Steveston, British Columbia, 1907
Early morning wind cut across Aiko’s thin shawl and left her shivering. It was cold, here. Much more than home.
“It warmed up last year by July,” her husband said. He was a tall, reedy man with a face like a garden left unattended. He slung an arm over her shoulder, cramming her to his side. It was hard to walk this way, but he didn’t seem to notice even as Aiko tripped over her feet. “The sunsets are better than anything we had back in Japan.”
She said nothing as he prattled on. Tajima- san was the son of a friend of her father’s, or the friend of a son – something like that. He needed a wife and wrote a long letter home. Aiko wrote back.
He brought them to a stop once they reached the edge of the dock, where rows of thick wooden buildings rose straight out of the water. Beyond them, the river swelled, moving blue and amorphous, quiet.
“You’ll work here,” he said. He gave her hand a squeeze and let go.
“I can’t go fishing with you?” she whispered. He shook his head.
“Be good,” he said, and pushed her to the wooden doors.
A man with skin like milk and hair like dandelions held out a pair of gloves to her with two slender fingers, then beckoned, nails yellow, flicking, and walked deeper into the belly of the building without looking to see if she was following.
The back of the building opened up to the water, and there Aiko saw the fishermen – tanned, thick, backs – and the dead fish strewn over the wooden planks of the floor. The smell of rot sank hot and wet into her mouth.
They stopped as they approached a large red machine, which groaned loud and terrible when its metal blades bit into the flesh and bones of salmon. The men working here paid it no mind, sliding carcass after carcass into the mechanical maw. The guts came spraying out the other end, the blood seeping into their shirts until they stuck like a second skin.
The man she’d followed here unfurled one gaunt arm to point to the left of the machine, where the fish were conveyed onto long rows of tables with gushing taps. Women like her stood there, streaked in gore, forearms dark red with blood. Aiko began to tremble.
He pressed a small knife into her palms. She watched him leave, her fingers digging into the wooden handle. Unconsciously, her tongue slipped out to touch the tender swell of her bottom lip. She tasted severe: the cold iron of blood, the sharp corners of salt crystals. The thick bile. She pulled on the gloves and marched to the tables.
Raw salmon, she found, was all slime and twisting flesh, bending to the touch, but refusing to break. Aiko grit her teeth and plunged a carcass under the water, watching the mucus wash down the drain. Her fingers were already aching, pounding with a dullness that started from the bone. Within minutes, she’d fumbled the knife.
A woman standing next to her with dark eyes like ink blots laughed, and Aiko’s face began to burn.
“That’s not how you do it,” the woman said, voice thick with Kansai-ben. “Hold it by the hilt, like this.” She took the fish from Aiko’s hands and sliced it deftly, along the vein, letting the blood gush out in ribbons into the water. She checked for clots or slime, then gave it a final rinse before dumping it onto the conveyor belt.
“You’ll get better,” she said, taking another fish. The grin on her face was pinched. “Just takes time.”
The women worked in a frenzy. The carcasses came relentlessly, stacking up in bloody piles if they slowed.
At noon the steam whistle blew, making Aiko flinch. The rest of the women sighed in relief and peeled off their bloody gloves. They cracked their swollen knuckles as they picked up conversations from the morning as if there’d been no break in between.
Someone was already sitting on the back steps when she wandered out. The woman was sprawled back and looking at the sky, a cigarette dangling between her lips. There was a fleck of blood on her cheek, and Aiko recognized those ink blot eyes, bleeding into the whites.
“Oh,” the woman said, blinking slow, cigarette dripping ash as she spoke. “Hello.”
Aiko’s eyes tracked the hot glowing embers, the smoke, and she swallowed past a thickness in her throat. “Is that dangerous?”
She meant her words to come out light and unaffected, but instead they spilled out in a jumble. The woman smiled and pursed her lips into a perfect o, smoke billowing.
“Not if you know what you’re doing,” she said.
She sat up and leaned her elbows on her knees, legs splayed like a woman shouldn’t, and this time her grin wasn’t pinched but big, like she was crushing the sweetness out of the words with her teeth. “Why? Are you worried?”
The wood of the cannery reeked of engine fuel. Aiko imagined all of it going up in flames, red hot, licking up the sides and casting warped shadows on the water. It would only take a single flick of ash.
“No,” Aiko said.
The woman laughed and leaned over to stub out the light in a mess of guts. The blood seeped into the wrapping paper, making it pink.
“I’m Kiriya Rumi,” she said, and took out a piece of charcoal from her pocket to write it out. She wrote directly on the floor in big, blunt strokes.
“You have a lovely name,” Aiko murmured.
Kiriya-san smiled and held out the coal.
Without the cigarette, all of Kiriya-san’s focus was concentrated on Aiko. It flustered her, made her self-conscious enough to remember the blood spatters on her dress, her neck. She took the coal, careful not to touch Kiriya-san’s fingers, and stooped down to squeeze her own name beside.
