by Elie Doubleday
Dead Fish. By the hundreds. They just lay there, on their sides, no longer moving. Their rainbow colors have long since faded, leaving behind a grotesque, gray, corpse. Occasionally, one will give a feeble flip of the tail, maybe resisting it’s imminent death, maybe just its death rattle. The putrid, raw stench infiltrates the air of the cannery, trickling through cracks in the walls so every last worker gets the privilege of gagging on it. Worming under doors and past window panes, before inching up the noses of the respectable men with pretty women on their arms and young rascals nabbing at pockets and purses passing by.
Shiny black hair, slicked down with sweat and grease, bobs through the street. Dark eyes shift around, drawing attention with their squashed, squinty look. Asian. The word slithers through the milling townsfolk, as they politely try not to notice the boy with the bare feet. His pants are far too short, and the ends are frayed midway around his calves. His gray shirt is covered in stains, and the armpits darken with perspiration. His toenails are broken and the layer of grime under them is clearly visible as they pad across the sharp stones of the street. Every once and again, a spot of flesh is trapped and torn free as the feet hurry on, leaving bloody bits behind.
In the back of the boy’s mind lurks an abandoned hut. It lacks food and warmth and love. Years have passed since it has been graced by the touch of a woman, a woman who left long ago when the getting was hard. The hut does contain a corpse. Recently dead, still warm, and already covered in flies. A young child, one who does not remember the woman who left, but still knows the hardships that life holds. His clothes are spattered with blood, as are the cloths lying next to him. Innocent speckles covering the off-white shirt, and large wet globs on the napkin. Nobody will find the body, and nobody will know the suffering the child endured as his body fought the tuberculosis. Nobody will know his brave attempts to fight the disease that finally overcame his weak frame.
The boy rushes on, but stops when he reaches the entrance to the cannery. He takes a minute, collecting his breath, before pushing through the rough wooden door. He moves through tangles of fishnet that catch on his rough feet, tripping over splintered oars and stumbling through the dark. The stench of rotten fish greets him like a puppy as he walks into the gutting room. His eyes slide over all the men, each a copy of the next; shiny black hair, squinty eyes, translucent skin, dirty. To Anglo eyes, they are identical, carbon copies of each other. But to the boy, each one is unique and recognizable. None, however, are friendly. He weaves through the men, wading through reek that sits heavy in the air.
A pair of dark eyes watch him. Calculating eyes, thin slits of anger and annoyance clouded over with drink and tinged with red. The boy takes a while to find them. His own pair are shards of ice hiding the vulnerability of a 10 year old boy. He stops moving when he makes contact with the eyes so much older than his own. The man watches his son, seeing the pain and disgust plainly in the boy’s face, and knowing that his youngest is dead. The boy takes in his father’s shaky appearance; stained clothing, unsteady feet, the fetid alcohol smell slipping off him. He can see where his father has been these past weeks when he didn’t come home, where he has been spending his time and the family’s much needed money. He knows.
Fire bubbles up in him like bile, threatening to spill out in strings of curses learned from the man standing in front of him. His limbs shake and tears well up in the glands. His fists clench and chipped nails dig into the soft flesh of his palms, drawing pearly beads of crimson. He turns, drawing in ragged breaths, and slips on the bloody floor. His vision clouds as he lands on his back in a pile of fish, the wind knocked out of him and replaced with the pungent scent of the sea. Scrambling to his feet, he sprints from the room. The workers quickly make way at the sight of his slimey body propelling towards the exit. By the time he has reached the street, each breath stabs at his lungs like a thrust to the solar plexus. His vision blurs from falling tears, and anger overwhelms his mind, tinged with the hollowness of abandonment.
At the edge of town lies the loading area. Dozens of tracks sprawl in every direction, stretching towards the hazy mountains in the distance and farther. Some have trains parked on them, others just the boxcars left behind, some empty some full. Dust sits heavily out here, especially on the lungs. The boy is panting, about to collapse when he reaches the tracks. His hair is matted down and matches his skin with it’s coating of grime. He picks a secluded spot behind a boxcar, where he stumbles down to rest. His tears have long since dried, and he feels nothing but numb. He thinks not of the drunk in the cannery, nor the blood spattered child in the hut. He thinks of nothing at all.
Dusk lights the mountains a deep blue and elongates the shadows of the tracks and brush. The mountains have faded to a washed-out purple, and the sand glows gold in the dying sun. From behind the car, the boy watches the workers troop in for the night. They shiver in their cooled sweat, layers of sand coating their clothing and tools. Their weary bodies contrast their sparkling eyes as they laugh with each other on their way back to a warm dinner and a loving wife. Hungrily, the boy’s eyes devour the sight, an unquenchable thirst for something his family never had.
As the sky deepens to cobalt, and the stars slowly bloom, the boy climbs aboard a train car. The pain of the day fresh on his mind, enhancing the knowledge that he has nothing left for him here. The car is filled with pick axes and chisels, ready for tomorrow’s day at the mine, and the boy crawls between them, curling up in the comforting dark with his eyes still glinting in the moon. He doesn’t close them all night, knowing the image of his little brother’s body will float before him if he does. Knowing he will be plagued with knowledge that he has failed, and someone lost a life. And nothing can make up for it.
The morning brings a puff of thick smoke to the air, and a bone shattering shrill and the nauseating feeling of movement. Hunger gnaws at the boy’s stomach, reminding him he hasn’t eaten in over a day. Emaciated ribs protrude from his thin belly and his bony knees clack together with the motion of the train. By noon, they have reached the mine. Slipping quietly from his hiding spot, the 10 year old boy climbs down with the resolution to start a new life. With hope that his past will stay behind and let him start over. That he will find food and warmth here, and have no one else’s blood on his hands.
It never gets better. Sickness follows him wherever he goes, and his brother’s blood-spattered hands claw at him from deep in the mines. No one likes the skinny Asian boy, and no one is willing to help. Drunks harass him in the street, and the smell of rotting fish clings to him like a needy child. The only thing that likes him is the rope hanging from the fir tree, with the pale bones underneath that glow in the moonlight. Darkness consumes his young mind, and for the first time in his life, he knows exactly what to do.