Sport 5: Spring 1990
Mark E. Brooke — Fish
When I was nine and he was thirty-six my father grew a set of gills. Purple bruises on his ribs, the skin darkening and long cruel slits tearing themselves open. And beneath the insulted flesh, the tongue-pink of the gills. He would show us the tendrils, inserting his finger to lift back, slowly, the tender flap of skin, displaying the lines of fine pink petals moving gently with his breath.
I'll breathe through water, he would say and widen his eyes at us. And we would sit round-mouthed and unbelieving.
Dark powers, said my mother, only dark powers could do such a thing. Witches or demons or some foul thing, and in our own home. She had Father Callahan over on the pretext of it was time he stopped by for a chat, and balancing the bone china cup and saucer on the tip of her knee, circled around the topic of evil, devil worship and black masses. Father Callahan sits bemused, quite sure that something is not right, carefully arbiting replies to mother, certain that my mother will in her own good time come to the point and waiting therefore patiently. Could it be my sin Father, a sin of mine, that it would bring a shadow to fall on this house, and Father Callahan quietly murmurs his replies. I hear absolution, forgiveness, sin, these words working through the web of his conversation. My mother says, would the Lord be likely to curse someone to be a fish say, and delivers a small perfectly innocent laugh. They both laugh. A fish, a fish, well he's been known to put them inside fish, but not turn them into fish I don't think. Laugh. Then could it be say, if something went wrong, the hand of the devil or witches, you do believe in witches Father? Well I ... and the good Father feeling himself on slippery ground slips sideways himself, aye the Devil, the Devil is a powerful force when believed in Mrs Mullen, but is as nothing, is as nothing against the might of God. The Church will be her staff and comfort. Then you do believe in the power of evil Father, says my mother. Well, let me, let me put it this way, says the Father and around and around their conversation turns. Finally, the tea being finished, the crackers reduced to crumbs on the gilt-edged plates, he asks directly. Is page 154was just wondering, had had these things mulling through her mind, a book she was reading, Dennis Wheatley, you know. There is only one good book Mrs Mullen. Oh indeed Father, indeed, and then feeling her mind made up or that some point has been reached my mother smiles, thank you for your time Father, you must call again, welcome any time. Thank you Mrs Mullen I shall ... you know, prayer, prayer is strong. I will pray Father. Yes, he replies and then more brightly, yes and so shall I. My mother smiles again. Thank you for the tea Mrs Mullen, and he leaves, leaving my mother clearing the tea things away, sure in her heart that witches and warlocks are rampant in our town, that their bony fingers point at her husband, that spells and evil hover over our house and that she must cling hard to her faith and hard to its light to keep the dark from descending onto us. She dusts the picture of Jesus in the kitchen and says to me, we must pray Arthur, for your poor father. She has a weapon.
My father blithely continues to report on the progress of his gills, to gather my sisters and me around him and to tell us tales. He enthuses to us about fish of all shapes and sizes. He sits us on the floor of his study, waits till we have stilled ourselves, and then he begins. He talks of fish and the sea in raptures. He talks of whales and whelks, of rays and hagfish. He holds forth with the fervour of a true fanatic, and why do you think, why does a humpback hang upside down a hundred yards from the surface, holding his breath, and sing, sing, and not just any song but the song his father sang before him and his father and his and so on. Don't know? All right, I'll tell you then, it's ... and away we go travelling into realms as deep and unfathomable as the Kermadec trench. Places where no one has been, except my father in the bathysphere of his imagination. Where blind fishes swerve from the heat of lamps. Where all creatures are slow, cold and paleskinned. Where monsters hang invisible in the dark, tentacled and silent, waiting for victims to swim down their maws. And we, his private wide-eyed audience, sit rivetted, occasionally chiming in to his flow of words with, but why?, or, can a?, or, I know, I know, until at last we are floated gently, slowly to the shore of bedtime.
My mother bends over us, tucks the blankets around us, kisses us goodnight. My father stands in the doorway, clicks the light out and swings the door to. The sitting room is dim and the television flickers black and white images across the furniture. My mother goes through to the kitchen and, leaving the door ajar, a yellow light shines out behind her. There is the clinking of teacups, water is heard running with a page 155metallic echo into the kettle and she returns with a tray, tea and biscuits. They sit and let the television flicker over them, talking quietly of their separate days. My mother talks of Father Callahan. She does not describe the content of their conversation. Instead she describes his slow pontificating manner, how he sucks his tea rather than sips, how his features are benign and foolish, and how he seems so uneasy in her company. My father talks of his day in his lab, of the progress in his work on molluscs. And underneath this chatter they both hear, in hints and in what is not said, the continual return to the theme of my father's metamorphosis. A wordless conversation sounds between them. My mother's voice entreating that it is evil and curses and devils and sin, that it is breaking the family in two, that only love and faith and Christ will suffice. My father expounding that it is adventure, excitement and dreams to fulfill, and that they should dive into it, relishing it, headlong, headfirst!
