I have a squiggly, wet fish in my hands. I am crying. Uncontrollably.
Its slick skin slides out from my grasp, and it somehow manages to jump away and onto the ground. As I am set up so far away from the pond, its panicking thrusts don’t manage it back to the water. It flops, to and fro, and there is so much grief in me I feel I will explode and crumble beside it as it dies.
I decide I cannot let it suffer anymore and search frantically for a way to end its pain. I pull out the fish knife in my belt and hold the blade edge carefully, thankfully it is still sheathed so as not to slice me open. The hilt protruding from my trembling fist, I walk up to the squirming fish and thwack its head, aiming hard so I won’t have to try again. I squeeze my eyes shut reflexively as I make this jarring motion. I wait for a moment, listening, my arm reverberating. My eyelids peel back open, afraid to see what I’ve done, but apparently I have succeeded. The body of a lifeless fish rests before me.
I go to my bag and pull out the ceremonial cloth I’ve chosen to wrap the body in, to honor its life and the part it is playing in my rite of passage. I feel the scratchy linen cloth, and through it a wet seeping onto my hands. I stop for a moment and feel this body, this cycle I have chosen to put myself in, remembering the struggle and the blood of just moments ago. All is peaceful now, and I feel as if I hold a precious sacrament in my palms. I do. I am.
I place the carefully wrapped body in the cooler I have prepared. I close the lid down and take a breath. It is done.
I gather my rod and equipment and head back to the car. Things seem very slowed down as I walk back along the path that before held my trembling steps. I hear birdsong echoing in the forest around me, and although the ripples of sadness are still flowing through me, there is a peace that has taken over my body. It is a pulsing feeling, deep in my bones.
I do not play music on the long, dusty road back to my home in the city. I listen to the silence; I feel the buzzing, how it etches out the lines of my body. It is as if I am humming, alive, and I want to really be in this feeling. I hear the rod jangling in the back of the car as I make my way over the bumpy roads, and finally I reach the highway and head home.
I pull up to the side of the house, cars rushing by on the busy intersection. I choose to leave my rod in the car for now, and only lift out the cooler with the fish body inside. I make my way up the stairs and into the house—no one seems to be home, which I am glad to see. My next task is to cook this offering, and to consume it. Decades have passed since I have eaten flesh, and my mind is nervous of how my body will react. I am grateful that I will be able to experience this transition alone, and I make my way to the kitchen.
I open the cooler and a wave of slightly fishy aroma rushes at my nostrils. I take another breath, and remember the Fish message I’d received:
We are here to nourish you, if you call upon us and treat this exchange with gratitude. We are happy to offer our lives so that you may thrive.
I have to put this message on repeat in my head. I have spent so many years protesting and activist-ing that this message is still such a paradox to me.
I walk over to the stove and place a frying pan on it, turning on the gas clicker and lighting a flame beneath. I splash a little oil onto its surface and hear it sizzle. I breathe.
I bring the fish body over to the side of the stove and unwrap it, placing its cool carcass onto a plate. I look at it, looking back at me, through the eye of its half-squished face. These eyes are glazed over and cloudy, and my crying heart doesn’t seem to react this time. I have become a little more comfortable with the fact that I am a killer.
I hover my hands over the dead fish and start to say my prayers. Prayers of gratitude for its sacrifice, for the worms and waters that formed it, to its fish mother, to the silky mosses it brushed up against and hid in. To the rains and the sun and whatever it is that made it possible for me to have this privileged experience, here, now. I wedge my fingers under the scaly underside and lift it up into the air, a gesture moving through me with no words. I bring it back down and into the pan, the sizzling intensifies, and I prepare myself to deal with the aroma of flesh cooking.
Surprisingly, as the fish body quivers and crackles, the scent is pleasurable. Savory, briny, smoky. My stomach begins to rumble. My stomach begins to rumble! My stomach hasn’t rumbled in what seems like…decades.
I am curious, and my mouth starts to water.
I grasp the spatula from its peg near the chopping block, and pry up the crisped skin of the fish body from the hot pan. I maneuver it somehow so that, in one fell swoop, I manage to flip it over onto its other side without a mess. It plops back and resumes its sizzle.
I am calm, reminding myself of the message. Guilt and fear try to creep into the edges of this experience, but the unbelievable fullness of the sacred overwhelms their tries. I look at the fish eyes again, and it seems the mouth is now smiling. The metalhead inside me chuckles at the grimness of a slightly smashed fish head smiling.
The aromas have taken over the air in the kitchen. I’m not sure whether or not the fish is ready, but it is now beginning to burn, so I remove it from the flame. I pull open the drawer next to the stove and pull out a fork, curious to see what it will look like, surprised again at the ease with which I’ve transitioned into this meat-eater persona.
I pierce the crispy flesh and pry into the muscle. I see it has hardened and its texture reminds me of fish-and-chips of so long ago. I decide it is ready, and remove the fork.
I slide the fish onto a plate and brace myself for the big moment. I breathe, body quaking again. The tremble has returned for some reason, and it makes my fork wiggle. I am called back to the wriggling of the fish, in my hands, on that mossy earth, dying, and how it’s now here, cooked, and on my plate. I feel tears well up, but they do not escape the rims of my eyelids, they just pool there. I lower my shaking fork down into the flesh of this dear creature, and lift a chunk of its cooked body up to my eye level. I look at it, fearing, but also in utter awe.
I place the fish in my mouth and close my lips around it. I slide the fork tines out and feel the saliva pooling around this new foodstuff placed there. All sorts of salty notes trickle around the sides of my cheeks as I begin to chew this strange, flaky texture. I close my eyes and breathe in, noting this ending of the rite it has taken so long to complete.
The tastes swirl in my head, and my stomach—and soul—is sated. I have received.
*Thanks for reading. This is an excerpt from my recently published memoir, Food Memories.
**Join me next week for my next memory re-creation, “Hot (Recovery) Oatmeal.”
***If you’d like to learn more about or purchase Food Memories you can support a small bookstore by purchasing it here:
or by searching for Food Memories by Reagan Lakins on any major book selling website.