Aline Soules’ work has appeared in such journals as The Kenyon Review, the Houston Literary Review, and Poetry Midwest. Her publications also include a full-length book, Meditation on Woman, and a chapbook, Evening Sun. Find her online at http://alinesoules.com
Gates creak open at four thirty, factory horn as fogged
as my half-closed eyes. We swarm into the shed amid
dark swirling mists. Echoes of yesterday’s fish assail our nostrils
as we wait for boats to loom into yellow light, boats loaded
below the plimsoll line with haddock, cod, hake, mackerel,
whatever nets catch from the fish-laden sea of the 1950s.
I pull on black rubber waders and hair net, grab my knife
and take my station, hands red from cold.
Nine years old, I stand on an upturned crate, too short
to reach the slatted wooden boards. Still dry, the boards stretch
across the concrete floor. Beyond, the conveyer belt stands
silent, waits for the first boat to blow. Morag, next to me,
chatters ’til the first blast. She’s been gutting since she
left school at fifteen, wants better for her daughter, worries
about me being here. Her arms are like ham hocks, her feet
splayed and swollen.
Drew, with sinewed arms and body like the stern of a boat,
roars. Whisht, woman, dinnafash yersel’.1 Ye’ll no change anythin’.
The first boat drowns our voices. I grab the wooden slats hard,
while the sea doors swing wide and the boat lowers its stern.
Fish pour around us, still flopping, silver sides glinting like steel.
I struggle to stay upright, but as more boats disgorge, fish
rise to my waist. I can no longer move my feet.
We’re paid by the piece. I reach down fast, pick up a fish, slap it
on the boards, stick my knife into the anus, and slit up to the head.
Guts, still fresh, slip through the slats, mingle with still-foundering
fish. I split the flesh down to bone, snap off the head, and rip out
the spine to drop in my bucket under the slats. Heads will be counted
for pay before going to the fish meal house to fertilize fields or feed
Aberdeen Angus cattle. Toss the fillet on the now-screaming conveyor.
Ignore the mounting stink of fish seeping into my pores.
Stop only when a boat unloads. Pick up another. Watch for danger.
I saw a conger eel take the end off Morag’s finger, bloods blending,
screams rivaling the conveyor. Out three days, she came back
with finger bandaged, the whole covered in a plastic bag. She couldn’t
afford more days off. A dogfish, little shark, scraped me with his spine.
I watched blood ooze from my arm. The foreman didn’t care. Stop work,
don’t work fast enough, he’ll knick the underside of your arm
with a fish-bloody knife. Mine swelled like a balloon.
Forge a rhythm until the horn blows for tea. Short of money?
Work through break until shift end, three hours. As I gut
through the night’s catch, I pray for no fight as each of us
grabs for the last fish. Everyone has a knife. Small, I can crawl
under the conveyor, but I lose money if I do. I watch Drew.
He’s soft for me, like a dad. If he fights, I slither under the belt
until his bellows stop, look out for the foreman. If Drew winks,
I keep my rhythm while he flails his knife wide, and split
my extra pennies with him later. Seven thirty, shift ends.
Arms, lead weights, I can barely clean my knife to go home,
wash, pretend I don’t reek, and get ready for school.
1 Don’t worry or stress.
A little longer—pleeease
we beg as this year’s evening light
shines as strong as day at nine pm
and the gloaming won’t fade
We want to see the Gude Faeries
and the Wicked Wichts, the kelpies,
the selkies, maybe even a shellycoat,
though he could be dangerous.
We think they come with the night.
No pleading succeeds. We are
sent to bed, even as we plot
to stay awake until the witching hour,
but, every night, we sleep the sleep
of spent children.
One night, we set alarms muffled
under bedcovers, planning to get up,
knowing our friends will, too,
but the alarm wakens our parents.
They scold as they tuck us back in bed.
As soon as we hear their deep breathing,
we open the curtains to see the last
of the gloaming. Hills fade
to silhouettes, moon pennies glitter
the River Tay, perfect playground
for water faeries.
But where are the asrais,
the water lovers? Where is the ceasg,
the mermaid who’ll give us three wishes?
They must know we’re here.
We sigh as the gloaming fades its last
and the moon slips behind a cloud,
plunging the world into black.
Climbing back in bed, we wonder
What is it like where they live?