And the bastard thing thrashing about only a few feet from the shore, right in among the breakers, rising and falling on them with the spume all over it so I couldn’t see most of the time, only his grey body, streaked with silver, vanishing. The long gaff still held, its rope fixed to the wooden groyne. I’d got that in beyond the breakers, over my waist trying to get to where the water was rolling above him. Then his tail came out once and flipped shorewards, wetting my head, so I threw the gaff out beyond it and dragged it back sharp till it bit, then let him take the slack rope while I got back to the shallows. Later, when he was in the breakers, I couldn’t get the short gaff into him, just hitting the stones or slicing it through empty water and that’s why I moved closer, but then he lifted his whole front against the long gaff’s hook, I saw the blood in the water then, pumped into the breakers dyeing the spume like dark red ink. I could also see the trace wire wound round him, too far down from the mouth, so I realised he must be foul hooked. As the next wave rose it brought him in and he thumped sideways against my legs just as the wave took me, so the next thing I’m stumbling backwards, one arm windmilling to keep my balance, the other losing the short gaff, and then I’m on my arse in the cold and choking a lungful with still more breaking over me.
I got onto my knees and crawled onto the shingle at the water’s edge, choking and salt-sick with what I’d swallowed. And the shock of cold held against me by my clothes clinging, my eyes stinging so that I couldn’t see at first that the dragging below my knee wasn’t my wet trousers twisted round but my leg stuck with the short gaff when I fell. Now it was me dyeing the water red. I held the handle to turn the hook and saw that it wasn’t deep; the barb not all in. I pushed it forward and it felt more like something hit me as the point left. I shuffled down and let my leg lie under the water.
Between the waves breaking I heard the long gaff rope strain against the groyne as he dragged at it. Then he thrashed again and I could see he was at the rope limit, out beyond the breakers again. With the short gaff I waded back, watching the rope tight into the brown-green surface, feeling along the stones under my feet, the cold numbing my legs. When I was in over my waist, I made a couple of lunges with the gaff but missed, so I hooked the long gaff rope instead which was over to my left, stretched tight into the water, and hauled it towards me till I could grab it. Letting the short gaff drag on the stones, hoping I wouldn’t hook myself again, I started treading slowly backwards, leaning towards the shore, feeling his weight coming, thick and heavy with the swell, but coming in, not fighting, just a weight against the water.
In shallow, his back came out a couple of times and I could see the fin, torn and thin. Then he twisted, but slow, over and over like an eel, green silver and white shades of his skin among the spume, and then the red water all around him. As he turned again, one of his back legs broke the surface. Blacker than his skin, like a bird’s claw, it grabbed at the air, as if it was trying to get a hold, then sank to the side out of sight as his body rolled slowly, showing the other leg hanging limp and useless.
Almost knee-deep now, I felt his weight steady, unmoving. The rope in one hand, I knelt in between waves to grab the short gaff rope with the other. Lifting it, I wound it round my arm till I could grab the wooden handle, then started to walk backwards again, leaning my weight hard into the dip of the shore, the waves washing up my side as I dragged him in. Now the waves were pushing him up the stones and then dragging him back, rolling his body, twisting and tightening the long gaff rope, the surf all red as it broke over him. I could see the fishing trace now and the hook, still baited, fouled into him behind his front claw, the trace and then the clear line wound round and round the limb. I couldn’t see the long gaff until a wave rolled him towards me, the steel shank gleaming from his gill slits that were leaking red, and then his head lifted from the wave with a hiss, the blood pouring from his mouth which was open so I could see the ragged line of his teeth. He was rolled by a breaker and then a roar of stones drew him back towards the sea in a mess of red foam, his tail lifting and sinking into the next wave.
I stood, my weight leant against him, waiting till a big wave ran in, catching up to a slower one, and I braced my legs and got the short gaff ready. The swell surged him to the surface below its crest, pushing him towards me and dropping him almost at my feet as it broke, the white crashing around him then bursting up again red and frothing as I sliced the silver gaff down into the far side of him, and even with all the noise of the wave breaking and the grind of the stones, I heard him sounding the water with a deep groan as the hook bit and I struck it, back and hard into him, steadying myself, a rope in each hand now, hauling him back to the shore for all I could, stumbling and steadying myself, not noticing at first that there was only the drag now of the waves drawing him back, then the slack when they pushed him towards me, rolling him in rope and line and the red-white scum.
I lay on the shingle, gasping, my arms tugged and released by each wave. All I could see was the sky, grey and shifting with scales of cloud sliding over each other, gulls crying as they gathered above, crossing and crossing the moving clouds. I didn’t hear the farmer coming down the beach. He was along towards the estuary, fencing the old marsh fields for spring stock when he saw me landing it, and he’d come to help me drag it out of the water and finish it, though it was almost done by then, only its nerves going in spasm.
We could see marks on its skin, sores, that could’ve been illness maybe or the chemicals in the water, and there was a deep cut on its back by the fin that had healed a bit, from a boat prop, I guessed. The smell off it was bad, like rotting or when the crab pots have got old bait still in, drying in the air and the flies are at them. There wasn’t much shine even to the silver parts on it, and that went quick anyway, before the farmer had taken the photo on his phone, the one you see in all the books now, where the worn wooden struts of the groyne behind where I’m kneeling look like some kind of crown round my head. I don’t even remember him taking the photo or ringing for them to bring the truck down so they could drive it back to the harbour for weighing, though they didn’t think it was so big when they saw it, and didn’t bother with it after, just dumping it back, and it wouldn’t have been much if it hadn’t been the last.
Craig’s had fiction and poetry published in Active Muse, Better Than Starbucks, Black Works, The Eunoia Review, Flash, The Frogmore Papers, The Interpreter’s House, Literally Stories, The London Magazine, Magma, New Welsh Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Rialto, Runcible Spoon and THINK. He has work forthcoming in Prole and Delmarva Review.