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Summer/Fall 2018

Catfish, Catfish

 

by Laine Cunningham

 

The river brought us mud and mosquitos, and measured our lives in lengths of oxbow ribbons. It seemed that our days would rise impossibly high, that the flow of our years could never run dry.

We know better now. Whenever we catch that murky scent, we hold it in our mouths as if to make fertile the swampy bottoms of our lungs. We nurture ourselves with the wistfulness that might keep us young.

Catfish nourish themselves in the muddy depths, rising only during summer’s miasma. Slow currents and thick fecundity force them to gulp at the surface for air. Memory is like that, fecund and suffocating in the channels of our minds. It presses us deeper until we flee upward to swallow the drowning air.

Remember that undersized catfish we kept catching, the greedy gray slickness that stole the bait? Its nibbles were punctuated by our quick jerks. As we pried the hook loose from its lip, the creature shook free a horrible grunt.

Catfish masquerade as monsters. Sinuous and ominously reptilian with a dorsal fin fit to serve Scylla. Yet that mournful mouth tenders such evocative whiskers. Those eyes, so attuned to peering into the darkness, are confounded by the brilliant, sibylline sun. Perhaps they were the original mermaids, beckoning sailors deeply enough to drown.

The care you took not to be pierced by those fins. The band winching my chest at every grunt.

Catfish, catfish, tell me your name.

The river also offered sun-dipped carp. They only ever struck Dad’s line, although I cleaned whatever bounty flopped onto the bank. A creosote-soaked railroad tie layered with newspaper was my workbench. I never minded that task, the transformation of a single life into nourishment for several lives.

I did mind having to kill. Stunning never seemed painless enough, and the threshing of each victim haunted my blade. It is hard work to kill that which is a part of yourself. Not everyone is up to the task.

The catfish, despite their prehistoric ruggedness, always arrived home dead. Most of the time it was catfish, catfish, a bounty to strain the stringer. That success meant something to the youngest child, the one so clumsy at everything else. Heady naphtha leaked from the railroad tie and eddied with the brine of blood.

Catfish, catfish, come play my game.

To prepare a catfish for the pan, score the skin behind the gills. Now cut away the fins with their spines laden with venom. Slice from the dorsal vent to the throat. Using one thumb, hook out the guts, each organ a glistening pouch of paint. Peel off the skin with pliers. This will take some strength and is hampered by the mucilaginous coating.

Our personal histories can be like that, slippery and rigged with spines. Care must be exercised so that the autopsy can reveal what pulses within.

Rinse the empty cavity and then carve along both sides of the spine. The sharpest of blades will glide atop the ribs to shear the flesh from bone. The task is only half done. Catfish recipes call for steps to tame its muddy taste: soaking in milk or soda as dark and thick as the river, drawing the murkiness with brine, rasping with sugar. The subdued flavor pairs easily with savory or sweet.

Dredge in flour or dunk in batter or roll in cornmeal before frying in lard or bacon drippings. Consider what the garden might yield from the murky swirl of summer. Realize that most recipes disguise what the catfish has spent its life eating and breathing and swimming through. Garnish with a slice of your heart.

Savor the scent of the swamp. Catfish date back to the Cretaceous period, so every bite recalls the texture of survival. The creature thrives in the ooze we leave behind, the muck we can no longer bear.

Catfish, catfish, tell me your name.

Catfish, catfish, come play my game.

 

[Check out Laine Cunningham’s back porch wisdom]