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Published: Wed Apr 15 2020
Art by Jin Suk
Gutted

When the salmon aren’t biting—which is a lot of the time—Eric and I sit with blood caked on our faces and talk about neon squid lures and diesel engine mechanics and my father’s unraveling brain. As we wait—and even when the fishing is good, we do a lot of waiting—we talk about wind speeds and water temperatures. We talk about gaff hooks and hydraulic gurdies. We wax poetic about properly sharpened filet knives and salted herring threaded on barbed treble hooks. Every morning from May through September we rise at first light to discuss the state of the tides, the swells, the current. We talk about how much sleep we haven’t gotten, how much food we have left. We discuss very seriously the right angle to place the knife so it glides down the salmon’s belly just so. We never talk about how bad the other person smells.

When the salmon aren’t biting, we spend a lot of time speculating as to why we haven’t found them yet. We talk about who we know who did find them and we convince ourselves there is no way they’ve caught that many—that guy definitely inflated that score. When they aren’t biting, we try and make ourselves feel better by guessing how much we’ve already caught this trip. We convert that guess into dollar signs and we nearly always overshoot.

Living and working every day, often sixteen hours at a time, on a two-person, thirty-seven-foot commercial salmon fishing boat in Southeast Alaska is like this. It’s work that lasts all day, every day, seven days a week, for five months straight. For over six years now, I’ve had salmon guts woven into the fibers of my clothes and silver scales tucked under the recesses of my fingernails. My captain, Eric, and I rise unreasonably early, sometimes at two in the morning. We drink thick, murky coffee from a French press forever splattered with blood, and we channel our conversations into the things we can’t control. We talk a lot about prices—dock prices, market prices, prices for gillnet chums versus troll-caught versus seine. We whine a lot. On a clear day Eric will point to a bare mountain peak in the distance and say, “There should be an ice field there.”

Unlike commercial seine fishermen, who use much larger boats and even larger circular nets to catch salmon by the thousands, I work on a troll boat in the Gulf of Alaska. We use hooks and lines to catch our fish. Each salmon we land is brought onboard one at a time and always by hand. Generally considered one of the most environmentally sound methods of catching salmon, trolling is the type of fishing that leads to those Hand-Caught Wild Alaskan stickers you see on expensive filets in the store. On any given day in the summer, around four a.m. on mornings full of hazy mist and vapor, you can find me on the back deck of our boat, shifting my weight from one foot to the other for stability as I lean over the worn stern railing, hauling thousands of pounds of salmon onboard with my two hands and a long metal hook.

Technically, all this business makes me a fisherman. But of course, I am not a man. Years into this work, when I try to answer the “What do you do for a living?” question, the word fisherman wears on me. It’s like sandpaper on my tongue. “I am a fisherwoman,” I’ll start to say, but I almost always stop, cringing halfway through those two extra letters. These days I tell people I commercial fish for a living, and that usually satisfies their curiosities. Sends them off into elaborate visions of Deadliest Catch or some other predictably rugged Alaskan television show they’ve got lodged in the recesses of their minds. What I should tell them is that I kill fish for a living, because that’s much more accurate, though far, far less romantic.

“I am a fish-killer,” is really what I should say. Catching is the first part, yes. But if I’m being honest, and I’m trying to be honest here, killing is the whole reason we’re out there.

~

The night they told my mother to pick my father up from the hospital at one in the morning because he punched a nurse in the face, because he was too young and too strong, they said, because even though we were paying them exorbitant sums of money, far more money than we had, they told my mother that they did not want him. They told her he was violent. They gave him pills that drugged him so much he couldn’t stand up straight, so she had to drag him to the car in the middle of the night. They did not tell her they were sorry. They did not give us our money back.

