A work of fiction in which a peculiar phenomenon comes to light in a seemingly ordinary town (Or does it?)…
by: Hannah Love
I take Rex on a walk around the high school baseball field every morning. As soon as my alarm beeps, he’s up, pushing his cold nose into my hand, whining and twirling, fanning my face with his feathery grey tail. I stretch and dress, and then we are out the door and strolling through the damp dawn. The cold always shocks me; I stiffen when I step outside. Our routine gets easier as the year ages. We are well into spring now, so there is always light, and today, there is sun. Red and orange blooms burst from the ground. The trees drip with flowers. Petals tile the sidewalk in a mosaic of pinks and creams. Sweet cherry and vanilla drift past us as we walk along.
When we reach the field, I let Rex off leash and follow behind slowly. I watch as he roots in the grass and stuffs his snout into gopher holes. He trots to the stand of trees lining the edge of the park and lifts his leg. Two ospreys glide through the endless blue above us, chirping at each other. I visor my eyes with my hand and squint at them. The male carries a large stick in his talons, a gnarled, bony thing with a pronged end. The female circles him playfully, her whistles building in intensity like a tea kettle about to boil over.
The grass is wet, and my tennis shoes are soaked through. My feet squish with each step. I look to the ground and focus on bringing my knees up high like a runner to avoid collecting more water. The sunlight bounces off the dewy grass, magnifying each blade in blinding shimmers. I’m about to put my foot down again when I notice a fish head beneath me. The grass around the head is tamped down, and a few daisies halo it almost decoratively.
That’s odd, I think. It’s just the head. One of the ospreys could have dropped it, but it is cut in a perfect triangle with a precise, almost surgical edge. Its bluish-grey scales refract the morning light like a hologram. It doesn’t seem real. It’s on its side, but the eye I can see is wide and glassy. Its lips are puckered as if it was in mid-sentence when it died. With my leg still raised, I pause and consider using a dog bag to clean it up. I put my foot down and look to the sky. The birds are gone.
“Come on, Rex,” I call, clapping my hands. I don’t want him to eat the fish.
He bounds towards me, front and back legs working in the kind of raw athleticism only dogs can conjure, and jumps over the severed head, completely ignoring it.
When I get home, I start my workday and wonder about the fish. I should have cleaned it up, I think. What if a kid steps on it? Baseball season starts tomorrow. I can’t stop worrying. As I do dishes that evening, I recall its pursed lips. Its shiny eye. The clean edge of its neck. There’s no way a bird did that.
The next morning, I wake before my alarm. Rex is still sleeping. I get out of bed and pull a jacket on.
“Come on, boy, time to get up.”
I hook him to the leash and step outside. The sky is a concrete slab speckled with dark clouds. The thick morning air buzzes with the promise of a storm. I take the sidewalk briskly, pulling Rex along behind me. When we get to the field, I let him off and jog toward where I found the fish. The ospreys are back, screaming and diving through the silver clouds.
I find the head where I left it yesterday. It is drier today; yesterday’s sun peeled its skin back from its bones. A rotting stench rises from it and prickles my nose. This is a public health hazard, I think. I dig through my pockets for a dog bag, but they’re empty. I left in such a rush I forgot to stuff a new roll into my coat before I left the house. I promise to come back after work and turn toward home when I see two more fish heads a few yards away.
Like the one from yesterday, both heads are sliced in perfect triangles, surrounded by daisies. The heads face each other, lips almost touching as if they were about to kiss. What the fuck. A scream rips through the air. I jump and look up. Both ospreys are bombing through the sky, wings out wide, mouths open, voices pulsing like an alarm.
“Rex! Let’s go,” I yell. My hands shake as I leash him.
At home, I start my workday but can’t focus. I look at the clock every fifteen minutes, tapping my fingers on my desk, waiting for five. At 4:59, I slam my laptop shut and stuff my pocket with dog bags and disposable plastic gloves. I leave the house without Rex and run to the park.
When I get there, the field swarms with ten-year-olds in baseball hats and cleats. Parents in camp chairs border the game. The ospreys circle above, and their screeches mix with the referee’s whistle in a shrill frenzy. My ears ring.
