Ted Sanders

Here is the halibut: he lives on the seafloor, swimming on his side, shimmying into the bottom’s silt. He affects flatness. He is meant to work this way. His top side, as he swims, is in truth merely his right side, where both of his close-set eyes now bulge. This top side—his right side, all that he can see of himself—is dark and mottled and always up, and on his milk white left side, always down, nothing remains of his face but the delicate swell of that half of his jaw. And whatever sense of symmetry he has, or of elevation, or orientation, he has learned it for himself because he knows different; he is born upright. When he is the size of a hand, he undergoes the measured shift of certain bones, certain surface features. In particular, his left eye migrates to his right side. This movement becomes a slow pain that he will always feel, a pull of displacement, a creeping injury. With it comes a realization that resembles pain, but which dwindles with time into discomfort: the discovery that from each eye he can see the other. And though at times he briefly forgets this ability, this condition, in much the same way that a man may disregard the sight of his own nose, nonetheless the halibut finds it difficult to become blind to himself, and his considerations are not those a man might have; the nose, after all, does not look back. And sometimes when the halibut is nearly buried beneath the silt and only his eyes and gills are exposed, he thinks to himself that it is often difficult not to stare, that up is an abstraction, that everything that cripples could be considered a wound. And because he does not know the quality of his left side, he chooses to believe it is a scar.

Here is the man, fishing from a boat full of other men, using a long, strong pole that fits into a metal holster on the rail. The line is long and strong, ends in wire. The man has paid to be on the boat, to use the pole. Men in thick tan coveralls with hoods help him, help the other men who have also paid. The men in coveralls are busy and bearded, appropriately dressed, and the man with the pole watches them, does what they tell him. He nods a lot, says okay. He is very cold. The man enjoys learning things, knows many, many things already, like the shape of Nevada or the fact that the sea is salty or that planes fly because their moving wings are sucked upward. He knows that one cubic meter of water—scarcely enough water to drown in—weighs twenty-two hundred pounds, a metric ton. This particular thing, he does not believe.

In an incident to come, later in the day, the halibut will swallow a drifting piece of squid that is wrapped around a small, thick treble hook, and this man will be at the other end of the line, far, far away in the light. The pole will already be bent beneath the weight of all the water passing along the line, all the line arcing through the water between the man and the fish, between the boat and the seafloor—far more line than the distance alone implies because the press of the moving water will have given the line a magnificent, vertebral curve. Neither the man nor the fish will know just how far the line arcs outward from a plumb line straight up and down. Perhaps the men in coveralls know it, have worked through the math, but they will be unable to envision the fact of it. There will be no place from which the entirety of that line can be seen—looping out into the dark and cold, like the tense wooden curve of a slender bow, splendid and tight and thrumming as the water slices itself around it.
    When the halibut takes the line, the man will not set the hook. He will not even attempt to set the hook; the men in coveralls have told him it is pointless to try. They have described to him, as best they can, the generous hyperbola of the line beneath the water. One will remind him: too much play. The man will think of translational distances. And when the halibut first takes the line, the man will not know for certain what has happened—will certainly not know, for example, the things the halibut will know—but he will nonetheless feel through his hands and through the pole a sonorous weight on the line. He will come to believe in an implied movement there, like the sea’s motion made concise, pulling on his palms, his forearms, his biceps, his feet planted on the deck, his thighs near his knees. He will feel this in some of the same ways that the halibut, moments before, will have first felt an alien pull enforcing itself through a terrible weight—again, not quite not a pain, but a vital pressure—anchored in the deep narrow pocket of his mouth, at the top of his throat pulling, a frightening and essential tug, stretching out from him and away, up toward the light. The silt the fish has lain in will become a cloud—will briefly blind him, far from the sight of the man.

Before this can occur, an octopus drifts beneath the boat. The octopus is not a fish. The octopus is one answer to the riddle: what creature has functional legs but cannot stand on the ground? Another answer is a kangaroo in space. The man on the boat knows both these answers but only truly admires the first; his son has invented the second. Of course, among the many facts the man does not recall, despite all he knows, is the fact that the octopus does not have legs, but arms. And even if the man did remember this, he might dismiss it as a matter of semantics. As for the octopus, the man does not imagine that it troubles itself with semantics, or that it even, strictly speaking, invents names for its parts, or that it fancies itself an element of riddles. Nevertheless, in certain circles, the octopus is considered an intelligent creature. Some humans, in fact, facing their own limitations of understanding, of communication, of empathy, wonder just how intelligent the octopus may be. Octopuses have been taught, in the company of humans, to recognize symbols, to open jelly jars underwater, to solve simple problems of cause and effect, like blue equals pain. In one aquarium, an octopus has taught herself to climb out of her tank, to make her way across the floor to a neighboring tank of crustaceans, to drag herself up the side of that tank and in to where the lobsters cower. She takes a lobster tightly in her arms and returns back to her own tank. There she eats the lobster, hides the empty carapace under rocks. She does this by night, finishing before the aquarium workers—who are human—return each morning to find another lobster mysteriously absent. For a while, some of these humans will suspect others of themselves in the disappearance of the lobsters, but this is not the octopus’s fault.

