Photo by Boris Thaser
by Khanh Ha
Winner of the James Knudsen Prize for Fiction
They came to a river town. After she brought the boat to a dock, she went up the cement steps, onto a narrow street, and into a shop shaded by a yellow awning. The boy stood up in the boat, looking across the waterfront where row after row of merchant boats were moored to the end of the street of the floating market, where townspeople stood leaning down from the concrete railings, haggling over the prices of fish, fruits, vegetables; buying foods wrapped in banana leaves, in bowls smoking with steam, in multi-decked tin containers they brought to take foods home. Poling oars at rest, crisscrossing one another, soaring from the water in pale blue ripples as blue as cooking smoke, thinly drifting, that palled the river.
He sat down on the tackle box, closed his eyes against the sun, chin tucked against his chest, and sleep came easily.
The shaking of the boat woke him.
Are you hungry, Nam? she said to him, standing with the sun behind her back. He looked at a small paper bag in her hand. That can’t be a meal.
I’ll eat when you eat, he said.
You’re sweet. Come meet my husband.
The moment he entered the compartment, a stench hit him. It stopped him on his feet, his legs bent in the low, curving dome. The long, roofed compartment was sectioned off by another curtained door. On a wooden plank, flush with the floor, lay a man facedown, clad in a black short-sleeved shirt. Flies were buzzing over him.
Damn flies again, the woman said and grabbed a straw fan and started fanning back and forth.
He let out his breath. Why not put up a mosquito net for him? he said.
My husband said it made him feel like he’s dying.
The man turned his head toward them. It didn’t look like he was sleeping. Cropped hair, bushy eyebrows that met above his eyes. You got the medicine? he asked the woman. A deep scar ran across his lower lip to his chin.
The woman nodded. She brought a pail filled with water and came to kneel by the plank bed. The boy sat down on his haunches alongside the woman, noticing that the man didn’t even look at him.
Raise up, the woman said.
As the man humped his back, the woman removed his shirt. It took only a second for the boy to smell an oppressive odor that rose from the man’s back. Boils. Walnut-sized boils leaking pus in yellowish green. The inside of his shirt was stained with off-colored blotches.
The boy watched the woman trying to squeeze a pus-filled boil with her thumbs. She strained herself, leaning down with her weight. It didn’t tear. Then the man reached under the pillow and pulled out an oyster knife, shaking it in the air.
Use this, he said. And then at her hesitancy, he snapped. Do it, for fuck’s sake.
She brought the knife’s pointed tip against the boil’s head. It’ll hurt, she said.
They been hurting like hell all night long, he said. I didn’t sleep a damn wink.
She pushed in the knife’s tip and pressed down her other thumb. It squirted pus and hit her between the eyes. The boy saw her flinch. Yellow pus tinged with blood. She laid the knife on his back and wiped her face with her hand. The man grunted. She picked up the knife again and gashed another boil. A while later, pus and blood streaked freely down his back, running off his sides onto the planks. The flies came, alighting on the pus-smeared boils, and some of them sat on his back drinking the yellow fluid. The boy could smell the bad odor now. Perhaps lying prone was the only way to sleep, he thought, considering the size of his boils.
From the paper bag, the woman picked up a bottle of alcohol, wet a small piece of cloth with it, and began wiping the man’s back till it was just raw-looking with reddish lumps. He didn’t even recoil. She pinched some white powder and sprinkled it on the erupted boils. The stink tinged with alcohol hung wetly in the air. As she rinsed and washed the cloth, the flies circled the soiled shirt that gave off a repulsive smell from the floor.
Get me some liquor, the man spoke into his pillow.
She handed him a square-looking bottle. He uncorked it quickly and took a long swig from it. Then he snorted and buried his face in the pillow. The woman pinched the shirt from the floor and dropped it into the pail, where it sank slowly into the brownish water.
I’ve just got us a boy here, the woman said to the man. He’ll help us till you get well again.
