Fernanda’s Fish Soup

by Margaux Vialleron

Nana is always seen with a broom in one hand and a cigarillo in the other. A midi skirt falls underneath the fold of her knees, nickel-like colour and woollen fabric; she tucks a white shirt inside and keeps warm with a loose cardigan, the grey fading in favour of the dark side of green. Her arms cross often, her long hands holding onto the back of her shoulders, blue veins haunting the milky tone of her skin. Nana smells of gardens – woody juice, lotus flower and aromatic bursts – she starts each day with a spray of eau de toilette. The sun left a stain on her skin long ago. Her nails have yellowed in the light of packs of cigarillos, her voice has grown raspier, her thin hair is glued behind her ears with satin hairspray. Extra strength, she nods, the lobs of her ears following the pacing of her speech; large pearl earrings are clipped.

Nana fits wigs on the bold forehead of women who saw illness steal their hair and she perches hats on enchanted heads. She leaves cans of tuna on the side of her front door for the stray cats to find; she shares smoking breaks with the daughter of the convenience store’s owner. She swipes her ashes clean as she moves around. The bell rings often as the postman, customers and friendly visitors step inside her store. A dream catcher hangs on the opposite wall. The shop is located on the Boulevard de la Mer, a quiet avenue during the months of winter and jammed in summertime, Nana rolling the iron shutter open. The building needs repainting, the cement showing patches of mould and graffiti in support of various political movements, writings imbued with the nostalgia of a springtime that has long gone. The shop window gives her business away, mannequin faces showing off what Fernanda can offer. Cloche, derby, fedora hats and ivy caps. She named the shop after herself, not in praise of her person but in lack of inspiration for another name.

On Fridays, Fernanda goes to the market. Trestle tables, wheels of cheese, bottles of oil, seasonal products from the town’s allotments. Children scream at the sight of the carousel, generations meet up in the town hall’s parking lot. Fernanda waves hurriedly, her stare focused on the one stall she has come to visit: a sprinter van. The back door is wide open and the leftovers from their catch of the week are displayed in crates, prices by the kilo written in obscure cursive letters. Fernanda’s lips crack open as soon as she reaches the starting point of the long waiting line. She asks for five hundred grams worth of gurnard, hake and crab, each with heads, bones and gills preserved.

‘Aye Nana, we had a good fishing week.’ He begins to gather her order together, blue fleece jacket, a matching beanie and bitten nails. Fernanda follows him closely with the weight of her gaze, still smiling but her lips touching closed this time.

He clears his throat. ‘The type of sea he’d have enjoyed. Fresh breeze on Monday, gale by Wednesday and cumulus giving the ocean a purple touch. I’ll add a couple of oysters to your order: Brunes de casiers from Talmont Saint Hilaire.’ Fernanda nods and he continues. ‘We weren’t allowed to go out at sea yesterday. Safety measures, they said. We paid a visit to the colleagues in the marshes instead.’ He hands her a shopping bag. She exchanges a bank note against the plastic feel, crackling music playing with the breeze. ‘Cursed gale, aye Nana? See you next week.’

Fernanda turns around, the back of her shoulders jarring with the pressing movement of her legs, stopping at the grocer to pick up carrots, parsnips and onions. When she returns home – a small townhouse at the end of a perpendicular road with the beach – sand has obstructed the pipes. She tucks her cigarillo between her teeth, swiping the pavement and groaning from the bottom of her throat. Cursed winds and sacred tides, Nana mutters. She opens the front door, then the sticky fridge with yellowing seals, before she fishes for the bottle of champagne. She pops the cork and lays out filleting and gutting knives, a white chopping board and a bowl of cold water on the kitchen counter. She scrolls the tuning knob on the small radio and the music begins. Her hips balance slowly, from one side to the other, the front door of the kitchen left open as a witness to the falling sun. If only the radio had caught their screams for help that day, men lost at sea, Nana cooking in dismay in her kitchen. Brick walls, wooden cupboards, a gas hob and a round table at the centre of the room, Fernanda and Roger shared a glass of champagne with a fish soup for dinner on Fridays. La potée chaumoise for when Roger returned from the sea.

In a large casserole pot, she brings water to the boil with bay leaves, thyme sprigs, carrot peels, celery and half an onion. While the broth comes together – flagrant and agitated, jaunty like the water that took her Roger away – Fernanda spikes a hole under the crab’s flap. Nana killed the crab. She smashes up the shell with the help of a rolling pin, preserving its juice, working to a mushy consistency before she draws in another inhale of cigarillo. She fries everything in a separate pan, including the crab shell, pours herself another glass of champagne and exhales a thick smoke. Nana adds tomatoes, stirs well and leaves the meat to cook on a low heat.

