Creative Writing Ink August Winning Entry

The Mermaid and the Fisherman

Wilson F. Engel, III

Once there was a fisherman whose ability to catch fish was so remarkable that both a profound critic of the sport and a relative said that the fisherman could catch fish where no fish existed. The fisherman’s mother-in-law had always said that if the fisherman decided to turn professional, he would soon become rich from the prizes he might win. Indeed, a very few fishermen survived as professionals, though those who did made their calling lucrative beyond normal expectations. The fisherman’s wife, knowing that her husband loved nothing better than fishing all day, encouraged the fisherman to try fishing as a profession.

So the fisherman quit his hated day job, formed a limited liability company, and began entering fishing competitions. Within two months, the fisherman was fishing all over the world, from the lakes and rivers of Scotland to the Congo and Amazon river basins, from offshore oceanic zones off Cabo in Baja California to the rip-tide environments off Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. Everywhere the fisherman set his lines, he landed the biggest fish and the largest catch of any competitor. Within four months, his picture graced the cover of three top fishing magazines, and interviewers flocked to his home or to his latest contest site. He had a following on Twitter, pages on Linkedin, Xing and Facebook, and his own personal web site with blogs describing his equipment and methods.

Within nine months of his startup, he had to hire a young asssitant to do his back office work and help him write his blogs, an accountant to manage his winnings and accounts, and a publicist who made sure that the right messaging went out to the masses. In addition to making the rounds of the specialty fishing channel programs, the fisherman appeared on CNN and CNBC. He had broken all records for a single angler in the competitive fishing field. The fisherman’s mother-in-law and wife were simply astounded at his success. They took credit for having encouraged the fisherman to follow his true calling. They also bought extra freezer space to contain the trophy fish that were not going to be mounted for display.

The fisherman was now on the road almost continuously. He criss-crossed the globe and fished from pole to pole. He became a wonder, if not a freak because he began to catch very strange and marvelous fish. For example, the fisherman landed an 800-pound hake in the Bering Sea. Then off Cuba he caught the largest marlin on record at 750 pounds. In a competition focusing on the lakes of the Hebrides, he caught a sixty-inch button-lipped brown trout. Now he had the attention of the greatest living fishermen, and they were not at all pleased to see the neophyte taking all the trophies, cash awards, and prize fish. They went all in, pursuing his exploits with vengeance. They suspected he had tricks that provided him an unfair advantage. His luck was far too good to be merely human.

The fisherman felt the pressure of envy, jealousy and spite, so he scheduled programming in which he demonstrated the virtues of his method. He would stand on the end of a peer sticking out over a hideous mud flat with barely enough water cover to quell the stench. There he would make a cast or two, and he would reel in a monster fish that had never been seen in those waters or any other waters. He pulled in a channel catfish so large that it slided over the bottom all the way to the pier. After he landed that fish, he told how his ten-pound line could tackle fish that were well over a quarter of a ton in weight.

The fisherman asked his detractors to accompany him on expeditions and to use bait like his or their own bait. Now he fished in what were touted as the impossibles. No fish could be caught in waters boiling because of geothermal currents, or so everyone said. The fisherman pulled from waters in a crater of an active volcano a fish that broke the scales. The provenance and lineage of this fish, named Proteanensis Pescis after the fisherman, are still debated among academicians and scholars. The fisherman hooked a blue whale that might have weighed well over 150 tons near the Arctic ice cap, but he cut the line and let the behemoth swim back into the frigid depths rather than violate the spirit of his quest. Whenever he caught a fish whose size or identity proved challenging, he brought it close enough for the record, then released the fish again. The fisherman was now changing the rules of the competitive games. Catch and release became mandatory for certain classes and sizes of fish.

At home the fisherman’s mother-in-law and wife had rented an old Moose Lodge Hall to house the trophy fish. They had rented an entire suite of fish lockers at the local market to freeze the catch. Their eyes watered when they saw the accountant’s records of the fisherman’s quarterly earnings. The fisherman did not even bother to count his winnings anymore. His CDs and fishing paraphernalia were now being sold in Walmart and Kmart and on QVC. Women wore jeweled broaches and necklaces with images of the new fish he had landed. Grizzled old geezer fishermen and wrinkled granny fisherwomen all ran out to buy the fishing gear, boats and insect repellants that he had deigned to endorse. Apple named a fish finder after him. Shakespeare put out an entire line of poles and reels with the fisherman’s name in his own signature.

