The fish, the money, the girl.

The Price of Fish

By Peter Kautsky

In this life I could never get used to the sound of somebody pounding on my door. It's such a disgusting sound. Here it was, bringing the day to me with the full force of arrogance. Bang! Bang! Bang!
" Yeah?" I shouted through the plywood wall of my shack.
"Want to go to Goodnews?" It was my Eskimo friend.
"You know why."
I knew why. It was the middle of salmon season in Alaska and there was fish everywhere all the time. Fish carcasses were drying on their poles, the Jap tramper was on the Kuskokwim River, the tenders were choked in Bristol Bay and now the pounding on the door.
"Yeah, I want to go to Goodnews." The response was heartless.
"Okay. Get down to the cannery right away."
I was in my jeans and wearing my T shirt, sleeping in my clothes in the land of endless daylight. The days melted together and the nights were nap times in between picking up where you left off not knowing what day it was. It was just day.
It was pushing 80 degrees already at eleven in the morning. People who have been to Africa say the Alaskan bush in the summer reminds them of the African bush. The T shirt was entirely appropriate attire but for being bit by the "no-see-'ems," the small mosquitos one could barely see. I slapped at them walking at a brisk pace toward the native corporation cannery. Soon I was standing in front of Ted.
"So, you want to go to Goodnews." It was a statement.
He gave me a hard look and pushed a plastic tackle box across the table toward me.
"You got $5000 in here and fish tickets. You're paying 25 cents a pound for silvers and 5 cents a pound for pinks. Nothing more."
Again, there was the hard look.
"You get your regular buyer's fee of $250 for the fishing period plus 3 cents a pound.
He saw the T shirt and frowned slightly but said nothing.
"Okay, the plane is waiting with the fish scales and totes. They're gonna fish tonight. You're buying in the morning. Ivan Ivan will meet you at Goodnews. Ivan was one of those Eskimos whose last name was the same as his first name.
"Okay. Great."
"Okay, give us a call in the morning."
"Alright. See ya."
I got a ride to the airport in the cannery van and met the plane where the pilot was draining some fuel ouf of the wing and washing his hands with it. This was also to drain condensation from the tank.
"Hey!" He said with a cheerful tone. Pilots were always happy.
We got the gear into the plane which was a twin engine Cessna Islander with its cavernous cargo bay and improbable landing gear pylons attached to the wing. I wondered about the design but engineers apparently knew more than I did about stress. Regardless, the flying machine looked like a mosquito with two engines. I hopped in. The pilot handed me a headset with a microphone.
"It's the only way you're gonna hear me speak in this thing."
We tested it out.
"Hear me loud and clear?"
"I hear you five by five."
"Roger on that."
"CLEAR!" He shouted out of his window and got the props turning. Immediately the engines coughed into life and a terrible roar filled the cabin.
"Romeo 10 Juliet Alpha requsting information Echo"
"Roger Romeo 10 Juliet Alpha, altimeter is 3000, ADF is at 183.5, ceiling is 6000, you have information Echo."
"Roger ADF at 183.5, Romeo 10 Juliet Alpha filing flight plan."
"Go ahead Romeo 10."
"Two goin' one comin' to Goodnews with 4 hrs fuel. Requesing permission to taxi."
"You're clear to taxi on 24 right, hold for Muns Nome Airways."
"Roger Bethel Control, Romeo 10 Juliet Alpha standing by."
We were rolling with the engines acquiring a new level of roar. I noticed rain drops striking the windshield -- not a lot of raindrops.
"So what do you think?" The pilot asked through my headset.
"I think I'm screwed."
"Oh yeah?" The pilot turned and looked at me with half a grin.
Muns landed.
We were clear for take off and the the pilot poured the coal to the roaring engines which began absolutely screaming. The mosquito lifted off like a kite. Clouds appeared out of nowhere and soon many rain drops were striking the windshield. The day began taking on a dreary turn. The tundra passed below us as an endless green golf course. The Kuskokwim River snaked through it like an irrigation ditch. My thoughts turned to the fishing business.
"Have you flown fish out of Goodnews?"
"How much fish do they get out of there."
"We've done as many as ten flights."
"I bet."
The math would say as much. $5000 would buy over 12,000 pounds of fish with pinks included, quite a bit more. I let this sink in a bit.
"All we have six fish totes in here holding about 500 pounds each."
"They have more there."
"Now, you've got to keep something in mind about all this."
"What's that?"
