The Girl in the Cannery by M J Cleghorn

A hardworking girl who guts fish all day at the local cannery wonders how she will afford to bury her grandfather; by M J Cleghorn.

Forty dollars. A week's pay. That's what it will cost to bury the old Swede, the girl in the cannery thought to herself, picking the soft bones and skin from each shiny copper can as they spilled down the conveyer belt.

Forty dollars.

Every day - long into the summer twilight, the girl in the cannery took her place in the slime line, every day since she was thirteen years old. Every day since her mother died - dead from tuberculosis at twenty-five. Her father went to war. He never came home. She tried to remember their faces. Sometimes, when she looked into the mirror, she wondered if it was her mother's eyes she saw looking back at her, or was it her father's face. The girl and the old Swede lived alone in a small shack at the end of the boardwalk. Alone since her brother ran away to sea, lying about his age to join the Merchant Marines. He wired most of his pay home, everything except a dollar or two a month, to buy a few cigarettes and a stray bottle of beer.

He was a good brother, and she loved him, but the money he sent didn't even pay the grocery bill. Now her grandfather was dead and it would cost forty dollars to bury the old Swede. She would need a draw on her pay, but before she could see the cannery boss the fleet came in with their bellies full of salmon.

Three days later, the tight fisted cannery boss hammered out a price per pound with the even tighter fisted fishermen. The girl in the cannery watched wide eyed as a mob of angry fishermen chased the cannery boss round the building and up, then back down, the steep office stairs. Once the victory whistle blasted, every fisherman's wife and daughter came hurrying to the cannery. When the fish were in, there was work to do. The old Swede would have to wait.

Matilda, as the girl in the cannery was called, was named after Waltzing Matilda, the old Swede's favorite song. Matilda was not afraid of hard work. She never complained, not even when the seawater came pouring in off the catch, flooding the cement floor, and leaked through her rubber boots, soaking her socks and leaving her feet wet and cold. Day after day and night after night. When her freezing fingers bled from twenty-two hour days gutting countless kings and reds, she never wept for herself or the fish.

The last batch of fish caught by this year's fleet was bad - spoiled. "Sat too long while they argued over price," the company superintendent claimed; the fleet won't come in until a price is settled.

"Now it isn't even fit for the number two cans."

"Damn weather. Dumped 'em back in the bay," the cannery boss hollered from the loading dock, but no one could hear him over the din of the machines and the slime lines. "Shut it down - everyone can go home now." The cannery went silent. No one spoke. Their bodies had been frozen in one position for so long it was hard to straighten up. Painful. Pulling off her wet bloodied apron and wiping clean her fish knife, the girl in the cannery watched as the fishermen's wives and daughters went home to their suppers.

The work had been nonstop three days and counting. They lived on gum and coffee, no one left the cannery. They took short naps in shifts, it was either eat or sleep. They were on the clock, no work no pay. These were the days Matilda missed her grandmother most.

"She's a princess," Matilda would hear the old Swede say to the other fishermen. "Daughter of an Athabaskan Chief."

Her grandmother.

"No granddaughter of mine is ever going to work in that cannery. Who do they think they are? Our husbands and sons risk their lives and for what? A few pennies per pound. We can't even afford to buy our own fish back to feed our families. Ha!"

On the day they buried her grandmother, Matilda left school and went to work in the cannery. The old Swede was sick, he was a man that spent his life on the sea, and now he had come ashore to die. His rusty tug was dragged to the driftwood shack and left in dry dock. He never spoke of her grandmother again, but once Matilda saw the old Swede make his way to the cemetery with a handful of dog roses.

There would be no one waiting for the girl in the cannery, in the grey shack at the end of the boardwalk - only a bill from the undertaker. Forty dollars to bury the old Swede. A week's pay.

Rain began to fall, masking the fishy smell of her damp hair and clothes with fresh clean salt water. The fog was rolling in from across the gulf. The shrill cries of the gulls echoed off the mountains. Matilda lifted her face to the sky, and she hungered for a good fire and a hot bowl of chowder. She would manage; she was strong, strong like her mother, and strong like her grandmother before her. She took a certain pride in caring for her dying grandfather and lasting long hours on her feet. Gutting great tons of raw fish and stacking case after case of canned salmon until she thought her back would break, she never missed a day or night of work, hard and poor as it was.

Oh how her grandmother would laugh if she she knew that one day, yes one day, her granddaughter, the girl in the cannery, would be the new cannery boss.

"Poor Matilda, that girl in the cannery, no family. She's the only one left."

She knew what they said about her.

"Ha! I am not the only one left," Matilda heard herself say as she turned towards the cemetery, stopping only to pick a handful of dog roses.


  1. Hi M J, a story of great sadness and I felt it was incomplete and as if there was much more to come.

    James McEwan

  2. super story, very descriptive, reads like there´s an element of truth in there!
    well done
    Michael McCarthy

  3. A great story! And reads a little like a song, a prayer - its refrain 'forty dollars to bury the old Swede'. How like a relentless enslaving machine is the process of harvesting the sea, and yet how fragile it's harvest when spoilt by the haggling of Man! And of course Matilda will never be alone among the close kinship and spirits of the Athabaskan people!
    Beautifully written with a sense of visiting past, present and future.

  4. A profound story exploring how the strengths of kinship and connectivity go way beyond the reach of the transient sentimentalities espoused by our 'throw away/give me what I want now' culture. As James asked - is there more to come to develop this story? Thank you,
    Ceinwen Haydon

  5. Fantastic job of pulling me into this world within the first two paragraphs. Every writer should be so gifted.

    Tim Macy

  6. A great story that had my own back aching and me imagining I stank of fish! The ending could have been stronger but was good, notwithstanding. Well done!
    Narbonne (

  7. Hey! I just remembered that I had a tuna sandwich for dinner! I DO smell like fish!!! What a hell of a note! But this is a very good story.

  8. Thank you, each and every one, for your kind words. This is a family story. I can only hope my voice gave it some justice.
    When I read the stories here, I am awestruck by the beauty and talent of each writer. It takes my breath away!
    Thank you, Mr. Fish, for creating such a wondrous place and generously sharing it with the world.
    I am humbled and honored to be counted among your company!
    Warmest Regards from Alaska,
    m.j. cleghorn

  9. Grim little tale of a young woman working her life away in a fish cannery in Alaska. Not much is really told of her personality, but that she is resolute, determined, hard working, indefatigable. Matilda has a hard row to hoe and does so selflessly. There is a whisper of possible future prosperity at the end, but is that just a dream?