THE YELLOW FISH
by Nels Hanson
“Last net of the day,” Lloyd Webb shouted that warm evening last September—
In June I’d been working in the woods above Redding, running a caterpillar on a logging crew.
Sierra Evergreen had gone suddenly bankrupt and their last checks bounced—I heard later on the radio a labor fight broke out, shots were fired and some of the equipment sabotaged.
I’d driven west through the mountains to Crescent City.
I’d worked my way up the coast through the fishing towns, picking up a day or two of wages and moving on, until I made Mussel Bay and caught on with Thomas.
The beginning of August there’d been the first of several random, big runs of salmon along the Oregon coast. For a few hours or half a day, the salmon were suddenly thick, then disappeared for a week or more.
Just when the season seemed over, another good catch came along, but in a different place.
The captains searched for the shifting, narrow veins of fish—one boat would fill its hold by noon while a crew a quarter mile to starboard returned empty at midnight.
It was like roulette, playing for the big haul that would make up for fifty liftings of sparse nets.
All the fishing veterans were bewildered. I heard rumors of the Japanese and Russians fishing out the younger salmon, the breeding stock, and uglier talk of Indians and Southeast Asians netting the inland streams. The local paper ran wire stories about global warming, a wayward El Nińo, an ozone hole above the North Pole.
Maybe complex hydrocarbons polluting the sea had affected the fishes’ homing sense, or microwaves and sonar from nuclear submarines had upset the same internal gyro that caused confused whales to beach.
The money had been okay—for a month the men who worked the boats got their hourly pay plus a small percentage of the catch. We went out seven days a week so the boat owners wouldn’t miss a jackpot.
On my first Sunday off I rented a small van and got my things out of three years’ storage in a friend’s garage in Portland, including my books and a box of china that belonged to Jenny—her sister, Holly, had given us painted cups and saucers, for a wedding present. I knew I should contact my ex-wife; she lived in Ashland, a few hours away, and she and Holly were close; Jenny would want the dishes. But I didn’t have the heart—Jenny was remarried, to a druggist, and had two kids. Her life had gone on and mine had strayed off the trail.
Maybe having something of Jenny’s made me feel less alone, the way I’d kept a coffee can of earth from the ranch where once a circling hawk had dropped a feather at my feet.
I moved out of my room at the Mussel Bay boarding house and set up housekeeping on the second floor of a clapboard duplex three blocks off the wharf.
I’d put some money away toward a used pickup to replace the beat-up Ford Ranger that sat stalled in my driveway. It had a warped head and water in the oil.
I walked to work early each morning, bought groceries from a woman named Pat at a corner store, and ate out once a week at The Mast, a bar and grill that served cheap fish and chips and chowder.
I’d met three guys about my age that I could talk and drink beer with a night or two after work. I didn’t have a phone and hadn’t had a date or made love with a woman in a year and half, or seen my parents for Christmas, or my millionaire uncle since my divorce from Jenny.
I was on my own and thirty-three and felt the year and the salmon season dwindling, along with my energy and any real expectation of making a fresh start that would break the circle of wandering—
By the last week in August we’d gone ten days without a catch. We’d dig halfway through the silver pile of smelt and mackerel and blue cod for the red shine of a salmon.
The first week of September was the same. The big, odd run didn’t return and we took what we could get, all the time knowing that pretty soon the work would wind down and the new men would go first.
Charlie Kreugar was captain, Lloyd Webb ran the winch, and Cole Finley, Ed Roper, and I sorted when the net came up, lobbing the fish down different slides to bins of ice in the hold, throwing out the kingfish and bullheads, the rays and bony sharks.
Like a brick mason, Randy Perez worked alone below decks, shoveling crushed ice between each neat layer set head to tail.
“Coming down,” Webb shouted above the winch’s motor, the net of struggling fish swaying ten feet above the deck.
A scarlet opah with white dots was trapped against the mesh.
It was near sunset and Webb lowered the last catch of the day onto the sorting floor.
We worked in rubber gloves and slickers, grabbing the flopping fish and dropping them down the chutes.
“That all there is?”
Webb leaned forward, watching the wriggling silver mound.
“Looks like it,” Cole said, tossing a skate over the side.
So far we’d found only five or six salmon, all sockeyes.
“Plenty of dog fish,” Roper said, “for The Mast.”
He lifted a thirty-pound lingcod from the pile and I saw something flicker and burn like a dark rainbow.
The body was nearly flat, bent in three or four snaky turns, like an eel or barracuda.
The electric-yellow stripes were knife-edged in orange, and two deepening shades of blue—one deep indigo and the other a purple almost black. The long head and nose angled down to red protruding lips.
