The afternoon sun beats down on Petro's arms. His armpits weep with sweat, and his nose is a deep, dark pink. The skin will probably peel tomorrow.
He's close to his destination. The oily stench of fish clouds the air, and Petro knows that the fish fields are about two and a half days from the village. Every time he turns around a tree-covered hill, he expects to find the place. The wide, black path curves around one last hillside, and Petro stops in his tracks.
Below him, woven into a valley of pines and strange, metal trees, are the fields. They look more like a quilt than the farmlands at home; the patches span an entire spectrum of pink, with deep blues, dark greens, and shiny metal boxes interspersed. Black rods and cables twist in and out of the fabric like a deranged top stitch.
Petro holds a kerchief over his nose as he descends and wishes the path had fewer switchbacks. The sooner he can get in and get out, the sooner he can see Ming again. And breathe.
By the time he makes it to the first of the fields, Petro is mostly accustomed to the smell. He ties the kerchief around his head, hoping to keep the fishy stench out at least a little, but more because he needs two hands, and having something over his nose makes him feel better. The usual sounds of the forest surround him—the pines rustle, and the birds chirp, and his footsteps beat a soft rhythm against the ground—but underneath it all thumps a wild, erratic beat.
The undead fish flap on the ground like a hundred children patting their legs as fast as they can. The sound cuts under everything else, but grows louder and louder the further Petro walks. He follows the path around a square of trees and then stops.
In front of him stretches a grid of pink salt fields. Some are pastel, others are deep magenta, and others are deep, dark blue. In the shallow waters, the undead fish flail and flop, their silvery scales sparkling in the sun. Their dead eyes all seem to rotate toward him, pinning Petro in place, though none of the fish stop flopping.
All Petro has to do now is grab a fish. He's made it. He only needs proof. Supposedly, the undead fish are easy to catch, but Petro's stomach sloshes at the thought of touching them. They must be slimy. And they stink. And he's not exactly excited about carrying a gross, dead-but-still-moving fish home.
With a gulp he heads for the closest salt patch. This one is only pastel pink, like sky in the first minute of sunset, and its surface wobbles with the fishes' constant splashing. There are certainly fields further in that are denser, so thick with fish that the water is hardly visible beneath their shiny scales and bony tails, but Petro figures he can catch something here. How fast can a dead fish move in shallow saltwater?
He drops his pack and peels off his boots, then his socks. As Petro tucks his socks delicately into his shoes, he tells himself that he isn't stalling. "You'll be fine," he mutters. "There's nothing to worry about. The fish are dead already. They're just preserved funny." He rolls his pants up to his knees with obsessive attention to the creases and the lengths.
When there's nothing left to do, he forces himself to stand. "Ming wouldn't hesitate," he says. He grimaces at the fish, groans, and steps into the salt field.
Petro is so glad he doesn't have any cuts on his feet. If he did, he'd probably be squawking in pain right now. The saltwater in the field is so thick with granules that he can feel them swirling between his toes, slowing the movement of the water from smooth to slushy. Thankful that no one is around to see his twisted, disgusted face, he wades in further, eyes tracking the fish as they keep flopping. They don't move to get away from him.
Petro sloshes up to a particularly big, mostly whole fish, and wrinkles his nose. Rubbing his hands together in reluctant anticipation, he watches it splash helplessly. Its dead eyes look right into his soul.
He grabs it by its tail and hauls it out of the water, and a rain of saltwater drips off its eerily dry scales. The thing feels more like a dead insect than a fish, though it is far more substantial. With the same eerie, unrelenting rhythm as before, the fish swings in Petro's grip, muscles spasming under his fingers so evenly that he could hold the thing up to a drum and it would keep time for him. Surprisingly, its skin is dry and cracked; the saltwater has drained out most of the moisture.
That's the only thing that convinces Petro that the fish is dead. It's far too dry to be alive. Adjusting his grip, he splashes back to the path, wincing when he pulls his feet out of the brine. He can already feel the coating of salt about to form, hardening against his skin as the water evaporates.
Rather than soak his socks in saltwater, Petro leaves his feet bare as he stuffs the fish into an empty section of his bag. The fish’s muscles keep flexing, beating against the fabric of his bag in that same steady beat. It’s going to be uncomfortable to carry around. And his bag is going to stink for weeks.
His feet are still damp, so Petro looks around once more. In the middle of this batch of salt fields is a strange metal cube that rises from the flatlands like a sacred alien monument. Spidery legs pour from its sides, and a great pipe rises from its roof, and the whole thing shines like a beacon in the afternoon sun.
If he were Ming, Petro would explore it. He stares at it one more moment, and then squishes down every curious instinct inside him. He isn’t Ming, and he isn’t going to poke his nose into strange metal boxes. He’s going home, where he’ll share his weird salted fish, and life will move on.
Everything is normal. Petro puts his shoes back on, ignoring the uncomfortable, sandy texture of the salt under his socks, and replaces his pack. The fish’s movement thuds dully against his back, softened by his tarp and sleeping bag. When he walks, his steps line up perfectly with the rhythm.
Something rustles in the trees, and Petro looks up, but it’s only a heron. The bird dives into the nearest salt field, and as it twists in the air, Petro does a double take.
The heron’s wing should not be attached to that body. It’s impossibly torn, hanging on by a thread, and the bird’s black feathers are marred by old, black-brown blood. Petro’s stomach turns, and he turns with it, not watching as the heron snaps up a fish.
He’s had enough of the undead for one day.