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The house of fish head soup

Roger Nash September 1, 2009 Arts No Comments

A SMALL BROWN HOUSE: My cormorants, sliding down oiled shafts of sunlight as fast as the sunlight itself. My gulls, squabbling in your ever-moving marketplaces and loud invading armies. My white-fish and pike, with scales of only distant stars at night. You do more than surround me. Through my lake-facing windows, you’re part of the memories that make me a house. Even voices from the past get stored as echoes in each wall. Bricks and mortar can mumble them back in the quiet of the night, wagging the long tongues of loose strips of wallpaper. Only the front door keeps its mouth tight shut, and nothing gets out onto the street. What can you hear?

LANDLADY: Keep that baby’s bottom out of the toast. What are daughters-in-law for? What’s more, for a baby, he looks years too young for his age. Mary, it’s no-one’s fault to be foolish, but to be as careless as you, you have to study it for years. And watch that other end: keep his dribble out of the jam-pot. Call the lodger to supper.

HOUSE: I remember Mr. Panek coming into the kitchen that meal-time. He always wore felt slippers that looked freshly ironed, and entered every room with soundless caution, like a shadow both inquisitive, but worried, about what was casting it, leaning around corners to catch a quick peep. Mrs. Maki could have that effect on a young man. Her hair alone could. It effervesced greyly above her head like an over-vigorous seltzer combating some deep-seated acidity, or, perhaps, her strange sense of humour.

LANDLADY: G’d evening, Mr. Panek. Help yourself from the big bowl.

PANEK: Excuse me, Mrs. Maki, what’s it for supper, tonight?

HOUSE: Panek was constantly surprised by any change in her tone of voice. As apprentice bank-clerk, he could read bills of sale in a flash, but not that. Her voice would be well-chewed at first, ground out through tightened jaws. Then, suddenly, it became heavily cobwebbed, even hoarsely bearded, as if she were losing interest in him, or muffling and hiding something  – and he couldn’t tell which. To intensify his confusion, she always turned on him a smile impregnated with ammonia, turpentine and sugary almonds.

LANDLADY: Mr. Panek, forgive me, or not, for saying this, but you’ll never own more land than’d fill a small flower-pot, if you don’t help yourself to things quickly. The world and his grand-dad know, just from the smell of it, it’s fish soup. Oh boy, even if it were raining soup real hard, you’d still be out in it, wet and hungry, with only chopsticks or a fork.

HOUSE: Panek ladled twice, slowly and carefully. With the second ladle, a huge fish head floated up in his bowl. Soup and steam began to pour from its eyes, in hot, convulsive spurts. Panek’s jaw dropped like a front-end loader, and his lips moved soundlessly, but apparently very eloquently, as though he’d become a film of himself to which they’d lost the soundtrack. If it wasn’t the four horsemen of the apocalypse, it certainly seemed, from his reaction, to be, definitively, the last fish head thereof, come to end the world, or at least Mr. Panek’s. He crossed himself defensively, and a felt slipper flew off as he jerked back his chair.

PANEK: My God. What…?

LANDLADY: Fish head soup. Caught a pike this morning, out on the lake. Quite a contest. It has a very bad temper. Look how it’s staring at you and gnashing its teeth.

HOUSE: Panek touched the head nervously with his spoon. It rotated, rocking slightly in a malevolent waltz. Odd, the way it came to a stop, each time, with those hard-boiled eyes fixed directly on him, milky-white and grey, as though accusatory storm-clouds were gathering quickly behind them. Panek stood up quickly, ran over to the open window with the bowl, and flung the contents right out. Even for a house that’s seen most things, this was unexpected, out of character. He sat down again mechanically, resting his head upon wholly forgotten elbows, which slid into both toast and jam-pot. The fish’s judgemental gaze had disassembled him completely, like a child’s toy.

LANDLADY: Have a cup of tea, then. No surprises to stare at you from a cup of that –  or are there?

