Home » The dark fish by Peter Kenny

FICTION (November 2018)

 

The dark fish

by Peter Kenny

THERE was something wrong with the horoscopes David had placed side-by-side on the kitchen table.  Normally, the synastry of a married couple would show some kind of chemistry. But this? It was lifeless.

Laura, his new client, was clearly bold and emotional, with her Aries ascendant and moon in Scorpio. There was nothing in her husband’s chart, however, that did not scream ‘tedious’ and ‘conventional’ to the astrologer. He would, of course, do his best to make even this client sound interesting. It was business, after all. 

There had been no need to consult the well-thumbed textbooks that dated back to his teens. He was, by now, an expert and even a progressed quincunx between Mars and Neptune gave him no trouble.

There was only one real connection between the horoscopes before him, and this was not built on any attraction or sympathy between them. It seemed there was a pronounced crisis two years ago. Clearer in Laura’s chart, than the husband’s. Situated in the fifth house, the crisis may have related to a child, or perhaps a lover. 

There was little point in writing it up. He would make a light mention of ‘trouble with children a couple of years ago’ and, no doubt, Laura would join the dots for him. It seemed many of his clients paid him to talk about themselves, to tell him their secrets. It was interesting work, and he got paid for it.    

Stretching, he extravagantly vocalised a yawn. He lived alone, and the old woman downstairs never bothered with her hearing aids. He flicked on the kettle, and looked at the drizzle and the winter skeleton of the aspen tree outside. The town had been stuffed into the sack of night without him even noticing. He grinned idiotically at his reflection in the window. 

It was good to be working. Although there was no rush for this job, he was keen to press on. It was one of his quirks, that despite all the software available, he preferred to use red and black pens to draw out by hand, all the houses, signs and aspects on a pre-printed template. 

The kitchen table, his audience of three empty chairs, and in fact the whole flat had been inherited from his mother. She died suddenly almost six years ago, the day after his twenty-fourth birthday. Since then, he kept the flat as some kind of time capsule, changing it as little as possible.   

 What happened when he picked up the husband’s completed birth chart, is hard to explain. He was subject to a flash — no, a jolt of intuition; a vision.

 A ploughed hill, topped by trees filled his mind.

Yes! He recognised it…  A familiar and distinctive hill, topped with a copse, two or three miles beyond the edge of town.

Then, he was back, noticing breadcrumbs in the corner of the table.

‘Wow,’ he said aloud. Was he trembling? The quietness in his flat had seemed to condense. He was aware of a motorbike growling past outside on the street. It seemed unnaturally loud.

Occasionally he felt he ‘knew’ a client just by looking at a horoscope, something like staring into a pool and suddenly seeing a fish move. But this was different. 

 

Help me. 

 

This was not the familiar tyrant of his internal monologue. It was a new voice.

‘Who are you?’ David said.

There was no reply.

His head was swimming. He fumbled at the radio: then the patter of a familiar presenter with a traffic update. It helped. For a while he sat doing nothing. Then he rolled a thin cigarette (an unshakable legacy of his student days), licking the gummed edge of the paper.

Suddenly he was choking. His mouth was blocked. He spat out clumps of dark, loamy soil onto a scrap of paper.

He flung himself at the sink, hawking noisily, rinsing his mouth with cold water that hurt his teeth. Seeing his reflected face in the window, he yanked down the blind.

Breathe!

He picked up the scrap paper to examine it. Other than saliva, and two small strands of tobacco, there was nothing. Nor was there anything in the sink when he looked back there. He could have sworn… 

‘Okay, I’m officially crazy,’ he said just to hear his own voice. 

He looked at the photo of his mother. She continued to smile benignly from her frame, thank God. Cautiously he lit the cigarette and inhaled blue smoke.

‘Sorry I’m still smoking,’ he said.

Business was bad. David was broke and things needed to change. Since his teens he had been fascinated by astrology. Becoming an astrologer, however, started as a bit of a joke at first, till he started making money.   

But now there was a problem. The flow of work was drying up.  

Should have seen it coming. That’s what everyone would say.

The truth was, he had. He was enduring a demoralising transit of Saturn in his own chart. With little to do, he brooded endlessly on his own stars. With several planets in the sign of Pisces, a lesser astrologer than David would have told him he was doomed to be some kind of dreamer or poet. But what was he supposed to be doing with his life?

The symbol for Pisces is two fish, which are hooked at the mouth and strung together by a single silver cord. He thought about its symbolism often. One of his venerable textbooks grandly called this the cord of human limitation. It made him fear there were things about himself he would never break free from.

He was a dreamer all right, even keeping a dream diary. It recorded how deeply the Pisces symbol haunted him.  In one recurring ‘fish dream’ —  he was thrashing in stagnant water and hooked deep in the mouth. At the other end of the line was a dark shape that dragged him through the murk; a dark fish that he could never quite glimpse.

Sometimes, the fish dream added new chapters. He would be being chased, for example, rushing at animal height through a dense, thorny undergrowth. Unfailingly, however, it would end with him being dragged through water by his hooked mouth.

