Twelve people stood in a semicircle, just a pace in front of the steel table. They had paid to see his hands at work, so they all wanted front row seats. They did not want to miss the trick.
Three large light bulbs hung in a line above the man. Only shapes of shadow slipped on and off him; darkness caught under his eyebrows when he leant forward, holding on thinly beneath his hands as he adjusted his apron straps. Every eye followed as he took the flannel, water running between his knuckles, and swept wet arcs on the shining surface. They watched as he put a white, folded cloth in the center and smoothed it with his palms. They watched as he put the wooden block on top.
For a moment, the man disappeared behind the table and the twelve white faces leant in closer. When he stood again he held a blue washbowl full of swaying water, putting the bowl down so heavily the surface rippled with the trauma.
The man began to immerse each fingertip, the audience close enough to see his fingers curl and the brine odor flare his nostrils. The cold tension crept from one crease in his finger to the next. As smoothly as he moved, water still splashed from the washbowl, running down his forearm, and only died down when the muscles in his arms tensed. A lady in the front row wiped her cheek with a tissue.
The man lifted a silver fish above the water and held it out to the audience. A grey-blue iris caught the light. As he placed the fish on the block it began to slap the wood so, with a heavy hand, the man held the gills and head down. The flip-flap of muscle grew muffled; only the mouth was free to gape and pucker. The man picked up a narrow knife in his spare hand, leant over the fish with darkening lips, and rested it behind the pectoral fin. He slipped the blade to the spine and, with a wrick of his wrist, along the spine to the tail. Hidden from view, the fish’s eyes dilated, with the dark and pain. The man slid the filleted flank onto the block and rolled the fish over. Putting one hand on the face again, he sliced behind the fin, to the bone and to the tail. He slid the second flank onto the block.
More delicately than before, he picked up the fish – the connected head, spine and tail – and placed it back into the bowl. The audience watched him beckon them closer, with that practiced wrist.
Crowded around, some with noses pressed to the blue rim, they could see the fish suspended in the water. Only now it was a white fish. Translucent. Near evanescent. The novelty lights above gave it an almost angelic glow. It did not float or sink – mouth gaping and gawping, gills throbbing and fins flicking – but defied death with a raw verve. The fish’s eyes became a black eclipse, bursting with intense blue flares. But no one saw. The man was offering the lady from the front row a pair of chopsticks and fresh sashimi.
BA Cullen has been writing for years in various forms. But is attending Comma Press’ Short Story Course and been encouraged to submit. He has recently been published by Dirty Chai magazine. You can follow him on Twitter via @bacullen85.