The next morning, my mother called the last doctor on the list, and he told her that there was a bed in his hospital, that my father was welcome there, but that his hospital was far away. So we drove my father there, hours across the state. We drove past old and dilapidated cotton plains, past slow-moving channels cast with long, lean shadows from overhanging cliffs of corroded limestone. We drove him past oversized oaks dropping their precious acorns into the tumult of streams only to be washed away downriver to a place beyond the empty lines of dark, warm dirt that punctuate scattered fields of corn, now soybeans, now rice. We drove and we drove, past chicken slaughterhouses and cows. Big, fat females grazing, then ruminating, then grazing again on rhizomatous blades and phosphorus meal.

He slept the whole time. He slept as we passed a billboard that said Diversity is a code word for white genocide. Then we rounded a bend and there were flags in the periphery, all kinds of them: big, jumbo, sky-high, waving flags, decal flags taking up the entirety of car windows, flags as license plate borders, as T-shirts, as gray hoodies. Red, white, blue but in the wrong order, X’s down the center. Stars. And still, he slept. His head was resting on the window. The lines of his forehead were smeared across the glass. Does he dream now? Can he dream now? were things I remember thinking.

We dropped him off at a cream brick building with air conditioning units going full blast and few windows. We had to be buzzed through multiple sets of double doors in order to reach his room. My mother led him into the hospital with one arm linked through his, and I put my hand above his head to shield his eyes from the sun. I remember the floor because it was blue. I remember the ceiling because it was low. But mostly I remember that after we took him to the nurses and fixed his hair for the second time and gave him three hugs each and rearranged his belongings, we had to turn around and leave him. I remember the way his face pressed up against the porthole window, how he placed his hand in the center and my mother placed hers on the other side. Their hands looked like they were touching, but they were not.

~

I’m a good fishkiller. It’s almost mechanical now, this day-in, day-out, all-summer-long cycle of hauling fish from the murky depths and gutting them. I rarely have to think about the physical act of harvesting a fish anymore. I can clean any salmon in twenty seconds. I can do it with my eyes closed. I can remove their intestines and pump the blood from their veins and scrape the kidneys from their backbone with a long metal spoon even when the winds are blowing forty knots, even when the waves send sprays over the rail and into my eyes. I can do it on the days when I can’t feel my fingers anymore, they’re so achy, so frigid, so clammy.

Still, six years into this work, there are things that I now know, memories I’ve accumulated, a knowledge I have stored up inside me that I’m not sure I’d say out loud in certain company. For instance: I have now seen nearly all the ways a fish can die. I have seen scores of big, fat fish who die with a long thunk. I’ve seen countless small, bloody ones who fight and rebound and ricochet like boomerangs. I’ve had fish slap me across the face right before they die. I’ve taken tail shots to the stomach, to my breast. I’ve had them bite me and then die mid-bite.

I’m always seeing hooks in places I wish I hadn’t. Hooks through gills, hooks sliced through soft underbellies so the fish bleed out and die slowly. Hooks through the eyes: I’m constantly scraping off the remains of eyeballs that have been skewered like kebabs onto the bend of our hooks. They’re surprisingly difficult to remove, much hardier and substantial than you’d imagine. I’ve pulled up fish that were so close to spawning that when I grabbed their bodies to place them into the cleaning trough, their creamy milt exploded from their bellies and sprayed all over: the runny innards of a great popped pimple launched at my open mouth.

I’ve seen fish I thought were long gone—fish whose hearts and eggs I’ve already stripped away and tossed into the sea—appear to come back to life. Sometimes, and it can be twenty minutes after I’ve gutted it, I’ll toss a fish into our giant slush tank and it will hit the ice and start moving again. It’ll start swimming. Furiously swimming. Long after they’ve died, their giant caudal fin will hit the cold water and start to pulse back and forth, plunging deeper and deeper into the ice. Sometimes I’ll be standing with my knife in the cockpit—the hollowed-out space in the stern of the boat where we land and clean our catch—preparing to toss another one onto the pile when the lid on the hold will start shaking, pulsing up and down, drumming as a dead fish tries to swim to the bottom of the tank.

