Surfaces

Surfaces
by Robert Stahl

Nobody paid attention to the old black man as he hobbled through town that morning, not the kids on school buses, not the commuters driving to work, not even the mailwoman as she made her rounds. The old man didn’t care; he liked it that way. He walked slowly, his rheumy eyes scanning the ground for potholes, the tip of his cane pole bobbing behind him.

When he made it to the city park, he looked out across the pond and smiled. It shone like the sun in the morning light, reflecting an inverted image of the landscape that shimmered in the breeze. He hoped lots of fish were swimming beneath its surface, unlike the spot he’d visited yesterday. One thing was for sure, you couldn’t tell by looking. Surfaces were deceiving; you never knew what lay hidden on the other side.

He dropped his equipment—a small cooler and a tackle box—on the shore near a clump of reeds and lifted his face to the sky. Fresh air, sunlight, a slight breeze out of the east. Not another soul in sight. Yes, today would be just fine for fishing.

On second thought, he wasn’t quite alone. He turned his head toward a scuffling sound and saw a woman jogging on the sidewalk in his direction. She was white and pretty—a bit skinny for his taste. Behind her, a small fluffy dog was struggling to keep up with her pace. The woman crested a nearby embankment and then her eyes met the old man’s. With a tug on the leash, she changed directions and cut through the grass.

The smile on the old man’s face faded. Out of nowhere, a thunderclap boomed overhead, causing the woman to jump. She scurried away, her nervous eyes darting to the heavens for an explanation.

He could only shake his head. Racism. You’d think you’d be used to it by now. Ah, well. It was too beautiful of a day to get hung up on such things. He picked up his pole, threaded a worm onto the hook, and cast out the line.

Now this is living, he thought as he sat down in the grass. Whether or not he caught any fish, it was refreshing just being outdoors. Still, a catch would be welcome today: a few crappie, some bream, maybe a catfish or two. He’d hurry home afterwards, fry them up real nice, and maybe see if the little ones were interested in a nibble.

The old man sat with his back against a stalwart elm, taking deep breaths of fresh air and listening to the gentle lapping of waves against the shore. The fishing line intersected the shimmering surface, creating ripples that ebbed and flowed hypnotically. He had just dozed off when he felt the pole jump in his hands.

A bite.

Bones creaking, he got to his feet and stood by the water’s edge. The pole shimmied and twitched, then pulled downward sharply as the line went taut. Whatever kind of fish it was, it was big. He gripped the pole and planted his feet, his heart thumping against his ribs. After a few careful minutes, the fish emerged from the water, jumping and splashing in the slimy muck near the shore. With two more tugs, he had it on the grass.

A catfish! Nearly a 10-pounder, by the looks of it. The old man hoisted up his catch to get a better look, which wasn’t easy, considering its size. The fish flexed, its muscular body whipping this way and that, long whiskers flopping and gills pulsating.

The old man was careful to keep his own body at a distance. The catfish’s bony, venomous spines, located on either side of its head and on the center of its back, could flare out at any moment; he’d get skewered if he didn’t watch out. The fish watched him with dark, cloudy eyes, its long slit of a mouth opening and closing steadily.

“Dote hurt me,” a voice said.

The old man jerked and almost dropped the line. He checked over both shoulders see if the voice had come from nearby. Maybe the jogging woman?

No, he was alone. But he’d heard the voice, he was sure of it. Had he imagined it?

“Dowd here,” the voice said.

This time, the old man saw the fish’s mouth moving, sounding out the words. So, this was a talking fish! Now, that was a fine how do you do. But talking or not, the fish was still his.

“I got you fair and square,” the old main said.

The fish made a dramatic gurgling sound deep in its throat. Then, with what appeared to be considerable effort, it said: “Ith hard to talk wib this string id my mouth.”

The old man pulled out a knife and cut the line. The fish plopped into the grass and moaned in gratitude. Sputtering and wheezing, it flapped its fins and wiggled its tail until it was sitting right-side up. The old man wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw it glance at the water.

“Give it up, Shorty,” the old man said. “You got no legs.”

“You don’t understand,” the fish said. “I’m a magical fish. I can do things for you.”

The old man cocked his head. Man, this was turning out to be an interesting day. “What kind of things?”

“Wishes!” the fish said, shouting like a carnival barker. “Three, to be exact. Let me go and they’re yours.”

The old man’s fingers found the edges of his wispy beard and slowly tugged at the hairs there.

The fish seemed to sense his interest. “I can make you wealthy.”

“What makes you think I need money?”

