by Zoë Meager
Skyla pushes the small boat out with Flip and Weigh, over the choppy waves that dare each other closer to the shore in this crook of the bay. Hands red raw and nose running, she sits in the stern, head down, and works at little things on her lap. In the live light of a jar of glow worms she smoothes waterproof adhesive onto tiny plasters, brushes it evenly, right to the edges. With a fierce scalpel, she carves little teeth from chunks of thick shell, filing them to rounded points. From the enamel shapes that Weigh casts in the furnace during haunted evenings and stormy days, she sands fish scales large and small, measuring them against the guide before letting them slip from her fingers into woven pouches. When she looks up, she sees the horizon and feels cold, watching its steadiness against the roll of boat.
Fish jump, racing the boat a league out to sea. They reach the day’s wounded shoal and Weigh mutters round after round of anchoring words, keeping the boat in place. With her back rounded against the wind, she reaches forward and runs her hands along the gunwale where the wood is worn smooth and dipped. Sometimes she glances, tired and untrusting, at Skyla. Her wilful daughter has not yet learned the utterances, nor rowed the boat, nor mended. Too often when called at sunset the girl comes home by way of the hill path – she has been up at her windy lookout, gazing at the faraway and watching the sea treat the bay like a plaything. Any natural talent for the traditional work will soon be lost, treasure sunk to the bottom of the sea.
The boat is surrounded by a churning circle of sea life. Like a woman in a long skirt spinning and twirling, the family of three are at the centre of a great, silvery dance. Skyla counts four long breaths of burning salt air before the first fish leaps with the whole muscle of its body, right into the boat. Weigh catches it expertly in a strong cloth soaked in seawater. The fish, a solid brown kind they call a queen fish, reclines in its hammock while Flip’s quick hands examine it.
Four scales, he says. Half thumb-nail size.
Despite herself, Skyla dips her fingers expertly into the correct pouch, plucks out four perfect scales and offers them to her father in an outstretched palm. His silence is approval, while her mother’s eyes are fixed intently on the size of the shoal around them, weighing up the day’s work. Flip threads a needle one-handed, holds the fish still and begins attaching the replacement scales. As the fish menders’ numbers dwindle the work only mounts up. Holes in the scales to sew through would mean they’d lose strength over time, so the craft has moved toward more lasting ways, toward saving the time that is still in the future. Scales are sewn on the shisha way, the edges looped tightly, the thread binding under and over forming a frame for the scale as if to display it, like a mirror.
The fish has plenty of breath left when Flip sets it gently back in the water, and without pause from the swirl of bodies the next one flings itself up to take its turn. Silver and only palm-sized, but clearly not shy, the fish somersaults enthusiastically in Weigh’s cloth.
There’s nothing wrong with it, Skyla says. It’s just showing off. Throw it back.
Flip runs his eyes over it, checks as it leaps from side to side.
Weigh interrupts her secret muttering to say, Anyone can see that fish is lop-sided, Skyla.
Aye, says Flip, Look at the way her tail flicks, always to the right.
Skyla makes little effort as she unhooks a bucket from the side of the boat and dips it into the sea, scooping out a couple of fish who rush in with the water. She pushes the bucket to her mother, who turns the silver palm fish out into it. The fish will be mended at the workshop ashore that evening, along with other tricky injuries.
Weigh misses the third fish. Its long body slithers to the floor of the boat. Flip and Weigh work together to get it into the cloth. He steadies it with one hand while the fish spaghettis, curling and knotting and spilling over the cloth. It’s a long dusty-blue fish, a bit like an eel, a carnivorous fish that feeds on its own kind. For this one the teeth are the livelihood. Flip eases them open with the fine wooden tool he keeps on his belt.
Skyla, this one’s for you.
Quick now, use the strips, Weigh instructs, leaning back to allow Skyla to crawl on all fours to the prow.
Skyla squats at its side and looks into the fish’s mouth. One tooth at the back is rotten through. She finishes knotting two strips of linen around her thumb and forefinger, then moves them, mice into a steel trap, towards the brown oozing fang in the very last row. She makes contact with the useless tooth and the fish shudders. Not with pain, but disgust at her touch. It looks up at her with one pale yellow eye, witnessing her apprenticeship.
The boat lurches. She pinches the tooth between finger and thumb, takes a tight breath into the top of her lungs, and with a twisting pull draws the tooth out. It makes a popping feeling as it leaves the gum. She looks down again, and the cavity fills with blood. Stepping shakily back to her seat, she drops the tooth into the waste bucket.
Flip releases the fish, promising it a new tooth once the gum has healed. The wind shifts. The real light starts to come into the day and it won’t be long until the work is unbearably hot. Skyla looks again to the steady horizon, where the zest of the sun is pushing up out of the sea and into the sky. She turns and looks behind them, up to her lookout on the distant hill. The waves slap and fish jump, eager for the work, greedy for the skills of the three fish menders in the boat.
Zoë Meager recently completed a Master in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She agrees wholeheartedly that ‘animals are good to think with’, and enjoys using short stories and flash fiction to explore the human-animal conundrum. Other work appears in Penduline.
The image featured at the top of this page is a detail from Lamentation of the Fishes by Paul Bloomer, a contemporary artist who lives and works in Shetland. More of Paul's work can be found at www.paulbloomer.com.