Jewfish - Part 1



He has a museum of items appertaining to the Jew. A Jew’s harp, of course: four in fact, one dating from the 18th century, its tongue still miraculously intact. Three dried specimens of the Jew’s Ear fungus. He would like to have a living one, has tried on more than one occasion to keep one alive, but they grow only on certain trees and his apartment is small, with no garden. On his windowsill, however, high above Manhattan, careful tending has allowed a large pot of Jew’s Mallow to thrive; its furled yellow flowers return year after year. He does not know why it is better to have a living specimen than a dead one, only that it is so.

Other items have been easier to obtain and store. A lump of black, sticky Jew’s pitch in the lined drawer of the bureau by the window. In the next drawer down, a glass jar of Jew’s frankincense. Atop the bureau, a large and beautiful Jew’s Stone sea urchin spine. He loves to hold it in his hands, to admire the smooth underside, the place where it turns from rough beige to a tender and delicious pink. He finds he is tempted to lick it, like ice cream.

Sometimes, perhaps once every two or three months, he places all these items together, in such a way that he can take them in with one sweep of his eye. In order not to disturb the mallow, the arrangement is generally made by dragging a coffee table to the window and placing all the other objects carefully on it. The four harps, three fungus specimens, the asphalt and benzoine, the sea urchin. When the collection has been set out in its order, he brings a chair from the kitchen and sits, observing his possessions. The observation brings him pleasure. It generally continues for several hours. He notes the differences and similarities between these objects, grouping and regrouping them in his mind. At these surveying times, he likes to comment – to himself, only to himself – that there is another item in the collection. A living item. A Jew. Himself.

He desires, therefore, a Jewfish. He has illustrations and photographs of these monstrous fish but, although educational, they do not count. He would like a live one but cannot see how such a thing could be accomplished. A stuffed Jewfish, though. He makes enquiries with several taxidermists and angling stores. They tell him his request is virtually impossible; Jewfish are very difficult to mount. Would he perhaps be interested in a plastic replica? He insists. It must, at least, have lived once. They note down his details, promising to telephone if there is news.

In the meantime, at home, he pores over representations of the Jewfish, learning its habits and signifiers. The Jewfish is friendly. Fascinated by divers, it will often swim alongside a boat. The Jewfish is endangered; in the waters of America it is no longer permitted to kill the Jewfish. It continues to exist only due to the mercy of others. Nonetheless, the Jewfish is dangerous. Legends abound. Jewfish of 10 or 12 feet long are regularly spotted; it is supposed that larger fish certainly exist. A story circulates of a missing diver whose underwater camera is discovered. When developed, it reveals one last image: the face of an enormous Jewfish, head on. He is unsurprised by these facts. He is pleased to cut them from magazines and paste them into a book, to make them his own.

***

During the day, he works. His job is to make deliveries for the Bleen the Grocer’s, two blocks down from his apartment. He likes the work. His role is to take down long lists of groceries over the telephone and then to walk from aisle to aisle, finding the items and placing them safely into a cardboard box. Heavy things must not go on top of frail ones. Soft things must not be crushed at the side. When the boxes are ready he takes them, one by one, to the homes of the people who ordered them. He has a small cart with wheels to drag along. People are almost always pleased to see him when he and his cart arrive. He has worked this job since he was a young man and Mr Bleen was still alive. Now Mrs Bleen runs the store. She is very fat and sweats a lot, especially in the summer, dabbing her face with a handkerchief and drinking tall glasses of iced tea.

He starts early and finishes early. He’s usually home by 3. In the afternoons he reads the newspaper, before dinner. The newspaper is important, he’s looking out for things. His mother left him a long list of things to look out for. Some of them are stories about Jews, some of them aren’t. In the beginning, after his mother died, he had to read over the list many times a day, but now it’s automatic. When he finds one of these stories, he cuts it out with scissors and puts it into a file. The apartment is full of these files. Sometimes he takes out his list and looks at it again, just to make sure he’s doing everything correctly. He’s cutting out some articles, and watching for other ones, very important ones, which never come. But if they did come, he’d know what to do. It’s all written down.

For dinner every night, he eats something from Mrs Bleen’s store. She gives him the dented cans, the cheese with a little mold, the fruit that’s past date. He likes this way of deciding what to eat – otherwise, there’d be too much choice. He has money. As well as the apartment, his parents left him two bank accounts, one to take money out of and one to leave alone. The bank sends him a letter every month, telling him how they’re getting along. The second account is growing, while the first one isn’t getting any smaller. This pleases him. It’s important to have money. That’s one of the first things on the list.