"There's a mountain next to Goodnews that we have to see when we land there. If it gets clouded over, we can't land."
"Well, looks cloudy now."
"That's right but ceiling is still high. We'll see what it looks like when we get there. We might have to fly back."
"Yes." I let this sink in.
"I imagine that's why I'm paying such a low price for the fish."
"That's right. This is risky. Once you buy, there's a chance you might not be able to fly the fish out."
"Then I've got 10,000 pounds of fish rotting on the beach."
"Well, they can use a lot of it for smoking and drying but yes, you've lost a load and the cannery will have lost the money it paid for the fish."
"Could work out good for the fishermen if they sold their fish and got to keep it."
"Yep. It's a funny situation."
"Ha, ha ha."
The pilot loooked at me askance then grinned a little.
"It's a gamble both ways."
"I can imagine."
"Yes, the cannery can really get stuck with this because the fish becomes their responsibility after it's bought. They can't just leave 10,000 pounds of rotting salmon in Goodnews. They have to take it away."
"So they hope the people there can use the fish if they can't fly it out the same day they bought it."
I pondered on these matters as the tundra slipped past.
"I suppose I should buy the fish there as soon as possible."
"That's a good idea. Buy early and give as a wide window to pick it up."
We flew for an hour and the pilot turned left over Goodnews Bay.
"There's the mountain."
"It's a hill."
"Yeah, well we gotta see it and it fogs up sometimes."
We landed on an air strip with a wind sock.
"I'll give ya a ride to the beach."
The pilot steered the plane off the end of the air strip onto a dirt road and taxied the plane toward the beach. Then we rolled on up on the beach and shut off the engines. The silence was precious.
I was all by myself on the beach and unloaded the fish totes and scale. There was a light rain falling. The bay was smooth as glass as tiny waves of the Bering Sea rolled up.
"Okay. All set?" The pilot asked.
"Looks that way."
"Okay, see ya tomorrow." He looked me over a bit and almost rolled his eyes.
I was standing on the beach in the rain wearing a T shirt and holding a tackle box with $5,000 surrounded by a few large plastic boxes.
"Yeah, I'll see ya tomorrow."
He got his engines going and began rolling off the beach. The news got around Goodnews quickly that the plane had come. The village was up the bluff pretty much out of sight. I scanned the hill side and presently somebody was coming down toward me. This should be Ivan Ivan.
I decided to walk toward him and meet him half way. We met by the air strip. I extended my had for a handshake.
"Ivan Ivan, I presume?"
"Yes. Do you make presumptions often?"
"All the time."
He laughed with some cynicism.
"You are wet."
"Yeah, and gettin' wetter."
He looked at me without any kind of malice that grips people sometimes when seeing others in unfortunate circumstances. He wasn't making a joke out of my predicament.
"We can make an igloo out of the fish boxes. We do that to camp out on the beach sometimes when they fish."
"Great. I'll just make a camp here."
"Okay. We'll come down with the three wheeler and bring something to eat and tea."
"Great. We'll light a camp fire too."
"What for?"
"Roast marshmallows."
"We don't eat marshmallows."
"Just kidding."
"Okay. We'll come down in a little while."
We parted and I busied myself with building an igloo. I stacked the fish boxes into a structure that provided a roof over my head and settled down into it on the sand. I built my igloo with an ocean view and began to feel cozy in my accomodation. The igloo was small but minutes later it seemed to grow in size. The mind works that way. There was no sign of people for quite a while and I took in the sight of the calm Bering Sea wondering where the hell it was this life was taking me, one adventure after another. That's what it was all about out here. I fell asleep.
I awoke to voices speaking Yupik and the sound of a motor.
"En peh, gi gi"
"I recognized the expression, "Do it, hurry."
Whatever Eskimos did, they did in a hurry.
My waking was from a fitful nap and I took my time getting up into a sitting position under my fish box.
Ivan Ivan came around with a Coleman stove and some plastic jugs with water. Another man named Nikolai came to the front of the igloo with boxes of "Pilot Crackers" stacked on top of a plastic cooler. Another three wheeler came to the camp. I got out of the Igloo and saw a girl driving the three wheeler with a trailer carrying five more fish boxes.
We built a larger igloo, set up the Coleman stove, got the cooler in with the Pilot Crackers and the girl, Olenka ensconsed herself in as well. The first order of business was to get the Coleman stove going and the water boiling. When the Coleman was hissing along, Nikolai opened the cooler and took out a plastic container full of libuk -- raw pink salmon humps. A pink salmon grows a large hump on its back when spawning. These humps are cut off and eaten raw or rather chewed for the most part.
