(If you’re a new visitor to the blog, you can read this explanation of alternate histories.)
We don’t kill the fish ’cause the fish have toxins in ’em by the time they come up this far. I tell people not to eat ’em. I tell people, there’s three discharge stations up there, three. … We just put ’em back. Stripers, if they stay out of the water too long, they get stressed and they die.
Two stories here: the story of H and the story of the fish.
The fish was born in a big river. (I’m sorry, but I have to use human names for the things the fish knew.) It swam with the current. It snapped at tasty fragments first, then smaller fish. Its siblings schooled together with it. The water brought it temperatures, pressures and flavors, currents and other currents. It moved like a muscle inside of a muscle. It tasted metal, plastic, rank things. Older fish of its kind came to the river–big shadows, muscling the water aside–and ate most of the food, but it managed to find enough. It was fish-wise, fish-strong. It inscribed itself on the currents briefly, repeatedly. For lice, it was a country; for smaller fish, it was the end of the world.
Seasons passed. The fish’s third winter, the water cooled less, it didn’t grow as torpid, it stayed hungrier. Some of its schoolmates died and the decay of their flesh flavored the water. When the fish was old enough and strong enough, it moved along a particular current, following the taste and itch of salt, passing the changes in plants and other animals, riding the rapids and pushing through the slow shallows, until it reached vastness.
H is a human, so he knows time and survival differently. His birth is a long time back, in what, up North, he calls the South. He rides his bike, he gardens, he works as a guide for kayak fishing. Sometimes he takes his kayak through the river some humans call the Woonasquatucket out into the bay and beyond, to get to where the stripers are that his fellow humans want to catch.
The fish wants to live and H wants to live. Once, he would have let the fish live long enough to grow big and stout, and maybe mate and make more fishes, before catching, killing, scaling, gutting, cooking, eating. Now he coaches his customer how to put it back without any intention of ever eating it, gently, reverently. It will still probably die from something humans have done–plastic in the water, carcinogens in its own body–but not this human, not this thing
But now trace the stories back upstream. Dredge out the plastic, by hand if necessary, all the able and available hands maneuvering small craft and squatting on the tangled banks; go to the houses, collect the plastic, go to the factories, don’t make any more. Find the places where the sewage outfall or industrial discharge enters the river, diverge some of it or plant them up with the cordgrass or phragmites that will filter the water (we’ll need to rip it out later, since it likes to spread; we’ll need to bind and weave the reeds into boats when our kayaks and canoes spring leaks we can’t fix because we’re not making plastic compounds anymore and the spruce sap won’t stick to the fiberglass properly). Pay the reparations that are due to H on behalf of his enslaved ancestors, before we get rid of money entirely. The window is small; we need to do it soon.
The fish has died, long since, drifted to the bottom to be devoured by the scavenger snails and hermit crabs that have managed to survive the increasingly warm oceans. Other fish spawn in the river, tastes their way to the ocean. They know all that fish know: the water reteaches it to them, along the lateral lines that run down every fish body from generation to generation. A blurred or interrupted lesson is still a lesson, and many fish have come to grief. Others have learned in their bodies how to digest new kinds of food, how to endure greater warmth and less oxygenated water, how to float low and weather out the turbidity and violence of storms.
Humans live longer than fish; H is old in this part of the story, and history has injured him in many ways, but his life is full of sweetness and he has access to all the medical care he needs. He kayaks out for the pleasure of survival; he lets out his line. The fish he hooks late in the day will feed him and six or seven of his neighbors; it thrashes with all its weight, because most things want to live. He says a reverent prayer of thanks for its life and its flesh, knocks it sharply on the head, and paddles back upstream.