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Homage to a Halibut Eye: Moth Nature Prize 2023 winner

Libby B Bushell’s story viscerally captures the fishing industry’s grim reality in her native Alaska

I am a dock worker. I am a student of Zen. I scrub fish fillet tables, pick litter, clean up seagull shit. I sit.

“This is fucking slave-labour bullshit,” says Dustin.

“Yeah,” I say. “So, I’ve been reading about Buddhism, and ... ”

He sucks on his cigarette, then flicks it to the ground. It lands near an old salmon skeleton that has been picked apart by gulls and run over by our truck several times.


“You’re on litter duty today,” I say. He pretends not to notice the irony, defiantly leaving the butt smoking where it lies.

On rainy days, our job is slippery and clean. Sometimes, when we are spraying seagulls, it is even fun.

But when it’s hot out, the stench of the dead fish and clam guts mingles with the sweet and sour stink of dumpsters. On those days, the smell permeates my skin, my tongue and my eyeballs. Even my ears seem olfactory as I am overwhelmed by this sickening sensory smorgasbord. Today is one of those days.

Dustin and I are on dumping duty. This means that we have to pick up the trailers that are filled with refuse from the fillet stations, drive them to the fish dock, dump all the carcasses from the trailers into totes. They will then be picked up by a forklift, dropped into the grinder and pumped out to sea as mush. The bottom feeders near the harbour will feast on the grounds, and the tourists who drop their lines 50 feet offshore will feast on those fish, then throw the guts and bones back in the trailers to perpetuate the cycle.

Dustin backs up the truck. With minute movements of my hands, I direct him to line the hitch up with the trailer. A dozen gulls watch us from their perch above the fillet tables. I know these birds. I have sprayed them with my hose many times. A big one, mottled grey with white wing tips, opens his mouth and moans. It’s a low tone, melodic and haunting. They’ve been waiting for us. The gulls all suddenly levitate and then dive-bomb the trailer. We are not armed with our hoses and they are fearless and vengeful. They are mangy. They swoop so close to my head, I can feel the wind from the flapping of their greasy wings. And they scream, all at once, an instantaneous, continuous din. It is gurgly and demonic. “Kraw-aw-aw-aaaaaaah!” they call to each other. They rip apart intestines. They swallow whole eyeballs. “Caw-caw!” They crunch on the little crabs mixed up in the muck of exploded halibut stomachs. “Krah-aw-aw-aw-aaaaah!” They squawk as they carry off scraps and drop them all over the lot. One shits midflight, just missing my shoulder.

“Shut up!” I yell. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” I lock the trailer down, kick out the block and throw it in the truck bed. I jump in the cab, and Dustin drives away, trailing a white cloud of wings and the sound of their screams.

They give up the chase once we pull out of the parking lot. I look back at them bickering over the scraps on the ground.

“It’s like they were waiting for us,” I say. “They didn’t even care about the trailer until we got there. It’s like they’re plotting against us. Or something.”


“Anyways, the thing that I understood about it all was that it can’t be understood, you know?”


“Buddhism. It’s like, beyond words. Like, trying to describe sound through the way it feels.”

Dustin turns the radio on.

“Well, no.” I speak a little louder. “I guess it’s not exactly like that. It’s more like an understanding that, that you can’t understand. Well. I don’t know. It’s all very complicated.”

“Hmm,” he says. He tunes the stereo to the Christian pop station. It’s the only one that comes in clearly out at the harbour. He lights another cigarette and I hang most of my torso out the window to escape the smoke. The breeze feels refreshing and the sun reflects on the bay in a million shimmering ripples. I smile despite the door lock sticking into my side. Dustin is mouthing the words to the song when I pop back in. Smoke curls out his lips as he ooh-ooh-oohs to the greatness of the Lord. He stops when he sees me notice. He takes a big drag in silence, then blows it out, acting cool.

“You love this song,” I say. Snapping my fingers to the beat, I turn it up. He won’t say a word and his lip twitches just a little. “Seriously though,” I turn the music back down. “You should really read some of this stuff I’ve been reading. It’s all about the transience of our lives and our own insignificance and how the realisation of our own insignificance is the most significant thing we can do and, basically, when you really get down to it, all is one. Or something. I don’t know. I think you’d dig it.”

“Shut up,” he says. He’s still pissed I caught him singing a Christian song.

“Whatever.” I lean out the window. A bald eagle flies by. Dustin turns on to Fish Dock Road and I realise what I was trying to say.

“It’s like, your own life is a part of everyone else’s. Because you only exist in relation to others. So like, I am not you, but I am a part of you, and you are a part of me, simply because of our coexistence. And in that way we are one, and then you extend that to the trailer and the seagulls and the tourists and the sun and everything else and that’s kind of how you’re supposed to understand that all is one. Every moment, every sensation, every emotion, and object and word, they’re all related and so they’re all the same thing. It’s infinite. But it’s more than that. Because infinity is a word, and words are just part of the whole infinite thing, and so to really understand it, to really know the infinite, you can’t say it in words. You have to just feel it. Just be...”

