What’s that they say? Read on for Lauren Bride’s “Give a Man a Fish.”
“What’s that they say again? A rolling stone gathers no moss, but comes to my door soaking wet?” the woman said to me.
It was raining. Well, no, rain is what happens when drops of water fall from the sky, and when you look at it, you think “this is rain.” What was happening was more like half the ocean, which was at that moment just a few steps away, was arching itself over land and curling back into itself, just to take a stretch. I had arrived, finally, at the little house called “The End-Tail” that sat right on the coast, uncomfortably close to the North Atlantic.
“Well, come on in. We want you nice and cozy before we go out again,” said the woman, tugging me in by the edge of my dripping jacket. “Oh, how rude of me! What’s that they say? You need friends, even in hell, but you have to know their names first! Yes.” She eyed me for a moment, very still suddenly. She was quite pretty, and I tried not to look at her for too long. I wondered for a moment how she had come to be in charge of such an old looking place. She seemed quite young, if a bit kooky. “So? What is it?”
“Oh, sorry? What’s what?” I said, shaking out my jacket, and sitting down on a chair near a fireplace.
“Your name, of course! I need to know it for us to be friends.” She turned to the stove, her back to me.
“Oh. It’s, uh, it’s Greg,” I said, suddenly aware of the wedding band on my left hand. I started pulling it off involuntarily. She turned to face me, quickly.
“Greg? The credit card information sent to me for the rental and tour was for ‘John’. That’s strange. I don’t think I made a mistake.” I felt my cheeks warming.
“Um … Greg is my middle name. I go by, um … Greg.” I pushed the wedding band back down the length of my ring finger, returning it to place.
“Ah! He’s being clever. That’s very sweet. Cleverness in men is so sweet, don’t you think?” Before I could answer she said, “You can call me Shelly. That’s my name. I go by Shelly.” She held my gaze for half a beat too long, and then burst into little ripples of laughter again. “I can be clever, too, you know, John.”
I could hear her singing, wordlessly, on the other side of the door. It sounded familiar, and beautiful, and sad.
“Heh.” I felt sweaty. “I’m sure. Quite clever. So, Shelly,” I said, rubbing some moisture from my neck, “do you think it’s safe to go out in this storm, because …” but she had her head stuck deep into a closet, and was ruffling around. She emerged with a bundle of clothes—men’s clothes, woolly and clean-smelling. A hand-knit sweater and pants and warm socks, which she handed to me.
“Here, go put these on. We want you to be warm and happy,” she said, fluttering around me, and leading me to a little washroom. “You can have dinner when you’re dressed, and then we’ll go out on the water just like you want.” She smiled, very suddenly, and her wide eyes moved very quickly.
“In the storm? Is it a good idea?” I asked, as she gave me a playful little shove into the washroom, shutting the door behind me.
“I expect that storm will be through any moment now,” she called through the door. In the time it took me to drop my drenched jeans onto the washroom floor, I noticed the rain had stopped. I guessed when you lived so close to the sea, you became very good at predicting the weather.
She was nice, I thought. Shelly. I washed my face and hands in the little porcelain sink, and pulled on the clothes she had given me. I could hear her singing, wordlessly, on the other side of the door. It sounded familiar, and beautiful, and sad.
More relaxed now, I came out of the washroom. She was right. Cozy. Very cozy. I almost could have fallen asleep.
“Here!” Shelly said, gasping a little, handing me a plate piled with food. “You’ll want to eat well. I like my guests to feel as content as possible.” There were crisp golden potatoes, poached fish in some kind of creamy sauce, a golden flakey roll with a big pat of butter melting where it was split. “Eat up,” she said, now wheezing a little. “There’s a pie for dessert when you’re done.” She smiled, and reached for a puffer, inhaling a few times, and then, strangely, refilling it with water.
She touched one finger to mine, and led me outside, where a pink sky stretched across the ocean, now calm.
“What’s that they say again? The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? If you can’t get it straight through his chest, that is?” she laughed, coughing a bit, inhaling from her puffer again. “Oh, don’t mind me. You know, I smoked so much when I was young, I practically kippered myself! All those boats that burned up around here …” she trailed off. I meant to ask her what boats, what was she talking about, but I was very involved with the dinner in front of me. There was so much food, but not enough. I could have sat there eating for hours. I had never tasted anything so good.
I finished my meal and the pie that followed it, while Shelly’s breathing became more strained. She drew breaths on her puffer off and on, quickly.
“Happy?” she asked, smiling a bit.
“Very,” I said. It was true. At that moment, I was the most content I had ever felt. I was warm and my shoulders were softened and my whole spine felt liquidy.
“Good. That’s good. That’s just what I wanted to hear,” she said, coming close to me. I was so drowsy and warm and comfortable, I almost reached to kiss her without really knowing what I was doing. She touched one finger to mine, and led me outside, where a pink sky stretched across the ocean, now calm.
Together, in a little rowboat, we rowed out and away from “The End-Tail” and toward the pink in the sky.
“What’s that they say?” Shelly said, her voice very strained and her breathing low. “Red sky at night, sailors take flight? Sailors’ worst plight? Sailors lose fights?”
“Yes,” I said. “Delight,” still feeling spellbound from the food and her singing. I was barely holding on to the fishing rod that was mine to use.
“Look, John! Look!” Shelly strained and pointed. Lazily, I looked to the water. “Did you see it? A fish! Such a big fish!” She leaned over the edge of the boat, gasping, pointing.
“Careful, Shelly,” I said, a little more awake now, as she bent too close to the water. I sat up a bit, and with a tiny splash, Shelly was gone from view. Bubbles rose up from below. I was too shocked to move. Then, with a gulp, her head bobbed up a few feet away, and she splashed, sinking and rising and coughing.
“Help!” she called out. “Help me, John!” I reached my arm from the side of the boat, but she was too far away. “HELP,” she shouted, disappearing under the surface again.
I dove into the water, and pulled her up to the surface. She was surprisingly easy to lift, and seemed to be pulling me up as I pulled her. I tried to drag her toward the little boat, but Shelly, now suddenly strong, breathing very well, pulled me, very steadily, toward her.
I felt something coil around my body like a snake, but too thick to be a snake, as Shelly pulled me close to her. Her eyes were bright, and she ducked her head down into the water and back up again.
“What’s that they say? Give a man a fish, and you will have fed him for a day.” She wrapped cold hands around my throat, slowly squeezing. “But, give a man TO a fish, and that man will never be hungry again.”
Lauren Bride is a writer living in Toronto.