Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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Desert Fish

by Matt Kolbet




"Texas is big," Jake said and Mary nodded, because even if it had been said countless times before, it was true. "You could spend your whole life here and not see all of it."

Mary knew that wasn't true, but she didn't feel like fighting with Jake again. Not so soon after their last fight. Texas was drivable, even walkable. You might see it at a faster pace on a horse or a bike, but you could still see it on feet if you put in the time.

She took a sip from her water bottle. She had three more behind her seat just in case; it wouldn't do to be left stranded and thirsty. Ever since her divorce and taking up with Jake, most days held an element of just in case. Jake didn't worry as much as Phil ever had, and that was fun, even if it meant ending up on the edge of an open space where it was dry land or highway as far as the eye could see.

Phil would never survive here, she thought. Don't kid yourself: Phil would never be here in the first place.

During the first weeks of her relationship with Jake, Mary had thrilled at these trips. Open spaces were freedom. The contrast to Phil gave her more than pleasure than she imagined was possible, but after a few months, she saw that Jake's carefree attitude was not so different from recklessness. He didn't worry about bills being paid on time. In fact, it seemed like he didn't care if they got paid at all. In her six years with Phil, he had never missed a payment on anything, never failed to say he loved her every day, even when their divorce moved from possibility to eventuality. Jake didn't talk about love often, but somehow Mary had believed him more when he spoke. She also liked how calm she could be with Jake. She drank in his compliments during the first week and hadn't bothered looking back until now, sitting in the truck and deciding where to go next.

She had heard Jake's story before. Every kid who grew up in Texas had heard it. The story was the obvious reversal of things for added fright. Instead of dying of thirst, which was what people expected from Westerns and desert tales, lonesome travelers found something beneath the sand, something that wanted to hunt them. Hollywood made movies about creatures from the sand, and when the movie didn't quite flop, they made a sequel on the cheap.

"But fish!" Jake insisted.

"So you've said." She stared out the truck's front window, squinting a bit. Mary wanted to sound cavalier, but she had to admit she was intrigued. If Jake was right, and not merely dehydrated or drunk--which had been known to happen this early in the day before--he had seen fish jumping in the sand.

Only their recent fight about family bothered her. Jake had a daughter, but he hadn't exactly been eager to share the revelation with Mary, or do more than talk about it. She had nagged a little, and he dug in his feet. It wasn't a fight worth televising. Still, Mary found herself hesitating when Jake asked her to go fishing in the desert.

The way Jake described his discovery, after the bus dropped him off--another sign that he was probably still drunk from the night before, unable to drive--he'd decided to walk around a bit.

"I had my cell, just in case." He said he'd been walking about ten minutes when he started seeing fish jump out of the sand. "At first I thought it was lizards or something. They were too big to be spiders, even Texas spiders. They weren't in the air very long, either, but I spotted them." He'd grown animated when he first told Mary of his find, shaking his hands like a pair of uprights. "Fish. Bloody goddamn fish in the air."

Mary had watched him, ready to doubt. Not that she didn't believe Jake had seen something, but she doubted anyone else would see it, not at nine in the morning on a day that promised to be hot. She had looked over the empty land, its flatness broken occasionally by rocks and scrub, and watched wind mass its invisible power a moment before climbing back in the truck.

She was already sweating and wished she'd brought a hat, and if there were something to see, she wondered if everyone would see the same thing. Maybe fish to Jake would be chickens to Mark and a pair of boobs to Brad, his drinking buddies.

"After I saw one hit the sand, I ran over and started digging. Like a dog, I guess." He'd looked at the floor of the passenger seat and let his hands fall to his sides, guilty things that they were. "But I couldn't find anything, and I knew it would be pretty stupid to keep digging. Sand just collapses back on itself, you know. That's when I texted you."

"I'm here," Mary conceded. Jake's message had been strange enough to drag her from her kitchen table. She admitted to herself that really, she had been eager to leave the table, but she wanted Jake to feel her inconvenience and think it was suffering.

Her mother had written her a letter, which was rare, but not unheard of, and she'd mentioned the divorce, asked all the predictable questions about emotions and the future. Though they were merely a matter of decorum--like everything else, divorce had its protocol, its steps to recovery, somewhere short of twelve--Mary had immediately suspected Phil, her ex-husband.

She breathed in, smelling the sourness from Jake's mouth in the truck's small cab.

