Catfish swim in a circle.
They glide under the surface of the murky water, they gobble up mud, they exhale bubbles. Their slick bodies catch sunlight, reflect it like a diamond or a star. His grandpa used to tell him catfish were man-eaters. When he was a teenager, when he had friends who liked to smoke cigars and set fire to their sister’s baby dolls after their use was worn out. He would bring scraps of meat from the previous night’s supper to the lake. See how long it took the fish to eat.
A pack of wild boys on the muddy bank with their cheap lighters and their Metallica t-shirts watching catfish eat day old pork chop fat with the scent of burnt plastic in the air. They talked about how they wished they could manage a beer without driving over to the next county because back then Bony Mountain was dry and about how everyone had a crush on Stella, a petite brunette who went to the same high school.
After a while the fish grew expectant, they would skim against the surface hungrily when they saw his long reflection on the water. His grandpa said in some places catfish got so big they could swallow a man whole, they could strip the flesh right off bones. He would tell these facts to his friends and they would laugh, they would say “some grandpa” or “fish can’t eat people, stupid, it’s the other way ‘round” but he kept believing in those fish. Sometimes he felt like their disciple.
The lake was oddly shaped and small. No one came here to fish anymore now that he’s older and doesn’t have friends. The catfish have grown strong and plentiful, like Abraham and the children of Israel. That was a story from Sunday school when he was a child, sitting in the pew with its backrest solid as stone watching Stella two rows up front with her friends. Sometimes he traced the crosses carved out at each end with his little finger while the preacher man droned on about fishes, about water, about salvation.
Do catfish ever pray to God?
No, he thinks, they are their own gods in the lake and he would continue his mission to tell others about their holy powers. Treat as “unclean” all the creatures in the oceans or streams that do not have fins and scales and the catfish lives on. They serve a higher purpose. He kept this revelation in his heart through four years of graphic design school and a job in San Diego making cartoons for a car insurance company until he came home. Until he was back at the lake on a sunny spring morning with Stella. They weren’t kids anymore, after all. She was still petite and her eyes were still lagoons set deep into her face but he was different than the boy she used to know. He wore shirts with buttons now, he had shiny shoes, and a cellphone.
“How long has it been?” Stella said.
“Oh, a lifetime.”
Stella in a red dress with cap sleeves, sitting on a blanket by the lake. He never thought this moment would come and now he doesn’t know what to do with it. He smiles and he makes jokes and he looks out at the lake like a love rediscovered. There is sweat on his upper lip and she touches his shoulder, so delicate and pale and small. Not a mouthful, he thinks, but enough.
Twinkle, twinkle her mother sang to her when she was little but it has been a long time since lullabies. Her life had felt so big at times, like it was breathing on its own. Expanding out, forward, always reaching. But now it was no bigger than the lake, a small dot of water on a planet made up of oceans. Stella felt warm all over, like the universe was opening to her in a lazy yawn and she was sliding gently into its mouth. No teeth, just the slippery wetness of a gums.
He watches the bugs on the water, they jump and skim to escape the hungry fish. They don’t know it yet, but their lives mean nothing. Their deaths mean even less. Catfish gather like a swarm of wasps, flick water with their tails, chew the soft skin and shy away from the blood. He thinks about the scraps he used to bring when he was kid, tossing them out onto the water and watching the frenzied bubbles. When he would come and bring his sacrifice. They are more calculating now, when they part the lace of her dress with their fins and flat faces, squirming over and between her thighs. They nest in the ribbons of her dark hair. They use it like lake grass to hide themselves from their prey.
They eat and consume and all things fear them. But she doesn’t fear them, even when their whiskers tickle her cheek or their slimy lips press against her eyeballs and the moment is so fueled with passion there are tears in his eyes. He watches them slide against the bruised expanse of her arms, the broken length of her neck. Their mouths bite at her fingertips, their bodies shimmy with effort as they try to rip her nails up from their beds.
Catfish swim in circles, lazy as the afternoon sunlight. He sits above the water, on the tailgate of his pick-up truck smoking one last cigarette. Watching the water ripple. They seem frantic as they search her body. Splashes and crashes. Beady eyes that blink up at him when he leans over the bank. He flicks ash onto the ground. Maybe there will be nothing left of her when they finish but the bones floating like driftwood, popping like buoys to the surface.