And so they crumble their biscuits, wash down their tea, return their cups and saucers to the yellow kitchen, place them on the bench beneath the picture of thorn-crowned Jesus and retire, quietly, to bed.
Six months later the doctor comes out of the bathroom and shuts the door behind him with excessive care. He is young and his face is pale. He is just behind my mother who, in a floral summer dress, is leading the way to the kitchen. They do not talk till they are there and seated. He's looking much better for it Mrs M, says the doctor. My mother smiles faintly and nods, yes. They have, three days ago, transferred my father from his bedroom where he had lain sucking for air, to the bath where water is constantly bubbling from the cold tap, constantly passing over his gills and, being breathed, is constantly draining away through a plug in which a small hole has been pierced. The doctor is not a believer and it is for this reason that, although she follows his advice as to how to make my father comfortable, my mother does not share with him her thoughts on the true cause of my father's illness. Yes, he is much better, she continues, but things are still developing are they not? The doctor has been forced to this confession several times, that he has no knowledge of what it is that ails my father, that he has no treatment, that nothing can be done, that even the specialists have no idea of what it is. Has she not seen them come and go, taking with them smears swabs samples, his scales, segments of the jelly found forming between his toes, slices of gill, his blood, his semen, his spittle on slides; all taken from him, analysed, investigated, discussed, tested, re-tested, and again, and no answer in return. Does she not know by now that no one really has any idea. But page 156surely, my mother interrupts, if he is ill there must be a cause? The doctor sighs, he hears her tone and wonders what it is she is laughing at. Yes of course, he replies, but none we have any experience of. Well then, says my mother, we shall just have to keep him comfortable and pray. Yes, replies the young doctor, as good as anything I can offer, and he laughs quietly, probably better. My mother is silent. Well I should be going Mrs M, he grates his chair backwards, you'll give me a ring if anything happens and I'll be back Thursday. Very well, says my mother, and rising sees him to the door where they find Father Callahan meandering up the path. The doctor and the Father greet each other cordially, the doctor nodding and the eyebrows of the older man winking up and his face smiling benignly. My mother takes Father Callahan by the arm and ushers him down to the sitting room where they continue with the next instalment of their weekly conversation.
My mother produces cake and tea and Father Callahan, no longer in the dark, sips his earl grey and consoles her, assures her that it is not her sin, that God, God is wise, and loves all his creatures, that there is a design in this that fulfils God's purpose, and you know, you know we on Earth cannot hope to fathom God's divine plans. And then in answer to my mother's objections he continues that yes, yes it may well be that the Devil has his, as you put it, dark hand in it, but we should not worry, we should not fear, the Lord looks to his own and who are we ... And this is the precise point at which my mother, knowing that my father is not a sheep of the flock, is confirmed in her belief that indeed the Devil has stretched out his hand, the blighted hand of a fallen angel, and claimed his own. Father Callahan continues to minister in his way, roughly bumbling forward, not knowing what hopes and fears he churns up in his wake. My mother listens and listens, lets it wash over her, finally leans forward and says in a quiet and earnest way, tell me Father, what do you think of the idea of possession ...
In the bathroom we sit, my sisters and I, beside my father, talking to him. He is much changed. Often he trys to smile and tell us tales and we know that for that moment at least he knows us and wants to be with us. His face is red and wet, his hair fallen out, only threads remaining. His skin is inflamed and flaking. Small scales can be seen to be forming in patches, on his abdomen, his forehead, his shins and feet. His head itself is elongated and flattened. His lips are drawn back hard over his gums. His teeth have fallen out or have broken off short and spiky. His arms, his ears, his legs have all shrunk. When he rolls over as he does every now and then we can see his fin, dorsal, thrusting and busting up out of his page 157spine. He does not seem to feel any of it, but seems somehow exhausted, not in any ordinary way, not as if this metamorphosis tires him, but as if it is a strain to keep his mind clear, as if it is a strain to be with us. And he does not always succeed in this now. We sit and read him stories, our children's stories, and Ann reads him Hemingway. We talk to him and our thin children's voices echo in the tiled room pathetically. He does not reply. He lies still and his eyes are cold and far away, and we listen to our small voices above the trickle and splash of the tap and are aware that our father is not like us, he is an alien ...
Pungent incense hangs in the air. The bathroom is lit by the flickering light of white candles. The white of the tiles reflects the golden light of the twenty or so flames. The room is clean and pure. The floors, the walls, the ceiling have been dowsed and scrubbed with holywater. Samite white are the towels laid beside the bath between the two candles in thick gold stands beside my father the fish. A large metal cross has been hung above the bath and all of this, the white, the golden flames, the dark plumes of drifting incense are reflected dimly in its silver surface.
