Black Market Fish

We are floating towards the top of the world.

It is the 4th of July, 2012 and we are on the Hurtigruten Boat that runs along the port towns of the Norwegian coastline. Our journey began in Kirknes, near the Russian border, and for the next eight hours we will travel north, deeper into the Arctic Circle. The Hurtigruten is a simple low-thrill cruise-line that doubles as the mail delivery for coastal towns. Around us, elderly couples speak in guttural Norwegian, while children squeal as they jump into the frigid saltwater pool. People are lounging and eating everywhere. Gordon and I are the only Americans onboard and most likely the only gay couple. This bothers no one. We have already wandered the ship twice, inspecting the various lounges, the library, the cafes, but there is not much to do beyond watch the passing fjords in the distance: rocky gray cliffs covered in metallic green moss. In the sunlight, the sea is the color of Earl Grey tea.

Our destination is the fishing port of Batsfjord, a small town of two-thousand residents and twenty-hour sunlight, where we will stay with Gordon’s cousins for a few days before returning to Oslo. For years, Gordon has talked about this trip, about his cousin Sean, with a near whimsical sense of longing. He comes from a small scattered family. He has not seen his cousins in over a decade. I, on the other hand, am a product of that old Irish-Catholic stock, an engorged and ever-growing network. Ever since our wedding, Gordon has been absorbed into them. Now, it is my turn.

In the observation deck, we sit around a pedestal table while Gordon sips from a can labeled in English: Arctic Beer. I cradle my empty coffee cup, which cost me more kroner than I expected, and I’m fighting the urge to order a second. This trip marks ten good years together, four of them as a married couple, and while I’m usually a rambling talker, we’ve reached that stage where we can both appreciate a comfortable silence. I am prone to daydreaming, sometimes mentally slipping away mid-conversation. My thoughts turn into long lists of hypotheticals, I re-analyze old conversations, or I simply imagine. But just as my mind wanders, Gordon reaches out and cups my hand. He smiles warmly and says, “You’re doing it again.” This is his method of bringing me back when I drift off. He wants me here in the present. There is something about husbands and travel that demand constant attention.

This is what I am thinking about: three days ago, our friend Matt died of cancer. There is no way to dodge this topic as it still looms over me as I type these words. His passing happened with devastating suddenness, despite the fact that we had been warned for months that end was approaching. My last vivid memory of him: his shrunken body in an ICU bed, breathing tubes sprouting from his mouth like translucent vines. His wife, Michelle, never quit holding his hand. This was July 2012, when the derecho hit Washington, D.C. and knocked out power for three miserably hot days. On his iPad, Matt typed that the storm was a manifestation of his righteous anger and we all laughed as heartily as we could.

When it comes to family, there are the ones we are born into and the ones we acquire. In terms of my grand queer life, I have always valued the second. Those are the ones in which I feel most authentic. There is little need for facades, less formality and more crude honesty of which blood relatives rarely approve. My friendship with Michelle dated back to my senior year of high school which evolved into one of those intertwined histories that can’t be mistaken for anything but family. Over a decade’s worth of photo albums would feature her as one of the most consistent people in my life, like an unofficial sister, which in turn made Matt into an unofficial brother-in-law, quiet and charming and always in the periphery. So we were present that last weekend, slouched in the hospital waiting room with glazed eyes, nervously fidgeting. Not just for Michelle or Matt, but for our own sense of obligation. This was one of our own.

Jewish funerals happen quickly. We escorted the casket to the hearse. Michelle left for her mother’s house in Philadelphia to sit Shiva. At home, we packed our suitcases and were on the plane to Norway that afternoon. Even now as I wander the decks of the Hurtigruten, none of it feels real. Matt’s illness was so drawn out that it had blurred into the regular stream of our daily life. His cancer simply existed, another obligation that needed maintenance. We never actually expected it to end.