To be clear, these fish are dead. Still, the minute they hit that ice water they start to move again. At my most sentimental, my mind wants to add some meaning to this, like somehow their bodies know they’re not supposed to be up here above the water, like somehow, their silver scales can sense home long after their minds have given out. Other times I’m too tired. This is usually on the days when we rise at two a.m., when our tanks are full to the brim with fish, when I have stared at all the wind and rain that I have any desire to be a part of. On those days, all I want is for the fish to go quietly into the tank. They never do, of course. And the more I kill fish, the less inclined I am to accept that there is some firm line separating the dead from the living. The more I kill fish, the blurrier this whole business gets.

~

The morning his tears woke me up, everything smelled like mothballs. It was seven a.m., three days before Christmas. My brothers and I were sleeping on a pallet of stale quilts we’d found in my grandmother’s closet, a makeshift mattress between us and the wooden floor. The three of us had been lying there, side by side, every night for a week and a half. That morning, I woke up to a series of tiny water droplets splashing onto my cheeks. When I opened my eyes I saw where the leak was coming from. They were tears falling off a face—my father’s face—onto my own. He was close—too close. He was so close his features were blurry; the bridge of his nose was hovering just inches above my own, and I could just vaguely distinguish those tears running down the bumpy slope of his once broken, now crooked, nose. He was kneeling over me on all fours, knees sinking into the quilts, leaning his weight into his hands on either side of my torso. He was heaving.

“I’m a terrible person,” my father said.

“I’m such a terrible person.”

“I’ve been such an awful person,” he said, as the tears kept streaming.

“I’ve been such a terrible person.”

“I’ve failed you.”

“I’ve failed you.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’ve failed you.”

“Please forgive me. I’ve failed you all,” he said, shaking, still leaning over me, his eyes wet and red and puffy. His nose was so stopped-up that the snotty, oversaturated paper towel wasn’t cutting it anymore. He wiped green slime all over his nose, his cheeks. I should get him a kleenex, I remember thinking.

Instead I just sat up and offered him a hug. I led him back to his bed whispering things I had told him so many times before. That nothing was his fault. That he had failed no one, that he was good, that he was deeply good, that he would always be good, that there was nothing for him to worry about.

On Christmas morning, I found him lying in the dark on the couch-bed in the fetal position with a thin sheet pulled over his head. When I walked into the room, he curled his knees up closer to his chest. He had tucked the old sheet over his face, over his eyes, over his mouth, creating a cocoon like a child would, like a baby might do. He shook his head over and over again as I tried to wake him.

“Dad,” I said.

“Dad, don’t you want to come out and sit with all of us together on Christmas?”

“Dad, I’m only back for a few days and I’d love to see you.”

“Dad.”

“Dad.”

~

There’s one morning in particular that I keep coming back to. It was just past dawn early during my first season; Eric and I had been catching kings steady for hours. I was standing alone in the cockpit. A thin layer of salt had already dried in the corners of my eyelids. Every time I blinked, it was like having tiny crumpled-up pieces of tissue paper stuck to my face. And when I looked down at my feet, as I routinely do to check the water levels in the cockpit for flooding, I saw something I had never seen before. Something that made me drop my cleaning knife so it landed just beyond my big toe.

On the floor of the cockpit, arranged in a semicircle at my feet, were hearts: eight severed salmon hearts, to be precise. Even now, I don’t know how they got there. Somehow, I suppose, I had failed to toss all eight of those hearts overboard that morning and they’d found a home on the cockpit floor. But that wasn’t what surprised me. What surprised me was that they were still pulsing. Every single one of those hearts. They were moving, each one encapsulated in its own tiny, individual red pool at my feet. Without thinking much about it, I reached down with gloved hands and picked them up—one after the other after the other—and placed them in a line on the wooden deck rail overlooking the sea. Each heart was only about the size of a small clementine, each one the picture of vulnerability sitting there on the railing, continuing to contract as if its body were still whole. Perhaps it was curiosity that caused me to place them on the rail like that. All I know is that I stood there for many long minutes—three, four, six—before the last of the hearts stopped and went still.

