Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   e w i n g   c a m p b e l l   ~   a u s t i n ,   t e x a s

NOBODY ON the island believed the weather could affect the economy in the manner it had. First of all, the long drought encouraged an unexpected growth of nopales which, in turn, caused such an infestation of cochineal that people skipped work to harvest the carmine produced by those waxy parasites. Even Nicolás Micaelo was tempted to stay away from his job as apprentice fish-cutter at the Mercado Nuestra Señora de Africa and collect buckets of the engorged pests feeding on succulent prickly pears—tempted, like all the rest, but not seduced. Instead he went, as he always did on Tuesday, down the steps to the gloomy cellar of Yitzak Goldemberg’s gefilte fish shop, where he and the old man prepared Sabbath cakes for the faithful Hasidim of Santa Cruz. It was there in the dim coolness, just as he raised his truncheon to club the first carp of the day, that a human voice issued from the creature’s throat, shouting something Nicolito thought might have been the ranting of a drunken Gallego had he understood even one word of what he was hearing.

Startled by the outburst, he stopped, his club still raised to come down on the head of the carp, and considered what was before him. You couldn’t be too careful at a time like this. When the fish yelled again Nicolás Micaelo fell back, dropping the club, crossing himself, and scuttling for the door, all the while screaming, “Holy Mother of God, it’s the devil. The devil is here, Don Yitzak, calling for the soul of Jews and bad Christians in the language of hell.”

At the counter in his yarmulke Don Yitzak had already turned to see what the racket was about, his eyes with that look of seeing a madman rushing toward him. He knew many things about fish, was an old hand at mesmerizing, subduing, then turning their flesh into Sabbath dishes for the devout.

“What a state you’re in, Nicolás Micaelo. Calm down, joven, and try to gather your wits about you. In this world you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground.”

“Better ground than water,” the assistant replied.

“Better water than air, and better air than death or the devil.” The old man always got in the last word, or so it seemed to his helper.

“Espíritu Santo, it’s the devil himself whose father has come,” Nicolito said. “And in a form exactly like a fish. This morning’s premonition warned me to go, as others were doing, and gather cochineal. I’d be better off in a coffin factory, and now I’m punished for not obeying.” He crossed himself again. “God forgive.”

The old man showed some interest in getting to the bottom of this and stepped to the door, saying, “Let’s have a look at this devil, Nicolás Micaelo.”

It was Nicolito’s first opportunity to look closely at the carp because he usually paid no attention while he worked, using the routine of mincing fish to dream of pretty girls in their summer dresses, especially La Hebrea, the old man’s granddaughter of record. Who knew how many lived on the island still unacknowledged? Standing behind Don Yitzak he peered at the creature without speaking. There was nothing special in the way it looked, lying on the cutting board, its large scales and long dorsal fin following the hump of its back. Two unattractive barbels decorated the upper jaw on each side, but the condition of the carp out of its natural habitat diminished what might have seemed noble in water. Anyway, that was how Nicolás Micaelo viewed the sight in front of him. Nothing special, that is, until it shouted at them with the voice of a man from foreign lands.

The old man took this demonstration in stride, holding his chin, tugging on the gray hairs growing there, and studying the fish while waiting for another outburst before nodding, at last, with an air of satisfaction because, according to Don Yitzak, the fish was speaking Hebrew.

Nicolás did not dispute this report, thinking it could have been Hebrew or even the speech of the dead coming from the mincing block, and to call that kind of talk by its name was better than keeping the secret. “What did it say in a Christian tongue?”

“Account for yourself. The end is near.”

Nicolás Micaelo did not like the sound of that. He didn’t want to hear about the end of the world or any other calamitous event that could make his life miserable. “What else did it say?”

Don Yitzak frowned and dropped his eyes to the floor. “It commanded me to pray and to study the Torah.”

“Mother of God,” said Nicolás Micaelo. He crossed himself and went right up to the carp, bending down to stare at it. “Just what we need in the middle of a drought—some fish giving commands. Is there nothing a man can’t pull out of the sea?”

“This kind comes from a pond, not the ocean,” said the maker of gefilte fish, taking Nicolito’s club. “But don’t look at it too closely, joven. There are mountains under the plains, and it doesn’t pay to be curious. That could also be said.” He raised the bludgeon to finish off the creature, but in trying to bring it down on the carp, he slipped and missed, then clutched at his leg, asking Nicolás to help him to a chair.