Help with what? the man said, his voice muffled.
Fishing. What else?
Bottom net-fishing you mean?
Exactly what I mean.
Take him to Black Carp Run early tomorrow. One-day trial. Or I’ll have to split my fucking self in half to do it.
You don’t have to be rude to him, the woman said gently. Can you?
I wouldn’t fucking know. If these boils don’t leave me alone soon, and if you keep picking up shit brains along the way like you did before, we won’t have a boat to fish come tomorrow when the goddamn banker shows up.
What else did you want me to do that I haven’t done? Maybe the next time you can be the talent judge since you’re a real fisherman.
Shut the fuck up! He raised himself up and then slumped back down.
The boy looked at the man’s bare, muscular torso, copper-brown and lean, taken in by the shoulder tattoos intricately done in red-blue hues of huge water serpents. He felt pity for the woman, but he held no ill feeling toward the man.
Sir, he said in a low voice to the man, I can bottom-fish for you.
When I see it, the man said without looking at him, I’ll believe it.
I want that cargo deck filled with fish again. I want to hear them jump and smack their fucking lives out in there. Day and night. That’s money sound to the ear. Got me?
I got you, sir.
His name is Nam, the woman said.
Tell me the size of your net, the man said.
Seventeen feet long, eight feet deep, sir.
Ever used ten feet deep?
My uncle, he didn’t like it. Said it’s too long and fish could get out under the edge of the footrope.
Your uncle? Then why’re you here?
Before he died, sir.
The man said nothing. Then he raised his head from the pillow, tilted the bottle and sucked from it with a pop. How many meshes you got on the eight feet deep? he said and burped.
About hundred and ten. Three inches in their mesh opening, sir.
And the lead?
The lead weight? One every five mesh openings on the footrope. Same with the floats on the headrope.
The man said nothing. The boy thought he was thinking, but the man said not a word after that, lying facedown like he had fallen asleep, the bottle gripped in his hand by the pillow.
The woman rose with the pail in her hands, and the boy followed her out of the cabin. She dumped the dirty water in the river and refilled the pail with fresh water from a jug by the tackle box. Afterward, she poured in some white powder soap and let the filthy shirt soak in the sun.
He saw the net lying coiled in a heap behind the tackle box. White nylon twine. He bent to inspect the twine, the crimping of the lead. They looked good. There were dried mud and broken twigs and dead leaves inside the net. It had a fish stench and smelled odorously dark, like river silt. He lifted the net up and shook it.
This thing’s ten feet deep, he said, glancing up at the woman, who was watching him.
Can you handle it?
Yeah. Just have to bury the footrope down there soon after you throw the net.
That thing isn’t light, Nam. When it’s full of fish, it’s a load.
I know. You got bait, ma’am?
Yeah. Under the board. You’ll need mud, though. Fresh mud.
I’ll get it, and I’ll make the bait whenever you’re ready.
A merchant boat was docking alongside their boat. The woman looked down at the small, low boat. You can do the bait later, she said. Let’s eat now.
She squatted on the deck and called down to the woman vendor. What’ve you got in those pots?
Mudskipper soup, the vendor said, tipping up her conical palm-leaf hat and pointing to one silvery tall pot. And this here is red-tailed rasbora porridge. She lifted the lid of the second pot, and a puff of steam rose.
The woman went into the cabin and came back out with a two-decked tin container. For my husband, the woman said. He loves rasbora porridge. She leaned down to hand the container to the vendor who filled one deck with white rice porridge and the other with rasbora cooked and poached with fish sauce and now looking golden and heavily flecked with ground black pepper. The woman sat down on the thwart, the boy on the tackle box, eating mudskipper soup from clay bowls. The boy blew and slurped the broth that smarted his tongue with its tangy flavor of lemon grass and ground country gooseberry. The woman came over and dropped into his bowl a pinch of sawtooth herb and basil and cinnamon. She said, Stir it before the broth cools. He thanked her. The fresh herbs gave off a heady fragrance once they were soaked in the steaming broth. The fish floated in white chunks, tender in his mouth. The woman rested her spoon on the rim of her bowl.