Beneath the boat where the man who knows the answers to the riddle regards his borrowed rod—here the men in coveralls help men underdressed for the cold pull in massively flat, white-bellied fish—an octopus tangles itself in the taut curve of the man’s line. The line is meant to be invisible, the color of water, and when the octopus strikes that strange, dimensionless blade, it is cut, and its arms flick, like a hand closing. It is caught then. The physics of its entanglement have to do with its bonelessness, something the man will scarcely be able to imagine. But as the octopus struggles, the man above comes to understand that a weight is on the line, and another man—in coveralls—encourages him to pull her up. By her, he means the line. And so the man turns the big reel. He turns for minutes. The line feeds onto the spool, and so must be shortening, but it only seems to tremble, not emerge, where it runs up into the air from the water’s surface. This uniformity of a man-made length will mystify the halibut, has beleaguered the octopus, numbs the man.
    As the man works the rod and the reel—his arm tiring, his back grimacing collaboratively—he feels ever more sure that there may be a heavy, dead weight on the line. He braces himself for a disappointment, either strange or mundane—as though he could in actuality have snagged a boot, a tire, a rubbery clump of seaweed, or a body or a part of one. And when the thing truly on the line comes up from the water, the man is stunned, thinks for a moment he has done something wrong or that something wrong has been done to him, because a writhing blurb of seething orange has a hold of the line, an object of a nearly scandalous color, an organic orange like that of certain flowers, or a certain rustic breed of scented candle, wrapped in strips of raffia, or certain suns. It bobs there bright and rich, half in and half out of its reflection in the uncolored water, the size of laundry. Threads of white roil within the orange. Two men in coveralls reach out chattering and laughing, and one palms the line, hauls the orange mass up and aboard. The other holds a baseball bat. And when the churning bulk they’ve pulled from the water slaps wet and heavy to the deck, its arms unfurl and furl, and a round tubule on the side of its head opens and closes, and the man still holding the rod sees a shimmering copper eye, a black oblong pupil. It reminds him strongly of a goat’s eye. The line is so tangled in the octopus that to the man it seems to run through the octopus, imperceptible except where it draws deep crevices in the octopus’s skin, cutting bloodless through its flesh, as though the line could go on quietly and invisibly injuring the octopus forever.
    The man with the baseball bat begins to beat the octopus. He uses the bat. He uses a great deal of his strength. The octopus squirms complexly, multifoliate. Its colors change, change moving over it in discrete waves as it dulls sullenly into brown, brightens into embarrassment. The man holding the rod watches. He marvels. He considers the size of cells. He thinks how the sound of the bat into the octopus is like a sound he believes he could have imagined, but he understands he has never heard this sound. Later, he will consider describing the sound to his wife, and he will think of pillows hit by tennis rackets, but they would have to be wet pillows, or better: an apple the size of a chair being struck with an axe. Or maybe a massive slab of wet meat, pounded with a broad hammer—although this last essentially is the act he merely wishes to approximate; furthermore, the thought will only make him recall his mother, and cube steak. In the end, he will not tell his wife about the octopus.
    On the boat, the man watches as the octopus—whose flushed arms are writhing over the deck, clinging in places, fixing themselves briefly to the bait box, to the housing of the cabin—seizes randomly on the bat with two arms. They constrict, and wrench the bat cleanly from the grasp of the man in coveralls. For a few woozy moments, full of laughing and raised voices, an instant where the men standing around lean away, the octopus brandishes the bat over its head. The bat swings in a loopy, threatening circle. It strikes the window of the cabin and bounces away. It strikes the octopus. The man in coveralls reaches in and pulls the bat free, still laughing, cursing. He goes back to work. He grunts now. Later, the men will take a long time untangling the body of the octopus from the line. They will cut the line at last. They will slide the octopus wetly, heavily, into a white box along the rail. The man who has paid for this experience will think, as he watches, that the octopus looks like organs, or a placenta. He will wonder what it is about water that could allow such a thing to be present in the world.

