The sea carried the gray fishing dory not three hundred feet off the end of the dock. Waves slid beneath like repeating images into the fog.
The three men had gone silent. Their minds fixed to the rhythm of their strokes. In front of them an old woman squatted on the thwart nearest the bow, arms divided and tied stiff. None stared directly at her, but each tossed self-aware glances. She caught and held the edges of their restive eyes, and she looked meditative. Her heavy gray hair risen furiously behind her. Her eyes still and pensive as her protruding lips. This gave her a wise appearance, or maybe because her jaw was only gums.
Kale tried to appear curious about the side of the boat. Tried to imagine what all must go into putting one of those together. They probably do it in a factory these days. One guy just to soak the boards, another up the line to bend them so much, another who pounds them into place all day until the pounding becomes the sound of crickets in an evening field or the whir of a tractor with the still-lowing cattle at dusk. Factory men might be hammering a milk crate or a coffin for all they see. So many strange ways since he’d moved to the city.
He turned his head to the sea and watched the production of circles fade below his dripping paddle. The old woman’s figure hung in his vision and stuck like the sun. It looked like a painted lightbulb floating in the white, always in his vision whichever way he faced. A lightbulb molded in the shape of the Madonna. He had seen something like that Kale glanced back. The oblong gash on the woman’s forehead had gone purple. She was a fisherwoman, and without taste he felt the texture in his mouth of the redfish she’d sold him a week prior. He touched his face and hoped she didn’t see him pressing the dried blood into his pants. The lines below his eye continued to sting and there was a slight flow of warmth.
“That’ll do, Kale,” said Jackson. “You can leave her boots be.”
“She’s liable to kick. You saw how she kicked when we came and got her. Didn’t you both see it? No tellin’ how she’ll do.”
Jackson had his arms draped off the stern, opposite the woman. A boater hat balanced on his face. He did not row.
“You think she would have gotten a chance to get them off?” Jackson shook his head. “Nobody about to drown fucks with the straps of their boots.”
“It’s true,” said Willy, the other end of the rope still coiled around his arm. “If they find her and her boots aren’t on her, they’ll start to wonder. They’ll start askin’ ‘round: ‘You ever see her without her boots on?’ And ‘em folks, they’ll say, ‘naw, always had ‘em.’ ”
A stiff, brown beard stilted the motions of Willy’s jaw as he spoke. He prodded Kale on the arm with the grip of his paddle and wagged a finger at him. “They’re smart what they do to a body these days after it’s been located,” said Willy. “They measure the stabs, and they figure exactly which knife. Or they scoop all ‘round with a cattle magnet, or somethin’ like it, and they find the bullet and figure exactly which gun.”
The woman’s face remained still with her hair in contrast to the white fog and the soft waters that reflected it. Her black eyes had also come unstuck, and they circled, wayfaring yet pursuing like a child’s floating bobber. Then they caught fierce onto Kale’s own eyes like the practiced jerk of a hook. Her eyelids mimicked his blinks in matched perfection, and it was as if she were separating his thoughts into piles. Without movement, her mouth seemed recast under the screen of those eyes, and her look became irrefutably smug.
The kid hauled at the paddle with gratuitous force as he spoke off the side of the boat. “With her bein’ that way it hardly seems—.”
Jackson sat up and Kale raised his paddle. “I just sayin’, we can do what we wanna do, but, say if for some reason we didn’t go and do all that, well, it’s not like she’d be able to even—.”
“See that’s where you’re wrong,” said Jackson with an instructional flick of his wrist. “Just because she can’t hear and she can’t talk, doesn’t mean she’s incapable of writing stuff down.”
“Hell,” agreed Willy who twisted to face them. “She’d probably write it all out for ‘em. Save ‘em the trouble of writin’ it themselves. Wouldn’t need her even to show up at the courthouse.” He looked at the woman and looked back and leaned in and lessened his voice. “This type is the worst, most dangerous kind of witness there is. All silent and watchful.”
“Thank you, Willy,” said Jackson. “My point exactly.”
Everyone was silent for a time. Nothing in front or above or from any side. Kale studied the impressions of waves on the layer-less water. The sea was unaffected by the boat’s dent. He rotated his head, having thought he saw the narrow body of a fish. There it was. All solid dark like just the crust of some floating creature. It glided forward and stopped with its nose touching the side of the boat, and in that space it lingered. Assuming the fish would spook and be gone, Kale eased his paddle to reenter the surface. Then he saw the fish wasn’t anything, just the way he’d been seeing the ripples.
They paddled on, and the old woman had shut her eyes and might have been dead already. The mouth didn’t have to move for her to look that way either.
“Drowned with her own boat,” Willy declared as the paddles rose and sank. “Any true fisherman probably choose to go that very way. Best way to it. No mess. Just an old fisher fin’lly got called home to her old sea. Happens everyday somewheres, and nobody makes such a thing ‘cept to tell and forget.”
