Imitation Exercise

Thea Prieto

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“Soft Shell.” Aquatint Etching

The thirty-five-pound salmon had been pulled out of the ocean earlier that day. A slab of slippery muscle, larger than the dogs that patrolled the kitchen, the fish had to be lifted from the ice chest by four hands. The fishermen only charged the mother and daughters half price, assuring the daughters it was the same amount their father would’ve been charged. It used to be their father who bartered at the docks. It used to be his daughters who stood and watched.

The daughters carried the dripping fish across the kitchen and lowered him onto the narrow, wooden counter. His empty gills sagged open. His motionless fins lay waiting. The women took their new positions around the kitchen. This time the mother stationed herself at the sink, to wash the scales from the freshly chopped steaks. The younger daughter circled the butcher’s block with freezer bags, preparing to vacuum-seal the pink and white cuts. The older daughter stood still before the fish.

The older daughter held two of her father’s knives, the handles rotten but the edges sleek, and she began butchering from the tail forward. She replicated her father’s motions from memory – the angle of the cut, the direction of the slice – but her carving was slow and therefore clumsy. Each delicate layer of flesh showed hesitation. Each pink steak was squashed on one side. And at the maximum width of the ribcage, where the salmon’s spine thickened to the size of kindling, the older daughter was forced to stop. She thumbed the dull blades. The mother gestured to the kitchen drawer that held other worn knives, but also sharpeners, whetting stones, her husband’s things.

The mother presented her husband’s sharpening file on open palms, the same raw way she had received the salmon steaks. The older daughter, still holding one worn knife, took the file. But her first grating was without authority and therefore without success. At once, the edge of her father’s knife became toothed and uneven. In an instant, the last, precise sharpening her father had performed was gone. A half-butchered salmon is not moved by the grief of others. There is nothing to do but continue the work. The kitchen drawer only contains blunt tools, but some of the oldest edges are also jagged, imperfectly sharpened. She is reminded of her father’s fried plantains, and the one time the dish turned out starchy and bitter. She is reminded that even when his knives were new they didn’t always carve the jack-o-lanterns correctly, as his daughters stood and watched.