Kiriya-san leaned over to take a good look. “Aiko, huh?” She propped her chin up with her hand, mouthing the characters. “Can I call you that? Just call me Rumi,” she said.
Aiko nodded. The delight that crept onto Rumi’s face made her look like a child.
“Well, sit down, won’t you, Aiko?” She patted the ground beside her, not caring about the dirt that got on her hands. Aiko hesitated, but she was already splattered with blood. She sat down.
“New here?” Rumi asked.
“You like it?”
Aiko crossed her ankles and looked down. “It’s cold.”
“Fewer mosquitos, though.”
Aiko shrugged. She’d take mosquitos and muggy heat over this barren chill. “I grew up on a farm, back home.”
“You don’t come from a fishing village?” Rumi asked.
Aiko shook her head. “Hikone. It’s by a lake. I can’t get used to…this.”
Rumi patted her on the shoulder. “It’s not so bad, after a while. At least the sunsets are beautiful.”
“That’s what he said, too,” Aiko mumbled. Somehow she wasn’t convinced. It was the same sun.
“Who? Your husband?” Aiko nodded.
“He nice?” Rumi asked.
Aiko hesitated, and Rumi, inexplicably, laughed.
“Did you expect to have a kind, doting husband when you got here? A giant mansion?”
Aiko stood abruptly, face smarting.
“Wait –” Rumi said, grabbing her hand. Aiko jerked it away. “I just mean – it’s different, isn’t it. From what you imagined. The men write such pretty letters, don’t they?”
Aiko sat back down, feeling a burn at the back of her throat. After a moment, she whispered, “His photo was from twelve years ago. He’s as old as my uncle.”
Rumi grabbed her hand and squeezed. Callouses scratched at Aiko, where they touched, and she looked down to see the dried blood flaking off Rumi’s hand. They were like spots of rust crawling over her skin, as if she’d been left too long in the water and she was corroding away.
“How long have you been here?” Aiko asked.
“Two years,” Rumi said.
“Only two?” Aiko gasped. Rumi’s hands were knotted, thick and knobbly, and the little finger of her left hand didn’t extend all the way.
“We stick our hands in freezing water for hours at a time,” Rumi said, then raised her eyebrows. “You should see Satomi’s hands. They look like bear paws.”
Aiko looked down at her own hands, red and scrubbed raw from this morning. They trembled, and she knew she was going to be cleaning fish until her fingers crystallized and started cutting her from the inside.
Rumi gave her a nudge. “C’mon, don’t look so glum. You get used to it, really.”
“I don’t want to get used to it.” Aiko closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall of the cannery. It felt damp. She imagined the fuel creeping onto her, into her, until she was going up in flames alongside Rumi’s smokes. She took a deep breath.
“Give me one of your cigarettes,” she said. “Please.”
Rumi’s eyes went wide, until Aiko could see the whites all around her irises, and a smile flirted at the curve of her mouth. “You?”
“Fine,” she said. She didn’t stop looking at Aiko as she reached into her skirt pocket and took out a crumpled paper package, filled with hand-rolled cigarettes. She licked her thumb and forefinger and reached in, pulled out two. She fit one between her lips and passed the other one over. “Ready?”
“Yes,” Aiko said, but her heart was beating very quickly. Rumi struck a match against the gravel and held it to her own cigarette. The smoke whipped into Aiko’s eyes, making them water so much she had to close them. With her eyes shut the wind felt colder; the smell of the harbour thicker. She shivered, goose bumps rising on her arms. She was acutely aware of the cigarette between her lips, how her spit moistened the paper, the dust and bitter bite of it, and aware, too, of Rumi sitting very close to her. Their knees were nearly touching.
There was another exhale, a warm gust of smoke in her face, and then a calloused hand was tilting her chin. Rumi was saying, “Inhale.”
Aiko coughed, choking on the smoke. She opened her eyes and lifted the cigarette away from her mouth, blinking away tears.
Rumi laughed again, her voice clear and delighted. “Try again.”
The second time was just as bad, as was the third, and the fourth, and all the times she inhaled until the cigarette was just a stub. Her mouth felt hot and ashy like small embers had made a home in the hollow of her tongue. Her head was swimming, but Rumi looked perfectly clearheaded. She was looking out over the water, where the men brought in the catch and strays – cats, dogs, children – rummaged through the scraps.
At the sound of the machines starting up inside, Rumi looked away and stood up.
“Break’s over,” she said. She jerked her gloves back on, flexing her fingers until the cotton crackled, dried black with blood. Aiko stayed sitting, looking up at Rumi, looking at the way the late afternoon glow glanced off her hair, the bridge of her nose. Her lips were the kind of red Aiko associated with watermelons in the summer, and the gleaming kingyo in the pond behind her old home.
“You ready?” Rumi said.
“No,” Aiko replied, but she forced her fingers back into the gloves anyway, pressing until they stung.
From Volume 2
Selected by Victoria Liao, Fiction Editor, and Elliott Jun, Managing Fiction Editor
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