“You shouldn’t be in such a hurry, Don Yitzak. Not at your age. Don’t you want to study this for a little while before making a decision?”

The old man said he had twisted his knee and thought maybe he had pulled a tendon in his leg. At his age. Just think. Perhaps they ought to call in the rabbi for an intervention—this against the opinion of Nicolás, who thought, at a minimum, they should club the beast until it stopped shouting—or call in the authorities for consultations about something which could lead to serious trouble for the two of them.

“I’m getting long in the tooth, to say nothing of the gray in my beard, but I can still handle myself when it comes to a fish.” The old man said this, touching his skullcap and squinting fiercely up at his young assistant. “Maybe more so now than when I was your age.”

But when the apprentice suggested the authorities might want to tax Don Yitzak for having such a monster, the old man locked the mincing closet and shut down his gefilte fish stall in the Mercado Nuestra Señora de Africa, cautioning Nicolás Micaelo to keep this inconvenience to himself because what would people say if they found out? Besides, someone could accuse them of using black arts as soon as the word got out. Innocents had been stoned for less. They had been burned or crucified by the suspicious, even hanged and quartered.

“I don’t know about that, though I shouldn’t say it since they didn’t teach such things in the catechism, but I don’t like to take chances,” the apprentice said. “The secret is locked up in here.” And he pointed to his chest.

One of the things Don Yitzak had told him was that the righteous, under special circumstances among Hasidic sects, could be reincarnated as fish and that there was Dagon, a Semitic fish-god, as might be judged from the etymology of dag in Hebrew, which signified fish. When the old man got started, you couldn’t shut him up. All of this was more information than any good Christian could bear. Nicolito, mulling over such explanations, could not sleep or eat, not even his beloved sardine pie, when he remembered the old man’s caution about innocents who were stoned for reasons that did not rise to this level. Long after midnight Nicolás Micaelo lay awake wondering if he should go at dawn to the terraced hillside overlooking the sea, where great clumps of prickly pear cactus grew, and begin gathering cochineal. Ounce for ounce their carmine was more valuable than saffron. A person could earn more in a day than Don Yitzak paid in a week and grow rich in a month. Besides, his absence might rescue him from accusations of intrigue. It made him nervous because, devout as he was in the faith of Our Lord, he was not convinced by Jewish beliefs, no matter how reassuring they might be. He thought of making a novena to chase away the devil, but nine days of prayer? Maybe that was going too far. Maybe it was better to wait and see for himself where everything stood the next day.

By nine o’clock Wednesday morning, everyone in Santa Cruz knew what was closeted within Don Yitzak Goldemberg’s stall beneath the floor of the market. An inquisitive crowd had gathered on the stairs to catch a glimpse of the shouting carp whose fame had spread overnight to many distant villages. Called from his study where he had been engrossed in reading Talmudic Treatises on Damages and Compensations, Reb Abrahán Veçudó arrived in a fringed garment that reached the floor. His beard and earlocks were still black despite his twelve children. It was said by envious, unnamed individuals and repeated as rumors that he rubbed his beard with sprigs of rosemary after ritually submerging himself at the bathhouse. Indeed the apprentice fish-cutter detected on him that familiar scent of the garrigue he loved to tramp in spring and summer when the sun was setting out on the sea.

But the on-lookers weren’t interested in the rabbi’s beard. They were absorbed by conjectures that ran like wildfire through their ranks. Someone had declared that a talking fish was a sure sign of approaching calamity and a warning for the world to repent its sins. This pessimist was rebuked by a politician assuring all who gathered there they could count on seven years of plenty. As proof he would stand for election on the basis of that promise. It would be his campaign slogan. Seven fat years and lower tax rates. The fish, he insisted, was a harbinger of good times ahead. But as Yitzak had predicted, some thought the whole matter was the result of witchcraft, and just as many passed it off as an ordinary miracle, the sort they lived with every day, like the time Doña Filis was carried stone dead to the parish church only to revive and live another eight years without serious illness after Father Cipriano sprinkled her with holy water. Or the time Chuy the bricklayer woke up one morning with a frozen shoulder, unable to lift his right arm or work. The affliction had been cured by a Chino who stuck needles into the affected parts. And who could forget that Jaramilla the curandero had healed Dionisio’s syphilis simply by sweeping his sores with a candelilla plant and saying the right words over him? Who could forget that ruffian charcoal burner now free from his suppurating chancres? A talking fish, what else was new? I have an aunt who plays the guitar, Nicolito thought.

