The fish kept wriggling. Its body was wet and slippery and although the scales, each one like a thin and papery fingernail, offered some purchase, they kept sloughing off in the boy’s hand.
“No. Like this.”
The man gripped the fish at the tail and gills, its mouth opening and closing in an oval slot, mouthing ‘pop’ slowly. He placed it on its side carefully in the box at the back of the skiff with the others, the same way mother placed garments she didn’t want wrinkled. The boy watched with appropriate reverence.
“You see its mouth working like that?”
“That’s because he can’t breathe. Fish breathe in water. You take a thing from where it’s supposed to be and it soon dies.”
The boy nodded. “How’d you know it’s a he?”
The man smiled. “I guessed.”
The boy nodded knowingly. “Well that’s alright. I guess too sometimes.”
The man patted a hand softly over the top of the boy’s head, ruffled his hair, making him squirm; his hand was wet with the salty sweat and scum of the fish. He sat at the skiff’s stern and took the paddle and levered it against the water. He turned the boat a quarter turn and then rose again and pulled on the net’s sideline until the rest of the footrope came clear and into the skiff’s shallow deck. The boy began to fold the net the way he’d been taught while the man took hold of the paddle and turned the skiff fully and began to row them back.
Sunny dimples glinted along the soft moving pane, silvery as the fish in the box. The sun lay low and westward now. They’d been a long time.
“How do fish breathe in water?”
“It’s the way they’re made. A thing’s always made for where it belongs. It’s how you can tell what it’s for.”
“What am I for?”
The man stopped rowing and looked at him. The boy waited. The man smiled and took up the oar again. “Many great things,” he said.
They broiled the fish later by the shore, near the house where mother slept. The sun had lowered and sat waiting to touch the lake like a toe testing the water, its tawny yellow spangled and shimmering along the rippling wet skin as the sky bruised and evening neared. The boy watched as his uncle scaled the fish and cut them open to clean out the innards. He then set them in halves on woodplates before filleting each half carefully with his flint and giving the fillets to the boy to spice before setting them atop the gauze. The boy grew sad as he worked the spices into the milky pale flesh.
“This is what mother is for,” he said solemnly.
He couldn’t do it as well as she could and the thought made him wish she was here with them instead of weak and coughing in the hut. The man said nothing. The sun sank beneath the still, aqueous dark of the lake. The sky dimmed. Evening came. They sat by the fire as the fish broiled, its saline tinge spicing the smoke as the flesh cooked and dried. The boy waited for the man to tell a story as he usually did, to talk of Watchers and lost gods and all other things mother didn’t like the boy to hear told, but the man said nothing. It wasn’t until they began to eat that his father finally came. The boy knew as soon as he saw him. Although the set of his face was the same and the tight line of his mouth no different he could see in the weary slump of his father’s shoulders and his still silence as he stood there by the fire the shadow of a weariness no rest would quench. Mother had finally stopped coughing. She would not be waking up.