The fish’s eyes drifted to the old man’s clothing. “For one, you’ve got holes in your shoes.”

The old man glanced down at his sneakers. His dark socks were visible through the holes at the toes. “These here? But they’re comfortable.”

The fish’s gaze burned into his own. “Well, what about power, hmm? Women?”

There was silence as the old man’s eyes narrowed.

“Drugs?”

“Careful, now.”

“Forget the drugs,” the fish spat. “Please! I can give you anything your heart desires. All you have to do is let me go.”

The old man didn’t say anything; he just plopped down on the soft grass and stared at the fish. A white egret landed nearby. It lowered its head and rummaged through a pile of leafy debris. When its head popped back up again, it held a grasshopper in its beak. Then as quickly as it had appeared, the bird spread its wings and took flight again.

The old man watched the bird fly away, and then he got up and walked over to the fish. Gripping the fish’s lower lip firmly, the old man hoisted it up.

“Thank you, kind thir,” the fish said excitedly. “Juth carry me to the edge there. That will be great.”

But the old man wasn’t listening. He was flipping open the cooler lid.

“No!” The fish shrieked as it splashed down into the cold ice water inside the cooler.

“You don’t know what you’re doing! I’m magic, I tell you! I can do th—”

The lid slammed down. The old man whistled as he reached for another worm.


Now the old man poked at the fillets floating in his fryer, watching the cornmeal turn golden brown. Of all the rooms in his mansion, he spent most of his time in the kitchen. The countertops were filled with every modern-day cooking gadget imaginable: fryers, bread warmers, hot-dog cookers, potato peelers. He found that cooking soothed his endless soul, and nothing pleased him more than the sizzling of fish in the fryer—catfish in particular. His mouth watered; he could already taste them.

When the fillets were cooked to his liking, he took them out of the grease.

In the kitchen doorway, a butler appeared.

“Sir,” he said, making sure to avoid eye contact with his master. “Are you sure I can’t help you with anything else?”

“That’s all for today,” the old man said. With a wave of his hand, the servant disappeared, leaving behind only a puff of charcoal-colored smoke. He would materialize a few seconds later in his small apartment in the servant’s quarters located on the grounds near the mansion.

The old man moved into the opulent dining room and sat at an enormous oak table to enjoy his meal. He ate slowly, enjoying every bite of the flaky, buttery meat. His physical body didn’t need food, but he’d learned in his millennia of existence that sometimes it was necessary to ground oneself in ordinary tasks like fishing or preparing a meal. Otherwise he might lose all touch with reality. Left unchecked, his own power could spike to levels that might consume him, destroying this world in the process.

The catfish had spoken of magic, but what did the poor creature know of such things? The old man’s energies were as old as the world itself, and with each day he grew more powerful. What luck it had been to find the fish when he hadn’t expected it! Soon, all of the avatars of the New Magic—such strange anomalies as talking fish, leprechauns, and fairies—would be gone. And on that day, the Old Magic would return.

He ate until his belly swelled, feeling the paltry energies that flowed through the fish’s veins pouring into his own. When he was finished, his ancient mind probed the mansion. Sometimes menservants could be unpredictable. Fiddle with their brains too much and you could ruin them. More than once he’d found a butler hiding in a closet, drenched in his own filth and babbling like a child about “monsters.”

When he was satisfied that he was alone, he gathered up the remaining fillets and opened the cellar door. He let his true form emerge as he descended the staircase, felt his flesh warping and palpitating, the bones shattering, reforming. His clothes fell away as the coarse skin of his tentacles rasped against the sturdy wood.

The little ones were mewling.

He slithered up to them. Their sallow skins glimmered in the candlelight. They were so lovely in their infant state as they squirmed drowsily against each other on the slimy concrete floor.

With one of the sucker-mouths that covered his many flagellating arms, he tore off a bit of catfish and tossed it to the pulsating mass of creatures. Though it was eyeless, the largest of the larvae snapped open its mouth, which was lined with rows of razor-sharp teeth, and snatched the meat out of the air. The others, catching the aroma at last, rose from their torpor and began wiggling delightedly, squealing like piglets as bits of food rained down upon them.

How frail they seemed now to the old tentacled creature, these ancient entities born anew. In their delicate state, it was doubtful they would be able to defend themselves against a frightened house cat. But this would not always be.

One day soon, they would grow to become the Old Ones, and their wrath would return this world to its former days of glory. But for now, the younglings needed his care and protection.

That was the thing about surfaces, the creature thought as he admired the feasting monsters. You never knew what might be lurking on the other side.


Copyright © 2015 Robert Stahl