A Fish Trapped Inside the Windby Christien Gholson
In a small town in Belgium near the French border on the morning of Saint Woelfred’s festival, dead fish lie on the ground, scattered everywhere, as if blown in by the wind. The quarries that were once active now stand empty and will soon be used as toxic waste dumps. Are the fish a sign from the saint? Or simply a cruel trick
In a small town in Belgium near the French border on the morning of Saint Woelfred’s festival, dead fish lie on the ground, scattered everywhere, as if blown in by the wind. The quarries that were once active now stand empty and will soon be used as toxic waste dumps. Are the fish a sign from the saint? Or simply a cruel trick played by Contexture, the dance group who once stripped naked at the Vatican? Blending a realistic portrayal of communal life with elements of fantasy and surrealism, including the lost poems of Arthur Rimbaud, this story narrates how six lives from this provincial town are changed forever.
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A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind
By Christien Gholson
ParthianCopyright © 2011 Christien Gholson
All rights reserved.
And the Fish Is a Fish of ...
Philippe Souzain leaned over a dead cod, poked it with a stick. The still eye reflected columns of grey smoke from the cement factory behind him. He raised his head, made a count of all the dead fish lying scattered across Madame Foulette's pasture, then looked into the face of Madame Foulette's cow. The cow kept chewing.
'Get away from my cow!'
Philippe turned toward Madame Foulette's back door. The old woman stood in the mist-covered grass just outside her back door, waving a broom. She looked like a potato. The boy laughed and waved – 'Bonjour, Grosse Patate!' – picked the fish up by the tail and slid beneath the lowest wire of the pasture fence, dragging the carcass behind him. He dumped the cod into the handlebar basket of his bicycle and pedalled down a narrow road between the cement factory and a vast, rectangular quarry. Conveyor belts carrying limestone up out of the quarry lake creaked through a tunnel beneath the road, into the factory.
The boy stopped at the guardrail above the belts and felt his pockets for something to throw over the side, onto the shuddering piles of wet limestone. He did this every time he rode past. Marbles, rocks, empty cans, and once, the head of a doll he found alongside the canal. Short black hair, huge black eyes. The head had miraculously settled onto the limestone upright, staring back at him – fierce, defiant – as it took its last journey towards the mysterious grey-dusted interior of the factory.
Philippe thought of dropping the cod, but looked over the side and saw a magpie passing beneath him, sitting on the shaking belt, picking at the eye of a dead whiting. He scooped some pebbles from the road's shoulder and flung them at the magpie. The gravel fell short. The bird paid no attention.
He crossed the road, leaned his forehead against the chain link fence, and looked down into the quarry. Leftover fog hung over the water. No matter how many times he looked down into it, the sight of such immense space always made him giddy, as if the lake was sending a current up through his thighs, into his chest, tugging him gently towards the edge.
The boy's Uncle Casimir once told him you could fit fourteen towns the size of Villon into the quarry. Casimir had done the maths.
Philippe mounted his bike again, pedalled past the factory gate and coasted down a short hill, through the last remnants of an ancient stone wall that once encircled the town. Some said the wall was built by the Romans. Casimir said that was absurd, the wall was definitely from the Christian age. If it had been built by the Romans, he told the boy, it would still be standing. But the boy wasn't interested in the history of walls.
He rolled past the alternating patterns of cracked plaster, stone, and brick of the terraced houses on rue d'Arcy – windows shuttered, everyone still asleep – into the Grand Place.
Four streets and three alleys emptied out into the cobbled circle at the centre of town, like spokes fitted into the hub of a wheel. Casimir once told the boy that all circles contained a certain amount of magic, leftover from pre-Christian times. But it was something you could only feel late at night. Philippe had slipped out of his house in the middle of the night several times over the past few months, wandered around the Place, waiting for something magical to happen. Nothing ever did. Once, pigeons scattered from the belfry of the church. Another time, Marie Ledoux – Poisson's wife – appeared from the dark alley next to the brasserie, alone, with no coat, holding herself. She looked right through him, then disappeared up rue Demesne. It was strange, but not magic. The boy thought he should tell Casimir that if he was looking for real magic, all he had to do was go down to the east end of Foulette's field on Saturday morning and watch Guy Foulette perform. That man could make anything disappear.
