People killing each other in Alaska.
On the horizon was a low rose bank of clouds, and underneath the clearness that marked the open sea and the rainless stretch to the Charlottes. They had passed to the east. Passed in near silence, the long arms of the spreaders peeled out and swaying like the brass levers of a meat balance. To each side plates of silver, and on the near shores the thick green of the forest.
Jim raised the red metal of his cup to his face.
Miner stood by the bulwarks and watched the waters skin. He saw people, then lost them. They floated up before him in slow drifts and hovered. His grandfather, Cy, sitting in the tamaracks and warm wind. Claire, swimming naked in the river, then squatting in the yellow autumn grass, her face just above the seed pods, a curtain for her mouth. He had been gone three weeks. Paul had made him sign a paper to absolve them of his death should it occur on their watch, and shuffled it away in a drawer full of table screws and yellowed paper, and when the drawer fell out in innocence one day, it got put back empty.
Miner was the first on deck to see the buoys. He called up to Paul.
They were just markers. Underneath, like the one they had just left behind, the line led down to the floor, where the hooks began. It disabled them momentarily in the throat. Once they bit they sat for hours waiting brainlessly. Fuckers can’t think, Butler had said. And then at some appointed hour they began to rise, first one, then another, then like souls toward heaven, all of them at once. They started to rise in white skeletal lightness towards a surface they’ve never seen. The bright green and frothing barrier of sound. The dozens or hundreds of them, all strung along a lone iron wire coiling beneath them, all those bodies through ochre sand and grit, ripped from plants and arrested, wafting in a chain of circling diamond-shaped hanks, in circles, to death.
Paul rounded the boat alongside the pink buoys and Jim leaned over the side and hauled them aboard. He untied them from the line and tossed them into the stern and then placed the line into the hydraulic pulley. He snapped a bolt over the line to lock it in place, and winched it in electronically to make it tight. Then he stepped back. Paul was climbing down the ladder from the top-house. He had a beer in one hand.
“Careful,” said Jim.
Paul shook his head. He was smiling.
“Goddamn if a guy don’t get old,” he said.
“I’ll still be fucking in my grave,” Jim said, and laughed, “Never stop.”
Paul took up his place by the winch, and the rest of them moved to their positions. Jim and Miner stood at the side with the gaff hooks. Butler stood behind them, with the hammer.
The boat listed gently and they bent their knees in time. The sky was grey and low all the way to its end. And there they hid.
“Alright,” Paul said, “Let’s get em in.”
The first hooks came up empty. Miner handed them back to Butler, who took them with gloved hands and hooked them into the side of a plastic bin. Paul stopped the pulley for each hook, then started it up again. The sea broke against the boat in the troughs, blew water in near their feet, threw marionettes of spray into their faces. Paul leaned over the side and watched for the beasts to rise.
Long and red-wrought, the weight of the hook in Miner’s hand was heavy. He pinged it against the bulwark then didn’t anymore.
Suddenly the line stopped. Miner peered over. The darkness ripped and a flash of white was visible.
Paul brought the line up a few more inches then stopped it again.
“Fuckers big,” he said.
Butler began to get up from the stern but Paul motioned him down again. He looked at Miner and started the line again.
Miner leaned over, his gaff hook poised. The fish broke the surface quietly, like a swimmer, big as a man and weighty. Miner leaned in and tried to hook the gills underneath its eye. But the hook bounced off.
“Don’t be a goddam pussy about it!” Paul was screaming.
Miner raised the hook again. But he was too slow. Jim suddenly pushed him out of the way, hauled one leg over the bulwark and slipped the other around a guy wire. He raised his hook and slammed it into the waging fish. Paul groaned because of the gash.
“Get it in,” he shouted.
All fury and discordant death. She began to slam into the wet deck. Butler stepped in and hammered three quick blows and as the thrashing ceased the men’s shoulders dropped. Jim dropped his gaff hook and picked up a knife. No one said anything. He gave the knife to Miner. He slid the knife up her throat and cut clean into her neck. He slit her belly open and peeled back the skin. On the other end of the knife was a spoon. He dug into her belly and emptied her of her guts, which washed across the wood into the wash holes. Then, he took a rope and slid it through her mouth and tied her to the bulwark.
Miner looked around. The others were busy working the line and the incoming hooks. Paul looked back at him now and again. He took his gloved fingers and put them through her jaws, feeling the teeth through the plastic and the blood seeped out in blooms across his fingers.
One by one they tossed them back to him, fish the size of men, and one by one he killed them with his knife. Gutted them with the spoon, slashed their innards out of the oval hollow that lay beneath their eyes, washed it clean with water from a bucket, and then tied them with ropes to the sides of the boat. Their numbers grew. Until the line was clear and the last empty hook came up. Paul stopped the line, pulled the pink buoys in and tossed them back into the stern.
“Pack em up with ice and put em in the hold,” he said, “Then you’re done.”
– Alaska, 1998