The Fisherwoman's Daughter

Kirsten Kaschock

There were three: the white river made of stones, the white river made of feathers, the white river made of net. Each of the rivers laid claim to a single fish.

And there was a fisherwoman.

Ona Baptiste loved to stand waist-deep in the brown water of the stream that ran close by her home, flicking the threads that cut them, waiting for them to come. They always came. She would carry home the full basket to her children each evening, the last of her catch still jerking at the top.

Her eldest child, Myrtle, watched the others while Ona was gone. Ona was gone most days for hours.

"Mama, why do you do it?" Myrtle asked, often enough. "Why do you leave us?"

"There are so many of you," her mother would reply, as if this was all that needed to be said.

"We need you," Myrtle added, without hope.

"All you need is to eat."

And Ona Baptiste would begin cleaning and cooking, processes that took her far away from her children, left again in Myrtle's charge during evenings tainted with smoke and flesh. After the children slept, Myrtle stared out the window and spoke at the moon. Ona, after days spent on the river, quickly found sleep.

Myrtle was withering, growing old on fish oil and face-scrubbing. Myrtle wanted anything but to be slave to another woman's life. She did not wish to be her mother's helpmeet, soul mate, shut-in. One morning she said so.

"Mama, I will leave you."

"What about the children?" And Ona Baptiste was truly curious.

"They are your children, Mama. I am your child."

This confused Ona, who did not remember ever deciding to have children, and who had not thought of Myrtle as a child since she had turned seven—the age of reason.

"Go then. Something will occur to me." The woman was not completely devoid, or she did not want to be. 

Myrtle said goodbye to the speechless moon that night. She meant to find other, better conversationalists. She left before dawn. When Ona woke, not long after that, she told her second oldest to watch the rest while she went to catch dinner.

Myrtle walked for hours to the West, asking the rising sun to be a better shawl than the threadbare one she wore. She wished she had something more elegant with which to begin her new life, but she'd left any pretty thing she'd had for her sisters, so they might find in her modest fashion one day a reason not to hate her. 

At first, walking, she felt free, the world in front of her hers, or part of it, maybe someday.  Then, not much later, she felt a dour guilt, as if what was behind her was all she would ever own. This feeling was the opposite of free. 

It was during this second chapter of the morning that she met the first of her three rivers: the white river filled with stones.

It mumbled.

Myrtle did not like rivers. Much as she yearned for company, she did not want to get down on her bony knees to strain her ear toward the sounds she could tell were language—but that was all. She did not want to attend to the white river filled with stones, did not want to make it feel important by listening. But also she could not walk away from it, could bury her head under no pillow, in no small child's complaints. She was afraid to cross it, and as she walked beside it, the sounds grew more and more beguiling. She began to think the mumbling meant, and was meant for her. Finally, at midday, she knelt down and like a prayer waited for answering. 

The river said she was a fool.

Myrtle took offense. Myrtle stood and started in anger to cross the river, when the stones—tumbling through the dry bed—began to target her, pelting her shins and ankles, her knees and calves. The pain was real and Myrtle began to weep. But weeping was something she had neglected to do in some time, and it felt good in its way. She continued across. By the time she reached the deepest moment of the river, words had begun to hit her repeatedly, at the top of her thighs, between her legs, her lower back and belly. They pounded on her with their soft-consonant mantras: Fool, feel frail, aloof, afraid. Fear, fail to flower, fall.  They were a hundred tears in her fabric. She was rent, bruised a hard and mottled purple by the time she reached the other bank. When she looked down, she saw that she held in her hand a fish. And the fish said, "Fool." 

Myrtle felt the urge to hurl the fish back into the white rocks, but did not. She held the fish and the fish said, "Fool," and Myrtle walked. She never wanted to eat a fish again, but she knew hunger was coming and that it was no friend. Besides, something had made her snag the nasty fish, something Myrtle knew to honor in herself. It was to honor that something that she'd begun walking in the first place away from Ona Baptiste and Ona Baptiste's children.

Myrtle said to the fish, "Hush."

By the second river, Myrtle was expecting a river. It was late afternoon, and the fish in her hand had begun to come apart, and smell. Still, it spoke its occasional "fool," like an old woman who has forgotten names but isn't letting on. The second river was filled with white feathers, and could barely contain itself. Bits of it wafted over the riverbanks, embarrassingly. Myrtle pretended as if she didn't notice the way the river moved—all froth and slither—even though the reason it moved that way was for Myrtle to notice. Myrtle's legs still hurt her terribly, and what's more, they were ugly with bumps and color. Her arm ached from squeezing the hateful fish and Myrtle needed to pee. She thought of her little brothers, who would do it beside a tree with no shame, their small buttocks pushed forward, making of their anatomy bow and watery arrow. Myrtle decided she would wade into the feathers, and let her urine tint the quills. 

But before she could set one foot into the tickling, the fish said, "Fool."

