The only fishing boats Jacob could afford were beached and broken, their hulls listing against the sand with the resignation of things that cannot be fixed. It was these he felt kinship with, not the bobbing vessels that sat whole and spared atop the waters. But a fisherman needed a seaworthy vessel, and Jacob longed to leave the land behind.
A trawlerman with scarred hands saw the money from Jacob’s too-thin wallet and still introduced him to the freshly-painted one-man trawler, her name dark on her hull — Jane Riches. “It’s not an easy life, you know,” said the man. “Every year boats sink and men drown.”
“I have always wanted to fish,” replied Jacob, voice even to hide his grief. As a boy he had loved the seashore, boats bobbing in clear blue waters, the implicit defeat of stuffy buildings by open air. But love had come along and pinned him joyfully to the earth, until the day it did no longer.
The land held their house, lost to the medical bills. The soil nourished the tulips she’d wanted at her funeral, from which he had been conspicuously absent. And six feet beneath the ground lay his wife, further than he could ever reach again. The sea held none of these things, and neither would the man who rode it.
Jacob expected more questions, but instead the fisherman just reached for the money with relief in his eyes. “Oh, she’ll catch what you set out for, don’t you worry,” he said, and was in such a hurry to conclude the deal that Jacob wondered if he had been tricked.
So Jacob became a fisherman. One old man introduced him to the others, showed him how to pilot the trawler, and work the nets and sonar. They went out in darkness and fished their way into day, shouting stories across the water and drinking in the town bar at night. The old-timers told stories of water turned silver by fish, and how that silver faded every season, tarnished into empty seas. “We stay out longer every year,” they said, “to catch enough.”
One hot day two weeks in, Jacob’s lines tangled, his net snagged, and he made a fool of himself yet again. But he didn’t care — for as he stood fumbling on the deck of the Jane Riches, face flushed with embarrassment, his grief sunk untraceable beneath the waters he fished in.
And, in spite of his incompetence, each day his catches grew larger.
One day he brought in the largest haul by far, and the old man shook his head in wonder. “I haven’t seen this many fish in a day’s catch since I was a boy,” he said. Others crossed the dock to see.
One sandy-haired man sneered. “There are as many fish as before, they’re just more cunning,” he said, as if Jacob had insulted him. But the clothes of the men were frayed and over-mended, their boats worn, their nets unfilled. Beneath the belligerence of the sandy-haired man skulked fear.
Jacob climbed aboard other men’s boats, trying to bring his luck with him, but it never worked. One day, when heavy storms to the south had sunk a large trawler and the water was still treacherous with high chop, clumsy as always, he lost his grip on a net and jammed the lines, releasing half the sandy-haired man’s catch. That evening as they pulled into the harbor, in spite of spending half the day off the Jane Riches, Jacob had the most fish of all.
When they made it to the bar he bought everyone a round, and shouted out, “For fish that never get more cunning!” He turned and raised his glass to a silent room of hunched backs. Men stared down at scarred tabletops rather than meet his eyes. Jacob slowly lowered his arm.
He was relieved when the door of the bar admitted a woman he hadn’t seen before, and attention turned to her.
She wore jeans and a plain knit top, and held a sheaf of flyers. Jacob saw the subtle squaring of her shoulders as she took a deep breath. She approached the table nearest the door. The men sitting there watched, one smirking, until he glanced at the flyer she handed him and his face stilled.
“You know the storm yesterday,” she said, with an evenness of voice Jacob recognized. “You see anything wash up on the beach, there’s a number on the bottom. You call me.”
The smirking man looked up at her as if watching someone across a chasm, a person from whose eyes he could not imagine seeing. One of the others removed his baseball cap and mumbled something to her.
She moved on to the next table.
A slow pall followed her, seeping across the bar in a slowly rising tide. Jacob stood and walked by the first table as if heading to the bathroom, and glanced at the flyer.
A picture of a fisherman with a wide smile took up most of the page. The photo had been badly cropped, and it was clear he’d had his arm around a woman, leaning in against him, a thin gold ring gleaming on her finger. Beneath the photo was the man’s weight and height, a description of some clothes, and his name: Bill Anderson. And in bold, the name of Anderson’s trawler. It was the one that had disappeared a few days ago, taken in the storm.
Jacob had time to look up and see the same thin gold ring on the woman’s finger before something inside him snapped open and his own grief choked him, brutal and familiar, then he was outside the too-hot bar and gasping for air, fleeing to the Jane Riches.
They went alone and aimless from harbor as he lost himself in the details of piloting her. After a time he calmed, and discovered they were in the midst of waters that, months before, had been stripped of life by an industrial spill. He stood on deck and considered his inexplicable and persistent success. He checked the sonar, which showed the sea empty for miles. Then he cast his nets and watched them disappear into the dead water.
He pulled them up, heavier than they should be, and brought them onto the deck of the Jane Riches bursting with fish. His usual bycatch of flounder and groundfish was gone – instead there were strange kite-shaped fish he recognized from books he’d bought as Australian bull rays.
He laid his hand on the deck of the Jane Riches in wonder. He had cast his nets for fish, and so she brought him fish.
The next day, he intentionally worked slower than the others. The day after, he cut holes in his own nets. But even as their catches shrank, his remained remarkable. He walked into the bar that evening and stopped, remembering the abrupt silence after his toast, Mrs. Anderson and her fliers. After a moment standing by the coathooks and neon Bud Light sign, he turned and went back out.
He stopped going to the bar, and a few nights later simply stayed on the Jane Riches as the others walked up to town. No one looked back. He slept there, and when the other fishermen returned before dawn to make ready they studiously did not glance his way. He slept on the Jane Riches more and more, and eventually stopped paying rent on his apartment. It was better this way. No risk of friendships that, like tough nets, would drag him onto land where grief waited.
