Flat Fish By Jason Shields

Flat fish

By Jason Shields

 

By now the grasses sway free of the slush ice and you can smell the mud again and feel it under the heel of your boot. From the northeast a stiff breeze rushes off the harbor and through the small locust trees anchored to the loam by knobby roots. It’s light enough to see the outcroppings of mussels, and I drag my onion bag, feeling with a toe for gullies. On the water oldsquaws splash down and commence to gossip in rippling, ancient chants. It is a timeless language of unequivocal and mocking truth.

I am to fill the onion bag three-quarters with bank mussels. My orange gloves are cracked at the fingers and the mud finds its way inside. There will be no comfort until I’m near the wood stove. My mother will bring me soup and I will dismiss her soothing words because boys wanting to be men mistake caring for coddling.

I pull a clump of mussels and move on a few yards, passing others. To strip bare a good length of the bank seems sinful. And so I wade and feel for gullies with my boot toe.

The engine sputters to life at the dock, and I am on my way back. I pull myself onto the planks and walk to the boat where my father and his friend, Julius, wait. We cast the lines and head east to the inlet. And now the lavender band is above the horizon, blanketing the clouds, and a pink hue hovers over the dappled chop of the bay and fringes the black fingers flanking the inlet.

We meet and pass mergansers and oldsquaws darting through the narrows, tipping their wings to glide away and give us wide berth. Low over the grey water, black figures glide in procession, paralleling Mashomack’s shore. I watch the lead goose guide the rest past the points, one black formless mass floating like an apparition until it is lost in the silhouette of Little Ram Island.

Turning back to the east I am met with the expanse of Gardiner’s Bay. The long beach of Orient Point lies to the north. In coming months it will be pocked with fish traps made of locust posts and net, and off them pot buoys will bob and strain with the tides. Still later, the gill nets will spread, marked by flag buoys. And by early summer the upper bay will be an obstacle course of gear.

Near the tip of the point is the New London Ferry terminal. The big ferries are converted troop carriers from the Second World War. They are slow but menacing to a young boy when they pass through Plum Gut close to the fleet of small boats drifting for striped bass. We will be well away from them this morning.

Off Orient sits mysterious Plum Island. Ominous with its complexes, it is a government research facility and subject of much conjecture for locals. All afflictions are attributed to top-secret research of horrific diseases, natural and manmade. What they do upsets the balance of nature, that is of course, unless they are just one more piece of the inscrutable puzzle.

We are heading to Cedar Point where a lighthouse juts like a barb from the end of a knitting needle. It is a waving hand promising comfort in the lee of Northwest’s cliffs. Over them the late winter sun will rise and warm us slowly.

When my father puts the boat in neutral, I will reach in the cooler a clam and slice it in strips. It will be cold and my fingers will burn. Then I must reach into the sinker bucket and find a good lead. And that too will be cold and impersonal. Nothing weighs like a sinker; nothing else can replicate the sullen dull grey heft. It is a dark secret, a tedious tug, that old lead, that scarred weight.

I’m seeing and feeling all this still minutes away from the spot, with Cedar Light in sight and the scalding unnatural wind rasping my face.

I look at Julius, my father’s friend. His mouth is moving but he is silent to me. His black curls peek from beneath his watch cap and wiggle under the tension of fast-moving air. I move closer, pulling myself along the gunnel to be part of this conversation among men. He is talking about the subtleties of fishing for flounder, wondering aloud if the mussels should be crushed at the dock and permitted to ferment some during the ride out.

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