“It’s her own fault, what she saw,” said Kale in agreement. He’d started paddling in a habitual form as he raised and lowered his arms like working a hand pump. This was familiar, he realized, to what he had experienced on the farm. These sounds and motions. The feel of it all: The faucet patter of drips when that old rust-skinned bucket got near full was like the runoff droplets at the end of the paddle, and the chirp of the hand pump’s ancient pipes he now heard in the whine of the boat’s rowlocks. And there was that imposing white all around them, daunting and isolating as words on a leaflet, yet as usual and tiresome as row after row of wheat. He knew wheat. He’d known it by scent and bristly touch since the day they plopped a handful in his crib.
“She had no reason to stay by and watch,” Kale continued. “Could have turned and walked the other way and that would have been that for her.”
“That’s absolutely right,” said Jackson. “She had no business being there, and we can’t help it if she was.”
“It’s the nicest way to do it, I guess.” Kale turned behind himself to face Jackson. The man had pushed his hat back, was clutching his knees, and looked peculiar as he stared forward. “Lot more human, I mean.”
Jackson laughed and smashed his hat over his eyes. “And what could you possibly mean by ‘more human?’ ”
“Less, less fierce. Less uncomfortable.”
“The fuck do you know about drowning?”
“Well, it’s better than gettin’ shot or hung or burned up, ain’t it?”
“How long you wanna go?” asked Willy. Pains thumped already in his chest as he struggled to keep the kid’s pace. He didn’t want to get them in a circle or washed up on land, who knows where.
“We need to go on for some time.”
They went. Her hair leapt and she kept still. There was a murmur of breeze, to which Kale thought instantly of white lightning and thunder, a twister scraping the horizon and young wheat shoots wrenched and lying broken on the earth.
It got harder, and they lost momentum. None of them did this sort of thing ever. Kale had to keep adjusting his hands. They seemed not to fit the paddle wherever he placed them. “What if we discuss stuff first?” he said.
“What is it you think you need to know?”
“How it’s all s’posed to go. So we get it right and don’t make mistakes.”
“Okay,” said Jackson, his legs crossed and his hands animate. “First you’ll whop her on the head with the oar. Got that?”
“Don’t think, just do when I say.”
“Broad side, remember. So as much doesn’t show.”
“After you make sure she’s out good, you’ll untie her feet first. Then untie her hands. We’ll all be ready in case she starts to come around. And you’ll lift her up over the side and let her down. We’ll send the nets right after so if they do find her they’ll find them too.”
“What ‘bout the boat?”
“The boat we’ll do later. We get everything figured out here, and then we’ll head back to the docks and figure out the boat.”
“We gonna have to be careful to make sure nobody sees.”
“Well, no shit we will.”
“I mean afterward with the boat and it bein’ day and it bein’ so close to shore.”
“Nobody’ll see the boat. I’ve got that figured. You just knock her when I say.”
They’d do it pretty soon now and be done: An old, deaf fisherwoman where the sea in its mighty jealousy finally got her. Only a gash on her forehead where she must of met a rock on the way down.
When the old woman began to speak, it sounded like united voices from a wasp nest or the cursing man who spat as he followed Kale that first miserable hour in the city. Her words were an eruption in the quiet that had settled in the boat and they seemed separate from nature and they proved remarkably unsettling.
“John Zhu,” she stated. The three stared with their paddles laid to rest and dripping.
She said, “Man from the rice fields came on a boat, not this kind, to them railroads. His eyes thin. Fast in the talkin’. Such bad teeth on that man.” Her jaw rose delicately and she gave a vacant grin.
Locals of those parts all knew of the fisherwoman. Her dense, plodding figure passed through the stories they told and was as archetypal as a black cat appearing around the corners of homes and trees. She was a character chiseled into life by her silence as much as by the quantities of her catch. She was unlike the rest of the townsfolk in that older, still-gritty part of the city, yet somehow iconic of them, of who they were. A breathing reminder of the atmosphere of those streets.
The old fisherwoman. Her unquiet words became liquid now, their edges slurred.
“The old man. He walks crooked through them later years with a hard time of it. It’s a crowd of youth,” she paused and stared at Kale. “A crowd of yoouth,” she emphasized. “Starts kickin’ in those planks of his box. Chases him in them woods, naked. Kicks in his bleedin’ face. Cuts him down quick, has to, ‘fore his screechin’ cause a start.”
Her eyes released Kale and she shook her head. Flames of hair licked behind her. She looked wise as she bent the thin words over her lips, reciting them, it seemed, from some baleful script.
“The children, they go on back home. Go on back to school, to store. And it’s quick, mercy for the damned and nothin’ but ash on the forest floor.”
Her eyes copied Kale’s, capturing him again as if on a line, and her mouth worked athletically for a time, though no words came. A creaking occurred. Jackson appeared about to stand, and Willy sat tall and contemplative as if unspoken thoughts were netted in his jaw beneath his beard. He had unwrapped the end of the rope from his arm, and it sat limply now between them and her.
With an almost pert cock of her head she said, “Remember his screech?”
The sound she made was frantic. Awful in its piercing loudness. It stung the air, and Kale swatted needle bites on his face and arms. They watched her tense at the ropes as if they pulsed with lightning. It was not a sound of death, but bitter of life, and she only paused for slight breaths.
