We are excited to announce the winner of the May 2022 Chattanooga Writers’ Guild Monthly Contest is James Brumbaugh with the submission “Martin and the Fish.”
James Brumbaugh lives and works in Chattanooga. He loves his wife and daughter. He grew up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where he drank far too much sea water.
Martin and the Fish
Martin is alone on the open ocean. His vessel is too small for the journey. It is barely wider than his hips, barely longer than he is when he’s laying down, not deep enough to provide any protection from the waves. But Martin makes do with what he has. He’s always done so.
Blue eyes turned too pale in the unrelenting sun. Water, unbroken for miles, is that all there is. Or is that simply an image the sun has burned on his retinas? He’ll never know unless the horizon changes. Martin left his home in a hurry, long ago. He hadn’t been prepared for a voyage of this length. Meager items lay amongst his feet. A dull knife flecked with rust, a string, and three fourths of a rotting finger taken from his own hand.
He picks up the string and idly ties it round the finger, leans over the side of his craft and lets it plop into the water. Trying his hand as a fisherman. Fishing is a matter of patience. Waiting comes easily to a man who has spent an eternity in the sea.
His previous tries have all ended in failure. A few nibbles, but nothing solid. In his nightmares he sees his bones picked clean, his chances at a decent meal vanished into dust. When he wakes, he promises himself to eat the finger himself before letting it come to that. For now, he is content to try his luck.
Time is meaningless. Because of his position on the globe and the season, the sun is eternal. It will be months before night falls. An endless day on an endless sea, endless water and endless thirst.
A tug on the string and Martin is suddenly alert, he is a Lazarus. A wild heart is thundering in him, scorched by the sun but not yet ash. He is totally still. He is a divining rod. Martin is outside of his body, watching himself, watching the fish, watching like God. As he yanks the string he imagines that he is God, and that the fish is himself. The fish shines in the air and plops into the narrow craft with a thud. It is between Martin’s legs, slimy on his calves. He drives his heel into its middle, crushes its spine. Its mouth opens and closes dumbly.
Martin stares into its black eye. It coughs like a man and is still. He takes it in his shaking hands and feels a sort of remorse. The knife is a foul tool, of little use for gutting. He winds up more ripping than cutting. Martin grabs at the innards and feels something hard and round in his hand. A coin. He dips his hands in the ocean, wipes at the viscera coating the coin. Silver, finely crafted, a portrait of the Queen. This is no mere coin, but a coin of his realm, a coin from his home.
Giggles rack his body, make him shake, make tears spring from his eyes. A coin from home. There are times at sea when one may imagine that home is a dream, that home is a fabrication, a trick, a mirage. But with this coin in hand, the boat begins to seem like a mirage, the ocean like a dream. He blesses the fish, kisses its cold mouth, blushes like a schoolgirl.
The little boat bobs like a cork in the water. There’s no way to know in which direction Martin is moving, or if he’s moving at all. But Martin picks the bones from the fish, examines them, thin and almost translucent, and he doesn’t care where he’s going. He has the fish’s raw white meat, tasty after such a long famishment, and he has his coin, hot in the sun and shiny, heavy in his hand. The weight of it brings him home.