Three-and-a-Half Stories About Rodent Fishing
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Obbin sat on the pier at the edge of the lake. The sun warmed the cone of his straw hat. His feet swished in the water and the tip of his tail dangled just above the surface. The thread line of his fishing rod shone in the evening light.

In the town behind him a conversation started up and the low mumbling drifted towards him. He listened.

Some time later footsteps thumped along the timber of the pier. The rat who had arrived in the burrow the morning before stood behind him and a little to the side, unsure of what to do.

“Hello, traveller,” said Obbin, reaching up and gently doffing his hat. “You can join me, if you’d like.”

The rat accepted his offer with a quiet thank you, moving a nail at his waist back as he crossed his legs to join the mouse at the end of the pier.

“Sit a minute,” said the mouse. “Have a skimmer.” He tapped the earthenware bucket of catch at his side, gently, so not to scare off anything investigating the bait bobbing below the float.

The rat accepted, nibbling through the insect slowly and reflectively.

Where the line met the bobbing oaken float concentric ripples spread out through the still water, echoing through the dappled reflection of the setting sun.

Up close, the mouse noticed the red darkness of a scab under the fur of the rat’s arm.

“Had a time of it?”

The rat stared out into the water.

Obbin considered for a moment. Then he offered the rod to the wanderer and, when the rat took it, stood, took off his hat, and plonked it on the wanderer’s head.

The rat chuckled.

As the mouse turned and made his way back down the twine-joined pier, he heard the plop of the wanderer’s feet entering the water.

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The mouse was sinking into the soft mud of the riverbed when the bush broke open behind her.

“Greetings,” said a voice loudly. “I beg, do you know the way to-”

The mouse whipped her head round, the scruff of her neck suddenly ablaze with the need to run. The stranger was a rat, huge, dark, silhouetted against the dappled light like a manifest shadow. She froze, as though stillness could somehow hide her again, heart pounding too fast for her to curse herself for sinking so deep.

"No fear, no fear," said the rat hurriedly, stumbling over his words in haste to make himself understood. "I am a wanderer, just an old wanderer- please, I want nothing but-"

The mouse slowed herself, eyes flickering over the intruder. The look of sorrow and shame on his face seemed genuine enough, and she relaxed a little.

"Sorry," she said. "It's just that… you'll have scared the fish away." She gestured to the water trickling past her legs. "I needed to get out anyway." Her voice shook a little and she brushed the fur on the top of her head back, taking a long breath out. "Just that you gave me a right fright," she said. The mouse looked down. Well, she thought steading herself, I’ve sunk a fair bit down anyway. It was at her knees. It had probably been time to break the stasis anyway.

With a wriggle that disturbed the statuelike stillness she had spent the past hour cultivating she yanked first one leg and then the other out into the cold of the water, dark earth streaming out of her fur. No luck so far, she reflected. The spear, which she now pried her cold-stiffened fingers off as she tried to remind them that they were a part of her, was clean and empty.

“I’m fishing,” she said, careful not to raise her voice too much. “You’ve only gone and scared the fish away. Well,” she added, most of the tension washing out of her limbs, “you would have if there were any.”

“My apologies,” said the rat worriedly. “Allow me to share some of my provisions, if you-”

“No, no,” said the mouse, turning to get a proper look at the rat, the river arcing ripples around her numbed legs as she waded back to the bank. “I’ll be all right.” The rat was tall and scarred, a heavy pack on his back and a nail with a bent tip at his waist. A serious expression sat on his face like a soggy leaf.

“Manymoss is just over that hill,” she said, pointing in its direction, though it was obscured by the tree cover. “There’s a bridge just down the river. Okay?”

“My most earnest thanks,” said the rat. “Are you sure I can’t-”

“Don’t worry, really,” said the mouse, finally pulling her feet out of the water and then hopping onto a smooth river-stone protruding from the bank in a sun-warmed spot. “I’ll be there myself this evening. Just got to make the most of the daylight.”

