SALMON FOR DINNER
He tells me to cut right behind the head to take the gills out and prevent them from rotting and spoiling the fish. I don’t care about the potentially rotting gills. I want to clean the fish later or not clean it at all and instead tuck it away in the freezer to be forgotten, or return it to the heavy-duty, black trash bag and throw it out altogether. I took my time coming into the kitchen and rolling up the yarn and knitting needles, carefully completing another three rows of Fair Isle stitches, alternating English and continental strands of blue-ice and copper-orange. I’ve made it clear that when I’m knitting, especially after taking inventory of medical supplies all day, I don’t want to be interrupted, certainly not to clean unwanted fish.
As I’m about to slice, he tells me to make a decision. Am I to leave the head attached? If not, I need to complete the cut, forget removing the gills, just take the head off entirely. The knife is sharp and I push down too hard, slicing too far into the neck before deciding, too soon before understanding how this became a decision I was to make. But it’s too late now, the head is off.
He mostly concerns himself with a finished product, gauges the importance of a task by the results it can yield. “What are you making this time?” he has asked before about my knitting. Or not making, he has implied. It’s because I seldom finish a piece, and I’ve never told him but I don’t care about pieces being unfinished. I focus on the stitches, the colors, the memories I’ve assigned to them, how they loop around each other and how I stitch the memories together, row by row, more securely with just the right amount of tension, sometimes better than before. Today the blue-ice is the impulsive rain showers of Washington State and the copper is everything else, because lately I’ve seen the world through a strange orange glow.
He’s never sure about my signs of resistance and when he said, “Hey, come here, I bought you something,” calling me into the kitchen, he being the first between us to speak this evening, I told myself there’d be no sudden outbursts, deep breaths, or rolling of the eyes, just a pleasant face. Maybe I’d even try to muster willing hands. But he was silent while I pulled back the silk potato-colored curtains he bought me when I moved in eight months ago, which enclose our room that isn’t really a room but a section divided by a low wall. He was silent while I walked pass the tiny table where the crystal vase sits that he gave me just because. This table is where we eat our dinners across from each other, our plates often touching. And he was silent while I creaked in weak spots of the wood flooring he laid himself, simply because one day I said I hated carpet.
There was no talk of how he caught the fish at a lake behind a site where he worked today, as I assumed, nor as I squeezed by him to get through the kitchen door. I wonder often about this man’s nature and about him giving gifts so freely, where he’s learned these habits, developed these traits, and I can’t help but be suspicious.
Now, the head and the gills of the fish lay nearby on the cold tiles of the unprotected counter, blood collecting in the grout. I move the black and white salt and pepper shakers before the liquid reaches them. Had I known, I would’ve put down something absorbent like gauze, brought home a new pack of impervious gloves.
I can hear water dripping from the faucet, hitting the silver basin sink. I note the pointed lower jaw, the black gums in a white mouth. I examine the entrance point of the hook. Did it see it coming? I wonder.
Two people standing in the kitchen at the same time crowds the space, so he continues to stand at the door, which is just a couple feet away from where I stand at the counter, and he warns me about the blood. There will be a lot of blood since we didn’t bleed the fish beforehand, drain The King, as he called it, the way we were supposed to. But it’s usually late when he comes in from working twelve hours of demolition, wearing that orange shirt he is always wearing. Yet it’s still important to clean the fish on the same day it’s caught, especially if we don’t want the gills to rot.
“Hold it down,” he tells me. “Cut off the tail.”
I pick up the fish by the tail to adjust it on the chopping board, noting the large, dark oval spots, no silver. The way the tail curves slightly at the tips and dips in at the center. I follow the lines with my eyes from where they fan out and then come together heading towards a point, a tip hidden by its small, white-gray, shimmering scales. I raise the knife away from the salmon, thinking that yes, this is what people do sometimes for others – things they don’t really want to, but which they do for the sake of keeping peace or to simply acknowledge another’s presence, something I told him I’d work on. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,” he’s said before, to show the man you love a basic, common courtesy. “Just say hello when I come home.” And still, I didn’t today. Besides, it will be over soon, I tell myself. Then the knife goes down, and I chop off the tail.
He says to lay The King lengthwise on the board, upside down and cut towards me along its stomach. The salmon is longer than the board and it takes up more than half of the length of the entire countertop. It must weigh close to ten pounds. I push the tip of the knife through the skin and muscle. I run it along the stomach and watch a thin stream of blood find the cracks of the board beneath and then the grout. I have never been given a salmon as a gift, an unclean, newly dead one. As I try to hold it in place, I wonder how to appreciate this gift, if I am supposed to, or if I can.
He says I need to take out the insides and if I do it right, “It should all come sliding in a whole piece like afterbirth.” It’s jarring this word afterbirth at the end of his sentence, as if he has experience delivering babies. He’s sure about himself, matter-of-factly, as he watches from the doorway, arms folded, resting his weight against the frame. I try to picture him in my position, his wide brown eyes looking into the stomach of the fish the way he has informed me that I’ll need to. Perhaps he’d purse his lips in deep concentration, so I purse mine, knowing that if he does have experience delivering babies or even cleaning fish, someone walked him through the steps the way he is now doing for me, to me.
