A hard bite on Shadow’s line, then his hand reel began to spin and the nylon skipped out of his grasp.
“Grab it,” Shadow’s father growled, not quite meanly, just a direction for his son to follow.
Shadow lunged for the reel and let the line run across his finger, so fast it cut a furrow through the skin. He managed to get a brake on the fish and felt it fighting against him, down deep in the hole they were fishing.
He listened for his dad – busy sorting out a trace. He wouldn’t interfere while Shadow had things under control.
It wasn’t often that Shadow was allowed to come fishing at night – only in summer when the water slipped through the harbour like mercury. Stars fell into the ocean and reformed themselves beneath the boat. Matiu Island loomed at the edge of sight. His dad never fished a full moon, and tonight it was a fingernail in the sky. This was more like fishing in space, with the slow-running current tugging them off anchor and away from earth.
Shadow began to pull the line in hand over hand. He couldn’t get a decent grip and pulled his shirt down over his fingers. The line kept curling and catching and he lost precious seconds untangling it. It was a big fish. He hoped for a snapper or even a kingfish. He pushed back his sleeves. But the fish was heavy and Shadow felt he was in trouble – that the fish would run and snap the nylon or that the line would go slack and the fish would come free of the hook.
“It’s hard,” he said, “the line’s slippery.” But his dad hadn’t asked a question.
All around them phosphorescent threads of plankton drifted on the tide. Shadow felt for the fish, tried to follow its fight underneath the boat. He wanted his dad to take over but he could not come out and ask. Tears threatened and he tried to work out if it would be worse to admit defeat or to lose the fish. It really was a big fish.
Then it went dead on the line, maybe it was swimming directly down. But without the sideways fighting it was easier to drag it back in. He hadn’t lost the fish. It was stuck properly on the hook. He looked up at his father, who grinned.
“Here, fishy fishy,” his dad crooned, “Here fishy.” They saw the huge streak in the water at the same time. His dad reached for the gaff, even though normally they pulled the flailing fish over the sides and stuck them in the brain with a chisel.
“What is it, dad?” Shadow asked, voice full of wonder.
His father changed his mind and dropped the gaff back into the metal hull with a clang. He reached over and took the fish by its jaw, pulling it free of the water and holding it high above the boat so Shadow could see a giant false eye staring at him from the fish’s side. Alien spines extended from its head. It hung off his dad’s hand like a concertina, the mouth enormous and extended, like the whole thing might rip from its own lips.
“John Dory,” his dad said. “It’s a monster, Shadow,” and he let the fish down in the hull so they could look at it properly. He was laughing, and it was a relief, and Shadow was laughing too. He’d never seen a John Dory up close – only studied them on his Fish of New Zealand poster. It looked weirder in real life, and then it started grunting, a low bark that seemed to Shadow to be so funny, a dog’s bark coming from a monster fish he himself had caught, and he got the giggles and soon enough he was laughing out of control.
In the cramped dinghy, he let his foot down too close to the fish and caught it on one of the long spines. Blood sprang across his instep and sprayed into the hull, mingling with the fish blood and the bait. Shadow cried out.
“Don’t be stupid,” his Dad growled, really mean this time.
The boy held his foot tightly and felt dizzy. He shifted to dangle his legs over the edge of the boat. It was precarious but he could wash the blood off in the salt water. It stung. He didn’t want to sulk but didn’t know how to recover. His dad was already over it, and would tell the story of Shadow’s fish later with great delight, as if nothing hard had happened on the water.
Shadow’s first John Dory was still grunting in the hull.
Michaela is a white writer who grew up in Melbourne and now lives in Porirua. She has a children’s book about defying unjust authority coming out with Gecko Press in early 2022. Her poetry chapbook “intertidal” was published by the collective Anemone Press in October 2020.