By the door my mother and Father Callahan kneel, both with heads bowed. From my mother's hand a loop of red rosary beads sways gently. Her hands are clenched knucklewhite and tight, the beads twisted, threaded through her fingers. They mutter quietly to themselves, the words of prayer mingling with the smoke from the candles, the smoke of incense, the cold sound of dribbling tapwater. The old man, the exorcist, shuffles forward, his stick which he needs for walking tiptapping on the tiled floor. He leans forward as he walks and his crucifix swings in silver arcs out from his chest and back to bounce out again. He too is whispering sibilant Latin verse. He kneels stiffly, one knee at a time, on the towels by the bath. Lays his stick by his side and crosses himself. He looks into the bath, into the water reflecting in rippling waves the candleflames and the silver cross. Beneath the surface, a dim shape, the grotesque half-fish, half-man, an abomination of withering legs gelling together, the feet gone thin as a fluke, the cruel hook of dorsal, the distorted and clearly fishy head, the quietly pulsing gills. The fish shivers beneath his gaze, rolls a little to one side.
The old man slips his hand beneath his robe and brings forth a phial of water. He uncaps it solemnly and sprinkles it into the bath and over the fish. The fish rolls slightly again, perhaps at the shadow of his arm crossing it's eyes, and settles. The holy water dribbles out, splashes and mingles with the black water of the bath, encloses the fish. Then,page 158
Satan, whispers the old man,
minion of the Devil
foul Demon who holds this man possessed
I command thee
in the name of Allpowerful God
to heed my words. There is silence. The sound of the tap dribbling.
Unclean Spirit who torments this soul
slave of Lucifer
I command thee
in the name of the Father, he raises his crucifix in his two old hands above his head,
and of the Son
and of the Holy Ghost
to release this man! and he brings his clenched hands, the crucifix, down into the water with a tremendous smack. The fish jumps and twists. Water is sprayed high and wide. The old man is knocked back from the bath by a convulsion of the creature within. It leaps high, arcs its tail and slaps hard against the silver cross. The water foams, then settles, sloshes back and forward, and finally stops.
The old man picks himself up, motioning the other two to remain where they are, and peers again into the bath, wiping his wetted face. Nothing is changed. He crosses the air above the bath and turns to face my mother. He bows his head to her gaze. I am sorry Mrs Mullen, he says, but there is nothing more I can do. Nothing, she asks quickly. I am sorry, he replies.
The same day a week later the doctor kneels in the backyard beside the swimming pool, a large plastic trough beside him. My mother stands behind him shielding her eyes from the sun. Here we go, says the doctor and with a grunt tips the trough over into the pool. The fish slithers out and darts off as quick as a shadow. He'll like it in there Mrs M, too right he will. Thank you doctor, says my mother, you've been most helpful. Any time Mrs M, and he smiles, nodding his head. That cut on his side'll be as right as rain, give it a week or two, says the doctor. Yes, says my mother, yes, you know doctor it isn't such an awfully large pool. Do you think that for such a large ... and she stops short of naming him. Ye-es, I should think so, he replies, plenty of room. Good, says my mother and then more brightly, while you're here doctor if you've got some time I'd like you to take a look at Ann ... and talking matters medical my mother turns away. Hang on Mrs M says the doctor, I'll just get this plastic thing. And fishing the plastic thing from the pool, and sitting it on the grass, and page 159nodding to himself, he joins her and together they enter the house.
In the depths of the pool the fish darts back and forth, turning at each end easily and without effort. Its eyes do not blink. The blue-grey of its back speeds along the kidney-bend, around the top, sinuous and powerful.
Thus the warm days of summer we lie, Ann, Alice and 1, our chins over the pool edge, looking down through the clear water. Past the leaves and grit and grass blades that float on the surface we see our father, basking and then pulsing forward with a slow push of his tail. We listen to the quiet slap of the water and imagine in this sound that we can hear him talking to us. We watch the caged animal pace the length and breadth of his confine, sometimes in slow, powerful surges, sometimes in a fury blading through the water, snapping around at the ends and driving away again. Sometimes, in the heat of the day, we watch the fish hanging for hours with only the smallest flickering of fin, the slightest movement of gill, in the shadow of the poolside. Motes of light and shadow shift in the depths dappling its body; the animal inscrutable and never-resting in its waters. Daily we are allowed the privilege of feeding the fish, and we drag the bucket filled with the offal and flesh it prefers to the poolside ceremoniously. In turns we spoon the food into the pool, watch it sink and disperse in the water; watch the fish rise quickly and snapping take a mouthful and flash away; watch it return time and again till it is sated and no longer rises swiftly and violent, but gently and languid.
At night when we three were in bed my mother would sit beside the pool in the dark, close by the edge in her chair and stare into the water. The moon and the stars would sometimes shine on the surface and occasionally the fish would rise and a quiet slosh sound and ripples ring the pool. My mother would sit for hours in this way, gazing into the darkened water wherein nothing may be seen, wherein the fish is surely pacing the lengths, cold and steady, wherein she sees ruin. Till late at night she would sit listening to the faint and distant sound of traffic and trains cutting through the night's chill. Every night the summer long.
My mother released the fish into the ocean from the old dinghy pier in Company Bay. She tipped it from the plastic trough into the still black sea and the fish, she saw it, pulsed slowly out, then quickly, violently jerked its body and disappeared.