~

“He does love to dance,” said Claire, a woman dressed in a purple cardigan who sat at the head of the long table. It was a week after we’d dropped my father off at the brick hospital. “We had music the other day and he was dancing up and down the hallways, playing air guitar with his hands.”

“But he’s having trouble with green,” said Chad, the man sitting next to Claire. “He’s doing okay with yellow. Not green,” he said, staring at my mother, “but yellow is good.”

“Everyone obviously really likes him here,” Claire said. “He likes to play. He likes to go outside, to bounce balls on the concrete. And chocolate. He just loves those York peppermint patties—but he can’t open them, is the problem. Sometimes he just holds them in his hand and waits for us to open them.”

“One day we noticed that everyone was losing their eyeglasses, everyone in the building,” Chad said. “It was just the darndest thing. Nobody could figure out what was happening. We had to do this whole search and sure enough, we found them. We found them all. He had a bunch of them in his pockets. The rest were just sitting in his room.”

“He’s losing function rapidly now, you know,” said Claire. “Having a hard time feeding himself. Definitely can’t cook. Yesterday we found him drinking the shampoo, and we had to take away his razor because he tried to brush his teeth with it.”

“But he’s good with yellow, like we said. Green, not so much. We play Uno and it just doesn’t make sense to him. But, you know, he’s a beautiful person. You can just tell he is. A really beautiful person.”

“We’re going to have to plan for the end soon,” interjected the doctor, in an untidy suit sitting to the left of Chad. “We know the end of this story; we know what’s going to happen. He looks healthy, he looks barely fifty, I know. But we have to facilitate a good ending to his story. There are ways to make things easier for him. For you, too. It’s all about our choices now, how we facilitate his end.”

~

It’s a hollow sound, the dull conk that makes the wild eyes of a thrashing Chinook go soft. It’s not a tap, it’s a conk. And this distinction is important. A good hollow swinging conk to the temple with a gaff hook quells a salmon in the water. It kills her immediately. Too much force, one loud thwack, and you’ve lost her. You’ve knocked her off the line.

If I do it right, a conk is the sound I hear just before puncturing the gill plate, before hauling that mammoth chunk of flesh and muscle onboard. It’s the sound I aim for, leaning over the worn railing, one arm cocked overhead as my hips stabilize against the ocean swell, striking not at the heart, but the brain. It’s a sound that signifies death, absolutely, one less salmon returning to spawn upstream. The conk is important, but it took me years to understand why Eric kept harping on it. Why he kept yelling over the drone of the engine, “Don’t tap it, conk it! Listen! Don’t tap it! CONK.”

Because it’s not really for us, that sound. Sure, a good conk is the most efficient way to kill a fish. If a salmon dies in the water, you’re less likely to lose it to a struggle at the boat. It’s quick, you can move on to other lines with other fish. But most importantly, the fish dies immediately. They exit this world before ever leaving the water.

The worst is when you don’t swing hard enough. That’s when the tapping starts. Taps usually come in sets of three. With each tap comes more pain for her, a messier landing for you. The taps happen when you fail to conk, when instead you send one horrible ricocheting blow after another after another—tap tap tap. With each tap she’s angry and she’s flailing and now there you are, angry and flailing with her. The force of the inevitable missed blow against the sea sends salt water splashing all over and now you’re flustered and throwing swings you know won’t work, but all you can hear are taps now and in this world tapping is the sound of desperation and desperation sends you to places you never meant the two of you to go. It was supposed to be clean. It was supposed to be easy. It was supposed to be many things, but you’re long past that now.

These fish are wild. Other than the few moments of voluntary jumps out of the water, most of them have no idea what it’s like to suddenly exit the ocean, let alone to see some giant dressed in neon-orange rain gear that’s got them hooked by a metal barb. Sometimes, when the intended conk is more like a tap and they’re more stunned than dead and I’ve already hauled them onto our back deck, I realize how odd it must be for them to leave the watery suspension, to feel their weight for the first time. These fish have traveled thousands of miles. They’ve leapt up waterfalls, dodged sea lions, descended to ocean depths where, for the most part, we don’t dare go. Yet with one hook they’re here, flopping around on the deck. They’re clumsy and chaotic now, not adapted to a world without water. Astronauts, I hear, train for years to adjust to feeling their weightlessness in space, and here I am, forcing that sudden knowledge on the fish. I grab the gaff hook and swing, trying to take that weight away as fast as I can. It’s knowledge I never meant to give them. Pain they don’t deserve. I dread the taps, now more than ever.