Reb Abrahán Veçudó stayed the curious on-lookers with the glance of a basilisk—nobody dared meet his gaze or take a breath—then asked Yitzak to unlock the door so he could examine the cause of all the excitement. As Nicolito led the way to his cutting board he saw a bluebottle, appearing metallic and iridescent in the ray of light that fell on it, settle on the milky eye of the carp, which had lost its voice overnight, becoming just another fish head and rigid body attracting blowflies.

“What is this?” Reb Abrahán asked. “The dead don’t speak.”

“No,” Don Yitzak answered. “And two men don’t dream the same dream. But it was speaking yesterday.”

The rabbi turned his stern black eyes on the apprentice. “And you, joven, can you corroborate that? Did you hear as well?”

“I was the first to hear it. As God is my witness, the thing sounded for all the world like a Gypsy cutthroat ordering me to turn out my pockets. I feared for my life and my soul.”

“Hebrew, that was no Gypsy dialect,” Don Yitzak corrected. “Well-educated Hebrew, at that, spoken as if by a Talmudist reciting the Mishnah. It sounded nothing like a Gypsy or even a Gallego.”

“I meant it wasn’t speaking the words of a Christian. That’s all I wanted the rabbi to understand,” Nicolás replied. “No offense intended.”

“None taken, joven,” replied Don Yitzak with kindness, reassuring his assistant.

In the silence that followed, Nicolito noticed tiny vermin crawling over the scales. A fish stink was beginning to rise off the carcass, which had lost its color and natural luster. Flies and fish mites desecrated the material being of that righteous, reincarnated spirit Don Yitzak insisted on. For a moment he wondered if he had imagined it all. Eye-witness accounts were notoriously fallible, but Reb Abrahán’s questions—pointed, unrelenting, and repeated—failed to shake their testimony. Moreover, they met his probing gaze with confidence, never once looking down or to the side the way some did when he confronted them. And yet, the rabbi seemed reluctant. The apprentice noted this hesitation, as well as the vermin. For his part, Reb Abrahán Veçudó told them he would reflect on the mystery and seek inspiration in the Zohar. Then, and only then, he would return to offer his verdict. In the meantime he advised the gefilte fish maker to put the dead carp on ice and report what happened to the civil authorities at once.

The fish-cutters iced the carp down and went back to preparing Sabbath fish cakes for the rest of that day and those which followed. The market, always a busy place, had never seen such bustle as came with villagers who hurried to the capital hoping to see and, perhaps, to touch this symbol of Christian salvation. Some were looking for miracle cures. Six members of a Guimar family heard a perpetual ringing in their ears. They had tried the usual treatments, dripping warm mineral oil into the depths of their auricular shells, fasting for three days at a time, but the ringing persisted, driving them in desperation to seek silence from the astonishing carp. The alcalde of Vilaflor led an entourage to Santa Cruz after the town water well went dry. Caused by the long drought? Perhaps. He had a petition signed by every adult in that mountain community who could write. It pleaded for divine intervention and a restoration of water because the town earned most of its income selling to visitors who swigged from bottles what they shunned from the tap.

Many more in the crowd were just curious. They jammed into tapas bars, drinking and stuffing themselves on snails, octopus in olive oil, and fat sausages. Others, not finding enough room to get into these bars, rushed bakers and bought all their bread. Stalls and shops selling other goods also prospered from the throng of customers who emptied the shelves and started fights when they could not get what they wanted. The island cabildo, fearing the worst, shut down the marketplace and drove these outsiders back into the surrounding country, establishing a curfew and a large fine for anyone caught out after the final hour had tolled on the church tower. These fines added up, swelling governmental coffers. With the carp came prosperity for merchants and the island cabildo, but not for the two fish-cutters, who labored on as they had always done.

The time passed in this manner until Licenciado Baez, assessor of property values, showed up three days later with an order to investigate all claims, make the proper assessment, and perhaps confiscate the evidence. The favorite nephew of the council secretary, he wore his hair short in the manner of a cadet and fastened his collar with a gold stud that stood out against a background of starched fabric, both stud and the stiffness lending support to his military bearing. The fish-cutters recognized his authority at once although the pinched look he gave them made Nicolito think there was too much cabbage in his puchero. Just a thought, so fleeting, so unimportant, but that brief lapse undercut the assessor’s position of command a little. He got right to the point, wanting to know if Don Yitzak had made money selling miracles or admission tickets to his stall and, if so, how much. He wanted to know as well whether anyone, either the old man or his assistant, had displayed the ichthys, that ancient symbol of Our Savior, in a manner that was likely to influence the faithful. And he wanted to know, if such a symbol had been displayed, to what extent had it increased the old man’s capital or total worth.