***

His mother died from a cancerous growth on her face: a malignant melanoma. The doctor told him the name and he looked it up in the dictionary. It was good that she died of cancer, slowly, and not suddenly like his father, because it gave her time to think of, and write, the list.

She stressed the importance of the list to him many times. She told him that she loved him, and that was the reason for it. She said:
“We have seen terrible things, your father and I.”
As though his father were still alive and standing behind her, silent as ever.
The list explains that certain things are important: it’s important to have a lot of money in the bank. It’s important to read the newspaper. It’s important to know what to look for. She has listed 17 pages of things to look for. She wrote them out over several months, thinking of a few more each day and adding them. In some places, where she thought of a lot of things that have to do with each other, her writing has crawled out into the margins of the pages, tiny letters bunched up against each other. They say things like:
-         if you should read that a man has been refused a job because he is a Jew
-         if you should read that Jews are a threat to the country, or to the world
-         if you should read a call for any Jewish practice to be outlawed (she lists 53 possible practices)
-         if you should read that Jews may not wear certain garments, or that they must wear certain garments
This last one is marked with a star, which means it is very  important.
The list also tells him what to do if he does find any of the very important things. It has to do with money and with travel. If it has to be done, it must be done quickly.

In the first few months after she died, he spent a lot of time reading the list and  looking up all the words in the dictionary. He wanted to make sure he’d understood everything properly. Even when he knew the entries off by heart, he liked to look again, just to see they were still the same. It was then that he thought of looking up the word “Jew”. The entry was long. It began: “a person of Hebrew descent or religion; an Israelite (hist; offensive) a usurer, miser” and went on to describe the Jew’s mallow, the Jew’s harp and on and on to the Jewfish. He felt excited when he first found that entry. He read it many times until he had it memorized. He felt that he might be very close to something.

***

It is high summer when he receives the call from an angling store. They have a stuffed Jewfish, taken as part of clearance stock from a store in Buffalo. If he’s still interested he’d better get there quick; three other collectors want to buy it. He takes the subway down after he finishes work.

The Jewfish is beautiful. It is three feet six inches long. Its skin is striped and mottled green-brown and yellow. Its body is wide, barely tapering at all until the graceful split tail.  Along the top of its back runs a ridge of fin, like close-cropped hair. Two large, oval fins dangle down from the middle of its body, with a smaller, sleeker one toward the back. Its mouth gapes open, dark pink within. Its power is evident in its size, in its thick muscles, in the position of its mounting: head slightly tilted, tail curled to one side, ready to strike.

In the store, six or seven men are simply standing, looking at the fish. One mutters: “but how was it done? Not a trace of grease,” and falls silent again. Another raises his hand to touch the fish’s skin. The other men watch him as he approaches, ready to touch, but he is unable to complete the motion. His arm falls limply back to his side. The men look.

He does not stare so long or so hard as these men do. He knows there will be time to look later, in private. He asks the price of the clerk behind the desk. The men gasp, and then nod, when they hear the figure. He is unsurprised by it. He has brought the money, in cash. The men stare at him and then back at the Jewfish. He arranges a date for delivery, giving his address in a loud, clear voice. The Jewfish gazes ahead, its eyes black.

***

That night, he dreams of the Jewfish and of his parents. He dreams that they are one, that he is the child of the fish. In the dream, the Jewfish tells him fishy secrets, in lists which emerge as bubbles from its mouth. He must catch the bubbles and decipher them. One of the bubbles contains a hook, but he can’t worry about that now. He goes on and on trying to catch them, while the fish looks impassively forward, breathing out every form of knowledge.

When he wakes up, he realizes that he forgot to read yesterday’s newspaper. It still lies folded on the dining table. This frightens him. At work, he finds it difficult to concentrate – some of the items go into the wrong boxes and the customers are angry. In the afternoon, when he has finished work, he has to decide what to do. Should he read today’s newspaper first or yesterday’s? What if he missed something important yesterday, something which is written down on the list and marked with a star? He decides he should start with yesterday’s paper: that way he’ll know whether or not something important happened yesterday.

