michael h. stewart | Stories

They

previously published in American Letters & Commentary 21

I

There is a jar of pomade on the table, and all the boys are wearing their camp shirts, and nervously my hand dips in the jar again, smoothes and perfects my hair, and I pause trying to untangle what I want to say and what I say. I say, I know you go out on to the lake with your green nylon nets. But what I want to say is, Did you know they used to sell them in tins like sardines, about the same size at least, their hair combed back. But what I say is, It’s the bones resisting then breaking against your still sharp teeth. Or I say, It’s against camp rules. It is strictly forbidden. And nervously my hand goes back to the pomade, thick cream on my fingertips. I look thin in these camp shorts, and what I want to say is, How can you eat a thing that can talk, but what I say is, Their hair gets caught in your nets, The scales of their fish-like tales get caught between your teeth. One boy throws a conspiratorial glance at another. It’s a trick, you see, you think you’re eating them. I tell you they’re porous, they’re drowning you. Or I say, It’s insidious, Would you floss with your grandmother’s hair? And what they want to say is, Don’t you see the knots of them just boiling under the surface of the water. Yes, I would say, yes. But instead they say, The boats tilt dangerously if you move too quickly. And, yes, this is true and yet what they mean is, A thousand little mouths a million little teeth, this is a way to die. And what I want to say is, You shouldn’t be allowed on the lake. And what I really say is, If you tie a bottle cap or twist foil in your nets, they will be attracted to the gleam. And as soon as I say it, I regret it. I watch their mouths break into smiles, the first sign of drowning.

II

Their hair still wet from their morning showers. Mosquito bites on their arms confused with their first pimples. Shoelaces poorly tied. They are thinking of girls in skirts riding bicycles, their eyes trained on the possible gap. The sun on the down of a young girl’s arms. As likely as not, she’s wearing flip-flops. And this is why they are vicious; their cruelty is more a distraction than temperament. They thrust in their seats. They want to be still, but they don’t know how. Like a thing taken from the water, they thrash about needing to learn to breathe.

They twitch. They ask, Where do they come from? I’m not sure what they are really asking. I hear they are the spit of god. As likely a man to fuck a fish, another says. Do they lay eggs? My hair is in place, my tongue is in check. They’re not people? But they’ve got hair. Yes, the hair makes it difficult. If you put them in a jar, another volunteers, it amplifies their voices and you can hear them sing. Don’t do that I say, but I say it too softly for them to hear. Already, they do. I know they will try one for a dare. It’s salty. The skin is cold, but the blood is so warm, they will say because that’s what you say, there being nothing else to say. And the older boys right now are standing over a mason jar half-full of scummy lake water, smoking cigarettes, listening to the filthy things it will say. They feed them tadpoles, which is like feeding rats to lions, but the boys are confused by size. Only as big as my thumb, one of them observes.

III

Perhaps it is because they have seen me after lights out go to the lake and float on the brown water, enjoying the sharp little teeth. The billowing, bubbling of them under me. The water around me turning purple with the blood and mud. Or maybe they have seen how I salt my food. Once you have a taste for it. Or they’ve heard rumors at least. There are plenty of rumors. The other counselors have no choice but to share breakfast with me. The younger boys look with disgust and awe at my welted skin. But for the ice, I’d stay here year-round. Someone tried to explain it to me when I was a boy coming here. They fill you with water, he said, but that wasn’t what he wanted to say.

I have this dream where I drag rocks out on to the pier, big rocks. I step into the water. I wear goggles. And I take one of those heavy stones in my hands, let it drag me down. I grip it as tightly as I can, but inevitably, my body looks for air and some constant pull pulls me up to another breath and another stone. There is always on me these two pulls—the one that keeps me, pushes me to the ground, and this other that lifts me, presses me back to the surface. And they? they just make room and watch me; enjoy this slow drowning like an angler enjoys a taut line.