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Jean Henri Fabre


E MILE came to his uncle with a question. "Tell me," he began, "about the cod that has to be put to soak several days before it is eaten, in order to freshen it—isn't it a fish? Yet I don't see any head; and then it's all flat, with the bones showing on one side."



"Yes," was the reply, "the cod is a fish, and a very fine one, too, as it swims in the sea. To preserve it for keeping a long time the fishermen remove its head, which is of little value on account of its bones; then they split the body all down the stomach, throw away the entrails, and spread out the two fleshy halves, forming together a sort of slab, broad at one end and running to a point at the other. Finally, the fish thus treated are liberally salted and put to dry in the sun. So the cod reaches us all out of shape and almost unrecognizable. In its natural state it is a beautiful fish. The back and sides are bluish gray, with numerous golden-red spots like those that adorn the trout of our fresh-water streams; the stomach is silvery white; the upper jaw is prominent, while from the lower hangs a worm-shaped little barbel; and the mouth is armed with innumerable fine, pointed teeth that fringe not only the jaws but also the cavity of the mouth and throat as far down as the bottom of the gullet. And so, as you might guess from its appearance, the cod is very greedy, always in quest of food, endowed with an insatiable appetite."

"And what does it live on," asked Emile, "this greedy eater with teeth down to the bottom of its gullet?"

"It lives on other fish, weaker than itself. It is the most formidable enemy of the small fry, which it devours in enormous numbers. But if it is the terror of the weak, it becomes in its turn the prey of a host of equally greedy eaters. At certain seasons of the year the cod gather in countless numbers and make long journeys to lay their eggs in favorable places. The famished denizens of the deep surround these schools of fish; the hungry inhabitants of the air soar over their course; the voracious occupants of the land await them on the shore. Man hastens to the spot to secure his share of the ocean manna. He equips fleets and sails in quest of the fish with naval armies in which all nations are represented; and what he catches he dries, salts, smokes, puts into cakes, and packs in bales. Every year millions and millions of cod perish in this way, by man's fishhook, by the beak of birds of prey, and by the ferocious jaws of rapacious fish. With such extermination constantly going on it would seem that the end of the cod must be imminent; and yet there is no sign of it: the next year these fish resume their journey in as large numbers as ever."

"Nevertheless," said Claire, "their ranks must in the end become thinner by millions and millions."

"There is no sign of it, as I said before. A cod lays nine million eggs at a time! Where are the eaters that could put an end to such a family?"

"Nine million eggs!" exclaimed Jules; "what a family!"

"Just to count these eggs one by one would take nearly a year of eight or ten working hours daily."

"Whoever counted them must have had lots of patience," observed Claire.

"They are not counted; they are weighed, which is soon done; and from the weight it is easy to estimate the number when it is known how many eggs it takes to make a gram."

"Ha! how easy it is when you know how!" cried Claire. "What would have taken a year of tiresome work becomes the affair of a minute or two."

"One of the favorite rendezvous of the schools of cod is the neighborhood of Newfoundland, a large island of the seas that wash the eastern coasts of North America. Near this island is a vast extent of shallow water called the Newfoundland Banks. Thither in summer, attracted by abundant food, come myriads of cod from the depths of the northern seas. Thither, also, come fishermen of all nationalities.

"This is not the small fishing that you sometimes see on the banks of a river; the fishermen do not wait hour after hour under the shade of a willow for an ill-favored little carp to come and nibble at the hook baited with a worm, and count themselves lucky if they go home with half a dozen diminutive fish strung on a twig or lying in the bottom of a basket. Fishing in Newfoundland is a different matter: cod are caught by the ship-load. France alone sends out every year four or five hundred vessels, with crews aggregating fifteen thousand men, to the various fisheries conducted on a large scale; and among these fisheries that of the cod is chief and employs the most men. At the same time think of the Dutch, Danes, Swedes, English, Americans, and many others, all bound for the same fishing-grounds, their fleets manned by an army of fishermen, and you will gain some idea of the activity prevailing off the coast of Newfoundland.

"At daybreak the boats leave the ship and take their places, one here, another there, at the most promising spots. From both sides of each boat hang lines—stout cords of hemp carrying at the end an iron fish-hook baited with a small fish or with a shred from the entrails of cod taken the day before. The voracious codfish rush up at the sight of these dainties and greedily swallow at a gulp both hook and bait. The fisherman pulls in his line and the victim follows, its gullet pierced by the fish-hook. Scarcely is the line baited again and thrown back into the water when another cod is caught. On both sides of the boat every man watches his lines and keeps on renewing the bait, throwing the line into the sea and pulling it in again with a cod at the end. By evening the boat is filled to the gunwhales with fine large fish, still wriggling."

"Certainly that is a kind of fishing," said Claire, "that leaves no time for napping, with a line dangling idly at the end of one's rod; and when you do get a bite, it's no miserable little gudgeon, either, that has swallowed your hook."

"No, it is no miserable little gudgeon. The average length of a cod is one meter, and its average weight between seven and eight kilograms. Occasionally cod are taken that weigh as much as twenty or thirty kilograms. A fish of that size caught in one of our rivers would be the talk of all the country around."

"You say," Jules interposed, "that the hooks are baited sometimes with small fish, sometimes even with pieces of the entrails from the cod taken the day before. If they pounce like that on the remains of their own kind, codfish must be very greedy indeed! Other animals don't devour those of their own species."

"Their voracity is unequaled. With these fish the large gobble up the small, the strong devour the weak, without the least scruple and under no compulsion of extreme hunger, though they must often be hungry enough, as they are endowed with digestive powers that are truly astonishing. Moreover, if some indigestible prey, too bulky for comfort and swallowed too greedily, incommodes them, the cod have a quick way of getting rid of it: they reject the excess of food by vomiting."

"Oh, the horrid creatures!" cried Marie. "Their white flesh in its pretty layers doesn't correspond at all with their way of living."

"I do not deny it, but it is that particular way of living that has given us their savory white flesh as a highly esteemed article of food. And then this greediness that excites your disgust is not without its importance in the scheme of things. Think of a cod's family, of the nine million eggs laid by a single fish. If all those eggs hatched and the young were allowed to reach maturity, in a few generations the millions would become billions, and these latter would in turn multiply and become other billions, so that before long there would be no room in all the seas taken together for the codfish alone. Therefore these fishes must eat one another now and then, if only to offset this alarming multiplication. Man, birds of prey, large and voracious fish—all lend a hand in this work of extermination. And thus with immense slaughter the prolific cod is held down to reasonable limits within its ocean home instead of becoming a portentous multitude.

"Filled to overflowing, the boats return in the evening to their respective ships, where the preparation of the fish takes place. With a large knife one fisherman cuts off the heads; another slits the decapitated cods along the line of the stomach; a third takes out the entrails, being very careful to set aside the liver; a fourth flattens the fish thus treated; and a fifth rubs them well with salt and piles them up."

"What do they do with the livers that were set aside?" asked Claire.

"They fill a cask with the livers and leave it exposed to the air. Soon decomposition sets in, the whole mass putrefies, and there rises to the top a greasy liquid that is known as cod-liver oil. This oil is carefully collected, for it is held in high repute as a medicine."

"I have heard of it," said Marie. "They say it is detestable to take on account of its horrid smell of decayed fish. The way it is obtained accounts for its nastiness. Decayed fish-livers couldn't possibly furnish anything pleasing to taste or smell. But after all a person conquers his repugnance if the detestable remedy is really a cure."