The Cutting-Up

by Michael Rossman

        We're having a big dinner-party, and the fleet's in with fresh tuna. In the morning I go to market and pick out a small one, twelve pounds, bring it home and call the school even though I'm not due in on Tuesdays. It's so nice to teach in a flexible place, where schedules make way for what's special. By two o'clock, the pre-schoolers and first grade are streaming out to meet me as I carry the fish, sheathed in white cloth like an offering, to the wooden deck in the middle of the yard.

        They settle in around me in natural order -- the smallest sitting forward, middles kneeling behind, first-graders standing -- with little urging, as glad as I am to gather for serious purpose in the open together. While we wait for the stragglers, I pass a few props round this small amphitheater: bright-painted plastic models of human and frog anatomy, a pair of big fish-jaws with fuzzy teeth, and the skeleton of some chubby rockfish -- for only our guests tonight will get down to the bone.

        At last the unveiling comes, to a chorus of oh!s and wow!s, and forty hands jostle to touch the glistening scales when I say it's okay. As order returns, we admire the tuna in detail aloud: its colors still glowing, the compact, superbly streamlined body. "He's shaped like a rocket!" several exclaim, with no prompting, for indeed he is, down to the graceful Flash Gordon curve of the taut tail-fins.

        "And why might that be?" I inquire, inviting an answer as clear as water: so he can go fast, a rocket of sorts in the sea. We wave our hands broadside, then again edge-on. Even in the air one can feel a difference. How unstreamlined we are in the water! "So why would he want to be a rocket?" At this timid age, most speculate that it's to get away from danger, but a few think it's to hunt. Both ideas round out the lesson, compact as the fish itself, of how form follows function and function follows need.

        I'm halfway through summing it up in words of one syllable when Josh, an avid aquarium watcher, asks, "How come there's no fins on his sides?" As we wonder whether super-streamlined fish lack them, someone finds a side fin here after all. A flick of the fingernail and it springs out like a jack-knife from its neat side-slot, stabbing us all with delight as we realize how cleverly fashioned for speed is the body before us.

        Reluctant to violate this worship by my own blade, I welcome someone's question about how many people it will feed tonight, and compute for them that this fish could provide almost a full standard can of tuna fish apiece for our whole circle here. "But he's still almost a baby. Really big tuna weigh more than I do." We imagine lunch for a month, until I quell the chuckles. It's time to quit stalling.

        I turn the fish over and take out my small knife, sharpened this morning. Titters arise as some recognize the anus, swell as I start the incision there, crescendo briefly and subside as I make the matter explicit and proper: "Yes, this is his ass-hole, his anus, like ours where we get rid of our waste. Say 'anus'." They say 'anus' together, and I kept the beat going: "You often start a dissection at the anus, cutting not very deep and up, like this."

        Their diverted charge clings to my blade as I carry the neat incision up through the belly membrane to the gills. I cut crosswise to expose them, and pause for explanation. Yes, the fish breathes the water in a way, but how? He takes oxygen in through his gills from the brine as we do from air in our lungs. I can't pause to explain what 'absorb' really means, or how closely the capillary-rich, minutely-subdivided tissues of lung and gill resemble each other, for they're too young and my dinner's flavor is fading in the sun. But at least we can see vividly that blood is involved, and the fine divisions too, as I cut out the bright red gills one by one and hand them round to the less-squeamish while the others press close to look. After a brief break to feel our lungs as we breath, and to imagine what it would be like to breathe without moving them, I prop the fish up and open the belly to reveal the guts. Even filmed with old blood, they're imposing. The children summon their rudimentary knowledge to identify the contents as I spread them for inspection, handing round the plastic models for comparison.

        That strange maroon pyramid, can it really be the heart? How come it's shaped so funny? I cut it open, making exaggerated faces at the toughness of the task. Though the inside's filled with soft clot, everyone can see that there are two compartments. The news that our hearts have four is premature, the mechanics of why being too complex for them. But a few bold ones take my invitation to verify directly for all that this heart is a muscle, and for its size a very thick one. As I trace a few vessels, in this body so poorly equipped by mammalian standards, I ask why, what work has the heart-muscle to do? They are pleased to know already, to pump the blood around, and to hear me extend the idea: It must take a lot of pressure to get through those small tubes in the gills.

