July 25: “The Singing Fish” by Peter Markus

Good day to you, Story366! Today marks another day I’m not at Cub Scout camp, but will continue to complain a little about and report on Cub Scout camp. Residual heat rash can still be found across my back, while that bug bite on my left biceps continues to worry me a little. This morning, I woke up and tried to unzip my bedroom door. So, as long as I’m still living camp, I’m still writing camp.

Because I’m writing about “The Singing Fish” from Peter Markus’ book We Make Mud (from Dzanc), which is about fish, I’ll first talk about fishing with my son at camp. Again, I really don’t want to complain about the experience of camp, as it was a great experience for me as well as my son, but one thing that went wrong was the fishing part. There was one station, one day, where the boys were supposed to fish for an hour, but because of some scheduling confusion, the fifteen-year-old Boy Scout in charge ended our session after about fifteen minutes; because the fifteen minutes included a quick safety lesson, and because my son was last in line to get a pole and bait, we fished for a grand total of five minutes.

Fishing, by the way, has in the past been a large part of my life. Even though I grew up in a specifically urban suburb of Chicago—Calumet City—my family had always fished, taking trips to lakes and rivers further south in Illinois and into Indiana. My dad was the leader of these expeditions, and was often joined by my older brothers, and eventually, me. Sadly, I didn’t get on as many of the father-sons trips as I would have liked before my father died in 1997. My older brothers and I fished a lot in the years after that, our way of grieving, I’d guess, but in the last fifteen years, we’ve more or less stopped. Part of that has to do with our lives becoming busier, me moving to Bowling Green, me becoming a father, but part of me has also started questioning my interest in the barbaric aspects of fishing, pulling these creatures out of the water in the most gruesome (and deceptive) of ways, immediately drowning them in oxygen, gutting them and eating them later. That doesn’t even cover what we do to the bait.

But there we were at Cub Scout camp, fifteen years since I’ve fished. All the other kids were doing it and my son seemed eager to try. I grabbed a pole, hooked a night crawler, and we dropped the line off the dock—literally, the line fell right into the water when I pressed the reel button, the camp rods so old and shitty, we couldn’t even cast.

Anyway, we had five minutes—the guy gave us the five-minute warning as soon as that worm broke the surface—and something happened: My son seemed to really, really like to fish. Helping matters was the clear water off the dock and the short fishing line, putting the wormed hook about a foot deep, clearly visible from above; even better, several small fish rose from the algae and muck to check out the bait, many of them bumping the worm with their snouts, some literally nibbling, the long-assumed phenomenon that had not been verified as real until then, fish taking small, quick bites out of the bait: Nibbling.

All this went down within thirty seconds, and for four and a half more minutes, my son not only got to fish, but he got to watch fishing. I hate to say this, I really do, but I think the kid is hooked.

“The Singing Fish” is about fish, if you haven’t guessed, so we have one of those rare Story366 posts where my little intro essay is actually related to the story. Okay, maybe the story’s not about fish, as in the fish are the main characters, some kind of anthropomorphized creatures with feelings and dialogue who drive cars and stuff. Fish do play a pretty vital role in the story, however, and that’s what I mean when I say it’s about fish.

I should note that “The Singing Fish” seems to be the first story in a novel-in-stories, as I read the first five or six pieces in We Make Mud, none of them longer than three pages, and we seem to be dealing with the same set of characters and circumstances throughout. I only hesitate about all this because A) I haven’t read the whole book (not the Story366 mission), and B) Markus’ book is rather untraditional, so calling it a “novel” might not fit some people’s definition of a novel.

What We Make Mud and “The Singing Fish” do is set up a scenario that includes characters, some limited physical action, and a whole lot of imagery. Then it just goes from there. In “The Singing Fish,” we are introduced to the book’s setting, a dirty little town that has a dirty little river running through it. The narrator/protagonist of the story is a pair of brothers who refer to themselves as “us brothers” throughout, and from this dirty river in their dirty town, they catch fish. The good, meaty parts of the fish, they eat (or so it’s implied), but the other parts, especially the heads, the brothers take those out to the backest part of their back yard and nail them to a telephone pole. It’s not explained why it happens, but that’s what these brothers do to the severed fish tails and fins and heads.

Then something magical happens: The fish heads look at the brothers and start to sing. Their song? Don’t leave. The fish, in song, ask the brothers to never leave the house, the yard with the telephone pole in which they are nailed to with rusty nails. Cool. I like magical realism. I like allegory. I like metaphor. In a three-page story, I wasn’t exactly sure which one “The Singing Fish” is yet—I’ll have to read the rest of the book—but I liked it.

The fishes’ request is challenged when the brothers’ father announces that they have to leave, move out of the house, away from the yard, out of town. This puts us well into the last page of this three-pager, so I’ll not reveal what happens next, but it’s cool and weird and more or less solves the problem that’s been posed. I wasn’t sure what to make of this story as I was reading it, only that I liked reading it, but when I got to this ending, I was even more pleased. The following stories, then, pick up with the brothers, the dad, the dead singing fish heads, slowly moving the narrative forward.

It should be noted, when reading Markus’ work, is that what happens or who’s doing what isn’t necessarily the most important thing to pay attention to. I read Markus’ debut novel, Bob, or Man in Boat, and now I’ve read a hunk of We Make Mud, and see a consistency in his prose, a very unique, stylized syntax that sets him apart from anyone else writing, or at least anyone I’ve read. All of the stories in We Make Mud are single, long paragraphs, all told without conventional dialogue, all told by a very observant and neutral third-person narrator. Most importantly, the narrator is lyrical, the sentences flowing and beautiful, employing an awful lot of repetition. I don’t quote lines much in Story366 (in fact, I’m not sure if I have yet this year), but here’s a sample from the story that can better illustrate what I’m talking about than anything I can come up with on my own:

“When our father told us we were leaving, he menat it, we were leaving for good—this dirty river, this dirty river town. We did not want to leave, my brother and me. We did not want to leave this dirty river, this dirty river town. We did not want to leave behind this town or the river or the river’s dirty river fish. We did not want to leave the fish-headed telephone pole out back in the back in our yard, back behind the wood tool shed where ….”

You get the idea. Each sentence builds a little on the previous, recalling repeated details that are introduced throughout the story. The words “river” and “town” and “fish” must each appear in the story a couple of hundred times in three pages. So, reading Markus’ work is reading something completely different from anything I’ve read. And now you’ve read it, too.

Bob, or Man in Boat came out on Dzanc soon after Elephants did, so Peter Markus and I were pressmates for a while, and I remember reading with him once, back in 2009, in the back patio of some bar in a cozy little neighborhood in Detroit, and after, a lot of people went out to eat and I had chicken and waffles. That’s been my memory of Peter for the last seven years, but now I’ve read from his latest collection and I have a new memory. I really look forward to getting deeper into We Make Mud, to seeing where all this goes, these brothers, this river, this town, these dirty fish heads nailed to a telephone pole in the back yard. I cheated a bit just now and jumped forward to the last story and read the first line. Us brothers and the river made an appearance. Time to figure out what’s on the hundred pages in-between.