Gittel and the Golden Carp

[img_assist|nid=654|title=Creation by Ashraf Osman|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=104]Gittel Goldberg turned her back on her cramped kitchen and gazed out the window over Madison Street. How she longed for a space between the tenements, a glimpse of the ocean—the last thing that had touched the world she had left behind. But no, only an unyielding line of stone and metal stood before her, buildings and fire escapes huddled together beneath a gray sky heavy with rain. She wiped her hands on the dishtowel and untied her apron, all the while staring at the window directly across the way—Frieda Mandelbaum’s place, with its fringe of white curtain blowing to and fro. Looking at it, she remembered the dream of the night before.

There she had been, back on the ship in her narrow berth, Zev curled up beside her, his little head in the crook of her elbow, and the oldest three sleeping just a handbreadth away. The sea had moved beneath her like a wild thing, and the creaking of the ship had frightened her. She had woken up in a sweat to find her husband Gedalya sleeping beside her and had thrown off the feather quilt, still gripped by her terror that she was drowning, drowning in a sea of bodies! But then the moments had passed, and the pounding of her heart had slowed. Familiar shadows had eased her back into sleep. She had been grateful, so grateful, to be far away from the ocean. But other times—how crazy she was!—she longed for the ocean. Always it happened when she was alone in the apartment. Then she would yearn for those waves and all that she had left behind on the other side of their vast stretch, so far away that memory itself seemed to be a dream.

[img_assist|nid=653|title=Peace by Suzanne Comer|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=191]Ah, enough of this! Gittel told herself, folding the dishtowel and apron and placing them by the enamel stove with its sturdy iron burners that defied dreams. Better to think about gefilte fish. And throwing on a shawl, she grabbed a bucket and fled the tenement to breathe in the cold damp smell of March and the pungent presence of the East River. By the time she entered Kimmel’s Fish Shop, there was a bloom on her cheeks, and last night’s dream was forgotten. Ostrov, Poland, it wasn’t, but the smell of the shop—that much was the same.

Mr. Kimmel couldn’t help but notice that Mrs. Goldberg’s dark hair had come loose from her bun, and he stopped arranging the whitefish to admire her. She was a sturdy, compact woman, pleasingly zaftig, with high cheekbones and a proud way of holding her head. She picked out a whitefish. She picked out a carp. Kimmel nodded and reached for his knife. How much gefilte fish had he been responsible for? It was beyond counting. Still, he considered. If all the platters of gefilte fish that had begun in his shop were lined up from his door, they would go from Essex Street to who knows where. Definitely over the Brooklyn Bridge . But Mrs. Goldberg interrupted his thoughts.

"Not so fast! I want to do all the knife work myself. Just like I did back home.”

Kimmel lowered his knife and raised an eyebrow.

"You know how to kill a fish, Mrs. Goldberg?"

"You will excuse me, Mr. Kimmel, but such a question, I am not going to answer."

Hershel Kimmel smiled and shrugged as if to say, you want the guts and mess? Be my guest. And so the fish were unceremoniously dropped into Gittel Goldberg’s bucket—she insisted that he add some water from his sink—and he watched the three of them go out his door, shaking his head. But Gittel, she was happy. She walked home, the fish flipping and flapping in her bucket, splashing water all over. Back in the tenement, she filled her bathtub with water, and she dumped the fish in. So far, so good. She rolled up her sleeves, reached into the bathtub, and grabbed the whitefish. In no time at all, the head and the bones were salted and placed in the icebox. Now it was time for the carp.

"Okay my goldeneh fisheleh," Gittel said to the carp swimming around in the bathtub. Why did she talk to the fish? Who knows? Hours later when she couldn’t sleep, Gittel would wonder if that was the beginning of everything right there. But at the time, she talked to the fish because it looked so pretty, so golden in the bathtub. It darted, it dived, it dashed round and round.

"Maybe you should slow down, Mister Fisheleh. You should be tired already. Watching you, I’m getting dizzy."

