The Fishmonger

by Lauren Kardos

Another dead-mackerel-gray morning, the young fishmonger crouched against the crumbling seawall off the docks protecting his meager catch, salt crusting rags to his wiry frame. With three sales, he told his grumbling stomach, he could purchase the stalest sesame simit from the baker’s cart. He knew not to hope for emptying his tray, selling enough to purchase the day’s meals, a pot of apple tea, and an hour at the public baths. The fishmonger would deposit nothing in the bank this week, his yearning to reclaim his family’s fish stand slowly drowning, just like his father.

So famished, so exhausted, so thirsty he could float, the fishmonger peered at the glimmering tray. Silver scales reflected the dead-mackerel-gray sun, silver the fishmonger hadn’t seen since tending his father’s stand, making deliveries to the bazaar, and stopping by the jeweler’s stall. The gleam shone not from earrings, baubles, or necklaces, but from the eyes of the jeweler’s daughter, eyes that danced in childhood as she beat him in rounds of marbles, that danced with teasing, warm words as she and the fishmonger came of age in the months before his father’s death.

It was another dead-mackerel-gray morning the cats returned, pulling him from reverie. The bold one, its matted fur black as nightmares, slinked and slanked until it perched mere inches away, its tail swishing and flicking the fishmonger’s ankles. The quiet one, gray stripes wrapping white fur like prize swordfish ribs, stared from across the tray with lighthouse-yellow eyes.

But this dead-mackerel-gray morning, the fishmonger sold no fish. Passersby avoided his pleading gaze and walked toward trusted vendors in the fish market proper, where his father’s stand once ruled. Though the cats calculated angles of attack, they never pounced. Glancing down, the fishmonger swatted mid-morning flies, refusing to number the pre-dawn Bosphorus nettings of only sickly fish, the days without a hot meal, the nights sipping briny water through peeling lips.

“One wish for a fish.”

The fishmonger looked up from the swarming decay. The street was empty.

The black cat leaned as if confiding to the fishmonger. “One wish for a fish,” the cat repeated.

How many more dead-mackerel-gray mornings could the fishmonger endure, head buzzing to the point of hallucination? His malnourished muscles ached; loneliness burrowed into his core deeper than hunger. He looked left, looked right. No one would see the fishmonger obliging the cats; clearly, no one cared if his catch rotted unsold. And a kind deed brought daily luck, most merchants agreed.

Halving the least putrid fish with a rusty blade, he offered head-end to the black cat and tail-end to its companion. The felines finished in several swift bites. The fishmonger waved, as if shooing away the cats could shoo away the voice his weakened brain surely conjured.

The cats stood firm. “Your wish,” the black one purred.

Greed had cursed his family, his father’s debts placing a price on his head and business, so the fishmonger imagined a featherweight pouch, coin enough for lunch at the alleyway lokanta. Though when the black cat lifted a paw, the fishmonger’s holey pockets jingled until lira overflowed onto the sidewalk.

Serious as death, the gray-and-white cat said, “One wish for a fish.”

Maybe with love, the jeweler’s daughter by his side, he could weather the dead-mackerel-gray skies. The fishmonger could deserve her yet. Tides, as fishers said, could turn.

For a sardine apiece, the cats gave the fishmonger a princely appearance: a beard finely clipped, a silken shirt, and cream-white breeches with polished boots. Two gilthead sea breams he exchanged for two keys, one to a mansion as lavish as Topkapı Palace and another to the prime storefront near the fish market’s entrance. Bluefish, sarda sarda, brown meagre, the cats licked blood from their chops but hungered still. The fishmonger last wished for a ring of sapphire and smoky diamond, glittering brighter than the jeweler’s daughter’s eyes, sparking sunlight into the dead-mackerel-gray clouds.

The fishmonger stood, stretching from an eternity of crouching. He offered the cats his remaining catch and departed for the bazaar, ignoring their contented gobbling and mewling as innards squished and squelched between claws and fangs. The jeweler’s stall reeled in the fishmonger like a hook to the heart. He allowed himself to picture his knee on the dusty cobblestone, the trill of yes from the daughter’s mouth.

A hand on the fishmonger’s elbow broke his daydream. He saw from the bazaar’s archway the jeweler’s iron gates locked. “The wedding is across the bridge in Galata,” the merchant gossiped. “They say the reception ends at the Tower, the spice trader’s son insisting on a view as legendary as her eyes.”

By the time the fishmonger returned to the seawall, only the rags of his former life scattered about, seagulls circling the tray’s small mountain of bones. The fishmonger dashed toward the two cats, gray tail and black tail bobbing in the distance, both slinking and slanking faster and faster until they dove into the dead-mackerel-gray Bosphorus, never to be seen again.

Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. Rejection Letters, (mac)ro(mic), Best Microfiction 2022, and The Lumiere Review are just a few of the fine publications where her stories and poetry live. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.
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