The sound of Philippe's rusted wheels bounced over the cobbles, echoed between the wooden doors of the church and the aluminium shutter covering the large window of the brasserie. The boy steered the bike towards rue Lefebvre, dodging Poisson, who suddenly lurched into view, probably drunk.
Poisson screamed his wife's name across the Place, but Philippe had already turned the corner down rue des Ecoles, and heard nothing but the sound of his own tyres.CHAPTER 2
And the Fish Is a Fish of Distraction ...
1 The Illusionist
Guy Foulette watched his mother walk across the kitchen and drop a mackerel the length of her forearm onto the table. 'Philippe Souzain put dead fish in the pasture,' she said. 'I'm going to call the gendarmes.'
Guy leaned forward, ran the tips of his fingers across the flank of the dead fish. It hadn't been dead long. No canal fish, this one. Too big. Guy frowned, stood up, and limped to the kitchen window. The pasture was scattered with them. The cow stood at the far end of the pasture, near the cement factory road, tail flicking, oblivious.
Beyond the pasture, four tall factory smokestacks belched white smoke and dust into the grey sky. A lone seagull circled the stacks, probably following the Sunday morning cement barge picking up a load of bags at the factory dock. Guy lifted his hand to his face, inhaled. Seaweed and death. The smell of Chiqui's breath those last days in the hospital ...
Guy looked past his fingers at the spire of Villon's church, a stone antenna rising above the town roofs beyond the factory. 'How could a boy the size of Philippe carry all those fish into the field?' Guy said, turning to his mother.
Madame Foulette reached for the phone, hanging on the wall next to the fridge. 'I'm going to call the gendarmes,' she said again and began dialling.
'You suspect the boy simply because he's Doctor Souzain's son,' Guy said.
His mother cradled the phone between her shoulder and cheek, listened to it ring. He took a step towards her and a fierce pain shot up through his leg. He sucked in a deep breath through his nose, then, to mask the sudden inhalation of pain from his mother, huffed the breath out into a little laugh.
How typical. He was going to perform one of Chiqui's hardest tricks, alone, in front of hundreds in the Grand Place in a matter of hours, and his foot was acting up.
'Are you laughing at me?'
Guy hobbled over to his mother, took the phone from her hand, placed it back in its cradle. 'I think the fish are a sign from God,' he said, smiling.
'Why do you make fun of my beliefs, and in my own house?' the old woman said.
'Sorry,' Guy said, then added, 'but Jesus did multiply the fishes, didn't he?'
Madame Foulette lifted the phone off the hook and Guy gently took it from her again. The dial tone buzzed between them. 'We don't know anything yet,' he said.
'That's why I'm going to call the gendarmes,' the old woman said, opening her arms in a pleading gesture, talking to some unknown, invisible witness in the corner of the room. 'It's their job to find these things out.'
'No, it's their job to look like they are finding things out, not to actually find things out. They'll just make you fill out forms. Then they'll tell us what we already know.'
'And that is?'
'That there are fish in the pasture.' Guy placed the phone back in its cradle again. 'Calling the gendarmes only adds to the confusion.'
'That boy Philippe needs discipline,' Madame Foulette said, and once again lifted the phone off the hook.
Discipline? The boy had nothing but discipline, Guy thought. The boy was always coming and going from the library. Studying, studying. Poor Philippe Souzain was going to become a doctor, just like his father, grandfather and great grandfather before him. No one was leaving anything to chance for that boy.