But, of course, I don’t cut it right. I don’t hold my fingers at the right angle or push any flap back he says will be near where the head was. And because of this, I have a heart, the kidneys, a liver, the intestines, and a bladder that releases a high pitch cry of air when I try to gather it, all scattered on the counter, all slung in different directions, hardly identifiable. I could really use a ligating hemoclip, a traditional eleven inch, and a tray, I think. Then I drop a bloody oval-shaped part of the internal body onto the floor, moving my bare feet just in time, and tiny drops of blood splatter the yellow cabinets.
I try to remember, think back to any occasions where I might have a reference for fish giving. Could this really be a gift? A giant dead salmon brought to me in a trash bag. What kind of man gives a woman a dead fish as a gift and tells her she has to clean it? This is a consequence, I think, for not speaking earlier, not saying that hello. If I had then maybe he would have cleaned the fish himself. “There’s too much blood,” I say. My fingers are covered. Blood is beneath my nails, and around the turquoise stone in my ring, and I feel like I imagine a surgeon feels in an operating room their first time.
He gives no words of comfort, so I focus instead on his unpredictability, which could be a good thing – him doing the unexpected, something women often admire in men. I think about some of the other foods he’s brought home. There was the bitter gourd he called dragon flesh, tiny quail eggs from Chinatown he insisted I eat straight from the carton, sip like tea right out of the shell, and the dish of stir-fried crickets. “All for you,” he said. It was easy to contend with the gourd, find a recipe, and toss it in a salad. But the eggs I refused, crushing one in his hand when he brought it near my face, behavior I’m not particularly proud of. The crickets I discarded like a child, wrapping them in my dinner napkin until clearing the table. And now there’s this giant fish my hands are inside of, perfect, he must be thinking, for tonight’s dinner.
I haven’t asked him directly how this fish ended up in a trash bag and beneath my hands, but I want to know. “When did you go fishing?” I ask, while I hold my bloody hands in the air. “Was it at the lake near your job? Where are you working this week, again?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he tells me. His eyebrow goes up and settles again. I know he is wondering what is taking so long and why I don’t know how to clean a fish, why I don’t seem grateful. “Didn’t you say your father took you fishing?” he asks, still standing in the doorway.
“He always cleaned the fish,” I tell him. “I never even watched.”
“Hmmm,” he responds, disappointedly.
It was true, my father took me fishing on boats, and I didn’t participate other than to hold the poles and call for him when there was a bite. But my father talked the entire time about types of fish. “The carp have whiskers and drop sticky eggs,” I remember him saying. “Peacock bass are really the color of peacocks but will snap your rod in half given how they fight. And the Chum,” he said while shaking his head, “just low quality and damn ugly with their large mouths and jagged teeth. That fish, you got to smoke just right for it to taste any better than the bottom of my shoe.”
I have knitted these memories already, various browns for the land seen in the distance, aqua greens for the waters, thin silvers for the fishing lines, and curving yellows for my father’s voice, an easy tone with a hint of southern drawl. That time with my father is how I know the salmon here being called The King is really a female pink, but I let him go uncorrected, my retaliation against this consequence.
“This is a practical skill to have,” he says from the doorway.
I think of where else I might need this skill. On an Alaskan fishing boat where thousands of salmon are caught each year, some even before they make the upstream swim back to their freshwater homes to spawn, each of their mouths containing wide gashes from where it was hooked. I imagine a map with tiny lines of light stretching out, representing the regions where the salmon are shipped to chefs or grocery stores already filleted. The receivers hardly think of the fish as a whole body, or of the parts wasted for their convenience.
“Pull the lining,” he tells me. The soft, mucus lining is hard to grip and I push and pull and fumble inside its body. I look at the organs askew and the head that sits nearby – the mouth agape, the lifeless thing dissected ineptly, its blood smeared across the counter. “I’m washing it, everything,” I declare, and I find a part of the lining where I can hold tight and pull and it rips out and rolls up next to the other red parts. Then I pick up the slippery tail, the head, and the organs and reluctantly place them inside the trash bag.
“You have to open the bloodline before you wash it,” he tells me.
More blood, and this feels like a punishment and the ultimate violation after the head, the tail, and the insides. I feel sorry for this animal. “The bloodline,” I say as a final statement, a conclusion. I’ll remember the red for later, stitch it with a light gray for the body and the grout.
“It’s there, the dark red line,” he says, pointing with his finger. “Cut it.”
I hesitate and the knife hovers in my hand longer than I intend. Maybe this is more of a test than a consequence or a punishment, I think, to see how familiar I am with gutting a thing out – how useful I can be in a situation where something needs gutting—a car for instance, a house.
He has moved from the doorway. I can hear him breathing, and I smell a whiff of sweat and plaster rising from his shirt, right before it’s overwhelmed by the smell of fish. My stomach churns, ready to leap onto the counter. He wants me to do it, take the knife, make the incision, and watch more blood seep out of the gutted remains. He points that finger again and I pull the knife back slightly, angling the tip of the blade towards his hand, warning him to be patient while I try to swallow the liquid coming up from the back of my throat. I want to withdraw, take back what I said about trying harder. Then he moves again, grabbing the trash bag and opening it to where I can see the contents. No parts of the fish need to go in right now but he watches my hands, the tip of the knife still pointing over my shoulder, the other one covered in blood and holding the fish on the board.
