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The Riddling Fish

by Emily Macdonald

Yesterday morning the sun still burnt Kaitoke Beach dry, and the wind skittered tumbleweed and desiccated crabs. It tossed sand into eyes and pumped waves into flat glassy faces. 

The weather turned by mid-afternoon, smashing sets into pummelling mess, curdled with froth, sand stirred and broken.

They walk in the rain towards the far southern end, where the rocks form a lea of calm. Kaia strides stretching legs wide, sinking her feet in his prints. Today the beach is wet, tangled with kelp and flotsam, spat by the sickening sea—a split orange fender, a single rubber shoe. 

He casts, flying the line, training it to keep the hook within quiet waters. She believed him when he said, “The fish will have headed deep. Don’t expect a catch but it’s something to do.”  

Kaia hunkers down, below the drizzle wind. The tug on the line is like a reminder, surprising them both.

The fish, she is a whopper. She slaps her snapper tail like a mother’s resigned reprimand. Two foot long but tired after spawning amid the kelp and reef rocks. Kaia would like to say he wrestled—battled the sea beast onto land—but she sees the fish is weary, doesn’t put up much of a fight.  

Kaia hates him when he stuns the fish, using a rock in his hand. He lays it in the shingle shells, saying it’s too big to carry by threading fine fishing line.  

“Mind it,” he says, like she’s a trained guarding dog.  

Kaia minds the silver belly and fat rubber lips, sharp dorsal fin, and petal thin scales. 

“I see you, girl of the sea,” says the fish and then she starts to sing. Her voice is wet-warbling, mournful but sly knowing.

“I’m as alive as you without breath

As cold in my life as in death.”

“Stop it,” Kaia says. “I’m sorry he caught you.” 

“Try this one,” says the fish. “What gets broken without being held?” 

“I don’t know,” Kaia says, looking around to see where he is.

“A promise,” says the fish. “You should know.  What’s easy to get into but hard to get out of?” 

“Be quiet. It’s his fault. Leave me alone.”

“Trouble,” says the fish. “You know that too, girl.  What is the difference between today and tomorrow?”  

“Shush!” Kaia is stern. “He’s coming back.”

He’s carrying spears of flax. He splits them into three and plaits, making a tight knotted green rope. Kaia watches but keeps glancing at the fish, willing her to keep silent. The fish lies gaping and toothy mouthed. She gives Kaia a slow saucy wink.

He feeds the tip of the flax as a needle on his stringer, pushing through the fish’s gills toward her mouth.

Now you’ll be silenced, thinks Kaia, but the fish winks again and Kaia looks away as he swings her, so her tail slip-slaps the shabby sand.

“She’s a beaut’,” he says, his left bicep flexing, taking the weight. 

Kaia knows she should want people to see. “Look!” She should say. “My magnificent man has caught a fish. Not any fish. My big man can hardly keep her burnished tin fin from dragging the sand!”  

She carries the rod, silent beside him, casting her eyes. “See what he did? See what he did to this magnificent fish!”

Kaia chances a glance, hears the fish mouth, 

“The more footsteps you take the more you leave behind.” 

Especially if you walk in the wrong direction, Kaia thinks, then claps a hand to her mouth as if she’s spoken out loud.

The snapper feeds ten easy for dinner, with squeezes of lemon. Kaia picks at the bones, white flakes pile on her plate.

The fish is speaking from within her.

“What is the difference between today and tomorrow?  

You loved him yesterday.  

You loved him today, 

But you won’t love him tomorrow.” 

Kaia feels a groundswell in her belly like a storm surge summoned from offshore. She hurries from the table, scurries to the back of the bach. Doubled over, she heaves into the hebe hedge.   

Early yesterday morning, Kaia thought that she loved him. While watching his graceful carving lines in the ice-blue barrel, his flight over the lip of the wave. Today her love has crumbled with the sea pounded sandstone.

She knows the difference between yesterday and today is tomorrow. Tomorrow there will be other fish in the seething blue sea.

Emily Macdonald grew up in New Zealand and studied English.  She did a postgraduate course in Creative Writing at Auckland University with the Samoan writer Albert Wendt but then entered the wine trade, first of all in NZ and then in the UK.  It wasn't until she went freelance in the trade at the beginning of 2020 that she returned to my first love of creative writing. 

During Covid she did the Start Writing Fiction course with Future Learn and from there discovered Retreat West and the wonderful world of Flash Fiction. She won the inaugural Globe Soup 7 day writing challenge, and has had stories published in anthologies and online journals with Reflex Fiction, Fictive Dream, Lucent Dreaming, The Phare and Ellipsis Zine amongst others.  She has recently completed a novella and a collection of stories, and is working on another longer work at the moment.

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