Guy shrugged. 'Have it your way.' He limped slowly back to the kitchen window. A crow landed on a fish carcass out in the field, hacked twice at the white underbelly, then pulled something long and glistening from the body. Intestine.
'No one is answering,' Madame Foulette said. 'How can the police not answer the phone?'
Guy turned to his mother. 'They've got to deal with both the kermesse and the rally today and there are only four of them.'
Guy suspected the police still had no idea how many people might show up for the rally. Contexture – the eco-anarchist dance troupe performing at the rally – always brought the crowds, the cameras. Ever since their naked dance and arrest in front of the Vatican.
It was Liesl who had roped him into performing with the troupe. She'd told the leader and founder, Stephanie Mertz, about his skills during a long distance telephone interview. A wily move. Liesl knew someone like Stephanie wouldn't pass up using someone in her performance who had (he could hear Liesl's breathless, enthusiastic tone) 'performed with a Buddhist magician at a live sex club in Amsterdam'.
He'd rejected the idea at first. There was no time to practise with the group, and, more importantly, he'd never performed such an elaborate illusion in front of an audience without Chiqui.
Guy's mother put the phone back on its hook. 'How can they not have someone at the station to take calls? I was never allowed to choose whether or not I could serve someone when they came to my register at the Delhaize.' She frowned, pointed over his shoulder, out of the window.
Guy turned. The crow had lifted off the fish carcass and was flying low, over the cow, towards the cement factory road, intestine dangling from its beak like a snake.
'That's not a good sign,' Madame Foulette said.
Guy turned back to his mother. 'Things are symbols for themselves,' he said.
'There you go again, with that talk you learned in Amsterdam,' she said, then suddenly frowned and winced, holding her side. Guy took a step towards her and she lifted an open hand up to indicate she didn't need any help. 'It's just my digestion,' she said, shuffling to the kitchen table.
Making a sucking sound through the space between her large front teeth, she settled into a chair. In the last few months she'd started making more and more of those sounds. Almost the same sound he made whenever pain shot up his leg. Only she didn't mask it with laughter. Last week he'd seen her out in the pasture limping almost as badly as he did on his worst days. When he asked her what was wrong, she told him she had a stone in her boot.
Why didn't she tell him what was going on? Fear that something more serious was happening? He would have to call his sister Tamarine soon.
'You must learn how to die,' Chiqui had endlessly told him, 'to let it all go. That's the key, petit.'
Madame Foulette stared intently at her own hands resting in her lap, as if she'd just discovered them. What a pair we are, Guy thought. Both of us wincing, shuffling, limping. Years ago, when he was a boy – lying in his bed, across the room from his sleeping sister, staring out of the window at the factory stacks – imagining what his life would be like as an adult, he never would have imagined this. He smiled. Who would have thought he'd be the one staying here, taking care of his mother in her old age, and Tamarine would be in Madrid, translating tourist brochures?
Guy leaned over the mackerel. 'This monster must have come from the North Sea,' he said. 'There's nothing like that around here.'
His mother lifted a hand from her lap, touched the fish on the snout. Guy edged around the table, put a hand on his mother's shoulder.
'It'll be days before we get rid of the smell in here,' she said.
'Why did you bring it in?'
Guy lifted his hand from his mother's shoulder and produced a twenty centime piece from behind her ear. He smiled to himself, then dropped the tiny coin into his pocket.
The old woman waved a hand next to her ear, irritated, as if she was brushing away a fly. 'What are you doing with my ear?'
'There was a strand of hair out of place,' Guy said. 'I moved it.'
Madame Foulette looked up at Guy, frowning. 'What are you talking about? All my hair is out of place.' She smoothed her grey hair back from her forehead with the palms of both hands, eyes closed.
'Now your hair will smell like fish,' Guy said.
'Evidence,' Madame Foulette said.
Guy shook his head, turned, went to the phone.
'Who are you calling?' his mother asked.
Guy didn't answer, started to dial.