~

I was fourteen the first time my father asked me to kill him. He was forty-eight. “Should the worst happen, I need you to have someone take me out and shoot me. Please, make sure I don’t stay alive. It’s too hard on you. If something happens to me, don’t keep me alive,” he said to me. “I’m asking you. Please.” We were taking a walk down the street on a Southern summer evening that was bright and hot and gummy. There were fireflies flickering in the periphery. When I didn’t respond, he cupped his hands on my shoulders so we were squarely facing each other. He was searching for some nonverbal agreement behind the immediate anger he knew was coming, the flash of fury I threw at him for bringing this up at all. He held onto my shoulders and waited. He was patient. Then he said it again. “Don’t let them keep me alive. Don’t let me burden you.”

Three years after that day in the street, things started merging in my father’s mind. People, places, objects. He couldn’t figure out how to name things. Everything was so misplaced in his head that he kept asking me over and over: “When is the blood ready?” and then pointed to the oven, where we were baking bread. For years he would just stand there, staring at something he was struggling with, like it was going to come to him if we just gave him time. Like he was figuring out some elaborate math equation. Like he could see something we couldn’t. Like he was on the edge of something really really important and if we would all just trust him and give him the time and patience, he could come back. He could surprise us. He might just return.

And he did surprise us. He had good days every once in a while. It was Thanksgiving and I was far from home, eating roast turkey off a paper plate, when my phone rang and his photo covered the screen. I just sat there and looked at it. Not only did my father usually not have any idea where his phone was, but for years we’d been under the impression that he had no idea how to dial a number. His phone was a big brick that sat in his coat pocket and never seemed to be useful in the moments when we lost him, which had started happening more and more frequently.

“Cathryn,” he said to me when I answered. “Happy Thanksgiving my wonderful daughter. Where are you? What can I do for you my daughter? How is your car running? When are you coming home? What can I do for you? When are you coming home? What can I do for you? What can I do for you? When can I see you again? I love you. I love you. I love you.”

He talked for about two minutes, asking a bunch of questions, not really waiting for the answer. His voice sounded so with it for a moment. He sounded like he was almost there, but then it started to unravel. Then those serial questions became a repeating script. He was asking the questions that he always used to ask, using phrases that I’d rationalized were just the hard wiring of his brain. On good days, what was left of his language became distilled into phrases he’d been using all my life. The questions were still there, but there wasn’t any cognition, no meaning behind them. What can I do for you my wonderful daughter? How can I help you? What can I do for you my wonderful daughter? How can I help you?

Sometimes he would step out the door without our knowing. On those days, my mother, brothers, and I would set out and start covering land. We would walk in a grid until we found him, sometimes sitting in the bleachers at the baseball fields two miles away where I used to play T-ball, or at a park where we used to swing every spring. Sometimes he would go to places like these, places rich with meaning from the past. Other times he was in a ditch on the side of the road, or in some barren woods, just standing there, waiting.

And then more years passed and we lost our house and the medical bills were a shadow we never did get out from under, and by the time we finally got the whispered early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis it didn’t matter anymore. We had to start making decisions for him. End-of-life care, they call it. And nobody knew what he wanted, and he certainly couldn’t tell us, but I did. I knew. He’d told me exactly what he wanted. He asked me to kill him again two more times after that first day in the street—once when I was sixteen, another a year later. He wanted it to be easy. He wanted it to be fast. He wanted it simple and clean. It was none of those things, of course. I’m not sure it ever is.

