After a flood, a woman is haunted by the hundreds of fish stuck in her fence
Fish are stuck in my fence.
There’s my fence, see, chain link, four-foot-high, that goes round my backyard and fish are stuck in it, stuck in the holes, jammed in there. The fence is on land, mind you. I don’t have some kind of underwater world in my backyard or anything. Let’s get that straight right now. The crazy storm brought in those fish. They’re about seven inches long, look like typical fish: fish eyes, fish tail, fins, very scaly, a silver grey colour. If you saw them in the ocean you’d probably point them out, say, “Hey, look at those sparkly fish!” Don’t look so good now though, sparkle’s gone and they’re drying out with their mouths wide open. Gaping, black ovals, like they’re waiting to say “Oh. My. Goodness”.
I didn’t notice them right away cause there was water everywhere. After the storm, they kept us in the community centre til the flooding went down. When I finally got home, I was distracted by clumps of dead pelicans and sea gulls. One dead gull was dropped at my front door like a piece of mail. An empty fridge stood on my front lawn. There were half-dead baby squirrels (birthing season), small soggy things, all over my property. I could hear them crying so I mixed them powdered milk but couldn’t get it into their mouths. Here I am again, I thought, watching a slow death. Nothing I can do about it.
Didn’t get around to my backyard until the second day I was home. The baby squirrels had stopped crying by then. I looked out my back window and saw something sparkling in the sun. That’s when I realized fish were in my fence and I thought they were alive. Fish swimming through the air – not the most natural thing you’d see on a Wednesday afternoon. Maybe this was a sign. I even wondered for a moment if I was dead already and this was heaven. I waited to see an angel or bright light but nothing happened so I walked out to the fence. Got closer and smelled the ripe decay so I knew I was still alive. I don’t know much about heaven but I bet it doesn’t smell like rotten fish.
I edged my way up to the fence, looked real close at a fish. Eye to eye, but still wasn’t convinced they were dead. Didn’t know what kind they were, maybe trout. No, I thought, where there’s no fresh water, there’s no trout. My sister and her husband take a trailer every summer to go trout fishing. They can’t visit me because there’s no fresh water, they say. It’s the bloody Pacific Ocean I tell them. You can’t beat that. They used to come back when Daniel was alive but now they say it’s too far. And there’s no trout.
I stood back from the fence, trying to figure out how many fish I was dealing with. At least a hundred. Maybe two hundred, it was hard to say. I’ve never been very good with numbers. I could have counted one panel and then estimated. Daniel would’ve counted them, for documentation. Let me tell you that there were a lot of fish.
I dragged out a pail and some gloves, thinking I’d pull them out of the fence but when I got up close, I couldn’t stop looking at their mouths. I thought of Daniel when he would cry out at night, just before he died. One night I heard him and got up to check. I could see the outline of his head, jack-knifed against the pillow in pain. I went the side of the bed and pressed hard on his forehead the way he liked. His eyes were squeezed shut but his mouth was open, still moaning, the widest I’d ever seen. A gaping hole. I couldn’t get over the blackness.
Some nights he would cry out and I wouldn’t get up. I’d lay in bed listening to him, moaning and calling for me. Minutes would pass with me hardly breathing, my eyes shut tight. I couldn’t get up and look at him. He didn’t seem human anymore, like he was on his way somewhere else and he was more there than here. Finally I’d get up, guilt is a great motivator, mumbling I hadn’t heard him. I think he knew I was lying.
The night after I found the fish in the fence, I saw smoke coming from my neighbour, Mr. Smith’s place. He sometimes burns things down so I keep an eye out. Daniel used to go over to check but now I do it myself. Mr. Smith saw me walking down his lane and looked from me to his fire and back to me again. It wasn’t a big fire, just for cooking but it smelled good, especially after all the water, with everything soaked, I was glad things could still burn. Didn’t know how he got the fire started but with so much experience burning things he was good at that kind of stuff.
“It’s a beacon,” he said, when I crouched next to the flames. “I knew you’d come.”
Mr. Smith likes to say things like that, though I’m never really sure what he’s talking about. I nodded, which I think gives him comfort, although it doesn’t give me much. I’m about as comfortable with Mr. Smith as I am with the fish fence. Hadn’t seen him since the storm. He wasn’t at the community centre.
“So it looks like you made it through all right,” I said, raising my voice because of Mr. Smith’s hearing. He chuckled like what I said was funny. I hadn’t noticed what he was cooking on the fire, but when I looked closer I saw the fish. He hadn’t taken the skin off so I recognized the sparkle right away. It was my fence fish. And he hadn’t asked me. What was he doing sneaking around my property? I would have given him some, maybe, but I don’t like people taking liberties. And I believe in good fences and good neighbours. Besides, he never paid for his half of the fence, even if he didn’t ask to put a fence up, any good neighbour would have offered half. With Mr. Smith you give an inch and you’ve got nothing left in your pantry. I looked at the fish fry, getting worked up about it, but didn’t show it – I haven’t lived beside Mr. Smith for this long to wreck it over a fish.
