June 3, 2016

CNF/Essay by Toti O'Brien: "The Salmon and the Bear"

Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Intrinsick, Alebrijes, Entropy and Random Sample, among other journals and anthologies. More can be found at totihan.net/writer.html


THE SALMON AND THE BEAR                                    

So the bear is right, science says, when it eats only the skin, brains and eggs of the salmon and tosses the rest in the underwood—the terrain suddenly constellated with myriads of carcasses, bitten then discarded. Such abundance is blessed, scientists explain: it provides the forest and more distant habitats (where part of the residual is flushed) with the perfect amount of nitrogen.

Let’s assume the bear knows about it: that is why it nonchalantly throws the thing over its shoulder. The behavior would appear quite nasty, otherwise. You can almost hear parents nag: “What are you doing? Think of those poor Biafran kids!” Or, for those unconcerned by world’s hunger and social issues: “Put your trash in the can! Don’t throw it on the carpet!”
Yes, the bears’ behavior looks nasty, but apparently isn’t. Somehow the animals must be aware of the impellent need for nitrogen—that would become despair, if they didn't lavishly distribute maimed fish around.

The first time I learned about it I was shocked. It was long ago, and Internet didn’t exist. You could not type in questions and find answers… a profusion of data, though—look!—often incomplete. Bites of data, savory enough.
Long ago I learned about bears and salmons: the mere facts, without theory justifying them. Those facts struck me, as I said, as unexplainably ugly.
Till then I had nurtured a naïve myth about nature being wise, knowing what it was doing, doing things with a purpose. I took nature as a model in order to orient my actions. For the first time I wasn’t sure. Or indeed I was: I would not act as a bear.
I’m thrifty. I am careful. I respect all parts of beings and things. I think every little bit should be treasured. I was raised that way: country-style. I would not throw away a single piece of potato skin. Certainly not a whole salmon.
Are we kidding? Salmon was a kind of dream in my family. I don’t think I ever tasted it until I turned eighteen. The first time I saw a piece on the table, it was proudly brought back by my brother—who had taken his first job as a waiter in a beachside club. The whole summer—three solid months—he worked, brother. He returned to exact my dad’s accolade, a formal welcome into the adult-responsible-productive bunch.
Brother had saved like crazy, during those sweaty beach days. Then he had bought (certainly a restaurant bargain) a large slice of smoked fish to leave us spellbound. We kept it in the freezer (that it almost fully occupied), religiously wrapped in foil, waiting for the canonic occasion (Christmas or New Year Eve) when it will be a coveted centerpiece, its bright hue contrasting with a dark bed of fresh greens.

In spite of this late culinary introduction I loved salmons since childhood, because of their color—that happened to be my favorite. I know it is strange… I acquired the taste, very early, enthralled by a particular shade I couldn’t define, but I found exquisite. “What color is this?” I asked to the passing-by adult. “Salmon pink,” a smart and precise soul answered. I was hooked... I found the definition quite magical.
Those fishes—that I never had seen, or eaten—gave the color a pulse, an exhilarating aliveness. They gave it the salt of the sea, the foam of tall waves, the smell of iodine and the thrill of summer.
Soon I forgot the pink and just kept the salmon. What color do you like? Salmon. Salmon. Salmon. I guess I had found an identity throughout rivers and oceans, an aquatic alter ego: traveler extraordinary, athletic, adventurous, brave, more than all willing to swim upstream. A contrary spirit, like me.

But I also loved bears. A lot. They didn’t scare me: they could be domesticated. They could dance, that I specially appreciated. They liked honey, as I did, so I empathized. In nursery rhymes they always played friendly roles. I could sew stuffed ones to cuddle against at night. That I often did.
Probably that is why the bears’ disrespectful attitude towards salmons hit me twice. You aren’t happy when things you love don’t love each other. Such phenomenon throws reality out of balance.

Lazy, lazy fellow… I so much wanted to insult the bear, that I imagined sitting on a rock (a huge one, flat and smooth, jutting into the water) gingerly sweeping its paw at the very surface, where trillions of crazy salmons rush—unaware, blind, obsessed with a monomaniac frenzy: go home, have sex and make babies. It’s true that, once done, they’d die anyway… At least they would be done: that’s what they truly want! It’s a matter of the greatest importance.
The bear breaks their momentum. With a slow, arched motion, with the ennui of a grand lady lighting one more cigarette, it cuts short the salmon’s élan.
Hop: it grabs it, crunches on the brains, then launches the remnants (should we call them so? this soon?) a bit farther. A yawn, then once more: hoopla! Didn’t I have a glass? Where did my whisky go? Would you pour me another? Thank you, dear.
Lazily, the bear pops fish like peanuts. The bears: all of them, scattering around a proportional spread of corpses, alas.

Scientists say the bear demonstrates an economic behavior, while uniquely picking the fattest, most caloric bites, avoiding extra meat it doesn’t need at the moment. Sure. That suggests one could scoop the frosting off all cup cakes in the tray, or pillage the raisins from a dozen panettoni, leaving sorts of giant gruyeres behind. And why not?
Why not? If opportunity presents itself, why wouldn’t you fill your appetite only with the easiest to get and most enjoyable to taste? For humans a question arises: who would then suit himself with the less savory, more effort requiring and time consuming leftovers? If the soil and water gladly suck the surplus of nitrogen, who is going to eat the insipid, less caloric unraisined dough?
Believe me: there will be takers. Someone who never saw a panettone before. Someone who wouldn’t know there should be raisins—chocolates—nuts—dried apricots—candied ginger roots—in the holes. Someone will chew the spongy thing and be grateful. You know this, do you? Of course.
There’s no blame. The fortunate who arrived first and licked the frosting is happy. The latecomer who found the bold cake might be just as contented, in the end. All is relative.

I understand there’s no morality involved. It’s ok if the bears have a feast, once a year, when salmons crowd the river. It’s ok if they occasionally binge, make a mess and do not pick up: a bunch of vegetal and lower animal cells will profit of such momentary untidiness.
Thus nature is wise, scientists declare. Nature is a model to follow and trust.

Still I don’t like what the bear does. I don't want to be like the bear. Absolutely not. Give me that piece of salmon.
Yes, that one, the one you just put behind your fork. Under the lettuce. Close to the olive pit. I want it. It’s ok, I am not picky. Give it to me.
What? I’m not hungry, thank you: this was plenty. I just really like salmon. Funny… I know… I can’t stand to see a bite go to waste. An old thing. An odd thing. A quirk of mine.
I can’t forgive what is done to the salmon.

Bear: I would like for you to reconsider. Please. I know you have reason on your side. Lots of reasons. indeed. I still ask you to reconsider.
Think about it, if you can. Whenever you can. In your own time, of course. I mean, at your earlier convenience, bear.
~Toti O'Brien 

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