Avery spent the Winter Semester studying abroad in Viña del Mar, Chile.

On Wednesday I skip my 10:30 a.m. class and take a train down to the wharf. It’s a short ride away from my host family’s house in the suburbs, and I can smell the fish in the air long before the doors open.

Once inside, I pass along the stands where fishmongers tear the guts from conger eels and slop them in buckets, hacking off the heads without looking and handing them to their children to throw to the gulls. They keep their eyes up at the crowd shopping for lunch, at me, at the sea, their knives flashing away unsupervised. No gloves.

Under a plaster statue of Saint Peter, a man in rubber overalls cuts slices from an enormous fish, vertically, as if from a loaf of bread. The statue memorializes “our martyrs, fallen in the fulfillment of their labors,” their names carved in the base and painted black. People have died for almost everything — stopwatches, television shows, car tires. But many people have died for fish. The want for fish, like for bread or for gold, is such an old and elemental thing that the ocean yawns open to match its hunger for human destruction.

I walk to the jetties. Of the two of them, only one charges an entrance fee: 200 pesos for pole-fishing. The other is free and good for watching sea lions. A whole pack of them thud against the pier. In Chile they’re called lobos del mar — sea wolves, not lions — but they look more like living sausages.

I’ve come here once before, in February. I stood next to a middle-aged man in a light suit who was on lunch break from his job in the city. The sea lions gathered in the surf below us.

“What do they wait for?” I asked in broken Spanish.
“The fishermen,” he said. “They feed them.”
“What do they feed them?”
“Fish,” he said.
“Is that what they eat?” I asked. “In the ocean?”

He looked at me as if I were a child. “Of course,” he said. “What else are they going to eat?”

“Birds?”
“No,” he said, confused. “Of course not.”

A fisherman threw a bucket of fish heads over the edge of the pier and the sea lions foamed in the red chum. We watched until the fish were gone and the lions swam out to sea.

“Is that really what you thought?” he asked. “That they ate birds?”

I had only asked the question to keep the conversation going. To be honest, I’d never really thought about it.

That was the height of summer. This afternoon, in cold May, a tourist couple dressed in dark rain jackets lean on the railing a few feet away and whisper to each other. A sea lion lolls on its belly and coughs at us, gaping. Nature can be majestic, but only when it’s not coughing.

Distant yapping grows louder as a pair of hungry-looking street dogs run down the beach toward the pier. They sprint from one end of the sand to the other in the endless task of policing their border, scaring gulls into flight.

The smaller one catches a pelican. I’m not sure how he managed it — I was watching the sky when it happened, worrying about the clouds, dark with rain — but when I look down he’s already gripped the bird by the neck. Everyone is surprised: the dog, the pelican, the three of us watching on the pier. Now what?

The dog whips the bird around in a few dizzy circles and lets it go, bored, or confused, and runs to join his partner at the pier. There, the waves sweep the lions onto the sand, where the dogs snap at them, and then the waves sweep the dogs into the water, and the sea lions do the same. It goes on like this. They’re waiting, all of them, for the fisherman to come with his bucket of chum, the dogs starving without the summer tourists to give them scraps, the sea lions dependent on the daily feeding, the lunchtime ritual.

And the pelican, alone, clambers to its feet and leaps in the air. One wing flaps, but the other only shudders, and the bird hooks down to the ground. It comes in at a bad angle and hits the sand with all its weight. Pelicans are heavy. Dazed, it wanders to a pile of rocks and looks up at the gulls, hundreds of feet above, flashing in the sky like silver fish.

Avery DiUbaldo can be reached at diubaldo@umich.edu.

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