After what happened to Paw, I swore I’d ne’er marry a fisherman. Maw’s life as a fishwife reeked of misery, married to my great lumbering cod of a faither. But my bonny Alex was a salmon in his leaping, tumbling excitement, a quicksilver laddie of the burns and glens. Like the salmon, he was no content with his birthplace, ever yearning to be away. I cast my fly of brightly coloured feathers, but the barb embedded in my heart not his, and he escaped across the sea.
I took it out on the clammy fish Paw brought ashore, my red-raw hands bashing the heads of those that quivered still, slitting their bellies, twisting out their innards, gutting, slicing. I ne’er looked in their accusing eyes.
Those fish thought they were swimming free in the sea, too foolish to know Death’s net was closing in around them, biding his time till he was ready to land his catch. Death caught Paw too. Paw died with his boots on – his generation dinnae learn to swim, preferring a swifter ending.
My bonny salmon came home to his birthplace to spawn. I was ready for him: I’d come to womanhood and could have reeled him in but thought better of it. No battle of wills with rod and line this time, instead a gentle guddling through the summer, like tickling a young salmon basking in a sunlit pool, lulling him helpless until I could flick him onto the bank where he was mine.
We married. That winter, when the wind gobbled down the lum, Alex told me stories of the whitelands where in winter the night lasted all day and in summer the day all night, where the wild salmon came in their thousands back to the very same pebbles where they’d hatched to lay their own eggs. Of the rivers choked with their rotting bodies afterwards and the swarms of flies that bred on them, and the maggots. It made me retch to think on it, but my Alex said it was no so bad: the larva and insects ensured their youngsters had a plentiful supply of food.
After our bairn was born, Alex wisnae earning enough. ‘I’m gaun out on the fishing boats,’ he told me. ‘It’s the only way to feed us all.’ I could nae look him in the eye. I wanted to say bide.
The crew’s collection paid for a stall in the marketplace.
I lay out the glistening rows of fish on the cold slab, ne’er looking at their eyes. I dinna think about the salmon that died so their young would live.
Come buy the freshest catch of the day, I bawl.
Some complain that I charge ower much. That angers me. It’s no fish ye’ buying, I want to tell them. It’s men’s lives.
(Guddle: to attempt to catch a fish with bare hands)