The Boxer’s Colored Fish
by Finley J. MacDonald
“How long you say you been on the island?”
“Three months! You climbed right on up the ladder! It’s not bad here. The work isn’t complicated, aside from the hatching. You feed fish. Keep everything clean. Shovel meal; that’s what’s stored outside in them big tanks. Not afraid of heights, are you? You have to climb down in and fill bags. We even got our own cook. Food’s not that bad.”
In moist darkness lingers the scent of fish. Immense pipes run the length of the walls. Panting, occasionally wielding his square net, the fat man leads Mouse from raceway to raceway. Keys jingle at his belt. Now and then, he squats, the metal handle slanting over his shoulder, and the water shivers beneath him. His face, a scarred pumpkin, reflects light from the surface, and fry come up dark and wriggling in his net.
“A whole lot of spring water runs off them rocks you saw. All this is fed directly—no need to recycle. Then the water goes on to the gardens. Nothing better than fish ammonia for fertilizer. When these fry reach full maturity, they head out to gardens all over the island. Don’t suppose you’ve had a look at them?”
“The gardens of Babylon had nothing on these here.”
Descending side-by-side, the two men follow slick, mossy steps under an archway and out of the dark chamber. The man sweeps a heavy arm tattooed with scales and fish tails. Within an immense, roaring space under a shuttered ceiling, spigots drool over rows of vats bedded in stone terraces.
“This area is where the fingerlings move after a couple of months in the fry tanks. Each of these round ones is three-hundred gallons. The water is completely replaced every two-and-a-half hours.”
A second archway takes them outdoors. Along the wall, two workers stand chest-deep in a trench, picks thunking. Seated in a chair nearby, the overseer eyes them, electric gun across his lap.
The fat man indicates the workers with a nod.
“You don’t want to end up doing back doing that kind of nonsense. I’ve done my share. Transferred here years ago from a prison on the mainland, doing life for a robbery that went bad.”
He lays a finger on his flat nose.
“Used to be a boxer. I been declared dead twice. Won my first fight when I was twelve years old. Undefeated for years, but the street, you know, it caught up with me. Be dead by now if I was anywhere else.”
The fat man unlocks a chained gate, and they enter an area with immense runways.
“This area’s for the maturing fish. If we get a serious storm, we have to cover the raceways. These fish in those tanks are about a year and a half old, now. When they are two, they’ll be transferred out and then we’ll start with a new batch.”
At a brick shed, he lifts the ring of keys again, works the lock, and pulls open the door. Inside, he drags a bulging cloth sack from a heap. From its peg on the wall, he lifts a handle with an iron tooth, and he picks the thread on the top seam of the bag.
“Don’t damage the bags. Just cut the thread like this and pull them open.”
He hangs the tool on its peg and dumps a mound of brown meal into a wheel barrow. He folds the bag and drops it onto a stack.
“Push this load out, son.”
Mouse guides the wheelbarrow out of the shed, and the door bangs shut behind him. They follow paved paths in the shadow of browning leaves. Columns on wooden stems bear cucumbers, with heavier squash tucked lower down. Fish stir at their feet, red and yellow, tails swishing like fronds in a breeze. Mouse lets the wheelbarrow slide to a rest, and the man dips a clay scoop and flings meal across the surface. The water churns, and fish slide and flop. After a while, the entire surface is a constant, frenzied popping of fish tails, like hail on a river.
“So, that’s about all there is to feeding fish. Not hard, but it’s the key to a decent life here. If you work hard and stay out of trouble, everything will go better here. At this station, you get twenty micro-points an hour. That’s more than almost any place on the island, and it will go up. I get forty-five now. Some of that pays for the cook and lodging, which also isn’t bad. You can buy cakes and things at the market, but I suggest you save your points. Go on furlough. I been here for going-on twelve years. I go on furlough a week in every month.”
“What do you do on furlough?”
“We go boating and fishing. We visit gardens, me and my host. We go swimming. Sometimes, we visit my daughters at the boarding school. My host and me get on. Been with the same one for years now. When you get your first host, if you don’t get on, put in a request for another, but take my advice; don’t ruffle feathers. Don’t drink around your host. In a lot of ways this can be just as good, maybe better than outside. At least you don’t have to work like a pig. Or worry about what you’re going to put in hungry mouths. There are no worries here. We feed fish. Keep the place clean. Eat well. Go on furlough. You don’t say much, do you?”
Mouse and the fat, aging boxer reach the end of the raceways. The wheelbarrow is empty. In the wind, the old boxer folds his arms. Through the fence links, swallows flit in a sky gray and solid as a prison wall. The fins of windmills turn like wheel spokes behind oxen. At the edge of fields of rice and corn, red and green and blue rooftops are tucked among trees more silver than green.
“Listen, son. My advice, take the bridle. You think you are here on earth to do something special? Maybe be a surgeon and save people’s lives? Guys like you and me, we don’t get to be doctors. We drink. We fight and work and maybe we do it in prison. Don’t be proud. Take the bridle.”