This post began to write itself a few months ago after a visit to the fish counter at my local supermarket. There wasn’t any progress for months until yesterday’s crisp and sunny Monday morning. Walking to work with the latest episode of This American Life’s, my body found warmth through the sounds, memories and feelings evoked by these stories with the beach as their common denominator. It was time to go back and write on how I feel really about fish…
It is strange how associations start climbing up a hypothetical ladder that grows; unruly, the distance to its steps sometimes narrowing sometimes widening, its rungs sprouting in ever changing directions until the foot of it remains barely visible and maybe there is a chance that you can just find your way back.
In my case, it is strange how seeing the silver gleaming sea creatures brings to mind images of family. Fish with their bodies resting uncomfortably on the ice. Or marinated anchovies dressed with chopped garlic and kicking with vinegary teeth. Sometimes the mind’s eye is stirred with shortened octopus tentacles resting on tapas bread and tender rounds of calamari sweating lemon juice. Occasionally it’s the pink flesh of salmon peeking out of its crinkled aluminum foil blanket.
It’s home on Saturdays. It’s my mother shouting for help while numerous brown paper bags fill the steps – lemons and tomatoes and onions and greens, graviera and olives from the ‘laiki’. An almost round loaf of warm bread with its corners chipped away. It’s the smell of the barbecue coming on and my father washing the catch from the fishmonger; always more than we can finish, always more than we can afford. Usually arriving on our plate with a little bit of a gloat, as if the boat that caught them was under his command.
It’s my sister complaining of sneaky bones stuck in her throat and my mother cutting up crusts for her so that the pricks get stuck on the soaked bread like needles on a tailor’s cushion. It’s my father insisting he has cleaned them up well while he still patiently goes over bitesize white chunks with his knife and fork to rid it of the hazardous pieces, rationing it out once it’s ready, keeping little for himself.
It’s my parents arguing over who had less while the ‘best cut’ – the fish’s cheek – goes back and forth over everyone’s plate with our hands pushing it back until it finally ends up all at once in my father’s mouth while he recites one of his favourite verses: ‘you guys don’t know how to eat’. It’s my sister dipping the cleaned up prawns in cocktail sauce and asking my father for more while my mum sucks out whatever juices and salt water are left in their little alien heads.
And suddenly I’m at the beach and we’re spitting on our masks, rubbing the saliva and salt water on the glass ‘to keep it from blurring’. There are tiny little fish swimming between our legs, escaping while we raise havoc with our feet – glittering specs of sand sticking to the insides of our bathing suits. My mother nearby in shallow water is gutting today’s catch, running the knife towards the fish’s head – translucent scales flicking around her everywhere.
It’s early morning and I’m on my father’s boat, holding on to a loose piece of string by the tip of my index finger eagerly awaiting for a tingle in my slumber. It’s my dad, untangling meter upon meter of yellow nets, carefully unpicking shells and seaweed and other swept up marine life that I eugh to. It’s seashells in our ears and untangled seahorses, gathering the whitest and roundest pebbles to bring home.
My mother in her bikini, her wet hair in strands dripping in her face while she raises the octopus in the air once more before she slaps it on the rock, its body oozing foam, our hands testing to see if its tentacles can still grip our tiny fingers.
And here I am happily carrying these sardines home – even though they look oversized and wrong and they come in plastic wraps and not in paper folds – and I gut them proudly on my twenty-ninth year, as if I have done this hundreds of times before, as if my fingers recognize where to pull and what to take away, instinctive fingers tracing memories back, decisive fingers unfazed by the entrails that I had forever despised in our kitchen sink back home. But they’re laying now in my kitchen sink in this home and I put them in my hands to throw them out, not afraid of them anymore but confident as if my summers and Saturdays have all come to help me out and the fish is laid on a bed of olive oil and oregano scattered with chopped garlic and tomatoes, while I pick up the phone to dial HOME.