She goes to Lambert’s Cove on a full moon. It is so bright she doesn’t need a headlamp but brings one anyway because you never know. She steps over a dead rabbit on the path and bugs scuttle at her feet. Her rod feels right over her shoulder, the bucket of live eels swinging in her hand. They thrash in the bucket and bubbles come out of their mouths. It means they’ll be frisky in the water, which is what she wants.
She grew up on Martha’s Vineyard—one of the few—and as any good islander knows, it’s striper season. Three nights this week she’s spent trying but only pulled in skate and dogfish, a waste of good eels. More often than not she is the only woman on the beach. She pretends not to like the attention she gets because of it. Teaching science at the local public school pays her bills but fishing is her life. She is thirty-two.
When she gets to the beach, she heads west until she reaches a stream that empties into the ocean. On the way, she passes another fisherman she does not recognize. She asks him how it’s going in a way that sounds as if she doesn’t care what his answer is. Really, she doesn’t because his answer won’t be true. She half-listens and scans the sand around him, looking for a mound that has been freshly dug. The fisherman follows her eyes as he speaks. When she finds what she’s looking for, a knowing look passes between them. It’s not uncommon for fishermen to bury their catch as a way of hiding their good luck. He winks.
Her friends tell her she’s crazy, that instead of fishing she should be spending her nights trying to find a man. When they say this, which is often, she tries to speak in their language. She tells them she doesn’t need a man to complete her— she completes her self. They say that’s a beautiful thought but think she’s depressed. She lets them think. These women are not her friends, not really.
She sets down her eel bucket and reaches in with her bare hand. It feels slimy and smells warm and salty. She flicks one onto the beach and lets it slither around until it’s covered in sand. This makes it easier to hold. With the hook in one hand and the eel in the other, she runs the metal along its lips until they open. The feeling of its body wrapping around her wrist does not scare her anymore. It tries to swallow the hook and she lets it. Once it’s as far back in the throat as possible, she presses down until she feels something break and sees the hook coming out the other side. Despite all that, the eel isn’t dead and won’t be for a while. It flails at the end of her line. She admires that about them—what they can live through.
But as much as she respects an eel, it’s the fish she really admires. Of all the species she can catch from shore at this time of year, striped bass are her favorite. They migrate northward in the late spring and summer months from as far south as North Carolina. The fight they put up on the line is legendary. Their meat is white and sweet. She read somewhere that stripers were a favorite catch of the Pilgrims, that without them they never would have made it through their first New England winter. She cut the article from the magazine and put it in a drawer. It gave her a way to relate to the Pilgrims, something she didn’t know she desired.
She wades waist deep and feels crabs at her feet, the flap of a skate wing. There is life beneath the flat surface of tonight’s sea, the moon a wobbling spotlight just beyond her. She casts and casts and casts and casts. Half an hour passes. She reels slowly, flicking her rod and letting her eel think it has a chance of escape before pulling it back in. Then she see the water roil, hears the slap of a fishtail and she’s on. She flips the bail and lets the fish run. By the way it takes off for deeper water she know it’s a bass. She tries not to let this exciting fact make her stupid. The fisherman she passed on the way in asks, his voice echoing across the cove, “You on?” She doesn’t answer him, letting the sound of her whirring reel do the talking. Her fish feels bigger than the one he buried in the sand.
Her arm begins to ache as she reels with all she has. Bass are fighters and this one is no different. She fights back. She feels blood in her face and the wind at her back. She is conscious of trying to savor this moment, the way it feels to have been at the exact right place at the exact right time. This happens so rarely in her life that the thought is baffling and makes her giddy. Fish is fate. It is almost better than sex, certainly better than the sex she had with the guy at Offshore Ale the month before who touched her like she might break. She tries to believe that no man has ever broken her.
When she see its fin cut the surface she has to remind herself to breathe. Her fish flickers underwater, the full moonlight reflecting off its silvery scales. The other fisherman casts and casts but nothing is biting for him. She pulls her fish up onto the beach, far enough from the surf that it can’t flip itself back in, and watches it try. She’s never seen a bass so beautiful. It is as true now as it was every other time she’s caught one. Its body sparkles. The longitudinal stripes that run from behind the gills to the base of the tail are a deep dark blue and its mouth opens and closes, opens and closes, wide enough for her to fit a fist inside, maybe two. The tail flaps against the sand with a strength she imagines dinosaurs had.
