Friday, September 11, 2009

The Fish

She felt like a deep-sea fisherman, like a character in Hemingway who spoke only in the briefest phrases and yet whose motivations were as clear as the fathoms of deep water below. She was fishing for a husband by showing how helpless she was, how much in need of rescuing. She had given a lot of thought to her choice of bait, she had wondered about men and watched her friends as they paired off happily and walked down various types of aisles, coming back paired off, two by two. It wasn’t the independent ones, the unconventional, the difficult who made that symbolic walk. It was the quiet and kind girls she had grown up with, the gentle young women who always took it for granted that they would marry, use the phrase “my maiden name” and have a couple of small blonde children. She chose not to think of what she was doing, of all the implications of helplessness and of how she suspected it could cease to be a ploy and become a real handicap. She thought only of the sun, the waves under her boat (the possiblity of storms), the tension of the line in her hands and the focus of her effort, the sea beneath and all its danger. The possibililty of reward, or renown.

One afternoon, a hot day in summer, no wind, no thunder to clear the air, she strung her hammock up between two elm trees in the back yard and lay back. For once she did not have a book open in front of her, she put a bare foot down to the ground and let her big toe push against the cool grass and rock the hammock gently. She was thinking about this obsession with finding a husband and settling down.

The night before she had dreamed of weddings, she had dreamed that everyone around her (all her friends, her family, the people she worked with) was getting married while she tried desperately to get away, avoid their pity because she was the last one not attached, the only one not loved. In her dream she heard their demands to be a bridesmaid, a caterer, a master of ceremonies, a toast-giver (in the dream the word she heard was “toaster” which dismayed her then and amused her now). She closed herself into a room with a locking door, ignored the knocking from the outside, held her aching head in her hands and cried. Her only solace was her refusal to admit entry. Everyone but me, she thought. Everyone but me.

Lying back in the hammock with her eyes closed in the dappled shade, she felt tired, probably because of the weather, the oppressive heat and the bronze glare of the sun, and because of her dreams, all the running and crying she had done while she slept. I do want to be rescued, she thought. But in a different way. From a different sort of danger.

She realized, in this moment of reflection and half sleep, that had used the wrong bait, thinking he would be attracted by her offer of her body, of all that went along with that, when he was not, it wasn’t a complex need enough to satisfy him, it was (she was) too easy. Wrong bait, too soon, she thought. Shame crawled over her skin like lice. She felt as though there were bits of herself, tiny pieces of a treasure she could never recover, scattered around a beach somewhere, being picked up and turned over and flung away like dull flat stones to skim the waves and sink away to nothing. Wave battered, sand washed, jetsam.

The rocking of the hammock slowed as she thought about the ways she had tried to show her need – the sudden inability to light a match or use a tool, the practical uselessness and feigned helplessness. She thought, why? Why are there all these games; why don’t they tell us the rules so we know if it’s okay to have a toolbox in the cupboard and know how to change a lock, or if only the basic skills (driving, baking) are acceptable? It was like going to the wrong job interview, every single time. She felt as though the basic essence of who she was, a competent woman, a fully formed individual with some small value if only to a couple of people and her dog, was all wrong. She hadn’t got the memo. She didn’t know about the dress code. She was being left behind, waving and calling as the procession moved past, oblivious.

And that’s what it came down to, not really to keep up with her peers, her friends and relatives who had baby showers and wedding showers and bachelor parties and receptions and whose conversations included an awful lot of the pronoun “we,” but just to move on. To let momentum move her closer to the next place in her life, so she wasn’t always living out this same pattern – catch and release, catch and loss, catch and miss.

The hammock swung, the shade dappled her closed eyelids and her unguarded face, she dreamed about catching a fish in the ocean, she felt the weight of it on her arm, aching and pulling, she held it aloft in triumph at the end of the struggle and wondered what she was supposed to do with it, anyway.

The Fish
Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
--if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

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