My husband, she said, he’s half gone from his mind since he’s got the boils. I don’t expect you to like him, but I do expect good work from you.
I hear you, ma’am. He wiped the wetness the steam left around his nose and said, Having what he has surely takes away what he does for a living. How long has he had boils?
Couple weeks. I kept draining pus for him and those boils would come back. She spooned some broth from the bowl and sipped. They’d start out like mosquito bites. All over his back. They itched so bad I had to rub and scrape his back with a hot towel. And a couple days later they’d grow big, and you could see green pus in them. He said when they were full of pus they hurt all the way to his head. He drinks most of the time, I guess to numb the pain. He goes through three, four shirts a day. They’re all soaked with pus. And if I don’t wash them and his back right away, then you saw what happens. He’d be covered with flies in there. He can’t go anywhere. Such a shame. Well, I called on a monk once, hoping he’d do something holy to save my husband.
The boy glanced up toward the cabin and back at her. What’s a monk have to do with this?
Some malevolent spirit could’ve caused this. That was my thinking. So the monk came and chanted and left.
What? He didn’t do nothing fancy?
No. He said a man’s karma reaps its deserving retributions, and no one, not even the Buddha, could change that. He said he could only pray for my husband’s karmic offenses. Praying could help dissolve some of a man’s offenses, he said.
What he needs is a good doctor, ma’am.
I thought so, too. I’ve got the name of this doctor. They said he’s good.
Then take your husband there to see him.
I’m going to. He’s a day from here, going south as we tend our business.
On our fishing route?
Yes. But we’ll be at Black Carp Run before dawn tomorrow. See how well we’ll do before we move further south.
She smiled as she stirred her bowl. Her teeth were even, white, and her dimpled smile made him feel at home. As he watched her profile, her shapely neck, above which her hair was in a ball, seemed the prettiest neck he’d ever seen.
They went on south. During the day, she would help him make bait. Sometimes the husband would sit shirtless in the sun watching them. He claimed sunlight killed bacteria. So when his boils broke, he’d sit out in the sun till all the blood and pus on his back dried up in blackish red and darkish green streaks. The boy would smell a stench in the breeze.
Early mornings, when the boy brought up fresh catch, the woman would pick the best kinds and, with the hand net, lift them up from the cargo hold and drop them into a wax-paper-lined creel. He’d watch her carry the heavy creel by the cane handle on her way to the town’s market, walking with even steps, her hips swinging, her hair tucked neatly in a polka-dotted kerchief. He found himself gazing at her till she was gone up a street, gray at first light. Nights when he was done with the last hauling, he’d scrub himself in the river and then come up for supper, most of the time with only her, while the husband sequestered himself in his own quarters. They would eat under the light of the storm lantern, hearing the fish in the cargo hold thwacking and fighting one another in that confined space that held barely enough water for their survival. Late at night, she’d go bathing in the river. He’d lie awake, listening to the gentle sound of water she poured on her body, away from the lantern light, where water was chest high, cool and cloaked in blackness. When she came up, lowering her head to enter the domed cabin, she was a dark figure, save the whiteness of her towel-wrapped head. He’d keep still and find sleep hard to come by in the scent of her body soap. Once, he heard the husband coming into their section while she was still in the water. He could feel the man’s presence next to him, squatting on the floorboard and smelling odorously foul. The boils had spread to his buttock and face, so he could barely sit. She came in, parting the entrance curtain, and stopped. The man said, You changed your clothes out there? And she said, Yeah, what’s with it? He half rose as he moved backward into his section. Next time, he said, change in my place so I can see you. She had since then. And the man’s omnipresence had been over them.
One morning they came to the river town where the doctor lived. While the boy stayed back on the boat making bait for the evening, the woman and her husband went to see the town doctor. By the time the boy had finished making the bait, the man and the woman had returned.
