The Fisherman’s Daughter
There is a story that goes like this: once there was a girl, and her father ate her.
It is an old story. It takes many forms. All of them are true.
The fisherman and his daughter lived together in a little grey house, its boards heavy and sagging with the weight of salt. It was miles away from anywhere, except the sea.
Every morning, the fisherman would rise in the dark and make his yawning way to the dock where his boat was tied. His day would be spent rolling back and forth on the salt waves, catching nets full of fish until he was surrounded by winking silver scales and open, gasping mouths. He would stay out on the water until the sun went down, then sail home in the dark, his catch glimmering bright as mercury.
It was always a good catch, for the fisherman loved the sea more than he loved his own self, and the sea rewards those who love her.
The fisherman loved his daughter, too, although not quite so much as the sea. She was small and round, pink-cheeked and yellow-haired, with a sweet, high voice and eyes the grey of a thick evening fog. No matter the weather, she would be waiting for him on the dock at the end of the evening, ready to haul in the nets. It was she who helped him clean the fish, and gut them, and stretch them out to be dried in the sun, and on market day she drove their yellow pony trap into town, coming back with an empty cart and a purse full of gold. The house they shared was kept neat by her hand, and if she sometimes forgot to sweep beneath the beds, or if she forgot that she had set a pot on the stove to boil and ended up burning their supper, her father shrugged and did not mind.
The fisherman did not have a wife. She had died, or left, or been forgotten. He himself was never sure which.
Did the girl mind keeping house for her father? Did she mind the scouring of the salt wind on her face, the way her fingertips cracked and bled as she cleaned and gutted fish after gleaming fish? Did her stomach roil and buck every time she noticed the stench of rotting seaweed that had worked its way into her very skin?
Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. She was a dutiful daughter.
Unsurprisingly, what the fisherman and his daughter ate for most meals was fish: boiled fish, baked fish, fish steaks, fish stew. For many years this was enough, and the fisherman went to sleep content and full-bellied. But one day the smell of fish cooking in the oven failed to make his mouth water; then it began to annoy him; then it began, slowly but surely, to disgust him. His body had begun to crave another taste, some alien flavor that had never yet met his tongue. His dreams were full of laden tables and steaming dishes, and he gorged himself on food he never saw, waking up with a gnawing ache in his belly and a pillow sodden with drool.
He did not know what he wanted to eat, and his ignorance made him angry and afraid, for he was a man used to knowing his own mind.
At last one evening his daughter brought him a plate of fried haddock, still steaming and sizzling slightly from the pan, and the fisherman could no longer force himself to eat it. He shoved his plate away and turned towards the wall, swallowing bile. Alarmed, his daughter knelt at his feet, gazing up into his face.
“Father,” she said, touching his hand as she would a nervous cat, “what is the matter? Are you ill?”
The light of the lamp that burned on the table turned her a rosy gold. Her cheeks were very round, her flesh heavy and deliciously scented with sweat. He saw in an instant her body carved and served on a platter, sizzling white fat breaking through the crisp brown skin, and his mouth flooded with saliva.
He knew, then, what taste he had been craving.
Guilt rose into his throat, choking him. Without a word, he thrust himself back from the table and went to his bedroom, locking the door behind him.
The thoughtful listener may remember now the question of the fisherman’s wife, her whereabouts and wherefores. Had this craving come over him before? Had her days ended in a stew pot, or with the violent skewering of a spit? It is possible. The girl, it must be said, resembled her mother.
But that is not part of the story. Mothers never are.
Fathers should not eat their daughters. The fisherman reminded himself of this every day: when he woke and dressed in the dark, when he cast nets over the side of his boat, when he made himself choke down whatever waited on his plate after he returned from the sea. Fathers should not eat their daughters. Fathers should not eat their daughters. Fathers should not eat their daughters. Over and over, until it became a song that played again and again in the dark space behind his eyes.
But the craving gnawed, fraying his temper and his nerves. When he came home and found the floor beneath his bed thick and grey with dust, he frowned instead of shrugging. When his daughter boiled pots dry and burned their supper, he glowered and cursed her until she turned her face away to hide her tears. When she returned from the market with one coin less than she’d managed the week before, he struck her, and watched with fascination as her cheek bloomed red and purple, ripe as a plum. The guilt that had swelled inside of him quickly subsided, and he strung up excuses like beads on a wire to banish it more quickly, one after the other, little jewel-drops of lies and half-truths that soothed his mind and stirred his appetite into a frenzy. She was a poor housekeeper, a poor cook. She dallied too long in town and gazed too long in the mirror above her bed. She wore her enticing scent as a king would wear a diamond, flaunting the richness of her flesh. Before long he had convinced himself that she knew what was in his heart, knew that his stomach roared and rumbled when she passed, and that she laughed at him for it.
