have come to the marketplace, but not to buy anything, for they
have nothing here that I need. I have come, instead, to see the
fish-jugglers, though I do not know why. I only know that I must see
Not everybody knows about the fish-jugglers; in fact, though they
draw quite a crowd, it is still a small crowd compared to the number of
people who live in this city, and the number who pass in and out of its
port daily as sight-seers. No, the fish-jugglers are an élite, a
specialty. They cater only to the most select crowd. Or so the man who
shares my table informs me.
He is a thin, quiet man, with olive skin made coarse by years
of brandied cigarillos. Long, grieving lines run down from his eyes,
forming parentheses around his nose and mouth. They deepen when he sucks
at his cheroot, or when he sips his port. He offers me a smoke; I
decline, and he smiles. "You are wiser than me in that regard," he
says. "But you will, of course, have a port?"
Actually I don't want one, but I nod anyway, out of politeness, and my
companion signals to the wizened, simian-looking boy who is, by the
looks of it, the only drinks waiter here, at this makeshift café in the
waterfront market. The boy carries a tray laden with glasses so full
that they threaten to slop over every time he makes one of his darting
turns, but they never do; he is very deft. He must sell hundreds of
glasses of port, but there is no evidence of it; his tray is always
My companion lifts a glass from the tray. The waiter holds out his
hand, but it is not his bare palm that he holds in expectation of
payment; it is a small glass bowl, full of swimming fish. My companion
puts a hand in his pocket, and draws out a goldfish and two minnows,
both quite lively and wriggling; he drops them in the waiter's fishbowl,
and is rewarded with a quick and courteous bow. The waiter departs, and
my companion presses the drink into my hand.
"Not too quickly," he warns, as I begin to sip. "You must
take your time at this. It is imperative."
I nod, and take my time. The port is black and mucky-looking, but
its taste is fine and sweet. It would have been a mistake to bolt it
down, as I had been meaning to.
Meanwhile, the first juggler has come out. He is juggling three flat
fish in the usual manner, and as I watch, a fourth fish appears from
some unseen corner and he begins juggling that; and then, a fifth. He
doesn't miss a beat, although the fish are alive and flapping. And just
as I think that I cannot admire him more for juggling five lively fish,
a sixth and a seventh appear, and he juggles them all in one great
flapping circle. This goes on for several minutes, through a number of
intricate variations, and then he catches the fish, one by one, into a
wriggling bouquet, brandishes them high, and departs to tremendous
Another juggler comes on. This one is juggling pike, and they snap
at his fingers with each pass, but he deftly manages to snag each by its
tail before whipping it aloft. How he does it I cannot say; the fish are
practically turning themselves inside out with each flap of their
powerful tails. He, too, keeps adding fish as he juggles, never missing
a beat, though the fish appear at irregular intervals. By the end of his
performance, a dozen pike are flying through the air, snapping
viciously, only to be caught by their tails and held aloft as the
crowd roars approval and the juggler takes his bows.
I turn to my companion. "How is it," I ask him, "that they
can juggle live fish? I would find dead ones difficult enough."
"Dead?" My companion looks horrified. "My dear, why would
you want to do that? Juggling is no good unless what you are juggling is
"But how do they manage to catch them, the way they flap? And why
would anyone juggle fish, anyway?"
My companion shrugs. Then he leans closer, and in the low tone of
voice adults use when explaining their own untidy behaviors to children,
says: "My dear, you don't understand. That is to be expected. I don't
understand, either. We are not meant to. The people who do understand,
or think they do, never come here; they do not believe in the
fish-jugglers, and if anyone told them about such a thing, they would
only shake their heads and call it preposterous. What they do not
understand, does not exist. But you and I, we are special; we do not
understand much of anything, so we can see the fish-jugglers. You have
given up on understanding, or are very close to it; you think yourself
ignorant, and you are. That is an admirable thing; and that is why they
juggle fishes here. Now, no more talk—here comes the grand finale."
Two jugglers appear on the makeshift stage. They are tossing
swordfish, full-grown ones, and the swordfish are fighting valiantly,
but they are juggled back and forth between the two, as easily as balls
or Indian clubs or flaming torches. How many swordfish are aloft by
show's end I do not know, nor do I care. I am so taken by the glittering
of their scales in the dim lamplight, by the movement and the violence
of the fish, that I simply sit and watch, and occasionally remember to
sip my port. Understanding fails me; I do not need it. And as the finale
speeds ecstatically to its finish, as the fish become a giant blur and
even the jugglers grow indistinct, I can understand why the crowd is
cheering, and why they juggle fishes here.
have come to this café seeking solace, and instead find only
frustration. All around me are mad poets, succeeding without even
trying. The waiters come, setting down full inkwells in front of them,
and they toss the ink down their throats as though it were so much espresso.
Once in a while one of them will retreat behind the rhododendrons. A
sprinkle-hiss will be heard, followed by a sharp cry of triumph. And the
poet, his labors done, will race out from behind the rhododendrons,
brandishing a sheet or sheaf of paper, exclaiming that his masterpiece,
at last, is written! There will be a chorus of oh's and ah's, a round of
inkwells on the house for his circle of cronies, and they will all thump
him on the back and congratulate him before he troops off home.
The man at the table next to mine has ordered chicken and asparagus en
papillote. What he gets is a handful of scratch pads and pen nibs,
artfully wrapped in a sheet of thick parchment paper. He cuts into it
neatly with his fork, and with a gracious economy of gesture, scoops up
and eats every bit of it. Not a crumb of metal or paper does he leave on
his plate, and his apparent ease in chewing such food arouses wonderment
in me. His meal done, he dabs his mustache with his serviette, excuses
himself, and heads for the rhododendrons. A most embarrassing racket of
grunting and flatulation is heard, and then the triumphant cry. He comes
out weeping for joy, mopping his round red face with his coat sleeve.
"Look, look," he coos, like a fat grey dove heralding world peace.
novel is finished at last. I am a millionaire!" He departs in a flailing
haze of thumping arms and drunken congratulation.
No waiter comes to serve me. One single busboy flits by, looks at my
wild expression and the empty page in front of me, and clucks in pity:
"Pauvre mamzelle! Rien ne va pas pour vous aujourd'hui..." But
can implore him for help, he turns away and busies himself removing
empty, overturned inkwells and crumpled serviettes from the tables.
Disgusted, I get up and leave.
On my way home, I notice that the gutters are full of scribbled pages.
They smell like an overflowing latrine. I turn my gaze away from them,
to where bright strings of laundry flutter in the breeze above the
Sabina C. Becker was born in northern Ontario, Canada, in 1967 and currently lives in Cobourg,
Ontario. She has two bachelor's degrees: one in English Literature from
Queen's University and another in Journalism from Ryerson Polytechnic University.
She is currently working on a futuristic novel set in Toronto.
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copyright by author 1999 all rights reserved