Igrew up in a city of many small neighbourhoods that functioned as islands, close enough to transmit their specific and distinct pulses, one to the next, in such a way that together they made up a vibrant metropolis. I lived in a dull third-floor apartment with my parents, and under us lived the fishmonger and his wife, and under them was the fish store. I never had another story but this one, and even it is not mine.
Once there was a fishmonger and his wife.
“Margaret,” he said to her, “a girl just came into the shop and asked if I ever ate fish. ‘Do you like fish? ’ she says.” He winked at me and lifted his upper lip into a sort of smiling sneer. “Do you know anything about that, Ivan? ”
“Oh, stop,” said Margaret. “Stop your fooling, Kieran.” Her hair wrapped her face like black seaweed, all tangled and natural. She was so pale her skin was moonlike—you could almost see right through it. I was half in love with her, and only six.
“And what did you tell her, then? ”
“I told her breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I told her I snacked on capelin. I told her—”
They always talked like this. Margaret said she could smell the fish through the floorboards in their apartment and she might as well sit in the shop if she was going to have to endure it anyhow, and so Kieran set up a chair right in the shop for whenever she came down, whenever their daughter slept, and they bantered on.
The shop was one long display fridge, with slabs of fish and seafood piled neatly on chipped ice. The shrimp curled in on itself beside the rainbow trout—their eyes opaque, mother-of-pearl, freshly sunken—and then lay the cod, the shark, the square-cut salmon, in varying pinks. There was a bowl of octopus when it could be got, and scattered garnish to alleviate the tension of death, and whenever I went in, which was often, I thought of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the miracle of the fishes. The room behind the counter was itself behind a scratched wooden door. It had a hollow brass handle, the same kind we had upstairs on our bathroom door, and I knew that it was flimsy, that it could be broken and the door burst through easily.
But I never would have gone there. It was quietly forbidden. Still, I felt I knew the contents of the room implicitly: an endless sea, the horizon exquisite, with a particular blue-yellow light glancing off it, and there was the fishmonger turned fisherman, pulling the arced line of his fishing rod, and the boat upon which he stood, small, not much more than a dory, and there was the glinting fish struggling against its fate. Behind this door, in my brilliant mind, was where the fishmonger caught his stock, and that door was the heavenly portal through which he emerged—heroic, epic, manly—for me, and for Margaret.
If a customer came in and asked for something that wasn’t in the display case, Kieran would gesture to his wife to take his spot, and he would leave through that door and reappear inside my head, bending with a great net into the sea, or diving through its green waters with a savage fish spear and a look of such intention. Margaret would slide from the overpainted chair, herself like so much water, and glide to where Kieran had stood behind the counter, smiling—her brown eyes such depths.
Back upstairs, later, my mother said, “She’s a slippery one, that Margaret is. I can’t pin her down.” Mama took me into her arms and pulled me onto her lap, nestled her face into my shoulder and nibbled lovingly at me. We all smelled a bit of fish in those days. I was teased for it at school. My mother said, “I shall cook you up—”
“—And eat you!” Papa would finish the joke. “Quick, he’s getting away,” for now I had squirmed from my mother’s grasp and begun what was that era’s game. “Catch him!”
“Or we shall starve!” My mother would feign catching me, leaping up and giving chase, and my father would grab me by the arm, or the ankle, and I’d give him the slip, and then he’d catch my shoulder, or my knee, where I was terribly ticklish, and I would scream and laugh.
“What’s so funny? ”
“He likes to be eaten, does he? ”
I escaped and hid behind the stuffed armchair, panting for breath and joy, and my parents settled down—one on the couch, the other on the rocker in the front room—and they exchanged glances, and murmured that they would starve and die a cruel death, until after a while they grew quiet and just sat. They never had a word to say to each other, and I could not stand the silence. The quiet took up too much space.
“Again! Again, Mama.”
“We are tired, Ivan.”
My father worked as a night labourer in a factory that made beer, and my mother was an office secretary by day. We had a beef stew that night, steeped in dark ale, and then Papa left for work. He nodded to my mother and kissed me. “Be good,” he said, but I was never anything but good. While Mama did the dishes and tidied the kitchen, I played at fishmonger. I set my toys upon the coffee table (I had only one fish toy, so the rest would have to stand in), and when Mama finished and came to sit under the standing lamp and read her book, settling herself into the green stuffed chair—how beautiful my mother was—I said, “You be the fishwife, Mama,” and she smiled.
