Sophie Mackintosh is a Welsh writer based in London. Her debut novel, The Water Cure, was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Her fiction, essays and poetry have been published by Granta, the White Review, the New York Times and the Stinging Fly, among others. Her next novel, Blue Ticket, was published in August 2020. ‘Barracuda’ is a new short story.
We were on honeymoon, and there was a huge barracuda terrorising the beach where we were staying. Every day I watched the children run out of the water from where I lay on the sand. Every morning my husband woke me up by sticking his fingers into my mouth, and then down my throat, as he undressed me. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I started waking up and pretending to be still asleep so that I could anticipate his movements. They quickly became the truest moments of intimacy between us – when my eyes were closed tight but I could hear him getting up, using the bathroom, and then carefully moving the cover off me. I kept my breathing regular until the point where I could not.
We were a second marriage, on his part. One of my girlfriends had given me a wedding card with Henry VIII on it. It was a good joke, made less good by the fact that she had coincidentally known him before she knew me, and so had knowledge that I didn’t. She refused to share with me this knowledge. He made me throw the card out. Tell that bitch she’s not welcome in our house, he said. I sent a neutrally-worded note.
I made sure my teeth didn’t acquiesce too much when his hand reached in – I was playing hard to get. Habit hard to break. In our courtship I had been coltish, doe-eyed, careful not to look him full in the face. He pulled my underwear to one side. Now I was wear- ing lacy honeymoon things that seemed ridiculous on me. I was mousy and given to primary-school teacher haircuts. Child bride, I had heard his mother call me suspiciously at the wedding, but I wasn’t a child at all. The actual children watched me from the back of the church, wondering if I was going to assert my authority, and when I didn’t they placed me not on a pedestal, but somewhere between affection and contempt.
My husband became obsessed with the idea of the barracuda. We are going to hunt it, and we are going to eat it, he said. We are going to digest the fucker.
He chartered a boat for the purpose. It was my job to get the breakfast. After the sex, each day I went to the restaurant and picked up sweet rolls, a covered plate of fruits, coffees. All you do is lie around on the sand, so you might as well lie around on the boat, my husband said.
I could not argue with this. But I didn’t get to lie around on the boat. I had to watch the water to see when the barracuda was near, keep an eye out for its fins. The water was clear and very blue and there were fish everywhere, but nothing I could identify as a barracuda. I did see something large break the surface but when I called for my husband he scolded me. Don’t you know the difference between a barracuda and a shark?
Well no, I told him, I couldn’t quite.
Sharks are noble animals, he said. Barracuda are snipers. They’re opportunistic, they eat anything and everything, they have no pride. A shark would never eat a human knowingly, but a barracuda would.
All right, I said.
Back on shore, a child with a tender chunk of its leg taken out – just a small one, just a taste. There was blood on the sand. We had been looking in the wrong place. At the end of the pier the cats fought over the best guts flung out by the fishermen.
Here, here, I said, going out to pet them, and it was like they would take my arm clean off. It seemed we were in a place where everything wanted to eat everything else. It was not the sort of place I wanted to honeymoon in.
You’re bringing me bad luck, my husband said on the fourth day when I opened my eyes, mouth already full. He locked his own eyes on mine, removed his hand, locked his mouth on mine too. I’m going out alone. Wait for me on the pier at five.
All day I was able to drink little beers and sit on the sand again. It was all I wanted, and it really didn’t seem too much to ask. I was happy. The children ventured into the sea once more. At the bar when I ordered my fourth beer, I told the barman about my husband’s mission to kill the barracuda. He’s going to kill it, and then we will eat it, I said.
You need to be careful if you eat it, said a small, wiry old woman sitting a stool apart from me. She was creased all over – linen shorts, shirt, skin. Eyes pressed deep into her face. They’re poisonous. I’ve seen men throw up a lung. My own husband was never able to differentiate between hot and cold again.
How do I avoid this? I asked her.
Don’t eat it, she said. I drained my beer and waved for a fifth.
Other ways? I asked her.
She thought for a bit. Place the fish by an anthill. If the ants swarm it, then it’s safe. But then your barracuda is covered in ants.
I wish you were my mother, I told her, but she pretended not to hear and drained her cocktail. I had told her too much.
I was there like he said at five pm, watched him come in. He was buoyant, wet, a coiled silver serpent at his feet. I tried not to sway. He held it up as the boat neared so I could see it. You see, he said. You distract me. You need too much looking after.
I did not want to risk uncertain death. We can’t eat this, I told him. Give it to the cats.
But that night at the restaurant it came over to us, eyes milked over, garnished with greenery and stuffed to the gills. He watched my every bite.
I stayed awake all night in the bathroom, reading up on symptoms and running my hands under alternate taps, analysing what was happening inside my stomach. Was I sick or just overfull? I didn’t know. Was I pregnant? I didn’t know that either.
Inside the prepared barracuda had been its heart, a globular yolked thing, hard from cooking. My husband put it on my plate and I threw it at once to the cat – so many cats – skulking on my periphery before I could think, like my arm was my bodyguard, taking in the information I was too stupid to see, and analysing it, filtering it, before I could do harm or have harm done to me.
I can’t forgive you for that, my husband told me. He pulled the skull of the barracuda free with some relish, a see-sawing motion, and placed it on the table between us. Let’s keep this, he said.
Please, I said to him. I watched the cat play with the heart then back away from it, knowing more than us. I knew it was in the organs that toxins accumulated, that trapped inside the fleshy globes of our mechanisms they had nowhere else to go.
It became apparent after our honeymoon that my husband operated on different rules. I invested some time and energy into deciphering his approach – what would make him angry, what wouldn’t. I could have compiled entire dossiers. Instead I attuned myself to frequencies, tried to become a certain kind of monitoring object.
I liked it best when the children came to stay and swarmed the house, took up his attention. There were four or maybe five or even six of them – they moved too fast to tell. They all had names that started with the same letter. Juniper, Jennifer, January. Those might be wrong. It’s been a while.
Can we have a glass of juice, they asked all the time. Then, when they had the juice, My mother does not let me have juice.
I tried bribery at first, not just juice but the sugar sandwiches I had loved, spoons of jam, grapes, and salted things too – crackers and puffed cheese things that dissolved on the tongue. For the older ones I tried a splash of wine in the water, like the Europeans did, so they could feel grown-up with the adults at the dinner table. They pushed it away. Juice, they said, then renounced the juice again.
For the younger ones: a game where I would lie on the back lawn and they would all try to sit on me at once. When I screamed, the game was over. It was hard not to scream but I managed not to in the name of being loved.
The older ones could be sinister. I wondered if I would still find them sinister if they were mine. I didn’t know so much, after all. My husband had been busy in his previous marriage, and here was the proof. He still put his hands down my throat – further now than on honeymoon, as if the whole had been a process of training. We still had sex every day, but there was nothing to show for it.
I don’t think I’m very good at this, I said to him one morning. He gave me a rare dose of affection, held the palm of his hand over the crown of my head. An energy jolt; I felt dazed, blessed, manhandled. Love! There it was.
The barracuda skull watched us from the far side of the wall – mounted on mahogany, polished. Later that day I moved it to the ensuite, so it wouldn’t look at me so much.
To continue reading the rest of Barracuda by Sophie Mackintosh, buy our latest issue, out now
This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here