But the fish wasn’t tired. It was having a grand time. It zipped around like it was born in a bathtub! All this fish needed was a tuxedo, and it could perform on Second Avenue. Gittel sat back on her heels and sighed. She looked at the knife, the fish skins, the guts and scales. Gefilte fish–it didn’t seem so good anymore. Gittel gave herself a shake and leaned over the bathtub.

"Sing and dance, why don’t you?" she said to the fish. "You do everything else."

And that’s when it happened. That’s when the fish did something Gittel would remember till the end of her days. The carp rose up on its golden tail and turned its silvery black eye upon her. Opening and closing its mouth, it waved its fins and uttered, "No!"

Gittel gripped the edge of the bathtub and sank down upon the floor. Her heart flopped so hard in her chest, she thought God had punished her by turning her heart into a fish. She pressed her forehead against the cool edge of the bathtub; she gasped and prayed. Then she raised her head. There was the carp in the same position, high on its tail, its fins fanning the air. Once more, it opened its mouth.

"Okay! Okay!" Gittel cried. "I won’t! I won’t!"

Now Gittel was a very wise woman. She read the Yiddish papers every day. She had been to the harbor at Le Havre, France. She had traveled across the ocean. She had seen more of the world than she had ever dreamed she would. Plus, she had talked to every woman in her tenement more times than she could count, and she had heard many a strange story. But she had never, never in her life heard anyone say anything about a carp talking. And in English, no less! So she knew this was a sign meant only for her. This was her wonder. Her mystery. Her very own miracle.

Gittel stood up slowly and wiped her hands. When she looked down, the carp was darting and diving around the bathtub. But it was keeping an eye on her, you better believe it. And Gittel looked right back into that silvery black eye, and she was not afraid anymore.

"My fisheleh, my fisheleh," she whispered. "Don’t worry."

So Gittel went back to Mr. Kimmel, who looked up with surprise when he found her once again at his counter.

“Don’t tell me it’s next Shabbes already.”

“I want to buy a basin.”

“This is some new ingredient for gefilte fish?”

“Mr. Kimmel, with four children, I can’t be using my bathtub for fish one day a week.”

"Mrs. Goldberg, let me tell you, I have been in this business a very long time, and I have, if I may say so, many customers who are as particular as yourself. And for them I do all the skinning, the boning, the everything—and I do it for free! So what, I ask you, is the point of throwing your money away on a basin?"

Gittel gave Hershel Kimmel a look. "You will excuse me, Mr. Kimmel, but such a question, I am not going to answer."

So don’t you know, come Shabbes, the golden carp darted and dived in the basin, right there in the corner of the kitchen. The children loved it. Gedalya had second helpings of the gefilte fish. That much was the same.

Shabbes came and went without any further commentary from the fisheleh, but Gittel kept stealing glances at the carp. Its flips and flops caused her heart to do the same, and such gymnastics, Gittel said to herself, she did not need. She went to bed Saturday night grateful that her husband had fallen asleep before her. She needed to think. With Gedalya snoring beside her, Gittel stared into the darkness. She did not like this weight upon her heart, this secret between herself and a fish. She found herself longing for Monday, Monday when her children would be in school and Gedalya would be working down the street at the Schulmanns’. Come Monday, she would do something. Perhaps—yes!—she would give the fish back to Kimmel. At the very thought, her heart stopped aching. Monday night, she would lie beside her sleeping husband, and this torment would be over. But no sooner did Monday night shimmer like a paradise before her than she knew that she could never bring the fish back to Kimmel’s. What would she say to him? She could just picture the look on his face, the eyebrow raised, the questions he would throw at her, and how many questions can a woman refuse to answer? And then, even if he took the fish—and this, she knew, he would never do, but suppose, just for a moment, that Kimmel took back the fish and said nothing—even so—then what? She would be sending Mister Fisheleh straight into the hands of another woman! And such a deed she could not do. She could not live with the thought that another woman, bending over her bathtub before Shabbes, would get the shock of her life. An older woman could die from fright. A pregnant woman—Gittel shuddered. It was out of the question.

But to keep the fish was also out of the question. Already her children were making up names for it. Already Zev was telling stories about it, bringing his friends into the kitchen to watch it. He hung over that basin so much, it made her nervous. One day that smart aleck fish would open its mouth to her youngest son, and then where would she be? No, on Monday when she was alone with the fish, she would explain to it the whole situation.

