Frost Fish

by John McCaffrey March 15, 2005

Frost fish, herring as long as a tall man’s hand, once littered this beach in winter. On freezing nights. Full moons. High tides. Still and stiff atop the cold sand. Their silver bodies shining like fallen stars.

“They school offshore in the warmer water,” I tell Anne. “But striped bass and other predator fish herd them toward the beach where it’s colder. Once they hit this current they go numb. It knocks them right out. Then the waves wash them in. All we have to do is scoop them up.”

Anne is short and thin and her skin is paler than the snow-dusted sand crunching under our boots. She’s nearly opaque, her veins a faint green beneath the skin.

“I’m scared,” she says, her voice childlike, pleading. “The water’s too close.”

The ocean is crowding us, the waves crashing hard under pressure from the full moon and high tide. We approach a man-made jetty, it’s boulder-size black rocks scarred by the dynamite that set them in place. It starts half-buried in beach sand and vanishes fifty yards out into the churning Atlantic.

“Don’t be a baby,” I say. “Just look at the moonlight on the water. It’s worth the cold to see this. It’s beautiful…right?”

Anne doesn’t answer. She hunches under her hood and hugs her shoulders. I walk fast and motion her to keep pace. My breath spills from my mouth in patches of mist. Fog rises from the roiling surf.

“Why?” Anne inquires about the fog.

“Because the water is warmer than the air,” I explain.

“Oh,” she says. Then, “How much further?”

“Not much. C’mon. You’ll appreciate it later. When we get back home. The warm house will feel great. Some hot tea. Trust me.”

“I don’t see any fish,” Anne says. She’s holding a plastic grocery bag to put the herring in. “Let’s go. My face is freezing.”

“Hand me the light,” I say.

Anne reaches into her parka and pulls out a flashlight that usually collects dust under our bed. I switch it on and scan the beach. The light shines a sickly yellow against the clear sand – like urine staining a first snow. I run the beam to the surf and back, check between the jetty rocks. No frost fish. I point the light at Anne. She’s shivering and bouncing in place.

“Can we go now?”

The ocean’s loud. Heavy. The sound of the waves slapping against the sand echoes in the frigid air. I switch the light off.

“I never find them.”

Anne nods and reaches for the flashlight. It disappears into her jacket. She grabs my hand. Takes my glove into her mitten.

“Now can we go?”

Anne walks faster on the way back. Even skips. “You know,” she says, “you’re right. I’m glad we came. I can’t wait to get under a blanket and watch TV.”

“I guess they’re not here anymore.”

“What?” asks Anne.

“Frost fish…the herring. Probably fished out. Gone. Like everything else.”

A patchy cloud floats in front of the moon, causing a flash of sparks to shoot across the sand. The light dances and wiggles along the beach. Anne stuffs the plastic bag into her pocket, and trudges up the dune to the car.

“Hurry,” she calls out.

I walk behind in measured steps, careful to avoid the shimmering spots of light. Weaving around them as if they were frost fish come just for me.

About the Author:

John McCaffrey received his MFA from City College of New York. His stories have been published in Fiction Magazine, Promethean Literary Journal, Epiphany, 24:7, and the East Hampton Star. His story "High Plains Drifter" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

About the Artist:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.