C.E. Poverman’s first book of stories, The Black Velvet Girl, won the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. His second, Skin, was nominated for the L.A. Times Book Award. His stories have appeared in the O’Henry, Pushcart, and other anthologies. His novels are Susan, Solomon’s Daughter, My Father in Dreams, and On The Edge. He has just finished a screenplay, Baby R.

"Love By Drowning" is from a recent novel of the same title.

an excerpt from Love By Drowning

posted Mar 4, 2008

Read more of Love By Drowning:
“Held Under” | “Still No Call?” | “A Woman In Shades”

Val shifted his eyes from the bait riding just beyond the wake, and glanced back toward his brother. Davis surveyed the horizon, arms crossed, a white sun visor shading his eyes, wire man’s gloves tucked into pocket of his shorts. Last night Val had been as terrified of Davis as he had of anyone or anything in his life.

It had been over Lee Anne.

Face half-hidden by wild, bleached blond hair, her eyes averted, she had obsessed Val from that first moment weeks ago when she had stumbled in with Davis, something concealed in her gaze. And then, last night, her suddenly stepping into him, fitting her mouth to his.

Now, sixty-five miles off the North Carolina Coast, nostrils packed with blood-stiffened cotton, Val felt his broken nose throb. Davis wasn't talking to him.

With none of the sometime cat and mouse stalking of the blue marlin, the strike came without warning. Magnus, jerked off balance, recovered and braced himself in the fighting chair, the reel screaming as the marlin ran. Voice breathless and tightening with adrenalin, he yelled, “Crash strike!”

Val looked up at the bridge, at Gary, the captain. Gary nodded that he'd seen it, the marlin stripping off line.

Val checked the cockpit. The wash-down hose was coiled and hung up, gaff ropes, leaders, baits, everything put away, the deck cleared for safe footing.

Davis adjusted the brim of his visor, then reached into his back pocket and pulled on his gloves. Val swung Magnus's chair in the direction of the fish, waiting for its first spectacular leaps. Surprisingly, the marlin didn't jump, but, fighting like a tuna, dogged it. Magnus quickly worked it closer to the boat. The swivel reached the rod tip. Davis took hold of the thirty-foot leader, and, wrapping the piano wire around his gloved hands—two wraps on each hand—he braced himself against the gunwale, and began to raise the fish to the surface. Val divided his attention between Davis and the water, waiting for the fish to appear. He marveled at Davis’s strength, the pole vaulter’s powerful hands and the massive, deeply cut forearm muscles. He’d felt those hands close on his throat last night before he found himself on the ground.

Now it was like watching a great athlete climb a rope, only the rope was a wire—slippery, razor-thin, almost impossible to grip. With each pull, Davis retrieved more leader, then pushed it behind him and wrapped each hand twice more, bringing the fish toward the surface. No matter how many times he’d done this, Val never got over the sense of wonder and beauty he felt when he saw a marlin rising from below. Now he could see its pectoral fins, each the iridescent neon-blue of anger, a color you never saw on a tired or beaten marlin. The mackerel bait was on the fish’s back, right behind the highest part of its dorsal fin.

Gary yelled down to Val: “Too small. Cut it loose now, or do you want to tag it? You make the call. Only take a couple of minutes to tag.”

Val picked up the pole with the barbed tag in place. This marlin was nowhere near as big as the one Magnus had taken yesterday, and probably weighed less than the tournament’s 300-pound minimum. Either way, it wasn’t a keeper. Most everyone, conservation-minded, tagged the smaller ones before letting them go. “We'll tag it!” he called. “Can you handle that, Davis?”

Davis didn’t answer. As Val extended the barbed tag toward the fish’s back, he saw the round, black eye move; the marlin turned quickly and darted away from the transom. Davis pointed his hands toward the fish and let go of the leader, the wire wraps falling cleanly and freely off his gloves.

Magnus said, “We can cut him loose now. Save everyone time and trouble. With that hook in his back, he's battling like a much bigger fish.”

Val asked Davis, “Can you bring him up one more time? We’ll get that tag in him quick.” Davis didn’t answer. Val shouted above the engines and the sudden scream of the reel: “DAVIS!”

Davis reached out and grabbed the wire leader and gathered it to him. Wrap by wrap, pull by pull, he brought the marlin back to the surface and close to the boat. Val leaned overboard and pushed the tagging pole toward the fish. The marlin darted forward and turned, sending up an explosion of spray. This time Davis didn’t let go of the wire, but held on as the marlin shot away from the stern.

Val yelled, “We’ll cut him loose!”

Val dropped the pole on the deck behind him. He was surprised to see Davis keep hold of the leader, knees braced against the gunwale. He yelled at Davis to let go. Davis shouted something back but Val couldn’t make it out. “Let him go, Davis! Let go of the leader!” Val unsheathed his wire cutters. As he extended their open mouth toward the wire, there was the squeal of deck shoes—the sound of someone pivoting on a basketball court. Davis staggered against the board that covered the transom. There was a loud crack. Davis went head-first into the water.

He surfaced, pushed the sun visor back from his eyes, started to turn toward the boat. Suddenly, he was pulled down. Val rushed to the transom. Davis was just below the surface with his hands together, outstretched. Neither panicked nor struggling, he seemed to be swimming.

When he didn’t surface in another moment, Gary yelled from the bridge, “Magnus, pull him back up!”

Gary threw the boat into reverse, water boiling under the transom as Magnus pumped the rod, once, twice. The blue marlin was just below Davis, and rose with him toward the surface. Frantic, Val grabbed the rod and helped Magnus pull it upward, Magnus cranking the reel.

Davis and the fish were right beneath them.

“Stop!” Val yelled. “Neutral, neutral! Watch the propellers! You’ll back over them!” Val heard the engines go into neutral. Val and Magnus pulled up on the rod, which suddenly lost tension and threw them backward. The wire leader had snapped at a kink a few feet below the swivel. Val staggered forward and looked into the water, expecting to see Davis rise to the surface. Davis and the marlin were free of the rod. But the hook was still in the marlin’s back, and Davis was still wired to the fish.

Val dove, and swimming awkwardly—shoes on, clothes on—he moved five, ten feet below the surface, driving his legs. Reaching out, he grabbed for Davis, gathered a handful of his shirt, but suddenly his grip was ripped open as Davis was yanked away…

Val broke the surface with a painful gasp for air, took another deep breath. Below him, he could see Davis and the marlin glowing iridescent in the sunlight where the clear blue water gave way to black. He stripped off his shoes and took an enormous breath and, driving his legs harder, pulling with his arms, he dove. He swam deeper this time, ears and sinuses aching, lungs starting to burn. He swam deeper. Beneath him, Davis and the marlin got smaller and smaller, shimmering into a deeper twilight blue, then disappeared into the black. Lungs bursting, Val looked up, surface distant, the sun huge and undulating…