Bycatch – Highly commended – 3rd Place in the 2017 Writing Contest

Bycatch

Grant Price

 

The Captain was lying on his bunk when the deck chief appeared in the doorway and told him there was a situation upstairs. His beard was soaked through with rainwater. The Captain put on his oilskin and followed the chief out onto the deck. The seiner was rolling hard on the waves. It was the type of cold that had a man pinching the meat on his cheeks to keep the blood flowing. The boys were standing by the roller at the back of the boat, backs turned and hoods up. They were ankle-deep in dead sockeye and peering over the stern.

‘What’s the hassle?’ the Captain asked as he and the chief joined the pair of them. The boys didn’t take their eyes off the water.

‘Something in the net,’ shouted one. He was an inbreaker, new to the seiner and not yet old enough to have reached his third decade. The Captain liked the boy. He was quick to learn and impressed without making a show of it.

The senior deckhand grunted. ‘Something big.’ The rain rolled off his orange oilskin. He pointed. ‘Over there. Tangled up proper.’

The Captain narrowed his eyes and looked. He’d ordered the boys to gather the net in before it became too choppy. It was usually a quick job to pull it in with the drum, but not if a dolphin or a small whale had strayed into the seine and was trying to thrash its way loose. He watched the surface of the sea for the foamy spot, but saw only the rain lashing down.

‘Nothing on the surface.’

‘Went below a minute ago,’ said the chief. ‘Then I came for you.’ There was a tone in his voice that the Captain couldn’t place. He was gripping the coaming with both hands.

The four men waited in silence. The seiner rose and fell almost like it was breathing. The net dropped down from the roller and disappeared into the ocean. The senior deckhand coughed. The chief adjusted his hood and wiped at his eyes with a dirty palm.

‘What did you see, boys?’ asked the Captain. None of the men answered. The wind started to whip itself into a fury.

Then the inbreaker yelped and pointed. They looked. A form flailed in the water several metres away from the stern. The net held it fast. A tail quivered and disturbed the glassy grey surface. The Captain’s relief was spoiled by a touch of regret. A dolphin. Unfortunate, but it was easier to dispose of than a whale.

‘Reel her in, boys,’ he ordered. The senior deckhand grabbed the slick rope and pulled. The net began to retract and hug the coiler. The inbreaker busied himself with the fish that slopped over the roller and hung suspended in the net. He clutched one in a practised hand and drove a spike into its hindbrain. The fins flared for a moment and then the fish fell still. He dropped it on the deck and moved to the next one. The bright orange handle burned in the Captain’s eyes.

‘That’s right,’ he said, encouraging the boy. ‘Quick as you can. The storm will be on us soon enough.’ The inbreaker nodded and kept on sticking. His mouth was a pencil scratch on bone. He needed a hot drink and a rest. Once the dolphin was out of the net, they could all get below deck.

‘Get the gaff hooks ready,’ called the chief, leaning over the stern. The Captain fetched them himself and handed one to the inbreaker. The senior deckhand made ready with the rope. The inbreaker wiped his spike and clipped it to his belt. He and the Captain joined the chief.

‘Gone below again,’ he shouted. ‘Once it hits the surface, get it with the gaffs. Then we’ll drag it in.’ He held his hand up, ready with the signal. Behind them, the senior deckhand counted the seconds. The rain beat against their oilskins. The Captain blew through his nose.

The water parted and the tail smacked against the surface. The Captain held the gaff aloft, ready to lunge.

Then a pair of arms appeared.

Fingers poked through the holes of the net.

An osseous head crested the wave and stared up at the men.

The inbreaker screamed and threw the gaff into the water. The chief’s hand fell to his side. The senior deckhand pulled hard on the rope and the net retracted over the roller. The Captain turned and called for him to stop, but the sound was snatched away on the wind. The deckhand gave a final heave. Something slid over the top of the roller and slapped onto the fish-laden deck.

The men jumped back and pressed themselves against the sides of the seiner. The shape twisted in the net and tried to pull the fibres apart with knotty bluish fingers. The tail sent sockeye skidding towards the drum. It flipped itself over onto its back. Blood poured from underneath one of its arms and mixed with the water on the deck. Then it lay still.

Clutching his gaff hook, the Captain edged closer until he could see the face.

‘Don’t go near it,’ shouted the chief. He was holding onto the inbreaker’s oilskin.

A pair of fluid black eyes locked with the Captain’s. The form had an enlarged forehead, nose and jaw. It opened and closed a wide-set, lipless mouth, but no sound emerged. Two rows of teeth stood out like broken glass.

The Captain turned the gaff hook over in his hands and held it out, wooden end first, towards the form. The blue fingers stretched and wrapped themselves around the wood. There was strength in the grip. The eyes continued to hold his gaze. The blood began to pool near the top of its tail. The Captain stood, legs glued to the deck of the bobbing seiner.

It let go of the gaff. Slowly, the other men approached and formed a circle around it.

‘Captain?’ asked the senior deckhand. His voice sounded as though it had been cracked in half and taped back together.

‘I don’t know,’ said the Captain.

Then it lunged. The bony hands found the deck chief’s ankle and yanked the man off his feet. His skull struck the body of a sockeye and the breath exploded from his body. Jagged teeth pierced the fabric and buried itself in the chief’s flesh. The Captain bellowed and brought the gaff handle down hard on the tail, but the form refused to let go. The senior deckhand dropped to his knees and tried to prise its jaw apart. The tail thudded against the wooden boards.

Before the Captain could strike it again, the inbreaker dived past him and drove the orange-handled spike again and again into the back of its neck. The form trembled and its eyes froze solid. The tail stopped moving. The senior deckhand opened the jaws and the chief pulled his mangled ankle free with a cry. The Captain dragged him across the deck to the drum and told the chief to press down on the wound.

‘Help me,’ called the inbreaker. He and the senior deckhand cut the net off the roller and wrapped it around the body as best they could. Then the inbreaker grabbed the wrists. The deckhand took the tail. They lifted it to the edge of the seiner.

There was a splash. The two deckhands looked over the side before sinking to the floor. The chief moaned and clutched at his ankle. The Captain stared at the roller and the tattered remains of the seine.

And the men were alone.

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