Michael Harding: The brutal killing of a fish brought it all home

In a few moments the fish had been filleted into two halves of white flesh, from which a pastel of pale-pink blood seeped out on to the floor

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

I met a woman who loves trees on the top of a mountain recently. It was a hill walk across Slieve League and we met on the bus that carried us and the other walkers all the way from the village of Carrick, near Killybegs, to a remote beach where the 12km walk began.

I was drawn to her because of the beautiful way she spoke about trees, always describing each one as female.

“Look,” she said, suddenly, “Do you see that one?”

“Yes,” I replied, gazing out the bus window at a big Scots pine.

“Isn’t she beautiful?”

She never said “it”. She always said “she”. And I was speechless with admiration for her.

“There was a tree near my grandfather’s house in the country when I was a child,” she continued, “and she was such a big old tree that my sisters and I would join hands and stretch ourselves all the way around the trunk and hug her.”

When we got out of the bus she looked very fit in her tight hiking trousers and her rain jacket as we unloaded rucksacks from the back of the bus and headed down cement steps to the beach where the trek began.

Terrifying heights

There were moments when I was terrified of the steep, rocky inclines because Slieve League is not just beautiful, it’s really very high. But as we crossed the bogs and edged up the rocky pathways to cliffs that offered panoramic views of the ocean, I followed her with enthusiasm.

There were about 25 other walkers, and we all opened lunch packs at an ancient monastic site near the top. I had cheese and ham sandwiches and a bottle of water, but she asked me would I like a cup of tea.

I said yes, and so she poured the boiling brew into the lid of her flask and I drank from it as if the teabag-soaked water was a libation from the gods.

“Do you think the young women from Teelin came up here at night to visit the monk?” I wondered.

The woman who loves trees smiled and said, “Maybe the monk went down to Teelin on his days off.” That’s the kind of conversation that is possible on the top of a mountain when the sky and the ocean have loosened the mind into playful contemplation.

After about six hours we arrived at a pier, where there was a boat waiting to take us around the coast and back to the bus, and so we bobbed over the ocean for a further hour, gazing up at the cliffs we had spent the day traversing.

There were gannets overhead, which had probably come up from Skellig Michael to feed, and terns with heads like the noses of small Ferrari cars, and gulls ducking and diving close to the boat in a frenzy.

Then a man with a rod suddenly caught a fish. After it was hauled on board, the fisherman held it by the gill with his finger until we all saw his prize. But the poor fish was panting with fear.

Then someone took a knife and sliced it’s head off, and cleaned out the innards and threw them skywards to the birds.

In a few moments the fish had been filleted into two halves of white flesh, from which a pastel of pale-pink blood seeped out on to the floor.

It was a brutal moment and it reminded me of Tibetan burial rituals, so I closed my eyes and thought about the sentient being that just a few moments earlier had been a beautiful fish, and had now dissolved into the air.

“What are you doing?” the woman beside me inquired.

“I’m meditating,” I said, “because I like fish as much as you like trees.”

Not that I do much meditating since the beloved returned from Poland. All that solitary sitting on a cushion with candles and incense in the mornings goes out the window when I have good company.

So for the past few weeks the beloved and I have been sitting on the porch most mornings if it isn’t raining, listening to magpies cackling in the pine trees.

And it’s amazing how we fit back together after being parted for so long. I suppose a kind of harmony evolves in couples after years spent together, like a strong tree that finds its own balance in the wind. Of course, she is the tree, and I the swirling air around her. Or perhaps she is the delicate air and me the fish dissolving.

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