“Fair,” said the rat. “If I may, your name?”

“Gulla,” said the mouse, turning to flash the rat a smile. “Yourself?”

“Orpek,” said the rat, nodding to himself. “I will mention you when I arrive. May you catch something more than a soggy old rat like me.”

Gulla snorted at that, only half out of politeness. “Nice meeting you, Orpek,” she said.

After the rat had disappeared back up to the path along the bank Gulla waded her way back out into the stream and began finding her stillness again.

Her mother had taught her to imagine fragile crystals growing from her fur. Silently and invisibly reaching outward, slow as winter and flighty as starlings. Each blink had to be considered, each breath slow and shallow, until they covered her completely. A river stone, a lump of bark, a clod of earth fallen from the grassy bank. Not a hunter. Not a threat.

And then she would move, a twig becoming a spear, riverstones becoming eyes, moss-drooping fronds becoming furry limbs, and her catch would be pinned to the silt and stones, mud filling its gills, and she would eat for a week.

The sun broke apart on the river, the shape of the currents as steady and recognisable to her as the contours of her burrow. Gulla scratched an itch on her jaw, rubbed furiously at her ears and shook life back into her limbs. A cold breeze whispered along the water’s surface and stole a little more heat from under her fur.

She breathed in deeply, one last time, and started growing the crystals again.

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“So you want a story about fishing?”

The sea was roaring, roaring, roaring. Waves making ragged their knuckles on the cliffs below the port, lung-emptying screams of ancient rage broken by the long inhale as the waves tore at the land with fingernails splintering into foam and sound.

“Tell me,” Orpek said.

The mouse’s lips suddenly cracked into a smile.

Her torch sputtered as she stepped forward, the rain that slicked the stone-brick arch to the burrow gusting onto their faces. She looked from his face to the sea below, eyes hardened by saltwater ignoring the spitting rain that left Orpek blinking hard. Inlander. The sea had raged against the granite and failed, so instead it had gulped down the hearts of these people. No matter how high on the headland they built their hearts beat down, down, deep where the water rang with whalesong and sharp, sleek things slipped through the edges of the light. Their blood was thick with silt and salt and little slips of seaweed. People of the waters. Sea mice.

She rested a hand on the edge of the arch, the torchlight reflected on the rounded stones as she set it into a sconce.

“The sea is a womb full of tears,” she began, and the sea crashed and roared in agreement.

“We wait for the calm,” she said, eyes flickering in a distant spark of lightning, “but never too long, never so long that some would go hungry, because we are mice of the sea first and always. The land here remembers when it was stolen from the sea still and no plants of the wind and earth will grow here. So the sea, furious at what was taken from her, raging against the granite headland, bids us return in its stead. So we go down, sometimes when the sea is restless, sometimes when the rain pours.”

Orpek turned from the swirling clouds above the sea to the mouse, noting the scarring below her fur that mirrored his own. “Have you ever gone out in a storm such as this?” he asked.

“Not gone out in,” the reply came. “But come back from? Yes.”

The mouse rubbed absently at a scar before continuing. “The boat takes us out past the breakwater and into the place where the weed is thick enough to blind you. Near the surface it seems in places like a wall, a green and red wall between the air and the fish below. The sea has drawn us out, you see, but she plays games still. We’ve learned to squirm and clamber down through it, wriggling past the softness and slickness of the kelp. And then we’re down, and then, and then we start looking for the fish.

“After long enough in the water you get a sense of how long your breath lasts, and how each move saps a little more of the sweetness from your lungs, so you learn to swim straight and clean and sometimes to let the sea take you a little towards where you want to go. You learn to think slowly, until you need to think fast, and breathe without opening your mouth, and know when you need to go back up, because a drowned mouse won’t be catching any fish.

