Tara Lynne Groth
The rod was a solid C-shape as Hank struggled to reel in the tuna. At about five hundred pounds, the tuna had an advantage over Hank. Hank fished his entire life, but a fish this size was not like the blues, sea robins, and flounder he caught on Long Island Sound. This time he fished off the tip of Montauk on the big waters of the Atlantic.
After a three-hour struggle, Hank got the Piscean creature on board. The end of the constant stress and action gave the rod a chance to stretch straighter than Hank was able to stand. The imprint of the reel was branded into Hank’s palm. His arm felt like it forgot how to be an arm, and it hung limp on his right side from all the reeling. If he closed his eyes he couldn’t tell if he was lifting them or not.
He wasn’t old, per se. His twenties were gone and he was disappointed with how far he had come in life. Hank turned thirty the day before, an age that felt much bigger than it sounded. Like tuna. Thirty wasn’t some sealed can you held in the palm of your hand. It was heavier. And he was tied to it like anyone, pulled by it. Like that tuna he ripped from the sea and now lay ugly and big for the rest of the world to see. That fish was only there because of him.
“Way to go, man!” Jon said and slapped Hank on the back a few times with satisfying thuds. Jon was Hank’s friend who bought the charter fishing boat tickets for Hank’s birthday.
“Think it’s a keeper?” Hank joked. “Glad I cleared room in my freezer. This one’s gonna last awhile.”
Your typical seadog clientele made up the rest of the passengers. One unshaven weathered man in flannel after another with their respective coolers full of beer. Then there was Jon and Hank, two tall guys in golf shirts. Shirts that were now covered with the detritus of bait slime.
Although the wind blowing off the ocean water provided some relief from the late summer heat, the sun had a kick at high noon. The older seamen on board had rolled up their flannel sleeves. Most of them had a gold crucifix glittering below their white chest hair like a lure below the foamy crests of the sea.
They had pushed off the dock at five that morning and had long since traveled far from the sight of land. No sign of Long Island: The tongue of New York.
“Well, look hea´, men!” Captain Bill said. “A tuna!”
The fish thrashed around the aft deck until Captain Bill hit it over the head with half a splintered sun-bleached oar he kept snug in the ropes along the edge of the boat. “C’mon, boys!”
The half dozen other fishermen on the charter set their reels in the reel locks, grabbed their nearest beer, and made their way to the tuna.
Hank rubbed his hand and flexed his fingers in and out like he kept saying five, five, five, five over again with his hands. “This is my first time on a charter. Do you call everyone around each time a fish is caught?”
One of the haggard men in torn plaid moved closer and snorted. “You’re in for a treat. We’re here for the tuna.”
“But I caught it?” Hank said, not sure why he was questioning the fact.
“The fish is yours, but the heart is for us,” Captain Bill said. He put the slimy oar back in the pile of ropes.
“Do you sell it?” Hank asked.
The same salty white-haired man laughed. “Boy, you’re gonna bite it-—we all are!”
The other men saluted their agreement with a wave of beer cans raised in the air and a deep chorus of yawps.
“It’s code of the sea. A man who takes a bite of a tuna’s heart will have a long life and good health.” Captain Bill smiled, rubbed his beer belly, and flicked his cigarette into the sea.
“Do we cook it first, or is this some twisted spin on sushi?” Jon asked.
Captain Bill smiled. “Your chances of finding this on a sushi menu are the same as finding it in a Happy Meal.”
The fishermen laughed and nodded. By now they had taken seats along a bench that hugged the bulwark. Captain Bill slid a switchblade from the back pocket of his faded jeans. It was surprising how quiet the men became, as if they were at Sunday mass. Conveniently, it was Sunday.
“The honors?” Captain Bill asked Hank and offered the handle of the knife.
“I don’t think I could manage that right now if you gave me a chainsaw,” Hank said. He flexed his hand again and rubbed his shoulder. His fingers still tingled as if the blood running through his veins was carbonated. “My arm’s killing me.” Even if he was at his best, he would not have entertained the men. Their beliefs were not his own.
Captain Bill shrugged and knelt beside the tuna. He was a tall and solid man, but beside the body of the tuna Bill looked like a toddler with an oversized stuffed whale he won at the fair. The tuna’s eyes were bigger than Bill’s, and perhaps his heart shared the same ratio. The blade disappeared in the tuna’s belly and Bill carved a line straight toward the tail. It sounded like someone was ripping vinyl.
Hank never had a moral issue with fishing or hunting. He ate everything he caught and never killed just for the sake of killing. The sacrifice of the tuna’s life felt natural to Hank, but slaughtering it for the pleasure of strangers made him regret catching the tuna.
Captain Bill was buried elbow-deep in the tuna’s innards. Blood splattered his jeans and the coarse hairs along his arms were flat against his blood-covered skin. The ship’s rocking with the waves made pools of tuna blood swirl the white deck. “Ah, here it is,” Captain Bill said. He held up the oozing red ball over his head and stood up. “First bite for the man who fought the tuna,” he said and held the heart near Hank’s mouth.
Jon whispered in Hank’s ear, “You’re not really gonna do this, are you? Seems messed up.”
Hank didn’t want to participate in their ritual until he noticed the heart was still beating. At first he thought Captain Bill was having trouble holding the tuna heart in his hand, but then he saw Bill’s hand was still and the heart itself was pulsing.
The idea that he could get a taste of life’s pulse switched on an animalistic instinct. Hank salivated and licked his lips. His first bite surprised him. He had eaten tuna at sushi restaurants and thought the texture would be the same, but the tuna’s heart was tough like liver. It took him several chews before he swallowed. He took another bite and felt like the earlier weight of his age and the regrets of his twenties were replaced by an ocean-sized weight of possibility for his life ahead.
“I think he likes it, boys!” Captain Bill laughed.
The men laughed with him and soon Captain Bill was standing at the end of the long bench, each man marked with drips of blood on their shirts.
Jon had stationed himself far from the stern where the sacrifice took place. The red marks on the aft were a stark contrast to the shade of pistachio covering Jon’s face. He started looking more and more like the green Lady Liberty herself with each man’s bite of the heart.
Hank felt a little responsible for Jon, but he didn’t want to be like Jon. He didn’t regret sharing the tuna heart with the men. If he had not tried, he would have been the same guy--sick with his life and fighting to keep something inside, just like Jon was doing now.
The men headed back to their reel locks to check their lines and refresh beers. The ritual was over in the same speed it started. Hank looked at the other men’s blood-stained teeth as they laughed. He knew his smile matched.