For lunch, I crave a large slab of Norwegian salmon, but settle for a bowl of shrimp salad. It’s creamy, thick and covered with a healthy dose of dill. According to the health food blogs I read, dill has a surplus of antioxidants and healing properties, so now I add it to everything. Gordon orders another Arctic Beer to go with his chicken sandwich. All we do is sit and eat. Later, the Hurtigruten stops in the port of Vardo, a dying fishing town full of brightly painted cottages and a picturesque lighthouse. A group of gangly teenagers quickly board to make use of the pool before disappearing back into town. No one seems to notice and we don’t say anything. I have Gordon pose in various locations along the deck, so I can capture the best background. He takes one of me and says, “Ok, now let’s try one with a smile.” I him give a forced grin as he snaps the photo.

It’s late evening when we arrive in Batsfjord. We squint against the sunlight as the town comes into view. It is a harsh reminder that in this place, the sun never sets.

I fidget with my bags, double checking all the zippers are closed, while Gordon hovers over me. “I don’t think we should bring up Matt while we’re here,” he says.

When I hear this, my body tenses up and I glare at him. I have no idea why this bothers me so much, but it does. The request is all at once reasonable and yet demeaning. “I wasn’t planning on it. Were you?” When I say this, I am surprised by the harshness in my tone. Gordon gives me a mournful look. It says, be gentle.

Cousin Sean waits for us on the pier and laughs a little when he see us bundled in our sweaters and windbreakers. His smile is one of the most genuine I’ve ever seen. At first, I don’t see the family resemblance but once he and Gordon hug, all I can see is their matching jawlines and noses. They could be brothers. Already I’m snapping pictures. Gordon often jokes that I should learn to see the world with my eyes and not my camera. When Sean speaks, he does so in conversational English with an odd accent that conjures neither his British or Norwegian side. He tells me that his wife, Heidi, is nervous about meeting us. She has lived in Batsfjord most of her life and does not have much opportunity to practice her English. I give him a shy smile and Gordon says, “Don’t be fooled. Jonathan can talk to anyone.”

We take a quick drive-through tour of the town. The docks feature several concrete buildings, stacks of brightly colored crates and a few trawlers tethered nearby in the fjord’s harbor. Just beyond is the network of pastel-colored homes that decorate the streets. There are a few shops, only one bar and the nearest hospital is a two-hour drive away. We settle on the opposite end near the bluffs at a quaint yellow cottage that looks like it has been recently expanded. “Home sweet home,” Sean says. “The ladies are looking forward to meeting you.”

Much of my childhood revolved around the theatrical production of family visits. My mother was one of seven children, as was her mother. The roster of my extended family is endless and scattered all over the US, so no matter where we lived, there was always someone to visit. My mother had cleverly instilled in us a great deal of excitement every time some obscure relative came to visit. It was always cause to celebrate.

Now, I am one of these visiting uncles.

At first, Heidi appears to be an abrupt stern woman and acts surprised when I give her a hug instead of a handshake. She is nearly forty and classically beautiful: tall with honey-brown hair and soft features. I can recognize her shyness. The two daughters, ages six and five, are darling. We present them with barrettes, My Little Pony toys and two sun dresses sent by Gordon’s mother. The older girl, Marina, has a theatrical energy to her while Amanda coyly keeps her distance. Neither of them speak English, so it’s difficult to get them to pose for a picture. As I try to coax Amanda into a smile, Gordon leans in and whispers, “That look says you’re trying too hard,” and I give an embarrassed laugh.

Our dinner is very American: homemade pizzas with sausage balls and a side salad. Like much of her family, Heidi works for the fishery. Now, she finds the smell of fish repulsive and won’t allow it in the house. This is unfortunate for Sean, who has a culinary degree. His specialty is fish. “Don’t worry,” he tells me. “I’ll make more exotic meals while you’re here.” And to this, Heidi grimaces. Otherwise, little Marina dominates the conversation, speaking in long fluid sentences, which her parents translate. She is eager to impress us with stories about her school and her friends and her cat, all while acting a little frustrated that Gordon and I can’t respond. Heidi refills my wine glass with a look that says, “this will help.”

Afterwards, when the girls are in bed, Sean pours us glasses of Akvavit, caraway seed liqueur. It’s a complex flavor: pungent, earthy with the aftertaste of an herb garden. We chase it down with cans of beer. Gordon talks about his skydiving adventures while Heidi shows me family pictures on her laptop. Another few rounds of Akvavit and we stand outside on the patio, where the sun brightly shines on the edge of the fjord peaks. It’s almost midnight.

