Return← Return home
← Return home

Exegesis of Canned Tuna

Kyle E. Miller

He required the flesh of a tuna, buttery pink folds delivered on the side of a knife or dressed and spread evenly across a cracker. Rings of meat with a little stubble of scale, shadow of a rainbow recalling the spray cast up by the fishing boat as it left port. Eight years a vegan, he felt he was in need of tuna. Something in the meat hailed him and he raised his voice. He called out to silver-capped silhouettes in dreams of fish, and as much as he wanted a fresh steak or filet or whatever they called it, he wanted the tuna now. He would have to settle for canned.

Was he missing something essential, an oil or fat, lipids, sea salt, minerals, an obscure vitamin hidden in the eye of the tuna? Or was it his proximity to water? He lived by a lake now and although it was saltless, swimming things still lived in it and every day of his unemployment, he became a swimming thing himself when the weather allowed, and sometimes when it didn’t. He pulled skeins of algae from his hair and poured sand out of his ear onto the pillow and thought about the things he had lost over time, a couple hundred things probably, accumulated mostly over the last decade when events and relationships began to get complicated, curling back in on themselves like toenails revolting against the growth of the body. Some of the losses were his fault and some of them weren’t, but he’d had enough. He lived alone by the lake now, practicing sadness in the presence of the waves. He wished he lived on a different lake much farther north, his last memory of the shoreline etched in blue stone like the shadow of dune grass on the wall of an outhouse, a memory of company, of being distributed across two bodies rather than one, which seemed unable to bear the weight of consciousness, but the stone was too sharp and he couldn’t live with it. He couldn’t live without it: how could he forget the best moments of his life? But he was still asking.

He drove to Health Hutt, a blue day cut from the cloth of passing rain, and bought a can of Wild Earth albacore tuna, caught with pole and line in the South Pacific and tested for a minimum of mercury. He hoped there was at least a little mercury in case that was exactly what he had been missing, what his body had been asking for. Or else the message came from a different place, the unconscious, a craving like a dream of scales. They represented something like creativity: prosperity, fertility, abundance—the connection between the physical and spiritual; maybe he had been neglecting his artistic side. But was it really possible to listen to one’s body this way? Was the unconscious so simple, so literary? He was skeptical of the way intuition had become popularized, a bypass of putting in the work, of knowing yourself. He didn’t trust nutrition gurus who were only ever one mouse click away, and he viewed American yogis with suspicion. They so often reeked of vice, hunger for power hidden beneath the spotless mask of new age communion. Their irises crowded out the sclera of their eyes. Intuitive knowledge couldn’t be applied to the general case, he thought; it was by its nature relative, private, applicable only to one’s self. Everyone had cut that diamond differently and hid it in a place only they knew how to find, if they knew where it was at all. The can had a pull tab, for which he was grateful, because when he got back to the car he ripped it open, bent the lid into a spoon, and pushed it into the coils of albacore. He lifted the spoon to his lips. He was unbecoming a vegan. It was like eating a cake of buttered blood, sweet salty metallic marine flavors. It melted in his mouth, velvety and tender and yet fortitudinous. It constituted something even though it seemed to be full of air. When gravity isn’t tugging on your muscles all day and night, the flesh becomes buoyant. The competing cultures were bloodless and feeble, conforming toward shallowness when they weren’t the same old brutishness and product development, social media marketing, self-help, brotherhoods of technophiles, and all of it took away from you, subtracted, and you were meant to believe you were doing something good with your life, yet everyone meditated to destroy their desires and got no closer to the lure of enlightenment. The tuna added something, finally, and the sum of man and tuna was a many-finned joy, somehow not less life, but more. It was as if he had only known half of the world until now.

He took another bite, as taboo as incest, something forbidden achieved at last, and sensed a widening that came with it. His hand reached down to trace a sigil on the tuna’s back: run forth and multiply. I will fertilize your eggs. I will be the cause of your proliferation. Follow my hand. Two million eggs in a single cycle. He could keep track of them all. No, oogenesis overwhelmed him, the word itself broke his tongue, and he couldn’t keep up. The fish needed no guide but the blue fuse that had been lit during the Cambrian. They were free of his imagination. The fry grew up, found their schools, migrated, and ended up in the bottom of a boat somewhere off the coast of Thailand, but not after having made their mark, preying on fish and crustaceans under a mirror polished and fired to a round brightness. The pelagic predator who would one day intimately know the teeth of another animal. They fortified economies, created entire ways of being, the hook caught in the lip, the mouth caught in the net, the pinching claustrophobia and threat of suffocation somehow pressed into the cells and forgotten. It was best not to make up stories about pain. Humans had more superstitions and prohibitions for eating than they had wisdom, a disguised disgust for matter. There are no clean or unclean animals. There are none whose hearts gladden the warrior or whose shoulders, having trembled with fear at the slaughterhouse, impart anxiety to those who eat them. They were all one. That’s what made being a self important. He loosened his belt and unbuttoned the top button on his shirt, opening his chest to the air, which smelled like the inside of a fish’s mouth. The pale hairs on his chest stood on end, licking up the molecules of the fish’s living scent. What magnificent agency each of us has, he thought, what responsibility. That we’re all connected can’t contain the truth, couldn’t be made into a religion: it was simply too obvious. And when it became musty and oppressive being in the house of himself, he could open the door and walk out, anytime, and extend himself through the window of another’s house. The one; the many; the window between. There was only one of him in all creation, and there was only one albacore like the one he was eating from a BPA-free aluminum can. The metal had imparted some of its flavor to the meat, just as the meat had leaked some of its atoms into the aluminum. There would never be another can like it, the ship captain’s name written in cursive on the label, unreadable, but his name let you imagine him standing at the ship’s wheel somewhere in the South Pacific, a question for the sea in his eye, imparting something of the iris to the waves below.

Each tuna was a monumental sculpture he ascended, an antidote to fear and obsession. To think he had never liked tuna before he became vegan. What had passed through him in those eight years? He took an hour to finish, cutting his tongue on the sharp edge where the lid parted from the can when he licked the oil from the bottom, bleeding a little, opening to every soft thing in the land. It was painful at first, difficult to admit he didn’t really know how to swim. Painful to relax into the raw muscle of life. Difficult to submit to the neutral ecology of Earth, but yes, he wanted to offer himself to be eaten by fishes, pointlessly, without end. Life was the only government he allowed. Humans should be buried open to the mouths of worms. Discard coffins and caskets and give us the excarnation we deserve. Fill our veins with earth and excite the carrion beetles in their dens, call vultures from their ritual circles, let the hickory soak its roots in our blood. Circulate the elements of man up the trunk and into the boughs, respirate, photosynthesize a blood red light, leech the human liquids back into the water table. He wanted to be kissed to death by the beaks of a school of albacore fish. He wanted to be gay with them. The can was empty. Something unclenched inside himself and expanded irresponsibly. He put the car window down and saw with his skin the moisture caught rapt in the air. He got out of the car to go back inside and buy a gallon of water. A goldfish swam in the puddle at his feet.

⬡ ⬡ ⬡

Kyle can usually be found wandering Michigan's forests, turning over logs looking for life. He currently teaches first year writing at Eastern Michigan University. His writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, ergot., and Lightspeed. You can find more at