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Just Yesterday

I woke up this morning, a Saturday, wondering where I had put my journal. My intention was to assemble notes I had made while in Oslo a couple of weeks ago, or maybe it was three weeks ago.

For years, a journal has been part of my kit, part of my everyday carry, like reading glasses or a pen or whatever book I happen to be reading. Often I have found myself in curious places with curious company. Though I’m starting to wonder if certain places, certain company, and myself are beginning to thin. But yesterday I spent the morning ice fishing with a group of French people at the narrow end of a fjord. Some of them had never fished in their lives. I was there to show them how. I taught them how to estimate the depth of their handlines, how to twitch their lures in such a way as to draw the attention of fish. When someone caught one, I unhooked the lure and gave the fish to whomever had caught it. After photos and congratulations were made, I cut the fish and left it to bleed on the ice. When we had finished fishing, I and my guiding partner, Karin, gutted and removed the heads from the cod. They were always cod. Karin cooked the fish on a fire that afternoon, and all the French people were glad. That was yesterday, a Friday.

None of this went into my journal, however, which I still have not managed to find. I remain undecided if I will scribble a word about the trip, at least in my journal. This, too, is something that has thinned. As I think about these thinning parts of life, the morning sun reflects warmly on the sea outside my kitchen window. It is unexpected to see a warming sun this time of year. Seeing it reminds me of Begnas Lake in the Pokhara Valley and of a morning years ago when I watched four women washing their clothes there. The women dipped their clothes into the lake and swirled them and lifted them out and set them on shore. Then, on their knees, the women leaned over the clothes with a small stone in their hands and scrubbed the clothes with the stone. After they had scrubbed the clothes, they dipped the pieces back into the lake and swirled them again and lifted them out and set them back on shore, spreading out each piece neatly and straight, where presumably they would dry. But how does this happen? How on a rare morning when sunlight warms the sea do I remember a distant lake and place where women stopped to wash their clothes?

To return to yesterday, one of the women on the trip caught her second or maybe her third fish of the morning. When she felt the fish take, she cautiously—perhaps too cautiously—pulled in the line hand-over-hand, talking to the fish while she pulled, encouraging it to stay on her line. And it did! She soon lifted the fish through the hole and slid it a short distance onto the ice. She then pounced on the fish the way a cat pounces on a small bird, yet with enough grace to inspire the most persnickety of cats. Karin clapped for her and made a small joke, the way people do here, about her having the best hole on the ice.

I will call her Mila.

photo by Damon Falke

 Mila says to me, “I have caught another fish!”

She squats over the fish, and her glances flash between me and the cod.

“That’s a good fish.”

“It is a cod?”

“It’s a cod, yes. A torsk they say here.”

I start to remove the hook from the fish’s mouth, and Mila stops me. “Can I try?”

“Of course,” I tell her.

I demonstrate how to grip the fish behind its pelvic fins, firmly but gently enough not to squash the fish’s belly. This way if the fish thrashes, Mila will not get hooked. She removes the hook and I take out my knife and ask her if she would like to cut the vein. She thinks about this but says no. She then scoops up the fish with both hands and carries it to a friend on a different part of the ice. Her friend already has her phone set for a photo.

Then and there I began thinking about my journal and the notes I had made in Oslo. In Oslo, I had written fantasies of loneliness and cafes. I wrote of windows and of men who stare out of windows, searching for lovers to replace those whom they had never really loved or held. These are city dreams. They come from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. They come from Edward Hopper and Jack Vettriano. But staring out from a big corner window three stories above a street confettied with cafes, women’s boutiques, and upper story rooms gilded with gold shaded lamps and lean women who pause in front of mirrors you cannot see, it is easy to dream of another life, of a way you will never be.

Mila comes to me again. She holds the fish and kneels beside me where I am cleaning fish that the others have caught.

“I want to kill him.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I want to kill him.”

This has become a passage for Mila. As though the fish could not be hers until she performed the bloody work of the end. With the tip of my knife I point where to enter the blade behind the gill plate and where to push down and to slice. Mila takes the knife from my hand and does as I have shown her. The fish bleeds, and I indicate the blood on the ice. The blood is dark red at first but quickly turns a pale raspberry color. Our understanding is the fish no longer suffers. I expect Mila to continue fishing, but she doesn’t. We talk instead. We talk about her village beside the sea. We talk about Copenhagen and where to eat in the city. We talk about how two generations back nearly everyone here survived as a combination of a fisherman and farmer—a gårdbruker. Mila listens, and her face blushes scarlet from the cold. She wears gold rimmed glasses. Through them, her eyes are soft, attentive, desirable. I remind her that we are standing on ice at the end of the world.

“Yes,” she smiles at this and nods. “Yes.”

Now the sunlight on the sea has changed. A mist blows in from the south and other islands. The hills across the sund and the sea appear even more like the Pokhara Valley and Begnas Lake from years ago. In this invisible silence I can hear the women washing their clothes. Snow has been melting around the edges of the fenceline and the clumsy metal posts supporting the wires. On the porch, where three steps vanish into the yard, the snow melts away, revealing a corner of the wood and the walnut stain I used last year. It’s early in the season, though, early for a thaw, and maybe too much to hope for.

This essay was first published in Juke. To learn more about what they are click here