The woman was reading on the beach, or more accurately she was blocking the blinding sun with her paperback and having a hard time getting comfortable. The beach towel, now all gritty with tousled sand, bunched awkwardly in her lower back. Leisure made her antsy. To be alone made her antsy. She knew this about herself, and still she pursued it. Self-care and all that. She rubbed the cool metal of her can of Arizona sweet tea across her forehead.
A blessed, but ragged shadow fell over her. And then she saw him and saw through him.
Do you have any worms? he asked. The sun backlit the man so the woman couldn’t make out any of his features, but the outline was all wrong, and there were holes. They work better if they’re alive, he said.
The woman thought that was a tiny, profound thing to say, if a bit sad, and his voice was that particular kind of deep and soft that she wanted to hear say tiny, profound things.
She scooted up so she was sitting and saw that the man speaking to her was made out of hooks. It wasn’t that he been pierced with hooks, or that he had been tattooed with hooks. He was made of hooks. He was hooks. Small dainty hooks bunched together like imploring eyebrows above his sparkling silver hook eyes. Large parts of him were rusted, but not his eyes.
I’m sorry, she said, I don’t have any worms but there was a little bait and tackle stand a couple hundred yards that way. She pointed up the beach to her right, beyond the children tormenting a tiny sand crab and the old folks slowly baking. He looked dismayed, nodded once in thanks and walked off in the opposite direction, leaving a beautiful pattern, like windswept clouds, in the sand.
She tried to go back to her book and realized she was still just scanning the pages, retaining nothing. She had been for some time, even before the man stopped by, but now she had a reason to be distracted. She wondered if he wanted put the worms on bits of himself, but what could he be hoping to catch? She pictured him with worms dangling and squirming all over, like a brand-new pink wriggling skin, and as he walked into the surf dozens of billfish leaped and skewered themselves upon him. It was a ridiculous image, and the woman rolled over onto her stomach and tried to focus on the meaning of each word right before her eyes.
What kind of life could that poor man have, she wondered, setting the book down and fully giving in. People probably only looked at him like a collection of instruments, a thing made for one use. But what if he didn’t want that purpose? What if he didn’t like to fish? She guessed that he would almost certainly not want to be used to fish. What would it be like to only be seen as a means to some mundane and unnecessary end?
She picked up her towel and ran off down the beach.
She bought every worm the little stand had, and she bought the minnows, the Ghost Shrimp, the Sand Fleas, she bought it all. It smelled terrible, but she didn’t care. The bait was all stored in white Styrofoam containers with opaque plastic lids that she couldn’t quite see through. They stacked up in her arms and made movement slow, but she went back down the beach after him.
The afternoon turned to dusk and the beach began to clear out. The swooping lace of his tracks led her on, but her arms soon grew heavy beneath all the squirming fish food. His tracks disappeared at an outcropping of rocks that jutted out into the sea. And there he was, at the farthest point, sitting and looking out across the wind-ruffled water. She imagined him walking back in at night and saw sparks thrown with his every step.
She hurried up to him, but once she arrived she found herself unable to express all that was running through her mind. Here. And she pressed the containers at him. He caught most in reaction, though several toppled and spilled their contents on the still warm rocks. One container stuck to his arm where a cluster of hooks had pierced it.
His silver hook eyes shone wetly, she thought, or maybe they always had that polished metal gleam. She realized then that she didn’t know him. And they were alone on a secluded part of the beach. She took a step backwards and tripped, but she didn’t fall. He didn’t reach to steady her, and while she was grateful in the moment, later she would wonder what that would have been like, if it would have been worth it.
He stood up and popped the top off every container, one after the other, and then, almost ritualistically, dumped the writhing contents over his head. A shrimp or two and several worms fell into the water, but the majority stuck, pierced. Soon, he stood before her nearly unrecognizable from the man he had just been. She wondered briefly which form he preferred, if, when he thought of himself, he saw a man made of hooks or this baited thing before her now. Or perhaps he saw something else altogether.
She waited for him to walk into the water, or maybe jump, but he didn’t. He just spread his arms like he was trying to embrace the horizon. After all the birds came and carried him off into the sky, she realized maybe he was.
She sat down, letting dusk turn to night, and night to daybreak. She wondered what this new feeling was that had settled upon her and threatened to carry her away. But it didn’t carry her away. She was herself, and she was alone. And the sun was rising.
Evan James Sheldon's work has appeared most recently in Barren, Fictive Dream, Gone Lawn, and Typehouse. He is a Senior Editor for F(r)iction and the Editorial Coordinator for Brink Literacy Project. You can find him online at evanjamessheldon.com. Image: Fisherman on the Laita, Paul Serusier, 1890