by Kyler Campbell
His father steered the small skiff across Sanborn Bay and into the grey Maine morning. He used an oar to glide across the north Atlantic swells so as not to produce any noise among the reverberating waves and dawn-treading pelicans. In the rear of the skiff, the boy peered into the bright red cooler again. He wanted to see the lobsters tumbling over top of one another. Their claws swirled around, opened and shut. The boy let the lid close. This was his first time out on the boat, and his father was teaching him to poach traps.
Each lobster had been pulled from a different trap along the bay. Some of the traps were wooden half-circles, the planks swollen with sea water. Some were a complicated nuance of wire and steel. They had all been saturated with the stench of the muddy bottom, that sour earth smell that rises out of the bay and latches onto everything around it. Not a single one had belonged to the boy or his father. This was the farthest the boy had ever been on the water, and the weather was getting colder.
The boy sat back against the rear of the boat, huddled in his poncho. “How come we got so little?” he asked.
His father shushed him. “Getting colder,” he said, almost in a whisper. “They move farther out when it gets colder.”
The light settled somewhere behind the haze that stretched across the water, and the boy’s father navigated slowly, waiting for some other boat to emerge from the mist. But there hadn’t been anyone to disturb them, only the sloshing of the oar in the water and the indistinct splashes of mackerel breaking the surface.
They came upon a brightly decorated buoy, orange and green with a six digit number printed on the side. The boy’s father slowed the boat and drifted next to it. He and the boy took the rope anchored to the buoy and lifted two traps out of the water. Each trap had three small lobsters rolling along the bottom and three red bricks tied to the framework to weigh it down. The boy opened the backdoor of the trap like his father had shown him earlier that morning. He carefully pulled out the lobsters and put them in the cooler with the others. They tossed the traps over the edge of the skiff and watched them sink just below the cloudy water.
“That’s probably good for today,” his father said in a half-whisper, as if the Marine Patrol were waiting just out of sight. He had never expressed any worry about the authorities to his son. The boy had only heard his father talk in fear of the other lobstermen who may find them hauling pots with someone else’s license number on them.
Since that morning, the boy hadn’t questioned his father. They had only helped each other haul the pots they came upon and never discussed the one idea that grew like a fever inside the boy’s head: these traps were someone else’s traps. The boy thought about asking, but he couldn’t get over the look of excitement on his father’s face that flashed through the fog like a signal from a lighthouse. It seemed that he enjoyed it. The boy sat back against the inside of the boat.
His father pulled the start cord on the outboard two-stroke motor with gentle precision, so as not to create too much noise. The motor spun briefly, locked up, then refused to start. He pulled the start cord again, a violinist drawing his bow with soft assertion. The motor spun, then quit. The boy asked what was wrong, and said he was cold. His father said, “Cold is just a state of mind, son,” and lifted the small motor out of the water. The rope that attached the trap to its buoy marker was wrapped around the propeller, constricting the blade from spinning. “Must’ve gotten tangled when I tried to start it up,” the man said to no one in particular. He started to unravel the line, but the propeller had tightened the line’s grip, as tense as a steel cable. The boy came over to look.
“What happened?” the boy asked.
“Sit down, and be quiet,” his father said. The fog was dissipating in the dawn. The man sighed. With his serrated pocket knife, he cut the buoy and the rope from the top of the trap. He tossed the buoy back into the ocean, and the boy watched as it floated across the grey without anything to anchor it down.
“Why’d you do that?” the boy asked.
“We were stuck,” the man said. He wiped seawater from his beard and unraveled the rope from their boat motor.
“Won’t they know what happened?” the boy asked.
“I wouldn’t have done it ‘less I had to,” the man said. He and his son both watched the bright orange buoy float off into the morning mist. “They’ll know someone was here now,” the man said. “We can’t come back here anymore because they’ll be looking for us.”
“Who?” the boy asked.
The man didn’t answer. As the morning swallowed the orange marker, he and his son sat in silence like two people waiting for the other to speak.
