Blood, Salt, and Fish Guts 

CONTENT NOTE

This story explores issues of misgendering, makes mention of self-harm, and features a scene where an animal is killed.

I think longingly of my docs, lying useless in my wardrobe back in Melbourne. I didn’t anticipate needing them when I packed, and they would have taken up too much room in my case anyhow. Now, climbing over mussel-spore rocks and dressed like a city-slicker in pointy-toed, patent leather boots, I feel quite ridiculous. I pause to pull boots and socks off, to better grip my tread over the rocks. The skin of my feet remembers how to balance the rest of me across this terrain. 

‘You trying to catch pneumonia or something?’ Dad says to my feet, eyeing the polish on my toes nervously. They’ve already gone blue and numb, the red paint glaring out almost menacingly. I don’t know how to reply, so I let out a little awkward laugh. 

The salt wind off the choppy water mingles with the signature Tasmanian sharpness, gusted down from the mountain, and I wrap my scarf around my cheeks. Dad fiddles around with the fishing rod and his tackle box while I tiptoe around the once familiar rock pools, and gently poke at anemones. His arthritis clamps his hands up inside his fingerless gloves; it’s been years since we’ve done this. When was the last time? Maybe the year my sister and I started bleeding, albeit in different ways, and stopped wanting to play mermaids or show too much of our skin. I wanted more than anything to be a mermaid when I was young. I’d squeeze both my legs into the same side of my pyjama pants and wiggle along the floor instead of walking. I read somewhere it’s weirdly common for kids like me to want to be mermaids. 

I don’t know the names for the assortment of things in the tackle box, or the process of what he’s doing, and I don’t ask, but he tells me anyway. 

‘Now you get your bait, see. We’re using blue bait, like sar dines, since we’re fishing in salt water, right? See how you thread it twice so the hook’s hidden? You want to be careful to not get your fingers, ’cause the hooks are very sharp. Don’t want to be driving you to the hospital for stitches.’ I say, ‘mmhmm,’ and nod at the end of his sentences. Obviously, the hooks are sharp. That’s their purpose. That’s why he never let us near the tackle box when we were little. 

He goes to cast the line, still narrating all the while. ‘So, the sinker’s gotta be about maybe ten, twenty centimetres down the line from the rod, see?’ I try to show attention, but my eye line is baited by two men with fishing gear. Far enough in the distance, but making their way towards us nonetheless. ‘And we flip this metal bit—this is called the bail arm—’ They spot us. A half-wave exchanged by them and Dad. Adrenaline spikes my veins and I try to curl away from sight, into the rock cavity. I roll my socks back on, and wish I hadn’t worn makeup. Who would see me here anyway? There are no mirrors for even me to ridicule my own appearance. Stupid, why didn’t I think…? ‘…and you have to hold the reel in place with your thumb, see? And pull the rod back…’ He stretches his arm far back behind him, winks at me. ‘And you’re gonna cast it quickly in a minute, but the important thing is to let your thumb off the reel when the rod gets to about here.’ He makes the movement in slow motion, exaggerating the angle. I always worried the line would cast wrong, and the hook would embed itself in his clothes or flesh of his back. My teeth clench and grind. 

The men stop far enough away to establish a friendly but firm boundary, at least in the social language of men. They set down their Esky and start tending to their hooks. Dad casts the line, for real this time. Once, not quite. Twice, better. Thrice, he seems to be satisfied. I let out a long breath to unravel my insides, bundle myself up against the cold and anxiety; knees to chest, arms ’round knees. 

‘Make us a cuppa tea, will you, son—er… kid?’ He catches himself, just. My mouth has felt like sand for days, poised for the clash of gendered language. Not a bad save though, I’ll give him credit for that. I climb off my rock perch, nearly slipping on seagull shit or some other slippery substance left by the tide. Dad packed tin cups in the Esky, wrapped in threadbare tea towels to quell their clanking sounds. Tea never tastes right in metal cups. 

‘How many sugars you having nowadays?’ I ask, rummaging through the Esky for tea-additives and teaspoons. 

