Fishing Is Nuts
Rockefeller was so unafraid, downright dismissive even, of the dangers of the river that he fished from the scalloped edge of the last pier standing in the West 79th Street Boat Basin. Even as he sat legs dangling in the curved profile left by a tooth of a sail-finned leviathan he thought himself safe.
“Nothing wants to eat me,” he would say to whoever would listen as he headed out, plastic bucket in one hand, precious pre-mod rod and reel in the other.
“Nothing wanted to eat me,” he would say, returning with the bucket full of river water in which there floated occasionally a recognisable fish, but more often held post-modulation blobs, toothed and tentacled, or cluster eels or even the occasional donut crab with a purple anemone occupying its hole. Submarine life had not been spared when the modulation event dumped the universe in its fractal blender and hit pulse.
While Rockefeller might consider himself inedible, mostly on the basis that he had been passed over twice, shooed away with flicking hands and a look of disgust by raiding parties from the Upper East Side braving a Central Wilderness crossing to seize Upper West Side white meat, he was simply ugly.
The strands of his scant hair were thick and heavy as upholstery cord and upon his sagging, deeply wrinkled scalp they curled like juvenile renderings of over-sized pubic hair. His left eye, enlarged and barely contained by plump eyelids, resembled a bloodshot softball crowning. His right eye was small. It peered at the world through an under-sized slit that never fully closed and was rarely unencrusted. Between them, beginning slightly above them, was a nose like a sausage end. It cast a sundial’s shadow across the blank expanse between it and the distant mouth below, which featured an overbite so pronounced his stubby tongue could not reach his top front teeth and the narrow lower jaw might have served a rabbit better. His breath, in a world without dental hygiene, was legendary.
On his way through the green and treed sward that stood between the diced and tumbled city blocks and the river, Rockefeller stopped to fill his pockets with the mutant nuts of a modded oak tree. The lobed, lumpen acorns, known locally as gut-busters, were sweet and chewy once capped and peeled. But eating them was akin to pouring baking soda into a bottle of ketchup and shaking it. It was a different chemical reaction, but the effect was the same—a red geyser that painted the surroundings with the liquified contents of its container. He chipped a wedge of brittle tan shell from one, shaved a sliver off the exposed yellow meat with a dirty thumbnail and put it in his mouth. It was the best taste in godforsaken Madhattan. He would suck on it until his belly complained and then spit it out. Thus its other local name, candy gripe. As bait it was superior to worms— easier to catch, didn’t spit dirt at you, and wouldn’t wail as you introduced it to the hook. Catch a fish with nut bait and you’d still have to scale the thing, but the gutting was mostly done for you.
Seated in his favourite bite mark on the edge of the pier, the curve of which embraced his fat dangling legs without pinching or squeezing, which should give you a sense of scale for the teeth that had notched the wood and thus the body of the river leviathan they belonged to, he pushed a hook through a generous piece of nut and cast it out over the water, the hook and its skewered lump of nut dropping in an arc, the line drifting in the wind like a trail of smoke, the pitch of the spinning reel falling as gravity took over, the tiny splash as nut met water fifteen metres out. He hissed rhythmically, the closest he could get to whistling, as he wound in the line. If nothing grabbed it before it was hanging directly below him he would let it be for a time, give the fish the opportunity to find it. But he did like casting. It beat dangling string from a stick, no matter how nice the stick. Friends don’t last forever in Madhattan and the rod continued to be worth the price.
The price had been the pick of his catch, initially. Hester had called him up to her rooms, yelling his name from an 8th floor window on the north side. He had pretended not to hear, just kept on with his slow, steady, thigh-rubbing gait, but gripped his fishing stick and the handle of his bucket tight, his eyes not moving from the corrugations of the west gate. Her lackeys, Cooper and Mott, caught up with him and, one on each arm, dragged him to the corner stairs and up to Hester.
You didn’t want Hester to take a disliking to you. The woman, despite her delicate frame, had arms like a bear, and the arms ended in bear-like claws. Given her aggressive disposition there was an ongoing debate around the evening fires if she was human modded towards bear or a bear modded towards human. The human-to-bear proponents claimed the parallel scars down the side of her face were proof the bear parts came later, one of those accidents of accommodation the newly-modded so often suffer. Their opponents claimed the same cause, but it was a bear finding its new face denuded and fragile rather than a human discovering its new hands armed and dangerous. That would make the debate a draw, but before it was called the bear-to-human side would bring up just how mean and beastly the woman was, forcing the other side to search, hampered by reluctance, for anecdotes of her kindness or generosity, both sides rushing to claim that the lack of altruism served their argument.
He was deposited in front of Hester, who waited in front of a wall of expired canned food, seated in an ornate wooden celebrant’s chair taken from a church whose lengthy pews had staved off the cold for so many, yet to fulfil its own potential as fire wood, but there were plenty more winters to come. The ends of its carved arms were scratched and splintered by the black talons that the camp’s self-appointed boss was brushing against each other like two atrocious combs designed to arrange the entire scalp, all the way down to the bone.
