The Dead.

November 15, 2010 at 11:52 pm (crossroads, fishmongering, the ancestors)

For Halloween, which happens to be the anniversary of my lovely roommate’s birth and of my conception, we covered the house in dead leaves, cobwebs, feathers, and bones. We filled apothecary jars with a cocktail made from rye whiskey, applejack, and cider, and an ornate punchbowl with a champagne cocktail made with creme de cassis and chambord and fresh blackberries. Dressing up, as one must, I did what I could to represent the god Pan. I wore a flesh coloured nothing of a dress, a vintage fox fur stole, pheasant feathers in my hair and a jutting folly of a broach made of oak leaves and dangerously long pheasant tail feathers across my clavicle and over my shoulder. I went barefoot, and had gold dust on my face and on my hands. We had food, drink, and sweets to offer to friends, strangers, and any ghosts who might arrive, but, for the most part, only the living seemed to have been very thirsty.

The house in which I live does, however, have its ghosts. At times I hear the sounds of neighbours moving about, the dragging of a chair on a hardwood floor, the opening and closing of drawers next door, in the master bedroom of a house that was torn down years ago. My roommate hears a woman weeping sometimes when I’m not home, and I feel a strange sense of apprehension at the space at the top of the stairs, just in front of her bedroom door. I only think it strange how mundane living with a haunting seems. I think of them less than my other neighbours, certainly. The dead are quieter; more civilised, too.

I’d seem to have received a promotion. I’ll be moving soon, as a result, to the store farthest away from the city. I found a big, spooky house across the street from a pretty church and a swamp. It’s all white walls, hardwood floors, interesting architectural details, odd angles, old glass, and strange closets. It feels like it has its ghosts, too.

And today, in preparing for the move, I opened the box of letters, photographs, and art sent to me by the people who have read the various incarnations of this blog in the last dozen years. I found a stack from the charming young lady with whom I’d been in correspondence for years before finally luring her to Philadelphia and making her my roommate. There were postcards and trinkets and envelopes filled with glitter from old, lost friends, and from people I barely remember. There were odd, rambling things sent from London in curling script so pretty that I can barely read it. I found pictures of me kissing the sender. Most of these things I discarded. I’ve kept a small pile, a stack of beloved paper ghosts.

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Bones.

October 5, 2010 at 2:23 pm (crows, fishmongering, Uncategorized)

In recent years, the drain connected to the moat at the head of my cutting blocks has gone a bit finicky. My night crew has, too. So I’m expected not to leave them much of a mess, and not to allow things to collect in the moat. It isn’t easy for me, however. How am I to know what I have accomplished in a day if I can’t judge the size of the pile of bones and guts, fins and heads that have collected in piles around me and my knife? Bah.

fish bones

The fish that I can’t afford aren’t really things that I miss. Of course I could steal a bite of them whenever I like while I work, but for the most part I don’t. Those meaty and mild things are, I think, a little boring. I like the earthier, cheaper fish: trout, catfish, salmon, bluefish, mackerel. However, those fussier fish do serve their purpose. They make an excellent stock. I’ve never yet thrown out Chilean sea bass bones without feeling a little guilty for the buttery, rich stock they could have made. So last week I collected the Chilean bones, as well as halibut and bronzino bones, in one of the tubs in which our fish is shipped to us. I simmered them at home with salt, pepper, onion, carrot, celery and garden herbs until the cartilage weakened and the bones abandoned one another. It seems so wasteful that I ever buy vegetable stock, that I don’t do this weekly with the things that I could carry home for free, rather than hauling to the dumpster at the end of the night. And what sort of a crow would I be, what sort of great, great grandchild of the rag and bone men if I left bones so often uneaten?

Last week I used my stock to make a risotto with shrimp and scallops and crab meat. Today I’m making another with Chilean bones again, and with mild, juicy, wild Chinook salmon bones. By late afternoon it should be an Icelandic fish soup.

If you should happen to be in Philadelphia, I ought to mention that as we usually throw them out, if you call ahead to request that we save them our fish bones are free for the taking. A day’s notice makes it more likely that you’ll get what you want if you had something specific in mind, but a sufficient pile of bones of some sort can be saved within a couple of hours.