Don Yitzak denied anything of the sort, saying, “Begging your pardon, excellency, I hope to be struck down if I ever did such a thing, and in the meantime, well, here we are.” He poured the licenciado a small glass of honey-sweetened rum. “Your good health, señor.”

Even so, the licenciado ordered the doors to the market to remain closed, locked, and a seal placed on them until further notice. And yet the cabildo, whose intent was to keep the market shut down indefinitely or at least until the licenciado completed his inquiry, had not reckoned on the fury of shop owners. These merchants organized a delegation of furious capitalists to call on the island’s governing body, threatening to withhold the mordido they paid officials who, in turn, depended on this little morsel to pay for their mansions and wooden balconies overlooking tree-lined boulevards and parks.

That was enough to do the trick. The Mercado Nuestra Señora de Africa reopened in the afternoon, but without the great crowds responsible for its closing in the first place because in the meantime a traveling carnival landed at the Playa de los Cristianos where German and Swedish sunbathers liked to lie nude on the beach. It featured the Catalan Wolfboy, whose face was completely covered in a thick black pelt, and the Improbable Doctor Idrisi, who plucked bloody tumors from the viscera of the afflicted—all of this presided over by an impresario who smoked cigars through a hole in his throat.

This cigar-smoking veteran of carnival ventures, on hearing stories about extraordinary events in the north, got an idea. Why not add the talking carp to his bill of wonders? Because, his wife countered, the fish died. Ah, that was the difference between genius and mere mortals— imagination. Who was it told him the same thing about the two-headed calf? And how did that person feel now that everyone lined up to see the calf floating in its glass tank of alcohol? Do not tell him what people would or would not like to see. He set out for Santa Cruz in the half-light of dawn the very next day, climbing aboard the omnibus that followed the shoreline, then labored up into the mountains, crossing the island through the high pass and dropping down again into the capital, the traveler no worse on stepping off the bus than he had been at the start of his trip.

Don Yitzak Goldemberg received his fellow businessman as a brother, treating him to hot coffee and milk before sitting down to negotiate. For hours they bargained, making offer and counteroffer until they found the right balance both could live with. For the equivalence of thirty dollars the gefilte fish maker relinquished all rights, title, and interest in the physical remains of the reincarnated spirit to the showman, conveying by a quitclaim deed witnessed and signed by the notary without providing warranty of title. And good riddance.

That very night the sky opened up and rain began falling, a drizzle at first, then a downpour. It fell all night, and the next day, dry barrancos were swollen with rushing water for the first time in a long while. It rained upon the waters of the barrancos, roiling, cresting at noon, uprooting nopales, washing the cochineal insects out to sea. For three more days, the rain continued to fall before ceasing at last and bringing balance to the lives of the islanders once again. Don Yitzak, who never received a verdict from Reb Abrahán Veçudó, knew in his heart, and said as much to his apprentice, that God had sent the carp to end the long drought and then the showman from the carnival to relieve him of his burden and the pain in his head.

“Because, joven, you know the headaches I suffer, through no fault of my own.”

Nicolás Micaelo listened politely, which courtesy demanded, to the old man’s explanation, but he had his own thoughts, which he kept to himself, figuring after all was said and done that the voice he had heard coming from the fish had never been human. No, he now understood it had been, all along, the devil speaking through a medium from the sea, the same devil that drained the blood of goats at night, leaving them dead in their pens, and frightened grown men caught outdoors alone in the hours before dawn. And finally he thought, with complete satisfaction, it was only proper that the sorry remains of the carp would be preserved on display, side by side with a two-headed calf, in a freak show for anyone to see.

This much he knew: sometimes the mind bewitched the innocent. And sometimes it was the entrepreneurs of misfortune, with all their bad news, who fooled the mind. But you didn't need a carnival to see wonders. Not in times like these.

Ewing Campbell went to Isla Mujeres during a period of personal crisis, when he was still trying to develop a way of expressing the uncertainties and ambiguities of experience. Over time a transformation occurred, and his narratives began to take on features that reflected insular interpretations of events and conflict very different from those he had brought with him when he stepped off the ferry.

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