A big orange eye bulged where the long snout started.
The fish tried to jump, glinting like sparking flint, stark as gold foil.
It was two feet long with fan-like gills and tail fins and from the side it had the shape of a streamlined angelfish.
Now Roper and Cole saw it too.
“What in the world?”
Cole held a jack smelt by the gills, watching the yellow fish jerk in spasms at the top of the pile, its striped body contracting and unfolding as it caught the light like a prism.
Its smooth scales were shiny and iridescent as the blue neck feathers of the peacock I’d fed corn to at the ranch.
It lay still and worked its delicate lacy gills, its narrow open mouth trying to drink oxygen from the air.
“What the hell is it?” Cole said.
We’d sometimes pulled up a big squid or star, octopus or odd shark—once we caught a thresher with a lifejacket around its head and radioed the Coast Guard—but I’d never seen anything like this.
The yellow was too bright for a cold-sea species. The fish had to be tropical, something from a National Geographic TV program about skin divers off Hawaii or Fiji.
My friend Rick Speaks had talked about the oceans heating up and the remaining sea life falling like dominoes.
“You ever see anything like that?” Webb asked.
“No,” I said.
“What about you, Ed?”
“I hope not,” Roper said. “It looks like Satan’s goldfish.”
It was an odd comment, but not for Roper.
He was about forty, beefy and red-faced with wiry, thinning carrot hair that stuck out over his ears.
“I bet it’s got black meat,” he said, staring at it.
Roper reached behind him and raised a gaff.
I leaned and grabbed his thick wrist so he jerked back the gaff, looking at me.
“What the fuck—”
The sharp hook glinted.
“Let go—” Roper said.
I thought he would spear me. He was thinking about it.
“I want to show somebody,” I said.
It was like killing a bald eagle or an albatross. It was wrong and also bad luck.
“A friend of mine.”
“He collects fish.”
His mouth curled.
“You guys a couple?”
I squeezed his wrist tighter.
“Leave the fish alone.”
“All right. Christ—”
Roper lowered the gaff as Webb watched him.
Then I let him go.
I lifted the fish gingerly by the gills, careful not to tear the translucent paler fins, and set it into a bucket of seawater I kept on deck.
Paul Banner was a marine biologist who lived down the street—he was studying the strange salmon season and had asked me to bring in anything suspicious we found in the net.
Webb hadn’t said a word to Roper, even though Webb had warned him about it.
Roper liked to stab fish before he threw them over. We’d been boarded twice by inspectors and earlier in the day their white boat had stayed with us off to port. At the bow a man in a khaki uniform had watched us through binoculars.
So Webb was siding with Roper—
I kept looking in the bucket between grabbing fish and tossing them like firewood down the different chutes.
Its slim sides fluttered, turning color in waves, sending shadows through the water as its red mouth bumped the pail and its orange eye watched. Its gill and tail fins waved like a hummingbird’s wings.
It was a rare, exotic variety, but something more—
It’s true that a year later the fish shines as sharply in my memory—and maybe in an aquarium in Portland or Seattle—as on that evening when we found it with the spotted opah and salmon, cod and silver smelt.
Rick Speaks and Paul Banner believe that the fish was a harbinger, a warning of some profound ecological change.
Charles Two Hats believes the fish was sent from the green river that feeds Sleeping Child Lake.
It’s true that the quarrel with Roper got me fired from the Blue Fin, and that when I took the live fish to Paul’s apartment of aquariums, Tug was there, ready to go to Montana to work in his brother-in-law’s sawmill, two hours south of the deep green lake—
I don’t where the fish was from or if it came on its own. Its changing layers of orange and yellow scales made it a glowing northern underwater sun, living gold from a darker, colder world.
I kept watching the unreal stripes precise as a zebra’s, fiery saffron and dark navy blue, the purple-black of concord grapes on a vine.
I had a sudden feeling that there was something that I remembered, that I was on the edge of recalling, a bright fading thing long lost and forgotten—
A galleon’s midnight jade—
Sunken Aztec gold—
All the treasure is alive—
It wasn’t a thought but a shining ribbon of memory without an image and just the echo of nonsense talk, the way Charles Two Hats’ death song sounded strange when I learned it by ear and only later Charles told me the meaning of the words that matched the notes.
I’d seen the same thing before, when I’d hooked my first rainbow at Crater Lake and felt a snagged Nautilus blink electric with the sharp jerk of the line.
“Don’t horse him!” my father shouted. “Keep the tip up!”
I didn’t know what he meant.