The woman picked up the kitchen utensils from under the floorboard and moved to the prow, on the downwind side, and began cooking lunch. The man stood before the cabin’s entrance, smoking a cigarette and looking over the water, now hazy with the white heat at noon. The boy threw him a quick glance and went to drag the net across the floor, so he could clean out the debris caught inside and between the meshes. He felt he was being watched, so he looked up toward the man, who was still standing in one place, one hand in his jacket pocket, the other cupping the cigarette for one last drag. The man was watching him.
Sir, the boy said, anything else you want me to do?
If I make you a list, the man said, flicking the butt over the gunwale, you won’t find it challenging anymore. Yeah, there’s plenty of work to be done around here. Boat needs to be in tiptop shape all the time. Supplies at hand. He plugged a fresh cigarette between his lips, ran his forefinger across the deep scar on his lower lip to his chin like it was a strand of weed stuck there. I want you to take care of the spark plugs, grease, oil, kerosene. All that. Don’t let weeds or any crap build up on the bottom of the boat. Clean them as often as you can. Any wear and tear on the boat, I’ll fix them. And I want you just to haul in fish. But I need you to do more hauling now. A lot more. That’s what I used to do.
The boy shook loose dead leaves still damp in the net. What d’you mean much more, sir? he said, eyeing the man.
Tell you what. I used to fill that cargo hold there with fish overnight. I mean filled to the hatch. Yeah. Then I filled the net and just let that damn thing soak in the river till morning. If you ask how we’ve been doing, I’ll tell you. Our productivity’s been dropped by half.
The boy nodded. He knew he could handle it. He used to do it for his uncle, who’d make several hauls a night as long as he still saw the bubbles the fish made on the water.
Make more bait for tonight, the man said.
Okay, sir, the boy said. I’ll go into town to get more supplies then.
And kerosene. It’s half empty.
I know, sir. I mean to buy more gasoline today when I’m done with this cleaning.
You buy gasoline where it’s sold cheap. Whatever town. Remember them. You go back to them. Got me? That’s how I do my business. That’ll save money.
Yessir. I’ll remember that.
Did your uncle do that?
The boy turned to look at the man. Do what, sir?
Don’t try to be smart now. You know what I mean.
I don’t want to talk about my uncle.
You haven’t answered my question.
I won’t. The boy stood up. He looked at the man, who locked eyes with him. He saw a face hardened by weather and hate. He saw the swollen red boil on the cheek and felt his dislike for the man. The man blew a stream of smoke toward him.
You want to work here, don’t you?
Then do what I ask you.
I’ll do whatever you ask me, sir, that’s part of my job. But you leave my family out.
Fuck, the man said, throwing the cigarette butt down at his bare foot and grinding it with his heel. Just then the woman came through the cabin and stepped in between the two of them. Let’s eat, she said. It’s been a long morning.
I’ll eat later, the boy said, sitting down on the stern by the net that was dangling over it. I’m about done with this.
The woman wanted to say something but stopped. Then she and the man made their way through the cabin to the prow from where the boy could hear her restrained voice and the man’s sudden curses.
Later she brought him a bowl of white steamed rice to eat with a bowl of goby soup. She said, When you’re done with lunch, we’ll go to town and get supplies. He thanked her and sat in the sun, eating his lunch. The rice was still warm, still fragrant. He scooped it and dropped a few spoonfuls into the bowl of soup. Coral-colored balls of shrimp floated in the broth, and a thick cut of goby sank in the bottom of the bowl. He felt deep down a touch of her kindness, and he was grateful for that. There were greens of sweet leaf and vine spinach, and their delicate taste seeped into his tongue and, blowing and chewing, he forgot what just happened between him and the man.
