It was the usual bustle of the wharf. Shipping crates swinging in on ropes and pulleys from ships that smelled of exotic spices and men’s sweat blending with the salty spray of the sea. A few first mates were overseeing their crew’s activity; ensuring essential productivity and that no one scartered off while work was to be done, especially with the lure of the local unsavoury female population so near at hand. Amongst the shouted commands and the noise of wood clunking and scraping along the planks, a calm, pink figure swayed down the middle of the docks.
The docksfolk knew him as Chum. Some of the friendlier street food vendors would offer dango or the occasional ball of sticky rice when Chum’s gentle, if vacant, face lumbered by their stall. With arm extended, holding a treat, the restaurateur could expect to wait up to half a minute for his tan muzzle to finish twitching and for an excited, though sluggish, claw to reach over to receive the small offering. Chum acted as mascot for a more comfortably paced life to the busy and buzzing workers on the docks. They weren’t bitter about it, as there was no smugness or laziness about Chum. He quite simply looked like a walking piece of pink saltwater taffy, pulled into a rotund, pleasant shape.
On this particular day, Chum had, indeed, acquired a small, double paper cup of steaming miso soup, briny and full of umami flavor. Somewhat mindlessly, the slowpoke tipped the container into his wide mouth and sipped at the broth and drank down the tofu cubes and delicate vegetable slices. It was hot. Too hot. But by the time Chum’s tongue and throat had burned and had been recognized as such, the miso was gone. His eyes watered a little and the next few swallows felt tender.
In the time it took for Chum to make it back to his owner’s stall, the pangs had ebbed away. A gruff and old fishmonger, arthritic in hands and knees–Chum’s owner–was almost as well known up and down the docks as Chum himself.
“Yew pile of stinking guts, not even fit ter chum the water fer madgey-carp! Thought yew whurr gonna get better fish fer me to sell at prices to match! But all yew’ve been catchin’ me lately is the scummiest, most barnacle-bitten flotsam I ever seen!” He pointed to slowpoke’s tail, which currently was host to an admittedly puny, brown and slimy sludgefish. Locals already knew the fish was bad, foreigners were still overcharged for it, and long-time sea captains had seen similarly foul creatures show up in the markets of expanding cities the world over. “I cain’t give that away!” he said as he reached out and slapped the sludgefish off of Chum’s tail. Stunned, it unbit and dropped to the rough-hewn floor with a heavy, wet thud. Chum waggled his tail slowly, noticing it felt lighter.
Chum turned in place and bent down to pick up the fallen animal. He scooped it and shuffled over to the fish waste grinder. About to drop the sludgefish into the wide opening at the top, Kajika (鰍), surprisingly agile for his age and condition, swooped in for the fish and dusted it off, further berating Chum for his “unyielding density and lack o’ ingin-yuity,” further saying that “I’ll just rinse it real good and add a few touches of yeller paint on its fins and. It’ll pass for one o’ those fancy ayu. Sell it fer a pretty penny to a landlubber tourist, I tell yer what!” He paused and rubbed his stubbly, graying chin. “A sludgefish turning into a sweetfish! Ha!” Grinning to himself he set to work washing and altering the appearance of the cheap and gritty muckbeast into that of a desirable, if not uncommon, juicy and tasty treat.
Kajika shooed Chum out the door, shouting after him “Now go make yerself useful and catch sumthin with yer fancy tail o’ yers that I ken sell! Fatty tuna! Nothing less!” Chum nodded and plodded back out. Maybe another vendor would have something sweet to counteract the gravelly and bitter taste Kajika’s vitriol left in Chum’s mouth.
It took slowpoke a good ten minutes to find a quiet perch along the pier. A few other fisherfolk were out, seated on stools, with buckets, tackle, and rods in tow. Skin tanned deeply from the full days spent out-of-doors, these professionals were apprentices to the master called Patience. The bitter chill working its way in from the Pacific had everyone wrapped up for warmth, and it was mostly leathery noses and hands poking out today. The younger man to Chum’s left nodded slightly as his new neighbor turned around and dipped his tail into the salty cold drink.
The shorebirds cackled and cawed up high, into the stiff sea breeze. With surprising alacrity, they took turns diving into the cresting waves, plundering schools of fishes who, in response to the hunters, broke apart and regrouped again and again in a never-ending dance of survival by raw numbers.
Staring into the murky deep and fidgeting with his line a touch, tugging now and again to jiggle the lure down below in a hopefully enticing way, the young fisherman sighed. “So, there I was,” he began.
He fixed one keen eye on Chum, a smile suppressed on his lips. “Doing my thing.” A pause. “Sailing on a ship, just doing my thing–there I was.” Chum finally had noticed the recounting was directed at him, with one curly ear perked up turned slightly to better hear him over the breaking surf. The storyteller picked up again with “So there I was, doing my thing, scrubbing vegetables in the kitchen of the big belly of a ship bound for a port not two day’s journey by ship away from this very harbor. As I finished the last of the daikon, and was getting ready to clean the pots and pans from the previous meal’s cooking, what did I happen to see?” After a pause, just long enough to surprise Chum with the silence. He was actually following this tale, perhaps because it allowed slowpoke a chance to catch up before it barreled on into more plot.