She didn’t hear the fisherman approach and before she knows it he’s shining his headlamp at her catch. She hasn’t even measured it yet or recorded the date and time in her logbook.
“He’s a beauty,” he says. “You get it on an eel?” His breath smells like V8. A gold band flashes on his ring finger as he reaches to run his hand along the scales.
“She,” she says.
The fisherman looks confused. She moves his hand away as she measures her catch, tip to tip, with a string. She leaves it a few seconds more than she needs to so he can see how much longer it is than the 28 inches she’s marked, the minimum size she can keep. She’s guessing 41, which is the largest she’s ever caught, but she doesn’t tell him that.
“Most stripers over 30 pounds are female,” she says, coiling the string around two fingers.
“Right,” he says.
She smiles and puts the string back in her tackle box. The fisherman begins to say something and stops. He turns towards where he came from and she watches his headlamp scan the beach as he walks away, a lighthouse, un-spinning. This disappoints her. She was hoping for more of a fight. She realizes this is always a hope of hers. The moon glows white in the sky and she hears a gull caw. She wonders where it is, if it’s been attacked. Gulls aren’t supposed to caw at this time of night. They should be in their nests with their young. If she found the bird flapping in circles, broken-winged on the beach, she would not save it. She believes in natural selection. As she picks up her fish by the mouth she wonders what she was naturally selected for.
There will only be one fish tonight. She doesn’t go back for the second she’s allowed.
The floodlight she rigged to the side of her cabin illuminates her fillet station, the overgrown edges of her little lawn. A raccoon loafs out of sight. They’re everywhere on the island. There are no larger predators.
Her fish is dead now. There will be no spasms of life, no attempts to escape. The last was in the car as she turned onto her road, a long winding dirt road like so many on the island that she learned to differentiate by the twists in the scrub oak at the end. She has always thought it looks like a woman dancing, its hair a tangle of leaves, its body knotty and beautiful. When the fish moved in the trunk of her station wagon she spun the wheel. That tree came close enough for her to touch, for her to remember the way her headlights lit up its trunk, black ants streaming in the bark cracks. She pulled over and wanted someone to turn to, someone to tell. She sat in the quiet blackness for some time. Only when she saw the distant glow of other headlights on the road did she put her car in gear and finish the drive home. She considered the scrub oak woman a witness and would not allow another.
Now she’s facing her 41-inch bass with a knife in her hand and the hose running. She hears crickets in the grass. If the light wasn’t on, she knows she’d see June bugs flying so slowly she’d wonder how they stay in the air. In every aspect of this scene she finds comfort.
She makes the first cut behind the head to the spine. The flesh is firm and gray. There is no blood yet. Next, she runs her knife along the backbone, feels it bumping over the ribcage, all the way to the tail. Some people don’t bother with the meat in the tail and just hack it off because it’s easier. She thinks those people are wasteful. Striper fillets sell for nearly 15 dollars a pound during the high summer months. This fish is gold and she doesn’t throw gold away.
She inserts her left thumb into the cut she’s made along the backbone and begins to peel the fillet from the bones, running her knife across them over and over again until she can reach further inside and peel more back. Cricket calls are overtaken by what sounds like a thumb piano, knife against bone. There’s a rhythm to it, which she likes, and before long she’s all the way down to the belly. This is where she has to be careful. One slip of the knife and there are innards all over her board and in the grass, yellow stomach acids in the muscle striations. She slows down. There is something in the woods. Whatever it is is getting closer. But she doesn’t care. She knows how to scare almost anything away. She concentrates even harder on this fish, her fish, and its bulging belly. She’s curious so she presses on it. It feels like Jell-O in a soft mold. A viscous brown liquid trickles from the vent. She keeps working.