The boy pulled his poncho over his face as the salty water sprayed into the boat. They had always been careful to put everything back as they’d found it. They had even paddled through the mist to avoid making too much noise. His father always told him that cutting trap lines was “leaving it plain as day for them to know what we’re doing.” The boy bounced with the skiff and held on to the side of the boat.
“Is there bread for sandwiches at home?” the boy asked over the sound of the engine.
“Why do you like sandwiches so much?”
The boy shrugged and his father shook his head.
“I guess we’ll have to see, won’t we?” His father twisted the throttle a little more.
The boy crawled over and opened the lid of the cooler. He stared down at the glossy black lobsters, scrambling overtop of one another. One lobster among the group stopped moving and stared back at him, and the boy began to sway his head from side to side, watching as the lobster did the same. Along its back was a small, barely noticeable crack.
“What are you doing up there, son?” his father asked.
“This one’s got a crack,” the boy said.
His father smiled. “Shedder,” he said. “We’ll let it sit overnight.”
The boy closed the lid of the cooler and sat back against the wall of the boat. He pulled his poncho tighter across his face and felt the warmth of his own breath on his nose. As they buzzed out into the morning grey, the sound of another boat motor skimmed through the mist, and the boy’s father looked back at him and smiled, drumming his fingers.
The boy and his father loaded the skiff onto their trailer and drove up highway 191 towards East Machias. Neither spoke much during the trip, his father checking the rearview mirror more than usual. The road rolled across the yellowing expanse of trees, and the boy watched as they passed a river at low-tide. The river had gathered into small puddles, exposing a dark muddy bottom. Along the river bed, men were digging, some up to their elbows in the muck. In smooth motions they tossed muddy clumps into white buckets. They slogged along a few steps, knee deep in the river bed, then reached in again for another handful and slapped it into the buckets at their feet.
“Is it clam season already?” the boy asked.
“Hard to believe.” The boy’s father glanced at the men out the window.
“Why don’t we dig for clams?”
His father sniffled from the cold inside the truck cabin. “We don’t have it in us like we’ve got lobster. Some got clams and some got lobsters.” On the instrument panel, the gas light illuminated. He shook the steering wheel from side to side to slosh the remaining fuel in the tank. The light turned off.
“What’s a shedder?” the boy asked.
“A lobster that’s getting ready to lose its shell. You wait till after it sheds then you cook it. The shell underneath is soft, easy to take off. Makes the meat sweeter.”
The boy looked behind them at the boat and trailer, swaying like a dog’s tail. He thought about the lobster swaying with him in the cooler, the shedder. He thought about it rolling across the others, black shells in a black darkness, not knowing which way was up or down.
“When the other lobstermen find out we took from them, won’t they get mad?” The boy asked.
The boy considered this a moment. “Why don’t we get our own traps then?” he asked.
His father swung the steering wheel back and forth again to turn off the gas light. “Takes so damn long. Heard of a fellow waited almost three years for his papers. We’d starve to death before the state even looked at the paperwork. Can you wait for three years?”
The boy was silent for a moment. Then he said, “No.”
“Nobody can,” his father said. They rode in silence for a minute or two, then he smiled, as if struck by some inspiration. “All this,” his father said, “it’s all temporary. We’re gonna be like that shedder. Before long, we’ll be off and into the good stuff. Just gotta wait it out.”
“What’ll we do till then?” the boy asked.
“Till then, we gotta eat.”
The boy knew they would continue to “poach pots” as he’d heard it called. They had been doing this since they had moved from Prospect Harbor. Sometime after his father stopped working for a cannery there, they were forced to move to Whitneyville where they rented a trailer on someone else’s land. The boy’s mother cleaned houses for well-off families in the area, mostly in Machias. His father had looked for work, but he’d only ever worked in the cannery, and like the textile mills of the South, they had all been shipped off to some unpronounceable third world city. Early on, the boy had asked his father if he’d ever felt bad for what he was doing, stealing other men’s livelihoods. His father had replied, “You do what you have to do to keep moving.” Something about the way his father had replied, the boy knew he enjoyed that part of it. More and more he got the feeling that his father loved the thrill of the thing, that there was some sort of reward for him.