Despite the shattering noise, a distinct ripping of fibers could be heard like the twitch of spiders, whether it came from the rope, or the boat’s planks straying from their pegs, or the abrasions along the woman’s skin as it stretched.
She stared fiercely at Kale as if they were the only existences in all that fog. He stared vacuously back into the reaches of her face. As Jackson was about to lay his hand on the kid’s shoulder, Kale stood cautioning his weight with his arms wingspread. He lifted his foot over the thwart.
“You going to do it?” asked Jackson. “I’d say it’s about time. You forgot the oar.”
Kale watched her watching him. When she closed her eyes and blew, he felt the nod of her breath as a redolent beckoning. That certain smell. Fish perhaps, but rather it guided him to a different odor. One that was long ago lost and revisited now with a familiarity, which he could not define.
In the snap obedience of a lightbulb flipped, he sliced the rope fibers around the woman’s leg with the teeth of his serrated jackknife. The bindings gave out with a rush and the leg dislodged. Silence followed for a heavy moment. Then she looked down and flexed the tip of her boot and continued to screech.
“The hell?” shouted Jackson as he strode toward them with a paddle in hand. “You whop her first. Did I not just say? Whop her first, goddamn it!”
The woman cawed at him in response and issued a definitive thump of her foot. Jackson fell backwards. The boat rattled, and Kale recalled the source of that lost odor. He saw the oviform impression matted flat in the tall wheat. He was a small boy, and he could just peer above the wheat as he hacked with his hands to reach that spot. The makeshift clearing was formed by the carcass of a bull gone mad and shot still as it charged. He remembered how he had stood and watched the bones unburied in the excavation of beaks: Constant. Meticulous. Little, vicious birds without the singsong percussion. He was not a careful child and could never have gotten so close to birds had they not been feasting.
All that next week the child continued to smell the bull in his jacket, and so the legacy of that odor stuck and found itself to lesser memories of the time: Some barbecue gathering and a burned forefinger, his or a sibling’s. That first supper they had ever shared with a man who was tall, had memorable, yellow teeth, and had traveled from the city. The bull smell was comparable, he’d thought, to the scent of Johnny Cake left to sit and touched in the open air. How long had it been since he thought of all that? The week of the bull. His first sense of death.
Kale stood too close to the old woman. With her free leg, she had begun to heave the heel of her boot into the floor of the boat like a pick against ice. On an upward swing, she knocked him in the jaw. Painfully, he sat up with his hands on his chin and the back of his head. Her rhythmic banging orbited his mind while new splinters gave out from the floor with each chop of her heel. Jackson yelled. Her foot crashed once more and took out a chunk. Water swelled from where she removed the boot, spitefully, as if she were pressing on an open wound.
“Shit. Shit. Shit! She’ll take us all. Just as soon take us all, goddamn it!”
The contraption of rope and the mess of small wooden crates toppled crudely in the emerging floodwaters as the contents of their tackle jittered in place.
The woman drew tight the loose strands of her face. Her hair continued to flap. She had acquired a free arm, and it was vividly biblical how she appeared to unfold the boat, limbs transforming it, while compromising the remaining strands of her binds. She caught Kale at the arm and hooked him under the shoulder with her thumb extended. Clenched as a stopper. The other two men had bailed and were somewhere figuring it out in the freezing white. Kale reeled beneath her strength which was like that of a small creature, spilling with ebullient life, heaving pebbles a dozen times its weight. She pulled him against her, and he fought upward for a breath. They were treading, hardly, and sinking in the mess still sewn to them. Just before they dipped below the surface, she got in his face and began to speak with maternal softness.
She made like she was describing whole volumes of ideas. He heard nothing.
Bending his neck away from her like a child rejecting adult lips, he saw the farm again. The barns and the house and the row after row of wheat. Another farm. More rows and a house built all the same though painted gray, not white, and another after that with its own fading barns and dots of cattle and what must be more rows farther on. You could walk all day and all night and not get to where there were no more rows. There were folks, even literate whites, who had grown and died and never saw the world without rows establishing it. Kale glimpsed above at the thickening white, but thoughtless pain was his last sensation as she rewrote the lines she had sketched earlier on his face.
When the deputy saw she wasn’t dead, he laid her back down and fetched his friend, a nurse. They brought her to the hospital.
Nothin’ broke. Hit her head kinda bad. That was the worst of it. Mostly just tired. Should have killed almost anybody. Must of hit a rock with that brittle old boat of hers and there she went. You could see it happenin’. Too old. Probably never owned a preserver. Forgot where she was, who she was, maybe. Bound to happen to even the best, and nobody says she didn’t bring in a nice catch—an uncommonly clean catch—all those years.
So they’d have to see what they could do now. See about getting her an application for a home. See how long the wait. She shouldn’t go back. She really shouldn’t.
Does she write?
Probably wouldn’t if she could. She can initial though. Give her the pen and hold the paper at an angle with a thick book behind it, and she can just initial her name. That’d be alright.
Ethan Ross majored in English at Spring Arbor University and works in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a case manager for homeless veterans. He is seeking to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing in the fall of 2015.