Once there was a fisherman who lived with his friend, and they lived quite happily together in a little house by the sea. Every day he went out and fished, and every night he came home to his friend and they had dinner together. One day the fisherman went out and cast his hook as far as it would go. It sank down and down and when he pulled it back out, he saw that he had caught a large flounder.
The flounder said, “Fisherman, let me go. I am not an ordinary flounder; I am something else.”
“Could you be more specific?” the fisherman said. “‘Something else’ could mean anything.”
“That’s a very personal question,” said the flounder.
“More personal than being eaten?”
“That is a fair point,” the flounder said. “I am not a fish at all, but the son of someone very powerful. I have fallen under an enchantment through no fault of my own. It will do you no good to eat me; I would turn to ashes in your mouth.”
“A fish might say that,” the fisherman said.
“A fish might,” the flounder agreed, “but a man might say it, too. Put me back in the water. Let me go, and I promise I’ll do something for you that no one else can do.”
“I’ll have to speak with my friend first,” the fisherman said. “I cannot think of anything I want at present.”
“That is your right,” the flounder said, and the fisherman slid the hook out from its mouth and let it sink back into the water, trailing blood behind it.
The fisherman went home to his friend, who was lying in bed with the lights turned off. His friend said, “What did you catch today?”
“Nothing,” the fisherman said. “Well, I caught a flounder, but it told me that it was not a flounder at all, but the son of someone very powerful and important, so I put him back.”
“Did he promise you anything?” his friend asked.
“He said he would give me something no one else could grant,” the fisherman said, “but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted at present, so I didn’t ask.”
His friend said nothing, and the fisherman knew that he had said the wrong thing.
“My friend,” the fisherman said, “are you feeling quite well?”
His friend said: “This is why people don’t like helping you.”
“People don’t like helping me?” the fisherman said.
“They do not,” his friend said. “This is why you are lucky to have me.”
“I didn’t know that,” the fisherman said.
“You are lucky,” his friend said again, “that I am here to tell you these things. You should have asked for a better house; I am ashamed to let people see how we live here together.”
“You are?” the fisherman said.
“I have always been ashamed of it,” said his friend.
“I am sorry,” the fisherman said.
“Do not be sorry,” his friend said. “Go and do something about it.”
“Now?” the fisherman said. “It is dark out.”
“In the morning, then,” his friend said, turning over to face the wall. “We might as well go to sleep now, since you have brought home nothing for us to eat.” So they went to sleep, and in the morning the fisherman went back out to the sea, and baited his hook, and waited for the flounder to come back.
The flounder swam up to his boat and poked its head out of the water. “What did your friend say, then?”
“Oh,” said the fisherman, a little embarrassed. “My friend thinks that we should have a better house to live in. My friend is ashamed of how we live together now.”
“How much better?” said the flounder.
“How much better what?”
“How much better would you like your house to be?”
“I don’t know,” the fisherman said. “I didn’t think to ask. Maybe my friend would like another room, to put guests in. And a window in the kitchen over the sink, and wood floors. And a bigger bed.”
“Oil-modified urethane finish,” asked the flounder, “or water-based polyurethane finish?”
“For the floor,” the flounder said.
“Oh,” the fisherman said. “Well, I guess the oil-based finish would be better, because sometimes I track in water, when I come home from the sea and bring my catch in with me.”
“It is done,” said the flounder. “Go home.”
“I can’t go home yet,” the fisherman said. “I haven’t caught anything yet.” But the flounder was already gone, so the fisherman stayed and fished a while longer, and then he went home. When he got there, there was a neat little gar- den out in front of the house full of red chickens scratching for grubs among the cabbages, and he opened the front door to find a sitting room with two fat armchairs in it. There was a window over the sink in the kitchen, and new copper pots hanging just above the stove. There was a new wireless in the dining room (they now had a dining room), and two very big beds in the master bedroom. His friend was in one of them. The wood floors had an oil-modified urethane finish.
“Oh,” the fisherman said. “This is a much better house.”
His friend said, “Then why do you look so cross?”