We all got a Pilot Cracker and a hump and began munching. The Coleman hissed.
Ivan Ivan spoke up.
"So Pete, did you think you were going to find something in Goodnews?"
Olenka sat in the sand calmly chewing libuk, her dark eyebrows undulating as accordians and then took a glance at me with eyes that cut the air like daggers.
I was taken aback by the question and thought for a moment. Did I come to Goodnews looking for something? Yes, there was that ingrained hope that I might find something whenever I flew to villages.
"Well, you brought something to look at anyway." I said and affected an appraisal of Olenka.
"She's not married."
"That's interesting information."
Olenka said nothing and stared ahead of herself. Perhaps she saw all she needed to see. We munched libuk with crackers. The water was boiling and we made cups of tea. Everybody settled down with tea.
"How much fish do they get here?"
"A lot maybe. About thirty boats will be fishing."
"When do they come in?"
"About eight o'clock. The fish start seeing the nets during the day so they come in pretty early."
"Good, I'll buy early."
"Maybe not," Olenka said.
"Why not," I said.
"Maybe there will be another buyer. They pay more."
"I can't pay more than 25 cents for silvers and 5 cents for pinks."
"You might not get any fish. The Bell brothers pay 40 cents a pound."
"Oh." I said this as if I was very disappointed at this news.
"You think the Bell Brothers will be here tomorrow?"
"Maybe." Olenka said as her eyebrows flared.
"Yeah, that's the fishing business. It's all a big maybe." I said.
"They usually talk to the Bell Brothers before they send you here." Ivan said.
"That would make a lot of sense."
"The Bell Brothers should be in Quinehawk tomorrow."
"Yeah, they should be. The higher ups should have something figured out here."
Nobody argued with that, but the silence begged questions.
We munched libuk and sipped more tea. Nikolai caught me looking at Olenka sitting in her rolled down hip boots.
"Olenka. Why don't you sit on Pete's lap like in the old days?"
"Come here Olenka." I said.
"I don't think so."
"The old days have come and gone." I said.
We munched more libuk and Pilot Crackers, drank tea and spoke of other matters late into the night. At some point I fell asleep and the Eskimos slept in a pile together.
Morning arrived with the sound of engines as the out board motor skiffs with fish came to the beach. I heard the engines like an unwelcome alarm clock. I thought I'd try to sleep some more but decided immediately that snoozing was not going to work. I got up to face the strange events the day would bring.
The scene was frightening. A flotilla of fishing skiffs was beaching as if an invasion was taking place. This was going to be a big job of buying and loading fish. I estimated anywhere from six to ten thousand pounds of salmon was coming ashore. I just stood and watched as the skiffs were pulled ashore. I approached the boats to see what the loads looked like.
"Looks like you had a good night," I said and estimated about 300 pouinds in the first boat.
"Not too bad." Was the response.
I scanned the sky and the air strip for planes. The Bell Brothers were not here.
A big man was approaching me with a grim expression.
"Hi, I'm the buyer." I said.
"I'm Egok. I'm Village Council President," he said.
"Seems I met the right man. Looks like a lot of fish coming in. I need to start buying right away."
"What are you paying?"
"25 cents for silvers, 5 cents for pinks."
"We will sell you our fish for 40 cents a pound for silvers and 20 cents a pound for pinks."
"Can't do it."
"Then we're not selling. We'll wait for the Bell Brothers to come in with the DC-3."
"They're in Quinehawk today. They're not coming here."
"They come. We will wait."
"If they get loaded in Quinehawk they won't be able to get your load in the plane."
"They make a few flights."
"You're sure they're coming?"
"We will wait."
"I guess we will," I said.
He nodded, concluding our conversation as if the outcome was expected and accepted. I felt boxed into some forgone coclusion or fate.
The skiffs kept coming in. I had an armada to deal with. I inspected the loads and clearly there was close to 10,000 pounds of salmon on the beach. Something had to start happening here. I went down the line of skiffs and told the fishermen I was buying and needed to have fish coming in now. They didn't budge. They were waiting for the Bell Brothers. The sun was bright in a clear sky and rising.
The fishermen sat by their skiffs as if without a worry in the world. They started drinking tea as an encampent formed by the skiffs and a Coleman stove showed up. Olenka materialized in her hip boots which were unflolded now and came up to her sturdy hips.