She returns to the parcel from the market and extracts the gurnard and the hake fish, laying them on the chopping board. She begins to work meticulously, cleaning, gutting and gilling the animals. A stream of cold water runs through the tap. Roger and Fernanda met after-hours at the bar, the years of the yé-yé music, thick and colourful pearl necklaces, bow ties and derby shoes. Nana cleans the fish, rubbing the inanimate bodies with both her bare hands, cutting the fins off. They danced all night in silence, eyeing up, before they went fishing the day after, talking from dawn to dusk, catching nothing. She scales the animal, holding on to the tail with vigour, scraping with the blunt side of her knife, swiping from tail to head. She repeats the exercise with the second fish. Fernanda never steps back, sliding the tip of her knife into the vent of the fish. Roger was renowned for not finishing his sentences, but Nana knew what he meant to say. She lines the fish, holding gaze, standing firm on her legs, removing guts and entrails. He loved the ocean more than anything else, but her more than anyone else. Both stormy and blue – she can hear him whisper, still. She scoops the fish kidney before rinsing the cavity under a continuous stream of calm and clean water. He is the one who told her about the winds that rock the coast of Vendée, westerly gusts most often, fertile, humid weather as a consequence. Fernanda cuts the fish heads, precisely where gills and spines meet, with the delicacy of a woman who handles pins and needles. When Roger was still alive, she sewed back his anorak and jumpers with recycled hat ribbons and other materials from her shop. He stood with impatience while she took his measurements.

Nana adds the cleaned fish heads and bones to the pan, and she smashes them up. She mixes the preparation and transfers it into the simmering broth. She serves herself another flute of champagne and throws a gulp into the casserole, another glass of Roger’s favourite cognac; she gives the soup a stir. They stood in the courtyard outside the kitchen door after dinner, between drying cords of laundry and with a liqueur café in their hands, counting stars in the rush to guess tomorrow’s weather, the knowledge that a storm will always come as a surprise thrumming in their ears. Nana brings everything to the boil again. She read in the encyclopaedia that drowning is a form of death by suffocation. The lungs fill up with water, becoming heavy and oxygen falling to reach the heart. Roger loved reading; the lines on the pages distracted him from the experience of land sickness, something few people knew about him. He collected paperback editions of the Americans who wrote about their travels, beats from the other side of the Atlantic he sailed. Slowly, Fernanda waves her hips as she lowers the heat and leaves the soup to cook gently. There is nothing that can be done – she will need to skim off the scum at the surface.

She fillets and pin-bones the fish in the meantime, the palm of her hand pushing against what is left of the skin, the cold edge of the knife chilling her blood. Leftover scales stick against the rubber feel of the chopping board, sparkly confetti, sad testimonies of what life was once. Roger, his asymmetrical beard, the dragging sound of his voice when he pronounced the letter ‘B’, the pragmatic answers he gave to Fernanda’s problems, his glass eye, and his charismatic wink. With her fingers firmly placed on the blunt edge of the knife, Nana pokes the fish through its back. She follows the spine carefully, slicing and keeping the fish in a parallel line, she peels the side out and repeats the process a second time. She cuts each fish into six small pieces and seasons them with salt and pepper. She swipes the scales and bones that fell on the floor, sticking in-between the tiles, rendering a melancholic smile on Nana’s face as she remembers her fear of stepping on the flooring’s joints when she was a child. A curse for bad luck, she dared think.

The bottle of champagne is finished, and she strains the broth into a bowl. She rinses the casserole and returns the filtered broth to the boil. What did he remember last? Her research was inconclusive about when cerebral activity ceases in the case of drowning. She adds cubed carrots and parsnips to the soup and leaves the vegetable to cook until soft, then she poaches the fish gently. The testimonies from Roger’s fellow fishermen about that day’s events summarised as a blur. ‘It all happened so fast’ is what they said. Nana covers the casserole with a lid and allows herself to sit for the first time today. ‘The visibility was poor. Water was coming through at port and starboard sides. Signal was lost at 08:42’, the official statement reported. At the table, Fernanda crushes a garlic clove with a good pinch of salt in a mortar. She adds the yolk of one egg and begins to beat the preparation until she reaches an emulsion; another shell cracks and she adds the second yolk. She beats, faster, beating, fastening. She pauses. A drop of olive oil and a tear of water, she continues to beat until the mixture thickens into an aïoli. She tastes and then she adds the juice of half a lemon.

Dinner is ready. Nana dresses the table with the casserole in the middle: one bowl on each side, she pours a ladle of fish soup in each, a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, fresh parsley, and a spoon of aïoli to serve.

Smoky, Roger would have commented after blowing over his first mouthful. Nana is always seen with a cigarillo tucked between her fingers, her yellowing nails and stormy eyes, a broom in the other hand, transforming ashes into ghosts. Regardless of how much aïoli is melted inside, Fernanda’s fish soup tastes of cold fire like a curse. Roger went out to sea every day until the ocean captured him, but Fernanda does not know how to swim.

Fernanda’s Fish Soup was published in the September 2022 print edition of Harper’s Bazaar. (c) Margaux Vialleron, 2022.