“I want to do it,” I said, gripping my knife.
“Do what?” my father asked brightly, as if he didn’t know.
“Come on, Dad,” I said. “Clean fish. I want to learn how to clean fish.”
“You want to help clean fish, do you? Did you bring your knife?”
He knew I had. I’d begged for weeks and had finally gotten it on my birthday just the day before. I held it up silently.
“Well, take it out of the sheath and put it up here, and get a fish out of the bucket, and stand here on the stool by the paper. I’ll show you.”
I looked down into the bucket crowded with marvelous fish.
“Alright then,” my father encouraged.
I plunged with both hands after the largest fish in view, then immediately withdrew, sucking air through my teeth and grimacing, squeezing blood from my palm.
“Stupid fish!” I cursed angrily, suddenly hating it.
“Careful or they stick you!” my father laughed. “Here, like this.”
He reached smoothly into the bucket after a much smaller fish and took it out briskly.
“You have to lay their spines down and keep them down with your hand,” he said. “Like this, or they stick you. And hold tight! Don’t let them flop around, or they stick you.” He returned the fish to the bucket. “Ok, now you try.”
I looked apprehensively into the bucket again. “Why do they stick you?” I asked.
“So they can get away!” my father laughed.
“Why do they want to get away?”
“Just reach in there and grab a fish,” he said.
So I did. I held tight and tried not to let it flop around, but it stuck me anyway. I rushed it to the table and threw it down on the paper, grimacing.
“Get up here quick and hold him or he’ll flop off!” my father said. I wondered why again but didn’t ask, thinking I already knew; and I got up quickly on the stool.
“Hold him tight!” my father ordered. “Hold him down with your left hand. Like this. And now pick up your knife. Good, but like I’m holding mine here. You have to point your finger along the blade like this, see? There you go! And now watch me do it over here.”
I tried to watch, but quickly turned away to look my own fish over—only not in the eye. The tip of the tail waved me on to witness the rest of its dazzling Sunday-circus suit: a thousand tactfully shimmering, varicolored sequins arrayed into an expanding field of yellowed belly-white grading up through vertical stripes into a sloping surface of green so dark and smooth I wondered if I could see through it, like through sunglasses. And then its gills flashed red as if alarmed, and its terribly astonished fish-face flashed into view, and the onyx pupil set in it stared into me.
And then I heard my father’s voice calling as if from a distance up above: “Hey there? Anybody home?”
I smiled and nodded.
“Ok, ready now? First you stick the point of your knife right here, in the top of the head, behind his eye.”
“Yep, just beside the backbone. But no, not like you’re spreading butter: you have to raise your knife up a bit. Like you’re gonna stab him in the back! Yep, good. And now twist the blade a little so it’ll cut right along those spines. Perfect! Ok, now push down a little on the knife.”
“A little more than that.”
I pushed halfheartedly. My knife slid off the fish’s smooth head and slashed at me.
“Oh! Hey, you ok?”
“I think so,” I said, looking myself over.
“You have to be careful with knives, you hear? That knife is razor sharp! Cut you wide open and hurt you something terrible! Ok? Now, let’s try again, but more carefully this time.”
I touched my blade lightly to the top of the fish’s head, just behind the eye.
“Now push like you’re sticking it into a steak!” my father said.
My blade abruptly punctured the skin and the fish jumped in my hand.
“Good!” my father cheered.
I grimaced into my palm and sucked through my teeth again. “Doesn’t it hurt the fish?” I asked.
“Nah,” my father said. “It’s a fish.”
“Fish don’t have feelings?”
“They’re fish!” he repeated. “Hey, he’s gonna stick you again if you don’t hold him down tight! And careful you don’t stick yourself! Pay attention now!”
“It looks like it hurts,” I suggested. “He tried to get away twice, and he jumped when I stuck him.”
“Maybe a little,” my father answered. “Just a little prick.”
“Like at the doctor’s?” I asked, uneasily.
“Like a mosquito bite.”
But that was just what the doctor always said.