I know he’s anticipating my surrender, waiting for me to place the salmon in the bag unfinished as I do the pieces I knit. Perhaps they are like the silent parts of our relationship that need more care. I look at him to steady myself, his modest lips pulled tightly across his face, his eyes softened, and his shoulders angled towards the bag. He’s signaling that if I stop now, it would be a defeat for the both of us, a mutual resignation. So, I take a breath and smile a closed-mouth smile, raising a bloody hand to push hair out of my face. I can feel my cheeks rise. The creases at the corners of my eyes say that I’ll continue, that this act could be genuine. He closes the bag, pleased, and I bring the knife down, stabbing the thin liner of the bloodline more so than cutting it. Blood squirts onto my skin at the V of my shirt. I take a spoon and scrape out the rest of the blood.
No, I have no other reference for fish giving, especially this kind, I confirm.
Then, I wash it, after he moves the dish drainer farther into its corner, wooden spoons rattling. I carefully rub the meat until all the blood on the fish and my hands runs down the drain. He hands me the spray bottle from beneath the sink, and I clean the counter with a 1:10 bleach solution.
I can still hear the water dripping from the faucet when I return to the wooden board. It’s a gentle sound like a clock simply moving the seconds along, doing with time what it wants. And I’m becoming accustomed to the sound, just as I’ve done, I realize, with our growing silence.
He gives more instructions, says for me to make the final cuts. He wants me to cut it into thirds, vertical, down the short side of the fish, sawing the vertebrae in thirds along with. But it doesn’t feel right, so instead I whisper “be quiet,” sweetly and softly in his direction, and he slides beneath the sound of the dripping, becoming a shadow among the other items in the kitchen.
I take the right half first, lengthwise. I place the knife between the skin and the muscle and glide it as closely as I can to the skin from the tail-end to the head-end, an attempt to appreciate how it nurtures even in death, an effort to not waste the meat. I know about waste and not wasting, thinking of the trash bag nearby and of his kindness I take for granted, and at every tiny sliver of pink left behind, my body sighs. Go slower, I tell myself. Get everything you can.
The second slice. My fingers slide across the spine I’ll have to cut out, the bones like stitches and I know about stitches too, but first I slice this side the way I sliced the other – as close to the skin as possible. It’s a delicate, important matter. I tug on the skin this time while guiding the knife under the pink muscle. It makes the cut easier, puts the blade right against it, and only two, barely visible spots of pink remain once I pull the knife through completely.
Before making the third slice, I move the skin aside. This will be the final cut, the last step in the process. I adjust the remains on the chopping board. There’s the spine, and this slice seems even more important than the others. I’m extracting a series of bones responsible for keeping a body intact, for contributing to the shape it holds. One crushed bone of a spine could disfigure a living person or an animal for life, cause repeated injury, or be the place the body retains the memory of its pain.
I take it out carefully, respecting the curved bones along the way. From where the tail used to be, I pull up the spine, dislodging it from the muscle like it is the most important thing in life I can do. “Just yank it out,” I hear from somewhere in the dark corner, but I continue the procedure at my own pace, slicing so closely beneath the bone that I touch each and every vertebrae at the point where it sits wider in the body. If I want, I can close my eyes and finish this cut. It’s all feeling now – the cold, firm muscle, the delicate bone, the angle of the knife and the smoothness of the blade as it passes through the flesh. I reach the pin bones, pulling on one to check their resistance. I work them slowly, massaging them from their grip, taking as long as I need.
When I’m done, there are three fillets ready to be prepared and eaten. He steps near me, placing his arms around my waist and kisses into my neck with a sense of wonder for the first time in a long time. He stays there, not concerning himself with the dry splatters of blood I have yet to wash off my skin. He just smiles and kisses.
“I’ll cook it,” he finally says. And I think that if this was a consequence then I’ve endured, if a test, then I’ve passed, shown him and myself that I’m capable of gutting and appreciating and receiving. It’s good to know I can do this. “Thank you,” I say.
He goes to change, and I set the table that night, leaving the crystal vase at the side of our plates instead of moving it into the kitchen the way I usually do, a subtle celebration.
He seasoned the salmon generously and I can smell the ginger rising from my overfilled plate, mixing with the sautéed garlic and spinach. I inhale the smells hungrily, anxiously waiting for him to bring the French rolls and black tea. He joins me, walking over while humming a tune I can’t make out, and we are happy. “You know,” he says, “we can live here forever.” He understands, just as I do, that forever is conditional, so I say okay. Then he grabs my hand and I curl my thumb around his with no hesitation. I bring a fork full of salmon to my mouth, taking the first bite between us this evening, and it’s a savory and satisfying bite.
© 2016 by Jessica Dewberry. You may NOT reproduce or distribute without permission of the author.