Without the sound of the conch shell, every memory of my childhood would be incomplete. The fishermen used them to summon the villagers, long deep echoes rolled from the sea at dawn and rolled away again, sinuous and spellbinding.
My grandfather and I were always the first to rise. He’d been a fisherman once, not the kind that went out at night with their boats and returned with more fish than they could eat. He once stood in rivers casting handmade lures back and forth, hoping that something, anything would bite. The years had crept up, as they have a habit of doing, and drained him. And like the other villagers, he began to make his way to the makeshift fish market, twig basket in hand and me in tow.
At the mouth of Penance River, the molasses from the rum factory ran thick as – well molasses – and met and muddied the seawater. Wooden fishing boats lay on the sand, listing on their sides like beached whales, their catch displayed in colorful nets and weighing scales. And everywhere were the echoes of the conch shells, the cries of seagulls, the smell of fish guts and molasses, and the deep guttural song of the fishermen:
The fish is fresh and plenty,
The sea done did us well,
So, bring your coins, bring twenty,
We braved much heavy swells.
There is a simple way to scale and clean a fish. My grandfather taught it to me when I first started going to the market with him. I’d watch as he scraped his knife from the tail to the head, removing the sparkling scales in quick motions, always avoiding the sharp fins. The sound was as rhythmic as maracas. He’d then insert the tip of his knife into the fleshy belly and slice it open, seagulls swooping down to claim the discarded guts. We did it right there on the beach because fish scales will stick to anything nearby and stay there forever. He’d then rinse the freshly scaled fish in seawater.
According to my grandfather, there were only two ways to cook fish. The first was to boil it so that the bones are soft enough to swallow. Serve it with yam, plantain, or fried breadfruit on the side. The second way, and my favorite, was to fry the fish whole, eyes and all, until it was bone dry. We did this outside in a copper pan filled with charcoal and lit with kerosene oil. It was a ritual that we shared, me stoking the fire while he flipped the fish, our whispers of ‘needs more oil‘ and ‘time to flip’ like a chant to some ancient fish god. It was a moment and a place that meant something to both of us – although we couldn’t have known it then.
Sometimes I still think of my grandfather perched on a wooden stool flipping fish on an outdoor fire. He wears his worn-out fisherman cap, a piece of twig in his mouth, the corner of his eyes crinkled in pure pleasure, and a memory on the tip of his smile—a memory of a time when he would cast his line and catch his own fish.