From Hard Light. Published by Brick Books in 2015. Michael Crummey has published nine books of fiction and poetry. He lives in St. John’s.
Once you’d got the catch pitched up on the stage head, you got down to making the fish. Assembly line. Cutting table, blades of the knives pared almost to nothing by the sharpening stone. Woolen gloves soaked in fish guts, the water running red out of them when you made a fist. The cod passing through your hands like knots in an unbroken string as long as the sea is wide.
Cut Throat — Get your fingers into the gills of a cod and lift it to the table, fifteen, twenty pounds some of them and the ache in your arm after three hours like the chill in a church hall on a February morning. Two motions with the knife, across the throat below the gills and along the bare length of the belly, like a Catholic crossing himself before a meal. Push the fish along the table, the left hand of the man beside you reaching for it, he doesn’t even turn his head in your direction.
Get your fingers in the gills of a cod and lift it to the table.
Header — The open body, the knife in your right hand. The head taken off clean, as if you were castrating a young bull. The liver scalloped from the chest and pushed into the oil barrel, left there to ferment like fruit going bad. The tangle of guts lifted clear, the cod flesh pulled from beneath, a body freed from a messy accident. Organs and offal dropped through a hole in the cutting table to the salt water beneath the stage.
The gulls screaming outside, lighting over blood.
Splitter — A good splitter could clear his way through five or six quintals an hour if the fish were a decent size, a full boatload done in three and out to the traps for more. Two cuts down each side of the sound bone, curved keel of the spine pulled clear and the cod splayed like a man about to be crucified. Dropped off the cutting table into the water of the puncheon tub, the next fish in your hands. Two cuts down each side, sound bone pulled clear, splayed cod dropped into the puncheon tub. Two cuts, sound bone pulled clear, cod into the tub. Two cuts, pull, into the tub.
By nine o’clock it is too dark to see properly, eyes as tender as skin soaked too long in salt water. The wicks are lit in bowls of kerosene: oily flame, spiralling spine of black smoke.
Salter — Empty wooden wheelbarrow set beside the puncheon tub, the flat, triangular sheets of fish meat hefted from the elbow-deep water.
Dead weight of the loaded barrow a strain on the shoulders, the bones shifting down in their sockets, the tendons stretching to hold them as the feet shuffle into the storehouse. A hogshead of salt beside the bins, a handful strown across the white insides of each fish before they’re stacked. Weight of the pile squeezing water from the flesh.
Turn with the emptied barrow. Squeak of the wheel, squish of feet soaked inside the rubber boots. Arm fishing into the puncheon tub, elbow numb with the cold.
The Bawn — Wait for a fine day in August. Sweep a stretch of beach clear, put stones down over any patch of grass that might spoil the fish.
The salt cod taken from the bins and washed by hand in puncheon tubs, front and back, like a child about to be presented to royalty, the white scum scrubbed off the dark layer of skin. Carried to the bawn on fish bars and laid out neatly in sunlight, 150 quintals at a time, the length of the shoreline like a well-shingled roof.
Two line days would finish the job, a week and a half to cure the season’s catch. The merchant’s ship arriving in September, anchoring off in the Tickle; the cured cod loaded into the boat and ferried out.
What It Made — You could expect $2 a quintal for your trouble, a good season for a crew was 400 quintals. Anything more was an act of God. The Skipper took half a voyage, out of which he paid the girl her summer’s wage, and squared up with the merchant for supplies taken on credit in the spring. The rest was split three ways. $130 for four months of work, it could cut the heart out of a man to think too much about what he was working for.