Douglas Favero


Still Life with Salmon by Luis Melendez

Nate told us the kokanee salmon Maddie caught today had been swimming one hundred fifty feet below us when she started to pull it up and when it finally broke the surface we looked at it as something from another world as it flopped onto the boat floor and the blast of air entering its lungs made its mouth gasp in Os. The Os got smaller with each inhale, and the water formed drops which then turned into streaks running down its silver scales. It slapped its thick tail against the boat floor and we flinched. What world is this, that makes water and my lungs behave this way? its widening eye seemed to be asking us. The dilating pupil searched for an answer. The absence of eyelids struck us somehow, as if so fully did we see ourselves in it that we expected its eyes to be like ours. The slap of its abruptly useless fins slowed. Nate scooped it up and threw it in the cooler with the beer. As it suffocated slowly on the ice, I said, Look at it looking at us.

Nate picked it up with both hands and hammered its breathtakingly beautiful head three times against the handrail. On the third hit its eye splattered against the metal and its muscles gave way under its miraculous silver sheet of mirrors.

Nate lay it back in, mutilated, but no longer suffering. We could neither keep looking at it nor tear our eyes away. It disturbed me that its good eye, large and blind, glared up at us but I dared not say a word about it.

A moment ago we had been enjoying a gorgeous afternoon gently floating along the placid surface of the most impressive body of water any of us except Nate had ever seen, and the fish whose eye had just been shattered had been swimming deep below us. We—my cousin Claire, her friend Maddie, and I—were breathing irregularly now. The idea to catch a fish had sounded so pure, but how did we think it was going to go? For its part the fish had understood everything, in its own way, even as its eye widened at us: Its lack of self-consciousness had allowed it to experience itself as pure life-force, and now, at the picnic area under tall pines, it was spiced meat on foil over a grill. Now it was silver calories coursing our veins, livers, and brains, where its unconscious understanding that to pass through worlds is not to die must now pass through us.

Nate, seeing how blocked we were, recalled how he felt the first time something had been killed in front of him, but he was four years old, not nineteen. He said this so flatly we could not detect any derision in it. Neither derision nor a wish to go back. It is what it is, he said, taking a swig from his beer. He’d given it up awhile out of boredom but lately he’d fallen so much back in love with it that he was going out four to five times a week. A beautiful fish, Maddie, he’d said as he carefully removed the hook from its mouth. That’s got to be one of the largest I’ve seen, he’d said, both hands gripping it, laying it gently on the ice.

Identifying with the fish instead of with Nate, who had repulsed us, but who we had to admit had a point in everything he said, we made a face when its eye broke open and spurted blood onto the boat and Maddie’s left calf. You’ll forget about it when you eat it, he said. You’ll say, Mmm.

We felt we had murdered the fish and felt like the fish and so we felt murdered and sick and double-crossed by ourselves since its death was our fault, its death was our idea of a nice afternoon on the water.

It’s dead now, it don’t feel a thing, Nate said. Stop worrying about it.

There was no arguing with Nate. It was dead, that was all there was to it. Whatever it had felt, it no longer felt, and would never feel again. And we ate its flesh that was as bright and deep a red as the walls of the gorge as if this color match had had some design behind it that justified us killing it and eating it. When Nate filleted it Maddie turned away and sat on a rock over the reservoir and looked into the deep green water where she could not see all the other still-alive fish swimming but knew they were there all the same, looking for food themselves, and this gave her some comfort. She had caught it, yes, and she would eat it, because it smelled delicious and there was no other prepared food for miles and no sense in letting it go to waste, but no, she would not watch it get cut up, thank you. As if that, that part, would have been the one part that was going too far. Clairie went to be with Maddie. I watched Nate fillet the fish. And now, cut up, it was tasty and good and we all admitted it was so, because there was no sense in lying about it and besides, Maddie said, appreciating how it tasted was a way to honor it and everything that had happened and Clairie thanked God for the delicious meal and Nate for preparing it for us.

Nate added, again, evenly, as our lips got greasy, that maybe now that we’d given our thanks we could stop feeling like murderers or like murdered and just feel like what we were, which was animals.


About the writer:
Douglas Favero has been published in Illinois Times, Oaxaca Times, Southern Oregon Magazine, Ceramics Technical, The Lighter, and Right Hand Pointing. He has won several awards for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, from his alma mater, Valparaiso University, including the prize for Best Essay of the Year. Favero has a Master’s Degree in American Studies from Heidelberg University. He lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, with his wife and children.

Image: Still Life with Salmon by Luis Eugenio Meléndez (1716-1780). Oil on canvas. 16.1 x 24.4 inches. Circa 1750. Public domain.