The Chef and the Salmon
The chef and the salmon regard one another with a casual indifference at first, giving way to uneasy suspicion. Each feels he has been here before. Which for the chef might be true in the sense of familiarity, but most certainly could not be the case for the salmon, having never once been inside a restaurant. Perhaps their places had been reversed the first time, though that would have made little sense to the chef and even less to the salmon. Either way they are both a bit unnerved by the sensation.
Neither averts his studious gaze, taking the other’s measure and reaching for some common ground. There on the butcher’s block, the fish is fading fast, while standing at its side, the man is dying too but in the plodding yet steady manner in which most men march towards their deaths.
The salmon was line caught earlier that morning, just a few days out of the sea, though he never considered himself to be “wild.” Most salmon, truth be told, are rather the introspective sort. They lead lives of quiet ritual and though many share a common destination, each must find its own path. The man was farm raised but far and long gone from home. He is loud and brilliant, he claims quite often, driven and drunk and carving out quite the reputation for himself.
That salmon has a strange look in its eyes, the chef thinks. This is ridiculous, he knows, just as soon as he thinks it. Of course he goes to great lengths to develop personal relationships toward his menu and ingredients, but never once with them. He is overworked and rarely sober these days, suffering beneath too many long shifts and far too many tourists. After summer is over, he bargains, I’ll take a vacation, get out of town. For two weeks at least, he promises himself but still can’t shake the weight of the fish’s skeptical glare.
Like many visitors around here, the salmon found himself drawn to the river. He had been working his way upstream, toward the cataracts and the end, he had supposed. Just a few hours ago, beneath the first light of dawn, he ate nine hazelnuts fallen from nine trees, set loose by the early morning wind. He was feeling satiated and at ease, snapping at lazy and fat dragonflies. Now the only fight he has left is an occasional twitch. His pain is growing heavier, nearing unbearable; his eyesight is failing and his thoughts concerned with the faltering mercy of the chef’s blade.
The salmon has an odd image flash through his mind, as if it were a vague or misplaced memory. He stands above the chef and hits him with a trout, though the chef is smaller, just a lanky and wheezy boy with unkempt hair. The salmon is large and strong and slaps the writhing and wet fish against the back of the boy’s head. He recoils in terror, brown water dripping down his face and staining the pages of the book he has been reading. If I had arms and hands and could get them on a trout right now, the salmon thinks, I’d do it all over again.
The chef recognizes the look in the salmon’s eyes quite well, that half-blind, distant stare. He pours himself a glass of Riesling, trying to quell last night’s spirits and the ghosts of yesterday. Let it die, he thinks as he pours a second glass. The wine smoothes out his shakes and focuses his mind. He lets it linger on his palate, feeling out its nuances and making mental note of salmon dishes that might accompany it: thin and perfect strips of sashimi folded into delicate orange flowers; poached over braised greens with a light lemon beurre blanc; rich dill croquettes made with last night’s brioche; simmered in a tajine with nuts, preserved lemons, and a handful of Ras al hanout.
The morning is slipping into afternoon. Soon the sous-chefs and dishwasher will arrive and find him standing there, well on his way to drunk, staring down at the day’s fresh catch turning, watching as its eyes cloud over. Like cataracts, he thinks, or like the gray wisps of autumn’s sky that linger across the overgrown and paint-peeling landscape of the farm, when the old man can no longer tend to the fields or the house, when he can’t hike the brook into the forest and fish for trout.
That was how it had been the last time he was there, so many years ago. He had spent the morning picking apples from the gaunt trees in the backyard while the old man sat on the front porch straining to hear the sound of the stream. The chef and his mother baked a pie in the afternoon and canned the rest for winter. They made a supper of chicken and dumplings and ate in silence at the table in the once-yellow kitchen. The old man continued on the porch, unable to make his way in without a guide and too stubborn to ask, the chef and his mother too spiteful to offer.
Strange thoughts drift through the salmon’s mind, ripples in a clear stream. He wonders what became of that weak little boy, fish-slapped and wet-headed, crying on his mother’s lap. He wonders what he will be when he ceases being a salmon. He wonders how he has come to wonder about such things. Perhaps that is the nature of being a salmon, to be plucked from your stream at fate’s whim and forced to become something else or nothing at all.
Part of the chef knows the fish is suffering and part of the chef doesn’t care. He isn’t sure what most makes a man, his tenderness or his cruelty. He supposes that in the end, duty trumps both. He takes up his filet knife and for one last time, the salmon and the chef regard one another with casual indifference.
William Akin writes from a remote mountain perch he shares with his wife, two daughters, and a bad dog.