Under a Blood Burning Moon: Working
“Working” Byron climbs down the ladder into the boat’s freezer hold, looks up at John and Matt and gives a thumbs up as best as he can with the absurdly large fryer gloves. Byron looks up as the hatch cover slides over the gray, vaulted sky, sealing him off from the day in a thunderous clatter, and suddenly he is alone in the claustrophobic, icy space, the light the color of sulfur.
Byron wears snow boots and a mask and within seconds there’s a layer of frost on his eyelashes bending them down like tree branches in a winter’s storm. He can only stand straight up below the hatch cover, but otherwise he moves in a crouched shuffle. He can hardly see from side to side because of the mask and the snowsuit’s hood and the freezer is a wall of noise. The condenser, the fan, it’s like being inside some great engine and Byron’s another compressor at work in the machine. He removes the tarp and bin boards, goes to his knees, takes his place.
The glaze tank – nothing more than an old bathtub that John’s mother used to use as a kitschy garden pot - is full of sea water and has a small heated coil at the bottom so the water doesn’t freeze, and Byron takes king salmon from the forward port bin, dunks them in the water and leans them against the base of the bin boards until he has fifteen lined up. He dunks them in the tub again, but for a shorter amount of time, picks them back up and sets them in the forward starboard bin. He gets a rhythm, squats, kneels, rises, repeats, and soon all his muscles tense. He’s breathing hard, chest hot with frigid air, arms already tight. He’s burning all over.
After half a bin of glazing fish he stops and has a drink from a bottle of whiskey he stores in the hold for just these occasions. The glazing water in the tub is the perfect temperature to chill the liquor, and it’s cold when it hits his tongue and hot by the time it settles in his stomach. He’s fished all over, gillnetting and crabbing and his uncle is friends with some of the guys on the big crab boats that go to the Bering Sea and he could work there if he wants. When he was a teenager, there were even summers in Bristol Bay when Byron made twenty thousand dollars and all he did was throw fish down into the hold, scrambling around on his hands and knees like a berserk animal as the other deckhands picked dog salmon from the gossamer thin gill net.
But he likes trolling best. The fish are the cleanest, the freshest. It’s something he can be proud of. And the freezer, it’s like a bonus. It’s the only place where he doesn’t have to see any of himself; his body is at home in the insulated snowsuit and only the work and the pain and the fish and the numbing cold occupy his thoughts. The numbness is the best. Already he feels his feet turning to icy blocks, and moving is just lifting one leg up and setting it back down, no pain to speak of. Most people quit or take breaks because of the feeling but he likes it, he likes not feeling the itching skin, the soreness between the joints, the pain that throbs down in the marrow of his metatarsals and rises all the way up to his head. He glazes another round of fish and then another and then another. He stops for whiskey between each round. He’s not trying to get drunk. He rarely does. This is just part of the ritual.
He works. Fifteen more kings and then fifteen again. He’s shrouded in his own breath and the soft yellow light. He imagines the temperature gauge in the cabin. He sees it rising just from his body heat, his work. It actually happens. “You raised that thing five degrees while you were in there,” John has told him before. An eighty thousand dollar freezer system working at near minus forty degrees and Byron still manages to warm it just from breathing, just from being. He’s proud of that. Maybe it’s not something to be proud of, but that’s his body breathing and his muscles burning and his head steaming, making the compressors work a little harder. His body. He works. And then he’s done.
He feels vaguely empty. It hasn’t taken him more than a couple hours. He sits and drinks from the whiskey bottle and stretches out. When he buys the boat, he’ll upgrade the system even more. He’ll keep the freezer at minus forty-five, minus fifty. He’ll keep it so cold that his fish will freeze faster than anyone else’s in the fleet. John brags that his fish go from ocean to cleaned and frozen solid in an hour. Byron will do that in half the time. Where John gets six dollars a pound for his kings, Byron will get seven. When he buys the boat…he hopes that happens soon. Byron looks around at all the glazed king salmon in the acrid cold and feels a heavy satisfaction in what his body has just done. He breathes slower, takes a pull from the whiskey, then another, closes his eyes and can see the fish dancing there too in soft, dark waves. He opens his eyes and takes another pull, barely feeling the liquor’s touch in the cracks of his chapped lips. He lies down. He isn’t going to sleep. He’s just taking a break. He stretches out and then he closes his eyes. He’ll buy the boat. He’ll make it his own. And he’ll work here, in this dazzling cold, forever.
Paul Vega was born in Kansas and recently received his MFA in fiction from the University of Washington. Since moving to the Northwest he's worked as a writing instructor and held various jobs in the commercial fishing industry. Most recently, he was a deckhand on a troller named Charity. Read more of Paul's writing at his blog, Under a Blood Burning Moon.