After he was done with lunch, he thought of taking the bowls to the bow to clean in a pan she used for washing dishes. Then he decided not to. Going through the cabin would mean he would have to look at the man again, and he didn’t feel like talking to him at all. The woman came out, a wicker basket hooked on her forearm.
You haven’t heard the last of him, she said to him.
I’ll do what he asks, the boy said. I told him that.
I heard you. Well, we were both stressed out. Doctor’s fees got him worried.
Aren’t you worried?
Not worried. Scared. What if we run out of money?
Treatment costs that much, ma’am?
Yeah. Not a one-time deal, you understand? His first treatment starts tomorrow morning. Then skip one day and back again.
The boy said nothing. He knew they also had to pay for the boat. His uncle’s boat was even bigger than theirs, with more luxury, which kept him working round the clock. The woman looked up at him, scratching the side of her face lightly. How many runs can you do tonight? she said.
Till I’m tired.
Okay. She said nothing for a while, then, You know when to stop, don’t you? There’s always another day.
I know. I don’t intend to go beyond my limit.
Good. You’re the best. I mean it.
Another week passed. The boy had seen less and less of the man during the day, for the man spent most of it at the doctor’s house. On a day when the man returned to the boat at noon to rest, and when the woman was in town, the boy raised the cargo hatch and looked over the catch from the evening before and finally scooped up a good-sized carp. He placed the carp in a wicker basket lined with wax paper and, not bothering to tell the man where he’d be heading to, left the boat and went to town.
He saw the doctor’s shiny black Peugeot parked like a historic object on exhibit in a museum. The noon sun shone on its paint, and the glare hurt his eyes. He chose not to enter through the front door, where, inside, there was always a crowd. She had told him to give the fish to the doctor in person and ask him to ice it as soon as he could. The boy went down the side of the house to a door at the end and took the stairs to the second-floor office. He’d never been up here before. He walked along the floor, which was tiled in a mosaic, and past closed doors in dark brown. One, two, three, not knowing which door to knock on. Does he live here, too?
He heard low voices, muffled like when you put your fingers in your ears. A chair moved on the tiled floor. The wall that brushed his shoulder trembled as if someone had suddenly bumped against it. Then her voice, Please don’t do this; this is not right. He heard a man’s voice. A slurred tone. The wall shook again like something was banged against it. The boy stood; his guts churned. Suddenly the second door flung open. She came out, pinning the front of her pink blouse with her hands. She saw him. Her eyes might not have recognized him at first, but at the same time he knew it had just hit her who he was. She quickly brushed a stray strand of hair off her brow, her kerchief askew on her head. The doctor stopped at the doorway when he saw the boy. Neither he nor the woman spoke. The boy stepped up past the woman, who chose not to turn around, and set the basket at the doctor’s feet.
She . . . well . . . and her husband wanted you to have this, the boy said, adding the husband part on the fly out of his quick wits.
The doctor looked down at the lidded wicker basket and back at the boy. Yeah, he said woodenly.
You need to put it in ice, sir, the boy said, stepping backward to where the woman was.
Yeah, the doctor said, combing his hair with his fingers. Then, as they were leaving, he said, What’s in there to ice?
The boy looked back. A fish, sir. Black carp.
They hurried down the narrow stairs together, he pressing his body against the stucco wall to give her room and then stepping down behind her, looking at her bare neck, at the fine downy hair that curled prettily at the base of the hairline. What’s that damn doctor doing in there? But he said nothing to her, and she was quiet as a mouse till they walked side by side down the street, passing under overhanging canopies that shaded the sidewalk.
My husband shouldn’t know about this, she said, composed now, and he noticed her rouged lips for the first time. What was she doing in his office?
They kept walking in the direction of the waterfront till she stopped at a cross street. I have something I need to take care of, she said, dabbing her cheeks with the heel of her hand.
What is it that you need to do? he asked before he realized he shouldn’t have.
I need to wire money to the bank. She shrugged. Boat payment.
Do you, he said, lost for words, I mean is he gonna see that doctor again after . . . what happened today?