The seasons passed. Fewer men went out together, or there would not be enough of a haul for each. Soon only in pairs. Then alone. And still, with his feet on the deck of the Jane Riches, Jacob brought in huge catches. Men disappeared for longer and longer, finding jobs elsewhere, sometimes returning, until long absences became the norm.
One afternoon, the shore only a thin line on the horizon, Jacob began to pull in his catch, and found his hands shaking. He paced the deck of the Jane Riches, but it did not calm him. He felt restless and pursued, and when he touched his cheeks he found them wet, and did not know whether it was seawater or tears. Even here, with the water all around. Even here, he was no longer safe. Heart beating fast, he returned to harbor, abandoned the Jane Riches, and retreated to the bar.
He took in the scarred tables and the customers seated at them. He was the only fisherman there. The others were gone; the bar emptied of the men who had emptied the ocean.
He had aided that emptying, on the deck of the Jane Riches, so absorbed in his own troubles he had spared barely a thought for this inevitable culmination.
The next day he placed an ad in the paper for the Jane Riches, pricing her far below market. That night in the bar he started with beer, then moved on to whisky, shot after shot of it. If he was not a fisherman he did not know what to do but drown himself in drink.
A few hours in he looked up from his glass, and even with his blurred vision the sight blasted him into an adrenaline-fueled false sobriety. A woman sat at the very end of the bar, in plain and unmemorable clothes, but even all these years later he knew her. She still wore the thin gold ring.
He felt suddenly impassioned – if he could say something, do something, to ease her grief, then perhaps he would be released from his own at last. He stood, wobbled, and stepped forward.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Anderson – ” he began, and she turned to him. There was no recognition in her eyes – only the wall a woman who wants to drink alone keeps between herself and strange men who approach her in bars. “I just wanted to ask whether – well, if they had found, I mean – ”
“No,” she said, “He’s not been found.”
He scrambled for words to fill the silence. “It’s – it’s not fair. Of anyone to happen to, you don’t deserve – ”
Her face softened, and he knew that she saw what he was trying to do, that it wasn’t working, that she forgave him the attempt.
“Hundreds of ships are lost each year,” she said. “There are many men and women like me, and we all deserve to say goodbye to the people – ” she paused, then gazed clear-eyed at him and said, “I want to bury my husband.”
She said it calmly, the words full of mourning and acceptance both. His grief swallowed him, fresh as its first day, knocking him wide open before the woman who faced her loss with the same intense determination with which he avoided his.
He stammered, and he saw the tiredness wash over her, of dealing with this drunken man in a bar, of bearing that loss while refusing to leave her life. He stepped back, knocking over a bar stool. “I’m sorry,” he said.
He stumbled from the bar to the parking lot overlooking the bay, to his old beater of a car. Without thinking, he started it up and drove, leaving the town and the bar and the Jane Riches, trundling slow and drunk along the thankfully empty roads. He got only a mile out before his foot eased from the gas and the car rolled to a stop on the road’s lee. He gripped the steering wheel, tightening first one hand, then the other. There was nowhere to go. The look Mrs. Anderson had given him stuck in his chest like a hook.
And, blade on bone, on the lonely roadside, that look cracked something deep inside him open straight down to the marrow.
He took a careful grip on the wheel, and pulled back onto the road. He drove inland, first with the sloppiness of a drunk, then the aggression of the hungover, then, as the sky began to lighten, the care of the exhausted. He stopped only once, returning with a bundle of flowers, then going on.
He came to her grave as the sun crested the horizon. He kneeled and lay the tulips upon the dirt, then followed them down, sunk his hands into it, pressed his cheek to the grown-over mound he had never visited.
That afternoon he cancelled the ad.
He climbed aboard the Jane Riches and laid his hand against her. “We will never take another fish,” he said. “I would like to cast my nets for something else.”
They left the bay before dawn, small and alone as they made their way past the flashing buoys and out into the empty sea. He sank the nets into the water and waited.
He pulled them up again, and unwrapped the body of Mr. Anderson, now only bits of frayed flesh and bone, the thin gold ring still caught on the corpse’s curled fingers. He cast again, and again, each time the nets returning fuller and heavier.
He pulled the loved and the dead onboard, laying each on the deck, until the boards of the Jane Riches were slick with rot. Then he turned back, and brought them home.
He would go out again tomorrow. As many times as needed. And sweep the seas clean of them all.
Jen resides in the birthplace of roller derby. She works too much, sleeps too little, and attributes her continued existence to coffee, her girlfriend’s cooking, and an elaborate system of checkboxes. She says:
Cursed object stories have always bugged me because they tend to have only two endings: the doom of the protagonist, or throwing the object into the mouth of a volcano. I paired a cursed object that would punish greed and pride with Jacob, who didn’t care for those things at all, who would never come to consider the Jane Riches an antagonist, who would think of her as simply another piece of the world in which he existed. Setting the story in the context of overfishing also let me explore something that’s stuck with me since I read an in-depth report on the problem several years ago: an interview with a trawlerman who talked about how fishing used to involve everyone going out together and shouting from boat to boat as they worked, and its slow evolution as fish stocks shrank and shrank, making it impossible for everyone to go out together, and eventually, to do anything but go out alone. For interested readers, check out the documentary End of the Line, the book Four Fish by Paul Greenberg, and Bottom Feeder by Taras Grescoe. You can also print a pdf booklet or download an awesome smartphone app (free!) on which fish are currently safe to buy/eat, and which are endangered, called the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.