"So, Mr. Fishbuyer how is the fishing business?" She asked me with half a smile as her eyes focused on me like bits of obsidian.
I looked at her half smile as if she were Mona Lisa not quite knowing if there was a smile there at all.
"Well, since there is no business, I might just take my money and fly back to Bethel."
"Might be smart." She said in a subdued tone and I wondered about her sincerity in the statement.
I was struck with an impulse.
"I think I'll tell 'em right now. I'll tell 'em if they're not selling now, I'm leaving."
She was amused.
"Sure, go for it."
I walked toward the boats and approached Egok.
"Egok, there's a lot of fish on the beach. I've got to start buying now. If you're not selling, I'm flying back to Bethel."
Egok looked at the sand of the beach and said, "We're not selling."
I turned and walked back to the fish scales. Olenka was there waiting for me.
"Are they selling?" She asked.
"Are you leaving?" Now there was a smile. It was a friendly smile. I saw her smile and soft features in spite of the eyebrows and high cheekbones. I just could not leave - not immediately anyway.
The fishermen were watching me and I could swear I saw a quick smile flare up on a face there by the boats.
"I'll let 'em give the Bell Brothers a chance for a while. They'll give up on the Bell Brothers. Then they'll sell."
The sun climed higher and I started to feel comfortable in my T shirt as the temperature was climbing to 70 or so. The silver salmon lay shining in the boats. The fishermen drank tea, lit a cigarette here and there.
"They might." Olenka said.
I detected sympathy in her tone. It was so attractive. I just started moving toward her to hug her. Sometimes women were just grabbed in Alaska. She started running for the ocean. I chased her as in the old days. She ran for the safety of the ocean in her hip boots. An Eskimo fisherman who stood a lttle over four feet tall but whose face was fierce as Hell itself became annoyed.
"What's going on?"
Nikolai spoke up. "He likes her."
"Oh." The fierceness melted into a smile. He winked at me with both eyes in the Arctic style.
Olenka stood in the ocean with the defiant look of a woman defending her honor in the view of the village. It was the way of the old days. I didn't have any chase left in my heart. The Bering Sea was too wet for chasing. The beach was still as a post card. Fishermen were talking, the tiny waves lapped the beach and the sun was coming to zenith. The fish lay in the boats.
The day wore on and there was no sign of the Bell Brothers. But no one seemed in the least bit concerned. This gave me pause. What was the nature of concern? Why should anyone have anything to be concerned about? Plenty of salmon would end up in the supermarkets and restaurants of Seattle at nine dollars a pound or so. In the end everybody would get their pound of flesh one way or another. We were slaves of the market place. You couldn't fight it. The price of fish was the price of fish.
And so it was. 10,000 pounds out here meant $300 to me over and above the fee for the fishing period. 550 bucks was a good day's wages. But I wasn't buying. I began mingling with the fishermen again.
"I thought you were leaving." Egok yelled from his boat.
"A man has to be flexible."
"So let's see some flexibility." A fisherman said to the laughter of some others.
"Yeah, we want some flexibility from that damn cannery in Bethel."
"I will sell you my fish for 30 cents a pound." A fisherman spoke up with a sincerity that sounded a bit desperate. So now the bargaining begins, I thought.
"I can't pay that. I'm locked in at a quarter a pound for silvers and a nickel a pound for pinks."
"We'll wait for the Bell Brothers." Egok declared and everybody stopped speaking.
"Okay." I said as the sun poured down on us. It was going to be 80 degrees real soon. Thousands of pounds of fresh salmon lay in the boats. Yes, thousands of pounds of salmon lay in the boats and it was getting past noon. In and of itself, this was not too remarkeable. Why was everybody so calm about this situation? I looked at the fish laying under the sun as if seeing the fish for the first time. Nobody was waiting for the Bell Brothers. This was a fishing strike. The village hated the Bethel cannery so much they wanted me to buy a spoiled load of fish.
"This is the last chance to sell!" I shouted. "It's 25 cents a pound right now or I"m leaving!"
The silence was deafening. Nobody budged or spoke. But I budged. I deliberately walked toward the scale and then began dismantling it. Nikolai was there and I said, "Let's get on the Sat Phone to Bethel." We began marching toward the village.
"Wait!" It was the four foot five Eskimo. "I will sell you my fish." He said this in a weary tone.
I almost dreaded this. It was late and the fish had been laying without ice for five hours under the sun.
"Okay. Any body else?"
"Yeah, yeah sure." The fishermen intoned.