I step onto the grass and gag. The stench of flesh and sea is overpowering. A grid of fish heads spans the entire park in neat rows and columns. I have to stand on my tiptoes and jump from foot to foot to avoid stepping on them. What the fuck. What the fuck!
I bounce forward, making my way to the game, waving my arms.
“Stop the game! Stop the game!” I yell. “There’s a problem! Stop the game!”
As I get closer, some of the adults glance up at me, eyebrows roped in confused amusement. A man wearing a bucket hat with an embroidered trout in the center covers his mouth, trying to conceal his laughter. Fish hooks hang from the rim of his cap and swing back and forth as his shoulders shake in silent chuckles. Other parents don’t seem to notice me and stare blankly ahead. I scan the line of people. Some stuff their faces with popcorn, others take swigs from water bottles. They’re all sitting calmly, pressing their weight into chairs whose plastic legs spear the heads beneath them like kebabs ready for the grill.
“Don’t you people see?” I scream.
An overweight woman shushes me angrily and jabs her finger at the game.
The baseball diamond is a goopy mess of flesh and bone and dirt. Smears of red spread up the kids’ white baseball pants; their shoes are caked in ruddy mud. The game rattles on in the usual whistles and calps and clinks of a metal bat striking leather like nothing is wrong. A kid hits a homerun and skids through half an inch of muck as he slides back to first base.
I clench my fists and stomp to the center of the field. “Stop the game!” I yell.
“Hey lady, what’s your problem?” the referee says, thrusting his hands in the air.
“What’s my problem?” I gasp. “All these fish are my problem! They’re everywhere!”
“Lady, we’ve got a game going here. Get off the field!”
A heavy raindrop lands on my nose, and I look at the sky. Distant thunder tumbles from the south. The ospreys swoop down to the grass like they’re going to pick up the fish but pull up at the last minute, abandoning them.
I dig my heels into the dirt and cross my arms. “I’m not leaving until these fish get cleaned up! I’m going to call the police!”
The man in the trout hat cups his hands around his mouth and boos. The other parents join him, and then the kids do too.
“Get off the field!” the crowd chants in unison.
The overweight woman grabs a fistful of popcorn and throws it at me. Then I’m pelted with a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich and banana peels, and empty juice boxes. A few of the men stand up from their chairs. I step backward, keeping my eyes on them. Fuck. I put my hands up and continue backing away slowly. The men sit down.
The rain picks up to a torrent, the wrath of God type, but the kids keep swinging the bat, and the parents clap, and the referee blows his whistle, and the ospreys circle above it all, screeching and screaming and screeching and screaming.
Water comes down so hard the fish slide from the field into the street. As I shuffle home, I notice more heads scattered along the sidewalk, nestled in bushes, among the tulips. The gutters are full of fish. The rain gathers them into a stream, and wide glassy eyes stare at me as they slip into the sewers.
I lock the door behind me when I get through the front door and sink to my haunches. I rub my temples; my fingers stink of rot. Rex trots over to me and whimpers, licking my cheeks. I bury my face in his soft fur and shiver, starting to chill from the rain. I get up and turn on the shower. Suddenly I am impossibly tired. I peel my wet clothes off and leave them on the floor. Shaking, I wash the fish and food and rain off me. I crawl into bed without drying off.
My alarm wakes me in the morning. I open my eyes to see Rex stretch and yawn. I dress quickly and grab his leash. Sunlight gleams down through the trees as we walk to the park — another crisp, blue day. I pick up the pace, tugging us toward the field.
When we get there, I let Rex loose and scour the grass. No fish. I drop to my knees; the ground soaks my jeans. I dig through the daisies, scooping mud under my nails as I search. No fish. I crawl forward, running my fingers through the blades. No fish. The earth is clean. My chest tightens. I stand and spin around, pulling at my hair. Panic climbs up my throat. I look up to a quiet sky; the ospreys are gone. I scream and scream and scream.
Hannah Love is a woman with a laptop from Portland, Oregon. When she is not working, she is practicing creative writing and befriending cats. You can read her latest fiction at Crow & Cross Keys and follow more of her ramblings on Twitter @hanniestew and Instagram @isthathannahlove.