HOUSE: Her voice sounded heavily bearded again. She poured from a battered old tin kettle, that she kept perpetually simmering on the lowest setting possible on her stove. She was as sparing with teabags as with praise for others. But the non-stop simmering produced a strong cup. They sat down together, on the sofa, looking out a window at Lake Ramsey.

LANDLADY: What a view. It shifts the heart in me sideways and upside-down, sometimes.

HOUSE: Panek’s lost soundtrack burst in, nervously working overtime to catch up on itself, but barely synchronized with his pale lips.

PANEK: It’s as fine as the Northern Lights, a highland fling and the bubbliest champagne, all mixed up together.
LANDLADY: My, aren’t we one for words, and a smart young man. But you’ll need action too. Otherwise you’ll have to wait for the next leap year, when women can propose to you. Though in Finland, they can do that in the three years leading up to, and following it, too. But only in those exact years, mind you. Anyway, what are words, for describing this view? It’s like trying to remember the feel of tasting the tears on the first laughing or crying girl you ever kissed. You can never quite do it, but, such is life, you never completely give up trying. But, forgive me, or never, for saying this: you don’t look like you’ve ever kissed a girl, laughing or crying.

HOUSE: Well, Mr. Panek moved on and up in the world, as nervous but very attentive shadows can. But he came back to visit, for supper, a year before she died. At table, there was both a tureen of soup and an odd look in her eyes. He couldn’t tell whether that look was humour or a complete lack of interest.

PANEK: Did you make this soup with any fish head?

LANDLADY: Don’t know anything about heads in soup.

HOUSE: Panek looked, suspiciously, at something head-sized wrapped up in newspaper by the sink. He tried to engage her in conversation with a string of questions. But, to his surprise, she answered each one by saying she didn’t know.

PANEK: Do you still get mail delivered?… Did it rain here last night on your garden?… What’s the name of that island we can see though the window, out on Lake Ramsey?

LANDLADY: What’s the mail or the weather got to do with anything, when they’re at home? Don’t know the name of any island. There was no island there when I put on my bed-socks last night.

HOUSE: Panek left, wondering about Mrs. Maki’s memory. A year later, after her death, he was back, now a successful realtor as well as successful shadow, to value me for sale. He took out her canoe, to see how far away Swansea Island was. A quick mist drifted in, as it sometimes has a mind to.

PANEK: I’ve been round and round. Darn it, where’s that island? It might as well not be there. Perhaps her bed-socks got it right, after all.

HOUSE: Back in my kitchen, Panek noticed the kettle on the stove, dented and scarified like a gleaming tribal face. He filled it and turned on the hot-plate. He was thirsty from canoeing. Then he looked for tea bags and teapot, but found neither. The kettle boiled, and he aimlessly poured out a cup: the colour of light molasses. He picked up the cup, and walked over to the sink to empty it, then held back, and inquisitively touched the liquid with his tongue. He screwed up his eyes and sipped. A life time of non-stop simmering, by both kettle and landlady, and here was a kettle, so flavoured by the past, it made tea all by itself.

PANEK: Not so bad. Besides, just a little sip seems the least I can do, now, after wasting her fish head soup.

HOUSE: His smile was of a man relieved he’d at last held his own, and graciously, with an effervescing landlady. But a house knows that landladies leave force-fields behind in their walls, that still move past lodgers around like shadows or iron-filings, unknown to themselves.

LANDLADY: There or not, that island’s never more than a donkey’s hee-haw away from this house.

HOUSE: Long tongues of wallpaper are wagging. Close the front door firmly, as you leave. Keep the past in, off the street.

About the writer: Roger Nash was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire. The retired Laurentian University professor was president of the League of Canadian Poets from 1998 to 2000. His short story The Camera and the Cobra was featured in the acclaimed PEN/O’Henry Prize Short Stories anthology, 2009 edition. The PEN anthology features the best 20 stories published in the past year.

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