“So. You have fish in your fence too?” Now this was a trick question because Mr. Smith doesn’t have a fence. It’s mine.
Eventually he said, “That was quite a storm.”
That’s typical Mr. Smith so I changed tactics and asked him whether he had seen my fence. He fiddled with the fish in the pan. It was sticking. He needed more butter but he probably didn’t have any. I waited so long for a response that I started thinking he was ignoring me completely.
Then he said, “In Japan, there is a fish, the Koi. They say the strongest Koi swims upstream, it swims and searches until it reaches the final waterfall, where it vaults into the mists and becomes a water dragon.” I nodded, waiting for him to explain but he went back to nudging the fish.
There are times for stories and then there are times for dealing with ocean life and fences. This was one of those times. Sometimes you can’t nod in the face of that. I told him that I didn’t think there were water dragons in my fence and also there was no waterfall unless he was thinking of the creek up in Harriston which is well over twenty miles from here. With any reasonable person, I would be sitting down talking about my fish fence, what to do, where to go from here. Mr. Smith shook his head, and I noticed something stuck in his beard. It looked like old baked beans, hanging on to his wiry hair.
Mr. Smith took the pan off the fire and set it on a rock. It teetered for a moment and then steadied.
“They should not be here,” he said. “It’s unnatural. Fish on land, strangled like that.”
I didn’t know if he was talking to me, it seemed like he was talking to the fish.
“Yes, it’s unnatural but the fish are on my property and before you take one, you should ask me. There are lots of fish, enough to go around but I need to know about it.” Neither of us said anything for a while so eventually I leaned over to him and yelled.
“Can you hear me?”
“And you know, Mr. Smith, I don’t think you should eat those fish.” I said it casually but who in their right mind would eat carrion? Who knows where they’ve been? I couldn’t vouch for those fish. I kept my voice steady. “Mr. Smith, this is uncharted territory.” I’d heard that phrase on a deep-sea nature program. “So while we’re assessing the situation, don’t eat any more fish. Don’t touch them, just leave them be. We’ll leave them for the crows.”
As I said that I realized the crows hadn’t been at them. Nothing had eaten them at all. Except for Mr. Smith. I believe I did my duty and addressed the situation with Mr. Smith. He stared back down at the fish, smiling like he had a secret that he wasn’t going to share with me Didn’t offer me any fish either, I noticed, but even though I was hungry, I wouldn’t have eaten any.
That night I had a dream the fish were flying over my house, freed from the fence. They were circling above my house, like ravens, every once in awhile swooping towards my window. Then a fish tapped his fin against my pane, leaving a smear of seawater and flew up over the house again. At first I thought they were waving at me but then they came faster and faster. I thought they were going to smash through the window but they would stop, right before, as if it was a game to see how fast they would go. Four of them stopped at one time and lined themselves up along my windowsill. They were smiling like they were glad to see me. Each had their fins around the other like a cancan line. They bobbed their heads back and forth in time to an Edith Piaf song.
They were putting on this marvelous show, jumping, flipping and then they stopped. They weren’t smiling anymore. Their teeth grew almost as big as their bodies, sharp fangs, which they used to scrape against the window, eventually breaking it. They ate the glass. Blood dribbled from their mouths. There were more now, pushing through the window, all with those teeth chewing through everything, coming for me. In seconds they were at my bed, gnawing through the cotton sheets, mattress filling, metal bed frame, shredding everything, nothing could stop them. I slammed my heel against the metal foot of my bed and woke up.
This morning I heard about Mr. Smith. Mrs. Wilson came over in her golf cart and told me that Mr. Smith was dead, she was sure of it. We went back over together and found him. He was crouched over, on his side, next to the fire pit, just where I’d left him last night with the frying pan beside him and his fish only half eaten. His mouth was still open. We tried to close it but it was stuck. Mrs. Wilson said there’s something not right about still trying to breath when there’s no breath to be had. I didn’t tell her about my dream. I told her about seeing Mr. Smith last night and him cooking the fish. We both agreed that was what did it.
I’ve set up my chair beside the fish fence and I’m not leaving until the fish are removed either by the hand of God or the army. Word has spread. People keep coming by to see them and telling me stories about other strange business. One man said he found an eel and an alligator on his lawn. “Can you imagine that?” he kept saying. I keep hoping they’ll send someone over to deal with the situation, someone in charge who will yell at the people not to touch the fish. I can’t always be here. Who knows what could happen? Someone might sell them. You could eat one of these fish in a potpie and never know. It’s not right. These fish need to be quarantined. The birds won’t touch them, even the flies have gone away. It’s the people who keep coming back. Just this morning there were two young kids trying to stuff rocks into the fishes’ mouths. “Get out of here,” I yelled and they ran away, probably to get their friends. They’re coming back. More are coming. I can’t stop them.
Marcia Walker (BA 1999 UC, JD 2005) was shortlisted for PRISM magazine’s literary non-fiction contest in 2011, as well as their fiction contest in 2013. Her stories have also been featured on CBC radio programs DNTO and The Wild Side.