Authors: Mark Richard
THE ICE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD
FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, JUNE 1994
Copyright © 1993 by Mark Richard
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in 1993. The Anchor Books edition is published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc
All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental
Portions of this novel originally appeared, in slightly different form, in
The Ice at the Bottom of the World,
published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Richard, Mark, 1955–
Fishboy : a ghost’s story / Mark Richard.—1st Anchor Books ed
1. Abandoned children — Fiction. 1. Title
God gives us time to work, angels give us money and quiet places. For their generous support I thank the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, PEN, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
For quiet places, I thank Bill Smart and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the New York Public Library, Anstice Carroll and 220, and especially, with love and affection, Noonie and Louis Marx.
And—to cite the names of those who have my gratitude in respect of this book—Amy, Will, Jen, Punk, Herb, Georges, Denise, and Gordon, who gave me the idea, and Nan, who saw it through. Bless you all.
began as a boy, as a human-being boy, a boy who fled to sea, a boy with a whistling lisp and the silken-tipped fingers of another class. A boy with put-away memories of bedclothes bound tight about the head, knocked by a hammering fist; the smell of cigar and shoe leather and the weighted burlap bag, thrown from a car into a side-road swamp. A child born again there, slithering out of the sack, a new beginning into life, holding back water to breathe through sour mudded filth and green surface slime. Put-away memories of my gums pushed back and bloody gnawing slugroot; the ripped frog muscle spasms tickling my tongue as I ate the things almost whole, and then the all-night chorus of croaking reproach; the bitter-centered
snake eggs I washed down with the stagnant sulphured water, a mushroom cap for a cup, all of it heaved back up, a slack-jawed torrent of spew splashing around my ankles, heaving up my own new creations of life in the mire, bits and pieces wiggling and squirming, convulsing, web-footed and scaled, tiny dead reptilian eyes like pretty black beads in pearl.
I remember sleeping for warmth in winter with wild dogs, the precious suckled bitch’s milk in exchange for one of my ears ripped with hair for the puppies to chew. I remember sleeping with snakes for summer cool, the puncture bites of small poisons that cleared my infected eyes and sharpened my hearing so that I could hear the sneezes of rats to catch as toys for this boy I began as, with still, through it all, the prissy wrist, the toe-pinched walk, a boy, who, had he any sisters, Big Miss Magine said, should have worn their handed-down dresses. This was me as that boy, a boy who fled to sea and turned to fish, this was me waiting the length of his short life in his cartonated box, waiting for the one big boat to come in to the place where hardly any boats came.
I waited for a boat big enough to brave itself through where the sea dunes and the sand waves folded over, no channel in and no channel out, a boy at the
ready with his butter-turned knife to sign aboard to slice meats like fists from shells like plates.
I had always been that boy in the cartonated box, waiting for the purple bus to pass through places I could not pronounce with my whistling lisp, places I can whisper to you now with the ease of escaping steam, dark continent-calling places, places misplaced, place names like none in this language we share. I waited for the purple bus to travel through these places edging the round cratered lake where something large from the sky struck long ago, places where the blacktop road sinks through soft-bottomed bogs and erupts flat and dry farther on, a serpentine plumbing of the earth’s thin surface, the purple bus leaning on the quicksand curves, slipped tires spinning, the exhaust pipes gurgling, the white-eyed driver mostly blind and dreaming them along the road he drove, steering the bus to where I always slept in wait.
And I always slept in my cartonated box listening in the early morning chill for the tottering of the bus into the rutted fishhouse lot, the sprung springs and ratching bad brakes, the dark faces and elbows of its passengers pressed against the windows as the women reached beneath their seats for old jars of cold fish stew cooked in stone-scoured pots, grease-streaked bags of fried pork or some night animal snared on a porch or caught in a
closet. And I would always wait in my cartonated box with my thumbs tucked under my chin for Big Miss Magine and her ugly sister to unburden the bus’s breaking back, wait for Big Miss Magine to wade through the air to my box, wait for her to slip her lips like a big brown frog through the hole in my box through which I watched the moon at night. And I would watch, no matter the season’s turn, how the blowing slow of her big breath would blue into a settling spread of fog, her words, before she pressed her eye like a painted egg against the moon-cut hole looking in to me, her words, saying
You is mine, Fishboy, you is all mine
And then I could be the Fishboy, fetching in with the ones who had come on the purple bus from around the cratered lake, the lake an hour across and a minute deep, I could fetch in with these tar-colored people with the crude tattoos, the coiled mazes cut into the skin of their cheeks and foreheads with owl quills and bird beaks, these people with nothing in their houses but clothing, wooden stools, stone pots, and ghosts like me. The boy like me then would fetch in with them to haul over the piers the forty-weight baskets of fish and the bottom-dwelling shells shaped like plates and platters, dumping them all along the troughs that spilled onto the tables where the big black women sliced out fillets with thin-bladed knives, knives with just enough curve to
work the flesh out of the fish with a plunge of steel and a flick of the wrist.
