Issue: 2015-09-17 Photo: Nancy Oakley
Marty (left) holds a string of fresh-caught rainbow trout while Lori (right) gets ready to clean them, proving Marty’s first catch was was not her last
Marty is standing on the side of the Chilkat River, holding a ten-dollar fishing pole straight up, away from her body and waving it around with an alarmed air like the thing was covered in pig crap.
“Oh god... oh no... I have a bite!” She jerks the line to the left and then to the right, as if this will somehow solve the situation. Instead, the line strains and the rod bends down in the lovely parabolic arc which means fish fish fish.
“Yes,” I say, pulling in my own line, “you do.” I'm grinning and Marty is flipping her smoke back and forth from one side of her lip to the other with her tongue; a sure sign she's nervous. This is her first time fishing. She's a city girl, never been farther north than Thunder Bay, ON. It's a Saturday and usually she’d be shopping or sitting on a sunny patio or getting ready to go out to a bar. Inexplicably, we're friends, which is what brings her to the Inside; she has come to visit me.
“Take it in a little,” I say, “but not too quick.” Below us, the pool teams with fish, their shadows sly shapes moving about beneath the glare of the sun on the clear water. I show her how to set her drag, watch the line loosen up.
“Give it a little play... let him get tired. He's a big boy.” The line zigs and zags, the fish lunges above the water line, flashes silver, fat. Dolly. The beautiful cannible of the North. They follow the salmon around, their close cousins, and devour their eggs as they spawn. Marty is fishing with a little pink rooster tail spinner. Salmon eggs are pink. The correlation is not accidental.
The distances between them closes slowly and then the fish is hauled in, momentarily suspended like a puppet on a string before Marty flops it down on the hard-packed dirt. It flails about instinctually, frantic and sad and lovely. I pounce on it and take it in my hand, the skin cool and slick, just to make it be still. I've got a knife in my pocket and with my free hand I pull it out, flick the blade open with my thumb. I hold it out to her.
“Do the thing.”
Marty looks sick. “Can't you... can't you do it? I don't think I can do it.”
I shake my head. I'm a hard one, when I have to be. “You catch it, you kill it. Either throw it back or finish it – he can't breathe, you know.”
Marty nods. Her mouth is pale under her lip gloss. She takes the knife.
“Here,” I say, pointing to the place, just a little behind the fish's head, “Put it there, forty-five degrees. Do it quick.”
I can see her throat bob as she swallows. I do her a solid and hold the fish straight. She puts the tip of the knife to the place I showed her, takes a deep breath and shoves it in. The fish stiffens, twitches, and goes still, the spinal nerve severed. Marty pulls the knife out and curses; she's never killed anything before, or seen anything killed or thought about where her food comes from or what it means to have someone else kill it and cut it and wrap it and sell it.
“Oh man,” she moans, “Oh man... oh man that's hard.”
Tears are running down her cheeks. I go over to the truck and grab her a beer from the ice box, crack it, hold it out to her. The brown bottle is sweating in the heat.
She takes the beer with shaking hands. I take the fish, put it on the fish chain, drop the chain in the cold water so the fish keeps. I take a beer myself and we sit amid the fireweed and yarrow and pass a smoke back and forth in silence for a while.
“It's should be hard,” is the only thing I can think to say.
When the beers are emptied Marty stands up, wipes her gritty, blood-smeared hands on the back of her jeans, straightens her hair. I cast out again, watch my pixie dip and sway through the water. Martha sits back down.
“I need a while,” she says. Her eyes are still red.
I nod at her. “Don't worry about it.” I say, “I cried the first time, too.”
In the pool, the fish churn about.