The moon’s silver ripples and shatters into a thousand glints in the wake of the lone fisherman crossing the mud flat. Its dim dappling is the only light in the long dark before the dawn. The muddy shallows settle, erasing the fisherman’s boot prints. Crabs sift the disturbed mud without reward. Nothing else moves.
The fisherman yawns as he sets his bucket on the rocks of the promontory. It’s as empty now as when the night began. He casts his line into the listless waters, more by habit than optimism. The fish won’t begin biting until the turn of the tide at dawn.
How long has he been coming out here? Longer than he can remember. Since childhood, and the old fisherman can’t even remember a time when he could remember being a kid. After dawn arrives, the kids will come, with their footballs and their boards and their noisy music, and the fish will find somewhere else to be. The old fisherman will pack up his bucket and line and trudge around the point. He doesn’t begrudge the kids. They have to live their lives, don’t they?
The old fisherman feels in the pockets of his jacket for a cigarette, his fingers hunting of their own volition through all the old patterns. They won’t find anything but holes and lint. It’s been so long since he had a smoke he isn’t even sure what it was like any more. Only his fingers remember their part.
He tugs the tip of his fishing rod up, two gentle jerks to entice some phantom fish. Nothing bites.
He looks across the wide expanse of the moonlit beach. The water line, the mud flat broken here and there by the indistinct scurry of some shelled creature, the beach of gritty sand, the shrubs and grasses holding the dunes to their swollen shapes, and the rising slope of the forested range beyond. In the distance, across the curve of the bay, a faint gap in the tree line marked the dirt carpark at the end of a twisting dirt road. It’s a quiet spot. A beaten track off the beaten track.
In a short while, the first battered cars of the morning will arrive, just ahead of the dawn. They will disgorge tanned bodies and fresh-waxed boards. As the sun brings colour from the darkness, the others will follow. Headphone-clad joggers looking for a peaceful stretch of sand. Retirees hobbling behind little dogs stretching cable leashes to the limits. The oyster hunter with his wet sack and his wickedly sharp dirks. And as the morning stretches forth, families will arrive to roll out towels, set coolers at the foot of umbrellas, and shout at each other about sunscreen.
By then the old fisherman will be long gone. The scene has played out in every possible combination over the years. There’s nothing left to surprise him.
His bucket is empty. The bites will come at the turning of the tide.
The day belongs to those others. The old fisherman has the night to himself, and if that’s not quite a comfort, it’s at least familiar. Sometimes he thinks he misses it, being with other people. But after all this time, who would he talk to? He doesn’t remember the last time he talked to anybody, but he knows it didn’t go well. The memories all drained out of him like a receding tide, and isn’t it better that way? Better just to fish, forget, and wait. The tide will come back in its own time.
A hungry gull calls, the first of the morning. The fisherman tries to spot it breaking the pattern of the stars but there’s nothing above him. From the deepest pits of him comes the echo of the bird’s hunting call.
When was the last time he ate? Hunger stimulates his memory. He recalls the meal.
Oysters, shucked fresh from the shell. Before the first salty mass slithers past his tongue, the oyster hunter has offered another, and the old fisherman takes it, stretching out his wrist. His father’s watch casts a dull yellow glint of reflected moonlight, catching the oyster hunter’s eye. He nods appreciatively. The fisherman takes the shell from the oyster hunter’s fingers and raises it to his mouth.
Nothing ever tasted so good as those oysters. The best meal he ever had. He wonders where the oyster hunter is now. He hasn’t come back to the beach.
The fish aren’t biting yet. The fisherman looks to the sky again, where his searching eyes find a few less stars than a moment ago. Dawn is on its way, and with it will come the turning of the tide. Then they’ll take his bait and his patience will pay off.
The old fisherman wonders about his bait. Maybe it’s not to their taste any more. Do fish learn new habits? Folklore would say no, they just repeat their old patterns endlessly, unable to change ingrained behaviour. But he thinks about silver schools banking around alien shapes in the water, about darkened waves churning through rocky crevices, and about a thousand thousand tentative nibbles polishing bones bare. Maybe the old bait won’t do any more, not for fish with new appetites.
He glances down at his bare wrist. More force of habit. He’s not sure of the time, but he can taste change on the wind. The horizon is clawing shape from the darkness. Sunrise isn’t far away now.
And this morning, like every morning, low tide is at dawn. The beginning of another day heralds its return.
The old fisherman stands at the rocky promontory next to his empty bucket, and waits, and waits, for the rising of the sun and the turning of the tide.
Any time now.