It all started with a guppy. He brought it home in a bag, fins twitching, round mouth jabbing the plastic, and marched out to the back of the yard. Yanked out a fistful of drooling mud, and thrust the fish head-first into the soil. Carefully nudged the dirt back over the hole, until only the little tail was visible, red and silver, jerking spastically until it flapped one last time then ceased. The listing tail looked like a diaphanous plant, some kind of fish flora he had invented.
Cup of coffee in hand, he stepped outside the following morning, walked close enough that he could see the flayed edges of the tail, sniffed, then went back into the kitchen for his lunchbox.
A few days later, he bought a goldfish. Biggest the pet store had. Not gold at all of course—orange, speckled with brown and red. It slipped out of his hand and slid mouth first into the waiting earth. Shook and wriggled in its last seconds, as if searching for a hidden cove, or trying to swim in the mucky soil.
That evening he decided on peppermint tea and shortbread. In the moonlight he could just make out the little orange tail, like a tiny flag in the middle of brown soil. When he poured water from the kettle into his mug, the steam fogged up the window and the orange beacon disappeared in a moist gray smudge.
After that, there were many. He drove to the fish farm and bought a bluefish. A bigger plastic bag, instructions for care and feeding to which he pretended to listen, tilting his neck and affecting a frown. About the size of his shoe, and more green than blue really—why were the names of fish color-coded lies? It flapped madly, like a bird, like something trying to fly down and through the earth to hit sea or sky on the other side. Then there was an Atlantic menhaden, large, bugmouthed, very popular among the locals, fried or even better grilled to suck out some of the oil. Fins forked, mouth gobbling dirt.
It ended with the snook—big as a toddler’s leg, phosphorescent green and silver, striped like a racing car, mouth a pale red as if it had been drinking milk mixed with blood. The fisherman said it was a small one, but it put up one hell of a fight right there at the dock, then proceeded to splash half the water out of his bucket during the drive up through the hills.
By now it was summer. He walked barefoot to the back of the garden, drops of water splashing onto his ankles from the fish froth bucket. Felt damp sand under his feet, moist soil clutching between his toes.
He pulled and pushed to make a muddy brown hole and thrust the twisting fish down. And the ground seemed to buckle as if under a heavy weight. He stepped back and saw a gelid rim of silty water surround the mound of dirt, like the aura of the moon. As he watched, the silvery orb expanded across the soil. He took another step backwards, then another, as the water rippled and spat with movement.
Then the earth seemed to drop down, like a bathtub emptying but faster, much faster, a wet gulp as all that was solid was swallowed down. Fish were surfacing. In ones and twos, then a tidy school of goldfish, a little fleet of red arcing through dark water. Then bigger ones, slithery and black—carp or a bass perhaps. A flash of green like a shadow passing over the water, and the snook was there again, swimming busily, unconcerned.
And the splash he heard was his own body falling backwards, arms pumping, legs pumping. Water sucked him down until there were no fish, no light, only silty darkness, a glassy tinkling in his ears and warm ripples of water. He opened his mouth and chewed on sand and felt mud in his nostrils and ears as he descended, tumbling slowly into the darkness of dirt.