Mary wondered if Phil still sent her mother flowers for Mother's Day, as he had done when they were married. He probably did, but it wasn't like him to use other people. He faced problems, including people, like stone: immobile, rigid, and unforgiving. It made him a good worker and a difficult lover.

Even though she knew Phil probably hadn't been behind his mother's missive, Mary wanted to write him. So, once her breakfast dishes were cleared she began composing longhand, writing and scratching out, enjoying the slowness of the process. If she wrote on the computer she would grow bored quickly and settle, sending her message before it was complete, before it said what she truly felt. She intended to write Phil and tell him about Jake, to confess her love. She could not taunt him with it, nor call it a dalliance, as the divorce had been finalized the year before; she needed Phil to envy her, possibly to miss her.

But the words wouldn't come.

I've met someone she began, hating the familiarity of the phrase and how inadequate it was. Jake wasn't merely someone, but, Mary wondered, what was he then? She wouldn't tell Phil she had taken a new lover, and calling Jake a new man was to cast the relationship as a kind of commodity. Which is what it is, thought Mary, compared to Phil. In answer to her stalled beginning, Mary wrote effusively, exaggerating so she could revise and cut her way to the truth. She'd gotten through the first page when Jake texted. Mary looked at the message and back to her letter, wincing. She put a faint cross over the page, as though she meant none of it. The truth would have to wait.

It had taken her nearly an hour to find Jake. His directions were far from dependable, and he'd wandered away from the highway, gone back out again to see if the fish were still jumping. They were.

"No more than three or four at a time, but enough to convince me I wasn't crazy."

Mary was unconvinced.

"Let me get some water to bring along." She grabbed another bottle and shoved it in her backpack. "But I can't stay too long. I've got things to do." She opened her door. She decided not to specify what, and knew Jake, who had practically run from the truck, wasn't listening any more. His eyes were flitting from the distance, as though the desert held mysteries stranger than fish, and back to his feet.

"We'll make sure we can always see the truck," Jake said, running back and pulling Mary's hand. "It's not going anywhere without us. A landmark."

Mary sighed, the same sigh women have shared from time immemorial. "Okay."

Jake led the way confidently. Even five minutes without sighting life bigger than ants did not dissuade him. Mary did not pester him. She wanted to ask him if he was sorry, if getting drunk was a clue to how he felt. Most people drank to forget, but Jake wasn't most people. She hoped he had been drinking to help his memory, or at least to reach a decision.

Two days earlier, they had fought, and perhaps Jake had been drinking the whole time since. It wasn't their first fight, but certainly their loudest.

They had met in Jake's apartment because he preferred when Mary drove.

"So I can unwind more," Jake said. "It's practically Friday." Mary nodded, because drinking on a Thursday night was better than on a Tuesday, which usually signaled Jake was thinking of quitting his job, or had lost it already, was "between things," as he liked to put it.

When Mary arrived, Jake was still getting dressed. She wondered if he had been to work at all. She forgave him these moments in advance, because when the bill for dinner came, he still paid, as though his manhood could handle all manner of assaults except a woman buying him dinner. Looking around the apartment, Mary had a chance to try to figure out what had always bothered her about his place. She moved her eyes slowly, going corner to corner in a kind of gated pattern when she found her answer. There were no photographs. Jake had a couple of prints on one wall, flowers whose ability to lift the spirit had probably wilted moments after the paint dried on the original copies.

Jake stepped out from his bedroom, tucking in his shirt. "Ready?" he asked.

"Almost."

"Honey, you've been here ten minutes--"

"You need to answer a question first," Mary insisted, putting a hand on his arm and squeezing a little. "And don't worry, it's not about me." Jake looked doubtful. Mary laughed. "I'm just wondering why you don't have any personal pictures in the apartment, no photographs."

"That all?" Jake scoffed. "Easy. There's nothing to show."

"Your parents?"

"Dead."

"Sorry." Jake shrugged. "Siblings?" asked Mary.

"None, though that's one thing I've wished for on more than one occasion."

Mary figured Jake needed someone else to borrow money from, but immediately chastised herself for the thought. She already knew Jake had never married.

Over dinner though, once the first drinks sank in, he admitted he had a daughter.

"Don't see her much. Not for a couple years, anyway. Might not even recognize her on the street."

"How old is she?" Mary asked. Another shrug. "Where does she live?"

"I was...I was on the coast back then," Jake said. "Just a different part of a big state. I don't know if she's stayed there. Not that I moved to get away from her. I just moved."