They did not say anything else until they arrived in East Machias. The boy’s father parked at a restaurant named Joyce’s. The air had warmed some, but the bite of winter hung on the ends of their noses like a promise of things to come.
“Let’s get warmed up,” he said.
The boy nodded and hopped out of the truck and into the brisk morning air. He looked down as they walked through the parking lot. He felt as though he could fit both of his feet into one of his father’s shoes. Next to his, they were impossibly large.
The diner was sparsely furnished as roadside diners tend to be. The chairs and tables were second hand from some earlier decade. The tablecloths wore stains and holes like children wear scars, with pride and a sense of history. The boy sat at the counter, his shoulders just crowning the top. His father sat beside him and ordered one black coffee and one hot chocolate. They sat without saying anything, and when their order came, the two sipped their drinks in the quiet of the empty place.
The man turned to his son. “How is it?”
The boy nodded. He licked chocolate off his upper lip. “Hot,” he said.
The man smiled and drank his coffee. A fly buzzed around the diner and settled on the rim of a pie plate. The insect rubbed its hands together, just as many men do over an open fire after mornings out on the water.
A group of fishermen entered the diner and took a booth a few rows down from the boy and his father. The three fishermen wore waders the color of the river bottom and spoke loudly to each other even though they were in the same booth. They were not laughing or joking. All three seemed to carry a dark weight with them and were willing it to spread across the diner to cover the surface of everything in it.
The waitress eyed the man and his son, then walked over to the lobstermen and asked them what they would like.
“Some luck would be nice, Delilah,” one said.
“You know how it is sometimes,” she responded. “It’s getting colder out there.”
“Cold don’t cut the trap lines,” another said.
“Maybe you mis-remembered where it was,” one said.
“I don’t mis-remember,” the other said through a thick down-eastern accent. “They was all in one line for two clicks. Someone cut that line.”
The lobstermen ordered their breakfast and continued griping and cussing with each other about their losses. The boy leaned over to his father and began to say something but didn’t. His father’s fingers drummed against the coffee mug with no discernible rhythm. The boy listened to the coarse language coming from the lobstermen, and felt as if he were beginning to understand something more about his father and the world around him, although he could not articulate it just yet.
“I’ll be right back,” his father whispered to him. He followed a sign to the bathroom.
The boy did not move, nor did he breathe any louder than was necessary. In between sips of his hot chocolate, he glanced at the lobstermen. Each one had a beard thicker than the next and arms that were knit out of sailing rope. He tried not to listen to them gripe, and for a minute, he succeeded. Until the tall one spoke.
“Every trap, empty,” he said. “We’re already three months behind on the car, and the girls are starting school in a week.” He slammed his fist on the table, clattering the silverware, then he cursed again. “They got one Marine Patrol for every thirty lobstermen out there. The gear-cutters are getting rich while we’re starving.”
The boy had no interest in his hot chocolate anymore, and he felt the cream and cocoa in his stomach turning over each other like the lobsters in their cooler. He took a white napkin in his hand and began tearing it into small pieces, stacking them into a neat pile beside the cup. The lobstermen were still talking to each other, but he did not want to listen to them anymore. He raked the napkin shreds into his hand, and slowly sprinkled them into his cocoa. Each shred fell into his drink, sprinkled like salt on a meal. One piece joined to another and eventually they sought each other out, as if trying to piece themselves back together into what they once were.
His father came around the corner and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “What are you doing?” he asked.
The boy dropped the remaining napkin shreds into the cocoa in one white lump. The flakes settled and then disappeared into the brown. “Waiting for you,” the boy replied.
The man eyed the lobstermen who were still visibly fuming. “Finish up,” his father whispered. “We need to go.” He downed the remainder of his coffee.
“Delilah, whose skiff is that out there?” one of the lobstermen called across the diner.
The woman didn’t respond, and the lobsterman looked at the boy and his father. “That yours, skipper?” he asked.
“Was my father’s,” the man replied. He gathered up his son and shooed a fly from his coffee mug. It circled the counter, then settled into the boy’s cocoa, straddling the inside of the cup and the edge of the liquid.
“Ain’t seen you out on the water before, chief. What you running in that? A four stroke?” All three lobstermen were looking to the man and his son.
He hurried his son away from the counter, standing behind him. “A two-stroke actually. Just showing this one how to catch mackerel.”
The lobstermen eyed him, their backs torqued to the man and his son. “Where you guys been floating at?”
“Near Stevens Cove. Just seeing what was good this late in the season,” the man said. His hands rested on his son’s shoulders, the boy standing between him and the lobstermen. The boy’s hands were starting to shake. He felt exposed, as if the lobstermen could see every inch of him as he shielded his father. They hadn’t been anywhere near Stevens Cove that morning. But he would not contradict his father.
“Mind if we take a look at your skiff out there?” one of the men asked.
“Maybe another time. This one’s all wore out.” He patted the boy’s shoulders. “Sorry to hear about your traps, fellas.” The man put three dollars down on the counter.
They walked to the door and along every step, the men watched them. Although he did not say anything, the boy felt a weight, and he thought about the lobstermen and their families. His father stepped outside the door, but the boy planted his feet in front and turned to the lobstermen.
“Do your kids eat lobster sandwiches?” he asked them.
The men, visibly weathered, stared directly at the boy. They glanced at each other, and the tall one smiled, showing two missing teeth. “What’s your name, son?” he asked.
Outside the diner, the boy’s father turned around and saw his son still inside. He came through the door, grabbed the boy’s arm, and led him to the truck. The boy watched the lobstermen, obscured by the “Joyce’s” sign painted in bright yellow along the plate glass window of the diner. They climbed into the truck and the man wrung the old steering wheel in his hands.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” he said. “I told you we were leaving. Don’t talk to them. Don’t look at them.” He paused. “What if they would’ve come out here? What then?” He started the truck and pulled out onto the highway.
“Their kids won’t get to eat now,” the boy responded. It surprised him that he had said anything to his father.
“But you will,” his father said. “Now don’t say anything till we get home.”
The boy leaned his head against the window and watched the trees flow by the road until they blended into a seamless picture, as seamless as the space between the cove and the sea.
When they arrived home, the boy and his father hadn’t said anything to each other, only mumbled a greeting to the boy’s mother while she stood over a pot of boiling water. They hauled the cooler into the kitchen and one by one dropped the lobsters into the pot. Although the boy had seen this done countless times, he recoiled every time his mother or father dropped one in. He thought about what it felt like to be surrounded on all sides by that terrible heat. It made him sweat.
After they had finished boiling, the boy, his mother, and his father began de-shelling the lobsters. None of them spoke to each other. Every now and then, his mother would look to either of them, as if translating their silence to herself. They twisted the claws and pried off the tail and the body creating individual piles of claw meat, tail meat, and everything in between. After finishing, his father washed his hands and sat down in the small living room to read yesterday’s newspaper. The boy’s mother regularly picked old newspapers out of the recycle bins of the families she cleaned for and brought them home. The boy and his mother were left to clean up.
He watched his mother clean the limited counter space around her. She wiped up fragments of lobster shells and tossed them into a potbelly stove in the corner. She set aside three jars of lobster meat on a top shelf. The lids were banded to the glass mason jars and she checked to make sure they were airtight. The boy thought they looked like science experiments, body parts like they showed on television shows. He knew that in a few days, the lobster meat inside those jars would turn from white to black and it would be ruined, even if the jars were sealed.
“I wish we had bread for sandwiches,” the boy said, drumming his fingers across the countertop.
His mother sprinkled salt on every surface in the kitchen. “If wishes and wants were candy and nuts,” she said. She looked up at him, but he was not looking back. She cut a lemon in half and began to scrub the citrus on the counter. The shellfish smell slowly evaporated around them. The smell of lemon and salt rose up and stung the boy’s nostrils.
His mother stopped scrubbing, leaned in and kissed the boy on the forehead. The sun shone hard through the kitchen windows. The boy, still reminiscing about the diner, put his head down on the counter.
“I don’t want to eat lobster anymore,” he said.
His mother continued scrubbing the kitchen surfaces with the other half lemon. “Then I guess you’ll starve.” She sprinkled more salt on the counter. “Maybe you can be a vegetarian then. Just eat rabbit food.”
The boy didn’t want to laugh, but he did smile a little.
“You squalling with your pop?” she asked.
“Not really,” the boy said.
“Good. Less you two fight the more sleep I get.”
The boy ran rubbed grains of salt between his finger and thumb. “I don’t want to fish with Pop anymore,” he said.
“And why’s that?” his mother asked without looking up.
“It’s stealing,” he said.
His mother stopped scrubbing the lemon on the counter. “What would you rather us do?”
The boy shook his head. He couldn’t think of an answer.
“One day,” she said, letting go of the lemon. “One day, you’ll grow up and you’ll have to make a choice between what you think is right and what you know is right. When you do, I want you to remember your pop.” She resumed scrubbing with the lemon as if nothing had happened between them.
The boy licked the salt from his fingers and hopped down from the stool. In the living room, his father was asleep in his chair, his breath like a broken train whistle. He pitied his father and the life he had created. He pitied his choice between what he thought was right and what he knew was right. He pitied his mother for it too. And after he had pitied both of his parents, he pitied himself. A boy with the convictions of a priest. A boy who only thought he knew what was right.
But he did know what was right.
He went out the front door into the afternoon light. He didn’t have a jacket or a hat, and although the sun was shining, the temperature had not reached above fifty degrees. He opened his father’s cooler, the saltwater still sitting stagnant underneath the sun. One lobster lay motionless at the bottom, the shedder. They hadn’t banded any of their lobsters’ claws, so the boy pulled it from the cooler, keeping the claws away from his face. He ran his finger across the crack on the lobster’s back, already wider than he remembered that morning. Its claws swayed back and forth, much as they had done that morning on the boat.
The boy ran across the small yard and into a patch of nearby pines, carrying the flailing lobster with him. He set it down among the fallen needles and leaves and stared into its glossy black face. The color of it was like some kind of black mirror, distorting the images of the boy’s face and the trees around him. The lobster didn’t move.
It was colder underneath the trees. He nudged the lobster with his foot. “I’ll be back in the morning,” he said aloud. “And you better be on your way back home.”
That night he dreamt of voices in the dark. In the boy’s dreams they were shadows made of lemon and salt. They moved around, in between, and even through the trees like water coursing over some small insignificant patch of earth. As the shadows passed through them, the trees became scraps of white paper flakes, gusting off into the night. Each shadow carried a bucket like the clam diggers carried, but when the boy looked inside their buckets, there were no clams nor clumps of mud. There was smoke and ash.
When he woke, it was still full night. He crept to his window and listened until he heard voices in the drive. He put on his shoes and snuck out into the cold night air in just his pajamas. At the end of the drive, the three lobstermen huddled around his father’s boat, examining the engine. Two men held screwdrivers in their hands like stubby daggers. They looked like the spirits from his dream in their dark hoods and gloves. The tall one recognized him immediately, but did not seem afraid. He smiled and again showed his missing teeth.
“Hey, little skipper,” he said.
“You need to leave,” the boy said. The cold all around him sunk through his skin, making its way to his bones. He shook from the cold.
The lobstermen laughed, then the tall one spoke. “Do you know what you and your pop did? You stole from us. We should’ve called the cops. But we’re not interested in that.” The three men stood as still as the trees.
“Don’t hurt us,” the boy said.
“We’re not gonna hurt you, skipper.”
“It’s not right,” the boy said. “We have to eat too.”
The lobsterman stroked his beard, then placed his large hand on the boy’s shoulder, and it seemed to cover his entire body. His beard was spotted with gray, like the first snow flurries on the black dirt. “What’s right is not negotiable, skipper. Just remember that,” he said. “When you’re old and got responsibilities, just remember that.”
The boy felt the pressure of the man’s hand against his body. It seemed to force him deeper into the ground below. The lobsterman patted him on the cheek. He told the boy to go inside and not to wake his mom or pop. The boy stepped backwards toward the trailer, watching the lobstermen devolve into a discoloration against the night sky, still standing around his father’s boat.
Once inside, he crept as quiet as the falling snow back into his room. He stopped at his parent’s bedroom door for only a moment. He stared at the dull brass door knob, too dull for any sort of reflection. He did not know what the men outside would do to the boat. After a moment, the boy removed his shoes, and walked the hallway in only his socks.
Once he had lain down, he remembered the lobster he’d left in the woods. There was nobody to check on it, to make sure it was okay. Before he could get up again, he fell back asleep.
His father was screaming in the driveway. The boy didn’t look out of his window when he shot out of bed, but he ran to the front door. Each footfall shook the plastic walls of the trailer. When he had finally reached the door, the noise of his steps and the echoing emptiness had settled. Through the dingy glass, orange light pulsated like a star that had been brought to rest in the front yard. Amidst the glow, his father was still screaming. The boy stepped into the night with only his socks to protect his feet from the cold.
The small skiff had been set ablaze. The engine had been dismantled, doused in gasoline and tossed into the boat to burn with scrap wood and kindling. His mother stood a ways back, still closer to the house than the fire, with her arms crossed and her hair a mess. She held a phone in her hand and seemed prepared to call any number she could think of.
His father shoveled dirt by hand, tossing it into the blaze. To the boy, he looked as if he were feeding the fire, as a person would feed an animal at the zoo. The flickering glow opened and closed like a great mouth, one that devoured the dirt as much as the wood and gasoline from which it was born.
The man told his wife not to call the police. He turned to his son and shouted, “Get over here and help me.”
Even some ways back the boy could feel the warmth of the flames. It was comforting and terrifying at the same time. It cut through the cold air and rubbed against his cheeks like a family pet come in from the cold. The boy didn’t move even though his father was still shouting and shoveling. He stared into the fire light, and a powerful momentum grew inside his chest.
He ran past the fire and past his father. The man reached out to grab his son, but the boy shrugged him off. He ran for the tree line that marked the end of the property and crossed into the woods, kicking up debris as he went.
He moved through the trees and over the shrubs, only pausing to exhale the sharp cold that stuck like fish hooks in his lungs. Somewhere in the middle of the woods, he stopped underneath a canopy of pines. His father’s screams were no louder than the crickets in the grass now and the fire no brighter than the pitch of stars above his head. He kicked among the crackle of leaves and the brush of pine straw until he found the spot he had left the molting lobster earlier in the day.
In its place lay only a black empty shell, filled with a white membrane, criss-crossed like cobwebs. “They’re more vulnerable after they molt,” his father had told him once. He’d said that the animals could move faster, but the outside was soft as old leather, and the inside was sweet 17 like nothing else in all creation. The boy searched again for signs and tracks. He picked up brush and thicket with the ferocity of a scavenger on the scent of his last hope of sustenance. There was no lobster. All above him, birds cawed and sang like sailors after a hearty meal.
Kyler Campbell would not have put a pen to paper if his wife (and eternal muse) hadn’t tricked him into it. He now holds an MFA in fiction from Converse College, and his work is forthcoming or has appeared in Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, Gadfly Online, and The Mountain Laurel. He currently lives and teaches in Charleston, South Carolina.