“I’m sorry,” the fisherman said. “I don’t mean to look cross. I like it very much, and I hope you will not be ashamed to have our friends visit any longer.”
“Perhaps you do not look cross,” his friend said. “Perhaps you are just sick. You do look sick.”
“Perhaps I am sick,” the fisherman said. “It has been a long day, and I have been out in the sun for longer than I should.”
His friend said, “Why don’t you get into my bed and rest? I don’t mind if you use it.”
“How lucky I am to have you for a friend,” the fisherman said. His friend climbed out of bed, and the fisherman climbed in, and his friend went to the kitchen and brought him back a cup of hot tea.
The fisherman said, “Thank you, but I don’t want any tea,” and his friend sighed a long, low sigh.
“This is why people don’t like helping you. Do you want people to like helping you?”
And the fisherman, who forgot he had not asked for his friend to help him, said, “Of course I do.”
“Then drink your tea, please,” his friend said. “Why do you make me regret doing nice things for you?”
That night the fisherman did not sleep very well at all. He had burned his tongue, and his new bed was too big.
“Do you think you will be happy to live here?” he asked his friend in the morning. “And not ashamed? I think we can live here very well,” he added.
“We will think about it,” his friend said. They had a quiet breakfast together.
The next day, after he had come home from the sea, the fisherman’s friend said to him, “Our new house is lovely— too lovely for the kind of friends you have insisted on bring- ing around in the past. Go see the flounder tomorrow, and tell him that we need a better class of people to associate with us, to go with the house.”
“What kind of people?” the fisherman asked.
“People of consequence,” his friend said. “Interesting people. Attractive people. People I would not be ashamed to have here.”
And the fisherman, who did not know his friend had been ashamed, did just that.
“Well, you’re back again awfully soon,” the flounder said.
“I did not know enough to be ashamed before I met you, flounder,” said the fisherman. “But my friend, who is very helpful and who I am very lucky to have, is teaching me.”
“What does your friend want, then?” the flounder asked. “The people we associated with in our old house are no longer fit for us,” the fisherman said. “We would like a new class of people to be our friends.”
The flounder said, “It’s done,” and disappeared. The fisherman sat in his boat for a long time. He forgot to put his hook in the water.
When he got home that night, his friend said, “Now you really do look sick. You should get into bed; a party would wear you out entirely.”
“Are we having a party?” the fisherman said.
“I’m having some people over later,” said his friend. “We’ll be quiet, and I’ll make sure no one disturbs you.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to greet them?” the fisherman said. “I could rest first.”
“Why would you want me to host a party and look after you at the same time?” his friend asked. “Could you please try just a little to make things easier for me, and get into bed, and rest?”
So the fisherman did. He said, “Talk to me, while I am resting?” What he was trying to say, of course, was, I am sorry; please don’t stop helping me.
“All right,” his friend said. “Let me think of a story to tell you.” He sat back and thought. He thought and he thought. “I cannot think of a story to tell you.”
“It’s not important,” the fisherman said.
His friend shook his head. “Obviously it is. It was important enough for you to ask me to stop and think of one while I am trying to get ready for our party, and now I won’t be able to concentrate until I tell you a story, because you are sick and I want you to get better. I am not going to be able to get any of the things done that I wanted to, because of this.”
“I’m sorry,” the fisherman said. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Please don’t lie to me on top of everything else,” his friend said.
“I’m sorry,” the fisherman said again. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Tomorrow you should go and ask the flounder for another house,” said his friend, “because I do not think you like me to live with you. Then you could have all the peace and quiet you needed, and I would not bother you so much, if I had someone over.”
“No,” the fisherman said. “No, I do not want my own house; please do not ask me to do that, please don’t.”
“It’s not for my own pleasure that I said it,” his friend said. “I am only thinking of you.”
“I am so sorry,” the fisherman said, “only please do not ask me to leave you.”
“I am going out to the front porch,” his friend said, “and there I will walk up and down until I have thought of a story for you, even though it is very cold outside, and I have no coat. I will do this for you.”
