The Fish Cleaning House
by Jay Edson
The smell of rotting fish guts may have been part of the rationale for keeping the fish house discreetly stashed away behind the maintenance buildings. But I think the real reason was spiritual. The vacationers in the eighteen cabins that lined the shore didn't want to think about this unsavory little link in the resort's food chain. They liked to feel the fish tugging on their lines, and they liked to smell them dipped in corn meal and frying in hot grease, but they didn't want to so much as think about cleaning them.
That was o.k. with me. By doing for a modest price what the grown ups detested, I would soon be able to buy a Whamo sling shot.
Whoever had used the fish house before me hadn't cleaned up very well. Scales and bits of fish guts had dried on the metal cleaning table that occupied the bulk of the space in the little six by ten foot structure. I squirted some water on the table from a length of hose attached to a cold water spigot, and scrubbed the table top with the big, stiff-bristled brush that had its home on a nail just inside the door.
Having to clean up before I began was a problem. It meant that the bucket that received all the water and fish guts as they dropped down through the hole in the center of the table might fill up before my job was done. This would require an extra trip to the fish gut pit to empty it. I dreaded that. Not only was the stench overpowering when the cover was raised, but I could sometimes see some of the mouths and gills still laboring. It was a fish hell, and I had fantasies of falling in.
Tonight's task consisted of six crappies and a big northern. I took the first struggling crappie firmly in my hand, positioned the knife over its neck and, wondering what this must be like for the fish, sawed furiously until I heard the snap of the back bone and felt the knife beneath my hand give a little bit as it once again entered soft flesh. I had heard that once the spinal cord is severed, an animal is dead. I took this as gospel despite the fact that if I pulled the head off rapidly I could sometimes discover a still beating heart in the entrails. Nevertheless, in my mind the fish had an almost legal responsibility to be dead when the cord was cut. If it didn't comply, I was not to blame.
I saved the big northern for last, as I was interested in seeing its brain. Even in a big fish the brain is surprisingly small and very difficult to find. Today, however, I was successful. Soon it was neatly laid out on the end of my knife.
The wind moaned high up in the tall pines. A moth banged against the screen, trying to get to the single naked bulb that lighted my work area. The blood and slime from the fish was already beginning to dry on my hands. Nevertheless I continued to stare for some moments at the pale elongated organ on the end of my knife.
The fish house was a place of business where I earned money for my new sling shot.
It was also a church where I studied the mysteries.