Julianne Clifton is a writer and MFA Candidate at Columbia College Chicago. She spends her non-writing time mucking about with Tarot cards and in pursuit of the best drinks in Chicago. Her work has previously appeared in Friction Magazine and as an international column in the Indiana Daily Student.
The Fates Go Fishing
The mouth of the bass kept opening and closing against the paper, even with the sides cut out and the organs smeared. It didn’t bother her, of course, it never did, but the maiden frowned at it anyway.
It was shaping up to be an awful morning. Probably the worst in years. Four separate fish had swallowed the hook, and she’d had to dig in their throats for far too long. She’d run out of nightcrawlers and had to take the boat all the way back home to get more.
Then there was the talking fish. A perch, maybe?
She slid her knife into the last filet and delicately skinned it, dropped it into the waiting pot of cold water, and gathered the paper and guts and heads to put in the trash. Maybe she’d go see one of the others.
She looked out the window and scanned the lake. It was not so large a lake that she couldn’t see the other two cottages slanting into the water.
The crone, maybe? Forever was a long time to be neighbors with someone who expected you to cut her grass, but damn it if she didn’t have the world hiding beneath those shaky barbed hands.
Of course, the mother was much nicer. She’d have cookies. Less wisdom, but more cookies. And some fresh fish.
They all had fresh fish.
The filets could wait. The maiden ladled them out of the cold water and into a bag for the fridge. She’d start with the mother.
The mother’s house smelled like mildew and baking soda, which was comforting somehow. A little bit of forgotten and a little bit of care. As soon as the door opened the scent assaulted her nose, and the mother just blinked and smiled and wiped clear fish scales from her hands.
“Hello, maiden,” she said mildly, “Come on in. Would you like some fish?”
“Maybe some cookies if you have them,” the maiden said, following her to the kitchen. Avocado countertops and appliances were everywhere, and the windows seemed tiny. Cosy, the mother would have said. Quaint.
The mother tore plastic wrap from the top of a large green bowl of cookies and set it down at the kitchen table, while the maiden sat in a white wooden chair and watched the mother continue scaling the fish. Scaled fish still had so many bones. Not to her taste, but the mother would bake them in oil and lemon and not mind the skins.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some fish?” The mother was beaming from her plump face to her plump rump. There was no one else to visit, and there were always cookies. How many had she thrown out? The maiden felt suddenly, irrationally guilty.
When was the last time she’d come over to visit? The maiden twisted her lips and looked down at the cookies. Brown, and lumpy.
Help, one seemed to say with a wide-eyed fish stare.
The talking fish. “I have a bit of an odd question for you, mother.”
The mother paused in her scaling and seemed to dim a bit. “Ask away.”
“Have you ever,” and then she stopped, because what kind of a question was have you ever had a fish talk to you?
The mother scraped at the scales, then reached for her butcher knife. Chop, and the fish’s gaping mouth was separate from its body. A bluegill. “What, dear?”
“I thought I saw something odd today,” the maiden began again. “But not something possible.”
The mother quirked an eyebrow at her.
“One of the fish in the lake,” she continued, chewing at her lip as she spoke. “I swore it lifted its head out of the water, looked at me, and said help.”
Slowly, the mother put down the aluminum fish scaler, spattered with blood. She picked up the knife, then the scaler, than turned slowly and walked to the sink. Cold water washed over her hands, and the fish scales flaked off in iridescent sparks.
“It sounds to me,” she said softly, “It sounds to me like you should go see the crone.”
“So it doesn’t sound like nothing to you, then.” The maiden swallowed against the dryness of her throat.
“I think the crone will know what to do.” The mother dried her hands, one after the other.
The maiden started to rise, to walk to the crone’s cottage, when the mother reached out and grabbed her by the arm.
“Why don’t you,” she smiled, “take a cookie with you?”
The walk to the crone’s house was through the woods. The cookie didn’t smell appealing, almost as if it were burnt somehow, and it mixed oddly with the fishy aroma that clung to her hands, and so the maiden broke and crumbled the cookie in her hands to nothing during the trek.
Help, she thought she heard when she reached the crone’s cottage. A little voice from the lake. She fought down the urge to turn and look, and instead knocked on the solid oak door of the fieldstone cottage.
The door creaked open to reveal the hunched old woman. “You haven’t been to see me in ages.”
Blunt. Always blunt. But that was the caprice of age, the mother had always told her.
The cottage was like the old woman herself—small and sallow. Chairs were arranged by the open fire where she cooked her gutted fish and a thin cot sat sullenly in the corner.
“You might as well sit. I know you wouldn’t come without a reason.” The old woman moved with surprising agility over to the bucket of fish—perch—she was preparing for the flames.
“It’s hot in here.” The maiden pushed her chair back from the fireplace as the crone cackled.
“Only way to roast a fish.” She had an old knife with a wooden handle, thin from too much sharpening. “Now what do you want?”
“There was a fish.” The maiden felt queasy with the rising heat and wiped at her brow. “A fish in the lake. I know this sounds crazy—I really do—but I swear it poked out its head and spoke.”
The crone was silent for a long moment, the only sound the logs popping and the rip of her knife through tiny bones. Almost the same sound, really. So close, but not quite. “What did it say?”
“It said, help.”
The crone was silent again. “I think it’s time you knew some things, maiden.” She spread the gutted fish wide in her hand and put it on a pan over the flames. “You see, things look different from the bottom of the lake.”
“I don’t understand.” She felt sweat drip down her neck. “The lake has a bottom?”
The crone let out a bark of a laugh. “No, not really. It has another side. And on that side, the fish walk around and talk and cry and have lovers and children and wars. They don’t understand what happens on this side of the lake any more than you knew they were there. But they are. In houses and with lakes and skies of their own. Now what do you think about that?”
The maiden felt her head start to throb. The fire had to be getting hotter. “That’s not possible.”
The crone wagged a knobbed, bloodstained finger. “Oh, of course it is. Do you know what they look like? They look just like us. But there are millions of them. Fish, confused fish, waiting to die. And we catch them. I know these things. Because crones, crones are meant to be wise. It’s the way of things.” She reached into her bucket and pulled out another perch.
“Don’t,” the maiden tried to cry out, but her voice was so weak, and her hands felt stiff.
“See, crones know the way the world works and keep the order. And mothers, mothers care. And maidens, of course, do you know what maidens are supposed to be?”
The maiden held her hands to her chest, the heat making her slippery with sweat. She tried to wipe at her arms, but they were so hard, they were cracking from the heat.
“Maidens, my dear, are supposed to be innocent.”
The maiden looked at the fire, and the roasting perch seemed to have legs—or maybe legs were fins — and the fish said help — and she was on fire, she was roasting alive—
That night, the mother stopped by the crone’s cottage.
“I did hope that this one would last a bit longer.” The mother sighed and shook her head.
“Don’t worry about it,” the crone said. “There will be a new one tomorrow.”
And they had fish for dinner.