“The little fisherman,” she said. “The little deaf fisherman.”
“He’s not deaf,” said Cooper.
“I know that. Heading out were you? On your own?”
“Can you breathe through your nose?” Nod. “Do that for me, please. Cooper, more windows. For a little ugly man that’s very brave.”
No-one had called him brave before. Little and ugly he heard all the time. He shrugged. “Never had any bother.”
The tip of Hester’s nose, constrained somewhat by the thick lines of scar tissue that crossed it, fusing its bridge in part with cheek, was twisted to the left by her disgust.
“Just mumble at the ground, okay? Barely audible, hardly breathing, is fine. How is the fishing going?”
“I catch a few things sometimes.”
“Just yes or no and keep that mouth closed. If it closes. You trade them?”
“Did you ask me if you can trade them?”
“Mott, demonstrate how this profit-taking makes me feel. With the stick, Mott. Let go of his arm.”
Mott tore the string from the stick and broke the stick in half, then held the halves and snapped them into quarters. The quarters he gathered and, with some effort, snapped into eighths. The eighths he just barely managed to snap into sixteenths. This obsessive bipartition continued onwards, via his heavy jaw and chisel like teeth, beyond thirty seconds to sixty fourths, to one hundred and twenty eighths. He was hitting his stride when Hester stopped him.
“Enough. He gets the point.”
Rockefeller’s big eye glistened. Tears overflowed the smaller. He had tied the string to that stick himself. The stick he had braved the husk of a white brick apartment building over on 76th for, stumping up dark stairs, scuttling down hallways cut with light from doorways, the doors long gone, combustible furnishings with them, and finding, standing in the corner of a room like it was placed there for him rather than forgotten in the fearful rush by whoever had stripped the apartment for their winter fire, the stick, perfectly cylindrical, not too long, perhaps slightly wider than the windows of the apartment, with just the tiniest bit of flex to it. He hadn’t made it back to the stairs before he was referring to it in his head as Sticky, and Sticky was calling him Rocky, and not that either were the type to ever say or even think such a wet sentiment, but after helping each other down the stairs they were already best friends by the time they emerged onto the street.
“Wipe your face off,” said Hester. “You’re all…”
“Sticky!” wailed Rockefeller at the bite-sized pieces of his friend scattered on the worn and stained carpet around his feet. As the last syllable of his name, sustained and warbling in the air like an asthmatic siren, faded from his throat, he felt a weight descend upon his chest as the chamber of his heart the stick had occupied was sealed with stone.
“…slimy. Exhale like that again and you will be leaving by one of the windows I had to open. Stop sniffing, I’ve got a deal for you.”
“Cooper, bring out the rod.”
He just lost a friend, his only friend, but in that moment Rockefeller discovered love. Her name was Okuma and she was a temptress. He also discovered what he would do for her. Anything. Despite the initial arrangement, the first pick of his catch, Hester increased her take until he was left with enough from each day’s catch that he didn’t starve. But who needs to eat when the heart is full?
The bait at the mercy of the waters, he waited, kicking his feet, eyeing the tumbled, cookie-cuttered skyline of Jersey across the water. Sometimes there would be a column of smoke visible, thin, tenuous, the trace of a tiny fire. He spat the sliver of candy gripe into the water. There probably had to be people over there, or people like things, around those occasional fires. Unless Jersey rats had also mastered fire.
Okuma dipped and he started reeling in the line, slowly at first, exploring the tension, gradually winding faster. For a moment the line went tight and the rod began to curve, its tip bending to point at the water, then the tip of the rod flicked back up, leaving him to wind in the empty hook. He was muttering at his bad luck when a large and sleek black dome of a head rose out of the water. Rockefeller’s heart started to race and he was drawing his feet up, recoiling, before he recognised it as a humanatee.
Relief. He would have scuttled away from the edge if it had been a snark or a merperson or a weresquid. The weresquids were the worst. So insistent. They were squids, they will tell you, they really were. It was just that, post-modulation, their tentacle count had been reduced to four, their beautiful and practical suppleness lost along with their suckers. Instead of suckers, now their two upper tentacles had five smaller tentacles coming out the ends that they had to grasp things with. Their two lower tentacles had vestigial versions of the same pathetic things. Weresquids had a long list of complaints about their post-mod physiques, but they didn’t mind the patch of fur on the top of their mantle. The texture was captivating, the styling options were endless, and it gave their ten tiny tentacles something to fiddle with.
Never suggest to a weresquid that they might in fact be an areperson. They will sniff and lope away, offended, showering you with ink as they depart.
The humanatee’s big eyes were wide open and it was chewing and smiling. It made a big show of swallowing and smacked its lips loudly.
“What was that delicious tidbit on your hook, landy?”
Two more heads, these a splotchy pink, sleek and bulbous as the first, popped up next to it.
