“Two Tins of Dried Smelts” by Garry Engkent14 min read

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Illustration by Anderson Lee

When my mother passed away and left her old house in my care, I was lost. My childhood home was to be swept of all possessions so that the place could be sold. There was so, so much musty, lingering stuff. Each dust-encrusted item held deep sentiment and deeper memories.; memories of a time, of a place, of a situation. As I looked, some came immediately, some took a moment to recall, and some crept into consciousness and clarity much, much later. Then my thoughts would gush from head to heart, and I burst into deep crying.

Ahmah was not here physically anymore, but her spirit permeated everything. And I was here to remove everything. Sell it. Give it away. Toss it into a garbage bin. I was to wipe out a lifetime. Hers—and mine.

Hidden in the innermost reaches of the cold cellar shelves were two tins, one rectangular and the other circular. These containers still had faintly recognizable colourful, oriental floral designs. They must have been stored here for decades, ever since my parents and I first moved to this home. The tins had a thick coating of grey dust and cobwebs. On the top of each tin, written on strips of Band-Aid adhesives, were three rows of Chinese characters. I recognized our family name in my mother’s handwriting. 

I held and stared at the two tins for a very long time. 

Should I open them? I did not want to desecrate anything.

I shook one of the containers. Things inside rattled. Brushing off the dust, I opened the rusted lid. Inside were desiccated smelts, little fishies, bigger than shiner minnows, but not quite the size of a sunfish or rock bass. Each was five inches long. Some had been broken up by time, or by my shaking of the oblong tin… They had the smell, not of rot and decay, but of preserved oldness.

“Everybody puts things in freezers to keep,” I remembered saying then.

“Freezer cost money. No keep for long time,” she replied. “Fan gwei way. Not Chinese.”

Ahmah believed in the old country tradition of storing food items. “You never know when food would be scarce in famine or war,” she would repeat. “Even in Gum San, Canada. Dried goods could keep for weeks, months, or years until needed. That’s why I had your father build a cold cellar soon after we moved to this house.”

I remembered the time when we went smelt fishing. It was early spring and the weather was still cold but the snow had melted. I was six and a half years old and had been in Gum San for about a year after my mother and I were permitted to emigrate from Hong Kong. My father was an avid fisherman in his spare time and he wanted to acquaint his son with life here in the western world. After a hard winter, he wanted to show me what spring was like.

We were going to Parry Sound, off the Georgian Bay area, some 150 miles southwest of Thibeault Falls. There would be a smelt run that week. The mature fish were ready to spawn, and my father did not wish to miss this harvest. He had been doing this annually even before WWII when a customer at the Panama Café introduced him to this sport.

“It is easier than catching pickerel or pike with a fishing rod,” he said. “You just run a net in the river and scoop up the smelts. No limit on smelts. We can have bushels in less than an hour.”

I nodded readily. All winter I was cooped up either in the restaurant doing chores or at school learning English. This was my first chance to get out and go somewhere, to ride for a long distance in my father’s Oldsmobile.

“It’s about a two-hour drive,” my father informed us. “The smelt run won’t really start until nine so we’ll be leaving at about six. Lots of people there. Like a big party!”

“All this is done in the dark?”

“Of course. I have Coleman lanterns,” my father assured her. “Use naphtha lighting, brighter than a flashlight. Can see the paths easily.”

“Maybe I should come.” Ahmah looked at me with worried eyes. I was the only child here in the family. She was 40 when I was born.

I was afraid that I would lose my chance at fun. Adventure. Something to contribute to the class when it was time to “Did it and Tell it.” I was sure that none of my classmates had ever gone to a smelt run in Parry Sound. On a school night at that!

The smelt run in Parry Sound was an annual event that brought all sorts of people together. Some came to socialize as they would in winter ice fishing, the comradery, the drinking and carousing, the good times. The smell of beer and whiskey was strong and my mother commented on the rowdiness of the smelt fishermen and women.

My father had a hard time finding a spot to park the car. He muttered that we should have come earlier. 

“You don’t want to lug a bushel of smelts to the parking lot or even up the rocky incline,” he explained. “I hope to fill five or six bushels.”

“I’m strong,” I said confidently.

“A bushel of wet, writhing smelts weighs more than you,” he laughed. Then he started netting the mounds of smelts into bushels. I wanted to do that. Easier and faster than just fishing on the wharf.

“Be careful,” my mother warned, “don’t slip on the wet rocks.” 

