27 May 2013

As He Lay Dying

We had an eight o'clock boat with 15,000 pounds of halibut and 5,000 black cod and some skate mixed in. There was a lot of ice too, but not frozen solid and we did not need the chisels to break it apart. We worked down in the ship's hold tossing halibut, digging for them in the slush, dripping sweat, gripping them underneath the chin where they had been gutted, and heaving them into the large metal tote that was dropped down into the shiphold by a crane operator on the dock. The operator was one of our crew and the captain looked on and reminded us to watch the hull when we had to knock apart the ice. 

We came out a few hours later. I was drenched in sweat and I climbed back up the ladder onto the dock and took off my rain jacket and pants and gloves and cotton liners and our hard hats. My wool sweater was soaked through. We sat in the breakroom and were drinking tea and Gil, the chief, came in and said there were reds. Some boats had caught the first salmon of the season and they would be in after lunch and who wanted to go unload them. I volunteered. There wasn't any job or hours I would turn away from and I wanted to see salmon.

After lunch we put on raingear and lifejackets and descended down the ladder onto the first boat and I saw them down there in the ice-less hold flopping, silver and flopping, good sized red salmon, beautiful to look at. Everyone was looking into the hold at them. They were something to behold. The season, the madness of salmon season, was imminent. The captain looked on proudly. He knew his was the first boat to bring them in. 

We descended into the shiphold and Esteban reminded us to look among the reds for the King Salmon, that special rare fish that we were required to separate from the reds. He described the King to me, speckled back and a long silvery shining streak through its middle down the length of its body from the mouth to the tail, but I still wasn't sure I would recognize one. 

The first tote was lowered down and we were the four of us to each throw in 25 reds for 100 in total. The subsequent totes could contain any number. 

I started in digging and throwing the elegant fish into the metal tote and they were slippery and it was hard to get them by the tail and some were still struggling, still remembering they needed to get to somewhere and then to go back up the river and to mate and then to die. 

And then I found one. I knew instantly I held a King in my hands. His mouth was black and he was massive and dotted with silver and a perfect silver line down his middle to his tail that glinted in the sunlight. His gills were pumping and his eyes still bright and I held him a moment, heaving and majestic, and I held him in my hands watching him die, the great king taken from the river and the sea and diverted from where he had to go, that place he had to go without any choice, without any analysis. I held up the King Salmon to the captain and he reached down into the hold and took him from my hands. The great 10,000 year salmon run was beginning again in the Alaskan north.


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