by James Cato

Marcelo held the knife to his pinky toe. The plan was to chop it off, savage and surgical, then poke it through his fishing hook, use it as bait. He would lose some blood, a bit of bone and gristle, but if it nabbed a decent catfish the transaction would be a net gain and he could stay out on the water for a bit longer.

This was his sixth day on Lake Superior, sawblade waves on one side, a crust of land on the other, which spawned that complicated smoke he had fled. He had resolved not to return until the fire stopped. Marcelo fished because it was simple, fair, a handshake with the water. He was avoiding messiness elsewhere. Now he’d run out of worms. Chopping off a toe really seemed preferable, at the moment, to returning home.

There was trouble on the mainland, in the country, in the world. Something named “the current situation” or “these circumstances,” and nobody was buying. The potatoes were thrown into a big pile, free for all, come and get them, and they rotted soft and mealy. Entire harvest seasons were turned to fertilizer—beets, corn, peppers, anything. Farmers cried like children. Marcelo didn’t understand why no trucks came for the free food, why all the starving folks “over the water” couldn’t have it.

He was hungry, painted in chapped skin, weak. Under his splintery hull, orgiastic schools of fish celebrated grey skies, each body a soapy knife. Marcelo figured if he lived in Spain, he would run from the bulls in times like these—to just survive, like an animal. If he lived on the coast he would hike the Appalachian—walk, eat, repeat. In Rome, he might have been a gladiator. Here in the Midwest he fished. Six days straight marked his personal record. “Are you hungry?” he croaked at the trout, cords weak from disuse. Even when he was young, his mother told Marcelo the world is a magic trick, but you have short sleeves.

The pigs had been shot in the skull (depopulated) and their throats cut (exsanguinated) and piled in a heap, then burned (cleared). Marcelo had stared at the dumb grins of the dead animals, each weeping cherry from a massive third eye, and helped his boss, flint-eyed Stephen, spray them with lighter fluid. “Thank you for your concern, Marcelo, but you just don’t get it,” Stephen had said. “No one is buying pork, employees of the slaughterhouses have the virus, and the boars cost to feed. The sows have piglets.”

Stephen had wept too, to be fair.

Marcelo said sorry.

Next went the cows, then the chickens who’d been suffocated with propylene foam. The ocean of bubbles jiggled. As soon as Stephen retired for the day, Marcelo fled, stocked with a ham sandwich and a carton of worms. The smoke had followed him, mixing with the overcast. As Marcelo rocked with the pocket knife stuck to his tiniest toe, the inferno on land glowed opposite of the sunset. The dual lights shot toward each other in the lake’s reflection, with Marcelo caught between them as collateral.

And what about the pigeons in the big cities? His mother had been homeless for a time when she first moved to the country, illegally, before he was born, after his father was captured. She told him about flocks of pigeons who relied on handouts, great numbers surviving on kindness. Now they would starve. The world’s largest barbecue burned like Centralia and nobody gave it away. Could his mother imagine this livestock that cooked for no one when she herself went undernourished while pregnant? The whole country would stink like an abattoir.

Marcelo pictured his mother waiting in her rocker chair, knowing exactly where he’d been. You are no fool, sweet Marcelo. You hide from the heat, my apricot, espaliered on the wall, held in place by good simple things. Still, Marcelo knew himself to be a coward. Trading blood for a fair meal is easier to stomach than meaningless massacre. His mother would be missing him.

Even so, his toe seemed a shameful relic. Like a childhood toy kept on the shelf too long. How much could it really hurt, to remove it? Shouldn’t he remain on the lake, shooting no pigs, wasting no meat, witnessing no decadence and no suffering? The ranch dogs could watch in his stead, keep his mother company, bundled by the casita’s slats. He envied the dogs only able to focus on love and whatever joys their snouts detected.

The sun had set when Marcelo finally pulled the knife up and plunked it on his seat. He would not chop off any digits today. “Just a distraction,” he told the fish as he rowed to shore. “At some point, you need to face the music. If the pigs burn, you watch them.” When a trout leapt from the water and slapped onto the floor, its shocked mouth mocked him, as if to say: Throw me back, sweet Marcelo! You meant it, didn’t you?

James Cato studies small secretive creatures and has just completed his first novel, Litter of the Waste, which he plans to release this year. He has been published in Litro, Atticus Review, Every Day Fiction, Burning House Press, and The Colored Lens, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato.
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