The small child provides our illuminating game with two tools—a flashing fishing wire, a black boat—and we slip our skins to trawl primordial waterways where blind salamanders slap. The small child is rocked with joy. Soon we will see a shallow ocean, he says, swatting his haunches. And rows of white teeth. And all that they’ve eaten. We drift down into the interior earth. We have no lanterns. There is no light. Only black water breaking on black rock. Only black brine. Hold your wire low, the small child says. Let it illuminate the old fishes. I listen. I listen. I lower my flashing fishing wire. It descends into dismal murk. It forces a field of vision. Extinct sharks slither beneath the black boat. Their jaws come forward. They disgorge distinct strings of a milky and fibrous slime. I shout. I shout. I pull in my flashing fishing wire back into the black boat and the small child laughs. You see? he says. You’ve always done what you wanted. But now you know what moves unseen against salt.
I wake to countless lights. Stars, I say, still slow with sleep. No, the small child says. Look closer: there can be another kind of light. I ache in my eyes. I ache in my eyes. The shimmering ceiling seems to descend. Luminous worms drop into the black boat.
Eels swarm the black boat. There they are, the small child says. We watch their movement in the water; it convulses with aggravated energy. Now I know what you will do, the small child says. You will perform a catch and release. I lower my line. I lower my line. I pull pink eel bodies into the black boat and look at them in the light of the flashing fishing wire. They flap against each other—feverish, pink—or open their mouths to swallow wet air. Now— the small child says. But I interrupt. I produce a fish-knife from my pocket. I cut into an eel. Its belly bulges beneath the knife and ejects old extension cords, paltry rocks. They spill across the boards of the black boat. The uncut eels thrash in panic. What are you doing? the small child shrieks. What are you doing? I’m seeing, I say, and I let the eel slip from my hands.
You’ve stolen something, the small child says. You’ll never see a shaft of light again. I ignore him. I ignore him. The water rises in a gradual wave. I fling my flashing fishing wire into it and catch nothing.
For days we observe the slow passage of water over rock. It eddies under us in black, sparkling circles, mimicking the shapes of navels. Have you ever been homesick? the small child says. Because I haven’t. The water does not reflect us. Our inner ears fill with fluid. We tug at our lobes. Alluvium scrapes the bottom of the black boat. Look at that, the small child says. This is not water. There are no fishes here.
But still you cast your line, the small child says. And what now is looking at your hook?
They do not make their true number known; they avoid the light of my flashing fishing wire. We see only raised ridges of skin, flipped fins, bubbles blown across soft surfaces of water. They fill the air with their hissing. What are they? I ask. Are they friendly? No, the small child says. Remember what you did. They will not like you. I remind myself. I remind myself. I remember the mean games and the electric detritus. The small child crouches in a corner of the black boat. Quick! he says. A silver merboy hauls himself into the black boat, hauls himself across its black boards on his elbows—shedding scales from his silver tail, snapping spiny teeth. He looks almost like the small child. Quick! the small child shouts. Quick, now! Quick! I pant. I pant. I move backwards in the black boat. I shout the small child’s name. The silver merboy speaks his own language. Quick! the small child shouts, but the silver merboy slaps me down, takes the fish-knife from my pocket, drags me back to the edge of the black boat by my hands, so that I can get no grip. Please, I say, but he answers unintelligibly and scrapes my skin with the fish-knife. I close my eyes. His others hiss and hiss. He has my hair in his hands. He stinks of mucous. Listen, I say, I’ll go back to the surface and bring you something that shines. The silver merboy flattens his fins across my back and says something I can’t understand. He hacks away at my hair with the fish-knife. It falls away in black mats. I open my eyes and blood runs into them. The silver merboy laughs. Quoo-ick, he says. He lunges into the water, the flashing fishing wire limp and without light in his wake.
The small child picks scabs from my scalp. Do you know better, now? he asks. I do not answer; I let the impatient lap of water speak in my silence. We’ve gone deep, you know, the small child says. The baby fish are startled. They did not expect to see us, here. Then he too lapses into silence. The black boat slides into the deep earth, bumping against wet cave walls. We watch for unexpected spikes. We watch for the drip-formation of speleothems. The world warms all around us. Let’s play a cooperative game, the small child says. Here. Eat this. He pulls the flashing wire from my fingers and presses one end of it into my mouth. I focus. I focus. I fill my throat. It ribbons inside of me and fills me with light. Now we’ll grow gills, the small child says. We feel for our earlobes and pull them into new shapes. We turn ourselves inside out and devolve. Our lungs shrivel and die. Our exposed bones glow in the dark. The world warms and warms. We’re so close to the asthenosphere, the small child says, and we abandon the black boat to swim in the directionless drift beneath the bright surfaces of the earth.
Kelly Dulaney began in the cinders of Arizona; now she lives alongside the hogback hills of Colorado. Her writing appears in Black Warrior Review, Fugue, Waxwing, Fairy Tale Review, The Best American Experimental Writing Anthology (BAX) 2015, The Collagist, and Caketrain, among other venues. Her novella Ash is available from Urban Farmhouse Press. She edits The Cupboard Pamphlet. Visit her website at kellydulaney.net.