It is a place of white stone walls and dusty streets, red tiled roofs dappled with salt borne on the sea breeze. Houses, shops and halls cluster by the estuary shore. And standing tall above the red roofs, atop the single spire in the village, a fish, cast in silver, spins in the salt sea breeze and sparkles under the soft evening sun.
The boy watches as his mother prepares the meal that will be shared that evening with family, friends and neighbours. With delicate, precise movements she teases pink flesh and silver skin, crisp and darkened, from the body of the fish that sits on the large, clean, white plate before her. Steam rises from the fish as she does so and the boy breathes in its essence.
Next to the plate, resting on the crisp, white tablecloth, a loaf of bread, longer than the boy’s arm, cools, adding its own sweet aroma to that of the fish. He breathes deep, eyes closed all the more to enjoy the smell of the food.
Can you tell me why we eat the fish, Maman? the boy asks. He has heard this tale before, each year of his life, but he loves listening to his mother’s voice as she retells the familiar story.
The mother smiles and continues with the preparation of the food before she replies.
You know, my son, that the fish is part of us and that we are part of it. It feeds us and we care for the waters that support it. Her voice is soft and has the rhythm of the waves rushing upon the beach and the breeze that rustles leaves.
Each year, the fish are born in deep ponds and cascading streams far from here. In those places they feed, they grow, they play and are nurtured until it is time for the fish to set off on their long journey.
But how do they know it is time? How do they know?
That is something we may never understand, but they will know. They will travel down-stream, until they reach the point where the river flows into the wide ocean, which it does here, by our village.
The sunlight is fading and the mother lights two lamps against the gathering darkness. Returning to the table she continues.
As the fish swim out into the ocean they are lost to our sight, but not to our hearts and minds. They face many challenges but they are strong, resourceful fish and they flourish and grow out there among strange tides.
The cooked fish is now placed into a wide, white bowl which is covered with a cloth before she turns her attention to the bread, which she slices before spreading thick, white butter onto each slice.
Then, she continues, comes the day when the fish know it is time for some to return to their home. They find their way across the ocean to the mouth of our river and then swim upstream to the lakes and streams of their birth. Again they face many obstacles, dams, weirs, traps and currents but each obstacle is there to be overcome, there as a measure of their strength and resolve. They are stubborn and determined and it is to celebrate their strength that we join together on this night to eat the fish.
What about the others, the ones that don’t come back? Again the boy has heard this before but it is part of the tale that grows and strengthens in the retelling.
Not all the fish choose to return, as well you know. There is a hint of humour in the mother’s voice. Those that do not, find other paths to travel and other challenges to overcome. But we do not regret their absence. It is enough to know that they have been with us and that they are where they wish to be. And that is what we celebrate when we share the bread – the knowledge that they are strong as we are strong, and that their strength is ours and will remain with us wherever they have chosen to be.
The mother turns from the table.
Now wash your hands. Others will be here and we will be eating soon.
The boy leaves the table, then hesitates.
When it is my time, Maman, I will not leave. I will stay here with you always.
When it is time, my dear, you will do what is right for you, she smiles, and that will be my celebration. But until that time comes, just taste the fish and smell the bread.
~ Mike Rawlins, 2014