The fisherman was utterly lost. The storm that had taken him so by surprise had also thrust him far out to sea. The waters all around him glowed darkly with an immensity of depth; the boat rocked to slow, massive currents. The night had been vast, the dark steep and impenetrable, terrible with swells and the constant terror of capsizing. In salmon robes, dawn had brought calm but also, in every direction, that sharp blue arc of distant horizon. Hours became days. His net and most of his provisions had been washed away in the storm; all that remained to him was a modest keg of fresh water that, fortunately, had been well tied down, a patch of canvas beneath which he could escape the sun’s fiercest rays, and a small square of net with some thread. He fashioned the fragment of net into a rough scoop trailed alongside the boat, hoping to snare some confused fry or perhaps a half-blind, tired old fish.
Not well nourished at the best of times, weakness soon descended upon the poor fisherman. It was the dusk hour, when ocean and sky seem to merge into one continuous translucence. A small silver fish strayed into his makeshift net. He felt gratitude well up in him at this unexpected and unlikely meal. On its side, caught up clumsily in the webbing and half out of the water, the little silver fish gasped gently and held the fisherman meekly in its gaze. The fisherman had often had cause to eat fish raw, and this tiny creature promised brief respite from the swells of hunger that surged through him. And yet, something in this fish seemed almost unnaturally clean and bright. It were as though the crescent of moon had fallen into the sea and cleansed itself of the merest tarnish before yielding itself to him. “I am sorry, little one. How innocent you are in this, my hunger – and yet I must eat.” The fish seemed almost to understand. It swivelled its eye to the skies without anger or judgement. Then, without thinking, free of any sense of the consequences of his action, and as gently as he could, the fisherman let the silver fish go.
The fish swam at once to the depths. He told his tiny school of silver brothers and sisters his strange dream: how a simple net had fooled him; how the huge man in a wooden boat had apologised to him for hunger, only to release him. The small huddle of fish was very still for some time, moving hardly at all and only now and then with the merest flick of a fin in the dimness. Then, one by one, they began to flutter upwards. One by one, over several days, they gently but insistently presented themselves to the fisherman’s feeble net. For a moment, the fisherman doubted his senses; but he knew the sea and its occupants too well to think this was some kind of coincidence or accident. When least expected, there would be a flash and flip of fish at the side of the boat. They gave themselves up softly, without struggle; and he ate with reverence, as though each little soul were the entire ocean, or the last crescent of moon that any woman or man would ever gaze upon. In humility, he accepted the many gifts of their small salt bodies. He ate until restored. The last fish of all was, he felt sure, the very one he had released. The salt of his tears joined the salt of the sea. He felt fresh strength dart silvery through him and, with a kindly breeze now behind him, the current firm beneath, the fisherman was returned to shore.
copyright Mario Petrucci
Award-winning UK poet, ecologist and PhD physicist Mario Petrucci has held major poetry residencies at the Imperial War Museum and with BBC Radio 3. Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl (Enitharmon, 2004) secured the Daily Telegraph/ Arvon Prize. Consciousness is his truest subject, and i tulips (Enitharmon, 2010) exemplifies Petrucci’s distinctive combination of innovation and humanity. www.writingintofreedom.com