Slashing at the Nets
SHE WAS GONE. AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS.
He’d caught rougets that Tuesday morning and after he cleaned them, she put them on the grill. The delicate bones were piled on the plates. His knife rested on top of the discarded napkins. They were drinking a bottle of rosé, half dozing side-by-side in their weathered chairs on the small balcony.
The heat was blistering, unseasonal, bleaching the sky of color. Cats and dogs lay prostrate on the cobblestone streets, stunned into submission, their legs splayed in unnatural positions.
A loud clattering roused them. A gray dappled horse, without livery or rider, burst down the narrow street, veered to the left, skidded, and fell against a stone wall. A raw scream. The horse tried to raise itself, but could not; bone protruded from its front legs. It lifted its head to the sky, long yellow teeth jutting from curled lips. Its panicked high-pitched whinnies pierced the comatose day. Again and again the animal tried to get up, thrashed, and fell down on itself.
“Do something,” she yelled. “Put the horse out of its misery.”
“How?” he choked out, bile in his throat. “I don’t have a gun.”
She ran out of the house. He watched her approach the horse, her soft gentle words dropping to a low cooing sound. The horse calmed. She placed its head in her lap, laid her hand over its wild eye, put her mouth to its ear, and slit its throat. The body of the animal shuddered. She pressed her cheek to its neck. Its blood emptied into the street.
She rose slowly, her black hair matted against her bloodied face; her dress now carmine. Head down, she walked back into the house, and brushed past him.
“How? That’s how,” she said, and slumped in the corner of the room, tears blotching her cheeks. He stood statue-like, staring.
She waved the knife at him. “Did someone use this to cut off your balls? What’s happened to you? Those boys in the orchard, the thief in the market: you ran. Now this. I can’t live with your nightmares.”
The knife she had used on the horse was his; it was given to him by his father when he was ten, the year he’d started helping on the boat. At that time, the horn handle was pale yellow and striated. The blade was thick and blue-black. Now, the grip was dark and smooth and the blade had been honed silver.
It was the same knife that years earlier he’d used to defend her. It had happened on a nearby island. They’d met in a bar. He noticed her standing in the midst of a group of girls. Blue eyes, the genetic gift of a visiting Englishman three generations earlier, set her apart. When the band started, her lithe body swayed as if the music were coming from within, marrow deep.
Later that week, they’d walked hand-in-hand along a dark path at the edge of town. Four men, from out of the trees, surrounded them, taunted them: island slut, mainland bastard. Knives were drawn. He replied with ferocity and daring. The four fled, but not before leaving a long slash on his left arm.
Then last year, fishing alone during a storm, on a day others had refused to leave port, his right arm got tangled in the nets. He was pulled overboard and dragged to the bottom. He remembered maniacally slashing at the nets with his knife. He remembered the pain in his chest, a vise crushing his spine and sternum. His heart thumped to near bursting. Gulping. He also remembered a sudden calm. He did not remember how he got to shore. Only that at dusk he lay there, shaking and shivering, his boat a hundred meters away. He relived those moments each time thunderheads appeared in the sky.
After she’d gone, he went down to the shore. Took a bottle with him. For company. For who the hell knows what. A deep sleep. Awaking, a salty mist coated his face, even his eyelids. Circling gulls brayed overhead. He settled himself against an overturned rowboat, and noticed a crab bravely working its way out of the water. It skittered up the sand, only to be pulled back by the surf. Sidled up again, finally succeeding in outrunning the chasing waves. Then it paused, exhausted by its struggle, only to be robbed of its labors by a swooping gull. The bird snatched it up and lurched awkwardly skyward.
He yanked himself up from the sand, and hurled his knife. Gull, crab, and knife plummeted to the rocks, creating a spray of steel shards, shell fragments, and white feathers.
He hated the sea.
Townsend Walker is a writer living in San Francisco. His short stories take journeys into the lives of a female assassin, an Italian detective who solves a murder with tortellini, soldiers with memories of smashed birds and bodies, vengeful women, and teenagers in love. The stories are set in: Rome, London, New York, Boston, St. Etienne, Munich, San Francisco, and Levelland. His stories have been published in over two dozen literary journals, print and on-line, and read on the radio.
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