“So you’re down there, floating in the moving caves the kelp makes, sunlight dappling in rays all around you, motes floating in the salt water. watching for the fish. And it’s just one fish you want, a good one. The best kind are young and weak, the kind you can reel in with a single line, or old, old and big and slow, the kind that put up more of a fight from their weight than from thrashing. But that’s not always an option, and besides you have to be prepared to take what you can get. So let’s say we’ve found a youngish fish, big and silvery, maybe scarred a bit from a confrontation with a gull or an octopus or any other secret danger the sea holds, and you want a line put on it. Well, either you go back up for air nice and quick and hope the fish hasn’t vanished, or you take a chance and you take your harpoon and, trailing the line down, you go straight for the fish. Now the fish’ll see you coming- it isn’t stupid, and it’s always moving, so you have to be cunning, you have to be sly. You sneak up on the fish, not so fast it sees you and flees, not so slow you run out of air and get taken by the sea. And then you get close enough that you can almost taste it on the current, and let’s say it’s this huge wall of scales, shining like nailmetal, and with the current tugging at you and the kelp slithering all over you until your fur is as oily and slimy as the fish, you get closer and closer, and then- and then- it sees you, and you take that harpoon and you throw it as hard as you can. Oh, and you’re the first. The line on that harpoon, all tangledy up in the kelp and tugged around by the current, it’ll go taught, and then those up on the boat they’ll know, right away, that something’s been snared, and they’ll start yanking and yanking on all the other lines, and every other mouse will come rushing back to the surface, they’ll take a big gulp of air, find your line, and swim after you like their lives depend on it.

“But until they come it’s just you and the fish and the harpoon, all linked up by that rope, and the fish is angry.

Orpek watched the writhing of the sea and thought of the last time he had been in water. It had been a calm spot beside a little stream, the water slack enough to be warmed by the sun-touched sand beneath it.

He realised that he did not know the sea as this mouse did, and likely never would. Would never understand how she could love something so big, so strange, so angry, so blind.

“Between you and the fish there is an understanding, older than language, older than thought, but not even half as old as the sea. One of you, the fish understands, is going to be alive when the sun goes down, and one will not. So it’ll buckle, and you’ll dig a fishknife in between those scales, or into the gills, and you’ll hold on, and even though the fish turns and squirms and fights you’ll keep that spear in, and you’ll bloody well hold on for the lifetimes it takes for the others to make it down. You’ll be slammed and flung and the air might be squeezed from your lungs and you might start seeing blackness instead of the sea, and you might see stars in that, and you might feel like you’re dying and it’s because you are, but you’ll hold onto that line, because if you let go you’ll be dead for sure, now, because the only way you’re getting back up to the air and out of the sea is if one of those mice coming down with their harpoons takes you back up with them. And your lungs are a'burning and your limbs feel like they’ve started screaming words and your mind is horribly blank except for you and the fish and the harpoon and you keep pushing further and further into that huge wall of scales and then- Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! The others are here, and they’ve started putting in the harpoons, and arms take you and a sack of air hits your lips and you drink, and the darkness recedes a little, and you’re pulled up, up, up, out of the womb, and back into the light. And you lie on the deck of the great hollow log of the boat and you rest, but you don’t dare close your eyes because you’ve seen too much dark and the sky, blue or cloudy or starting to rain or, or anything, is better than the dark below, and you don’t want to ever, ever go down there again. But you do, because it’s calling, and it’s a'calling like nothing else ever could or can.

“But one time there wasn’t someone to pull me back up.”

Orpek’s eyes were fixed on her, jaw a little slack.

“It was storming,” she said, “Or starting to, though the sky was still enough when we went out, still as it had been for days… should’a gone out earlier, but the sky had been like that for days. Still. Grey. Cloudy.

“No use going all should and would, though. You learn that pretty quick. There’s only will and must. Sea don’t take kindly to mistakes… but you already know there's ten dozen other stories as deep and dark and brine-sodden as this one for the telling of that.

