The old Bohemian hadn’t come to disturb the family on Holy Night, only to deliver an enormous, misshapen gift.
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.”
“My Aunt Helene baked carp in aspic,” my mother said. “Helene was noted for her cooking, and for keeping tradition. She called Christmas Eve Gwiazdka—‘the Feast of the Little Star.’ You fasted and waited until you saw the first star and then lit the candles before sitting down to dinner: pickled herring, smoked whiting with horseradish, shrimp cocktail, salmon caviar on blinis—seven fish courses, I’m forgetting some. The carp came last, the pièce de résistance, Helene called it, but to tell the truth, I don’t remember liking it. One Christmas Eve, just as we lit the candles, a stray gray kitten showed up—”
“Probably smelled all that fish from miles away,” my father said.
“It perched on the sill outside the dining room, yowling in the cold. Helene said it was caroling and took it in, because it would be bad luck not to. She named it Gwiazdka. That cat, Gwiazdka, was with her till the night Helene died, and on that night the cat, who never left the house, got out. We heard her in the alley caroling as she had when she first showed up, and then she disappeared. Stanley,” my mother said, “what are we going to do with this thing? I got a turkey defrosting in the fridge. We don’t have room for it.”
The dilemma was so extraordinary, they forgot about my bedtime. I listened as they discussed what to do, and all the while I watched the carp. My father had said that wrapped in wet newspaper, a carp could live a long time out of water. I watched its eye to see if it moved, and the longer I watched, the more I felt as if the carp was watching me. My father tried to think of someone they might give it to. My mother made a joke, wishing the fish had arrived a day earlier so she could have passed it off in the Secret Santa exchange of gifts during the holiday party at the truck-dispatching depot where she worked part-time. Neither of them could think of anyone who would want a giant carp at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
“If this ain’t the screwiest G-damned thing,” my father said.
“He meant well,” my mother said. He’d brought the fish, not because it was something a person who belonged in the booby hatch would do, but because carp on Christmas was a tradition for Poles and Czechs alike. It had something, she couldn’t remember what exactly, to do with the early Christians using a fish as a secret symbol for Christ. In a way, the carp was sacred. To dishonor his gift could bring bad fortune. Whatever happens on Wigilia influences the new year. If people quarrel on that night, the entire year will be troubled. If food is wasted, especially in a world where people are starving, one might find himself hungry.
Even on other nights, waste in an immigrant household was a cardinal sin. Food was sacred any time of year. I knew that from painful experience. One of the tortures of my childhood was having to sit alone at the table long after supper was officially over, until my plate was clean. I was forced to devise desperate methods for disposing of my dinner. Into the paper napkin I politely daubed against my lips, I’d spit mouthfuls of liver; I’d line my trouser cuffs with peas, boiled carrots, and canned lima beans; the Brussels sprouts cooked to mush were slipped into my socks—all to be disposed of later behind the hooked door of the shared bathroom down the hall. It had a high-tank toilet, and jerking the pull chain was like a gesture of good riddance that nonetheless left me with the taste of guilt as I watched the remains of my dinner swirl off to the Sanitary Canal.
That visceral connection between meals and growing up gives food the power to summon back childhood. In college, one autumn afternoon, the all but forgotten memory of the snowy night of our Christmas carp returned in a rush. I was at Loyola’s lakefront campus, sitting with a girl I hadn’t seen since the end of the previous school year. I’d been the first American boy she’d brought home to meet her Ukrainian parents. They called me the American Boy; that wasn’t a compliment. I hadn’t been in touch with her all summer, and we were arguing about broken promises. When she threw the sandwich from the bag lunch her mother packed for her into the lake, I knew I’d just witnessed a sacrilege.
“I can’t eat,” she said. “Satisfied?” The gesture was beyond bursting into tears, and her accent made it sound all the more dramatic. We watched the lettuce, cheese, and rye bread slathered with butter float off. Gulls swooped down but failed to pluck anything out. I recalled my family’s misgivings about wasting food, and the carp suddenly rose so vividly to mind that I had the urge to tell her the story. The memory came accompanied by an absurd vision of the fish surfacing, its barbeled maw opening to gulp her bobbing lunch. She wouldn’t be amused. She held an apple as if it might be next to hit the water. “I’m sorry,” I said. Her eyes, an ultramarine all the more striking for her black hair, searched mine to determine whether I was sincere. I had never been able to read her eyes in return. Finally, she took a bite of the apple and then offered it to me. I bit from the spot on the fruit where her mouth had just been. Sexual details, no matter how minute, never escaped her. She smiled. “Take a walk with me,” she said.
My father was attempting to wrap the carp back in the damp newspaper. He seemed more like someone concealing a body than wrapping a gift. It looked like a fish mummy. My mother dug out a Goldblatt’s shopping bag from the drawer where we saved bags.
“Better double-bag it,” my father said.