Sean tells me about culinary school in Australia. He mentions a funny story in which an Indonesian man approached him on the street. “He said he had black fish to sell,” Sean says, waving his hands mysteriously. We are all beyond tipsy and prone to giggles. “I wondered, what is black fish? Black fish, I asked him, what the fuck is that?” Apparently the seller didn’t understand the word “fuck” but kept aggressively pushing for the sale. “What the fuck, I said again.” Maybe it’s all the Akvavit, but I love it when Sean curses. He accentuates the “f” in such a way that it makes the word sound exotic. I laugh harder than necessary and he loses track of his own story, backtracking a bit and finally says, “Black fish was black market fish. He was selling them illegally.” We stare at him with glazed eyes until he says, “What the fuck?” and then it all comes back to us.

The entire time, Heidi smiles while shaking her head. When she slips off to the patio, I follow her. Outside, the midnight sun is still visible, only partially obscured by the fjord’s ridges. She lights her cigarette in the V of her fingers and almost bites the edge of the filter. “The girls don’t know,” she says bluntly. “They think I quit.”

“Our secret,” I respond as she offers me one.

Gordon and I sleep in Amanda’s bedroom, a small space with a sloped ceiling, a doll house and lacy curtain dressing. A poster of the Barbie Princess Charm School hangs opposite of the bed. It’s the most disturbing poster I’ve ever seen: Barbie herself, dressed up in a lavender gown, stares forward with her painted smile and dead eyes. When the blackout curtains are drawn, she is the last thing we see before the room goes dark. Gordon falls asleep almost instantly, his breath calm and rhythmic with the occasional light snore. Thanks to the Akvavit, I’m feeling bold and restless. Part of me wants to cuddle close to him, to initiate a quick romp before sleep. The other part of me feels incredibly guilty for even thinking about sex with family members so close by. In the dark, I imagine Barbie and her entire Charm School staring forward like frilly pink voyeurs. So, I decide to be a good houseguest and giggle myself to sleep.

In the morning, we wake up to the sounds of frenzied activity from downstairs. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in a house with young children. When I descend to the kitchen, I’m a sluggish mess wearing the same clothes as the night before. My hair is … whatever. By instinct, Heidi hands me a steaming cup of coffee and I give her a sleepy smile and think, “Bless your heart.” Spread out over the table is a delightful breakfast spread: warm bread rolls with butter and cheese, hard boiled eggs, berries and slices of reindeer meat that look like bologna. The two girls sit next to me, their plates already full. I point to the one of the dishes and say, “bread.” The girls stare a moment. I point again and say “bread”. It takes them a moment to realize what I’m doing. “Brod”, Marina says and gives me a haughty look as if she has just taught me a valuable lesson. I am full of compliments. The girls are adorable. Everything is wonderful and delicious. “Just eat,” Heidi says in an exasperated voice. My face turns red – I’m the only one who hasn’t finished his plate.

After breakfast, Sean hurries us out the door. When we ask where we’re going, he tells us it’s a surprise. We drive down towards the docks and park on the far end near the fishery. We can see the trawlers in the distance, angular stocky vessels tethered to the docks. My camera is already out and ready for action. Sean leads us into the courtyard of several concrete builds. There are forklifts and stacks of plastic crates everywhere. The entire place reeks of deep ocean.

We have come here to buy black market fish, the ones that can’t be sold. As Sean explains, Batsfjord doesn’t have a fresh fish market. The town isn’t large enough to sustain one. When the daily catches are brought in, the fish are sorted. They must be sold in large quantities and of the same type. Then, they are shipped off to various processing plants around the world. Some will find their way home, displayed in the local grocery, and resold to the men who caught them in the first place. It’s the stragglers, the lone salmon caught amongst the tuna, that can be purchased under the table.

At the entrance to the processing center, Sean asks us to wait before disappearing inside, but I can’t help but peer in after him. Two burly workers wearing orange rubber aprons make eye contact with me. Here, the fishy smell is overwhelming. They chuckle as I try to take their picture and Gordon paws my arm. “We’re probably not supposed to be here,” he says. “No more camera.”