I’m afraid so. Just because he’s healing. Does it sound like a curse to you?
Healing isn’t he? That’s news.
But good news, she said. His boils go flat now—most of them do. But he’s got new ones, too. Not many. The old ones they’ve stayed drained and flat. And thank Heaven, he can sleep now, even on his back.
A few nights before, she had come back up from the river after a late-night bath and, yes, the man was soundly asleep. She sat on the thwart while she changed out of her wet clothes, so she wouldn’t wake him. The boy thought back to that night when the man ordered her to do this routine in his cabin and not outside. His thought stopped the moment he saw her work herself out of her blouse. She raised her arms behind her head, twisting her wet hair to squeeze water out. Her body was so white it cut a milky figure against the darkness, a body as compact as a black carp. He knew his own thought and was disturbed with guilt.
* * *
On a day he was going in to have the treatment, her husband asked for the payment money just before he left the boat. She told him that, for the sake of convenience, she’d arranged with the doctor to debit each visit’s fee to her account.
When the husband came back before noon, he told her he only had to go in for another week, then it was all over. There had been only one new boil in the last seven days, and the doctor assured him that his ordeal was about to end.
At noon, the boy returned with fresh supplies of bait and found only the man on the boat. The air smelled rich with cooked rice. The man was sitting shirtless outside the cabin, skinning a zigzag eel on a large cutting board. The eel must have been two feet long, brown-bodied, striped lengthwise with several zigzag bars in mocha brown. It had been caught in the net the previous evening, this bottom dweller.
The man scooped the skin and dropped it into a trash bag, wiped his hands with an old newspaper, and then plugged a cigarette between his lips. The boy dropped his gaze as he saw the man look toward him at the stern.
You making more bait for tonight? the man said, blowing smoke upward.
This one here’s a good catch. You like eel?
I’ve eaten it before. How you cook it is what makes it good, I think.
You just watch, and then tell me later if it’s good.
I believe you, sir. You must be good at it.
You’re damn right. The man took a deep drag, his eyes closed to slits as he looked at the boy. Prisoners of war got shit to eat, he said. Whatever we could lay our hands on, we cooked like hungry fiends. Rats, snakes, turtles, skinks. But this eel here, hell, if you got this back then it was worth more than gold.
Yeah. The boy nodded and kept busy.
The man puffed on his cigarette as he slit the eel lengthwise with the tip of the knife, cleaned out the gut, which he gathered with the knife blade and shoved into the trash bag, careful not to spill too much of the eel’s blood, then cut it into finger-length chunks. Without looking at him, the boy could hear the steady chopping, then the smells of garlic, onion wafted across, raw and sharp. The trash bag tied down, a rag in hand, the man cleaned around his work area to his satisfaction and then set up a terracotta pot to boil water. He smoked and waited, watching the boy, who had just finished one batch of bait and dropped it into the jute bag.
The sun glared on the deck, drying up dark wet spots one after another. The man’s back perspired, the boils tingling but not hurting, and he could feel not their grotesque sizes but a mere presence of some demonic parasites no longer living in there, yet having gone into his brain to torture his memory. He touched his face, his cheek. The stubborn boil there was now flat, aching a little when he pressed his thumb on it. The water hissed. He lifted the lid and dropped in black peppercorns, a handful of bay leaves, and then stirred a good pinch of turmeric in a bowl of fish sauce till its amber color turned saffron-yellow and then just a dull dark brown. He poured the cup into the pot, waited till the pungent turmeric aroma rose, making him sneeze once, then twice, and then he turned down the flame and carefully dropped the eel, still full of blood, into the simmering liquid.
The boy washed his hands in the river and came up, as he had been asked, to join the man for lunch. They sat with their legs folded under them and the pot between them. The eel had been simmered and now shimmered red. The boy felt it burn on his tongue, his palate, and so he held warm rice in his mouth to absorb the searing heat.