Everything was entirely too good to be true. Three investigative reporters now made it their missions in life to debunk and dethrone the fisherman. They were secretly funded by his competitors. No matter how closely they looked at the fisherman’s life, they could find no fault with the man or his methods. In fact, the more they looked and found nothing wrong, the more they became believers themselves. One of the most critical among them finally wrote the story that changed the game. It was titled “The Paul Bunyan of Fishermen,” and it placed the fisherman above mortals into the realm of American fables. The investigator-turned-adulator wrote of the John Henry of fishermen, and his follow-on article was entitled, “The Young Man and the Sea.” After that story, the reporter became the fisherman’s constant companion and caddy. He blogged constantly about the fisherman’s every move. His insights were the more startling because they were so dead-pan and factual. The reporter was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his reportage on the fisherman.

The fisherman’s mother-in-law and wife were pleased but somewhat concerned because the fisherman was only rarely able to visit home. It is true that he skyped at least once a week, and the reporter’s accounts could be followed daily. Yet the fisherman’s wife was becoming lonely. The fisherman’s mother-in-law was concerned that her daughter was feeling blue on most days, even more than she had been when her husband had been working his hated 8-to-5 job as what she called “a drone in a morgue.” She had seen her dream fulfilled in her husband’s success, but she had, in effect, lost her husband. It helped that she had the money and the food that came from the fisherman’s exploits. If she wanted to see her husband, she only had to turn on the Direct TV. When she tried to telephone her husband, she discovered that the reporter had become her husband’s executive assistant. She had to work hard to get her husband on the phone. Often she was asked to leave a message. The fisherman responded by text message or in the next skype. It was a good thing that the fisherman’s children had all grown up to self-sufficiency.

The mother-in-law and wife had a conference one day. They decided they would confront the fisherman about their never seeing much of him anymore. They would make demands. He would have to make time for his wife, or she would leave him. The fisherman used the monthly skype as a mediation. Reasonably, he argued, if he should stop his momentum, he would lose everything he had gained. His wife had become accustomed to having the lifestyle that his earnings had afforded her. If his work stopped, all their debts would become due, and it would bring them back to where they were before. He said unequivocally that he would not return to work at the morgue. The women saw the wisdom of his continuing to do what his calling required. She sadly realized that she would probably see her husband only once a year, if that, for the rest of her life—or as long as his dramatic career lasted. After long discussions with her mother, the fisherman’s wife decided on separation, then divorce. She would take half of what her husband had made up to that point, and she and her mother would live on that. The fisherman could go wherever he liked and do what he liked. Let someone else find another Moose Lodge for his trophies. Let someone else find a freezer to stock his fish.

The fisherman, now freed of ties to his wife, redoubled his efforts at his business. His lawyer handled the divorce and settlement. Somehow the fisherman’s luck did not diminish. Instead, it grew into something no one could have anticipated. Where he had formerly fished in individual competitions, he branched out into commercial fishing. His prowess in landing the biggest fish now extended to reaping unbelievable catches of ground fish or bonita or shark or squid or octopus or lobster. He created whole new lines of fish products. His image transformed from the picture taken for the article “Young Man of the Sea” and became the image associated with Hemingway’s novel. He was seen by the masses as a lone fisherman braving the wild and relentless sea to harvest the catch that would feed multitudes.

His executive assistant continued to file blogs through all this mighty ascent. He was present when the fisherman and his representatives went to cut a thirty-year deal for fish products with the ministry of the Peoples Republic of China. He was present when the fisherman and his representatives made fish hatchery a priority among the Mercosur nations. He recorded the intricate agreements for aquatic exchanges between the Eurozone nations and the Russian Federation. The fisherman negotiated the fishery agreements for the Polar regions. The executive assistant recorded the fisherman’s first use of Jesus’ commandment, “Feed my sheep!” The fisherman alluded nearly every time he spoke to the New Testament parable of the loaves and fishes. For the record, the harvests caused by the fisherman were of such magnitude that all the statistics about the bounty of the seas had to be rewritten. Wherever the fisherman went, the waters simply boiled with fish or crab or squid. The Black Sea and Sea of Azov became the Tuna Seas. The Great Salt Lake became the Mullet Sea. The Chesapeake Bay became the Blue Crab Bay in a revival that stumped all the experts. Now the question was not whether fish could be found but whether the fisherman could be lured to find the fish that were surely there already.