He finally finishes reading the papers at 10pm. This is after he usually goes to bed, and he hasn’t eaten anything. But he’s not really hungry. He didn’t find an important story in the papers, just the usual things, which he’s filed appropriately. He wants to go to sleep, but he finds that his mind is racing; he can’t make it be still. He lies on his bed with the lights turned off and thinks about his mother: not like she was in the last year, when she was sick all the time, but as he remembers her from when he was a boy. He remembers that sometimes he would wake in the night and see her standing by the door of his bedroom, looking at him. Sometimes she would speak words he didn’t understand and which, later, he couldn’t find in the dictionary. Sometimes his father would be with her, just looking.

He knows that there are many things his parents did not tell him, because he could not understand. They told him so. His mother would say: “some things, my darling, cannot be understood”. Nonetheless, he feels he would like to understand. He thinks of the Jewfish, with its mouthful of secrets. He falls asleep.

***

The Jewfish is delivered at the start of the following week. He arranges in advance to take the day off work. A crowd gathers to watch as the fish is unloaded from the truck and maneuvered into the building. Among the crowd, he recognizes several of the men from the angling store. In the light, the fish is even more beautiful than he remembers. Its scales appear crisp, as though water had just ceased to flow off them, its mouth shades from dark pink at the front to deep red toward the interior. As the fish is lifted from the truck, it seems to shiver and gasp. Across the street, passers-by stand still – an elderly woman, a nanny with two small children, a man in a suit with his jacket over his shoulder and sleeves rolled up – watching its progress into the apartment building.

In the dark interior of his apartment, he finds that the fish, though less magnificent, seems more at home. He has learned that Jewfish enjoy small enclosed spaces more than the empty regions of the sea. They often lurk in wrecks, or in underwater caves. He has arranged for the Jewfish to be suspended from the ceiling in the center of his living room. The workmen complain about the boxes and files; he tries to explain their importance but realizes that this is impossible.

In the evening, when the workmen have gone, he is alone with the fish. It is suspended at head height. When he stands, he can look into its face. If he raises his hand he can caress the fin which runs along its spine. He reads through the newspaper carefully, before the unblinking eye of the fish. The newspaper contains nothing important. He feels that he can detect a slight odor of the sea in the room. He discovers that he can set the fish swaying from side to side, by swinging it by its tethers. He finds that he likes to set it moving like this, then go to the door of the living room and turn off the light. When he looks back into the room, the fish is still swimming, silently, through the dark air.

***

In the store, over the next few weeks, he tries to explain to Mrs Bleen about his fish. He can’t make her understand. She seems to think that he has taken a piece of fried cod and hung it from his ceiling. She mops her brow and frowns at him, before padding over to the refrigerator in her bare feet for another bottle of iced tea. The explanation is made more difficult by his overwhelming reluctance to tell her that it is a Jewfish. He finds himself saying “a fish”, “a large fish”, “a beautiful fish”. He cannot understand why he does not wish to divulge its name. He feels, however, that if she could only see the fish, she might understand. Certainly, the men who continue to gather at certain times of the day around the lobby of his building must understand. He often sees them there, simply waiting: the men from the angling shop, and now some of the passers-by in the street on the day it was delivered. Once or twice, he sees one of the delivery men. Standing outside the lobby. Waiting.

He feels this is significant, that the newspapers must contain the answer. He knows he has been neglecting the newspapers. Since that first day, there have been five or six occasions on which he has allowed part of one day’s newspaper to hang over onto the next day. Once, a newspaper had to wait two days before being read. He can’t help it. He has been otherwise engaged. Every afternoon now, when he returns from the store, he sets up his museum collection. The Jew’s Mallow must be moved to be close to the fish. The coffee table is set up to one side, with the Jews’ Harps, Jews’ Ears, Jew’s Pitch, Jew’s Frankincense and Jew’s Stone lined up. The days are unbearably hot. He turns on the air conditioner, and watches the Jewfish sway in the slight breeze generated by the fan. The room becomes cool as he contemplates his collection and the day turns to evening.

His mother used to say: “do not try to understand. It is hopeless. We cannot understand it, we can only learn to recognize it, and learn what to do when we see it.” His father agreed, nodding. He finds, after all these years, that he does not agree. Sitting in the easy chair, the Jewfish staring out of the window in front of him, with the other items arranged, he feels that he can almost taste it: the pattern, the order amid the chaos. He feels that, if he were only able to sit for long enough, he might distill the common essence of all these disparate objects. Then he would know.

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Anika Devi received her Bachelor’s degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University in 2012. She began freelancing for Business Solutions BD in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor.
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