Brett spent his weekends at the aquarium. He had a special permit to study the fish. He was writing a thesis.
One day he invited me to see his experiment. He kept the stingrays in a round pool, I watched them swim in circles. They moved like black phantoms, their voluminous wings rising at the sides of the pool. He gave me food to feed them. I reached in and they clambered at the side of the pool like hungry dogs. I patted each, avoiding the barbed tails that lay inert in the water.
“They feel like silk” I said.
“Sharks are more like sandpaper” he replied.
“They like to eat” I said.
He leaned towards me, his breath as briny as the water.
“Sharks are finnicky. You never know when a shark is going to eat.”
“You say a lot about sharks” I said.
“I like sharks” he said.
I thought of the tiny eyes, the overbite, the sandpapery skin. I reached back into the tank and let my hand brush against the wing of a passing ray.
“Will you release them?” I wanted to know.
“When I’m done.”
I went to the aquarium weekly, I knew the rays by the marks on their wings, their size.
I would feed them while Brett worked in the tiny office near the tank. In dim light he added columns of figures, he drew in pencil on sheets of paper.
Then one day he announced he was ready, he had a plan.
“I need to prove they find their way using their noses” he said. “I’m going to put a magnet in the nasal cavity. They’ll be disoriented, without direction, if it works”
“How will you do that?” I asked him.
He held up a fish hook and a bottle of anaesthetic.
I didn’t go back until I knew the experiment was over. I found Brett with the biggest ray on the bench, belly up. The underside of the ray was as white as the surface was black, the mouth a ghostly hole.
“Bad luck” he shrugged” an infection.
The last time we spoke he rung to tell me the paper wouldn’t be published. Another scientist had objected.
I said I was sorry and let the silence grow.
“I released them you know, the last four, they’re gone.”
“What now?” I asked.
“Sharks” he said “it was always going to be sharks.”
I let him hang up.
Annette Edwards-Hill lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Her writing has appeared in Flash Frontier, Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, 2018) and Headland. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions 2017. She won the 2017 Flash Frontier Winter Writing Award.