“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.