The man was dousing his rice with the cooking liquid in burned caramel color and he, blowing and chewing noisily, tapped his chopsticks against the bowl’s rim to shake loose the clumped rice. He drank from his liquor bottle and licked his red, greasy lips, running his tongue over the raw-looking scar.
Where’s she? the boy said.
I thought you knew, the man said, burping.
Oh yeah? You must know her routine well by now. Am I right?
The man’s tone of voice made the boy stop eating. He checked the man’s expression and saw a face flushed from the heat, liquor, and what he’d just cooked and eaten. Except the eyes. Always harboring a baleful look.
Should we save some for her? he asked the man.
What d’you think? Should we?
The boy shrugged.
Means what? The man’s raised pitch made his grin sinister.
I’ll save some for her, sir, if you want me to.
Dump it. Leftover tastes like shit.
Well, she might not like eel anyway.
What else does she like?
Again the boy shrugged. He put down the half-empty bowl.
Tell me what she likes, the man said and then took a long swig from the bottle.
What she likes ain’t none of my business, sir.
She likes you, don’t she?
Have you been screwing my wife?
Have you been fucking her while I was away?
The boy’s chest felt heavy, like someone was pressing down on it. He felt ridiculed. He didn’t like it. Sir, he said, leaning forward on the elbow that rested on his thigh, you’ll regret what you just said.
I thought you’d be the fucker who might have some regret himself.
I ain’t no fucker if that’s what’s been bothering you. She’s a good woman. I have no need to say nothing more.
The man watched him. Cold, calculating eyes. The boy looked him in the face, his expression hardened, his eyes unblinking. Finally, the man stroked his chin, reached for the bottle, and gave it to the boy. Here, he said.
The boy tipped back his head and drank. Then he wiped the grease off the bottleneck and blew through his lips. He peered across at the man, who was looking at him, but the boy could see that his mind was somewhere else. Sir, he said, what’d she do that made you say something like that?
The man chewed on his lower lip pensively, the menace bleached off his face, but something dark now brooded there. Fuck if I know, he said, cycling his jaw. I thought I knew women.
* * *
Late that night, he heard her coming up from the river. He could hear her wet steps outside the cabin. Then stillness. In his mind she was sitting on the thwart, unbuttoning her blouse, wet and stuck to her body, and then letting it fall in a heap at her feet. He heard water dripping onto the deck and, with his eyes closed, saw her arms flung back behind her head to squeeze water out of her hair and felt that unclean desire to get up and peep through the entrance, to see again what he’d seen. Did she know that he was only ten feet away?
But he didn’t get up. She must’ve washed the red lipstick off her lips by now, and its red had stayed on his mind since she returned to the boat in the early afternoon. She brought back with her the household supplies, and she smelled of perfume, just a whiff of it, when she brushed past him. Business was brisk in the afternoon. Customers came and went. He asked her if she had eaten lunch, and she said no, smiling thinly. He said nothing afterward, remembering the red of her lipstick.
She came into the cabin, soundless. As she turned her body to sit down on the plank bed, her hair swinging round her neck, he felt a drop of water on his face. She wore a salmon-pink blouse, the pink almost as pale as white. She sat on the bed for one brief moment, the air tinged with minty soap, and then a breeze fluttered the entrance curtain, and the cabin smelled like the river, of things long immersed in its womb, of mud, of flatsedge and of water chestnut.
He knew he didn’t hate her. It was something else.
He made at least twenty hauls the next day, and he hauled in the evening till the cargo hold was packed with fish. She kept splashing water into the cargo hold. When it was full, she asked him to stop for the night. He didn’t answer and went down for one last haul and came up dizzy and weak. A drizzle fell. He stood looking down into the dark water, trying to get his breathing again, while behind him she cooked ramen. The night was cool and starless, and the wind blew the light rain against the lantern, swinging it, and the flame shuddered.
C’mon, it’s ready, she said.