“What are you doing?” hissed one, eyeing Rockefeller.
“Just talking to this landy. You should’ve tasted that. You gotta taste it. Yo, landy, got any more I can share with my brothers?”
Rockefeller looked down on the humanatees. Stupid mods. They’d be scaring away the fish. If they wanted more gut-buster they could have more. He threw a bunch at them. They landed in the water and began to sink, the humanatees grabbing at them with their puffy hands and following them down into the depths and out of sight.
He had the hook back in his hand when they resurfaced, all three of them grinning and running their plump tongues over their lips.
“We don’t aim to trouble you,” said the black one, “but do you have more of those things?”
The three creatures floated on their backs, side by side, their fat bodies visible but the details, their edges, dancing under the choppy water. Neither the water nor the fronds of weeds they had tied around their obese middles did anything to hide their equally overweight genitalia. Rockefeller’s mutant cashew withered.
“Okay. I’m Big Tyrus. This guy here is Big Mick. The one on the end is Big Steve but we call him Jacuzzi.
“I’ve gotta lotta gas,” said Big Steve. “It’s the river weed.”
The water erupted around him and the humanatees all laughed.
“You interested in trading for those things?”
Rockefeller laid the precious Okuma to one side, murmured an explanation to her, and took a nut out of his pocket and began to peel it. He didn’t say anything or look at them during the process. When it was finished, he held up the bare yellow nut like he was inspecting it for imperfections. The humanatees made appreciative noises.
“That’s the thing!”
“That’s what we’re wanting.”
He was toying with them. They would have nothing he wanted. They were scaring the fish. He was going to end up throwing them more nuts just to make them leave. He wondered if humanatees were also affected by gut-busters. If so, why, he might throw them all his nuts.
“What you got to trade?” he said.
Big Mick pawed at the seagrass band around his waist, pulled and pulled at a cord that ended in a pouch. He dropped it on the blubber of his chest and retrieved from it a dark oblong and held it up in the air. Rockefeller could only make out the ends of it protruding from the plump fist. Were they really going to trade a stick?
“Behold,” said Big Tyrus.
There was a click and a bright, pointed blade popped out of nowhere.
“Opens at the push of a button,” said Big Mick. “Great for cutting river grasses, sea weeds, reeds if you ever find yourself in one of the creeks upstream.”
Rockefeller thought less about harvesting water plants and more about stabbing dismissive cannibals, defending Okuma from grasping interlopers trying to seduce her with their sweet breath.
Big Tyrus burped loudly and thumped his stomach with the top of his fat fist.
“Must have got a snail in that last grazing. Oh, that’s a twinge.”
The other two burped as well. They got distracted by chatter amongst themselves about snails and reflux.
Aware that there might not be much time left before Big Tyrus and pals began to turn inside out, Rockefeller emptied his pockets of nuts and piled them on the grey wood next to him.
“This is all I got.”
“That’s not a lot. Not for a knife like this. Can you get more?” said Big Tyrus.
Even at his fastest, thigh-chafing run there was no way he could get to the trees and back again in time. Gut-busters worked fast.
“That’s it. Squirrels got all the rest. They always do.”
Big Tyrus nodded like squirrels were a problem he regularly faced in the river.
“Aight. Deal. Big Mick is going to put the knife in the pouch and throw it to you. You’re going to put the nuts in the pouch first, you hear? Then you’re going to take the knife out and throw us back the pouch of nuts. Got it?”
Big Mick lifted the pouch above his head and spun it by the cord it hung from. It was whirring in the air when he released it and it sailed in a high arc, the hand-plaited cord wriggling through the air behind it, and landed with a wet slap right in Rockefeller’s lap, the knife within stinging his leg where they collided. He dug his fingers into the gathered mouth and pulled open the bag. He could see now that the sides of the knife body were inlaid with a dark wood. He reached in and the cord went taut, the mouth of the bag tightened around his wrist, and he was jerked off the pier and into the water.
After he stopped struggling the humanatees went through his pockets and were disappointed to find he’d been holding out on them. There were still a few gut-busters hidden away. Even the littlest humanatees know not to touch the things if they get washed into the Hudson, so they let them sink and disappear into the waving grasses on the river bottom, knocking free a few of the small silver fish, bright and round as tiny disco balls, who moved hand-over-hand through the fronds, clinging desperately, nibbling delicately on the plants, wishing they’d been born less buoyant.
“What do you think we can get for him?” said Big Steve, as the three humanatees ambled upriver, dragging Rockefeller’s naked body behind them by a seagrass cord wrapped around his ankles.
“Depends what the weresquids got, right Big T?” said Big Steve, his words partially obscured by the tumult of bursting bubbles.
Big Tyrus waited for the flurry of cavitation to subside before answering.
“We might just make him a gift. Keep things cool between us. Feed the peace, you know?”
“Good thinking, Big T,” said Big Steve.
“Yeah,” said Big Mick, “peace is great and all, but I really want a speargun.”
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