Chum’s Escape

It took almost half an hour for Ryoushi and Slowbro to walk back to the fisherman’s stall. Bucket and rods swinging, the young fisherman made sure Chum kept moving, gently pushing him along to Kajika’s. One food vendor offered a sizzling, roasted fish on a stick to Chum, which Ryoushi picked up on his behalf. He thanked the vendor and said he’d make sure Chum got it, as Chum continued plodding along the dock, unable to process more than one goal at a time. A few times, Chum did stop in place, blankly staring straight ahead, and Ryoushi had to prompt: “You are walking to Kajika’s.” Then the tiniest flicker would twitch across Slowbro’s face and the large, heavy feet would pick up again and continue on.

Finally arriving at the fishmonger’s door, Chum entered and then stood still, without saying anything. Kajika, busy with a customer, was showing them the “freshest ayu caught on the docks today! Roast it easily at home and enjoy a delicious local delicacy. Tell your friends about your travels with fondest memories…” The customer, all wavy and burnt-red hair and clearly visiting from the great land northwest of the island of Japan, nodded noncommittally and winced at the unsightly warts and bumps running down the sides of the slimy fish. She turned to leave, and bumped into Chum. “извините,” she whispered, bowing slightly and ducking out of the way and leaving the shop, fur-trimmed woolen coat flapping as the door swung shut behind her.

Kajika noticed Chum was quite a bit bigger than before. “Another Shellder. Wonderful! So much better than this ‘sweetfish’ you managed earlier. I’ll go get the saw.”

“Wait, what?!” Shouted Ryoushi, stepping out from behind Chum. “What’s the saw for?”

Kajika hardly registered the outrage, stating matter-of-factly: “Their most notable skill is that they regenerate,” he pointed to Chum, “and the Shellder is poisoning him slowly anyway with an anti-pain drip. He won’t notice a thing. And–if I simply remove the Shellder with a heavy thwack, it’ll turn back into an entirely uninteresting and common and cheap purple version of itself. Not doing it.” Kajika disappeared into the backroom of the shop and returned with a not-particularly clean, not impressively sharp saw and a dingy bucket. “Now get out.”

He waited a moment for Ryoushi to leave, and when he didn’t, Kajika came after him with a rusty saw and started shoving him towards the door. Ryoushi pulled out a heavy knife, generally one he used for cutting lines and bait bits and such, and showed it while using his stronger hand to hold the saw-wielding arm back. Kajika saw he wasn’t going to outmatch Ryoushi in any sort of melee, and so backed down.

“So, what do you hope to achieve here?” He spat.

“Chum’s freedom.”

Kajika laughed, bitterly. “Freedom? Are any of us free? Truly? We all play our little, singularly insignificant part in feeding the greater good. The city and it’s wealthy elite. All I want is a taste of that high life, and my only chance, at my age, is with the money I make off of Chumbucket and his catches.”

Ryoushi, now even more full of rage, dropped his volume to a terrifying growl. “You deserve nothing. No power, no wealth, nothing. You have never cared for anything except yourself. You don’t deserve Chum, who has done nothing but help you because he doesn’t know what a complete ass you are.” He struck Kajika with a stunning blow, using the blunt handle of his knife. Kajika fell senseless to the filthy floor of his shop.

Taking Chum by the hand, and leaving his tackle and magicarp catch, Ryoushi tried pulling him to the door. “We’re leaving! C’mon!”

Slowbro, still stuck on the bit where people were yelling, and then not yelling, did not hear a word, and stayed plastered to the place where he stood.

Ryoushi, remembering the roasted fish, pulled it from his pocket and held it under Chum’s nose. He spoke soothing, soft words of better days and open skies, of good food and other wonders. Chum never caught every word, but the overall message was clear. Ryoushi wanted Chum to be happy in this time of upset; also food.

Following the delicious fish on a stick, Chum managed to make it out of the shop and down the street. After they ducked into an alley and managed to make it out the other side onto a less busy street, Ryoushi handed Chum the fish. Chum finished the snack, and then stood there, drinking in the universe through a thin straw.

Ryoushi, rolling up his thick sleeves, asked “did I ever tell you I picked up some fighting moves from the sailors on that ship I was kicked off of?” Chum made no reply, which by that point was expected, and Ryoushi continued about his business. Walking around to Chum’s tail, he eyed the Shellder. The Shellder eyed him back, to be fair, and toothed Slowbro’s tail with satisfaction.