They get the man another rod and reel. On this one, the line is red and again ends in wire. Some of the other men discuss the octopus. The men in coveralls act as though it was not much out of the ordinary. They describe the flavor of octopus, or rather they do not, because they make the tastes-like-chicken joke. The man dislikes this joke, but he laughs at it; they all do. The man tries to conjure the taste of chicken into his mouth but cannot.
    Later, as the man cranks at the reel with his already tired arm, pulling up the halibut that has swallowed the treble hook that bounced over the silt on the seafloor, he knows he has not caught another octopus. This weight is heavier by far—feels more cumbersome and momentous, feels full of one type of inertia or the other, feels inexplicably like hauling up a great, sturdy doormat. A man in coveralls leans over and hefts the rod in his layered palm. That’ll be your halibut, he says. He tells the man that it won’t fight much on the way up, but that it’ll be a long job bringing him in. The man turns the reel. Elements of his arm—biceps, triceps—already drown in their own spent energy. The back of his right hand hurts. It feels slightly dismantled, subject to rearrangement. He watches it. Three hundred feet here, the man in coveralls says, and asks if he’s feeling it. He lays his thick hand on the moving curve of flesh between the man’s shoulder and neck. The man nods and leans into the line that feeds onto the turning spool. He settles up against a rhythm he believes he is only just learning: letting the length of the rod drop as he cranks at the reel, and then pulling the rod back upright with both hands, hauling up the line and the fish at the other end, putting—as men say—his body into it. His spine is a magnificent thing. The flat muscles in the small of his back begin to ache, becoming solid. He does not know the names of these muscles, where they begin or end.
    It does not occur to the man to wonder how he knows to draw the fish nearer this way—reeling in line as the pole falls, lifting the pole again with the strength in his back, the tight, anchored line thrumming splendidly down the pole’s length and off its nodding tip. The men in coveralls have not described this technique. He does not have a memory of being taught how to do this particular thing. Nevertheless, his body understands it. His muscles and joints—tiring, swelling—organize themselves unknowingly, creating the motion from the man’s need. And because the man does not think to question how he has come to understand this movement—even now as his body folds and unfolds over the line, as he watches the water take its space around the boat, as he listens to the wet line being drawn through the mechanisms of the pole and the reel, as he briefly straightens the fingers of his right hand and imagines the tangible rewards of his work—even now he does not contemplate the difference between understanding and discovery, discovery and invention, invention and belief. He will have the opportunity to consider many of these things on other occasions.
    The wire emerges from the wrinkled water. A white shape moves alongside the boat, and the man stops reeling. The shape looks the size of a bed. It goes slim and disappears. Two men in coveralls lean over the rail on either side. Big one, says the man on the right. He holds a large silver hook in his hand, the size of a child’s arm. The man on the left does not have a net. He has a fat silver revolver instead. He’ll fight now, this man says. A third man stands behind him leaning on the baseball bat—not the man who killed the octopus. The white shape reappears in the water, a pointed sliver growing patiently wide like an opening eye.