"Gottenyu, what am I doing?" she groaned, as her husband sighed and flung his arm over her. "Here I am, planning a talk with a fish!"

But plan it she did. She wondered if the fish had any Yiddish. It had spoken in English, yes, but this little talk on Monday she would rather have in Yiddish. Okay, all right, she’d throw in a bit of both. Surely the fish would see that this was a kindness that must be repaid with kindness in return. And with this hope, she rolled towards her husband and gave herself up to sleep.

So everything was planned for Monday. As for Sunday, Gittel planned to lay low. Do some washing, do some cooking, and keep an eye on the fish. The weather was fine, and Gedalya took Avrum, Mendel, and Ruchel to Seward Park. But Zev, he wasn’t feeling right. His cheeks were flushed, and Gittel knew that the child had a fever. On any other day of her life, Gittel would have been thinking only of her youngest child and how she could nurse him back to health. But now she chafed at the thought that he must stay home with her. She wished he were out of the apartment, far away from the carp in its basin. Instead, he sat on one of the kitchen chairs, his feet propped up on another chair, his dark curly head leaning against the wall. Gittel noticed how the damp curls clung to his forehead. She wanted him in bed, but he refused to lie down. The child wanted to be with her. As she ironed Gedalya’s shirts, she bit her lip.

"What is it, Mama? Are you mad at me for being sick?"

"No, no, totteleh. I am distracted, that is all. Mrs. Greenbaum, she told me a foolish story, and I can’t get it out of my head."

"Tell it to me."

Oy oy oy! Why had she said anything about a story? She couldn’t make up a story now without that fish working his way into it!

"Mrs. Greenbaum’s mishegoss—it’s not for children, mein kind. You tell me a story, and I’ll finish the ironing. Then we’ll take a nap, okay?"

The boy studied his mother and nodded. His gaze traveled around the room and settled upon the fish. Gittel winced, but it was too late. He had begun.

"Once there was a fish. It had a golden tail and silver fins and black, black eyes. One day the fish was swimming in the East River, and a man caught it in a net."

"Zeiskayt, you don’t have to tell me a story. I’ll stop right now. Look, I’ve finished the shirt. Let me get you something to eat, and we’ll take a nap."

"No, I’m not hungry! Do your ironing, Mama. I want to tell you a story."

Gittel clenched her teeth as she reached for another shirt. She prayed that the child’s story would end soon. The sooner she could him get out of the kitchen and away from that fish, the better she’d feel.

"So the man put the fish in a bucket, and he brought the fish home. He was going to cook the fish for dinner, but he was so tired that he fell asleep.”

"That’s a very nice story," Gittel said, "and you and I should sleep too! I am tired of ironing, and here you are with a fever. We should lie down already."

"I’m not finished!" Zev flashed back at her. Gittel felt ashamed of herself for interrupting him. The child loved telling stories. How could she deny him this pleasure when he was sick? And yet, she was more and more anxious. It was all she could do to go on ironing. But—she was a mother first and foremost. She smoothed out the next shirt.

"While the man was sleeping, the fish jumped out of the bucket and landed on the man’s pillow," Zev said, his voice dreamy, his eyes fixed on the window overlooking Madison Street. "Then the bed turned into a river, and the man woke up and said to the fish, ‘What is happening?’ And the fish said, ‘I am taking you to my home for a visit, because you were kind to me and didn’t hurt me.’"

Gittel looked over at the basin in the corner. With a tightening of her heart, she saw that the fish was not swimming around in his customary way. He was still, his fins moving gently, the water billowing against the sides of the basin.

"That gonif is listening!" she thought furiously. Her boy was sick, he needed his rest, and that fish, that fish! Gittel unplugged her iron, marched over to her son, and picked him up.

"Put me down, Mama! I want to finish my story!"

"You can finish it in the bedroom!"

"Let me say goodbye to the fish. Then I’ll sleep."