I fixed up the scale and the buying began. The first boat was unloaded then the second boat pulled up to take its place. They pulled up one after another. I weighed fish, wrote fish tickets and paid cash. The load was growing to 7,000 pounds. Olenka drove to the village and brought five more totes. I worked with Ivan and Nikolai as fast as we could for three hours and got 11,300 pounds of salmon into boxes. It occurred to me I should have got on the Sat Phone to Bethel when we started loading. Now it was time to get the planes. I poked at the fish to test firmness. They still seemed good. But I needed ice bad.
"Let's call Bethel. I gotta get the planes in."
I saw the sky for the first time since we started loading. A few times I sensed a chill in the air. Now I saw it. A weather front was moving in.
"Where the hell did that come from?"
There was a high overcast of clouds out at sea somewhat scattered but wide spread to form a large weather system. It was 3:30 pm.
Nikolai got on the three wheeler and I got on the back. We drove to the village. The Sat Phone was at the village store. We got it fired up.
"Arctic Air Charter."
"Yeah, this is Pete in Goodnews. We're ready to fly the fish out of here."
"How much do you got?"
"11,300 pounds."
"Okay. What's the ceiling there? Can we see the mountain?"
"You've got something like 3000 for ceiling, you can see the mountain ok."
"Okay, stand by over there, I'll round up the planes. They're spread out a little bit out in Russian Mission, Holy Cross, Tuntutuliak and all that.
"I need ice."
"You'll be alright."
"Okay. I gotta have planes."
"Stand by."
We drove back to the beach. The fishermen were gone and it was just me, Ivan and Olenka hanging out.
The weather front had come in and the sun was gone. There was the mountain under the ceiling of 3000 feet. All I could do was wait for the planes. We waited. I was getting hungry.
"Say, let's cut out a few salmon and have lunch."
"Sounds good."
Olenka took off in the three wheeler for a frying pan.
I gutted out an eight pound silver and got a chance to check for belly burning. There was no darkness of the belly meat. The flesh was firm. Ivan gutted out a few pinks. Olenka came back with the pan, Crisco, salt, pepper and some plates. Bless her heart.
The Coleman was pumped up and soon the grease was sizzling. Olenka used an ulok knife to cut out salmon steaks and got them frying. The aroma was heavenly.
"You do that well," I told her.
"So Mr. Fishbuyer, are you going to eat up all the fish you bought?"
"We could work something out."
She turned the salmon expertly.
"What did you have in mind?"
I approached her. She wasn't running. I came closer behind her huge hips that were snug in the hip boots. This was like the old days.
"Well," I said and put my hands on her waist. She did not protest. So I hugged her from the back as the aroma of frying salmon reached my nostrils.
"I could take you back to Bethel and we could set up housekeeping."
Nikolai was grinning.
"I'll think about it. Have some salmon."
I took a plate and she placed a salmon steak on it. I broke the fish apart with my fingers and gingerly devoured it. We gorged ourselves on silver salmon and pink salmon. It was pushing 5:00 and still there was no sign of planes coming. Ivan came down the hill on a three wheeler.
"Bethel wants to talk to you." He shouted as he came into our camp.
"Ok." We rode back to the village.
I went into the store and picked up the Sat Phone.
"Yeah, what's up?
"What's the ceiling like over there? Can we see the mountain?"
"You can see the mountain. You've got something like 4,000 for ceiling. It's a high overcast."
"Okay. We're gonna start flying down now."
I went back to the beach to wait for the planes. There was nothing else to do. Again the math assailed me. There were 22 totes of fish on the beach. It would take a minor air force to get all this fish out of here. This would take a lot of loading. Who was going to do it? When was this supposed to happen? I didn't care at this point. Cogs of other wheels had to turn. I was cultivating a new girl friend.
Rain began falling as we got to the beach. I took a worried glance at the mountain. It was still visible with sky over it. We waited for the planes.
"So what's the plan Mr Fishbuyer?"
"The plan?"
I approached her again. She just stood there with that Mona Lisa smile with what seemed a gleam in her eye. I came closer then suddenly lunged and grabbed her in a paroxysm of emotion. We were kissing as if to devour eachother when I heard the sound of airplane engines. I looked into her eyes then at the sky. Five planes were coming in to land at Goodnews. They came in one after another and rolled down the dirt road toward the beach. People were coming down the hill.

Short story by Peter J. Kautsky
Read 534 times
Written on 2018-04-23 at 01:18

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