A short while later, Sean returns carrying a large Styrofoam crate holding a flat halibut and an engorged red fish, Uer. The red one is grotesque – a deep sea monster that has decompressed. Its gelatinous eyes bulge out of its sockets; the tongue is a swollen orangey mass like a hard turd coming out the wrong end. I’m an adventurous eater, all things considered, and I’ve seen enough cooking shows to know that ingredients take on the most wonderful transformations. But the Uer looks almost toxic. Death is ugly. I have seen this transformation before.

Back at the house, I hover over Sean as he prepares the fish. First, the halibut. He lays it out along the counter, gently scrapes away the scales with quick strokes of his knife. He makes quick slices, stripping meat away from the spine, moving quick enough not to think about the necessary precision. There is no blood, no offensive odor. He only pauses once so I can take a picture. After the filets are properly packaged, he moves on to the Uer. I do not stay for that one.

Gordon and I excuse ourselves for a walk along the bluff overlooking the fjord. Dinner will be ready in two hours, we are told. Outside is moist, on the verge of rain, and we are unprepared for the wind. I’m wearing a thin zip-up hoodie under my track jacket. It’s cold enough to notice, but not enough to deter. Along the gravel path we walk, hand in hand, as the town behind us shrinks to the size of tiny houses around a model train set. To our right, the grass blurs into the gray of rock and yellowed reeds, and descends downward to the dark water. A thick layer of clouds hover at eye level. The view is breathtaking: unobstructed nature. It is almost ethereal.

As I swallow, I can feel the lymph node on the left side of my jaw swelling up as if I’m swallowing a stone. It doesn’t hurt. It just exists – it’s been like this on and off for weeks. Often, I ignore it. Other times, I silently panic over all the possibilities. There are rational explanations: lymph nodes often swell when the body is fighting an infection. The common cold, an allergy, even a dental cavity can be the cause. But my mind often wanders to darker corners. I think, what if it’s cancer? What will happen? As I look over the fjord, I discreetly press against it, rub my finger over it. Gordon is smiling at me. He wants to take my picture, so I force a smile and pose, promising myself I’ll see a doctor when we get home.
For a brief moment, all I can think about is Matt. It started as a bump on his neck, just a small annoyance that he couldn’t help but notice until after so much time, all he could do was notice it. The doctors ran several tests and prescribed medicine. There was a scan done at some point. Eventually, they took a biopsy and discovered it was a tumor the size of an apple. The scar ran down the side of his neck, a deep red line that puckered the skin around it. He kept it hidden under scarves, even in warm weather.

Gordon’s arm suddenly slides across my shoulder and he kisses me on the side of the cheek. I give him one of those playful coy looks and ask, “What was that for?”

He smiles affectionately. “You’re having a good time, aren’t you?”

I glance back at the fjord and it returns my stare as if to say, “Why are you looking at me? He’s the one who asked you a question.”

I tell Gordon, “Yes. I’m glad we’re here.” I take more pictures.

For dinner, we eat the halibut, pan seared with oil and herbs. Sean serves them over sautéed bell peppers and potatoes with a light cream sauce. The fish is perfect: buttery and tender with the right amount of lemon. For Sean, a trained chef living in a town without a restaurant, this is a treat. I gush over it, taking a second helping. By now Heidi is used to my habit of excessive compliments and laughs as she refills my wine glass. She and the girls eat chicken instead. We chat a little and drink a little more.

The girls warm up to us to the point where even quiet Amanda snuggles next to us on the couch. We show them iPhone pictures of our cats. They gasp. They coo. We put on some music and dance around the living room. We take them to the Tivoli, a miniature traveling carnival that is parked on the edge of town. It has half a dozen rides, all brightly painted with circus-themed murals, and a rickety ferris wheel. Every child in town has waited all year for its arrival. The girls make it clear that they want us to join them on the ferris wheel, or maybe that’s my excuse for wanting to ride it. We are the only unaccompanied adults, Gordon and I crammed together in one of the seats and it doesn’t feel entirely safe. When we reach the top, the wind cuts into us as I squint, trying to take in the town and the surrounding mountains. Then comes the descent. I clutch Gordon’s arm as my belly swirls anxiously. Each rotation makes our cart wobble more. When we are finally off, the girls jump up and down, they want to ride again, this time with their father.
Later on, Heidi and I sit on the patio drinking coffee. Norwegians really love their coffee. Heidi asks me if Gordon and I plan on having children. It is a question I am asked often, one I usually avoid. I give an exaggerated smile and shake my head ‘no’.