"And she never tracked you down?" Mary said, leading him.

"I hoped she would," Jake confessed.

There seemed nothing more to say. The meal ended in ominous silence. Mary drove back to Jake's place, but wouldn't come up.

"Why can't you let it go?"

"I don't know, I just can't. It's a big deal." Because she said it was, it became one. Their voices escalated.

He leaned over to kiss her, but Mary pulled back, inexplicably upset. Jake sulked. He began talking in a general way. She learned that Jake's daughter, Laura, had been thrust into his life by a previous girlfriend more than a dozen years before. The woman had hoped a child would unite the couple, but it had the opposite effect. Worse, the woman--Jake kept her name a secret, and claimed he couldn't remember how many girlfriends he'd had since then--had died soon after Laura was born, leaving Jake with few options. Mary knew that when men talked about women in their lives, they always lied, but Jake said so little she had a hard time finding where the lies could be hiding.

"Where is Laura now?" Mary asked.

Jake didn't know. He guessed foster care. "Unless someone's adopted her. That's always a possibility, even when kids get older. No one's told me, though."

"I'm sure if you--"

"I was a bastard for a couple years, doing nothing, but then I sent letters," Jake said, and Mary heard the emphasis on plurality. "She never responded. Not once. So I figured I'd better just get over it."

It was a solicitation for pity, and Mary relented. She kissed Jake. He didn't insist she come up, and she was grateful. She needed time to process Jake being a father. If he argued, she would yell back and they would have fought more, both leaving unhappily. Jake was good at making himself the victim, and even as she told herself how manipulative it was, Mary found it difficult to resist.

She laughed quietly, remembering the fight now. Phil had never cast himself as anything but a leader. He pretended to have more power than he did, bordered on arrogance more than was forgivable, but if something went wrong, Phil owned up. Comparing the men in her mind, Mary found both insulting and reassuring in their opposition. Jake did not hear her laughing, could not misconstrue her mirth, and Mary was glad. The day was hot enough already without getting angry.

Jake kept going. Mary looked back, worried. Even though it was just two people and the desert, the calmness that had characterized their relationship felt tremulous as they walked on. She could still see the truck, but as the sun rose, the glint of one window became suspect. The sun played tricks on anyone foolhardy enough to wander away from the roads.

Like me, Mary thought.

She stared in the direction of the highway long enough to convince herself the truck was still there before turning back to Jake. He was nearly thirty feet away, but there was no losing him out here, not with his bright green shirt. She had no intention of staying long enough for the shirt to begin to fade.

The sun, rising quickly enough to enhance its reputation for deception, seemed already hard at work in trying to trick Mary, for she thought she saw someone else with Jake.

"Jake!" she called and ran to him.

"What are the odds, huh?" Jake said when she reached him. He gestured casually to the other man. "This is Sam. I've been telling him about the fish. He hasn't seen them, but you can bet it's made him curious."

Mary nodded. She thought it would have been wiser to ask Sam what he was doing out here. The highway was more thought than reality now. Mary could see it, but her confidence in it was waning as the sun rose and they moved further into the desert.

"Sam, nice to meet you."

"Likewise," said Sam. He grated out a laugh. "Not that most people don't think it's nice to meet me, mind you. I suppose it's nice to meet anyone when you're out in the desert."

"We're hardly out... I mean, the highway's right there," Mary said, but she was afraid to look back. Something about Sam worried her. He had been genial enough so far. Still, she felt he wasn't to be trusted. All the worst traits of Jake and Phil seemed compounded in him. She could not offer proof, but the feeling was strong enough to make her step back.

Jake was ignoring them. "What do you think, Sam?"

Sam frowned, as though he had given the matter a great deal of thought in the few minutes of their acquaintance. Watching him, Mary shuddered. He was probably a salesman--traveling salesman she thought absurdly, not letting herself laugh at the notion--and the first few minutes of the exchange determined whether people would buy.

She wanted to go back to the truck immediately. "Jake, I--"

Sam spoke. "I suppose it must be like any fish in the water. Comfortable in its surroundings because that's all it's ever known." He laughed sharply. "That's the thing about humans. They can go all sorts of places. More importantly, they notice the difference. That's why things mean something to a person, because it's different."

"Yes, but what do the fish do?" Mary asked, angry she had been pulled into the men's conversation, forgetting her determination to resist Sam, to return to the truck. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad just to listen. Only a moment, then move on. Yes, that was reasonable.

