerned eyes. The boat gently swayed in the water.

His father left him and went to the side of the boat where he bent over to cough water as well. Then he proceeded to take in the day’s catch. The boy watched as he did what he did every day alone out here in the middle of the sea. The silvery fish as big as a grown man’s arm flopped on the floor of the boat caught in the net. He maneuvered the catch into the hold where they swam about confused. When the last fish wiggled inside, he spoke again to his son.

 [ The Sea, CC-BY, original photographs via Flickr © 2007 betawolf311, and © 2010 Bernt Rostad ] “What you experienced is why people don’t come here. The sea remembers everything.”

His father unhooked the net and wheeled in the ropes. The pulleys squeaked and clicked.

“You will be going to school soon and they will teach you many things but I know that they will not tell you of this place. But I am your father and I want you to know. Learn well from your teachers. Learn the maths. But remember what I show you today.”

The boy swallowed hard. His father said no more and turned on the motor. The chug-chug of the boat rhythmically echoed as the water splashed the sides, sending the spray of the sea to cool their faces as they sailed towards home.

Shortlisted for StorySouth Million Writers Award, 2013.

© 2012 Jennifer Marie Brissett

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