The halibut spins slowly within the water, top over bottom, listening to the pull in his mouth. So much light, and the water so loose. He watches the light in his own eyes. He lets himself drift right side up, right side down. He watches himself look back through the water below. He does not see the seafloor. He does not know how to see the seafloor. But as he drifts, the determined pressure in his mouth returns, and he is pulled partway out of the warm, wrapping water into some new and terrible element, and he feels, for the first time, a sensation something like what the man who knows the answers to the riddle calls cold. And then a sharp crisp sound comes, impossibly near, loud but thin, and with it another tug of pressure, and real pain. The fish turns, sinks back into water, swims. He swims down.
    The men lean over the rail. The boat displaces many tons of water. Below them, in the water, there is a thin slanted column of powder and warmth, cavitation, where the bullet has passed. And that bullet: how far would it go as a torpedo before it became a stone, a stone in the shape of a crumpled finger? The fish’s own blood threads the water, and a clouded trail of its own mess, blood and feces, brooding in a thick plume back up to the bright burning surface where the boat is a dark, steady footprint in a disintegrating cloud, and in that cloud long shapes bend and flicker, gesture into the water. The fish goes down, down; his body is a muscle. He sews through the water, side to side or up and down, weaving back into a deeper dark until he senses the bottom just below, feels and then begins to see the clouds of silt drifting from the seafloor. But the mystery of the weight in his mouth doesn’t end.
    The man who knows the answers to the riddle does not know that the halibut, like the octopus, can change colors. This is merely one of the things the halibut and the octopus have in common. The man also does not know, but would perhaps have been able to guess, that the halibut changes his color in order to match the shade of the seafloor where he hides. The man knows the word for this: camouflage. The man knows how to spell the word. And the halibut is so good at camouflage that he can imitate the patterns of textured rock, or of striped silt rippled by currents, or of a checkerboard. The feat is a willful act that involves the eyes, an understanding of one’s surroundings, and the learned discovery of the chemical endeavors of the skin—though of course the halibut does not know these things about himself. It does not occur to the fish to wonder how he knows to alter himself this way, even now on the seafloor, far below the man, as he begins to make himself go dark against the dusky silt. He attempts to hide from the pain in his ribs, the pressure in his mouth; this is what he knows. He makes himself go dark in a growing circle that emanates from the burning spot of hurt in his side, where he can see blood and bright bits of himself rising into the water. He watches them rise, watches his body begin to fade from sight. And perhaps because the halibut does not question his ability, he is able to believe that only his upper half—his right half—becomes dark; he believes that his left side, pressed against the bottom now, glows milk white. He does not stop to consider that he cannot know this for certain about himself. He will not consider it even when he is drawn again into the open cold above, exposed and upended and made heavy beyond reason, pulled by a clutch of new pains. He will not be able to imagine, even then, the ways in which he will be seen.
    The clean spade of the boat’s bottom drifts high above him, away at the surface, the place he has been and will be. The motes of silt, the dark particles in the water—they are illuminated scarcely by the faint light filtering from above. Some begin to settle across the halibut’s side. If he had been given a different understanding or had been taught certain things—if he had been the man—he might at that moment have considered how, at that moment, he looked like a cold bed of burnt coals, only recently disturbed, beneath a furling cloud of ashes that have only recently begun to fall. But for now, all he might see for certain of himself is his own reciprocal stare and those tiny, blown-loose pieces of his flesh. He may breathe. He cannot know that the hook has worked its way into his gills and will not come free. He may open and close his mouth around the red line, but the length of the red line arcs from him and away, through the debris about his body, disappearing out into light, or darkness, far from here—up and out into a density he also does not understand.

Here is the man arriving home. He does not have the fish. He has instead—on a dark plastic strip rolled in a small metal canister—the undeveloped potential for a picture, in which the fish hangs from a peeling metal bar next to three other fish, all big but none as big as the man’s fish, all with their smooth, milk white bellies bared. A square of paper with a number on it has been stuck to each fish, giving the weight of each. The squares of paper have been stuck to the fish with thumbtacks. The paper on the fish the man has caught reads 112. This is a big number; it has already made him think of orders of magnitude. The man is in the picture too, and he will later discover that he looks handsome in it. But he cannot see this picture yet, and when he comes home, having flown from the sea, having showered more than once, he does not have the fish. He tells his wife and son about the fish, about certain events that transpired on the boat, but he does not have the fish. He shows them what he has instead: a receipt, a carbon in triplicate, documenting an account he now has at a fish bank. He has deposited his fish there. He can now withdraw fish, though the fish bank is far away. And different kinds of fish are like the currencies of different countries, and so for the massive, flat, pummeled fish he has caught and given, he can procure so many pounds of smoked salmon—but not 112—or a number of swordfish steaks, or shark, or filets of orange roughy, or tilapia, or mahi-mahi, which is the pastoral name for the dolphin fish, a name no one can stomach. He even believes shellfish might be available to him, though of course they are not technically fish. And he tells his wife all of this, and that all of these things could be shipped to them, overnight, and what is not sent fresh could be sent canned or frozen. She, listening, is amazed and happy. The son grins proudly. Together they begin to invent plans with what they have coming to them, and the man begins to believe the things they say. But when at last the man sees the picture, he will look at the fish, its scales, and he will wonder where the bullet hole is. He will wonder if the tacked-on square of paper covers it, or if it could be found on the dark side of the fish, or if it is merely unseen. He will imagine that the skin of such a creature can be parted after all, and smoothed again by hand, like feathers or vegetation, or water, undisturbed.

Ted Sanders lives in Urbana, Illinois, with a son fond of swordfights and a cat terrified of office chairs. His stories have appeared in journals such as Black Warrior Review, the Georgia Review, and the Massachusetts Review.

“Flounder” appears in our Summer 2008 issue.