‘Oh, I’m not. I didn’t pack any sugar. Forgot you still had it. Sorry.’ 

‘That’s okay.’ 

Digging through, I find a small long-life milk carton. And, oddly, specifically, a tiny carton of long-life soy milk. Mum’s addition? ‘It’ll do you good to go without sugar. You’ll rot your teeth out on the amount you have.’ 

‘I don’t have it in my coffee anymore. I don’t have tea that often anyway.’ 

I want to joke that I’ve moved on to harder substances than sugar and caffeine, that rotting my teeth out is probably the least of my body’s worries, but my dad is probably not the person to make that joke with. I pour steaming water from the thermos over travel-crinkled teabags, dash in a little milk. 

‘Cheers, love,’ he says as I hand him the tin mug, adjusting his grip on the fishing rod. He’s never called me ‘love’ before, only my sister. 

I sip my sugarless tea, but it only tastes of milk and metal. I push the craving for a cigarette out of my mind, even though I’m an adult now and my parents couldn’t really do anything about it. They’d still do the disappointed parent thing. Dad’s probably secretly disappointed in me anyway. I used to help him in the shed all the time when I was a kid. Well, I say helped but what I really did was play in the sawdust, and he would make sure I wasn’t about to chop my fingers off with some contraption. When did he stop asking me to help him in the shed? Maybe when I declared my vegetarianism? Or was it ‘those jeans will rip apart at the seams if you do anything other than stand still as a plank in them’? Maybe he saw my rejec tion of masculinity as rejection of him. At least I can put an Ikea bookshelf together in a pinch after half a bottle of gin. 

Reflexively, without thinking, I pull a pre-rolled cigarette out of my bag and light it. Gaze out at the beach looking at nothing and breathe in smoke like I’m starved for oxygen, drag after drag, like I only do when I’m looming-deadline, 2am-caffeine-jitters stressed. Dad turns around at the smell of smoke. 

‘So, you’re smoking now?’ he turns away again. 

‘Ah… yeah, you know… Young people, the city, uni. Hard to avoid.’ 

‘Figured you’d try it at some point. Thought you’d keep it as secret as you could, though.’ 

‘You’d have worked it out somehow.’

He makes a gesture with a sideways nod of his head. I pick across the rocks and lift my hand, half offering the rollie to him. Is that what he meant? He breathes out a hiss through his teeth. 

‘I haven’t had one since I married your mother. She made me quit before she said yes. Here—’ He offers his burden for mine. We swap, me taking the fishing rod awkwardly in my stick-insect arms, and him the cigarette stained with my lipstick, loosely held between his wind burnt fingers. Neither of us knows quite what to do with these things. Dad stares at the ring of pale pink on the end of my cigarette, subtle enough on my mouth to be invisible, but obvious as a tattoo on the filter. I can feel the sway of the ocean roiling like nausea, reverberating up to where my hands are wrapped around the rod. The movement of the waves in my palms feels like it could whip me away from the land in a flash of the current. 

Dad hasn’t taken a drag yet, but he keeps looking at the cig arette, as though he is wondering if he should. I wonder if he just accepted it so he could rest his bone-aching hands a while. But he lifts it closer to his mouth and takes a long drag. He doesn’t exhale for a while. When he does, he goes pale and has to sit down, holding his temples. 

God, I get the head-rush after a few days without nicotine. He must be ready to throw up. 

We stay this way a while, me standing straight and still, tilting ever so slightly with the movement of the current, and dad perched on the rock next to me with his sore, limp hands and the cigarette between his fingers. He has another drag or two, holding for a while each inhalation. 

The rod heaves, catching me off-guard. The end of it bends and I clench my whole body tight. I always worried that if a fish bit while I was holding the rod that I’d be uprooted and swept into the water. I can feel the thrashing of the fish on the other end of the line, hook painfully rooted in its mouth, but somehow my body knows how to stay itself to the rock, one foot in front of the other, knees slightly bent and strong core. 