He tried to stuff the carp in headfirst, and the shopping bag toppled to its side. The fish was too large for it, but my father tied the green line to the handles of the bag in a way that would let him sling it over a shoulder. He changed from his house slippers into his galoshes, zipped on his woolen cardigan, buttoned on his overcoat, and gathered his scarf, hat, and gloves. I watched him dress.
“It’s way past your bedtime, sweetheart,” my mother told me.
“What are you going to do with the fish, Dad?” I asked.
“I don’t know, sonny boy,” he said, and then, I think, surprised everyone, himself included, by asking, “You up for a walk in the snow?”
“Stashu!” my mother said, followed by something in Polish that I couldn’t understand exactly, but knew translated to: “Stanley, are you crazy or what?”
“I thought for a special Wigilia treat,” my father said.
“Cookies and eggnog are a special treat,” my mother said. “I don’t know what you’d call this. He better not come back with pneumonia. You bundle up,” she told me.
“Leave your pajamas on underneath,” my father said, “they’ll be like long johns.”
The idea seemed strange, as if I’d be walking around secretly dressed for sleep, but I wanted to be out in the snow with my father and that mustachioed, monstrous fish that had stared me down before my father newspapered its accusing eye. I hurriedly pulled my clothes on over my pajamas, then buckled on my galoshes. My winter jacket with the mittens clipped to its cuffs had a hood under which I clamped the white earmuffs that I pretended conveyed secret transmissions from the league of superheroes. My mother wound a plaid woolen scarf across my face like a mask. My father hoisted the shopping bag, with the carp’s mermaid tail protruding, and unlocked our door.
“Go down the back way,” my mother whispered. She didn’t want us going by the old man’s shop. “Hold on to the banister in the dark.”
The flights of winding back stairs had no hall lights, so my father, prepared as always for emergencies, shined the penlight from the pen, pencil, and tire-pressure-gauge set clipped to his shirt pocket. My father wore tools as part of his daily dress as naturally as women wear earrings. At the bottom, by penlight beam, he unlatched the rusty metal door, which groaned as he forced against its powerful spring, and we stepped into the white silence of the frozen alley. Flakes floated from the height of a street lamp. I’d never been out this late, and the world seemed newly made. I looked up into the snowfall for the Holy Star, but couldn’t even see a night sky. I thought of the Magi mounted on camels that stopped for neither water nor sleep, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, following a Star they never lost sight of, and of the huddled lambs and shepherds—the pastuszkowie, a Polish word with “pasture” in it. And here I was with my father, as if we had stepped into their vigil on a night when an ancient world held its breath.
I wasn’t aware until I wanted to tell Alyona the story, years later beside the lake, that the carp had survived in memory as an emissary from a magical, ancient world, one that existed in an alternate dimension overlapping the ordinary landscape of my childhood. This was my sophomore year in college, a crossroads in my life. I had challenged my father’s faith in practicality, and elected to dare a life of financial doom by switching my major to English. We didn’t refer to it as “switching majors,” but as “dropping out of premed.” Aly, with her foreign accent and parents who didn’t speak English, was an English major too. Her favorite books were Lolita and The Diary of Anaïs Nin. If she hadn’t just thrown her lunch into Lake Michigan, she might have been impressed by the literary echo between the Wise Men bearing gifts and my father lugging the shopping bag with the carp down an alley on Christmas Eve, wondering where to dispose of a gift he couldn’t accept. I might have made a joke about Christ as Carp, and Aly would have turned the phrase to a carping Christ.
The snow, undisturbed, rose yeast-like from the lids of trash cans. It crunched like crystal beneath our rubber treads. Freshly powdered ruts stretched ahead as if a sleigh had preceded us. We tramped, each in his own rut. My scarf covered my mouth, so I couldn’t ask where we were going, but my father obviously had no intention of dumping the fish close to home. As we approached the end of the alley, I could hear voices on the street. People on their way to midnight Mass passed beneath the streetlight, looking dressed for Sunday despite being bundled up for winter. They were followed by a small procession of older kids, caroling and holding sticks topped with foil stars.
“They’re Gwiazdory,” my father said. “Star carriers.” In church, candles affixed to their sticks would be lit. He promised that when I was older and had made my First Communion, he’d take me to midnight Mass, and maybe I could join the Gwiazdory.
We paused in the shadow of a garage doorway until they passed, then we crossed 18th into an alley that traveled along the backside of Blue Island Avenue. Ice crusted where my scarf chafed my runny nose. I slid the scarf down and my breath chuffed before me, visible like my father’s, in a stillness that made audible the friction of snow sifting off the edges of roofs. Then the dog attacked. Barking furiously, it stabbed its snapping muzzle through the slats of a fence, and I jumped away, tried to run, and fell down in the snow. My father picked me up, brushed me off, and took my mittened hand. When my father was a boy, their landlady’s chow attacked him. He still had the teeth marks on his arms. The landlady refused to have her dog quarantined for rabies; she said that if my grandmother Victoria reported the dog, she’d throw the family out on the street. So my father was forced to take rabies shots. Treatment then required twenty-one shots in the stomach. He was ten years old. The pain was such that he had to take repeated baths to be able to endure the next day’s round of shots. He loved dogs, though, even watchdogs. My fear of them should have been his; I seemed to be feeling it for him.