Mama said, “Must we always play at fishmonger? ” She wanted me to be a professional, and now I see—I see so much perfectly now from this great distance—that she wanted me to play doctor or teacher or lawyer. “I could be a much more convincing criminal or student. But a fishmonger’s wife? Bah.”
“This will be the boat,” I said, pointing to the couch. I knew if I made it comfortable, she might comply. “You sit here, at the prow.” I sat across from her and rowed with all my might. I rowed across the room, keeping my eyes on the little space of sky I could see through the window, through the foliage of the tree across the street. I rowed toward the sky, so that all was blue around me, and I could take the smell seeping up from the shop, take it into my game, and feel I was really, truly on the open sea, the salt water licking my imagination.
This is the part where he asks her to marry him, I thought. I yelled robustly, “Will you marry me, Margaret? I will fish the seven seas. I will make you proud.” This last I had blatantly stolen from a library book. I worked up tears for effect. Mama smiled, because she recognized the lines.
“Don’t,” I said. “You’ll ruin it. Look!” and I took one hand off the oar to point to my eye, where a trickle of feigned sadness had begun to fall. “Will you marry me? ” and here I paused for drama before adding a vehement “Dammit, Margaret! Will you? ”
I knew people lay together when they loved each other, and for nights I had lain awake in my own bed, paralyzed with affection, summoning the bright, lithe body of the fishmonger’s wife. I could feel her through my pyjamas, snuggled up against me, and it caused me a kind of blissful anguish, which I came to understand as true love.
“Ivan, I have to get back to work—”
“Ivan, I’m sorry.”
“It’s happening,” I blurted. “Hush!” I stood on the couch, using its unsteadiness to find my sea legs. I glared out at the horizon. “There, there.” For off and far away, a dot of blue-black on the sea, was a creature I needed to overcome so that dear Margaret should love me back. I would not let it swallow me. I would surely vanquish it. “A whale, Margaret! Yonder!”
“Oh, dear,” said Mama.
Every day, both on the way downstairs and on the way up, I passed the apartment in which they lived. It was through a door on the landing, and sometimes, on lucky days, the door was open and I could look in. If I was with my mother or my father, I would have to keep my head straight ahead and appear not to look, but if I was alone I would stop and spend as long as I dared on the thin grey welcome mat, and stare.
“Come in,” Margaret said to me one day.
The front hall was tiny and filled with wellington boots and rain slickers. It must have been fall or spring, but I remember it as a warm day, and me in my short pants and a T-shirt. She sat at a gleaming Formica table in a chair that matched, at the very back of the apartment. The floor was alternating black and white linoleum tile, and each black tile held a curse and each white a gift. The corridor was shiny where they had trodden, but along the walls there was brown grime mixed with hair and other debris, as if no one ever scrubbed or mopped the place. I could hear crying and thought of the baby.
“Come on in, then,” she said again. She wore a black dress that had once been fancy, except that she’d worn it so much the velvet had rubbed off in places, and her hair fell in twists. With her foot, she rocked a small cradle, I now saw, as I dared myself from one white square to the next, taking care not to overstep. When I got close enough, I saw the baby was asleep, not crying.
“It’s you crying, Missus!”
“Well, who did you think it was? ”
“I thought it was the baby.”
“Silly you, then.”
“What are you crying for? ”
“It’s nothing,” she said, and gestured for me to sit down. “Sometimes I just miss my old home. I’m glad you’re here to keep me company.”
“But you live here,” I said. I could hear the fishmonger’s voice and smell his fish through the floorboards and the tile. Looking down at the floor, I imagined the display counter, the fish laid out, the fishmonger’s thick mop of blond hair, and his strong arms moving about, butchering and bagging for the clientele. And when I glanced up, Margaret was glaring wild eyed at me.
“Run,” she said. “He’s coming.”
But when I rose, Kieran’s blunt and filthy finger was pointing at me. “What did you have to do to get that sweet little girl to come into my shop and ask me about my meals? ”
I could see the vortex of lines on his finger, feel my panicked breath careening into itself, both in and out. I had paid Kerry Stein one shiny dollar to ask the fishmonger about his eating habits. And since she had paid me my answer, I’d eaten nothing but fish for weeks now. Fish cakes for breakfast and cod sticks for lunch. My father grumbled about it, but my mother was pleased. It was easy enough for her to send me down for whatever was fresh.