Sam's grin did not drop. "Wives tales could tell you better than me. They probably look out for threats. There might be sharks under the sand!" he said with a sudden ferocity, but then his voice dropped again to easiness, letting his tongue fall into a ready drawl. "I imagine they look for food, attend their schools as any fish would. They probably celebrate, as much as fish can." He glanced at Jake. "I guess they can't wink, and they probably look perpetually surprised."

Jake took up the theme. "Yeah. They look for eggs, too. For new life."

"Precisely," said Sam. "That's how you build a kingdom, with eggs and new life."

Mary was not convinced. Sam made it all sound not only possible but believable. She shook her head and blinked rapidly, as though she'd stared at the sun too long. There was something about his vision that was beautiful, but Sam could not be trusted. Jake would never see it, though Mary felt now she must protect him. She saw why Jake wanted to embrace Sam's explanation. Sam's world was one of limited responsibility: food and rest. It was a gospel of forgetting.

For a moment, Mary considered that perhaps Phil had sent Sam. That Phil had been tracking them and Sam was merely an instrument of punishment. Where had that thought come from? Phil was not above reproach, sure, yet sending someone like Sam was simply too inelegant. No, this was Jake's doing. Sam was the perfect salesman for Jake, and the kind Phil would have dismissed outright.

"So what now?" she asked. "We can't spend all day looking at the ground."

"You're right," said Sam cordially. "We need to find what's under it."

"I already tried digging," offered Jake.

"Admirable, but ineffective, I imagine. Look at this land," Sam said, sweeping his arms toward the sky without raising his hands above his head, which might be mistaken for a prayer. "I think we'll need to do something more compelling."

"You mean drastic," Mary said. She wanted Sam to get angry, to feel her indictment and in his wrath reveal what Jake could not see. If she pulled at Jake, he would be more determined to stay. Stubbornness was not foreign to either of them.

"Your word," said Sam dismissively. He turned his attention to Jake. "If you want to catch a fish, you need the right bait. You can't just plunge, randomly. Oh, occasionally that nets something, but you don't want to work on chance, do you?" He did not wait for Jake's response, because the answer was implied. "Of course not. Lucky for you, I've been out in the desert a long time, and I can help you."

"How long?" Mary asked. She needed to hear figures, something close to reality, even if Jake refused to listen.

Sam smiled--he was always ready with a smile. "I come and go. Sometimes it seems like a lifetime, but the desert will do that to anyone, play tricks with time, make you feel like you can't go on, but the point is you can survive, you can go on. There are stories of men who survive in the desert for weeks, months even. Forty days is but a stretch," Sam concluded.

Jake showed no interest in time. He had found a goal. "How do we do it?"

"Desert fish don't eat worms," said Sam. "A worm wouldn't do it any good. They probably have to be careful about opening their mouths too much, given the grit around them."

"But you said--"

Sam ignored Mary, and Jake appeared not to care about the lie. If Sam said the fish were comfortable in the only environment they'd known and a moment later suggested they couldn't open their mouths, perhaps it was true.

"No, desert fish are harder to catch. They're more beautiful than other fish..."

"Yes," droned Jake.

"...and their rarity comes at a price." Sam put an arm over Jake's shoulder. They both looked out over the desert, as though they could share a vision. "Think of the most important thing you have."

Mary stood to one side, appalled. Neither man looked at her.

"Laura," said Jake.

"Your daughter," Sam supplied, never explaining how he could know the girl's identity or name. "Yes, she might be as rare as a desert fish. It's always our secrets that sink us, and we do need to go down to find the fish, for while they jump occasionally, most dwell at the bottom."

Jake nodded, and Mary grew frightened. The more Sam tried to talk sense, the more she saw his deceit. He was no sun shining clarity, but Jake had probably never found a thing he wanted and could have with such ease. The world had challenged them both, but she had glimpses of success and spells of happiness. She thought of Phil again, and her unwritten letter.

Sam removed his arm, this brief communion with the broken man over. "What would you give to catch a desert fish?"

For a moment, Jake looked surprised, as though he had considered the reality of his find, but not the price of laying the trap. He did not move his gaze from the open land before him, which in other times would mean countless possibilities instead of one eventuality.

"Jake, your daughter is not part of this," Mary said. Sam hit her with an open hand and glared as she fell to the ground. Jake did not move, lost already to the false promise.

"Laura," Jake said slowly. The voice was his and yet not his, pulled out of him slowly, words eviscerated. "She never gave me a chance to love her."

