Pharyngula

Fishkiller

I write in my sleep. You see, the way it works is that if I have something on my mind when I go to bed, my brain will churn over it all night long, and because of the way my head works, it will spontaneously generate a narrative. I do that in all of my dreams — I float aloof from the events, mentally transcribing what’s going on. My consciousness is a kind of disembodied reporter, I guess.

This quirk can work out well. Lots of my longer posts are composed while I’m sleeping — I wake up in the morning and the structure of the story is all laid out in my head, with a jumble of words stacked up waiting to be written down. It’s not a complete word-by-word write up, but major themes and key chunks of text are all done, and writing is more like splicing in a few transitions and tidying up some rough edges than actually, you know, writing, whatever that is.

¬†Sometimes this has weird results. Like last night. I had finished organizing my talks for this trip I’m on, I’d packed up my gear and had my suitcase by the door, and I went to bed with nothing in particular on my mind, relaxed and unconcerned about the coming week. This is a dangerous condition for me. It means strange, random stuff will waft unbidden through my dreams, and when I wake up I’ll have something really freaky queued up in my consciousness, and my brain will be all “dude, time to get those fingers wiggling and frog vent the blast core to clear this crazy stuff out of the cortex,” and the sober, responsible part of my awareness will be all “no way, meat lump, they’ll lock me up if any of that escapes my cranium,” and then I’m cranky and blocked up all morning.

So, anyway, this peculiar dream/memory/vignette swam into the purview of my floating narrator last night, got annotated and slotted into the blogging module of my brain, and was sitting there waiting for digital instantiation this morning, so I typed it anyway while I was sitting on my boring shuttle ride, just to clear it. It’s not as bizarre as some of my undirected dreams (no way are my sex dreams ever being manifested; they’re choreographed by some twisted Rabelaisian alien), and travel is disrupting my usual schedule, so I’m dumping it online as filler anyway. Don’t judge me! Just think, it could be so much worse.

This one is nothing but an old recollection of cleaning fish. Fair warning, though: it’s channeled straight from my id, and what is an evocative memory for me might be a shrieking nightmare for you. And don’t expect much — it’s just a dream.


I’d landed the salmon, but she still fought. Pressed against the rough dirt, she flopped and thrashed, jaws gasping, and every time her opercula flared, it was like a red velvet rose blooming at her throat. I felt her muscles spasm beneath my hand. Her flank was smooth, cool, wet, firm — she was a deep-bodied pearlescent torpedo, a supple slab of muscle sheathed in silveer and iridescence, and she had journeyed thousands of miles, braving ocean and stream, and this was not where she wanted to end, writhing in a caustic atmosphere, her sleekness contaminated with grit and dirt.

I knew what to do. I was good at this.

With my free hand, I reached into the tackle box and grabbed the club. It was a short, dense bar of scrap, salvaged from a junkyard somewhere. It was not an elegant tool. It was rough and pitted and flecked with burs that prickled my hand; it had been painted red once, but dark gray metal showed through the flaking paint, and it was scarred and scratched. It was an ugly, graceless weapon. I twisted the fish to look into her eyes, raised the club, and…brought it down in one sharp, crisp blow to the skull.

Fish have expressionless faces. I was looking into her eyes when the bar struck, but there was no change, no look, no detectable loss in her gaze. Fish are dancers. They express themselves in motion, in fluidity, in grace. I did not see her die, I felt it: a shudder, and then slackness. The dance was ended.

Then, the knife. Unlike the club, this was a beautiful tool, slim and needle-like, with one edge honed razor sharp, silvery to match the fish’s scales. I knew well what to do. I slid the tip into the vent, a small pale fleshy spot of vulnerability in the scaly armor, and deftly slid it forward, slicing through the thin belly muscles and skin to the tougher triangle of flesh between the gills.

I reached inside for the treasure I knew would be in there. I cupped an egg mass and pulled it free, a long plank of vivid reddish-orange, pebble-textured spheres. They were restrained by only the most delicate membranes. Everything inside is surprisingly distinct, but also held together with only the thinnest, gauziest webbing of silk. No knife is needed here, everything cleaves apart at my lightest touch. 

I set the cartoonishly colored eggs aside; they’ll be used later, as a bait of betrayal to seduce this fish’s cannibal brothers and sisters. There’s more to clean, and I have to decide what to do next.

I know what to do. I’m good at this.

The guts are attached to the body only at the back, at the vent that I’ve already cut, and at the head. Usually what I do is make a deep cut in the back, just behind the head, feeling the knife crunch through the vertebrae, and then snap the head forward, tearing it free and pulling the guts out with it in one smoothly efficient, bloody package. But I have to carry this one home, she’s a strapping big fish, so I’m going to leave that expressionless wedge of a head on, as a handle. so instead, I slit the throat to the gills, cutting the anterior attachment of the guts free.

I scoop out the viscera…viscera. I love that word. It sounds likes woman’s name, like something that should be whispered adoringly, like the subject of a poem. I hold these lovely soft, serously glistening, richly colored viscera in my hand, and I hear a caw: two crows, perched on a branch. One cocks his head at me. This is what they’ve been waiting for. I set the guts on a rock, breakfast for the locals.

I carefully thrust my hand into the ruins of the salmon’s throat — with care because they have pharyngeal teeth, and unlike the smooth pink cavities of her body, her throat is an unwelcoming grinding, tearing machine. I curl two fingers over her tongue, which is also muscular, gristley, and bristling, and lift her body up for one final act of grace.

I wash her body in the river, removing the foul grunge from her mortal encounter with the filthy terrestrial world, and make her clean and smooth once again. Then I hoist her to my shoulder and walk home. Behind me, the crows flutter and flap.

Later, I hold up my hand and see a trickle of her blood threading down my index finger to my wrist; I see translucent scales shimmering; I see her teeth did pierce me, and a little bright rivulet of my blood crosses hers. I lick it. I taste salt and iron. I taste cold dark seas. I taste small armored many-legged things crunching between my jaws in the deepness. I taste the sound of orcas moaning in the night. I taste long voyages and the yearning for home.