“We were hungry. We needed bone. Good, strong, hard fishbone, carved straight from the skull. Fish oil for our lamps, scales to sew into our clothes. Cartilage to sow the fields. Red and purple guts to feed the bugs. Thick, cool blood to thicken our porridge.”

The mouse gestured to the shapes of the other entrances leading down to the burrow below, turf and stone mounds shouldering against the wind and streaming rain.

“Lot of people here,” she said. “We needed to go back to the womb.

“We pushed out of the harbour with the wind against us and calloused hands heaving on oars as me and the other divers stood waiting on the prow, squinting into the midday sunlight- we always go at midday, at slackwater at high tide, when the water is clearest and the light is strong. And soon enough the kelp heaved at the sides of the hull and the smell of rotting kelp clawed its way down our throats and into our lungs. And then, harpoons in hand, the ropes looped from waist to wrist to spear to boat, we breathed deep, took one last, steady breath, and dived.

“The sea welcomed us with stinging eyes and bubbles streaming from our fur. It’s always the same and always new, that long moment when you’re caught between the force of your dive and the pull of the air in your lungs and the tug and jostling of the tide…”

She drifted off, mind swimming in bottomless, dark thoughts of the sea.

“I grabbed ahold of a strand of kelp and half-swam, half-climbed down its slimy, undulating bulk, the silt raised by the slow churning of the water pelting me and clinging to my fur. Keeping an eye on my divemates, always keeping an eye on my divemates, but the light was poor and the water murky so all I could see were occasional dark shapes that could have been anything and, if I was lucky, the glimpse of someone else’s diving line catching the light.

“And then I saw her. Our catch. A lone ray of gloomy sun flashing off her scales in the half-light before she slipped, slow, muscled, out of sight. Just at the edge of how far down I could go. She was somewhere below me. I gripped my harpoon until I could feel the grain of the wood and swam.”

The mouse paused to ruffle the fur of her arms. “Cold tonight,” she said. “But telling this story anywhere but here, now, it wouldn’t feel right.”

A shiver ran through both of them as a gust of salt-flecked wind snaked through the archway.

“Down and down and down I went, down past where my ears popped and going fast, faster than I should because she was a big ol’ fish and we needed- no, I needed to catch her. To be the one to catch her. And that’s the worst of it, isn’t it? To think you can win against the sea. To think there’s glory in taking from her. So down I went, swimming fast, and there she was, just ahead of me, glistening black against the black-blue, and I was so full of fire at that I didn’t even notice that my line had gone slack.

“Closer, closer, stealthy now, approaching from behind and feeling the weight of water under my paws with each stroke, and then I was past the tailtip- coulda stopped there, driven my barb in, but then the skin mighta torn and it would have all been for nothing. So I went on, past the tail- too full of muscle, too hard to drive the harpoon in and too easy to thrash me free from- to the thick midsection of the beast and there, just below the dorsal fin, I opened my undereyelid, steadied my aim, clutched the frill of fishskin and drove the harpoon home.

“I knew I’d gotten a good hold on when the fish started thrashing and the harpoon barely budged. The rush of water blasted at me and I closed my eyes to stop myself being blinded by the hail of silt but I kept ahold, and I kept ahold, and I kept ahold, and… but something was dawning on me as the life in my lungs began to go stale, slow, cold, pitch-dark.

“I hadn’t felt my line go taught.

“I opened my eyes and craned my head back against the rushing current and there it was. My line. Trailing along behind me like a kite, the end whipping about, attached to nothing but the deep. And I had to choke back a scream. Because she was going deeper, that fish, and even though I gave up, tried to tear myself free, pull my harpoon from it, that barb clung to the pulsing white flesh, wet and writhing with life-blood, and my shaking paws found only knots pulled tighter than I could ever hope to undo in the dark, and I couldn’t reach the clasp on my harness. And I was sure I was gonna die, down there, in the womb, and I heard, distant, through enough water to drown me thrice over, a thunderstrike roll through the deep. I knew I was fucked.

