Death and Scaling by Ed Ahern

I encountered death at eight.
Not people death, that happened at ten.
Fish death, and autopsy, and undertaking.
My grandmother, a petit but wiry thing,
would knead leftover oatmeal into balls.
These I gently inserted into a minnow trap,
walked it down the dock and lowered away.
Minnows entered and ate their last meal.
They were hauled out of the water,
flopping against wire until being poured
into a concrete holding tank, then later
netted into a bucket and put into a boat
my grandmother and I went fishing in.
She showed me how to put the hook
through the muscle behind their head,
crippling the minnow but not killing it,
and would scold me if I killed one
before it could enter a perch’s mouth
and I could set the hook.
Ten minnows would die in the bucket
before being offered up the food chain.
Two thirds were mouth mangled by perch,
the rest dumped in the lake, too sickly
to survive another trip to the holding tank.
The bucket would be refilled with water
and perhaps twenty just-dead perch.
Enough to feed our family.
We returned at dusk, too late for cleaning.
The bucket went into well house water
so cold it hurt our teeth to drink,
until the next morning before breakfast, when
I arrived bleary eyed with knife and scaler
to perform surgery on stiff corpses
in an aproned, ordained way.
Slice the head almost off, then
keeping the knife in place slice
down the belly to the anus.
Grasp the head and pull out the guts.
Lop off the tail and slice down the back
just left of the dorsal fins, then
slice right and pull out the back fins.
Then slice off the pelvic and anal fins.
Then scraper time, both flanks, diligently.
My hands and the front of my apron
glitter coated with slime sticky scales
rinse off with a hose, and again, and again
Then cut out the backbone and filet out
the tiny rib bones that could catch
in our throats while eating.
Then rigid inspection, flawed fish rejected
and requiring a recleaning.
The little pearly slabs were delivered
to the refrigerator and I would try and fail
to scrub away the smells of slime and guts.
This I did twice weekly, for months, for years.
And would do it all again if I could.
Photo by luiisrtz on

About the Poet:

Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over two hundred fifty stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of six review editors.

2 thoughts on “Death and Scaling by Ed Ahern

Add yours

  1. This is such a vivid piece for me as fishing for me as a child was a wonderful escape. My aunt always did the cleaning. I can see every step of the process however. I really like the ending, although it surprised me. It is perhaps a time that could have been special but not realized as a child. Great read. Hugs 🤗 Joni

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I, too, have lived this poem from beginning to end, ages and ages ago, including the failed attempts to scrub away the stench of slime & guts.

    Well told. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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