I frowned, but my father took my little wannabe filleting hand and held it in his own, big hand: “Here,” he said, “let me help you. Relax yourself.” He shook my hand gently. “Relax.” I smiled up at him and loosened my grip on the knife. “Attaboy,” he said, smiling back down at me. “How about we make the first cut behind the gills instead, like this. See? Not too deep though: don’t want the head to come off! And just down to his tummy, like this. And then the next cut is down along the backbone, all the way to the tail. And then the meat just comes off the ribs, like this! Just peel it away with one hand while the other hand works the knife. See how I did that? Isn’t that neat? And then the fillet comes away like this. See? That’s your fillet!”
He smiled down at me and our eyes met, and for just a moment I almost forgot my discomfort.
“And then you skin it,” he continued. “Just grab a little piece of meat with your fingertips—see?—and bend the blade so it’s flat against the table. And then caaarefully…. Ah, dang it.”
“Fish have tummies?” I interrupted, staring.
“Just like you!” he said, tossing the fillet into a pot of water nearby and reaching back quickly to tickle me as I flopped away. “Ok, now you try.”
He turned the fish over and it flopped and shuddered. Its mouth opened and shut and opened and shut, and it flopped again. I stared down at it. It looked like a whole fish turned over like this, and it was still very much alive. I hadn’t expected that.
I wondered if it was hurting terribly and thought it must be, and I wondered how to make it stop. I wondered how many stitches the poor thing needed and if it could ever swim again and why it didn’t die already.
Then again, I thought, maybe it isn’t hurting at all: it flopped about the same before we cut it as after. –Well, except at that first little prick.
I quickly sawed its head off, thinking maybe it should be put out of its misery.
“Don’t do that,” my father said. “It dulls your knife and makes a mess. See, now you have fish eggs all over the place.”
“Fish eggs?” I repeated.
“These here,” he said, pointing.
It was a Momma fish! I saw the tiny yolks spilling from her slit belly across the table, and I wondered if she had a family of minnows, and if they were out there in the lake somewhere staring up at the cracked surface through which she had disappeared, fearing the cracking faces that had peered down after her, hating them, hating me. Momma fish opened her mouth and quivered, and I looked down at my knife. It’s wrong, I thought. It hurts! The beautiful Momma fish who never hurt anybody!
But then I thought that I liked to go fishing with Dad; that fishing with my dad is the best thing in the whole wide world; that nobody likes a crybaby; that we were having fish for dinner and I had to help out with my new birthday knife; and that though Dad seemed unclear about whether fish have feelings or not, they sure don’t scream or bleed. Maybe my fish was about to flop even before I stuck her? Maybe flopping isn’t to escape but just a twitch? And it must be ok or Dad wouldn’t do it. Didn’t Jesus’ disciples even do it? Maybe fish want us to do it. Maybe it’s just how things are. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
So I jabbed my finger down the stabbing blade at the fish, haphazardly hacked her entire right side from her ribs and spine, sawed it into a fillet, and prepared to skin it.
“Need help with that?” my father asked. “Skinning’s the hard part.”
“I can do it, Dad,” I said as I scraped Momma fish from her hide.
“Attaboy,” Dad said.
That evening we stood fidgeting impatiently around the campfire as Mom seasoned and breaded the fillets. Then she laid the fillets to rest one at a time into a pot of oil set boiling on the fire, and we all stood in a circle and prayed. We thanked God for the beautiful place, for good weather, for the good luck we’d had on the lake that day, and for the bountiful catch of delicious fish we were just about to eat. We asked God to bless it to our bodies and said, “in Jesus name, Amen.” And then we dug in.
“Nothing like fresh fish!” my father exclaimed happily, double dipping in the tartar sauce.
“What do you mean, ‘fresh fish,’ Dad?”
“Fresh fish is fish that’s just been caught,” he said. “Otherwise it’s no good. The fresher the better!”
“Is that why we keep them alive until we clean them?” I pressed.
My uncle nodded vigorously. “Mmm-mmm!” he enthused. “Fresh fish!”
And as I bit into the first of that year’s fresh-filleted, carefully seasoned, lightly breaded, deep-fried, flaky-white Yellow-Perch flesh, I felt sure that I had to agree.
“Mmm-mmm!” I exclaimed happily, double dipping in the tartar sauce and exchanging broad grins with my dad. “I like fresh fish!”