By Russell Fee
Lake Superior whitefish: mild, delicate, succulent, the meat parting in sweet-scented flakes at the lightest touch with a fork, its slow melt in the mouth. Delicious when prepared breaded, battered, buttered, pan-fried, baked, smoked, or served as a dip or sandwich. He’d loved whitefish every way and with everything since his first taste. Not so her, and that had been a surprise. She wouldn’t eat it; refused to even taste it. Her reluctance to partake of such a culinary gift almost severed the stem of their budding relationship before it flowered. Nonetheless, he had persisted in his pursuit of her.
Both had gone east for school: she from LA and he from Marquette, Michigan. They’d met at the end of their sophomore year, and then she had gone to Ireland for her junior year abroad. They had reconnected their senior year and were inseparable from then on: graduation, marriage, graduate school, settling in Marquette, a home on the southern shore of Lake Superior, professorships at Northern Michigan University. No children. They’d tried but eventually realized that the two of them were enough for each other, that they each had not really wished for more. They agreed on almost everything, everything but whitefish. But her resistance to this delicacy eventually became the source of a loving tease between them.
“She’ll have the baked whitefish and I’ll have the chopped salad,” he would say to their server at their favorite restaurant. And when their orders had been placed before them, they would each slide their plates across the table to each other with gentle ceremony and an accepting smile. The well-worn joke became a way of uniting them through the one thing that set them apart.
The memory of the evening she suggested they dine out is now a reel of every detail that loops over and over in his mind: their stroll to the restaurant, the lake’s shimmer of moonlight, her hair tousled by the breeze, the dress she wore, the seating at her favorite table, the muffled chatter of the guests, the tattoo of silverware on porcelain and china. He’d been tired that evening and had almost dispensed with their joke when the server had asked for their order, but her look of bemused anticipation had changed his mind.
“I’ll have the chopped salad,” he said, “and she’ll have the baked whitefish.” She smiled, then smoothed the lap of her dress with both hands and sat up straight before taking a sip of her wine. He remembered they had chatted and laughed over the silly moments of the day until the fish and salad arrived. He was about to push the plate to her when she leaned forward and touched its edge. “No,” she whispered.
He knew then what it meant as she dined on whitefish for the first time. It was a gift from her that spared him the words he could not bear to hear. It was her goodbye. The cancer had metastasized. Their time together would end.
Afterwards, when his grief had turned to gratitude for their life together, her simple act of love made whitefish a meal that would forever bring her back to him.
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Russ Fee is the author of the award-winning Sheriff Matt Callahan mystery series. The second book in the series, A Dangerous Identity, won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary with a BA degree in English. Russ began writing in earnest after careers in law and teaching.
He and his wife, Joan, are dual citizens of the United States and Ireland. They now live in the Upper Midwest, which they love.
To learn more about Russ and his work, visit his website at outerislandpress.com.