“Well, there was a pickle on the floor, something I had not been using that day. Which is saying something, since most of sailor’s fare is made almost entirely of rice, pickle, fish, and beer” He smiled. “Anyway, so there was this vegetable on the floor, rolling around, not there for any discernible reason besides the grace of the gods. I looked around the wooden crocks of pickles and noticed one with its weight removed, meaning that the lid was free to lay askew. I checked inside, and there was a few gouges in the nukadoko, where a hand–probably unwashed!–had reached in to grab a pickle.” The young man visibly grimaced, betraying his upset. “So, I take a clean bowl and scoop out the rice bran that was contaminated, and put the lid back on and weigh it down, making doubly sure to tie everything down as it should be. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a drunken figure, asleep in the empty rice sack pile. It’s the first mate! He’s terribly important, you see, but this guy had just been in an argument with his captain, and was grumpy and sleeping off a night of boozing, remnant of a pickled carrot in his clenched fist.”
His face twisted into an impish grin. “I didn’t like him much, since he usually drank too much anyway and left vomit everywhere that I had to mop up. It reeked. So. I may or may not have been thrown off the ship for what I did next.” He wiggled his eyebrows, then gasped, as a strong tug on the line alerted him to a catch. “Excuse me,” he voiced, then he stood up to pull the fish in. Fighting and wrenching, eventually a magicarp landed on the planks. “Dammit. Always magicarp! They eat all of my best bait!” He unhooked it and considered throwing it back in the sea. Sighing again, he instead dropped the thing into his bucket, which it filled to the point where saltwater spilled out of the top as it flicked its fins.
Reaching into the bait bag, he pulled out a chunk of something and pushed it onto the hook, casting the line out into the sea once more. He checked his other two rods and then sat down on his overturned bucket. Chum checked his tail for a catch, and saw only the beige tip that there always was. He dropped it back over the edge of the pier and let it hang.
“As I was saying,” continued the fisherman, “this stunt virtually ended my career as a kitchen boy. So there I was, standing in the pantry of this enormous ship, looking at the disheveled lump of a filthy man, drunk to his eyes. If I leaned in close enough, I could see a half-chewed bite of pickled carrot stuck to his lower lip. Having been privy to this man’s dietary management and restrictions…” Chum was leaning towards him again, listening intently. “So I knew he was allergic to Krabby, so I pulled a live one out of the stock tank and brought it to his sleeping person. I also knew that he had recently acquired a particularly itchy disease from the previous port, known as “crabs,” though it is actually a kind of lice.” He tapped the side of his nose knowingly, twice. “I simply had to put this Krabby in the most appropriate place, which so happened to be down the front of the first mate’s pants. I had almost made it out of the kitchen when I heard a yell roar from the pantry. As it turned out, the Krabby had clamped a particularly sensitive bit of this man. And so..!” He gestured to himself as he now sat. “A fisherman’s life for me, instead.”
Slowpoke nodded. This man was indeed fishing. Chum had perhaps missed a few parts on the way from A to B, on account of the brain freezes and thaws that continually enveloped his mind in succession. The young man stuck out a hand to Chum, offering a handshake. Chum rested his claw-tipped appendage delicately in the firm grip, which pumped up and down a few times. “My name is Ryoushi (猟師), by the way. I was discharged from my post not four months back and, after a bit of travelling from then to the end of summer, I’ve been here, scratching out a living, catching some fish for myself and selling the better fish to cover three bowls of rice a day and a roof over my head. Not a very big roof, mind, by dry enough.”
Chum gurgled out his own name, and Ryoushi laughed. “Chumbucket? What kind of person names a sweet, doofy thing such as yourself after one of the most foul and grimy pieces of the fisherman’s trade?” Ryoushi leapt up, indignant. “You know what, we’re going to pay your owner a visit and I’m going to tell him off–perhaps viciously!”
Chum jumped a little, emitting a tiny yelp, then slowed in movement to a sluggishness Ryoushi hadn’t believed possible. Lifting his tail out of the water at torpors only bested by certain plants, Chum revealed a roguish Shellder clamping down with malintent. Ryoushi leapt back as soon as Chum lurched a step forward, hunching over, and seemingly emanating an aura. Tissue crackled electrically and new bones creaked into being. Chum’s back appeared to broaden in all directions. Shellder itself morphed from a purple bivalve into a spiny, grey spiraled cone–its eyes moved too, which was terrifying to say the least. Chum groaned as the halo of energy dissipated, slowpoke no more, he was a newly resplendent slowbro.
He stood up to his full height, a good two feet above where it had been. Chum’s eyes, somehow more vacant than before, eventually swung around to Ryoushi, and they met levelly. Ryoushi felt his nausea pass as the last of the chi blast faded, and, sweat beaded on his face and seeping under his coat, reaffirmed: “as I said. Let’s go pay your master a visit.”