Her hair was damp, no longer curled. He hated the curls in her hair when she went to town in the morning and while her husband was in the doctor’s office. She curled her hair with the iron curlers that she heated over the brazier, and those locks of hair bounced like they had springs as she walked. Now, without lipstick, her hair straight and wetly matted down on her round forehead, he felt closer to her, and the hardness in him softened.
He ate while she sat with her hands in her lap. Why don’t you eat? he said, wiping the corner of his mouth.
I don’t feel hungry.
We’ve got lots of fish today.
Don’t we? She turned her head as she heard the loud thwacking the fish made against the hatch. As she turned back, some rain droplets fell in her eyes that made her blink. He felt the thickness in his throat, which he knew too well whenever he was near her. He didn’t like that feeling, but he couldn’t help it. Then as he drank down the broth, he thought of what the husband said earlier in the day and felt sick.
She gave out her hand to take the bowl from him, and as she refilled it, scooping up strands of noodles with a pair of chopsticks, he looked toward the curtained entrance of the cabin, imagining the man in there still awake, lying in torment with the thought of infidelity. He could sense something dark and evil coming, like the way he could tell about a coming rain on the plain from the colors of sky and clouds.
About tomorrow, he said, putting the bowl down. I’m set to move on.
That drew a surprised stare from her. Why’d you want to do that? she said, her tone resigned as if she already knew.
He’s doing okay now. You won’t need me around.
You mean my husband? Well.
She watched him finish the bowl, leaving it clean, and then stood up and walked to the gunwale where the net was tied to the peg by its landline. It was so quiet she could hear the fish snapping at bubbles on the surface of water. The water was black, and the lantern shone on it where the net lay spread in gray like a mushroom head. Beyond it, downriver, as far as the other bank, there was nothing but blackness and distant lights. A good stretch away, on this side of the river, she could see a lantern light at a jetty, and as she listened to the stillness, she could hear the scraping sound of a boat just coming in over the graveled bottom of the landing.
Another week and the town and the river that ran through it would be nothing but a memory. She would never forget it even if she wanted to. Not the small room where the shades were drawn, the mosaic tiles cool underfoot, the ceiling fan forever spinning unhurriedly. Sometimes she would feel the air it stirred breathe across her bare back, sometimes on her breasts as she fixed her eyes on the white ceiling, soulless, waiting for it to be over. The room was so quiet, save the doctor’s laborious breathing, his back-and-forth motion over her that caused the creaking of the bed. It was so quiet she could hear voices now and then from a floor below, from the waiting room full of patients, and next to it the treatment room where her husband was lying facedown on a raised bed, a nurse tending to his boils that had lately shown signs of remission. All the sums she and he owed to that man would be phantom numbers. It was so because of her own choosing.
Well, the boy said, coming up to the gunwale, I’m gonna pull in that net now.
She moved toward him and touched the line, feeling the fine rain on her hand. Let me help, she said and pulled.
Get in front. I’ll give you some slack.
She braced her back against him, her feet against the side of the boat, pulling with both hands, as he pulled with his arms outside of hers, both seeing the net rise slowly, heavily, till it hung over the water like a huge clove of garlic that swung dripping water. She held the line while he looped the end of it round the peg, and slowly she let go of it, and they heard the net plop into the water.
Biggest catch, don’t you think? she said, smiling happily.
So damn heavy. Don’t know what I’d do if I were by myself.
I’m going to pick a best one tomorrow, she said, wiping her face with her hand. Just for us.
Plenty good ones to pick from.
Depends on what you want to eat. Tell me.
A black carp. He didn’t know at first why he said that. Yet its compact fleshy body had always stayed on his mind.
I’ll cook us a meal with it. Caramel carp.
You’re a good cook. He nodded at her dimpled smile. It’ll be my last meal with you and him.
I know, she said. I won’t forget.
Me neither. Well, you might forget this town. But not what we can remember together.
He gazed at her long enough that she glanced away.
I guess you’re right, she said.