        We move on through what's obvious and basic. That big tan squishy thing, what's it look like? "Chicken livers," the gourmets' daughters chirp, and the giggles rise again. "Is it really liver?" someone asks, torn between disbelief and interest. I tell them it is, though it tastes quite different from chicken, despite the commercial slogan chicken of the sea. "It should be very healthy to eat, because it's chock-full of vitamins. But sometimes tuna livers have poisons in them, that they get from eating other poisoned creatures."

        Our talk might bend to the food web, and how predators concentrate the toxins gathered by the grazers. But the gleaming mass of liver has its own weight, keeps us focused on anatomy, and a version again of the notion that form follows function, as I explain that it's so big because it has so much to do. Most know already, with childish awe at the crime, that we've poisoned the deep waters, and the evidence here makes vivid my explanation that one job of the liver is to change or absorb the toxic chemicals entering the bloodstream.

        Another is to make useful chemicals to help the fish digest his food. This leads us on to the short intestinal tract, running straight to the anus, unmistakable in its function, and running straight through from the mouth -- as I try to verify by sticking my finger down it. "Here, someone else try, my hand's too big. Watch out for the teeth, though." Tim gets the bold honor of probing while I show my scrapes. Finally he achieves a small wiggle near the heart, demonstrating the continuity, and withdraws proudly, scraping his hand too. While someone goes to fetch the wet towels I've thought of too late, we look again at the models and feel our own bodies. Here is the liver, just under the right ribs, right below the thumping heart as in the fish, and below it our soft intestines, a skinny tube too but so much longer, wandering, complexly coiled.

        The stomach turns out to be the real prize, though, so white and distended that three children identify it as a penis when I ask, despite its obvious place in the visceral sequence. Indeed, it's turgid enough to make me giggle too at the thought. But when I slit it open we all crow with genuine delight, for it's packed solid with small shrimp, two cups'-full at least, as graphic a lesson as one might ask about food relationships and the bounty of streamlined speed.

        "He must have just eaten!" several observe as I scoop the small bodies out from the corrugated stomach-wall, slimy in their cocktail-sauce of digestive juices. Taking care to preserve the order of their arrangement, I separate a few shrimp out and pass them round for inspection. It's true, most of the top ones are pristine, with even their legs and antennae intact. But in those from where the stomach passes into the intestine we can see the effects of the juices at work, for their delicate figures are dissolving, mushing into slush.

        I cut the thick emptied stomach free and stretch it sideways until the light shines through, to show its capacity and its muscular corrugations, whose function I explain as I hand the organ over to eager hands. The eyes follow quickly, one by one, as big as my thumbs, popping easily from their sockets as I cut the optic nerves, their bright clarity already clouded. But such features are beyond discussion now, for the circle is dissolving in excited chaos -- not only because it's three o'clock already and parents are coming into the yard to pick up their kids, but because the stomach's splendid surprise has climaxed our little drama, bringing the lesson round to its start and leaving the children so charged with excited energy that all most can do to handle it is to run around and whoop.

        Only a few hear my dutiful reminder about washing their hands. As they blow it off, I go after the eyes, mindful that the fish should look presentable tonight, and wrap it again in the white cloth, ruefully feeling its tepid flesh. As I leave, Sarah's mother is coming in the gate, glances quizzically at the blood on the cloth. "Uh, yes," I mutter with professorial dignity, as I sidle by, "we did a unit on fish anatomy today."

        How can I tell her what has actually transpired in the open sun outside the classroom, why her daughter will greet her with stained hands and a scrap of gill, and chatter on all the way home in the car and past bedtime tonight? For we had transcended the social normalcies of schooling, and were back on the grounds of more primordial ritual, of blood and body and an elder of the tribe laying open the mysteries of life to the young.


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