So, I'm a pollack. And don't bother asking my name, 'cause I don't have one. None of us do. We swim around in schools of literally hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of fish, and we all look alike. Honestly, what would be the point in having names?
Anyways, I'm a pollack, and as a pollack you can pretty much assume some things about me. Things like where I live, namely the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, and other, more philosophical things, like where I rate in the food chain. And believe me, I recently found out just exactly where that was.
You see, we all know to watch out for Cod, especially those fat fucking Pacific Cod. They eat you alive in one bite, even if you don't fit in their mouth. I once saw one of those mother-fuckers swimming around with just a tail sticking out of his mouth, for almost three days! I guess he was full. But they are also stupid, which makes 'em easy to avoid. I mean, come on, they can't even see the same thing out of both eyes at the same time. They look at you and they're like, "Hey, look! Half a pollock!." Dumbasses.
What aren't easy to avoid are Nets. They come out of nowhere and Whoosh! Half the school is gone. And they're not stupid either. We zig and we zag, they zig and they zag. Trust me, once they find you, they've got you. I know this from experience.
Now, it's one thing to swim along peacefully, barely a Tomcod's whisker from your neighbor, a hundred thousand fish in every direction. It's another thing entirely to be pulled along in a giant net, your nose halfway up the anal fin of the guy in front of you, and who knows what halfway up yours, while you feel the pressure of all those thousands of pollack being squeezed against you in an ever diminishing knot, even as the water pressure around you is relieved, as you gradually ascend to the surface.
On the surface, I can see clearly what is happening, as the whole, huge, rolling mass that used to be our school bobs up and down behind the ship like a chew toy being throttled by some dog. I can see the Gilson lines that pull the net up straining off into the distance, no doubt wrapped somewhere out of my line of sight around two huge Gilson winches, each one capable of over 80 tons of torque. The lines, normally around three inches in diameter, look like they are stretched to less than half that and they don't even have us out of the water yet. I can hardly believe it, but they must have gotten nearly the whole school. From the shouting and pointing of the deckhands, it doesn't appear that they are too happy with the catch, and I realize that the pressure is letting off, the lines slacking.
This respite allows us to drift, almost peacefully, and I find myself with a broadside view of the ship that has us in its snare. Far forward, on the bow of the ship, I can read its name, Pacific Glacier, and I am no longer surprised that they managed to catch so many of us. The ship is 300 feet long if it's a foot, and from deep below I can hear the twin baritones of two powerful diesels, each one churning out almost 3500 horsepower. These guys are fucking serious.
Even as I think this, I feel the powerful, immutable jerk and pull of the lines. The deckhands, clad in bright orange deck suits, insulated against the January cold, have worked hard and fast, and two more lines, this time of heavy chain and cable are hooked to us. We begin moving up the stern ramp of the boat, and this time there is no stopping. At the highest point of the ramp, as the full weight of the bag hangs heavy on the lines, the pressure is so intense I want to scream. Indeed, ahead of me I see steady, intermittent explosions, bursts of entrails and fish-flesh as others are crushed by the weight of their comrades. I close my eyes. The pressure forces them back open. This can't be fucking happening to me!
Finally it's over. All around me is the horrifying gasping of the survivors, so loud as to drown out what I realize is my own gasping. I made it. The grins and hoots of joy from the deckhands may as well be my own, because I can't believe that I am still alive. With the whole of the bag pulled onboard, I can see that the net has been stretched to capacity. Over 250 tons of fish. Easily our whole school. Easily.
I see that at the stern end of the net, a huge metal door has opened in the deck, and I feel the flow of water beneath me, the discharge from the deckhands firehose. We are being washed towards the opening, slowly at first, then quickly. I see the darkness of the hole like falling into a well, and then I am over the brink.
Now where the fuck am I.
It's nothing if it isn't completely dark and utterly fucking cold. But I'll be damned if I can't swim a little, and I can even thrash my tail about a bit, which doesn't do my neighbors any good, but pleases the shit out of me. The others don't seem quite as pleased as I am, but that doesn't bother me. Far above me I see the tiniest spot of light and I begin to nose my way towards it. It's tough and takes me almost an hour, but when I finally reach it, I realize where I am. The light is streaming from a small glass porthole that looks out into one of the decks of the ship. It has three letters etched into it, and I have to read it backwards to understand it. R.S.W.
R.S.W. Refrigerated saltwater. That's right. We're on storage. My enthusiasm wanes as this idea settles in. On storage, which means that in 10 to 12 hours the ship will be arriving at some cannery where we will be transferred to the hacking, slicing machinery of a processing plant. I'm not to thrilled about a future as cod-bait, and I'm even less thrilled about being a fishwich, but if there was a way out of there, I couldn't find it. I had 12 hours maximum to come up with a plan, but that just wasn't going to happen.
