*In the Irish Fenian Cycle, the hero Finn McCool gains all the knowledge in the world
when his mentor, the poet Finnegas, catches the fabled salmon of wisdom. The boy is
helping Finnegas cook the fish over a fire when a drop of fat burns young Finn’s thumb.
he lifts his thumb to his mouth, and thus is the first to taste the fish. Finn
becomes the wisest person in Ireland and the leader of the Fianna.*

the summer i was ten, my father took me fishing.

i was far from home and nearly sick to my stomach with the heady out of place-ness of it all. a six week odyssey with a family who were my kin yet nearly strangers, summertime visitors i only clapped eyes on every second July. the day-to-day father i’d longed for all year, present and material but more complicated than my fantasies had prepared me for. plane rides west, then north, way north, on what seemed a tin-wrapped hot dog with a bathroom and a stewardess. on the tundra in the land of the midnight sun.

i played baseball that summer at two in the morning. i had never stayed up past nine in my life. i had never played baseball before.

change is a heady thing, discombobulating and lonesome and free. that summer laid the groundwork for my experience of every major shift period in my life thereafter: i swallowed all those giant empty feelings of being cast adrift in a sea without shape until late in the night, in my bed, they all welled up in a panic like a balloon and i heaved a little.

i was ten. i cried for my mother.

i threw up my stepmother’s pea soup through my nose that summer, and refused to let Ernie Lyall feel me up in the canned goods aisle of the Co-op even though he was a strapping thirteen and said the word “fuck” like it was a good thing. i dragged my youngest half-brother – smaller than Josephine is now – around the prefab northern bungalow on his duck blankie, and drove my other half-brother’s mini-dirtbike into garbage cans until i finally learned to do a wheelie. i learned that the map of Canada wasn’t paper but a vast span of emptiness and tiny square subdivisions all amazingly replicate from the air, like a land of tiny model houses. i saw a field of Alberta canola like neon against the sky and my father called it rape and i was mortified, puzzled, curious. i ate a Yellowknife eggroll the size of my plate. i sang The Rose until my patient stepmother threatened to make me walk the four thousand miles home to PEI.

and i went fishing with my father, on the tundra, north of the Arctic Circle, in the black-fly-infested height of midnight-sun summer. my almost-eight-year-old half-brother and i in a tent that never quite got dark. we watched a herd of muskox thunder by miles in the distance, a swarm of speeding pinpricks that made the earth shake.

we caught char, fresh Arctic char: i know this from the photographic evidence, two children in rubber boots smiling into a camera with bright, silvery fish hanging gilled and gutted from our fingers. i remember the impossibly thick fleshy weight of them, their slippery bodies trying to escape even in death. my smile, gap-toothed, wavers between pride, obligation, and utter revulsion.

for as long as i can remember, i have hated fish. i would as soon eat bugs.

and yet, that night, i bit into the salmony flesh of the char, tender and raw, because it was my duty as a daughter.

my father told us stories of the Tundra Monster in the twilit tent that night, the three of us perched at the top of the world. i remember thrilling with my terror, with laughter, with the light of my father fixed on me like Christmas in July.

in the present, a weekend with old friends from our expat days. between us, five preschoolers. there is smiling, staring at each other in wonder at this bounty of children and wholesomeness and chaos from lives that just yesterday seemed so gin-soaked and littered with ashtrays.

we took the kids into the woods, on a little trail on the back of Dave’s ancestral lands. and we spun our heads back, three of us at once to see Posey in her tutu and her grandmother’s fake plastic pearls chomping heartily away on…something.

three parental mouths opened in unison to say what’s she eating? and then Dave crossed the three steps between him and her in only one and he pried the berry from her mouth. ew, she said.

he grabbed the culprit to ask the internet, once we were back at the house.

baneberry, it said, and his eyes met mine, because nothing that starts with “bane” can really be good. white actaea, a cardiac poison, and then she started to throw up as if on cue, her little body heaving and her blue eyes so much like his boring into mine and i made my gaze as calm and easy and comforting as i could, like the safest place in the world, even if i lied.

we were in the car and then there was an ambulance and for a second i thought i might start to cry and then it was okay, all okay, and the hospital pronounced her free and clear and she got a bear with a paramedic tshirt for her troubles and i realized i miss those days of gin and ashtrays. my fingers twitched.

lucky. lucky.

then, news of my father, from back home on PEI. his motorcycle, smashed.

a driver made a left turn with his head bent away, talking to his son in the passenger seat, and the bike was totalled and the car wrecked and my father, my complicated father, somersaulted over his handlebars to take out the car windshield with his back and then…bounced. he landed on his feet in the grass, a cat.

i caught my breath and felt as if i, for once, had landed myself in the safest space in the world. guilty careless mother, absent daughter, but no matter. absolved, mine house passed over. lucky. lucky.

i am wary of too much luck and i crossed myself and spat and threw salt, all in the temple of my solitary mind, because everybody knows bad things happen in threes.

on our last day of vacation, Oscar goes fishing with his father and grandfather, his father’s father, for mackerel. his first time. the phone rings at the house. his high sweet voice pierces the line even though the wind takes most of his words. i understand he has caught a fish. his first fish.

i understand i will be eating mackerel for supper and i curse, because this, then, is my perfect third for the triad of luck. fear and catharsis, love.

i would as soon eat bugs as fish, even now. but the proud mother of the young fisherman will not let on.

i meet them on the shore, and Dave cuts the shining head from the last of the catch. i watch my son, four and innocent, observe the bloodshed and i think, this boat is your birthright and i wonder at what happens inside a little boy when he watches an animal die for the first time. i wonder at how close we all live to the old law of kill or be killed and i think of sociopaths in barns and attics torturing the four-footed and the eight-footed and i heave a little.

it is not fear. it is the letting go.

until now, i have made for my children as coherent a world as i can, one where the shapes make sense and what they encounter is scaffolded and processed aloud: where people are mostly decent and the lie of safety emanates from my arms, my eyes. they do not lie awake in panic, scrabbling for comfort, for a port that will hold them until the world makes sense again.

i still do.

i know the world is big and cold and strange and luck is a finicky friend, and every time we cast the dice we risk everything we have. i know the path of life will teach my children this eventually, and i shudder with the knowledge, because they will inevitably hurt for it.

i know too, though, that life is full of reprieve and second chances; that we are never as alone as we feel at three in the morning.

and that last night of vacation, i stare at the mackerel, barbecued in its skin, on my plate, and i bite because it is my duty as a mother, and i smile and give thanks for fish.

Oscar with his father and his father’s father, fishermen all, and his first fish