“We fill them with cabbage, potatoes, and bread. Heavy things that will stay in their stomachs. The marshmallows in the fruit salad are just to throw them off balance,” my mother said to another nodding woman as they surveyed the food set out.
Was she talking about filling the men with these foods so they would end up less drunk or filling us children so we would curl up in the back seats of cars and go to sleep, giving our mothers a break from being constantly on guard? I didn’t know.
As a child, I lived with my family on Bell Island, a piece of rock off the coast of Newfoundland, in Canada. The highlight of late June and early July was when the capelin rolled in. This small fish’s arrival was an island event. We, like everyone else, headed down to the beach in the evening to harvest the fish, as people had done for generations.
The beach was not pretty. It was gray, littered with sharp rocks and shacks built next to the water, defying the mercurial ocean sweeping in around their pylons and pounding their clapboards.
We are not afraid. We know what you are capable of, but still we stay, those shacks taunted.
Against the cliff was a canteen/pool hall/restaurant where women trolled for absent husbands and the few island police made regular stops. Further on, fishing boats moored, the smell and stain of blood still clinging to them, while the ferry that went back and forth across the Tickle—the strait separating Bell Island from the main island of Newfoundland— sputtered. If it didn’t break down, it would make its next run. If it did, people would wait. People here were used to waiting.
Every summer we waited for the capelin, as if they were old friends. They had made the journey here longer than anyone remembered and once were so abundant that their bodies shimmered like a blanket of silver on the water. Families like mine, who moved to mainland provinces such as Ontario or Alberta for a better life, timed their visits back to coincide with the capelin’s return. People came down the Beach Hill in cars geared low to avoid taking flight at the turn that bent like an arm pressed to a chest. Others walked down, while a few with no sense barreled along on bicycles, lucky not to break their necks. Old-timers, as nimble footed as mountain goats, scrambled down pathways carved into the cliff by their ancestors.
People brought nets and shovels, pots and spoons and buckets. Children carried plastic shovels and buckets meant for building sand castles, then abandoned them to flip the fish onto beach stones with scooping hands.
Mom Skanes, my mother’s mother, refused to go to the beach or to eat capelin. There was no flesh on them, she said, and she wouldn’t chew on another creature’s bones for sustenance. She had worked hard to rise above “poverty food” and would not return to it.
“I spread capelin on my gardens as fertilizer, like my father did,” she said.
We left her grumbling in the kitchen and went off, more for the festive atmosphere than anything else.
If the weather was warm, the wind nothing but a breeze, we children wore shorts or pedal pushers, and raced around in flip-flops whose toepieces looked like arrows under the water. The beach hummed with splashing, adult chatter, and children’s squeals. People kept an eye on the youngest ones, so they weren’t pulled away by the undertow that lurked close to shore.
Dad—who never learned to swim despite sneaking onto fishing boats as a boy, to help men bring in their catch—said that knowing how to swim was little use in these waters. “If the undertow catches you and there is no one to help, you won’t escape.”
Back on the beach, the capelin tried to escape but failed. They seemed fearless to me, relentless in their optimism—if such a tendency can be applied to fish—continuing to struggle against the threats they faced, in order to survive.
Capelin—the traditional Newfoundland spelling is caplin—are the most important forage fish in the Northwest Atlantic. Part of the smelt family, these hardy souls are preyed on by whales and seals, other fish, seabirds, and humans, particularly during the spawning season, when they literally roll on sandy or stony beaches.
The males reach the beaches first, something the men of the island bragged about. When the females arrive, the males attach themselves to them and the newly joined couple digs a hole in which to lay eggs and milt. During this frantic time, the fish give off a cucumber odor.
Many capelin die after spawning, particularly the males, who are injured by the repeated coupling. Their mortality rate is close to a hundred percent.
Males and females that did not die naturally on our beach ended up splayed on wooden racks around the island, salted and dried for the winter ahead, when they would be served with boiled potatoes and scrunchions (rendered pork fat), or roasted as a snack. The ones not destined for drying were panfried right out of the ocean, over fires along the beach. From above, or across the water, those fires must have looked like beacons or perhaps even warnings.
Years later, on a trip back to the island, seeing the fires and the groups huddled around them reminded me of the movie On the Beach, about survivors of a nuclear war who tried to pretend that life could continue as it always had. I was a teenager and a city girl by then, not the child who left years ago. I didn’t fit in as a child and never would again. Like my mother I looked across the water and wondered what was happening somewhere else. I felt nothing but embarrassment, perched on a rock and eating those tiny fish while others rolled on the stones in front of me.
Too much imagination, Mom accused me of on that trip, when I mentioned her comment from years earlier about “cabbage, potatoes, and bread.” She didn’t remember saying anything of the kind.
“You and your ability with words,” she replied, when I insisted that she had.
There was an edge to her words that threw me off balance. She was the biggest supporter of my growing “ability with words,” but hers now seemed to set limitations, a perimeter beyond which I should not venture. Writing about us and this island would exact a price, I understood. For a while I backed off, but still filed away moments and images for when the limitations would no longer hold.
The aroma of the fish frying was still intoxicating. Their skins turned golden and crisp as they always had, and the cast-iron pans were as big and heavy as I remembered. Men I didn’t remember carried them to serving tables but, just as before, the capelin sat alongside bowls of salad—coleslaw with pineapple, potato salad with diced beet and apple, fruit salad with miniature marshmallows— and slices of bread in which to wrap the fish, if you preferred to not see their dead eyes as you ate. There was a lot of food, as there always had been. Nothing went untouched.
Kool-Aid was set out, as it had been for me and my friends a decade earlier. Cans of Orange Crush and Coke from the canteen replaced the bottles of soft drinks Dad and my uncles once bought. Straws still became weapons, flying like wing-clipped airplanes toward their targets. I remembered to keep my head down so I didn’t get poked in the eye.
People huddled, their plates heaped with food. Occasionally, a child cried because he had spilled his food or someone had snatched bits of it away.
After eating, some children returned to the water and tossed capelin like balls, laughing as the fish wriggled out of their hands and landed hard on the rocks.
Later, the fistfights that had always broken out among men who had drunk too much rum—and ate too little cabbage, potatoes, and bread—signaled our retreat back up the hill, away from mildness turned to menace.
Women like my mother knew that fighting turned to brawling. When the police arrived, they would find bruised and bleeding men rolling on the beach.
Everything the same.