The dog continued to bark behind us. I was afraid he’d chew through the fence and chase us down. My father told me to forget the dog and listen for when the bells from all the churches in the neighborhood—St. Procopius, St. Pius, St. Ann’s—would chime the first bars of “Silent Night” as a summons to midnight Mass. “Listen,” he told me. “Bells always sound most beautiful in the snow.” The reason for this had to be practical: maybe the cold made the metal contract, tuning the dull clang of iron to a silvery chime, or maybe the sound waves resonated through the crystalline snowflakes, affecting their gravity so that the chiming hovered; he didn’t know why exactly, but bells sounded more beautiful in the snow.
I slipped my earmuffs off to better hear, and my ears turned cold. I wanted to watch and see if the sound of bells was visible in the gravity of snowflakes. We stopped in the middle of the alley to listen. The dog was no longer barking; maybe he was listening too. My father set the shopping bag down. It looked as if its weight, impressed in the fresh snow, would keep it upright, but it flopped over, tearing, and the fish, which had dissolved its soggy wrappings, slipped halfway out into a rut. My father didn’t bother to right it. He knelt at the center of the alley before a discolored, circular depression I hadn’t noticed. With gloved hands he dug and brushed away snow until the black sewer cover, exhaling wisps of fog, was exposed. He tried to lift the cover by hooking a finger into a slot at its edge, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Frozen,” he said. “Jump on it, sonny boy.”
I jumped up and down, and the hollow thump of my galoshes resonated beneath the alley while “Silent Night” began to chime above the roofs. My father tried again to raise the cover but couldn’t. “Keep jumping,” he said. “It’ll keep you warm.”
He removed a glove, dug out his keys, detached the multitooled jackknife he kept on his key ring, and pried out the can-opener blade. I stopped jumping and he knelt and ran the blade around the sewer cover. He cut the green line attached to the handles of the shopping bag, and tied a knot he noosed around the center of his knife. Carefully, he worked the knife down through the slot of the sewer cover and pulled the string taut so that the knife was drawn against the underside of the cover. He rose, planted his feet, and with both hands exerted a steady tug. With the carp lying on the snow beside him, he looked like an ice fisherman who had already caught a jumbo and had another monster on the line. The sewer cover grunted and gave slowly, as if the fog trapped below was lifting it.
“Grab it, sonny boy,” he said. “But watch your fingers.”
We slid off the cover and stared into the foggy, seemingly bottomless hole.
“Hear it?” my father asked. “An underground river down there flows all the way to the lake.”
What I heard sounded more like wind than water moving under the alley. My father put his glove back on and freed the fish from what remained of the newspaper. He passed the fishy newspapers to me and I stuffed them into the torn Goldblatt’s bag.
“Probably revive him when he hits the water,” he said.
That caught me by surprise. Despite his earlier remark about carp being able to survive out of water, I hadn’t considered that my father thought this particular fish might still be alive. He’d seemed oblivious to the possibility, as he’d scraped newspaper from the carp on our kitchen table and sent scales flying. In the kitchen, when I’d realized the carp was staring back accusingly at me, I’d regarded that as a secret between the fish and me. Its eyes looked filmed over now, like those of an old person with cataracts.
“It’s dead, right?”
“You never know, especially if it’s kept cold. Trash fish are tough. They live on the bottom, in muck where other fish can’t. Wouldn’t be a miracle if it swam off,” my father said. “How about a hand giving it the old heave-ho.”
Fog clouded from the sewer and smoldered over the surface of the snow. We knelt beside the fish. “A-one,” my father counted. “A-two.” He’d never hooked so much as a perch, nothing but mudbugs out of the Douglas Park Lagoon, and now he was giving the old heave-ho to what might have been a record catch—the second time in his life he was passing up his chance for carp on Christmas. How many chances could one expect? “A-three!” and we slid it rasping along the snow. I couldn’t feel, through my mittens, whether the fish was still alive, but I would smell that bottom fish in their wool until my hands outgrew them. Its fin caught for a moment on the lip of the sewer. “Holy cripes! See its gills move?” my father exclaimed, and before I could look, the fish nosedived, slithering through our hands and disappearing without a plop. I imagined it stunned, swimming away in the darkness, a little woozy until it realized it was free, with miles of tunnel to go before it reached the lake.
“You see that?” my father asked, facing away from me as he set the sewer cover back over the hole, smothering the fog.
“I think so,” I said.
He unhitched the line from his knife and stuffed the line and the Goldblatt’s bag in a trash can. My ears were freezing numb. I fit my earmuffs back on and raised the bandanna of my scarf and we started back. We had to pass the watchdog again, but at least I’d be ready for him this time. The bells had stopped chiming.
“It’s midnight, sonny boy,” my father said. “Merry Christmas.”