The shucking of the bottom-dwelling seashells was left to a red-rimmed drunkard, a soft-skulled child, and me, the human-being boy, Fishboy, Fishboy shucking the shellcut between his duties of filling baskets of fish, running in his tied-around-the-neck plastic-fronted apron, skidding barefoot across the gut-spilt floor. I watched the little flat-bottomed skiffs and shallow-draft schooners unload and pack out their cargoes with a wire basket strung from a boom, and I watched, wondering, would a big boat ever come, would a big boat ever come with room enough for me, and when one would come, it was always some frightened trawler storm-blown with a broken rudder or a bad compass, or some wrong-size schooner with old fish and illegal nets, a dangerous crew and a captain with a gun. And even then it would be me begging pardon, pleading for a chance to come aboard, to wade down into the waist-deep icy black bilge water in the hold, to dive into the filth to unstopper the draincocks and scrape away the rotten fishheads so the storage bins could dry. It would be me washing out the dark ’tween decks with a rag on a stick, stacking in the boards for more of the fifteen tons of sparkling sharp ice I would shovel, bloody-knuckling the crystals pink, praying to any god
Please let the captain see it’s
me, please see, it’s me, the Fishboy! See! Look! Clean here, clean there, clean and right, fore and aft! See how I’ll work? Let them see how I’ll work until I choke on the frozen smoke …
and then, but always then, I would hear the black women holler from inside the long dark sheds
More fish! More fish! FishBOY!
Then up the hold ladder while the hatches clattered down, I would try to tell them how much shellcut Fishboy could shuck, one hundred and seventy-seven bushels in six hours! my lisping tongue slicing the s’s, and then not the captain, not the mate, not a winchman, nor even a boiler devil but the lowliest seaman whose work I had saved him from doing and done as my own would come out of some soot-nested bunk or from around the corner of some hose shack, eye-glazed and trouser-stained, saying
Get along there sissy britches, this is a union-scripted barge. I bet you got to squat to pee, little sweetness, get off now before I split you myself!
and I would be lifted up from the deck by the side of his hard-swung boot and I would sail through the air over the rail hearing his rotten rodent-tooth laugh,
Thanks for the help in the hold!
and I would slap the cold wet concrete apron of the pack-out pier next to the brimming baskets of fish and shellcut, double-stacked for me to catch up, for me to carry straining and slipping across the cutting room floor, watching out the open side
of the shed the union-scripted ship casting off, throwing off its lines, and I would turn not to look, hoping anyone seeing the wet on my face would think it was only the scales thrown there by the fishes’ flipping tails as I emptied the baskets into the troughs along the cutting tables deeper into the shed darkness until the last fish would slide beneath the upheld fillet knife of Big Miss Magine, pointing at me, saying in the low black breath whisper, almost in fog,
You is mine, Fishboy, you is all mine
Lunch bags and glass jars come out with the big black women drying in the cold sun on the broken-down dock, perched on pilings like feathering blackbirds, spitting gristle, speaking that around-the-cratered-lake gobbletalk, paying me a nickel to dive down into the fillet-gutted wastewater that sluices through the cutting shed floor emptying out into the creek, paying me a nickel to dive down to where the soda machine lies at the bottom, fallen through its place on the dock and still plugged in underwater.
Get me a cold soda, Fishboy, a red one!
holding my breath for as long as it took I could, I could even hold it long enough to steal a cold soda for myself and sit on the bottom of the gut-watered creek, watching tiny fish feed in the clouds of waste that bloomed overhead in the water while I drank.
These were the long days in the short length of my life as the Fishboy, the sun slipping into the cratered lake like a figure eight of flame. I would make the last go-around call for fish to fillet and shells to cut, letting the big black women have their pick of the rotting fish left from the bottom of the union scripts, the shallow-draft schooners, and the local boats, letting the women take the souring fish with the milky eyes and ruined blood home, wrapped in their front-tied aprons, the women drunk on finishing the last work of the day and laughing at my whistling lisp slicing through the singsong
Finish fish! Finish fish! Take home your finish fish!
And I would shuffle dead tired, my pinched toes furrowing the sand, shuffle with my own finish fish, usually just the head and spine of some ruined carcass I would simmer into stew over a driftwood fire, back to my cartonated box, my finish fish wrapped in my apron, and I would not look back to where the purple bus’s back was bending beneath the flat, worn-footed weight of its passengers climbing aboard. I would crawl inside my box and wait,
wait for the blind driver to fall asleep to drive them home, wait until I was sure the bus was gone before I would peek out of my moon-cut hole, but the bus rolled slowly over the sand and never as far as I thought, and no matter how long I waited, waited until I thought it was safe to press my eyeball to the moon-cut hole, I would always see her seeing back, in the corner of the bus’s back window, the bus finally leaving the lot, always a red-blue-purple painted egg of an unblinking eyeball staring straight back into my own.