The racing trout lit the shallows; it was a flashing mineral or watery candle, now a ghost ship darting from the depths where what lived had to make its own light, shooting its charge down the tight nylon cord.
The emerald sides shimmered with portholes, flaring diamond and gold flecks from Atlantis—
“Give it here—”
My father grabbed the pole and the speckles glittered briefly in the sun and went out as the trout flopped on the gravel bank.
“You can’t horse ’em like that,” my father said. “You’ll lose every one—”
A shiver ran down my neck, a half-memory of a place where real life was unfolding while I sleepwalked inside my waking existence.
I didn’t put it in those words when my father took the rod or I stood on the Blue Fin’s deck and Roper aimed the gaff but it’s a fair description of how I felt watching the rainbow and then the slender yellow-blue fish.
At college or a job I was like an Indian who’d left the reservation and tried to live in the city. A psychiatrist might call it an overactive imagination, a symptom that explains my failure to sink roots and sustain long-term relationships.
The doctor might suggest problems with the reality principle, subject-object relations, ego formation and identity that led to wanderlust and lack of success in adult society.
Someone said that once.
I took a psychology course at Corvallis and the top student came over after the last class. I was in the kitchen pouring beer behind a cupboard and through the door I could see his scuffed wingtips and his hand holding a Lucky Strike. Jenny sat on the couch, looking out the window.
He’d just described my growing up on a ranch, in isolation from other children, at the center of a Freudian family romance.
“It’s been interesting knowing Bill this semester. Especially grading his papers.”
Jenny turned, staring as his hand lifted and disappeared and a stream of smoke shot from his chair.
“I’m the grader for Professor Stewart. The only papers he grades are mine.”
“I didn’t know that,” Jenny said.
“It’s really fascinating, analyzing religious sentiment as an avoidance compulsion.”
“Take Bill, for example—”
“What about him?”
The way she said it, I guessed that he was smiling.
The smoke twirled between his stained fingers.
“The images he chooses, the language of his papers. His tone—”
“What’s wrong with it?”
Jenny brushed back a bang of brown hair.
“His romantic attachment to patterns of religious emotion—his atavistic identification with nature—reveals a proneness to fantasies, projected wishes. Latent infantile repetitions. It’s clearly a screen—”
“Camouflage, his internal censor’s cover story for unresolved primal complexes, regressive fixations.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Really? The faux mysticism is a patent stand-in for oral narcissism and a punishing superego,” he went on, blowing smoke. “It hides his excessive fear of, and attraction to, death. You’ll have to face it.”
“Jenny dear, Bill harbors an ambivalent, debilitating hunger—to return to the undifferentiated warm cosmos of the womb. That’s hardly the profile of an integrated mature male.”
He waved his open palm, flinging ash now.
“It’s classic. Dr. Stewart agrees.”
“Screw Dr. Stewart,” Jenny said. “And screw you—”
I’d listened carefully over the three waiting glasses of Dos Equis as the professor’s favorite student explained to my wife that I was sick or weak or both, but too dumb or cowardly to know or confess it.
I went in and told him to leave, standing close to his chair so he couldn’t tell me what I really meant.
Jenny said that he’d made a pass at her at the class picnic when I’d gone to buy more beer. She’d told him no and pushed him away and he’d apologized and asked if she was attracted to women. The semester was over and I never saw him again, though some of what he said stuck with me.
To believe in anything but the here and now was a sign of fear and immaturity and probably something sexually abnormal.
The first winter after Jenny and I broke up, I dreamed I was in a white bed in a white ward of a hospital in Portland and Stewart’s prize student was holding a cigarette, smiling, leaning over me in a white coat and the ash fell on the buttoned shirt of my pajamas.
Maybe he was right or something is wrong with the world.
My experience is that life isn’t easy or perfect and that if you’re very lucky loss and gain pretty evenly balance level until you die and find out for certain if there’s a better place by a green river or if it’s true those waters feed Sleeping Child Lake.
I don’t think all crucial events depend on whether you nursed at the nipple or used a toilet chair shaped like a swan or wanted to kill your father and marry your mother. Things do happen outside your body and its network of nerves. I should have asked the future doctor too smart to believe in God the riddle that the Sphinx put to Oedipus:
“What walks on four feet at morning, two feet at noon, and three feet at evening?”
I was eight years old and forking loose hay into a rick when my dad gave me a bad tongue-lashing. He told me I’d never be a cowboy, that I ought to go into the house and help my mother with her chores. She could teach me how to sweep and wash the clothes and clean the bathtub.