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Autumn Equinox.

October 3, 2010 at 1:57 pm (a gentleman farmer, books, fishmongering, the gods)

I barely had time for the equinox. I took a few stolen glances at that gorgeous, pregnant harvest moon. I savoured a few guilty thoughts about how much better I’d like to care for my garden next year. I was in a bit of a frenzy at the time. The cold months are when I sell the most fish, and as the world turns darker and my customers more ravenous, my boys and I seem to have been caught a little unprepared. I’ve worked summers where every afternoon is a long lull, a desperate search to find something to clean in order to have something to do. I only experienced that once this year, and on that day I scrubbed so many things that the fishmonger with whom I shared the shift laughed at me. So our slowly getting back to business has us really quite busy. I enjoy it, but my body, I’m afraid, isn’t quite used to the pacing. And when I could have been biking into the coming fall, finding the patches of collected dried leaves to stomp in, to roll and play and worship in, I was attempting to do honour to my household gods, putting things in order, making things ready for the approach of my ladyfriend and her youngest daughter. And that felt right, somehow. Spring cleaning is nice, I suppose, for chasing the winter out. But I prefer making preparations. I want to gather in, to set my house in order for my long stay there. I’ve picked up my knitting needles again, and I am, for the first time, looking suspiciously at patterns. Up until now I’ve basically been practising various stitches in swatches and calling the results a scarf, or tearing them out and using the yarn to attempt something else. And I suddenly find myself in possession of a somewhat sizeable stack of books on gardening so that I can be better prepared for the first workable soil next year. And I scrubbed, and set things in order, and made some (mostly inadequate) attempt at hiding the things that a particularly destructive three-year-old might get into, or break, or on which she might impale herself. I planned recipes. I hauled food home in what felt like massive quantities, given that I’m only used to feeding myself. So it is possible, I suppose, that what I experienced was actually one of the more honest and encompassing second harvests in my memory.

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Its ribs are ceiling beams. Its guts are carpeting.

August 21, 2010 at 7:41 pm (fishmongering, natural and unnatural history)

The freshest squid I’ve ever seen was brought to me, not to be sold, but in the belly of a fish. (It feels terribly rude, but I cannot recall what kind of fish that may have been.) I have a small assortment of fish hooks of several sizes at home, and a larger collection stuck into every spare piece of wood near my cutting block at work. We tend to find them still caught in snapper gills, but I’ve also found a hook as long as the palm of my hand in a mahi’s mouth. And a fishmonger friend of mine swears that a friend of his caught a bluefish off the coast of New Jersey, and found a tied off used condom in its stomach.

I was cutting a mahi mahi today, and nearly tossed the head and the attached viscera without checking the contents of the belly. I noticed at the last minute, however, how firm the organs were, and paused to admire the fresh texture of the roe sack, a cheerful yellow in colour like sunflower petals. I noticed something hard in the stomach, still nearly aiming it at my rubbish bin on the other side of the room, anticipating the pleasing thunk sound of a hit, or the more enjoyable splatter and streak of blood if I miss and it slides down the wall behind it. But I paused for curiosity. I took the point of my knife to the veined membrane and split the stomach, squeezing out the contents onto my cutting board. I was expecting squid. Instead, when I washed off the slime and stomach acid I found two baby sea turtles. They were perfect; I expected them to pull themselves about my butcher block on their little fins. They were a little smaller than the largest fishhook in my collection, and their shells hadn’t yet fully hardened. Their eyes had faded, but beyond that one never would guess that they’d been swallowed. The mahi must have caught them and then been caught itself immediately.

I pulled everyone I knew into my cooler to look at them. One by one every cashier, cheesemonger, and coffee buyer heard the rumour and stole away from their work for long enough to step daintily through the puddles that comprise the floor of my workroom, into my back room, and waited while I pried open the plastic container in which I was keeping them. Some thought it strange or sad. Few thought it disgusting, which is the more usual reaction to such things. Everyone asked if they were still alive, and most asked what I’d do with them.

They’re in a glass jar now with a better than ninety percent solution of isopropyl alcohol on my desk, next to a labradorite sphere, and a painted lady butterfly and a Japanese beetle I still have to pin and mount.

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