Article 18: A fish in North York

This article won the North York edition of the Ontario Book Publisher's OpenBook What's Your Story prize and was later published in their magazine. 

Since the reigning culinary fashion in Toronto says that eating local is the highest good, and best accomplished with a lot of love in the kitchen, then our city’s culinary heroes are Afshin and Elahe. Afshin is a fifty-year- old construction engineer and he showed up at my house in paint- splattered jeans around 5:30pm on a Wednesday. I got in his Toyota and discovered that he drives crazy, honking and swerving.

Previously, I’ve only met Afshin while walking after dusk in the ravine near my house. In the dark I didn’t expect to see anyone, let alone a plump man silhouetted behind me with a strange contraption. I screamed, I was so startled. And then, intrigued: he had a fishing rod and a murky ziploc with a few small fish. Fish? Here? The creek is tiny, not more than a foot deep. I grew up beside it and thought I knew its secrets. But Afshin told me he catches fish here regularly, and eats them with his family. I never would have suspected this tiny creek to have apparently delicious fish. Not only wise to this, Afshin was also avuncular, jolly through his thick Persian accent. And is there anything more exciting in Toronto than meeting interesting people who do unexpected things, on the fringe, in the dark, probably breaking some official rule? We arranged to meet again and so here I was careening towards North York’s G. Ross Lord Reservoir, where he usually has his best luck.

We arrived and Afshin immediately declared his excitement, yelling over the water “Hello fish!! We are coming for yooouuuu!!” Those fish live behind the dam put here to regulate the West Don River and protect mansions downstream in Hogg’s Hollow -- built foolishly at the bottom of a ravine -- from getting flooded during storms. For a lake that exists to serve mansions, a Muskoka this one is not. Two hydro towers hum within it, and its waters are so brown they look like Tom Thomson rinsed his brushes in it. Its water softly ebbs up against mud shores dusted with garbage. To the west and north is a swath of industrial lands, and some of the water here has surely run through the cemetery located right beside it, never mind the bodies occasionally pulled from it after suicides, murders, accidents. A sign warns ‘Water Polluted No Swimming.’

This is one of those Toronto places where you realize we are settlers here, sloppy and tasteless ones, who created a lake for utility purposes and didn’t plan to use it or love it. But there’s a different society here too: I notice around the lake a bunch of men sitting lazily on folding lawn chairs, well spaced out from each other, smoking and drinking tallcans, with a fishing rod each, and one guy napping between two. Ignore the traffic sound and a man on a cooler in a patch of sunlight by some trees looks lonely warm and rustic like a scene from cottage country. And as planes fly loudly overhead our national identity can snap into focus, this place mixing up pastoralism with industrialization with thoughts of First Nations fishing rivers for food beside these Iranian, Chinese, Caribbean, and European immigrants. Forget the cottage; these bored sons of bitches have here an outlaw town of escape and rusticity, relaxation and the hope for a bit of sport.

A fish jumps out the water, exposing its white belly. “The fish jumped the water to show me the finger! It thinks ‘You’ll never catch me!’ But I get fish,” he says with conviction. “I get fish.” He taps a finger on his forehead, “It’s a mind.” He casts two lines over the water and puts each rod in a holder.

Now there’s nothing to do but wait and talk. He came to Canada five years ago, and his wife and two sons joined him two years ago. “I love Canada, but it is not my home, but if I have to stay in another country, my first option is Canada, it is so beautiful, so multicultural, if you are here you are not foreign, everyone is here.”Afshin and I stand silent for a while just chillin until he asks, “You are the clean boy?” I look over perplexed. He raises an eyebrow: “You are the clean, boy?” I tell him no, I'm not a clean boy. He happily pulls out cigarettes. And then a bag with Budweisers. And a bottle of tequila. Drinking, Afshin now talks about the love of his life. In Iran he used to go fishing with his wife, back when they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They married 23 years ago and were friends for five years before that. He tells me laughing about the time his parents almost caught them in his bed. They stayed motionless trying not to breath on top of each under a blanket for an hour.

Right then Elahe calls. Over speakerphone I hear laughter and talk in Persian. “She love me,” he says, translating, “she says ‘you are drunk?’. I say ‘No!’” He winks. I ask Elahe if she thinks Afshin will have luck today fishing and Ashfin butts in, “I’m not lucky for fishing, I’m just lucky I get my wife!” Elahe laughs and one of the fishing rods jangles. “Excuse me!!!” says Afshin with urgency and tossing me the phone he goes off scrambling to the line. “Oh woah! Yes! We got fish! Hello baby! Come on! Woo hoo!” The line is teardrop shaped as Afshin brings it in.

Frantic splashing at the surface of the water and then a small fish, less than a hand’s length, gets pulled out. It glinted and glistened, slithered and slapped. “All for you! All for you!!” Afshin says, handing it to me. The fish takes a long time to die inside a grocery bag, and every time I think it’s dead it jumps again.

An hour later we get a small catfish-like fish. Apparently it’s not tasty and they’ve bitten him. Ashfin asks the Chinese guy near us, who hasn’t caught anything, if he wants it. He doesn’t want it either. We almost catch one more fish, which falls off the line. “It was a big one. Shoot!” yells Afshin. It gets darker, Afshin talks about his love of Ernest Hemingway. I tell him that Hemingway lived in Toronto for a bit. Yesterday he caught two fish, and two days ago he caught five. After a little bit longer without any bites, it’s dark, and time to go cook.

We go to the nearby apartment Afshin lives with Elahe and their two sons, playing video games in a plexiglassed balcony that's become a bedroom. Elahe is happy that Afshin had a little luck fishing, because her friend had broken a leg that day, and her son hurt his finger. “My friend was like, you need to do something to break the cycle of bad luck, so she gave me a dollar to give to the poor, and as I crossed the street to give the dollar to a man on the road, a car hit the person where I would have been.” She tells this story as she scrapes off the fish’s scales. Then she cuts the fish open and pulls the guts out. Salt and pepper get sprinkled inside, outside is dusted with paprika, and it’s popped into a cast iron skillet of bubbling hot oil.

Afshin watches Elahe cook, and says: “Everything in my life is her.” They kiss. Elahe, who laughs as much as Afshin but is less silly and more witty, is a hairdresser in Toronto and taught

English in Iran. “His house was an half an hour away but he got to mine in like 10 minutes. He was crazy to come over and see me. The moment he saw me he was in love with me.” Afshin laughs and they kiss again. She takes the fish from the bubbling oil, perfectly fried. Elahe also cooks two fish that Afshin caught yesterday. The fish is delicious, delicate and sweet, with just enough fat and melted bones. I understand why people all over the world are always trying to get hold of fresh fish. I eat all of it except the eyes. Elahe, who loves watching Rachael Ray, serves it with a pumpkin-seed cranberry salad, a tapenade of jalapenos and olives, and broad beans. Dinner talk is family, the Iranian nuclear deal, poetry, movies. Afshin bungles a long joke, which only makes it that much funnier to him so he’s slapping his knees. Dessert is tea, and nuts with sugar. We all have many shots of a Persian liqueur. Elahe pulls me into the kitchen and opens the freezer: it is filled exclusively with Afshin’s catches. They eat a few each week. Elahe: “I told him don’t get the really small ones anymore.” Sharing a cigarette, they wash dishes together, and Afshin tells me that he plans to go fishing again tomorrow.

--David Stokes