Waking, he could dismiss the dream as a by-product of his work, but sometimes the sepia mood of the dream would stain the day.  

He kept thinking about Laura. He was pleased she wanted to meet him, and not just email. There was more than that though. For as soon as she walked into his flat he had felt a powerful physical attraction.   

‘Is it really worth the money?’ Laura smiled disarmingly.

‘Totally worth it. But it takes time to do a horoscope properly, by a human astrologer. Much better than a computer program on the internet.’  He was never comfortable as his own salesman. He realised he was gabbling and trying too hard to be charming.

He took a breath. Told himself to get a grip.

‘How did you hear about me?’ he asked.

‘You did a star chart for my friend Sophie. She said you saw things about her that nobody else could know, just by looking at her horoscope.’

‘Ah yes, Sophie. About two months ago.’ He remembered a chatty woman with a Cancer ascendant and a moon-shaped face. Recently divorced.

Forgetting to use a tea strainer, David poured fresh leaf tea into two cups from his mother’s teapot, and then, without asking, he stirred sugar into both. 

 ‘Sorry. Look I didn’t ask. Do you take sugar?’

‘No,’ her smile melted the hardness in her face.

Emptying one of the sugary teas into the sink he then poured another cup. This time remembered the tea strainer too. She smiled again. This simple ineptitude seemed to have broken the ice. In the spatter of tea leaves in the sink, David noticed the shape of a fish.

They sat, either side of the kitchen table. He began to explain what she would be getting for her money: a personal birth chart, a typed character assessment, and a forecast of the trends for the year ahead. Seeming satisfied with the arrangements, she stood up to leave, without finishing her tea. 

 “I’ll collect them next Thursday,’ she said, ‘that’s if a week’s enough time for you?’

‘Perfect,’ he said. Often he offered to post the charts. ‘But you said them’?

‘Yes can you do my husband’s chart too?’ She handed him a piece of paper with Matt Thomas written on it, with a place and time of birth.

Married, he thought gloomily.

‘It’ll be a pleasure, Mrs Thomas,’ he said.

Laura winced.

‘Please call me Laura,’ she said.

‘Of course. Is there anything you particularly want me to look out for? Career? Health? Love?’

‘I want… I just want to know when we are going to feel better.’

She had begun to move towards the stairs. They went down together, and stood in the open doorway.

David felt something like an electric spark, when he shook her hand. Had she felt it too? He stood there, transfixed, holding her hand as a current swirled around them. They wavered in the doorway. She took her hand away, eventually, scowled exaggeratedly at the wintery weather, then smiled at him.  

‘Time to go. Thanks again Mystic Dave,’ she said.

‘Okay Laura,’ he laughed at her cheekiness. ‘I’ll see what I can see,’ He added theatrically.  

 Next morning he wrote up the vivid sex dream he had about Laura.

In it he had been lying on the full moon of Laura’s stomach, pushing deep in her. She was wild and sweating, her flushed face panting in his own.

Then another scene. Next she was holding his head against her breasts, stroking his hair.

Then he stood outside, watching Laura and himself.

His face looked younger.

‘Such a beautiful child,’ Laura whispered.

As arranged, the woman of his dreams had come to his home again. His subconscious had contrived such intimacies between them, he almost felt ashamed.

He sensed her mood was very different this time. Laura was serious, spurning the offer of tea, and focused on learning what he had discovered. He began to talk, growing in confidence as he saw he was hitting the mark about her time and time again.

‘About two years ago,’ David said, deciding to risk it. ‘Something to do with a child…’

‘Yes,’ that’s right.’ Laura said.

 

You little bastard.

I’m sorry.

You little bastard.

 

David shook away the dialogue in his head. Was he having a breakdown? Please God, not in front of a client.

He focused on Laura, who was looking at him expectantly, her hands grasping each other.

‘Are you…’

‘I’m fine. Please go on,’ David said softly. 

‘Oliver. My son…’ she halted. Her sudden and transparent vulnerability touched him. Without thinking he reached for her hand. His instinctive sympathy had allowed her to cry. She sat rigidly, with fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Still holding her hand, David pulled a sheet from the tissue box he kept for consultations.

‘Olly, my son,’ she continued, ‘disappeared. He was taken away or…’ David said nothing. ‘He’s been gone two years. But,’ there were more tears, ‘what I really want you to tell me is if my husband… Do you think he had anything to do with it?’

This was unexpected. He must have looked blank.

‘Was it my husband?’

‘I,’ David stopped. Was he really being asked if Laura’s husband had murdered their son? ‘ I can’t truthfully say I saw anything like that in his chart.’

‘Please. I’ve got to know…’

‘Look,’ David said. ‘I just can’t know for sure. A birth chart just shows the hand you are dealt with, not how you play your cards. But my opinion is: no. His birth chart would suggest he is a conservative, cautious sort of person.’ He shrugged.

Finally her eyes dropped.

‘Thank you,’ she said quietly. ‘You see we barely talk any more. He’s so remote. He stays out. I just don’t know where he is half the time.”

