The Fish-Flashed Water*
Yesterday in the late morning we drove to Jupiter Beach County Park to release a swimming crab that we’d kept in the aquarium through at least three molts and a mantis shrimp that I brought home only a few days ago. The mantis shrimp was beautiful and alarming, a cross between a centipede and some sort of Stanley Winston monster, but both of them were too large for the tank, and the presence of the shrimp, though I never witnessed any direct aggression between them, was clearly deleterious to the crab’s peace of mind; as a result of his frantic movements, everything else in the aquarium was on high alert.
I’d gone to the JBCP a couple of days after Isaac passed, just to see whether any interesting marine life might have washed in. That is, I went, but I never got in because the park was closed, and I was forced to go nearby to the skanky marina called Burt Reynolds Park, where there were a few hermit crabs; the usual handful of leathery-looking black women silently, doggedly fishing; and the mantis shrimp, a surprising find out there in the open, on the tidal mud, in the bright middle of the day.
After we let the mantis and the crab loose in the waters near the rocks in the mini-lagoon across from the Jupiter Lighthouse, we walked out on the short fishing jetty where the usual crop of scary-looking white boys with jail-house tats smoked, swore, and cast their lines with as much “get the fuck out of my way” attitude as they could muster with silent, dead-eyed glances and the straight man’s innate ability to take up space well beyond his body; when they spoke to one another, it was in bursts of grunts, half-syllables, and desultory, obligatory cursing.
The pier stank of dead fish and, in fact, the cement floor was littered with the small, silver carcasses of bait fish that had been yanked from the water with nets and dumped there, where they either ended up at the end of a hook or simply writhed themselves to asphyxiation and then slowly desiccated in the blazing sun. There’s always a terrible sadism to this whole affair of fishing, at least the way these half-savage white boys practice it in this part of Florida. The only moment in which their studied impassivity falls away is when a fish is brought in and the opportunity comes to murder something wild. Best of all is if it is a ray, a barracuda, or a small shark, or anything that can’t be eaten; then the animal can be punished for the sin of its existence with a cruel death.
The tide was high, and the water was a deep blue-black, churning and choppy and flecked in lines of fractal foam. All at once, a swarm of hundreds of small fish, perhaps six or eight inches long, leapt out of the water in a mass; the splash as they fell back was like a wave crashing against the rocks. Over and over it happened around us as we stood at the end of the pier—here, then twenty feet away, then off in the distance and then again in another group just to our left. They were mullet, and they were being hunted. Perhaps a barracuda or spinner sharks, but then we saw the snook vaulting out of the water with them, a convulsion at the surface and the one large fish amid the airborne storm of sleeker mullet, the smear of pale yellow, a dark line on the flank, and the odd, downward slope of its snout before they all disappeared beneath the dark sea.
The boys swore; it was the snook they wanted, and they immediately began casting their lines into the wheelmark on the sea where the last group of mullet had erupted. Pointless, because everything was moving so quickly there, beneath the water, and pointless because a live, frantic mullet is by any stretch a more attractive prey than a small, rigid minnow that stinks of a bad death.
We saw perhaps ten schools of mullet leap up, outrunning the snook – the same mullet? the same snook? We couldn’t tell. The scene lasted only a few minutes, and when it was over it was over fast. Whatever had gone on down there, invisible to us, reached its end with no denouement. Irregular peaks and furrows returned to roil across the pitch-dark surface of the sea. After a moment, we turned our backs on the fishermen and walked back toward the beach, smiling at one another shyly, all but laughing out loud at a strange and unfamiliar sensation of grace.
* From Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Fisherman.”