Mainly, because after only five hours, something strange started to happen.
A vacuum pump, the kind used to pull us out of the tank, extended its long snout down to the bottom and before we could say "Now what?" it began to suck us out by the snoutful. Being at the top of the tank, I watched it take almost everyone before it got to me, and when it got around to me my resistance was useless. In an instant I was up, out and onto a conveyor belt. I remember thinking that we must be aboard an at-sea processor, a factory trawler. After that everything was a blur.
I remember conveyor after conveyor. Some were soft and warm, and idled by slowly, showing me views of fluorescent lights, complicated stainless steel pipes and hydraulic controls. Other belts were harsh, with great claws that scooped you up steep inclines only to pitch you into the maw of yet another and then another tank. Sometimes refreshing water sluiced over me, other times only harsh dry light greeted me. Eventually the whirlwind slowed to a crawl, and ahead of me I heard an ominous noise.
The sounds of spinning blades cut through the air unmistakeably, a kind of breathless whirring, interrupted only by the rythmic sound of some feeble resistance of flesh and bone. Baader Machines.
The Baaders are terrifying machines, not only to us fish, but too the humans that use them. Multiple razor sharp blades spinning at over 7000rpms, proccessing more than 70 fish per minute, they are a beast on the edge of their master's control. The men who run these machines, men called drivers, are men without all their fingers, quiet men with stiff, crooked backs and hands that tremble uncontrollably. The fish who run through these machines, well...
I was still reeling when I felt the rough hands of the driver, flip me expertly around, into position to enter the Baader, head up, belly forward. The knowledge of head off, belly gutted flamed within my skull, but my exhaustion was complete, the work of the conveyor belts was done. The sanitary plastic draped over the opening to the Baader brushed over me as I entered, as limp and unresisting as I.
Now, I'll understand if you think I'm crazy when you hear this next part but, when I saw those meticulously mounted and aligned blades, spinning brightly like fine silver halos, I cried, for it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Tears poured unchecked from my eyes, a smile of wonder and worship beamed from my lips. If I would have had knees, I would surely have dropped to them before this vision, this stunning display of awesome power. Three fish ahead of me, I saw the blades drop, unzipping his flesh like a coat of silver mail, two fine, glistening fillets lying to either side, his head and tail, shining white spine and nervous system falling down through a perfectly placed chute beneath the conveyor. I laughed happily, hysterically, tears still flowing. I felt like I was in the presence of a god.
Two fish ahead of me. Another set of perfect, moist fillets.
One fish ahead of me.
What happened next is unexplainable, but I will try. I was in rapture watching those spinning blades, descending and rising like the life-giving sun, and as they struck the pollock before me, it was as if they had lodged and stuck in some hard area of his skull, for the first blade whipped him around and struck me with him, in such a quick and forceful manner that I felt as if I had been struck by lightning. In an instant, perhaps I was flung, I do not know, but I was beyond the reach of the blades. I had passed before those angelic scythes, I had emerged unharmed.
The conveyor bore me away, out of the Baader, as quickly as it had brought me in, depositing me unceremoniously upon a clean white belt, lit from beneath by bright gleaming lights. I had been delivered, but to a candling table, so called because the first candlers actually had to use a taper, or candle, held behind the fillets of fish passing before them. This allowed them to see through the transluscent flesh and find parasites and bone missed by the machines. And when they looked through me, would they see that I had been cleansed? Would they see that I had passed under the gaze of those terrible blades and emerged pure and clean?
I reached the first of the candlers who regarded me first with surprise and then with curiosity. No doubt he marvelled at the changes within me. Could he see that I was a changed fish? Could he see that all about me was light and clarity?
I believe he could.
I believe that was why he tossed me from that table to the deck of the boat, where I would wash about for days before finally washing overboard via what they call a "shit chute," a small chute designed to jettison things which don't belong from the deck of the vessel. If I had remained on that table, my fate would have been to be frozen at sea, flash frozen in multi-ton aluminum freezers, frozen solid to -20 degrees farenheit, and packed into a 1000 ton freezer hold where I would have froze still more to -40 degrees. From there, fishwiches, fish sticks, fish and chips. Its all the same. But I didn't remain on that table. And I'm not a fish stick.
I'm a pollack, and I swim in the Bering Sea. I swim alone. Below me, a deep eternal sea. Above me, a rising and setting sun.