~

The bow started creaking at seven a.m. the morning I caught her. I was sitting in my bunk pretending to sleep. The old plywood above my head was warping under the weight of her pull. Just the sound of her was more than enough to spring me from the bunk, to make me reach for my gloves hanging above the stove, enough to make me jump into the cockpit without my rain gear because I was afraid of losing her. I leaned over the railing to unclip the line I suspected she was on, but I couldn’t see her yet. She didn’t pull. There was hardly any tension in the line. It was as if she wanted me to think she was smaller than she was, or that she had gotten off. It’s not a bad strategy. I’ve seen Eric unclip a line he thought had a big fish on it, pull on the line for a couple seconds, see that there was no counter-pull from the fish, and then hang his head, thinking it had gone. Spit the hook. At the last second, though, that fish gave one final pull and the clip and line went flying out of Eric’s hand into the sea.

I wasn’t about to do that with her. After a few moments, I finally felt a slight tension, yet still she stayed under, all but invisible to me save for the clear monofilament that tethered us to each other. Slowly, I started reaching one hand over the other, hand over fist, pulling the hook toward me, coaxing her in. Often, usually with smaller fish, salmon will launch themselves high into the air, waving in an arc, announcing their presence, their displeasure at a barb poking through their lip. They fight, they dart back and forth, they splash, they protest, they holler in the only way they can, though of course the only sounds they make are the slaps of their bodies against the water.

Not her, though. There was no splashing or jumping. She stayed well under as long as she could. With each fist of line I grasped, she started to pull, but not too hard. Finally, she was close enough to the boat that I was beginning to see her, like a rising submarine from the depths. The trick with landing king salmon is to keep their head under the water until the absolute right moment. You wait, coaxing it to stay below, patient until the bridge of its head breaches the surface just long enough for the back of the wooden gaff hook to strike.

She was around forty pounds—the biggest I had seen in years. A third of my body weight. She was the lone bright spot amid a season of missing fish and commercial disaster. She was going to make me a chunk of money, which I badly needed. Truth is, I was devastated to see her.

The line never went slack, the hook never unhooked. She never jumped into the air; she never fought. She was just barely hooked. The flap of skin holding that long metal hook in her mouth was dangerously thin. Too hard a swing and she was gone. She started to surface at an angle; her right eye was wide open. I saw the gold flecks around the black pupil of her eye even before her head broke the water. She rolled over onto one side like she wanted to see who had pulled her from the depths. This happens sometimes—not often, but sometimes. Usually it’s when you’ve waited too long to swing and they turn onto their side and the soft target right behind their head goes slightly out of reach. That’s when they get a good look at you.

There are so many places that her eye could have landed. So many other places to look. So much to pay attention to above the water in this new world. A seagull waiting overhead for scraps of guts, the shape of the gaff hook, the giant, loud boat tugging along, the sea lions closing in now, coming to snatch her off the line if I didn’t do it myself soon. Her head broke the water, and her metallic eye found mine. I don’t know what it was that held our gaze. We weren’t two enemies meeting, not friends either. It was just what it was. I was going to kill her, and she knew it. She was going to die, and I knew it, whether I killed her or she died in a stream after spawning a few weeks later. I was tethered to that line just as much as she was. And for a moment, neither of us did anything. She didn’t drag, she didn’t pull. I stood with my gaff hook, towering above her, hoping desperately for a conk. She never broke the gaze as I swung toward her head. She just stared at me, with a look that will never need translation.

Are you sure? she said.

Are you sure?

See what's inside AGNI 91

Cathryn Klusmeier’s writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, Hunger Mountain, AGNI, Connotations: The Island Institute Journal, and The Journal of Design and Science. She was awarded the 2016 Crazyhorse Nonfiction Prize, won the 2018 MIT Media Lab’s “Resisting Reduction” essay contest, and was runner-up for the 2019 Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. A graduate of the University of Oxford with a master’s degree in medical anthropology, she lives in Sitka, Alaska, where she works as a commercial salmon fisherman. (updated 4/2020)

Klusmeier’s essay “Gutted” (AGNI 91) received a Pushcart Prize and will be reprinted in the 2022 anthology.

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