The Last Codfish

JD McNeill

Henry Holt and Co.

The Last Codfish
TUT ROLLED THE NOTE into a thin tube and stuffed it inside the wine bottle. Then pounded in the cork with the palm of his hand. He was alone on the wide rock at the end of Sutter's Point. The wind came off the ocean hard and cold, roaring in his ears, drowning the sounds of the waves below. He turned like a discus thrower. When he neared the edge of the rock, he let go of the bottle. It seemed to hang for just a moment at the highest point of the arc and then fell, dark and sparkling, into the gray water.
The tide was going out. Most of the fishermen had already come in. But there was still no sign of his father's boat. The worry of it gnawed at his insides.
Tut shaded his eyes with his hand, trying hard to see what wasn't there. Mr. White had told him once that worrying didn't do a lick of good. But right now worryseemed to be the best-possible option to Tut. It prepared him for what might be hiding, just out of sight.
"Hi!" a girl's voice came from behind him. It was the new girl who had moved into town a few weeks ago. She was dressed in thick-soled sneakers, jeans, and an oversized sweatshirt. Tut's grandmother, Esta, would have taken one look at her and said, "She's from away."
"My name is Alex," she said, holding out her hand to him. He had no idea what to do with that, so he turned back to the sea. The water was the same color as Alex's eyes. Her hair was like the dark seaweed that floated in the waves. Tut bit his lower lip. The taste of salt reminded him of how hungry he was.
"They say you don't talk," Alex said, sitting down beside him. "Is it because you can't or because you won't?"
Tut wished there was some way to jump off Sutter's Point without breaking both legs.
"I love to talk. People are always telling me I talk too much. When I heard that you hadn't said a word in years, I thought maybe we could be friends. If I love to talk and you can't, what could be more perfect than that?"
Death by fire ants? was the first thing that came to Tut's mind. He kept his hands still, resisting the urge tosign the words. Across the channel a wide band of wet stones showed how low the tide was getting. In another hour the channel would be too shallow for a boat the size of his father's to come in safely. The current beyond the islands would be roaring now. If his father came up from the south, he'd be okay ... . Every once in a while his father stayed out all night. Tut never knew when one of those nights would be.
"How did you lose your voice?" Alex's words drew him back. "Our landlord said you talked when you were little. Here," she said, and held out a pad of paper and a stubby pencil. "I always carry paper with me. I hate it when I think of words that are just right and later when I try to remember them, they're lost. If you write, then we'll be able to communicate."
Tut hadn't spoken since his mother died. From that moment words stopped for him and he couldn't seem to get them started again. He'd learned to trust silence.
He looked out again to the open sea. That was what he was used to, the sounds of sea and wind, and waiting for his father to come home. There was a small gray dot coming from the south. He willed it to be his dad. Alex's arm brushed his. He didn't want to, but he looked at her. The wind blew her hair back from her face and she smiled into it.
"What are you looking for?" she asked. Their eyes locked until Tut couldn't stand it anymore. He looked back out. It was his father's boat. He started running toward the harbor. It felt good to be moving away from her, up the thin trail of sand that cut through the heavy sea grass. He ran hard, all the time hoping she wasn't behind him. One more dash and he was up over the side of the bank and the harbor spread out in front of him like a painting.
The long pier stood high above the low water. Gulls flew in loose circles above the boats. The flash of red and orange, yellow and green, on the different boats brought names to Tut's mind. The MacGregors, Wheelers, Nathan Briggs, and the others. Tut thought of their faces as he emptied the sand from his shoes.
Over the roof of the fish market he could see the white shape of the Merry Anna II coming in much too fast. Her wake made the moored boats bob up and down against their ropes. Tut worried that they'd break. Someday the harbormaster would fine him. Tut knew the man turned his back out of pity. Everyone pitied Winston Tuttle, especially Winston Tuttle himself.
Tut ran quickly over the gravel parking lot. His feet sounded like a drum on the gray dock boards. The boat's motor shifted to reverse to slow her down. Theengine was cut and she glided silently up to the side of the dock. His father threw Tut the bow line without a word. He caught it and tied it secure. He tied the stern line too, then jumped down onto the deck to help with the catch. The air smelled of exhaust, fish, and whiskey.
"Did ya ever see such a pitiful catch in yer life, Tut?" his father moaned as Tut pulled the fish from the hold. "Look at that scrawny bluefish. Whose going ta buy that? And that codfish, Tut, it's the size of a sardine, fer cryin' out loud! Who in hell's going to want a cod like that?" His father's black hair curled around the edges of his hat. His wide shoulders filled the jacket he wore, but the bottom of it hung loose. He didn't eat right and Tut worried about that too.
Tut had to get the fish to the market. He used the crane to lift it up onto the dock, then pushed it over the worn planks. The boat's motor droned as it moved to the mooring. Tut hoped his dad would be careful.
"Kept open just for you, Tut," Mr. White bellowed from the far end of the building. He walked like he was moving down the rolling deck of a ship instead of the flat wooden floor. "Why, look at that," he said. "You know I haven't seen a decent cod in three weeks. This one here's perfect eatin' size."
Tut watched the man's big hands. Mr. White put hisfinger on the scale so that the fish weighed more. Tut's face burned with shame. He knew that Mr. White did that often. When he was done weighing the fish, he gave a handful of bills to Tut.
It amazed Tut how his father could hardly walk but could jump from the big boat into the skiff night after night and not fall into the sea and drown. When he got to shore, he threw his arm over Tut's shoulders and they headed for the marsh path. Tut saw Mr. White turn off the lights in the market, then stand in the dark door, watching them as they walked past.
Copyright © 2005 by Joyce Darling McNeill