Fishboy (Mark Richard)

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  I 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 sideroad 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.

Some boat.

Any boat.

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.

That boy.

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, eyeglazed 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.

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Excerpted from Fishboy by Mark Richard. Copyright © 1993 by Mark Richard. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.