With a net in hand, I scampered ahead, jostled into the crowd, and found a spot.  I extended my net into the rushing waters of the river. 

“This is fun!” I cheered.  

And then I fell into the frigid river. I was still holding onto the pole that held the net that held a massive amount of squirming smelts. I didn’t dare let go of my very first catch. I didn’t dare let go for dear life. I didn’t dare let go for fear of what my father would say about losing his net. 

“Let go of the net, kid!” someone shouted. I did so but the strap around my wrist held on. I was pulled deeper into the river. The water was frigid. I took in a freezing mouthful. I could feel the iciness soaking into and through my boots, pants, and jacket. 

I felt hands grab at my flailing arm and then a big splash. The person trying to catch me slipped and fell deep into the water. It was Ahmah. She held onto me as the other rescuers grabbed and pulled us to safety.

Ahmah was wet. I was cold and wet. My father was furious. He had wanted a few more bushels before packing up and we had ruined it for him. My mother tried to give me more warmth as she bundled me closer to her in the backseat of the car. But we were both soaking wet. We shivered together. I could smell the fresh smelts, even in the trunk of the car.

When we got back to the Café, Ahmah hustled me to the upstairs apartment and changed my wet clothes. Ahmah told me to go to bed. But once dressed in dry clothes, Ahmah and I went downstairs and unloaded the bushels of smelts, some still writhing and jumping, into the big basins. There was work to be done and the smelts just couldn’t be left in the walk-in fridge. They had to be cleaned for the luncheon special the next day so she, my father, and the late-night cooks worked on the piles of smelts. 

Each smelt had to be individually processed: snapping off the head with the thumb and index finger, and then pulling out the guts. There were hundreds, if not thousands, in those big bushels we brought back. Then they were washed and placed in containers and stored in the fridges. 

The next morning, my mother was clearing the last bushel of smelts. This time, though, I noticed that she did not snap the heads off. Rather with a small knife, she gutted the bellies and cleared the innards. That completed, she marinated these fish in brine.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked a few days later when she drained the salted smelts from the brine.

“Dry them.”

“Where?”

“On the roof,” she said. “You can help.”

The roof above the restaurant was flat. There was the brick chimney rattling aluminum exhaust outlets and some odd, wooden crates that somehow somebody left up there. Mainly, the roof had thick tar paper and an abundance of rough pebbles to aid drainage. Ahmah brought up some meshes and used the crates to suspend the wired meshes. Then showing me what to do, she began placing the brined smelts in rows. 

“We turn them over in a few hours,” she said. “Good sunlight today.”

She looked up in the cloudless sky and saw a flight of seagulls and other birds. A few had the audacity to swoop down and feast on the smelts. At first, she flailed her arms about to scare away the birds but later found a wooden switch which proved to be a little more effective. But the hungry birds persisted. At the time it seemed fun so I joined in at shouting and running about the meshes, scaring the birds away. When Ahmah had to go down to do her work in the restaurant kitchen it became my chore.

In the evening, she gathered up the drying smelts and took them in small boxes down to the walk-in fridge for the night. The next morning, she spread the fish again. Her battle with the birds was constant but new obstacles came about. Flies. Some of the less brined smelts were beginning to draw all sorts of insects. In abundance.

“I hope the health department doesn’t get wind of this,” my father commented. It was his way of expressing disapproval.

The weather held up and the sun was strong enough that before the week was out the smelts were dried to Ahmah’s satisfaction. She chose the best and used recycled tins that housed almond cookies and other Chinese pastries from Hong Kong to stack and pack the smelts. I recalled that there were more than two tins.

But today, in this storage cellar, there were just these two left. More than four decades old.

Saved for a rainy day. 

Saved for a time of famine. 

Saved now for—just holding on.

I looked again at the Chinese characters on the circular tin more closely. Earlier, I had assumed both tins bore only my name. This was not so. I slowly came to make out my brother’s name. 

Yuan.

Ahmah had left each of us a tin of dried smelts.

My ten-years older brother. My adopted brother whom I had not seen since Ahmah and I flew away from Hong Kong when I was five to come to Gum San, the Gold Mountain, Canada. Yuan was left behind because the Canadian government would not permit non-blood relations to join an emigrating family. We left him, according to Ahmah, in tears on the tarmac at Tak Kai Airport. A cousin held Yuan back as he cried, “Ahmah, Ahmah, don’t leave me!”

