By K.A. Okagaki
She was tragically beautiful, a mythic creature of the sea, entangled in a long-abandoned fishing net. Edging his boat closer, the fisherman realized the truth of her, yet still could not help but feel the pull of love and desire. He severed the netting with a bait knife and pulled the weight of her into the boat, fighting off the tempestuous waves that sought to claim her.
“Do I smell strange?” she asked.
“You smell great,” he said. His fingers untangled her curls, blue-black in color, like the sea.
“I smell,” she insisted. “Like a tilapia.”
He hid her in the hull of the boat beneath canvas tarps drenched in seawater. He plastered seaweed around her fin, though he didn’t know if he should. It was all a guess.
“I’ve never caught one of you before,” he said.
“I’ve caught many of you,” she replied.
“I don’t care.”
“You will,” she said.
He told no one about her. He kept her in his living room, in a hot tub chilled to sea temperature, seasoned with kosher salt. He fed her small shrimp, culled from Pad Thai noodles ordered from a restaurant he liked. He combed her curls with his thick fisherman’s fingers and told her stories of the sea.
“Tell me about the octopus,” she said. “One more time.”
“Once upon a time,” he began, “there was an octopus caught in a fisherman’s trap.”
“And then what happened?” she asked.
“The fisherman brought the octopus home and kept it as his pet,” he said.
“Was he happy?”
“The fisherman was happy, but the octopus was not. The octopus was keen and cunning. It escaped the hot tub and crawled to the fisherman as he slept. It wrapped its limbs around his neck and squeezed.”
“What did the fisherman do?”
“He put it back into the hot tub and gave it food.”
“Then was the octopus happy?”
“No. It stopped eating. It was too smart to be a pet for a fisherman.”
“I’m sad,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “The fisherman set it free. The octopus lives.”
“Will I?” she asked.
“Let me get you more shrimp,” he said.
On his birthday, friends came. The knocking on the door frightened her, but there was no place to hide. He barricaded the door and commanded them to leave. At Christmas, they tried again. He cursed them, and they wondered aloud what was wrong.
“Go away,” he shouted. “I’m happy. I found a girl.”
On New Year’s Day, he allowed himself a drink. Then another. And another. She watched in silence with solemn eyes.
“I want to go dancing,” he said.
“I don’t have feet,” she said.
“I want to dine in a restaurant,” he said.
“I like the shrimp you bring home,” she said.
He drained the bottle and began again.
“You frighten me,” she said.
“Will I ever truly be happy?” he asked.
His friends came back. They pounded on the door and demanded entry. She sank to the bottom of the hot tub in fear. He whispered for her to stay silent, covered the tub, and opened the door.
“Nothing to see here,” he said.
“Where is the girl?” they asked. “Is she here?”
They eyed the hot tub in the living room, silent and unplugged. They sniffed and thought of tilapia, but then, their fisherman friend always smelled vaguely of fish.
“There is no more girl,” he said.
His friends consoled him. They took him out for drinks.
“Plenty of fish in the sea,” they said.
“You have no idea,” he said.
In the dead of night, he covered her with wet tarps and seaweed, taking care to protect her fin from the dry air. He ran his fingers through her curls one more time. He drove her back to the ocean and carried her to the seawall. As they huddled together in the sea spray, she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed. The waves thundered below his feet.
“I was never right for you,” she said, just before she leaped.
“You’re wrong,” he whispered to the tides, and jumped into the deep.