The rod jerked in Nori's hands. His fingers squeezed the grip more from the ingrained reflexes of years at sea than the expectation of catching anything in the sacred waters of Sagami Bay.
The fish -- for it could be nothing else -- fought against the line. It zigged in staccato bursts, stubborn as the man who held the far end of the line in his crinkled hands. He looped the line over an oarlock and watched the line's tension. The line dipped as the fish must have redoubled its path to create slack. He unwrapped the line and pulled in the slack, bringing the fish closer. The morning sun rose high in the sky, finally reaching its zenith at the same moment a silver fin splashed in the water.
With one hand holding the secured line to keep it from slipping, he leaned over the side of the boat and grabbed the line close to the fish. The water boiled with the fish's thrashing movement. He lifted and a fist hit him. He flung the tangled mess of rope and string and an arm to the keel side of the boat and backed away to balance himself on the walls of the prow.
The fish had the fist-sized black markings over silver of a Masu salmon, but a man-shaped torso stuck out of the mouth, a Hakata doll. But it was no doll. The fish thing flapped against the bottom of the boat until it righted itself, its hands levering the torso into the air. Nori shrugged, amused at the priest's secrets. It wasn't as fearsome as he thought when he had flung it into the boat.
The hook had caught over the edge of a fin and the string looped around it many times, ending in a knot that constricted the scales underneath. It dragged itself towards the gunwale.
"I wouldn't do that," Nori said.
The fish turned, its body bent, its hands flopping too short to reach the knots or the hook over its fin. "Why not?"
"Because being stuck in the boat isn't your problem. You won't escape my line."
"My brothers will unwedge this." He jerked a hand to indicate the hook on his fin.
"And will they come so near my boat?"
Nori lowered himself from the lip of the boat's prow. He unwrapped the loops of the line from the oarlock and tied it to a cross bar instead. He settled his oars into the oarlocks. Waves expanded from where his oars dipped into Sagami Bay's smooth waters. "Why should I release you?"
"I will grant you a wish."
"An old man has no need for wishes." A wise man knew where wishes led. Nori wouldn't have considered himself wise, but age sometimes sufficed.
"A man needs food. I can provide an everlasting larder."
"The villagers leave me food." He hadn't been fishing because of need, but rather because that's what his body did when it was on the water and that's where he felt most calm and centered. Now, that he had the creature, whatever it was, he felt a great curiosity.
His back twinged. He released the oars and moved his arms in a slow circle, gasping at the inflamed spot behind his shoulder blade. An old injury that had never healed.
"I can heal your pain."
"Why should I compete with young men?" He smiled. The creature's offer was tempting. But the stories were not ones he wanted to live. "These creaks are a part of me."
The fish ran a hand through its hair. "Is there nothing you desire?"
It tottered on a combination of arms and fins to stare into Nori's eyes. "You've never seen one such as I."
"I can tell tales of my origins."
The oars slapped like feathers against the water. He leaned forward. "Now that is interesting."
"You'll release me?"
He grabbed the oars again, settling into the rhythm. "No; but, I promise not to cook you if your story satisfies."