Before, He Felt Like the Fat One

by Catherine Zeidler Read author interview December 15, 2006
story art

There are three fish in Neot’s well. One is long and slim, slithery, like a snake. The next is plump, cute, its features in perfect proportion, like a baby. The last is flat and round like a pancake and loafs around the bottom of the well, googley eyes stuck to the top of its face like roadkill, or the artwork of a child. Today, standing in his well, his skin shriveling into the water, his eyes gazing out into the same thick trees, Neot feels much like this last fish—deformed, stagnant, experimental. The fish has large, sharp teeth that reach out from his misshapen face, and he gnaws with them at Neot’s toes, angrily, or so it seems to Neot.

He will bring the flat one with him this evening when he returns to the shelter. He will ask Barius to broil it for his dinner; he does not feel like boiled fish tonight.

Barius bicycles into town to check his email. In the internet café he reads a blog that claims to have found Neot’s shelter in the woods. He was in the well, like they say, the blogger wrote, with the 3 fish, but floating, like a fish himself. I measured—not an inch over fifteen. The blogger believes Neot is a government experiment gone awry, a mutant, certainly not a saint.

When Barius returns, he walks straight to the well. With his waist bent over the steel lip he takes the tape to Neot—his nose plugged, his cheeks puffed with air, opening his eyes under the water to find the saint’s toes. He measures 36 inches. Liars.

“What is it?” Neot asks. “What are they saying? What do they want?”

Barius doesn’t answer.

At dinner, Neot picks at his fish while Barius wolfs down a pizza. When Barius clears the table he sees three quarters of the fish has been broken up and pushed to the outside of Neot’s plate.

“Should I have boiled it?” Barius asks.

“No. It was fine.”

“Maybe the flat one wasn’t ready. When did you eat it last?”

“It was fine,” Neot says, already shuffling to his bed.

It is dawn at the hermitage and Barius is blow-drying his hair while Neot leans over the side of his bed to retch onto the dirt floor.

“Chief, you okay?” calls Barius, winding the power cord around his hand.

In his room, Neot shakes his head and strains to pull himself back onto the bed.

Barius is in the doorway now, running mousse through his hair. Within minutes he has Neot in fresh pajamas, sheets, the dirt of the hermitage fresh too, and water for tea on the stove.

Neot lies on his back and looks at the wooden ceiling—it seems so far away in daylight. He closes his eyes and tries to will himself into dreams of water and steel.

Barius waves the net around in the well, trying to catch the fat fish. It is putting up a good chase—such a healthy thing. The flat one slumps near the floor and the long one does laps back and forth. Barius concentrates, thinks of his master, weak and unmoored in his little bed.

When he brings the net up there are two fish—the fat and the long—struggling in it. Barius is pleased. Neot needs the extra protein. He will boil one and broil the other.

But at the table, when Barius sets the meal in front of him, Neot sags.

“What is this, Barius?”

“Two fish, for your health.”

“No,” he says, shoving the plate across the table.

Neot had lived in town, years ago, but the people made him angry. They thought he wanted to be more than himself, but he would rather have been less. His last day there he counted eight people who stopped in the middle of the street to measure him, twelve who leapt into a squat begging him to touch something of theirs, and three who yelled from windows to stop walking on his knees. At the back entrance of the movie theater, he waited for the show to empty. When it did he stuck his foot out in the fading light and tripped six people as they walked to their cars. He didn’t feel any better, so he walked into the woods. He walked until he found a clearing, and in the clearing, a well. He climbed in. He stayed in the well all night, growing calmer, lighter, liquid.

In the morning, there was an angel sitting on the edge of the well. The angel told him about the three fish.

“Only one fish!” Neot explodes, shaking his little fists above his head. “I eat one! And by morning it’s back in the well, fresh and whole and ready for me to eat again. Don’t you hear any of this, in town; don’t you pay attention at all?” He starts to cough and collapses his head onto the table, drums his fingers against the wood. Barius rises, walks to the fridge to get a beer. He pours a little whiskey for the saint, for his health. At the table, he sits opposite Neot and waits for him to look up and sip from the glass.

“We will put them back,” says Neot, sitting against the wall of his hut now, sliding his toes around in the dirt floor. “It is the only thing we can do.”

They stand at the well together, Barius holding the plate. The long fish has been broiled; its eyes are browned and look out into the dense woods. The fat one has been boiled and lays on its side, one soft eye on the gathering dusk. Barius looks down at Neot, who leans against the well, exhausted and afraid.

The flat fish circles the bottom of the well. Barius slides the two fish off the plate. The two men stand there, peering into the dark water, waiting for a verdict.

About the Author:

Catherine Zeidler has a small website (catpatz.com), a fiction MFA (from the University of Michigan) and a short story (recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize) published in Hobart. She lives in Brooklyn.