The Pike’s Heart

In the late afternoon, our pale blue boat slipped away from the bleached wooden jetty. Pekka rowed; Markku picked in slow motion through the jumble of fishing gear. No one in the Ålands uses outboards unless they have to, and the absence of human noise is one of the special virtues of the place. You can hear only the birds, the wind in the pine and birch trees, the oars as they dip into the water.

Tuija and I sat on the jetty and watched the boat slip into a narrow channel of deepish water marked by sticks planted in the fine soft mud below. It wove its way between several islands, some no bigger than the boat itself, others half a mile or so in length, and then entered the narrow corridor that passes through the middle of a reed bed. No doubt Pekka and Markku would be disturbing the oily and agile water rats, sending them skeltering to their muddy burrows in the reeds’ matted roots. The whispering reeds, which rise to six or seven feet, cast the water in rich green shadow and the boat’s blue deepened from eggshell to aquamarine. It became more difficult to see, and then, as the passage turned slightly to the left, disappeared from sight.

We walked back over the rocks, too hot now for bare feet. The wooden sauna hut cast a welcome strip of shadow.

“We just have to wait, now,” said Tuija contentedly. “If you go off, make plenty of noise because I saw snakes this morning.” She closed her eyes, signalling her desire to enjoy solitude; something every Finn understands. Finland is a relatively empty country, but having so much space seems only to create the appetite for yet more, especially in summer. Life in the almost antiseptically clean cities is highly civilized. The freezing, lightless winters necessitate hermetically draught-proofed buildings: layer on layer of concrete, glass, trapped air and insulation between each person and the world. But here, in summer, the horizon stretches away creating an almost limitless sense of space. The light is intense, very white, and the days are long. At midnight the sky is dusky: by three a.m. it is light again.

We have been on the island for over a fortnight now, spending the hours between breakfast and supper respectfully apart; one with the binoculars, another with a book, someone else in the boat.

Only the largest of the hundreds of Åland Islands have names; this one does not. Like many of the others it is owned by a fisherman. The only sign of modernity is the solar panels on our cabin roof. None of the nearby islands are inhabited by human beings, though plenty of birds set up home.

Opposite, a pair of swans have nested. The nest, about a foot high, is as neat as a wicker basket. The swan sits, statuesque, winding her head watchfully through the whole 360 degrees while her mate swims in shallows thick with tiny fish. Our fish, when it arrives two or three hours later is a three kilo pike, muddy green. It has a bony, tapered head and a huge, sulking jaw.

“Go on,” Pekka says to me, “open its mouth!” I’ve never seen a mouth so full of teeth. There are double rows around the edges of the jaw, and then six or seven other rows crossing the roof of the mouth in orderly lines. The teeth are triangular, pointed, hard as bone and sharp as needles. The pike, Pekka tells me, grows new teeth all through its life: as one gets worn down, so another sprouts beside it. Some of them move in their sockets, making it almost impossible for prey to escape.

As if performing a ceremony, we pass the pike from hand to hand and everyone examines it. It still has the sheen of life about it, a green gleam.

“Pike are monsters,” Tuija says, weighing it in her hand. They are the epitome of greediness, she explains. They can eat prey their own size in a single protracted gulp. They are solitary creatures and lurk like death itself in dark places, waiting… the really big ones, which live in the depths of inland lakes can drag you by the line out of your boat or take hold of your leg as you swim after sauna and pull you under. Which is believable: even in death this one looks dangerous. It seems fitting to eat them.

Pekka hesitates with the knife poised where the gullet meets the head. Then he slips the point in, opening the fish from head to tail. The innards tumble cleanly out, bar at the ends, where he has to saw and grapple. The teeth, which continue right into the throat, draw blood on his hands.

“Something else you must see.” Pekka picks through the glistening pile of marbled guts and roe. And there it is, a brilliant pure red blob, perhaps an inch and a half long: the pike’s heart, the engine that drives a killing machine. Pekka clears a space. The heart jerks to one side and then another, unconstrained by the organs normally packed around it.

“See?” Pekka says, “Even though we caught it hours ago!” And as we watch, the pike’s heart seems to twitch even harder, as if it was an entire creature trying to pull itself towards the edge of the hot stone, over it, and back into the sea. When it does fall still, Pekka touches it softly with the edge of his knife and it begins again. Markku rinses the fish and begins to fillet it. You have to admire his skill, but I do tend to admire the pike’s heart more. On and on it goes, despite being separated from its owner, excavated from the cool dark interior of the pike and laid in full midsummer sun on a dry hot stone.

The fish smoker is an old oil drum burnt clean. Pekka and I fill the bottom few inches with chips of alder, then set the fillets of pike on a rack, which we suspend above the wood chips. We seal the drum with a thick, well fitting lid. Smoking is indirect: we set the drum on stones above a small fire of birch logs. It will take about half an hour, or maybe an hour, depending on how much the breeze disturbs the fire. The others are carrying the table and chairs up to the highest point of the island, a flat plateau of pinkish rock which gives uninterrupted views all round. Beer and wine have been retrieved from the cool spot under the jetty. This is to be our last meal on the island and we have been preparing for it, very slowly, all day. Afterwards we will have our last sauna in the wooden hut by the sea, and in the morning we’ll climb into the pale blue boat and leave the place behind for another year.

So at last we sit on our rocky plateau and eat the pike with potatoes and dill. The once fearsome flesh breaks moistly into soft, greenish grey flakes, tasting, beneath the smoking, of pondwater. The sea is, as they say here, greased: flat and shining. On the pinkish grey rock, a succession of yellow and green stripes mark the progressively diminished water levels of recent years. The Gulf of Bothnia: frozen in winter, calm, warm and slightly salty in summer: and perfect for boiling potatoes. We have some salad, a dessert of yellow berries beaten into quark, coffee.

At ten o’clock the sun is still high and golden. Now and then the others lapse into Finnish: it’s a slow language with big flat vowels and a heavy stress right at the beginning of every word, like a heartbeat. And as I watch, a blackheaded gull swoops down over the jetty, seizes something from the stones and rises back into the air. The pike’s heart, I realise, is in the gull’s stomach now. I imagine it beating on, even there.


Copyright © 1994, 2004 Kathy Page

Winner of the Traveller Writing Award 1994