6 min read

When the Fish Move On, by K. T. Lyn

A fishing boat on calm waters silhouetted against a cloudy sunset
Photo by Alexander Kluge / Unsplash

Content warnings

Suicidal ideation. Death. Bereavement.

I stand upon the ocean, looking out across its barren vastness, repeating to myself that the fish can’t all be gone. No psychopomp gathered and ferried them to their promised land. So I unfurl my sail. I navigate another league. I learn one more language. Because if the fish aren’t beneath my rocking hull or on the far side of that wave, then I’ve lost the argument.

I pull into far-flung harbors, trading the flotsam of fallen nations that stick in my net. I ferry intrepid travelers to afford more time and another foot of depth. Because once I find the fish, I can find my family and our lives can move on.

When my boat is becalmed and my nets are empty, I worry. Maybe our quarrel’s already over. Ario took our remaining girls and retreated from the once lively shores. It wasn’t just the disappearing fish; it was the algal blooms spitting smog and the hurricanes dropping leviathans atop our beaches. But my legs and words aren’t shaped for land. I’d rather face stormy waves than a capsizing conversation. Now, when I return, it’s to an empty house with only the grave on which I sprinkle flowers to welcome me.

I haven’t traveled southeast this year. The fish will be there.

On my route, I pull in at one dock and then another and another and no one catches my mooring rope. No one makes eye contact. Is it my shriveled skin, my perpetual squint, my hulking, unfeminine shoulders? When I make it ashore, I must bypass the paltry market by the docks to find anyone who will agree to trade. I hoist the new load of fishing line and epicurean plankton, take a steadying breath and return to my boat for another month in pursuit.

Today, someone accepts my rope. He looks me in the eye. He says, “I’m ready.”

I ignore him. In port I’ve grown used to not receiving the kindness one would give a stranger. What am I to think of such a familiar greeting?

He trails me like a weighted line, forcing me onward. Even the merchants who don’t turn from whatever reputation I have shy away when they see him, making a gesture I don’t know, but recognize. We are disfavored by whatever gods they worship. I walk on, manoeuvring like a mackerel, but there is no shoal that will shelter me. The more time this takes, the greater my aches. I pass houses lovingly plastered together with shattered concrete, I watch husbands and daughters setting out kelp to dry. I see hands held and hugs exchanged. I turn to my shadow and say, “If you will not leave, wait at my boat.”

Perhaps it is my voice, like a summer storm, or the knowledge that I won’t abandon my boat, but he finally retreats.

As I drag my meager findings, I see the man is sitting, knees folded up to his chin, back hunched, on my deck. When he sees me, he stands and wobbles but does not disembark.

“Not taking apprentices,” I say.

He shakes his head. “I’m ready. I have payment.”

“No passengers either. No time and no food.”

“I don’t need food. I need to…to cross over.”

Now I shake my head. Even if I could understand his meaning, I couldn’t afford his dead weight. “Are you going to get off my boat?”

He sits back down. I sigh and hop aboard, my knees and the boat creaking. I size him up as I stow my goods. He doesn’t look old. He doesn’t look unstable. But I do. Can I really judge the soundness of his decision?

“I can take you to the next port and no further, if you can pay the fare.”

“Is that Hell?” He swallows and holds his head up.

The word in his language for the afterlife does not conjure images of eternal happiness. I turn my full squint on him.

He shrinks away. “I-I have the customary currency.”

I settle and decide his presence can’t scare the fish any farther. I navigate back out to sea and ignore him. I won’t miss a sighting just because I have company. But my thoughts bob to the surface again and sit on deck with the man. My curiosity, which I’d tried to leave on shore, tickles the back of my throat.

“Why aren’t you afraid of me?”

“I am afraid.” His voice is small and his eyes remain fixed on the dock as it shrinks behind us.

“Then why my boat?”

“It is the way.” He pauses then says to himself, “I have to stop the pain.”

I glance up to reassess him. He has all his limbs. His speech is as straight as a taut line. But his face resembles drying fish meat and he could use a good night’s sleep. I feel as helpless at sensing this man’s woes as I do at discerning the whereabouts of fish. But why doesn’t he seem to think so?

“Who do you think I am?”

He looks around, as if there’s someone else who can answer this question.

When I continue to stare at him, long out of practice reading social cues, he finally says, “You’re Kyrah.”

I should be surprised. A stranger knows my name? But I’m clearly more than a name to him and perhaps to whole villages. “And…”

“Souls line up at docks waiting for you to take them to the next life. The fish have abandoned the shores to follow your boat and feed on the memories of the dead.” He chokes on every word and each sentence sounds like a question, as if I should know this.

I hold back a laugh. Wouldn’t that be convenient?


“Because you’re stuck. You’re lost. You’re dead. But won’t let go of life. When Death couldn’t claim you, he gave you an enchanted sail and put you to work.”

Now he looks in pain. I snort then leave him in peace.

Is this why I’m shunned? I’m Death’s lackey? The only things I’m in thrall to are the whims of fish.

I don’t take him to the next port. I sail and ponder how—if—what he’s said changes my heading. He shivers and whimpers, curls into a ball, trying to find sleep. But he is just as much at sea as I am. I throw him a line to hold.

“Crossing over’s for after death. Aren’t you premature?”

He sighs and twitches. “No.”

I rub my eyes to clear the sun’s glare. “You don’t look dead.”

“I might as well be. My life’s all gone.”

“So follow it! Don’t let it get away from you.”

He laughs, coughs, then shudders. “I did. It didn’t want me… They didn’t want me. No one wants me. Everyone. Everything. Gone. Gone.”

I’ve become secondary to him as he repeats those words into his quivering knees. And for a moment, I wish what he said was true. I wish I could ferry him to a land where his pains might end; a comfort I haven’t managed for myself. But I’m not stuck. I’m searching for fish then my family. They’re waiting. The best I can do is drop him somewhere with foreign words and hope his new start is enough.

He eventually passes out and I sail through the night. The sun peeks above the horizon as my keel coasts over the stones of a quiet inlet I’ve never put in before. Here, the wind whispers in my ears and whips my hair before my eyes, creating specters. For all I know, this might be the afterlife. I nudge the man awake. “Your stop,” I say, half grinning. “Where’s my payment?”

He rises bleary-eyed and unsteadily digs into his pocket. He pulls out a folded, no-longer-white handkerchief. Inside are five indigo blossoms from the jacaranda tree. He drops them onto the deck and scrambles out. “What is this place?” he says as his feet crunch onto the rocky beach.

I only have eyes for the flowers. I wore them in my hair at my wedding. I used them to dye my children’s clothes. I laid them on my daughter’s grave. I have been a fool. I lost the argument. I lost my family. I lost myself on the sea. But these flowers have found me and it’s time I take up the search I should have started decades ago.

I throw my nets and hooks onto the beach, unburdening my boat of anything that will slow me.

“It’s whatever you make of it,” I say, pushing off and sailing with head up, eyes trained on the horizon for a glimpse of landscape with sheer cliffs, grass as flat as the dead calm sea, and trees trailing indigo blooms. At that final shore, I’ll lay my boat to rest as I reshape myself for land. No one has to take up sail in my place.

The fish don’t need to be found. They’ve moved on.

K. T. Lyn

K. T. Lyn (any pronouns) is a non-binary, ace/aro spec-fic author who thrives in chaos, which is why they work in public libraries and write for ToughPigs.com. They, and their boundless wonder, live in Maryland with a small, weird family.

Bluesky: @ktlyn Website: ktlynauthor.carrd.co/