The fisherman’s competition all fell by the wayside. They could revert to their working small streams or deep lakes or river estuaries. They could compete among themselves. The fisherman had gone beyond them all to a greater calling. He was feeding the world. Now his competition were the gigantic fishing concerns, who all wanted to reap what he had sown, and the pork, chicken and beef combines. Before long, he was embroiled with the grain combines too. How much fish, the competition asked, did the world really need? Did we gain or lose by having seas and rivers, streams and creeks, stuffed with fish as they had once been when Westerners first came to the New World. The fisherman had brought back the bounty around the world. He had overcome a reversal that everyone hailed as irreversible. He had performed a miracle.

The environmentalists argued the urgent necessity to stop the fisherman. They raised the alarm about contaminants. Mercury, selenium, radionuclides—what horrors did the fish stocks NOT include? International and national regulators entered the fray to denounce fish as a food and to encourage the populace to eat every protein besides fish. The fisherman, with a broad smile, asked the experts to provide proofs for their claims. He took to global, multi-lingual broadcasts to challenge the regulators. He called for studies. He arranged, through his lawyers, for estoppels. He made countercharges that each of the protein substitutes had major problems that their advocates had buried but were far more harmful than those for fish. For example, hoof and mouth, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and HN1. A worldwide panic about the protein stocks ensued. A warrant was issued by the ICC for the fisherman’s arrest. Then the fisherman simply disappeared. He disappeared not for a day or a week or a month.

The fisherman’s executive assistant was at first frantic, then resigned. The fisherman’s former wife and former mother-in-law were amazed, but they nodded to each other as if to say, we thought something like this would happen. International lawyers and national lawyers began their earnest work to call all the fisherman’s loans. The fisherman’s empire literally collapsed within two months. The fisherman was presumed to have died. How he died was not a pressing concern. In the feeding frenzy after the fisherman’s disappearance, the world tore apart every vestige of the fisherman’s presence. His name and logo disappeared from the public eye. All that remained was a story, which dimmed each day until it became as insubstantial as a dream.

The executive assistant had amassed enough money through his frugality during the gravy years to fund his final quest, which was to locate the fisherman and learn the story of his disappearance. But he never found the fisherman though he followed rumors of the fisherman’s appearance in Kazakhstan or Venezuela or Malaysia. Always a step ahead, the fisherman eluded him.

The fisherman’s wife and mother-in-law suffered the indignity of the Government’s seizure of all their wealth and possessions. Nothing is as vengeful as a Government whose policies have proven ineffectual. The women rued the day that they had suggested that the fisherman should follow his calling and his dream. A year after they had received word of eviction from their home, they received in the mail a box of frozen fish from a small seafood concern in Casco, Maine. They were very grateful for the gift, but they did not have any idea who had sent it. They called the sender, but he had no idea either. On the same day each year, they received another box of frozen fish from the same sender. No note was sent with any shipment. And finally, the shipments stopped altogether. The women reasoned that whoever sent the packages must have died.

The executive assistant, having interviewed the wife one last time, found out about the packages from Casco. He went to Maine to investigate. He followed the trail from the seafood concern to the source of the orders, which was a small company on the Maine coast. The company was called simply The Mermaid, Ocean Products. The proprietor was a woman in her early fifties, a stunner in her time, perhaps, and still beautiful with intelligent eyes. She seemed to recognize the executive assistant when he stepped through her door.

“I suppose you are looking for the man they call the Fisherman,” she said. “He stopped by here many years ago with hard cash and a request for me to send a package every year to an address he gave me. He said to take a small amount of cash for myself and then to use the rest of the money for the packages and shipping until the money ran out. Well, the money did run out. I fulfilled my end of the bargain, I reckon. Since nothing was ever written down, you would have to say that the gifts were mine alone. I have no idea where the Fisherman came from or where he went.”

The executive assistant saw on the peg board back of the cash register a small framed picture of a very young version of the fisherman. The fisherman was holding a fish only as long as your little finger. Under the picture in the fisherman’s own hand was scrawled, “No matter how small, you should be proud of any fish.” The woman smiled at the executive assistant and said, “That Fisherman had a way with words, did he not?”