'You're calling the German. Soon you'll be off to Germany ...'
'She's not –' he started, then gave up. The phone rang at the other end of the line. He reached up to the photo of his dead father, produced a twenty centime piece from his father's mouth.
2 The Stranger
Liesl Grafft parted the curtains of the hotel window, looked across the street at the Mons train station. A few people stood around under black umbrellas, beneath a ceiling of sagging black electric tram wires, waiting for a bus. There was the usual orange haze around the streetlights. The pavement was wet, but she could see no drops falling across the light. She opened the window, put out her hand. Her skin became instantly damp. Rain so fine it looked like fog.
'Fish?' she said into the phone. 'What would be the meaning of fish?'
'I don't know,' Guy said on the other end.
'Do you think it might be the factory? Because you're involved with the rally?'
'Why would the factory put fish in the pasture?' Guy said. 'They haven't even acknowledged there's even going to be a rally.'
'Well, maybe it's finally come to their attention. You know the saying by Gandhi?'
'He only had one?'
Liesl rolled her eyes, sighed. 'First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.'
'It doesn't make any sense,' Guy said.
'No, that the factory would scatter fish everywhere.'
'I'll get a bus as soon as I can.'
'I'll wait for you at the canal bridge,' Guy said and hung up before she could tell him which bus she planned to take. She started to dial his number, then put the phone down.
He's a magician, he can figure it out.
She stared at the halos around the streetlights. Through the mist she could make out the silhouette of the slag heap behind the station, a few scraggly trees rooted precariously at the top. When she had first arrived at the train station two months ago she thought it was an odd geological formation, jutting up at the edge of the train yard. That night, lying in her tent at the municipal campground, listening to the freezing rain drizzle against the roof of her tent, she suddenly realised what the strange formation was: 'Slag heaps,' she heard Raoul's voice say, 'they're all over the countryside. The ground turned inside out.'
Liesl looked at her reflection in the mirror above the hotel sink. She'd grown thin, very thin, since she'd first arrived. She normally had a round face, like her father, but now her cheekbones were prominent, like her mother. The small, almond shaped blue eyes in combination with the sharp cheekbones gave her the feeling that she was looking at one of her lost Russian relatives, emerging through her skin, out of the past.
She pulled her red sweater off the armoire door, swam through it, then looked in the mirror again and ran her hand through the tangles in her shoulder-length black hair. The brown hair roots were almost an inch long now.
Why would the factory dump fish all over Foulette's field? She stepped back from the sink, sat on the edge of the bed, pulled on her jeans, then fished through her backpack at the end of the bed, found her little box of earrings. Which earrings would be a good talisman for the rally? Amber? Haematite? She held up a pair of turquoise stones dangling from tiny silver braids. Her mother had bought them for her in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She thought of the Indians she'd seen sitting on their blankets, selling turquoise and silver jewellery, in the central plaza in Santa Fe, and the drunk men and women in tuxedoes and evening gowns walking past. All the women in evening gowns were wearing turquoise.
She put the turquoise earrings back in the box, lifted up a gold hoop with a small speckled white and purple coquina shell slipped onto it. She'd found it in her pocket two weeks ago and had asked Guy if he'd put it there – sleight-of-hand quick – when she wasn't looking. He'd shaken his head like he always did, feigned a frown. 'Why would I do that?'
'Because I always find things in my pocket after being with you,' she'd answered. A tiny braid made from a cow's tail hair. Small pebbles. Dried flower petals. Once, a bleached mouse skull.
She stood up, zipped up her jeans, stuffed her hands into her front pockets to smooth them out, and felt something dry and crumbled in the right pocket. She pulled some of it out. Leaves and stems. Dried parsley.
Excerpted from A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind by Christien Gholson. Copyright © 2011 Christien Gholson. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Christien Gholson is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry book On the Side of the Crow. His work has appeared in various magazines, including Alaska Quarterly Review and Hanging Loose.
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