“So I gave myself up. Ironic, right? I relaxed my body, closed my eyes, let myself be thrown about by the raging of the water and the fish, ready to take two lungfuls of final dark-

“And I slipped right outta the harness.

“And for a moment I just sort of hung there, floating free. I had been full ready to take my final drink but now there was a crack of life shining down, and just like that a lightning bolt hit the water close enough to light the deep and I opened my eyes properly, found which way was up, and started swimming. It wasn’t a thrashing, or a sprinting. I was playing a slow, measured drinking game against my own lungs and heart. One sip of air for another stroke, I’d say, and my lungs would come back, we’ve only got the last wetness at the bottom of the cup, and I’d say, ah, but there’s the drop around the rim, and my heart would say that’s not enough to keep a’pumping, and I’d say oh, but there’s the sides, I’ll lick the sides, and all the while the sea would be pushing and pulling and dragging me down as much as it was throwing me up.

“I passed out a metre or so from the surface. Still swimming. Still bartering with my body.”

A lightning bolt cracked and, as the growl of thunder followed it, Orpek saw on her face a look of fear lingering, the echo of the moment that pulled her down into the dark again every time she dreamed.

“My mind was gone,” she said, “But my body- that was still going, still bartering, still looking at Owl with a smarmy grin and buying time with new ways to extend the game. But there’s fresh air in my blood still, says my heart, full and clean and fresh as if it came from a spring sky beneath a tree green and full of blossom, and when I hit the surface I started breathing, gasping, taking as much- no, more water than air, but breathing, breathing, breathing, too weak to swim- I went under again, and again, but each time I got to the surface and saw those waves, so much bigger than me, than anything I’ve seen or will ever see again, I screamed at Owl with every mouthfull I took. I’m not dead, you bastard! I’m still fighting! Naked and freezing and weak and every muscle in my body burning, I was alive, and by every god you know the name of was I alive right then. The sky was a bubble toyed with by the mother of waves and I was fighting to keep it in view, craning my neck for the storm clouds, biting down and tearing away each singular breath before she took the sky away again. And I did that, trying to swim, trying to stay at the surface, fighting against the tiredness, and then the hunger once the rush of survival ran out, for eleven lifetimes, or so it felt. Eventually the storm stopped of course, and then I floated on my back, every part of my body limp, until dawn. They found me there, bleeding from cuts I didn’t even know I had. The Mother must have been almost as tired as me because it was still as a puddle that morning. Got every rodent who could hold a paddle out there looking for me. Had to pull me out of the sea with a net, blood half seawater. I only knew I’d been saved when I felt the deck of a raft under my back. Grumbled something about being put back, if what they’ve told me is true. Sea was more comfortable. They’d gotten my spine right on a knot of wood. That I remember, because I’d had a proper ache in my back added to the next morning’s aches.

“I think I know what that fish was. I think she was the sea herself, come to take me back down with her. Come to test me. And you know the strangest thing?”

The mouse turned to Orpek, looking at him with a truly haunted look in her eyes.

“They found her on the beach just after I woke up,” she said. “Not thrown there by the storm. They would have noticed, because she was right below the burrow. My harpoon still in her back. Harness hanging off her like a parasite.”

She breathed deeply, as if still hungry for the air that had been denied her. “I didn’t win against the sea,” she said suddenly. “I haggled time. That fish, that was her way of showing that. Because it tided us over, for sure, but soon enough the fishing boat was going out again, and though everyone from the litterlings to the elders were begging me to put down the harpoon and take off the harness I was on that boat right alongside them and making double-triple-quardruple sure that their lines were strong and their knots were neat, telling them over and over to never test the sea.

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Ghepip looked up from the cooking fire as his travelling companion stormed in, soaking wet, muddy and with a very dark look on his face. The rat slammed the (very small) fish in his hand down on the ground between them and, screwing up his face, chucked the spear out of the entrance way.

“Rodents,” said Orpek, “Were not made for fishing.”

Ghepip decided not to ask.

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