The Prize Inside

A Slavic fisherman's daughter waits on a guilty pleasure

| Utne Reader September / October 2007

The recipe went something like this: Get a fish; snapper or lingcod, mackerel or halibut, an everyday fish, a regular fish, not a special fish, not albacore or swordfish or salmon, too fancy for this common dish. Put the fish in a soup pot, cover it with water, let it come to a slow boil, like your mother's slow boil as she waits for your father's fishing boat to come in, for his ship to come in, for him to make good on his promise to fix the leaky gutters this time he's in port. Cook until the juices of the fish are released, then simmer. The simmering goes on for minutes or hours or days, for weeks or months or years, fish is simmering on the stove forever, from cradle to grave, the fish simmers and simmers and at some point is done.

Lift the fish out to place it on a platter. As you lift, the meat falls away from the bones, millions of bones, the ribs, the spine, the long bones, the short, the flat bones, the small bones around the cheeks, like lacework, the intricate system of delicate, delicate bones, and now the need to pray to St. Blaise, patron saint of things caught down the wrong pipe, and now the need to go to church and have the priest draw two white candles across your neck and bless your throat, so the bones won't get caught and choke you to death. And once blessed, tell me, your mother will say, how can you swear like you do, like your father swears, how you can say jebem, fuck, so easily that foul language rolls off your tongue.

What remains in that pot is fish stock, golden broth that can cure all, a sore throat, a salty cure, and now add potatoes, cubed, or rice and peas like the Italians, reeezi beeezi, that's what you say, and simmer until the rice is cooked and puffed up, and the air again smells sweet, perfumed by the sea.

Place the platter on the dinner table, on display. You listen, with your sisters on either side, while your father talks about the other Slavs, about the lack of money, lack of fish, about who's getting screwed, jebem, jebem, jebem. Hear your mother slip in something about the weather, the forecast for rain, the gutter. See your father gaze out the window at the horizon, just outside, calling him, though he's only been in port one day. Today in school you learned about Christopher Columbus. Did he, too, have the same look standing at the helm, on the lookout for the New World? You play around with what's left of your meal, why does it take them so long to eat, and finish everything on your plate, she'll say, and then you sit. And then you wait.



On the platter all that is left are the bones, the backbone like the one you see in the cartoons, where the cartoon cat tips over the trash can in the alley and pulls out the fish spine, only with the head and tail intact. There's no escaping the face, the open mouth, the eye looking upward, toward heaven or the ceiling light; it was living and now it's dead, and you focus in on the white eye, like the pupil-less eyes of the zombies you saw in Night of the Living Dead, zombies who looked just like regular townspeople the day before--the mailman, the neighbor, the school nurse--then the next day were walking with their arms stretched out in front of them, coming to claim you. You look at the eye, covet it, think to yourself, it's not a crime, what's about to happen next: The fish no longer uses its eyes to evade the net, the hook, to see whatever it is a fish sees. The fish is blind to what will happen next, the soul already gone, as we are blind to what will happen, tomorrow, the next day and the next, blind to what lies just around the bend.

And now the arguing, the fight every time, who gets the prize and who got it last, and you always get your way and you're a lying cheat, for the fish only has two eyes and there are three daughters and someone will be left out. Someone always gets left out.



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