I already knew how, I helped my mother with the housework and he never did, but it was all I could do to hold it in until he drove off in his pickup. I sobbed until my chest heaved and I had to drop to my hands and knees to catch my breath.
I didn’t eat lunch and hardly any dinner—it was a pheasant my father shot and I thought about my peacock. I went to bed early, looking out the window at The Three Kings.
The towers shone blood red in the sunset, like the masts of a ship on fire, like Fletcher Christian’s Bounty.
In the morning I felt the same, all emptied out, making crazy hopeless plans to escape, to ride my horse Jerry into the hills, but at noon I heard a shrill cry and saw a broad shadow run across the barnyard.
I lifted a hand and stared straight up at a red-tailed hawk circling the sun, then turning into the blinding light.
For a second the hawk eclipsed and became the sun, its long wings etched with yellow fire, each spread pinion a scarlet flame, the fanned tail a half disk of crimson, like a live falcon painted on a pharaoh’s tomb.
Something fell, like a piece of the sun, rocking and floating down between the light and the bird’s shadow.
The long mottled plume fell at my feet.
I picked it up, examining the tan and reddish-brown bands, feeling if the tip of the white quill were still warm.
The hawk called and came around again and I blinked and looked down to watch the swift wide shadow veer away from my boots across the straw-covered ground as the frightened peacock crowed from the barn.
Roy Wells, a Cherokee Indian cowboy who knew about hoop snakes—when you try to catch them, they bite their tails and roll like a wheel—told me it was good luck, that the hawk had given me a part of himself, that now the hawk would be part of me. If I wanted or needed to I could fly and glide and circle high above the Earth.
I quit wearing a cowboy hat and wore the feather in my hair in a headband made from an old belt until the feather finally fell apart.
“Where’s your hat?” my father asked.
“I lost it.”
“You gotta have a hat—”
“I don’t want one,” I said.
It made me feel better, as if underneath my loneliness and fear things were somehow all right—the Hawk of the Sun knew me, knew my thoughts and how I felt, and had given me a token, a promise out of an empty clear sky.
Message or just chance, the feather landed at my feet, when I was lost with nowhere to turn.
Who questions the right gift, when it’s offered just in time?
I knew that the hawk was greater than my father.
I’d grown up on the ranch and loved the country and wildlife and understood the Indians honoring animals. The hawk and owl and bear were gods—the Indians’ Crow was a messenger and teacher, like Mercury to the Romans and Greeks. Some of those deities were still part animal, like Egyptian gods with heads of falcons or jackals. Mercury had wings on his feet and the King of Persia had ruled from a Peacock Throne.
I didn’t think it out as the tropical fish quivered in the spread net but I knew the striped visitor dragged from the sea was deserving of respect. Things like that I felt in my gut: it was automatic, even when the thinking, school part of me said no.
I’d felt it like a fist to the chest when Roper raised the gaff to spear the fish.
But then I hadn’t met Charles Two Hats and didn’t know that what feels like pain is also the heart trying to learn.
I didn’t know what hurts you badly can save you, that it’s not just harm but also a disguised gift—if you don’t know something’s missing then you don’t try to find it.
In the end, there’s more reason to thank your scars than your medals. Charles said at least half the ladder’s rungs are built of sadness, and sometimes slipping down is the only way to rise, even if the lake is deep as Sleeping Child where Emma Little Bear dove to find her lost son and I watched her bracelet glint and go out before I turned and swam for air—
Roper and Webb didn’t talk to me or look my way again and after we’d sorted the catch and cleared the net we folded it and fed it to Webb as he worked the lever and wound it on the spool.
“I thought I’d died and gone to seventh heaven,” Roper said, shaking his head as he handled the net.
He was telling Cole about an exotic dancer he’d gone out with. Until her, he hadn’t known what sex was.
“Talk about a body—”
I knew Roper had split up with his wife, they had four kids, and he was always griping about child support, how he had to pay for his wife to sleep with other men. He’d hit her when he found a neighbor at the house to fix the sink and his teenage daughter had called the police but so far Roper hadn’t done any jail time.
Then the net was on the spool and he and Cole went into the little galley behind the wheelhouse to drink Cokes and play gin rummy and I didn’t think anymore about Roper and the gaff or his girlfriend—
I didn’t know her or her name or that my friend, Tug Warner, was a big fan.
The sun was setting and I stood at the stern, looking down at the fish in the bucket and its strange mouth and fins, its bulging orange eye, then out again at our wake that was almost the same pattern and color in the sunset.
The rippled cross current swirled in merging stripes, yellow and violet and royal and darker blue, then gold.
Copyright © Nels Hanson 2011