The raw, gray slabs lined with thin red veins didn’t look like anything I’d want to eat. But it was food and my brother, two years younger and painfully obedient, and I had grown accustomed to eating what was put in front of us. I bit back disgust and picked up a cutlet to rinse. At twelve, I was doing all the cooking now that we moved so much. Seeing America first, my mother called it. The dark green fish-skin was smooth on my fingers, like mother’s one good purse, and long white bones thin as straw poked up from the flesh where it had been chopped apart. I pulled a bone and it slid out like a sewing needle so I pulled the other and it came out easily, too. The meat was ugly; knobby hunks so soft as to seem decayed. It was making me sick. Whale, my mother had said, tossing the package onto the counter when she brought it home. The store’s here have it, she said. We’d never been to the ocean before so I didn’t even think to question her as I pulled cutlets no bigger than my hand from the waxy paper and arranged them on a platter. My stomach rose in my throat and before I could stop it I spit up leaving a foamy dot, the circumference of pursed lips, just to the side of the platter. The cat that latched on to us the moment we arrived three weeks ago jumped onto the counter drawn by the wet smell of guts and skin. It chose a fatty corner piece to lick with its rasping tongue, purring with such obvious satisfaction that I worried I’d be sick again if I didn’t turn away but I couldn’t turn away. I held another piece under the faucet. Bits of pale flesh and red matter broke away under the stream and when I turned it over I noticed a long, black whisker protruding from the slick, dark skin. I pulled at it but it held. I batted the cat away; its enjoyment only rattled my stomach more. Outside, a car door slammed followed in quick succession by another and I wondered, hoped we had got our car back. The bones in the next piece were harder to extract. They tore deep rifts in the meat but I yanked at them furiously until they gave. I didn’t care if the meat ripped. The skin would hold it together in the frying pan so I pulled at each bone like I was pulling at my mother; without mercy, with a pitted heart. My brother’s shadow rose up the back steps and filled the screen door just before he slapped it open, banging it hard against the wall. He asked what I was doing and picked up the piece with the whisker in the skin. “Catfish!” he called with the glee of a child on Christmas morning. He took up a knife and began sawing the skin away from the flesh. “Ahoy, Whalers,” my mother called from where she stood at the screen door smoking. Although only my brother laughed, it was me she watched. She came over to where I stood at the sink and put her cigarette under the faucet. It hissed when it went out.
published 9th April 2014