“You don’t want them?” she asks.

“I want to be a writer,” I reply.

“Children change your life. They are wonderful.” she says

Years ago, in a coffee shop, I had a rather uncomfortable conversation with a woman who might have been mentally unstable. She told me her life story out-of-order. Her husband died in some sort of tragic accident and three days later, she miscarried. A horrific blessing, she called it. I’ll never forget that.

It’s 11 p.m. and we’re sitting in the Skuta Bar, the only drinking hole in Batsfjord. The inside is deceptively dark, as if conjuring the idea of night: heavy wood paneling along the walls and ceiling, low lights and shaded windows. There are nautical props everywhere. Outside, it is as bright as late afternoon. Gordon, Sean, and I sit in a booth, nursing drinks. There is a bartender, a well-dressed man idling near him and two Russian fishermen in the corner. Otherwise, the bar is empty. According to Sean, we’re here too early. Sometime after midnight, the entire town will show up and stay until early morning. Of course, bars don’t last long in Batsfjord. There isn’t enough of a population to sustain one. It closes down every few months until some new owner arrives, buys the space and reopens.
When I go up for another whiskey, I find myself drawn into a conversation with the well-dressed gentleman. Eggert is Icelandic, speaks conversational English, and is here on a business trip for a few days before he will meet his wife in Amsterdam. Up close, he’s gaunt with salt and pepper hair, looking like a malnourished Alec Baldwin. At first, he seems desperate to talk about American television. Before I can decline, two shots of Akvavit appear in front of us; we toast and drink. Then, I ask him about his business, which makes his eyes widen. He was probably waiting for me to ask. “Fish heads,” he says with raised eyebrows. Two more shots of Akvavit arrive.

Fish heads are a delicacy. I think I knew this beforehand but never considered what that meant. As Eggert explains, there’s tender meat in the cheeks, the heads make good stock, and the eyes! He says something culinary about the eyes but I don’t really listen to that part. The more Eggert talks about his fish heads and his wife and the town, the more Akvavit shots he orders. I know better than to drink them. My misspent college years had taught valuable lessons, one of which is that I can be a very embarrassing drunk. Plus, I can imagine all the various liquors in my gut will eventually start to fight it out with each other. I hold up one of the Akvavit glasses in my hand like a prop and keep stashing the rest around the side of the bar, just out of view. Meanwhile, the bartender observes this and gives me a curt side-eyed look. Eggert doesn’t notice or else he doesn’t care, because he keeps ordering more of them. By the time he stumbles towards the men’s room to piss, I have collected over a half-dozen untouched shots glasses. With him gone, I frantically wave at Sean and Gordon over.

“You have to drinks these,” I tell them. The bartender says something to Sean I don’t understand and they both chuckle lightly. “There’s no time. He’ll be back any minute. Drink!” I order. Everyone assists, the empty glasses are confiscated and I am at least temporarily safe from embarrassment.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. At midnight, the bar suddenly fills with a stream of people. It’s as if someone rang a bell and summoned the entire town. The crowd is so thick, I don’t see Eggert again for another hour or two, but by then he’s forgotten all about me. A group of trendy young people, most likely passengers from the Hurtigruten, arrive. The atmosphere gets louder and I am lost in it. Outside, the sunlight spreads lines of orange and pink, the nearby harbor reflecting streaks of light over the quiet boats. When I find Sean and Gordon, they are surrounded by several locals, notably two beautiful middle-age women. One of them speaks with Gordon with such intensity that I assume she’s flirting. This continues even after he introduces me as his husband. It’s suddenly three in the morning and when I yawn, she daintily pats my hand. “Wake up, darling,” she says and I give her a sleepy smile. They want to know what we think of Batsfjord and of Norway in general. They want to know who we’ve met and where we’ve gone. Not only are they proud of their isolated town, but they want to include us in it, make us into one of their own.