“Why don’t you shut up?”

“... silent.”

We step out of the truck. There are normally a hundred seagulls here, squawking and screaming and carrying on as they do. But today there are none. It is unnervingly quiet. And then the smell hits us. Dustin gags and I pull my shirt up over my face.

It’s been hot for the last week, which is unusual here in Homer, Alaska. It only takes one day of hot weather for all the maggots that have been incubating in forgotten slime pools to hatch. Normally we can keep them under control with copious amounts of illegal bleach. But today is different.

“What the fuck is this?” says Dustin. Two dozen totes, overflowing with festering salmon refuse, are sitting on an 18-wheeler by the grind shop.

“Cannery’s grinder’s down,” says one of the grizzly fish dock workers. “Broke six days ago. They’ve been waiting to fill up the flatbed before trucking it down here. Cheap motherfuckers.”

“So these have just been sitting out in the sun for the last six days?” says Dustin.

The fish dock man nods.


Thick blood oozes out a hole in one of the totes. It has already formed a sizeable puddle on the pavement that is squirming with gleeful little maggots. The air suddenly feels thick and orange. Dustin’s occasional dry heave is the only sound that disrupts the quiet lapping of the waves against the docks far below. My plastic all-weather gear sticks to my legs and arms. Sweat trickles down my back and my face itches and burns.

“Let’s just hurry,” I say, gagging from opening my mouth.

When the dumping mechanism on the trailer gets stuck halfway, I kick the wheel of the truck. The smell has made it hard to breathe. The heat has made me angry. Dustin has to climb up and rake the rest of the corpses down because the evaporative effect of the sun on their bile and flesh has produced an adhesive goo that is stronger than gravity. Dustin swings the rake. What was a giant halibut dislodges from the bottom of the trailer and comes slipping right across the top of the tote and on to the pavement. Dustin jumps out of the way to escape it but slips on the pile and lands on his back in the slime. The carcass is from a barn door, a breeder. It is too big to lift on to the pile myself, and Dustin is vomiting now. I nudge the fish’s face with my foot. Its cheek, the best meat on a halibut, has been cut away, and there are sinewy strands of white flesh wagging back and forth in the puddle of blood that the incision has made, and I am pissed. This fish should have lived. Its eyeball is the size of my fist. I step on it, expecting a pop, surprised when it holds my weight. This fish was ancient and sturdy before it was caught.

I walk over to Dustin, who is composing himself, and I grab the rusty rake. Returning to the fish, I raise the weapon over my head, am overwhelmed by the stench of the fish totes and cigarettes and men and the horrors that are our daily chores, that are this life as conscious beings on earth, and as I swing it down the sun sparkles off the bay in the distance and I laugh because isn’t it just so beautiful too? A tine of the rake penetrates the eyeball with a sound that feels like the big bang. Mucous oozes, pearly iridescent, from the socket. It is every colour at once. It is infinite and magnificent as the sunlight hits the phlegmy drips that pool on the steaming pavement.

When I look up, Dustin and the fish dock men are staring at me. Nobody speaks because words make you taste, and nobody speaks because there is nothing to say.

Homage to a Halibut Eye by Libby B Bushell, from Homer, Alaska, is the first prize-winner of this year’s Moth Nature Writing Prize. She wins €1,000 and a week at Circle of Missé, a retreat for writers and artists on the banks of the river Thouet in the Loire Valley in France.

“This short story is revolting in its smells and its heat and fishy gore,” says Kathleen Jamie, this year’s judge. “A different sort of nature-writing, literally visceral, it doesn’t tell us what to think but manages easily to horrify us with lived experience and first-hand knowledge of what we’re doing to the oceans. With a black humour, quick-fire dialogue and descriptions, and two characters trying to make some sort of spiritual sense of the world they are enmeshed in, if it doesn’t make you pause and consider what you’re eating and where it came from, nothing will.”

Bushell is the founder of HoWL, a wilderness expedition camp for children. Raised by artists above the cold, shifting sand of the beaches of Homer, where the daily tidal flux is as dramatic as the daylight and weather of Alaska, Bushell has always found inspiration in nature and in change. She studied creative writing at Colorado College, in between weekends of revelling in the Rocky Mountains. She also studied in Wanaka, New Zealand; and Avignon, France, where her fascination with steep, snowy slopes and her romance with language were born.

Bushell works odd hours as a waitress and wilderness guide so that she can spend the majority of her time doing that which gives her inner peace amid this volatile and warming world ‒ skiing and writing. She’s currently revising her first novel, Salty, about love, loss and glaciers