NOME -- My cousin called me Fish.
“Hey Fish,” he’d say, smiling real big. I was proud of that nickname. Some cousins inched into the water. I dove right into the river and every cell in my body screeched from the shock. I felt tough. I swam in the slough side of the island for hours and got out if it felt like my stomach walls were touching and empty. Mom and Aunties had pots of uuraq at the fire and we’d grab a bowl and eat the warming stew of humpies, potatoes and onions. We’d laugh at each other’s salmon legs — the red splotches that appeared when the skin on our legs tingled from the heat of the fire and the remaining chill from the river.
If I wasn't swimming, I’d lie on a cotton patchwork blanket with my sister. My skin got dark and I’d never sunburn. Karen always had to be careful. And she never went swimming with me. She liked to lounge in the sand and talk. Talk to laugh. That’s what we did together. We laughed at skinny Veronica bumping into a blue cooler and she’d see us watching her and laugh with us. I laughed at Karen’s grown-up stories.
Dad and Uncles took the aluminum boats upriver a couple bends to seine. They’d leave with only a net in their boats and come back with hundreds of humpies — the boats traveling slow like hunched grampas, making us impatient but happy with their haul. Some humpies still jumped and did break dance moves among their dead brothers. Mom and Aunties grabbed their ulus and started cutting even before all the fish were emptied from the boats.
My job was to clean. Not clean, like wash dishes or sweep. Clean. My Mom and Aunties smiled at me and I listened to their stories about cutting fish last year and “remember what No Ears did? She wore those plastic, toy high heel shoes berry picking and swimming.” And they laughed. “What a girl, that No Ears. She has champ shoes.” Mostly I smiled at them because I didn’t know how to say things to make them laugh more, but I was part of the club. I got to hear the secrets shared at the cutting table. They were smiley secrets.
The seagulls would come around and snatch the eggs from shallow water. I’d grab the cut fish at the tail, the perfect handles, from the bloody table. I’d take three in each hand and wade out into the river and the white gulls would fly away. I swished the pink, fleshy meat around in the clear water to clean off the guts and blood. Clean. Whitefish and grayling waited for my feet to leave to eat pink scraps and rich eggs from the bottom. I’d hang the fish on poles Dad and Uncles set up. Hundreds would hang at the sandy beach at the end of the day.
One time Mom handed me her ulu. She put a female humpy on the table and told me to try. I knew the cuts. The amount of pressure to slit the slimy skin surprised me. Laughing aunties jabbered while cutting and it took all my concentration to make sure I didn’t slip and slice my finger. I wanted it to be perfect. The green cottonwoods across the river looked on. The mountains nudged elbows, watching. I felt the one with the bald head scrutinize my work. Even a few clouds peered over, holding their breath. And I did it. I cut my first humpy, and I was happy Papa Ralph noticed.
“Wow Paniuq. You even left the heart. That’s the best way.”
I smiled. In the sunshine, I smiled.
My sister and I don’t lie on the beach anymore when we go upriver. We have kids of our own. Roles have changed. We don’t even go to the same island, but to the cabin. Mom’s cabin. Her ulu is there. Dad uses it, and we miss her laughter.
Bud takes the boat up and gets the fish with the net. He comes back and we start cutting. We wear sweaters, rubber boots and orange aprons to stay warm and dry. Gone are the days of cutting fish in swimsuits and bare feet.
Karen’s a lot like Mom. She knows what to say to make people laugh. She laughs at her own jokes. It feels good to cut fish with her, even though we silently race each other with each fish we grab. She is faster than me and it’s bugging.
The kids swim even though it’s cold. My niece and nephew clean our fish — my old job. I smile at them.
When the tubs are empty and the meat is hanging, I make uuraq in Mom’s old pot, blackened on the outer bottom from years of feeding kids cold from the slough water. I cut the males with big humps we saved into steaks, just like Mom used to. On the beach by the water I cube the potatoes and chop the onion, just like Mom used to. I feel her looking at me and smiling. The cottonwood trees smile at me, too. The clouds glance my way and notice. A ray of sunshine peeks through the clouds. Everything shines. Everything is warm again.
I smile while I add salt to the pot. I tell my sister a story just to make her laugh. My niece looks at me and smiles as she grabs fish to clean from the table.
The seagulls squawk at each other for taking their rightful egg clusters. I walk toward them to feel them fly away.
Laureli Kinneen, the news director at KNOM in Nome, grew up in Unalakleet on the eastern coast of Alaska's Norton Sound. She now lives in Nome, where she enjoys raising her two children, Joe and Sidney.