Dad drops the cigarette, attention swiftly on me. He curls over me, left hand on mine, right hand twirling the reel. The fish is stronger than I thought such a small thing would be, working with the undertow. Is it really a flathead? Once Dad caught a blue throat wrasse here, dense and full of fight all the way up; they’re not shallow-dwellers. It’s a game of reel and rest, to get a fish above water. Loose reel, pull it in, loose reel, pull it in. But then it is there, wracking about on the end of the line in the crest of waves. We pull it in and slap it on the rocks. Dad hurries to untangle the silver hook from the fish’s mouth. Blood speckles out with the silver, reddening the sandstone. 

‘Grab the knife,’ Dad says, holding the fish, thumb and fore finger pried up in its gills, trying to avoid the quickening of its spines. I fumble to find the kitchen knife in its plastic sleeve, hurry it back to Dad and the flailing fish. It’s softly triangular, almost like a catfish, mottled green and brown, spiny along its back, fins, and gills, and thinning out towards the tail. 

‘Here, you stab it through the head to kill it, quick,’ Dad says, pointing. 

I can’t kill it. I can’t even kill spiders; I have to make a bell jar out of a glass and leaf of paper and take them outside. Unwilling, my head shivers from side to side. Impatient, or merciful, Dad takes the knife from me and stabs the blade between the fish’s eyes. He puts a hand on my shoulder. 

‘Better to kill it quick than let its gills collapse and suffocate the poor thing.’

He gently places the fresh corpse in a bucket of rock pool water. The fish writhes, though I know it can’t be alive anymore. Just nerves, the way they say chickens still run around after you’ve cut off their heads. 

I can’t stop looking at the fish twitching its death throes. The pierced head leaks slow spirals of red. I pull myself away and light another cigarette. Dad threads fresh bait and casts the line again. It’s not long before he reels in another flathead, and another. Stabs them swiftly between the eyes and joins them with their kin. 

‘Here, let me show you how to gut a fish,’ he says, pulling one from the bucket. He gives me the knife. I don’t want it, but I don’t know how to refuse. 

‘We clean the scales off first, from tail to head, against the grain. Careful near the spines, they can still get you.’ I hold the fresh corpse by the tail, gingerly shaving up its body. Shimmering scales come away in translucent flakes, stick to my hands and glitter the rocks. I remember reading somewhere fish scales are one of the main ingredients in some lipsticks. 

‘Slit here, middle of the belly. All the way up to the jaw.’ Mechanically, I push the blade into the white underside, sawing up through meat to mouth. I want to look away from the gore inside, but can’t seem to make myself. My eyes are locked in it. My stomach turns. All I can smell is salt and blood. 

‘And you slit here, across, severing the head and the gills.’ I snip the ligaments and cartilage. 

‘We open up the throat now.’ I splay the meat open like angels’ wings. A mess of red and pink exposed. 

‘Get your finger hooked in there, pull the gills up. Cut them out from the front and back.’ I feel lightheaded and my hands aren’t steady enough to make a clean cut, but I manage it. The jaw lays hollow. 

‘And you can pull all that out now, just with your hands.’ I rip up, a visceral string, lay it gingerly next to me. Dad picks it up and throws it back into the waves. Squalling seagulls don’t take long to frenzy around the discarded innards. 

I never thought about, when we went fishing as kids, how brutal it was. The stabbing and the gutting, the hooks in the mouth. The sharpness, the knives; all that happened behind the scenes. Dad kept all the brutalities to himself, gutted the fish in the shed, made sure rock pools distracted my sister and me when he stabbed the fish through their skulls. 

What’s left inside the fish now is a soft pink surrounding the spine. I scrape leftover clots of blood from the innards. I’m handling the knife, navigating the fish’s body so mechanically that I don’t realise I’m crying, scraping away more flesh than blood now. Dad puts his hand over mine to tell me to stop. I look at him with fish guts all over my hands and under my nails, and salt tracks down my face. His mouth is twisted wryly, and I realise he’s wet-eyed too. 

‘I know. I never liked fishing either,’ he says.

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