The bar closes at five. It’s just the three of us and the two women, who agree to pose for a photo before they walk off. We stumble home, drunkenly bantering. “Those ladies,” I say, trying to conjure my funnies southern accent. “That’s what the youngins would call MILFS.” Gordon scoffs while Sean asks, what’s a MILF? God, I’m drunk.

The next day hurts. Some of Heidi’s siblings come for a late lunch. I look like a total disaster. Not all the hair gel in the world can save me from looking like a deranged Anime character. Heidi clutches my arm and introduces me as her new cousin and I blush.
We travel to Syltefjord, an abandoned fishing town about an hour’s drive away. It is as desolate as it is serene, a rocky terrain with moss and gravel beaches that look covered in jagged teeth. Dark clouds cast everything in gray. I estimate about forty wooden cottages, each one painted monochrome colors that stand as a bright contrast to their bleak surroundings. For a moment, I feel like we’ve reached the end of the world.

We drive up to the old fish drying racks that sit on a knoll of flat grass. The racks are long pyramids of interlocked wood beams. I take numerous pictures of them with different filters. They look primitive, like the remnants of old Viking structures. Sean chuckles and says, “You know we were still using these back in the 80’s.”

The only business in town is the St. Auran Café. It is crammed full of pottery, wood carvings and painted slate tablets. Apparently, it also serves coffee though I don’t see any. We are greeted by the owner, a white-haired man who delights in telling us about his art. Near the wood-burning stove are two chairs carved out of tree trunks and when I sit in one, the man excitedly points to a nearby photograph. “The King and Queen of Norway sat in that very spot!” We buy a clay dish and a small art piece and the old man offers us an “American” discount.

After we leave, Gordon looks around conspiratorially. “I think that was a joint sitting on the stove,” he says. Sean laughs. What else is there to do in Syltefjord?

“Oh really?” I ask. “Well maybe we should go back there and talk to him some more.” Both Sean and Gordon shake their heads and keep walking.

Our last evening in Batsjford, Heidi and I are having another private moment out on the patio. I’m telling her one of my long-winded stories, my free hand making elaborate gestures as I speak. Perhaps all the coffee is finally affecting me – I can’t shut up. After I finish, she says that we should have stayed longer, that Americans don’t have enough vacation time. There were so many other things for us to see while we were here.

In the morning, Gordon and I will fly down to Oslo and stay with Aunt Aud and Uncle John for a few days in Lillistrom. We will go to Akersus Castle, the Edvard Munch Museum, and wander through the sculpture gardens in Vigeland Park. Cousin Tian will show us her artwork and take us to a small courtyard bar near the wharf where we will get way too tipsy and smoke too many cigarettes while watching the tourists walk by. And then, we will go home and check on Michelle and pick up where our other friends have left off. We will go to a large brunch and order a bottle of champagne, Michelle wise enough to catch the manager and inform him that her husband just died, so the waiter shouldn’t ask what we are celebrating. Life will quickly return to normal, not the old normal, but the new one.

For our last dinner, Sean pulls out the Uer fillets and drops them in a small skillet. Soon, the house fills with a pleasant aroma. The Uer comes out as flakey white with a candied orange colored skin, crisped to perfection. He serves them over barley and vegetables and a light veloute sauce. It is hard to believe that this monstrous deep-sea creature, the one with the bloated tongue, could transform into something so delicate and delicious. I do not waste a second, scrape my fork as an ample piece falls off. Sean, Heidi, Gordon, even the two girls all watch my first bite as if it were in slow motion, trying to read my face for a response.

I smile and say, “Heaven. It tastes like heaven.”

And it did.

Jonathan Harper

Jonathan Harper is the author of the short story collection Daydreamers, which was a Kirkus Review Indie Book of the Year for 2015 and a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s IndieFab Awards. He received his MFA from American University and has received residencies from VCCA and the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow. His writing has been featured in places like The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Big Lucks and in anthologies such as Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader and The Best Gay Stories series.
Visit him online here.