Herbie, a remarkable fish

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By Mad Harper, 1999

That year, Isabella was the only girl working on a tuna boat out of Batan Beach Harbour. In fact, she was the only girl working on a tuna boat out of anywhere. It’s not the kind of job which appeals to women. The work is heavy, the hours long, the stench overpowering and the solitude unendurable.
Isabella worked the Batansea Belle with her boyfriend Darius and first mate Paolo. She’d done this job for five years now and she loved it – the silence, the absence of everything, the dullness of the empty sea and sky, the predictability of the days. For nine months at a time, they would be out of sight of land of any kind. It was, for Isabella, a perfect life.
Fish would pile up steadily in the Batansea’s freezer and once a month the giant rusty hulk of a trawler would appear on the dull horizon, carving its way laboriously towards them to pick up their haul. A brief chat with the crew – dry laughs, averted eyes, cigarettes gummed to their lips – and then back to the silence.
Isabella spent her day heaving nets over the side of the boat and hauling them back in again. Sometimes it rained but most days it was warm and sunny. Glints of startling light would shimmer on the scaly backs, catching her eye. Darius and Paolo worked to starboard, Isabella to port. Sometimes the three would chat across the deck but most of the time they worked in silence, their minds empty of thought and feeling.
The day that Herbie came had begun like any other. Isabella was pulling in a net when suddenly she saw a fish staring out at her from amidst the mass of heaving bodies beneath her. It was watching her intensely with a look of utter understanding and deep intelligence. Isabella hauled in the net and laid it as carefully as she could on the oily deck. Darius and Paolo were at the other end of the boat engaged in some intricate mechanical problem. She hadn’t seen them for over an hour.
She reached into the broiling bodies and carefully pulled out the tuna. It was a small fish by tuna standards, with a dark and compact body. The fish looked up at her and between them there passed an extraordinary communication: of love, warmth, trust, of tender concern and utter sympathy. Isabella knew without a doubt that this fish knew her and loved her, to the depths of her soul.
Isabella sat down, the dying fish lying heavily in her lap. He was gasping gently now but did not let his gaze drift once, holding her eyes with his own. Isabella did not question the strangeness of the experience, the fact that out of millions upon millions of fish, this one particular fish had reached out and touched her soul. She did not question how nearly she had missed him. All she felt was the rightness of their meeting.
Isabella knew there was no hope of saving its life and the fish itself did not seem to expect it. The two lay quietly, studying each other, savouring the last few moments of his life. Isabella felt a piercing sorrow as the fish’s breath grew fainter and his life ebbed visibly away beneath her. Wordlessly, she told him she would never forget him and in the final moment, she held him tightly against her, like a lover. Already she was making plans – to preserve him for ever, to embalm him, to frame him, to commemorate his life with an elaborate and extravagant gesture.
After the fish’s quiet uneventful death, Isabella laid his body carefully on the deck and went to talk to Darius and Paolo. They listened while she told her story and when she explained them what she wanted, they nodded.
Isabella went below decks to change her clothes, glancing back just once at the now lifeless form on the deck. In her mind’s eye, the fish was already embalmed – his gentle contours, the proud and rigid body, the intelligent sensitive face sheltered for ever beneath the glass. She changed slowly and returning to the deck, walked towards the spot where she had left the tuna’s body. Darius and Paolo were sitting smoking, cleaning their knives. At their feet lay a heap of greying skin and gore.
“Where’s my fish?” said Isabella but already she knew. Darius flicked the point of his knife to the deck behind her. “Right there, babe”, he said. Isabella turned and saw the fish lying flat on the deck. His body was gone entirely. All that was left was his face.
Silently and without tears, Isabella scooped up the face and walked towards her cabin. Her heart heaved as she thought of all she had lost.
“I’ll call him Herbie”, she thought: “Herbie, a remarkable fish”.

By Mad Harper, 1999
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