I would grow strong, and blond and worthy, I figured, with the diet of kings, but now, with the soiled nail of Kieran jamming toward me, I felt sick, I felt scared, I felt I had to revise my plan. The finger drilled into my forehead through my skin and bone—right through. Everything spilled in that moment: the quiet from upstairs, my love for Margaret, my longing to be Kieran. How could he not see this gushing out from me? And still the baby slept on.
“Kieran!” Margaret said. “He’s only a child!” And Kieran the great Bloor West fisher laughed from the other side of the world. I felt the sound run about and through my whole entire body. His laugh reached the ends of this world and the next. It summoned heroes from the clouds, and all of the known sea monsters. He laughed the laugh of ages. Then Margaret giggled, covering her mouth. Tears streamed from her eyes, and the baby woke. Still laughing, she nursed her daughter in such a way that I could see Margaret’s lovely breasts wobble and dance while their daughter fought to keep her latch.
“Ivan, don’t you see? ” Margaret said to me. “He’s only playing you. He’s joking!”
She’d known it all along. She knew him inside and out. She’d studied him.
Kieran said, “I frightened you,” and I didn’t disagree. He continued: “You’ll see. One day, you’ll see.”
I made to break away but stopped, made brave by my feelings for Margaret. “I paid Kerry Stein three dollars,” I said, looking straight up into Kieran’s eyes. “I just wanted to know.” And as I started to slip past him, he grabbed my shirt from the back at the collar, so I could feel the cotton band digging at my throat. I thought I might suffocate. But then he stopped to reach into his pocket.
“Hey, wait,” he said, letting go of my shirt. He plucked three dollars out of the glittering coin in his palm and pressed them into mine: “Next time, ask me directly. It’s cheaper.” He laughed as if it was the greatest joke.
Margaret was rocking the baby, a tattering of pink flannel cloth against the worn velvet of her gown. I could just make out the child’s cheek and the pert, sated lips. There were tiny blue veins along the baby’s eyelids. The child was so alive. Margaret looked down into the baby’s face.
“Sleep,” she whispered. “Sleep.” Like an incantation.
At night, when things were quiet in the building, I heard her pleading with Kieran, her voice cracking. “Please,” she begged. He stormed about the apartment. There were awful noises up through our floors, and things falling.
I heard him say, “Why can’t you just be happy? ”
I started to leave things for her. I left a small felted pincushion. I left a lemon square. I left my little wooden fish.
She opened her door at the moment I was leaving that last. “So,” she said. “It’s you.”
I could only stare. She wore green that day, I recall. It was something impossibly beautiful. A kind of green that doesn’t exist except in special moments of grass, in the very early spring. A dress with seams all over it, plush and fitted. She knelt down to look at me, eye to eye. “Ivan,” she said. “Can you do me a favour? ”
Of course, I nodded.
“Run down and tell Kieran that the bathtub is blocked again. And to call the plumber.”
But Kieran did not call anyone. He locked the shop and left a notice on the window that he would soon be back, and then he took the stairs by twos. I followed him into the apartment and into the bathroom. The tub was an old one, aquamarine, and overfull. Water cascaded out of it and onto the tiled floor and trickled over the aluminum threshold. “I was taking a bath,” she said, all bewildered. “And look what happened.”
Kieran looked at her and then at me. He shoved the sleeve on his right arm up past his elbow—did you ever see such an arm as that?—and plunged it into the tub. He didn’t say a word. He fiddled with the drain for a short while until he seemed to gain purchase on whatever was the problem.
“Only this,” he said. A kind of plug had formed out of what looked like cloth and hair and something slick, like—
“It looks like fish skin,” I said.
“It does look like that, Ivan.” Kieran threw it down on the floor. “Indeed it looks like that.”
“Please,” said Margaret. It was as if her whole body was crying, only there were no tears.
“No,” he yelled at her, and turned and walked back out of the place and down to the shop. We heard the cowbell he had rigged to the front door clang once then twice, and we knew he had unlocked the door. We heard the shrill voice of a patron.
Standing there, it took me some time to work up the nerve to ask her what it was all about, and when I did she said, never mind.
“But what is it you want from him? I’ll give it to you.” I pumped myself up to say that last. I was huge when I said it. I had climbed on a chair, and was tall and knew everything. And I believe Margaret could see this.