He was not abandoned. Well, not totally. He was given to the care of clan relatives who received monies for his room and board. Initially, my father sent money regularly. Ahmah remained in contact with regular letters.

“We can buy papers,” Ahmah suggested to my father. “Old Wong is willing to sell his for $3000, maybe even two and a half.”

What Ahmah wanted was illegal but widely practised hush-hush in the Chinese community. The document was a legal piece of paper—of a sort. In the past, the Canadian government permitted residents who returned from China to claim that during the trip they sired children, usually a son or two. In reality, the sojourners had not but that declaration was documented and the falsification on paper was “legal.” This “paper son” document could be sold by the holder or on the black market for inflated sums.

“No.”

“Why?” she asked. “Is it the money? I will work longer hours to pay it back.”

“No.”

“You don’t want to do something illegal? You are afraid—”

“No.”

“Then, why, husband?”

“I already have a son here.”

“You were very willing for me to adopt Yuan back then.”

“That was during the war. I could not return to start a family.” 

“Yuan is family. My son! Your son! Our son! I gave him a name. Yuan. He completed us as a family then; he completes us now.”

My father broke my mother’s heart that day. She never recovered. Over the years the pain of separation, of loss, of a mother abandoning a beloved child was always in her heart, in her mind, in her soul. There would be letters and occasional photographs of him in Hong Kong. He was growing into manhood without a mother. In all these pictures, Yuan bore a solemn face and sadder eyes.

As the weeks, months, and years passed, I began to remember him less and less. Yuan became a phantom brother. I heard about him only from Ahmah. He was not there when I was bullied at school. He was not there to lighten the burden of chores at the restaurant. He was not there to share in the moments of happiness, ever so few. I was forgetting him. Growing up, I thought of him ever so little.

Yuan, my brother, thought of me though. When I graduated from university he sent me a gift. A set of expensive pens, to celebrate the occasion. To him, I was still the baby brother he cherished.

“He is gone,” Ahmah informed me matter-of-factly one day. Then, tears flowed down her face. She became inconsolable, almost perhaps even more so than when her husband, my father, died some years ago.  

In her hands was a letter. I saw that it was a returned post. I recognized the address and my own handwriting in English. She supplied the Chinese. The envelope was unopened but scorched brown on all four corners. According to Ahmah, that was a way to inform the recipient that the addressee no longer lived there, no longer alive.

Yuan had a life of 48 years. 

I had Ahmah for 38. And still did for another five.

Yuan did not. 

What was his life like in Hong Kong? Did he feel happiness, even joy, for a few occasions? What would have been his life had he lived in Canada? How would that have changed all our lives?

More than loss, more than sadness, guilt and shame washed over me. I had become my father, denying a bond between Yuan and me by just not caring. I hardly ever asked my mother how Yuan was doing, what my brother was doing as he was growing up, as he was living in Hong Kong. I recalled the times that Ahmah read his letters. She held back the tears but her face and hands trembled. Things were not going well. And I kept silent, not really wanting to know.

Now here alone in a stark, cold storage room, I shed bitter tears for a brother I never really knew. I wept for my mother and for her loss. I cried for my selfish self.

Ahmah was gone.

Except for her two tins of smelts.

Should I toss the contents into the garbage bin? It was obvious that these smelts could not be kept, cooked or eaten. Or, given away.

I went to the cemetery. I dug a deep hole near the marble headstone—between the graves of my father and mother—and buried the two tins of smelts.  

Closure.

So I hoped. 

Over the years, there are many times when I hear dried smelts in dusty, tin boxes rattle in remembrance.

 


 

Garry Engkent is a Chinese-Canadian who immigrated to gum san in 1953. He has a Ph.D. and taught at various universities and colleges. He has co-authored three texts: Groundwork: Writing Skills to Build On, Fiction/Non-Fiction: A Reader and Rhetoric, and Essay: Do’s and Don’ts.

His stories have appeared in Exile, Alberta Magazine, Many-Mouthed Birds, SELS Review etc. Most of the stories have a Chinese immigrant slant, circa 1950-70s: “Why My Mother Can’t Speak English,” “Chickens for Christmas,” “Visiting,” “Ten Questions and a Slice of Boston Cream Pie,” and “Mother Came to Visit and Stayed.” His stories “The Bear and I”, “Eggroll”, and “The CNE Canary Cage” were published in Ricepaper recently.

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