A wave of tenderness swept over Gittel as her son’s head rested against her shoulder. How could she say no to him? Just for a moment they would look at the fish. Then she would carry him into the bedroom and close the door. As soon as her son was well enough to go to school, as soon as she had a morning to herself, she would get rid of that fish! She didn’t know how, but she would! Gittel breathed in the scent of her boy’s sweaty curls and kissed his forehead. Then she walked over to the basin, and mother and son looked down at the fish. Its fins moved so delicately that Gittel wondered if the fish was asleep. The kitchen was silent, and Gittel felt her son’s heart beating against her breast.

And then between one heartbeat and another, the fish rose up on its golden tail and turned its silvery black eye upon them. Beating its fins and opening its shimmering mouth, the fish uttered "Go!"

Gittel gasped, gripped her son in her arms, and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

"Mama! The fish! The fish talked!" Zev struggled out of her arms and pushed against her, trying to open the door, but Gittel leaned against it with all her strength.

"No he didn’t!"

"He did! He did! You heard it too!"

And then both of them were flinging open the door and rushing into the kitchen.

There was the golden carp, swimming around in the basin, doing nothing.

It was all Gittel could do to stop herself from grabbing that fish and throwing it out the window. She staggered over to a kitchen chair and sank down into it. "Mama?"

Maybe the fish could talk, but Gittel could not say a word.

"Mama, I think we should let the fish go. I think he wants to be free. Let’s do it now."

Gittel tried to look like a mother in charge of the situation. She smoothed out her dress and adjusted her hairpins, tucking the wisps into her bun. Maybe if she had worn a shaytl like she was supposed to, none of this would have happened. At the thought, a flush rose to her face, half shame, half rebellion. She had always hated those wigs; she had always told herself that she would never wear one! And here she was in America, the land of the free! But still, there were other women, women right in her building, who wore them every day and passed her on the stairs, looking at her. She turned to her boy, her youngest child, who would be in December six years old. She felt so old and confused, and he—he was so young and sure.

"What should we do, totteleh?"

"We should put the fish in a bucket with some water and take him outside."

"Then what?"

"We should walk to the river and let him go. Come on, Mama."

"You feel well enough?"

"It’s not far. It’s warm out. When I come home, I’ll rest. I promise."

And so together, mother, son, and fish went down Madison Street and turned at Montgomery, headed for the river. It was a mild day, and many mothers and fathers were out with their children. No one gave any thought to the little pair and their bucket. When they got to a certain place along the wharf, Zev squeezed his mother’s hand.

"This looks like a nice place, Mama." They looked down. There was the water glinting beneath them. A moment later, there was the golden carp catching the sunlight, disappearing into the water with a soft splash.

Gittel stared at the spot where the fish had vanished, overcome by a longing that went through her like a knife. How she wished that she too could go back to where she came from, back to how things used to be! Beyond the East River, the Atlantic beckoned, but she knew there was no homeland waiting for her on the other side. She had crossed the ocean, and the landscape of her heart had changed forever. She belonged here now, on these streets by the East River, even if belonging only meant feeling accustomed to the feeling of not belonging.

"He’s going home now, Mama!" Zev said, his little hand pulling her away from her thoughts. "He’s going home to his family."

"Yes, zeiskayt. He’s going home," Gittel murmured. Holding tightly to her son’s hand, Gittel turned away from the river and headed up Montgomery. At least she hadn’t been the only one to hear the fish’s last word. If she had been, she would have worried for the rest of her life that she had taken leave of her senses. But here she was, her familiar self: a little round now, her hair touched with gray, the small square hands, the ring that Gedalya had given her so many years ago. And there was her boy beside her, chattering happily, going on with his story about the fish. By the time she got him back to the apartment, he was so tired that he fell asleep instantly. As she lay beside her child, Gittel felt herself floating between the "Go" and the "No," between the golden carp and the empty basin in the kitchen. Yes, the fish had spoken—and in a language she would never be able to call her own. But the rise and fall of her son’s breathing—that much was the same. Raima Evan grew up in Swarthmore. She attended Radcliffe College and the University of Pennsylvania, where she received an M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing as well as her Ph.D. in English. She is an assistant dean at Bryn Mawr College and

Leave a Reply