One final pull and the fillet is hers, so substantial in her hand that she almost wishes there was someone there to admire it. She picks up the hose and washes off the blood. It runs into the grass and makes it greener. In the daylight, the patch of lawn around the fillet station is so bright her friends say it’s the only part she pays attention to which isn’t far from the truth. Some things they say are true after all.
She sprays down the board even though she still has to fillet the other side. This is a compulsion of hers. She like things clean before they get messy. The hose water is so cold it makes her teeth hurt and as she sprays her fish she has a sudden desire to cover it with something and keep it warm. This is a stupid idea and so she doesn’t do it. She wonders why she had it in the first place and about involuntariness.
Her half-fish is almost more beautiful than the whole one was. She can see what she’d call the “inner workings” of the striper in one of her lectures at school. She brought one in once, only a night old, before it started to smell. The kids loved it but the higher ups reprimanded her, told her it could be grounds for a lawsuit. They said she needed their approval first, that she can’t just bring carcasses into the classroom. She stares at the fish and wonders how anything so beautiful could be wrong. She missed the belly perfectly, left no flesh behind. Its eye looks skyward. Its scales are scattered all over the board, shimmering in the bright light.
The second side is harder than the first but she’s on a roll and before she knows it she’s got the other fillet dangling from her bloody hand. She rinses it off like she did the first and sprays down the board again. The water rises at her feet and she thinks that she’s never felt more alive. She thinks that it’s a gift to be awake at this hour, to be breathing the air that no one else even knows they’re breathing. She thinks she belongs to the night, to the full moon and quiet. She leans over what remains of her fish, presses another finger into its belly and decides, right then, to cut it open. There is a rush of colored liquids of varying consistencies, the flash of a purple liver. She probes deeper and slices open the stomach, which is full of fleshy bits and foul smelling. She lets it all fall into the flooded grass. And then the tip of her knife pokes through the other side and she pulls it out slowly. With it comes a stream of silvery balls, bloodied little pearls. She doesn’t have to count them. She knows that a fish of this size can produce at least three million eggs. She lets them fall into the grass, too. She thought maybe they’d float but instead they sink into the root system and settle there. There are so many eggs that they form a pile.
She is shocked. It is not spawning season for bass. This is not the place they favor to mate and lay their eggs. They go to the Hudson or Delaware Rivers for that, the warmer waters of the Chesapeake Bay. There is nothing to explain the sight she sees. This is unsettling to her. In the morning she will call the local marine fisheries department and file a report. But it is not morning yet, not even twilight. A pair of orange eyes glow in the woods. They blink.
She bends down and picks up an egg—just one. It is slimy and soft, translucent in her palm. She can see the beginnings of something. She holds it for a long time. She is not thinking about herself, as her friends will expect when she tells them. The egg she is holding does not remind her of her own. It is not the moment she understands something about motherhood or that she want to be one herself. She doesn’t.
She understands that she is holding something slimy and soft that would never have survived in these waters that teem with predators and prey. She believes it is dead now and that she killed it. This was inevitable and she doesn’t feel bad. She is moved by what her fish produced, of what she was capable of. Somehow, from the innards she cut herself, felt slip between her fingers, that bloody knot—this beauty. She is aware of what makes her up, of what she cannot control or fight. She can’t make sense of all the ways this matters to her now. All she knows is that it does, deeply.
A raccoon sticks a hesitant paw through the underbrush. She lets the egg drop and backs away, bringing her tray of fillets with her. This scares the raccoon, but only briefly. Its furry head follows, black eyes and white whiskers. It approaches her fillet station cautiously, eyeing her and the carcass equally, smelling the fish guts with its wet black nose. She steps onto her small front porch and holds her finger against the switch for the floodlight. The raccoon shifts its weight backwards for a moment and then continues. It is right below the carcass now, steps from the pile of eggs. She watches it drink the bloody water and sift through it with its nimble paws. They are so well designed to do what they do. It finds something long and white, probably part of the intestine, and eats it. It grows bolder, searching the water faster and bringing more sloppy food to its lips.
When it discovers the eggs, she flicks the switch. She stands there for a moment in the dark and thinks about how she’ll prepare the fillets, the way the night smells and instinct. She can hear the raccoon’s jaw working, the eggs popping in its mouth.