It was the Holy Night vigil, Wigilia, which means in Polish “to watch,” as the Three Kings from Orient watched the rising of the Star, as the shepherds, gathered in the cold, watched and waited the birth of a babe in a manger, a birth from which the world and time would begin anew.
And I watched and waited too. My empty stocking dangled above the space heater from a clothesline shimmering with silver icicles. The colors of the bubble lights on our tree boiled across the steamy windowpanes, while outside, a snowfall that seemed conjured up by my father’s spirited reading of “The Night Before Christmas” settled on a deserted 18th Street. I was in my flannel pajamas, ready for bed, when a knock came at the door. Although our holiday decorations included an extra plate set at the straw-strewn dining-room table for any stranger who might arrive, my parents weren’t expecting company. My father glanced at my mother and shrugged, but for once he didn’t ask who before unchaining the safety latch.
The door opened on the bespectacled face of the grizzled, spooky old Bohemian from the taxidermy shop downstairs. He stood cradling what looked to be an enormous, misshapen gift. It was wrapped in newspaper bound with green plastic clothesline, and my father’s first instinct was to politely refuse it.
“Stashu, tell him to come in and have some eggnog,” my mother said.
But the old Bohemian wouldn’t step from the hall. He hadn’t come to disturb us with a visit, only to deliver his package, which he finally managed to press into my father’s arms.
Pan, come in and join us and break oplatki for health in the new year,” my mother called.
Traditionally on Wigilia, a white wafer of oplatki was passed around the table, as we had earlier that evening, and each person broke off a piece and made a wish for the coming year. Oplatki—Angel Bread—melted like a wheaty snowflake on the tongue. I was told it tasted like the Host did at Mass, something I was too young to know, as I was still a year away from my First Communion. My mother always addressed the old man as Pan—“Mister,” in Polish. I don’t think she knew his name. His taxidermy shop was nameless too. Earlier that day, when she’d taken me with her to drop off a paper plate of Russian tea balls at his shop because he was alone at Christmas, I’d told her that kids said he’d escaped from the booby hatch.
“He came from the Old Country during the War,” my mother said. “He came alone because they left him nothing. We can’t imagine what he’s lived through. Never forget how blessed we are.”
Now that he’d delivered the gift he’d lugged up four dim-lit flights of stairs, the old man refused any further obligation. “No, no, enough, Missus, dekuji, dekuji,” he said, bowing with thanks while edging away from our door.
My parents bowed back, wishing him Wesolych Swiat, and he wished us Merry Christmas in Czech in return. His spectacles flashed a last gleam before he disappeared into the cavernous hallway.
My father shouldered the door shut and carried the gift to our kitchen table. “Oh my God,” my mother said.
She snipped the knotted line with her sewing shears and they began to unwrap the newspaper. The top sheets peeled off easily, but each layer of newspaper was increasingly damp. When the wet, pulpy sheets shredded in his hands, my father resorted to the spatula he used for flipping pancakes. By then the pinkish-bronze tail fin and the gray thick-lipped snout with its white mustachios that looked like parasites were exposed. A fishy odor insinuated itself into the scents of fir, baked cookies, and homemade eggnog that filled our flat. As my father scraped off clots of newspaper, a confetti of what looked like thumbnails stuck to the table, the walls, the floor. At last the giant fish lay exposed, glistening in its own slime. Shreds of newsprint and the muddy colors from the funnies section adhered to the iridescent scales that remained along its bloated belly. Its cold, bulging eyes appraised us reproachfully.
My parents would never be so nosy as to ask the old man where he’d come up with such a monster on Christmas Eve. I thought that perhaps it was related to the trinity of piranhas whose desiccated heads with ice-pick teeth and empty eye sockets served as a welcome sign above his jangling shop door. Or maybe it was a trophy catch that some night fisherman had yanked through the ice on the Sanitary Canal just blocks away, and that, instead of mounting, the old Bohemian had brought to us.
His shop was on the street level, and not a day went by that I didn’t stare into its dusty display window. No matter how wintry the weather, that window emanated the vaporous green of a prehistoric jungle of ferns. A fierce menagerie poked from the foliage: a horned owl with golden irises spread its great wings to lift the terrified hare pinned in its talons; ermines with ebony pupils reared upright to hiss; a blood-eyed red fox dragged off a cock pheasant; an arched lynx, its emerald eyes seething with fury, bared yellowed fangs. I might owe my impression to the magnifying effect of the taxidermist’s thick, rimless spectacles, but the pitiless glass eyes of the beasts in his window seemed modeled on his own. His gaze frightened me, but I was fascinated by the ferocity of the creatures he’d preserved, and regarded them as my secret pets. I wouldn’t encounter a similar wildness until a day in my twenties when, diving in the Caribbean, a school that seemed more like a herd of aptly named bigeye tuna surged past. Eighty feet underwater, their myriad eyes, simultaneously those of predator and prey, recalled the window on 18th.
“Do you have any idea how to clean it?” my mother asked.
“Do you have any idea how to cook it?” my father replied.
As a boy he butchered and sold pigeons that he hunted on the roofs of churches, one of his several enterprises that kept the family going after his drunken, immigrant father was committed to Dunning, the state mental hospital. But fish confounded him. The only fishing he’d ever mentioned doing as a kid was jigging with a string and chicken livers for mudbugs from the Douglas Park Lagoon. That night was the first time I heard about him catching carp.
“I never had to clean one, but my kid brother Vic and I sold carp one year along with Christmas trees in front of Lujak’s butcher shop on Cermak,” he began. “A taco place is there now, but back then it was all Poles and Bohunks. Lujak set a couple oil drums half-full with water and carp out on the street. Selling live fish means you have to catch them. Lujak’s net was too small, so my job was to spear them with a pitchfork. Lujak called me Neptune. He collected the money; Vic’s job was to keep the water in the drums from freezing. We were freezing, especially our feet, from the water splashing every time I jabbed out a fish. Vic wouldn’t watch that part. We’d wrap it, still flopping, in wet newspaper. They’d stay alive and fresh a long time. We sold out except for a fish that got off the pitchfork and sank to the bottom, and Lujak tried to give us that one instead of the money we’d earned. He said the carp was a better deal, but it had been speared in the gut and didn’t look too appetizing. Vic wanted no part of it, so we took the buck twenty-five and never told our mother we turned down a Christmas carp. That’s as close as I ever got to eating one.”