Looking for My Green Fish

by Evalyn Lee

“Nothing works unless you discover new things.” —Maureen Brady

Looking at my walk-wobbled handwriting, I’d checked my notes to see how many fruits of the sea were on offer at the Venetian fish market by the Rialto Bridge. The light, at nine o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, October 14th, was just beginning to brighten the edges of the market labels, which, if not printed out by a computer, were handwritten in thick black ink, most in a sumptuous, curving script.

I’d counted eighty-nine varieties of fish during my angular walk, a twenty-foot step by twenty-foot step square, around four large packed tables of ice. Almost ninety types of raw, cooked, or cured sea life on display between the dark stone roof of the colonnade and its freshly washed stone floor, shining like giant dragon scales, over the hidden backbone of Venice, the sea.

I contemplated the remains of a great naval empire in the fins, gills, and fish eyes that flashed, freeze-framed, in the moving cameras of the tourists, while other creatures still roiled, alive, under the shadows cast by the shopping lists of local Venetians.

I listened to the voluble questioning, testing the truth as to the freshness of the catch, wishing, both, that I could speak Italian or cook fish.

The fish came, according to the labels, from as far away as Tasmania and as nearby as Venice’s Laguna. Zones marked out by years of fishing wars and treaties left me wondering just where in the ocean exactly were Zona 37.2 or Zona 27. I saw fish from the Atlantic, central and south, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and finally, the Adriatic. The Caribbean provided the salted fish, but I saw no fish from the Baltic, Caspian, or North Sea.

Alone, in a green plastic net tower, on ice, was a bag of the local miniature conch shells, the Graffalino. I’d learned that this local cockle is the nickname of choice for real Venetians; and as I took in the modest but complex nature of this shellfish, coiled up in its delicate thumb-size, pigeon-colored shell, I thought they were like the real Venetians, those dwindling number of people just able to live and work in this city, their home.

In 1996, over 158,000 Venetians were counted as living and working in Venice; today, 2008, it is less than 56,000. The local city government announced its new decision only to spend its revenue on tourist infrastructure; there are to be no new schools, hospitals, or supermarkets for residents. All taxes will go to support the fourteen million people who visit Venice each year, on average, for four hours.

And despite my careful counting, note-taking, and study of the minute shells of the Graffalino, I did not find my “green fish”—as described to us by fellow writer Susan Parman—at the market on Tuesday. I did not find my moment of inspiration, the one each writer and painter yearns for and works toward: No, Venice, the real Venice, was still not visible to me.

No, my Venetian green fish flashed before me on the following day, Wednesday, when Patrick, Dominique, and I were walking along the Calle del Fumo toward Fondamente Nove. All three of us were stopped by a window display of achingly precise, hand-engraved bookplates and business cards.

“Hey, cool,” said Patrick in his lovely Irish lilt, “Hugh Grant’s card.”

And there it was, beside Hugh Grant’s business card, my green fish, a small bookplate stating its dominion as the marker of the personal library, “ex libris,” of Joseph Brodsky.

I was compelled to step into the shop to find out more about the Russian poet’s bookplate.

“Yes, I meet him,” says Gianni Basso, stampatore de Venezia. He says the word “heem” in the high, rising tone of a native Italian speaker.

“He stood there,” and he points to the corner by the display window. “He draw himself.”

“He was here?” I ask, and I am near tears. My fellow writers, Patrick and Dominique, look stricken and bemused.

I know, fundamentally, how much Joseph Brodsky would have loved this dark shop, this printer, a true man of letters with his ancient printing presses and inked singular letters flush, upright, and filling every available space along the walls.

“I met him too,” I say.

I feel I know exactly how Joseph Brodsky’s cigarette would have hung from the right side of his mouth, smoking, as he frowned his eyes behind his clear, rimless, oval glasses, drawing this picture, for the bookplate, of a cat reading an open book.

I find myself repeating, “I met him too.” I’m realizing I can’t remember if Joseph Brodsky was left- or right-handed as I step forward to shake Gianni Basso’s hand, to physically touch him and share the amazing, fantastic, moving experience of having met, too, the poet Joseph Brodsky. I see my amazement registering on Gianni Basso’s open, delighted, and expressive face.

“He in cemetery now,” he says.

“I know.”

“Work kill him.” He shrugs once more.

“His heart,” I say. “His heart. He died in Brooklyn.”

“Yes, Brooklyn, he lived in Brooklyn.”

“He died, very early in the morning, a heart attack, next to his wife. I think she is Italian,” I say.

Gianni Basso nods and repeats the word: “Italian.”

He brings the three of us, the three writers, to the corner where Joseph Brodsky drew his bookplate and shows us a Russian edition of his collection of essays on Venice, Watermark. The book is lying beside a stack of hand-penned requests, from all over the world, for Basso’s work. The book is signed with a flourish and a rich paragraph of penned words that begins, “To Gianni Basso” and ends, “from Joseph Brodsky.”

Then Mr. Basso shows us around his small shop.

After, he slips one of Joseph Brodsky’s bookplates into a small envelope and gives it to me.

“You put in one of his books,” Gianni Basso tells me.

I put it in my pocket.

“I will,” I say.

Then I hug Gianni Basso, for his kindness, craftsmanship, his profound and genuine love of the art of letters, and, to mark one last time this chance moment that reignites my wonder at the life and writing of Joseph Brodsky.

We three writers reach the embarcadero at Fondamente Nove at four. The cemetery is closed.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing