The Tinsmith by Tim Bowling
Then he heard it. A single word, shouted. “Dare!” And it was like a cipher into which everything plunged: river, stars, sky, even memory. The darkness began to flow. Anson felt himself moving with it, heavy as a sodden stump, roots torn away from the earth. But when the word came again, it stopped him short. Dare. Now it was quieter. Anson wondered if he’d really heard the name a second time or merely an echo. Then he realized that the voice was not quieter, the word had fallen in unison with a sudden eruption of noise from the cannery, which now opened before him like a side of bleeding flesh. The blue-smocked Chinese, their pigtails cracking, tossed chunks of salmon from them like burning armour. The greased and bloodied conveyor belts whined. Rows of Indian women wielding knives bent so far over that they appeared headless – their elbows sliced the air as sharply as the blades they held. Steam and smoke travelled in great scuds underlit with blood. Everywhere workers trundled wooden barrows heaped with fish, as if delivering souls to the furnaces of hell. Anson stared at one worker and his burden: The living man and the dead salmon shared the same agonized expression of nothing. The planks underfoot ran slick with slime and entrails. Anson slipped as he rounded a large, pulsating boiler into which a bare-chested, wickery Chinese grinned as he tossed in chunks of cedar. The wood, like the fish, seemed recently dead. The absence of screams was as nightmarish as the sudden appearance of two Indian children, a boy and a girl no more than eight years old. Naked except for a cloth at the loins, their skin speckled with blood, they stood laughing and chewing on raw gouts of flesh. The boy had his hand inside a severed fish-head, working the jaw open and closed as if it were a puppet. Then a thick retch of steam hid them from view.
Anson stood in the midst of the chaotic order and looked desperately around. The pounding of the gears, shafts, and pistons reverberated up from the floor straight into his skull. Slowly his stinging eyes came to rest on the open wall of the building fronting the river. A tiny stitching of stars shone just below the roof beams. He started toward the light, vaguely thinking that he could regain his bearings outside and make a rational decision. But before he could escape the damp, blood-soaked interior, Anson glimpsed a dark figure slipping to the right of his vision. This time, however, the word did not come. Perhaps, he thought with horror, there was no longer any need for it. Though he had heard no shot, he knew that Henry Lansdowne was capable of a more intimate revenge. Anson began to move, the blue-smocked Chinese sliding away to either side of him as if they’d been stabbed by the grim labours of the Indian women invisible in the dirty steam. Now the word was on Anson’s lips, but he could not utter it. The letters were weighted down with blood. Anson waded through fathoms of stench with dead fish swimming around his legs, their entrails clutching like seaweed, threatening to pull him under.
The night air helped. Outside again, the name became a whisper he could hear a long way down, where he had helped to join it to flesh in the vague years already spent. He listened to himself as if the past were a compass. Then he knew where Dare would be. The knowledge came to him in a burst of clarity, the whole night’s hood thrown back off the shoulders of an indifferent, because nonexistent, god. Dare would be where he had always been, where he had died even as he started to run, where Anson himself had died, where the salmon wanted to die even beyond the meaningless physical phase of their brief lives.
Excerpted from The Tinsmith (2012) by Tim Bowling, reprinted by permission of Brindle & Glass Publishing Ltd.
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