“But you are only a little boy, Ivan.”
“I’m huge,” I said. I jumped down and climbed up again. “Margaret? ” I said.
“If it happens again, you just have to turn off the taps.”
“Okay.” She pulled a towel down from the shower curtain rod and made a little dam to stop the water from leaving the bathroom. Her dress was long, and the water wicked up it and made it wet enough to cling to her ankles in places. From my perfect spot on the chair, I watched her take a mop from the kitchen closet, and then I watched her mop and wring, mop and wring, until the pool in the bathroom was cleaned up. And then, not even looking at me once, she said, “In the back room of the shop, behind the locked door, is the box he won’t let me have. The box once held mandarin oranges, but now it holds something very dear to me. If you are ever in a position to get it for me, that is what I want.” She watched the last curl of filthy water stream down the drain. Do you know what it feels like to love until the pain of it forces you to do things that are forbidden? Do you know the many ways that yearning can destroy a mere boy? That night, in my bedroom, I waited until all I could hear was a thick breathing all through the building.
I had never known the stairs to creak so loudly, nor my heart to beat so. It pummelled me. I shifted down, leaning on the wall, so my feet stayed on the strongest, quietest part of the boards, the edges. I felt my way with my toes and fingers. The hall was utterly dark.
The inside door to the shop was not locked, and the rest was easy. I threw myself at the door behind the counter, and on the third heave the flimsy handle gave. I found the box tucked into a wee shelf just inside. Altogether, it took me less than fifteen minutes. I could not easily see what I held, but I could smell and feel it. A rubbery, thick, and slippery material it was, reeking of fish gut and sea salt. I had to wrap it around my small neck and gather it up and up, as it tried to undulate away like a living thing. I hauled it upstairs, forgetting to be quiet with the struggle of it.
I let myself into the fishmonger’s apartment and walked directly in to where I knew their bedroom was.
“You’ve found it,” she said, waking. I only stood there by her half-sleeping self, the material unwieldy, shiny—it glowed, I thought.
“But what is it? ” I asked.
Kieran snored, but she did not even glance at him. She rose gently, elegantly, and motioned for me to put the cloth on the floor. And then—there is no other way to tell it—she entered that strange thing like a dream, and it became her. I watched her and watched her.
She flippered her way down the filthy hallway, then down the creaking stairs, and I followed. We were in the back room, the sea lapping at our feet, when she finally turned, her face a pretty snout with whiskers and those deep brown eyes. And she nudged me, pushing my arms open so I might hug her. I did. I embraced Margaret, her skin a wet velvet pelt against my cheek, and then she cried out with some creaturely joy and waddled away into the sea until she could swim.
It was then that I yelled, “no!” and “stop!” and “wait!” but all I managed with this was to wake Kieran. There was nowhere to run, and so I didn’t. I waited while he barrelled loud and swearing toward me, his tiny, shrieking daughter tucked under his arm.
“She’ll be back for the baby, won’t she? ” I asked. The sea was kissing his feet. He was wild. I thought he might take the harpoon propped by the dory and impale me with it. In a way, I wanted him to do it. Then I could be gone from the troubles I had caused. “It was me,” I said. “I did it.”
“You didn’t know,” he said. “She lied to you. Her kind are born liars.” He was crying. Nothing pure about it. His face just cracked all over and shattered. I could not look at him. “We just weren’t enough,” he moaned.
By we, I wanted him to mean me, but he didn’t. He meant the daughter who now slept swaddled in the bottom of the wooden boat, a yellow slicker tucked around her against the damp. He tousled my hair, said nothing as he climbed into the boat and set the oar pins in place.
“Margaret,” he called, very loudly, and a more plaintive voice no one has heard before or since. The sound drifted across the horizon and into the salty sea, for him to call again. “Margaret, Margaret.”
I cupped my hands together and called with him. And when he set to rowing, I ran through the sea and jumped into the prow.
“Get out, boy.”
“It’ll be years of searching. Get out.”
As I have come to know, there is no material difference between a selkie and seal. They look just the same. They bob their heads, they glide away, they frolic. And we look for the one we have loved among them. Did my parents miss me, and did I miss them? Yes, everyone missed everyone.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer wrote the bestselling novel All the Broken Things.
Selena Wong earned a gold National Magazine Award in 2012 for her work in The Walrus.