“Well, you. I think you might, by this point, have realized my intent. To sum up, I’m going to brutalize you until you fall off, and then eat you because I am both hungry and I also never want to see you again.” He jabbed his finger right above Shellder’s aggressive, triangular eyes, where he decided the grey spiral’s forehead could be, maybe. “Got it?”

The teeth clamped on harder, continuing to release juices from Chum’s tail and which then served to feed his parasitic friend. It glared, unfazed by Ryoushi’s bold announcement.

“All right, then. You asked for it.” Ryoushi, limbering up, hopped back and forth on springing legs, keen eyes looking for a weak point anywhere on the Shellder’s casing. He tapped it all over, listening for patterns and variations. He jabbed it more pointedly in the eyes, which made it open its mouth a touch to utter a low growl, quickly followed by biting tighter.

“Hmm. I see.”

He was now looking into Shellder’s mouth, staring down the impressive row of teeth. Close enough to see a trickle of fluid leave Chums’s wounds, he saw a trace of inky black cloud the otherwise clear discharge. It made him angry. He spied a bit of dark flesh, which could only be Shellder’s gums.

“Aha,” Ryoushi exclaimed quietly, then he cracked his knuckles; “let’s give it a go then, shall we?”

With quick and devastating motions, he attacked the Shellder in a three-part onslaught. First, a double-stab to the gums with his fingertips, a tactic which demanded careful attention to avoid the teeth bearing down on Chum. This was followed by a chop to the eyes, which summoned a dull roar from Ryoushi’s steadfast opponent. While temporarily overwhelmed with the medium-level annoyances, he swung back and used that momentum to pick up enough speed and force to kick the Shellder off of Slowbro’s tail. Shellder clattered and rolled on the cobblestone street.

With a less nauseating transformation this time–or perhaps Ryoushi was simply more prepared–Chum lost two feet in stature and returned to his Slowpoke form. Shellder also reversed to their purple bivalve body, but remained K.O. on the ground. Chum’s eyes were slightly more focused, and his breathing faster. His metabolism sped up ten-fold from five minutes ago. He looked at Ryoushi and then to the clam at their feet. “Huh,” was what he managed to say.
Ryoushi, turning to face the terrible Shellder, roughly scooped it up and then he reached back to grab Slowpoke by the paw. “C’mon. We’re going to a restaurant I know. They’ll set us up with a table and an open fire pit so we can roast this sucker.”

The door to the restaurant had steam or smoke wisping out even before they opened it. As soon as the door slid away, a nearly sweltering heat greeted their faces, and along with it the delicious, heavy scents of four shichirin full of yakiniku, or Korean-style barbecue meats. Closing the door behind them with an audible click, Ryoushi led Chum to an empty table and they sat down, Ryoushi removing coats and rags and wraps. The coal barbecue pit in the middle of the table had a grate on top, which Slowpoke noticed was where others were placing their meat and veg and cooking them, piece by piece.

A waitress in a clean short apron arrived at the table promptly, placing glasses of water. Ryoushi mentioned he knew the chef, and he asked if she would be willing to take the Shellder in back to get sliced up. She remarked that “we do not normally allow this, but since you are a good friend of the chef, I will let her decide. Excuse me.”

Slowpoke rubbed his hands and held them near the roasting coals. Ryoushi dipped his finger in his glass and flicked a few drops of water onto the grate, just to hear it sizzle while they waited.

The chef herself came to the table, wiping her brow free of sweat with a small rag. “Ryou~! What the hell are you doing here?” A bellowing laugh followed from her great gut, her equally great bosom heaving, and she clapped Ryoushi on the back. “After we were compelled to let you go… I’d hire you back in a heartbeat if Mr. Sanko didn’t come here so often.”

Ryoushi, reclining on the bench seating and with one foot on the seat, dipped his head slightly and gestured with a hand that he held no hurt feelings. He placed a hand on the purple Shellder and looked the chef directly in her eyes. “Can I entrust this completely horrid creature to die by your blade and be subsequently sliced into many thin pieces that my companion and I can then cook and eat, here in your establishment?”

