Dad winked at Momma and me while the fish jumped into our boat. He said, “After my hook stuck your momma’s cheek, she kissed me and danced to my songs.”
We couldn’t see him sitting on the rear seat because the fish had piled as high as his head. Those slippery, floppy things loved his voice that sang old ballads about water monsters and river pirates. He was born in the Tennessee River, a drinker of silt and an eater of worms. With every note he released, the fish breathed him in and breathed their own lives out.
Back at home, they sizzled in the pan. Once they finished frying, I helped Momma pluck the slivers of bones. With greasy fingers, I opened a trash bag and filled it with pieces of skeletons. Carrying the garbage out, I noticed Dad singing a song to a new neighbor. Her clothes were damp and her shoes were muddy even though the river was miles away.
Each night his cold food remained on his plate while we waited at the table. He returned each morning with fish falling out of the pockets of his oilskin jacket.
One night I found Momma submerged under her bath water. I kneeled beside the tub, coaxing her to open her eyes, hoping for bubbles to pop over the water’s surface. Only her hair moved. I pulled her up, water splashing my clothes, and asked her what was wrong.
“I want to feel like a caught fish again,” she said. “But hooks are easily removed.”
When Dad took me on his annual Florida trip for bigger prey, Momma didn’t come.
We strolled down a pier while shoving pieces of salt water taffy in our mouths, and he said, “I won’t be living with you and your momma anymore.”
“I don’t believe you.” My jaw ached from chewing the taffy; my mouth was numb. I bit the inside of my cheek.
That bright moon night, from the motel room balcony I watched his jacketed figure pacing along the beach, stamping the tide-washed seaweed flat. In the ocean water, dorsal fins swam closer and closer to shore—hundreds of fins, that I wondered if the ocean could contain that many sharks.
When I skim-dived into the water the next morning, I swallowed so much sand that I choked on shell fragments, and the salt water stung the sore on the inside of my cheek. All of Dad’s hooked fish must have suffered the same grief.
Later, Dad dragged me to the dock, where a boat captain wearing shark teeth around his neck stared at my skinny chest and said to Dad, “Don’t you know the scent of women prompts sharks to flee?”
Dad should’ve told the captain all sharks have a bit of woman in them, but he only laughed. I dove over the side. Then, I lurked in the darkness under the boat until they set out.
Since I was concentrating on tracking Dad, I never considered what could have tracked me. A tiger shark’s dorsal fin brushed my fluttering legs before a line yanked her. I broke the surface too. We landed with a thud on the deck, and her tail swung back and forth, slapping the hull.
Dad didn’t seem all that surprised to see me. He reached his hand out; I thought he meant to help me up. Instead, he bent over and placed his hand on the shark’s belly. “It’s moving. You see that?” The flesh wiggled.
Dad slit her rubbery belly. I screamed, imagining Momma’s insides splitting open after Dad told her he planned on leaving for good.
A litter of baby sharks spilled out; they leaped and thrashed into Dad’s arms, but he pitched one into the water. I caught it. I caught all the others. They were so slimy that I feared losing them. Shoving the babies into the shark’s stomach, I followed, disappearing inside, Dad singing behind, but I was already a cold, slippery thing falling out of his hands.
Brigitte N. McCray is a graduate of the Odyssey Workshop for Writers of Fantastic Fiction. She also earned her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and a PhD in English from Louisiana State University. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in UNBUILD Walls, Prick of the Spindle, Mythic Delirium, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth.com, Red Rock Review, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter: @bnmccray.
Lead image: “Sharktouch” (via Flickr user András Bihari)