"She can be with us, too," Sam coaxed. "You can have that chance."

Jake nodded. "It might have been the best thing I could be, but he never let me be her father. "

"I will," Sam said, the lie plain, though it was just as clear that Jake believed him.

"Can you get her with us?" Jake asked abruptly, his eyes searching Sam's.

"Neither of us can speak for her, of course. There are limits to what even I can do, but a good word from her father would probably be enough. Fathers are often quite convincing."

"Yes."

"And don't you think she would love to see the fish you've seen?"

"Yes."

"You're right, Jake," continued Sam, his voice growing quieter and quieter. "You are right." Mary crawled to her feet, horrified, knowing that Jake had probably heard such faint praise too few times in his life. "What young woman wouldn't like to witness the beauty you've seen?"

"Jake, you can't do this," Mary said, moving to block his view of the land. "Beauty? You said you'd only seen the fish jump for a second. You haven't seen anything. It's just a trick. He's making it seem like you've seen something more."

"And you two can be together," Sam cooed.

Mary was desperate. "Jake, maybe Laura never saw the letters you sent. It's possible the agency never got them. You know those stories newspapers run every once in a while--letter delivered after forty years. What if was something like that?"

She put her hands on his cheeks and pleaded with her eyes. Jake's eyes stared back without moving, dulled already.

Mary's voice was no more than a whisper now. Sam had shown her that a large space demanded only little noise. "Or maybe somebody got the letters and kept them from her. From Laura." She hoped the name would invoke the reality of the loss he was contemplating. "They probably thought they were protecting her, helping her move on, but it wasn't true, and what Sam's asking, that's not true, either."

If Jake heard her, he dismissed the connection.

"What do we do now, Sam?" Jake asked.

Sam smiled, closing the sale. "We wait for glory." He spoke as one used to waiting, even if not blessed with patience. "Are you ready?"

Jake nodded.

There was no sudden storm, no lightning flash, not even the whoosh that convinces witnesses something has gone. Here nature needed no sound effects, but both men were gone. Mary stood, alone. Her eyes prodded the ground where Jake had stood. Briefly--to brief to be believable--she saw a green fish jump, its skin reminiscent of Jake's bright shirt, pursued by a larger crimson fish, which seemed all teeth and hunger.

The walk back to the highway was shorter than she expected. Mary saw the truck.

Jake's absence would not need explaining. Landlords of men like him knew every renter was a gamble, and his employer understood the same risk. People didn't always stay for long. No, Mary thought, we lack the certainty and eternity of beings like Sam.

Sam had hunted Jake. The desert fish was just one means of catching his prey. Mary wanted to believe in goodness, to believe Sam failed more often than he succeeded, but Jake's willingness to sacrifice innocence, to help Sam catch a second soul, even if it came to nothing, was sufficient to take him into the desert, where Jake would be eaten and regurgitated over and over again, and even in those moments were he could see, rather than anything Sam promised, Jake would feel sand grating on his unblinking eyeballs and hear fish screaming sermons of silence.

Mary knew what to write Phil: I thought I had found a family. Phil had wanted children, though Mary had been unsure. She had said she didn't need a child, but after all the fighting they both felt denied. It wasn't just that the world could be cruel and overcrowded. What had always frightened her about children was seeing them grow, knowing she was helpless to stop them from losing their innocence. That no matter how strong your desire, or how much sleep you lost, they were going to transform.

She reached the truck and climbed in, settling herself behind the steering wheel. She put the keys in the ignition. There was nothing left to do but drive on, back to her kitchen table and the unfinished letter or something else undone. Still, she did not move. Not yet, she told herself. She wanted to wait, to watch for a young woman who deserted the only home she'd ever known by the sea to travel inland, showing up at the edge of a Texas desert for no reason except strange whispers in her heart. The desert was for people who wanted to find what they were missing and thought emptiness a likely place to start looking, and if Mary saw Laura, she did not know what she could say, or how she could keep the young woman from her father and the broken promises he'd found, but she had to try. She had to resist the temptation to simply leave. I can wait, she told herself, at least a while longer, to keep the girl safe.


THE END


2015 Matt Kolbet

Bio: Mr. Kolbet teaches and writes near Portland, Oregon.  He is the author of several things online and the novel The Futility of Nicknames. His last Aphelion appearance was Watching Mannequins in our February, 2015 issue.

E-mail: Matt Kolbet

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