“Please don’t,” the fisherman said.
“Why are you making me feel guilty for trying to do something nice for you?” his friend said.
“I do not know how to stop hurting you,” the fisherman cried. “I must be doing something very wrong.”
His friend went out to walk up and down the front porch, and the fisherman stole out of bed and left the house by the back entrance. He walked down to his little boat in the dark and pushed out to sea.
“Flounder,” he called when he had sailed out a ways. “Flounder.” The water was black and boiling. “Flounder.”
The flounder appeared. “Fisherman,” it said, “this was not exactly what I intended, when I told you I could give you something no one else could.”
“What did you mean, then?” the fisherman said, and if he was crying, he could not help it.
“I could help you,” the flounder said, “if you would ask me for something else, and not what you came out here to ask me.”
“My friend wants me to wish for my own house,” the fisherman said, “which makes me miserable, because I want to live with no one but my friend.”
“You do not live with a friend,” the flounder said. “I have seen your home and the one who lives there with you, he is no friend to you.”
The fisherman snatched the flounder out of the sea with his right hand. It flashed and flopped all over the bottom of the boat. Next he tore out its gills with his thumbs and ran his fingers through its belly, from throat to tail, until its insides were quite clean. He threw the flounder’s guts back into the sea, and then he went home. The party was over, and all of the guests had left. His friend was still walking up and down the porch, shivering and stamping. “Where have you been?”
“I have been to see the flounder for you,” the fisherman said. “It died.” Then he went inside the house and took a shower.
After he went to bed, he heard a loud banging sound through the wall, and he got up.
“Why are you banging your head against the wall?” asked the fisherman.
“I hope that if I bang my head against the wall hard enough, it will help me to think of a story for you, because you are sick and I want you to feel better,” said his friend.
“I am feeling much better now,” said the fisherman. “I do not think I need a story anymore. I do not need anything now, I promise.”
“Then get out of your bed and let me get into it,” said his friend, “because now I feel terrible. Helping you has made me sick.”
So the fisherman got out of his bed and his friend got in. The fisherman leaned against the wall for a minute, and his friend said, “Please get me a cup of tea. I got one for you. I shouldn’t have to ask.”
The fisherman said, “I’m sorry,” and he went to the kitchen and fixed his friend a cup of tea.
His friend said, “You never want to help me. Why is it that you want to live with me, when I know you hate me?”
The fisherman said, “I don’t hate you.”
His friend said, “Don’t sulk. You’re so unpleasant when you sulk. Everybody says so.”
The fisherman said, “Would you like me to tell you a story?”
“Yes,” said his friend, “if you know one.”
“Once upon a time,” said the fisherman, “there were two good friends, one of whom was a fisherman. Two very good friends.” He swayed a little, and then fell into a little heap on the hardwood floor.
“Please,” his friend said from the bed, “stop being so dramatic. My tea has gotten cold.”
“I don’t think I’m very much better after all,” the fisherman said.
His friend sighed. “Is it really that hard for you to care for me just a little, just once, when I’ve worn myself out caring for you? If it is, tell me and I’ll go.”
“I’m sorry,” said the fisherman.
“You are always sorry,” his friend said.
The fisherman got up and walked back to the kitchen, and accidentally banged his head against the doorway. “And don’t just heat up the old tea,” his friend said after him. “Bring me a fresh cup. My head aches from beating it against the wall for you.”
“How’s this, my darling?” the fisherman asked, carrying the steaming cup back into the room cupped between his hands.
But his friend did not answer.
His friend had fallen asleep. ●
Excerpted from THE MERRY SPINSTER: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg, published by HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY. Copyright © 2018 by Mallory Ortberg. All rights reserved.
Illustrations by Ovadia Benishu for BuzzFeed News.
Mallory Ortberg is Slate's "Dear Prudence." Having written for The New Yorker, New York magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Atlantic, Mallory is also the cocreator of The Toast, a general-interest website geared toward women. Mallory is the author of Texts from Jane Eyre and The Merry Spinster.