After all, he thought, how am I to know that she truly is my daughter? A woman may know her children, but a man can never know for sure when his seed bears fruit. Perhaps she is not mine at all.
Here is a truth that lives in your bones: there has never been a father in the world who loved his daughter so much that he could not be persuaded otherwise.
There came a day when the sea was strange and still, and all the nets that the fisherman cast into the water came back empty. They lay on the deck like wet black webs, a limp and useless tangle. He stared at them as the boat swayed gently back and forth on the swell of the waves. There, alone on the water, he began to laugh as the last bead slid into place.
No food. They had no food. What choice did he have, now?
As the moon rose, he returned home to his daughter, who waited for him at the end of the dock. Her smile, which had been hesitant of late, faltered completely as her father came near. The hands that usually dragged full nets behind them were empty, and his eyes were flat and blank as they fixed on her.
“Were there no fish today, Father?” she asked in her sweet, high voice. The wind blew in from her direction, carrying the smell of her with it, and he smiled. The night seemed suddenly darker, the shadows thicker and more pressing, and her feet took a shuffling step back of their own accord.
“No fish,” he said, and reached into his pocket. “But a very fine catch.”
She saw him raise his hand, saw the silvery flash of a blade in the moonlight. Too late, she raised her own to fend him off. Like so many daughters before her, she failed.
The preparation of a daughter for the supper-table is a delicate task, not dissimilar to the cleaning of fish. Imagine the scrape of blade on bone, the careful removal of certain extremities, the steaming pile of innards heaped onto the kitchen counter. Imagine the slow dismantling of a girl as she is turned, bit by bit, into a meal.
That night the fisherman feasted on the sweetest meat he had ever eaten. He sucked the marrow from his daughter’s bones, peeled the skin from her soft belly, plucked a staring grey eye from her head and savored its rupture between his teeth. In the leak of vitreous humor he tasted the salt of the sea, and he wept as he ate, filled with a complete and perfect joy. Every other taste he had encountered became dry and flavorless beside the burst and dance of his daughter’s juices on his tongue.
Fathers should not eat their daughters, came the familiar whisper in his head. By this time, he was so used to ignoring it that he failed to notice the voice was no longer his own.
When his hunger finally abated, he bundled up his daughter’s shattered remains in the tablecloth, which had been white when he had started but was now a patchwork quilt of scarlet and claret and rose. This he weighted down with rocks and threw into the sea, watching it as it sank, one hand resting on the swollen hump of his belly.
It does not take as long as one might think for a bundle of stones and flesh to be borne down to the seabed, drifting slightly on the current. It takes even less time for saltwater to seep into the cloth, and for the sea to taste what she has been given.
She rewards those who love her. The opposite is true, too.
The fisherman was worried that the guilt he had so successfully quashed would rise again after the deed was done, but when he woke the next morning he felt nothing but a dreamy sort of fullness. As he dressed he noted the newfound stillness of the house, the gap in the air where his daughter’s breathing had been, but only as one would note a pale spot where a picture had once hung.
It was a quiet dawn, the sea flat and calm as a mirror. He cast out his nets and waited, stretching out against the side of the boat to warm himself as the sun rose in the sky. Water slapped up against the hull in a calm and steady beat. His sly tongue slid out of his mouth to catch the last lingering taste of meat on his lips. He knew that he would have to return to eating fish—and that now he would have to cook it himself—but the thought caused him no distress. The great hunger had been satisfied, his appetite tamed and sated.
And if it came again, well. A man could always find other daughters.
It felt to him that only moments passed, but when he finally started up to check his nets, the sun had long since begun to descend from its zenith. The floaters sat promisingly low in the water, thrumming with the frantic movement of captured prey. Smiling contentedly, he reached out to retrieve what the sea had given him.
The nets were heavy, and he stumbled and slipped as he hauled them up, spilling their contents across the deck. A thrashing flood of fish swamped him, flailing fins and tails making their own sea within the boat. They poured out from the nets and continued pouring, dozens turning to hundreds turning to thousands, until the boat sat dangerously low in the water. There were more there than had ever filled his nets. There were more there than his nets could possibly hold. And still they came, up to his knees, his waist, his neck. His feet were suddenly wet, and he realized that water had begun to flood the vessel. Frightened, he reached out to grasp the nearest slippery body, intending to throw it and all its brothers back into the sea.
He looked at the fish he held and saw that its eyes were round and warm, the color of a thick evening fog. They blinked at him, once, twice, three times. From its mouth came a voice that he knew well: a sweet voice, a high voice, a voice he had last heard screaming.
“Fathers should not eat their daughters,” it said.
Elliott Gish is a writer and librarian from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her work has been published in the Dalhousie Review, Understorey Magazine, Wigleaf, Spry Literary Journal, and others. She never learned to fish, but does know how to swim.