And Myrtle said, "Not you again." She sent the fish arcing through the air with all the arm she had into the endless wing of river. The fish flopped through the downy current like a dog in snow, sooner gone than its stench. 

Myrtle peed right there on the bank, crouched over her hand, ridding herself of self-inflicted foolishness. 

As she stood, another fish flew out of the river like a repercussion, landing on her head. A hat. It was a charming fish, stylish and feathery.  Myrtle saw her shadow in the dust, her augmented silhouette, herself—fish-bedecked—and liked it. It was unwise to take on a new fish just now and she knew it. But the fish worked with her full skirt, thin shawl, long arms. Balancing it on her cranium took almost the same half-thought as slinging the weight of a child from hip-to-hip during household chores. It would prove a comfort to her as twilight came. So she hauled up her skirt and began to ford the feathers with her cap-fish, when she began to smile.

The feathers, unsettlingly, had begun to have their way with her.

Pleasure for Myrtle had been until now the occasional slurping and moaning sounds of sleeping children, or her sweetest brother inexpertly plaiting her hair. Pleasure had been found berries—an alternate flavor to trout. Pleasure had been a bath, once a week, in the cold bite of the rain tub. But now Myrtle remembered an earlier pleasure—dancing—or at least, moving her body to her father's strings.  Swingsongs her mother had called his tunes, as she shook down brown curls tied back beneath an old brown hat these past five years.  That was the father who had early on left his many children to a woman who had since then cast herself away. Ona Baptiste would never shake again. That was the father who had walked West. 

With feathers spiraling around her thighs, Myrtle remembered her father's jigs and waltzes, how music felt when it was inside her limbs, moving them like wands, her dance a muddled group of spells that one day might help her catch something other than a fish. 

That had been the plan for her. Nobody had told her it, she just knew: she must get herself a man. But this was not her plan now. Her plan was only to walk. 

She rocked herself from her shuddery reverie in the river-middle and climbed onto a flat ledge of grass hanging over the far edge. Her legs were jelly and she was feather-wet and breathing hard, like after dancing. 

The pretty fish, she realized, was off her head and in her hand, and she was strangling it.

She unclutched and set it down beside her, but it did not move.  Was she her mother's daughter then? 

She was hungry but chose to bury the fish instead beneath a tree. She had buried one tiny body once, quieted after a month of coughing, and knew how to dig. She even knew that digging was an aid to grief, a place to put not all but just enough of it. She did not grieve the fish, but her brothers and sisters were all dead now to her. From her walking. They were things she had given up for pleasure. What was that pleasure? Feathers up between her legs and a pretty hat? Her own small ribcage wrung out rolling sobs as she dug in the earth with her hands. It felt good to dig. It was a shallow grave and some animal would find it in an hour, an animal that would eat well tonight. An animal not Myrtle.

Myrtle wanted to reach another river by dark. She knew one was out there, waiting for her, and as she walked into the setting sun, her eyes were pierced. Stars were up by the hour she reached the third white river, and a fat low moon bobbed between the trees sometimes, sometimes behind them. Hunger made her eyes play tricks.

Also, Myrtle's hands were dirty. Her hands smelled of fish and urine and earth. She wished she had other hands to use.

Myrtle came upon it—a river filled with net.

She knew what to do. She knew this river was there to catch her. She knew she was the river's, and the river hers. If she walked beside the river she would become her father, ever onward, never back, music perhaps, children dead. If she entered the river, she would be trapped there, and in the morning Ona Baptiste would cast her lure—probably the youngest—and Myrtle would bite. Returning with her mother, she would be eaten everyday for years until she was bone in someone's throat, an unloved memory, the not-mother, spinstress, replacement. An old bandage.

Myrtle was so hungry. So tired. Thirsty. Bruised. Myrtle got down on her hands and knees and drank the river in, its miles of white cord and knot. She drank and drank until peristalsis took over, and as she drank she also spun the net behind her, through her, from her anus. She drank and shat this way for hours, a bead on a string of net—Myrtle counted down.

After hours, a night, a week, spent passing the river, a Myrtle-spider took to the trees, to weave an elaborate trap for the moon. That great white fish.


It never finds its way to Myrtle—the moon. It still goes about its abandon and return, to her eternal fury and pleasure. Myrtle-spider can no longer speak, and the moon continues its silence in response. Myrtle makes a new language out of light, her designs articulate. The moon nods, and nods, and leaves her. Myrtle is caught up in her poems, slave to their regrets, her legs still purple, her abdomen brown and hairy and swollen with the memories of children. She has been transformed into something hideous and beautiful, terrifying and alone. Ona Baptiste's newest eldest calls her the songswinger—and brings the children to watch her string her small complaints across the forest. 

Myrtle's life is like all life—dependant on the endless digestion of smaller deaths, on their incorporation into the work. For hours each day, she catches things that would fly, she ties them up like pretty packages—only not to send—to suck into dry husk. Flotsam. 

All she needs is to eat—Ona Baptiste told her so.