She picked it up, hefting it, and looked the Shellder over. A pink tongue flopped out and waggled as she flipped the thing over on it’s back and side. Tapping the shell twice, she nodded and bustled away.

The waitress brought a platter of beef, sliced into thin strips “Courtesy of the Chef, while you wait for you custom order.” Ryoushi looked surprised, but gratefully accepted the delicious protein. “Itadakimasu!” He reached out with chopsticks and slapped a line of meats on the grill. Tsssss! Tsssss!

By the time it took to cook and eat half of the plate of meat, a new platter, this one of Shellder, arrived, pale pink and perfectly sliced. It was cool to the touch, Chum found, which was an uncomfortable discovery for some reason. This Shellder had been attached to his tail only half an hour prior, and now it was unrecognizable as such. Ryoushi victoriously stabbed the slices of Shellder and nestled them on the grill next to the sizzling beef strips. He flipped the beef, giving the tender, red and blooded side its turn with the coals.

Chum’s plate ran with brownish-red streaks of liquid from the meat. Teeny oil drops floated on top. He drank some water. Ryoushi flipped the Shellder meat and pulled the many bits of beef from the grill, splitting it halfsies with Chum. Smacking his lips as he chewed the meat, Ryoushi asked “how much of this wretched clam are you doing to want?”

Chum shook his head slowly and continued eating the beef offered to him. “None? I getcha, well, you have the rest of the beef on this platter. I’ll lay it down for you, but you get to flip it and take it off, ‘kay?” Munch. Slurp. Chum nodded and finished his plate. He watched the Shellder flesh steam and shrink, bombarded by the heat. The dark, soot-streaked lines from the grill marked the meat. Like X’s in the eyes of death. The edges crisped, and nearly blackened, when Ryoushi pulled the clam meat from the grill and popped it, slice by pale slice, into his mouth with glee. He put down the last of the beef and the Shellder, side by side, on the grill, and reminded Chum which half he would be taking care of now.

They finished their meal, and Ryoushi left a few Yen as tip for the waitress, and thanked her and asked her to thank the Chef for him, adding, “if you ever need another job filled here, and that old crab-ass kicks it, Chef knows where to find me.” He winked and she smiled politely as he picked up his coat and hat and escorted Chum and himself out the door.

Chum stopped just short of the exit and turned around. He looked over to the waitress, who was dutifully whisking away dishes and wiping down the table top around the sunken cooker feature. He followed her as far as the counter, as she disappeared behind it and into the heart of the kitchen. He looked in and saw a mess of dishes straddling both sides of the sink. The waitress grimaced as she added the new dishes to the pile, too busy to take care of it herself, since there were more tables of guests to attend to at this busy dinner hour.

She grabbed another platter piled high with cuts of beef and pork, and rushed back into the main room. Chum watched her bustle about, then strode into the kitchen and beelined for the sink. One clawed hand reached out and plucked a platter from the stacks, and another reached for the high-pressure nozzle. He pointed the head into the sink and gave it a squeeze.

“It’s a foot pedal, dear,” said the Chef behind him, grinning. She nodded and set back to slicing and chopping. Chum groped around with a foot until it met a blocky pedal. Stepping on it cautiously, a strong stream of water gushed forth from the nozzle, startling him. He pulled back, nearly dropping the dish. Regaining composure, Chum stepped onto the pedal, while aiming the nozzle at the dish, and watched it blast away the food waste and grime.

Ryoushi darted into the kitchen, eyes swinging around until they found Chum, who was onto his fourth platter. He asked the Chef “Did you ask him to do that?”

“Nope.”

“Will you pay him fair as long as he wants to work here?”

“What’s fair to you?”

“Three squares a day, a place to stay, and some money on the side if he wants a few things now and again.”

“Yup. I’ve a spare futon upstairs and he can eat what he likes here, or can go pick up groceries for the both of us in his free time and I’ll share my dinners.”

“Okay then.” He turned and tapped Chum on the shoulder. “That work for you?” Chum rumbled gutterally and continued rinsing dishes, stacking them higher and higher, sparkling and renewed. “I think you have a new washer, Chef. I’ll check in now and again.”

“Now, shoo! You’re not employed here, Ryoushi!” She flicked her hand and smiled, eyes glittering in the kitchen fluorescents.

Slowbro: the Tale of a Fisherman’s Assistant

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.”