NEA Literature Fellowships

Ted Sanders

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "Flounder"

HERE IS THE HALIBUT: he lives on the seafloor, a great swimming slab, shimmying into the bottom's silt. He swims on his side, affecting flatness. He is meant to work this way. His top side, as he swims, is in truth merely his right side, where both of his close-set eyes now bulge. This top side -- his right side, all that he can see of himself -- is dark and mottled and always up, and on his bonewhite left side, always down, nothing remains of his face but the delicate swell of half of his jaw. Whatever sense of symmetry the halibut has, or of elevation, or orientation, he has had to learn it for himself because he has known a different body; he is born upright. When he is the size of a hand he undergoes the measured shift of certain bones, certain surface features. In particular, his left eye migrates to his right side. This movement becomes a slow pain that he will always feel, a pull of displacement, a creeping injury. With it comes a realization that resembles pain, but which dwindles with time into discomfort: the discovery that from each eye he can see the other. And though at times he briefly forgets this ability, this condition, in much the same way that a man may disregard the constant sight of his own nose, nonetheless the halibut finds it difficult to become blind to himself, and his considerations are not those a man might have; the nose, after all, does not look back. And sometimes when the halibut lies nearly buried beneath the silt and only his eyes and gills are exposed, he thinks to himself that it is often difficult not to stare, that up is an abstraction, that everything that cripples could be considered a wound. And because he does not know the quality of his left side, he chooses to believe it is a scar.

HERE IS THE MAN, fishing from a boat full of other men, using a long strong pole that fits into a metal holster against the rail. The line is long and strong, ends in wire. The man has paid to be on the boat, to use the pole. Men in thick tan coveralls with hoods help him, help the other men who have also paid. The men in coveralls are busy and bearded, appropriately dressed, and the man with the pole watches them, does what they tell him. He nods a lot, says okay. He is very cold. The man enjoys learning things, knows many, many things already, like the shape of Nevada or that planes fly because their moving wings are sucked upward or that the moon tugs the sea from side to side. He knows that one cubic meter of water -- scarcely enough water to drown in -- weighs twenty-two hundred pounds, a metric ton. This particular thing, he does not believe.

IN AN INCIDENT TO COME, later in the day, the halibut will swallow a drifting piece of squid that is wrapped around a small thick treble hook, and this man will be at the other end of the line, far, far away in the light. The pole will already be bent beneath the weight of all the water passing along the line, the line arcing through the water between the man and the fish, between the boat and the seafloor -- far more line than the distance alone implies because the press of the moving water will have given the line a magnificent, vertebral curve. Neither the man nor the fish will know just how far the line arcs outward from a plumb line straight up and down. Perhaps the men in coveralls know it, have worked through the math, but they will be unable to envision the fact of it. There will be no place from which the entirety of that line can be seen -- looping out into the dark and cold, like the tense wooden curve of a slender bow, splendid and tight and thrumming as the water slices itself around it.

When the halibut takes the line, the man will not set the hook. He will not even attempt to set the hook; the men in coveralls have told him it is pointless to try. They have described to him, as best they can, the generous hyperbola of the line beneath the water. One will remind him: too much play. The man will think of translational distances. And when the halibut first takes the line, the man will not know for certain what has happened -- will certainly not know, for example, the things the halibut will know -- but he will nonetheless feel through his hands and through the pole a sonorous weight on the line. He will come to believe in an implied movement there, like the sea's motion made concise, pulling on his palms, his forearms, his biceps, his feet planted on the deck, his thighs near his knees. He will feel this in some of the same ways that the halibut, moments before, will have first felt the terrible weight of this alien pull -- again, not quite not an explicit pain, but a pressure, a vital gravity -- anchored in the deep narrow pocket of his mouth, at the top of his throat pulling, a frightening and essential tug, stretching out from him and away, up toward the light. The silt the fish has lain in will become a cloud -- will briefly blind him, far from the sight of the man.

("Flounder" was originally published in Gettysburg Review)

Ted Sanders has lived in Illinois for most of his life and now resides in Urbana with his family. His stories and essays have appeared in places such as Georgia Review, Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, Southern Review and the O'Henry Prize Stories. His first story collection, No Animals We Can Name (Graywolf Press, 2012), was the winner of the 2011 Bakeless Fiction Prize. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he currently teaches.

Photo by Lillian Bertram

Author's Statement

Last November, when I first saw the NEA's number on the caller ID (twice) and heard the message from Eleanor asking me to call back, I was sure there was simply some question about my grant application -- that'd I'd done something wrong, or forgotten to update or respond to some logistical doodad. By then it was pushing 5:00, EST, and I reckoned whatever it was could wait until morning. My wife, though, had the audacious notion that maybe something better was going on, and basically bullied me into calling back. I was looking up the number when the phone rang a third time, literally in my hand.

I'm still figuring out what that phone call meant in a practical sense -- it's a lot to embrace -- but I was instantly struck by the tone of the call, and how plainly and genuinely enthused Eleanor was. It didn't feel like winning the lottery; it felt like a warm note of earnest congratulations, a gesture -- a weighty gesture -- of heartfelt appreciation and support. And that of course is of such value to us writers, who become accustomed to finding gratification in much more modest, often completely private terms.

Many thanks, then, for the generous and unflagging support the NEA provides for folks like us, a support which has real consequences for our lives as artists and the work we produce. There are not many opportunities out there to match this one, and I'm honored to have been included in the list of this year's fellows, very moved to have received this grand gesture of encouragement.