She stood up. He stood up too.

‘Please stay,’ David said, he was still holding her hand.

She cried into his chest, for perhaps thirty seconds.

David put his arms around her. It seemed the right thing to do.

She wanted to go home. She left silently, with David not knowing if that would be the last time he would see her.

Another variation.

Flowing water and the endless agony in his mouth. The more he arched and fought, the deeper the hook went. 

Then he was swimming upstream, somehow uphill.  Until he broke through the moving surface of the world.

Air.

Suffocation.

‘No!’ David woke up shouting.  

Before he left home, David turned the photo of his mother face down.

Of course it was mad. But by the time he was driving out of town in the low sun of a winter afternoon, he was no longer telling himself he was crazy or a slave to impulse.

He was going to send his subconscious a symbol. He would end his career as an astrologer by burying his books in a wood.

And after? Who knows. But life had to get a bit more real, less weird, less lonely. 

If the word occult meant hidden, then he would occult his textbooks in a wood. He had started now, he may as well go through with it. He was beginning to think he would sacrifice every book he had if only he could get a decent night’s sleep.

 

Why did we have to come out here?

 

‘Jesus,’ David almost lost control of the car. ‘Not again.’ This was exactly the sort of shit he needed to bury.

The wooded copse was unmistakable above the ploughed hillside. Just as he had remembered it. Just as it had been shown him. He pulled over by a gate, he got out, feeling a giddy sense of déjà vu. Six or seven rooks were reeling raucously around the copse, their croaks sustaining in the still air.

David reached back into his car for the plastic bag. Inside was a gardener’s trowel, and a dozen textbooks. Slamming the car shut, he looked about. The idea of having to explain himself was impossible. What he was really doing would sound mad. He knew that.

He tried to appear casual, as a car passed. Then quickly he clambered over the gate, landed heavily on a muddy path leading uphill. He wanted to appear like someone going for an innocent country walk, but he was failing. No rambler would crouch so low and look so hunted, especially when he deviated from the path, which crossed the field towards another gate. Instead he followed the line of the hedge up to the fenced-in wood.

Hurrying uphill was warming him up a bit. But his gloveless hands clamping the bag to his chest, felt very cold. The sun was low.

He reached the barbed wire fence, passing carefully between the upper and middle lines. Then the bag snagged, spilling all the books.

On the edge of the trees was a stump, which he now sat on having gathered the books.  Hidden from the road, he was more relaxed. He felt in his coat pocket for his tobacco and papers, the snick-snick of the lighter loud in his cupped hands when he lit up.

As he smoked, he noticed tufts of hair caught on some of the barbs.

 

I like this place, don’t you?

Why are we here? I think it’s rubbish.

Of course you do.

 

He stood up from the stump, with his balled fist at his head. He stamped on the ground as if to brazen out his doubts. Time to act, to go deeper into the trees. Overhead, the rooks accused him noisily. 

 

No I won’t.

For once in your life, do what you are told!

 

He walked deeper. Thorns caught him, then it became easier between the sombre trees. Underfoot were the rotting rags and tatters of autumn; brown bracken, sodden leaves and weeds. Falling to his knees, David dug into the earth. Right away, he wished he had brought something more workmanlike than a trowel. The soil was wet, but not compacted.

After a few minutes, he had scooped a muddy hole deep enough for the books and he began to inter them, their worn spines uppermost. Now he worked deliberately, and paused to take a shot of the half buried books with his phone. The sun was almost gone now, and the cold was growing by the minute. He began to hurry, scooping the cold mud back.

Like something distantly overheard, David realised that he was sobbing.

 

You can’t make me.

I will.

Stop it!

 

‘Stop it!’ David bit his lip savagely. It bled.

A crackle of some force. His hand had strayed onto cloth. A dark, giddy world flooded towards him as he pulled out a tee-shirt from the loose soil. A flashback in his head to the dream of being hauled.

Blood was dripping from his bitten lip. Ridiculously, his face was full of tears and snot.

It had been there, all along. A reflection in the corner of his eyes. But it was only by following the line of the twisted rag that he looked properly at the puddle. In it was a grey-white collection. The bones of a child-sized hand outspread like the fossil of a fin.

After he had vomited, there were two realisations.

First, was that he had found the shallow grave of a child.

The second seemed far worse.

It was the knowledge that he was hooked by something he would never understand, and that it would compel him, through constant pain, every hour of his life. That his life’s work was discovering the things that should stay hidden.  And that death would one day reach him, gaping and gasping, like a goldfish on a carpet.

 

 

Peter Kenny is beginning to experiment with dark fiction, or perhaps something in dark fiction is beginning to experiment with him. He is also a poet and playwright and freelance writer working with humanitarian and health clients. His poetry publications include The Nightwork (Telltale Press 2014) and A Guernsey Double (Guernsey Arts Commission 2010), and his five performed plays are all black comedies, the most recent being A Glass of Nothing, which had its third run in Edinburgh last year. 

He blogs at www.peterkenny.co.uk

Follow Horla on Twitter @HorlaHorror