The Trench

by Dwight Livingstone Curtis

The stories all start the same way. A man goes fishing at night, and because the weather is calm and the tide is moving fast he guides his boat to the glittering vee between the two riptides that meet at the foot of the lighthouse. He baits his hook with a sand eel, big-eyed and squirming, and drops it on a weight seventy-five feet to the ocean floor where the currents, rubbing like two palms, swirl sediment into the black water. On his first drift, he might catch nothing: he finds the bottom, watches his depth and speed, learns the way the inner rip spins his boat around and, if he isn’t paying attention, fouls his line on the idling prop. On his second drift, watchful, jigging the canyon, feeling the bump of his weight along the rocky bottom, the strum of the eel on his line, he misses a hard strike and reels up to check his bait. On the third drift, he gets his strike and sets his hook, and here his brow relaxes as he tells it and his rod hand twitches with the deep memory of a fish on.

And the fish is a beautiful one, a long, silver flicker in ten feet of water that runs off line in slashes. When he finally gets it to the boat, his hands trembling, and glides the net through the water and past its tail and under its body, four feet long and powerful, and hauls back and lifts, dragging it up the side of the hull and over the gunwale and into the boat where it slaps itself free of the net and lies solid and enormous on the deck, the first thing he sees is the scarred, black hole where its eye should be.

On the fourth drift, he hooks into her.

The way I was told, she’d been at sea for five days before they found her, burned past red to black. He hadn’t survived the first night in the lifeboat, stabbed in the neck with his own jackknife by the dock girl he’d dragged aboard. It’s possible she tried him, then, and found it not to her liking. It’s possible she starved for days before lighting on the idea. Perhaps she planned it, fishing with cubes of him for mackerel. As she wasted away, it was the eyes she craved.

Is there anything else to say? I caught a blind fish and I met her myself. She took from me what she needed and I lived to tell about it. She wasn’t any mermaid. She had both legs, but the way she swam stung line off my reel until it sang. I thought I was into a shark. I searched for her with the spotlight when I felt her pass beneath the boat, and I dipped my whole rod underwater to keep my line free as she circled. And then the line went slack and in a splash she was on me, streaming water, her clawed hands on my wrists, her hair a black curtain around us, and her blue mouth sucking at the air as she bent to my face.

We have a bar we go to, we blind fishermen. It’s on the pier and we guess at the engines that idle by, the trophy bass on the hanging scale and the sportfishermen who hang them there. We have one story and we tell it well, dipping our moon faces to our beers, and to hear it right you might pay attention to our hands. A fisherman’s rod hand contains a record of every strike, every run, every sudden slackening in the line.

Ours shake like the devil.

Dwight Livingstone Curtis reads, writes, and goes fishing in Missoula, Montana and Montauk, New York.
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