freefish

by Lawrence Morgan

Leo was hungry, but not for what was on offer. He was watching the owner of a wide-bellied rowboat moored to a pylon at the base of Istanbul’s Galata Bridge. The man was dressed in heavy yellow oilskins, his dark head glistening with rain. At his feet was a wicker basket alive with flapping silver fish. A glowing charcoal brazier was bolted to the rail at the boat’s stern. Next to the brazier was a chopping board where he slashed and gutted his catch. He dipped the bodies by the tail into the green bay for a final rinse before tossing them upon the grill to sizzle into gold. Their bright eyes were rich and dark as they grilled.

Leo felt a peculiar kinship with the fish. Their dead eyes pulled at him. He took an immediate dislike to the man. The rowboat swayed freely in the wake of ferryboat traffic surging from the Golden Horn to the Marmara Sea. Leo stood on the dock and watched the man pluck another gleaming fish from the basket. He smacked its head sharply against the rail, stilling it immediately. His right hand was missing thumb and forefinger, but he wielded his knife with deft twists of his wrist. His nails were pink and clean. The fish was cleaned with startling quickness. The man slid him an expressionless glance and prodded the fish with a wooden spatula darkened from use, situating it to his liking on the edges of his coal bed.

Murderer, Leo thought. His mind began its slow churn toward its secret lair. He didn’t bother to fight it anymore.

“Those fish were alive last night,” he said. “How much for all of them?”

“All of them?”

“All.” Leo pointed at the basket. “Those ones. Alive.”

The owner stared at him blankly, uncomprehending.

Another man arrived on the dock and held out a twenty-lira note. The proprietor pinched it between his ruined fingers and tucked it away beneath his jacket. He placed two grilled fish on a half-sheet of newspaper, added a slice of lemon and a small pile of salt, rolled it all together into a thick mound and handed it to the man. The paper-roll steamed in his hands.

The man opened the parcel and peeled the side of one fish from the soft bone beneath and fed himself, holding it above his upturned mouth like a bunch of grapes. The fish slid in, his throat moved, and he sucked it down whole without chewing. It reminded Leo of an alligator he’d once seen as a child in the Everglades being fed whole chickens by a Seminole. The man walked away, still eating. He hadn’t said a word. Leo felt sick.

A freighter’s klaxon whooped from a fogbank in the distance. The drizzle ceased, and replaced itself briefly with mist, which dissolved in the strengthening sun.

“Twenty lira for two?” Leo asked.

The owner nodded.

“I want all of them. I’ll give you eighty-five lira.”

The basket still held eleven flapping, gasping bluefish.

The owner wrestled with the math. His two front teeth were made of gold, and they shone behind his open lips.

He looked at the basket of fish and back at Leo, confused, then inexplicably angry.

“No,” he said.

“No?”

Leo vaulted into the boat and snatched the man’s knife from the cutting board. The rowboat rocked heavily from the impact, and the man slipped and fell.

The knife slid in like butter. The owner’s blood mixed with fish scales and seawater, forming glittering red pools that sloshed over his shoes.

Leo hoisted the basket and poured the fish over the side into the bay, a cascade of frantic, sinuous silver. He leaned over and watched as they merged with the water and scattered, diving for the bottom. All but one. The last fish convulsed when it hit the water and contorted itself into a bowed arc, its tail slapping at its hook-torn lip. Its rubbery mouth was a chattering frenzy of tiny teeth. Its eyes faded and finally it succumbed, bobbing belly-up beside the rowboat for a moment before the current sucked it into the heart of the Golden Horn. A pair of gulls wheeled screaming overhead, pale feathered rogues at odds over a scrap of fishgut.

Leo’s secret mind decided it was high time for lunch.

Lawrence Morgan left home at the age of fifteen to check things out. He still wonders what happened between then and now.
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