STORYGLOSSIA    Issue 22    August 2007


The Cabalfish


by Benjamin Buchholz



When the boy exploded, steadiness, headiness, air tipped saccharine, the cobbled mewls of the souk spun, a bar of iron whirled through the purple smoke of the sky, a sheaf of silk spread on the silk-vendor's hands caught fire and sifted the mist of falling blood. Cuneyt the Turk saw the boy's pieces rain onto the lap of the spread fabric, saw the fish, the cabalfish, shiny as a new shekel, small as an ear, as it flipped downward through the pinkening air. Blasted himself, bent lumbar backwards awkwardly, forced to his knees, Cuneyt reached for the fish, for the silk, and caught them both in a fist.

"Fish," said Cuneyt.

Six breaths, then darkness came with a distant fury of high-pitched police sirens. Cuneyt let himself slip into it, revel in the quiet. He felt the fish wriggling in his hand, the scales abrasive and wet, the body cold. He began to let himself dream, a dream like death, perhaps the approach of death itself, quiet and slippery and seined. There, in the vacuum, the fish spoke.

Cuneyt was quite certain of it. The fish. Words came from the fish. Rabinthroe.


Tickletree. Shinglefoot. Locodrome.


The sirens, bursting into quicktime, marchstep, a mother with hair uncoiled from her thick desert-tribe howli walked amid the mess, bending to dig beneath litter and body parts. What was she saying? To whom did she say? Girl, girl. Or, more specifically, she still too many meters away for Cuneyt to hear: Leyla, or Nissy, or kidnames, nicknames, what would a mother call out in that moment?

Quandigger. Vestmetal. Mumplings.

"Mean something," Cuneyt said.

The fish stiffened in his grip, vibrated like a tongued 9volt, like the gnawed tip of a copper hookah touching the tender cavity in a tooth.


"I know that word," said Cuneyt. Surprised in hearing for the first time the fish-voice tinkling and aerated but clearer, meaningful, sensical.

"I know 'exactly'," Cuneyt said. "I know what you mean."



Hospital whites, night throbbing quietly somewhere on park benches and khebab stands below, the muddy river, the yellowed masonry with names penciled in Braille along the crumbled mortar, these things passed into and out of Cuneyt's mind. Scratches, thickets of them, sycophant, sibilate, shaped like snakes those names and love yous, the Allahu Ahkbars, the Red Crescent on the white nurse apron, the veils and gauzes.

The fish.

Mean something.

Where was the fish?

Cuneyt flexed his hand. The IV taped in his elbow pricked at bruise-yellow skin.

"Water . . . " he reached for the cord, the ring-tone cord hanging above him like a noose from aluminum rafters. "I need water."

"You can't drink through your mouth right now, Mr. Aghar," said the primrose and lashful looking away lady, nurse.

"For the fish," said Cuneyt.

The nurse shut the curtain on him, certain some hysteria of the quieter sort harmless and fishbabble funny coursed through his catheters, wrinkled his synapses. Sponge wet, silly dog, flippery man up into the sleep, sleep where ache and memory fade into grapevines and those lush many visits to Amalfi and Phoenix. Those were the days of haze and glory gambling, the kiss and tell smokelong shadow of stiletto heels hurting in the hallway, coming to thump his hotel door with a perfumed napkin, leave a number, Mr. Aghar your silk, your carpet, your money withers me breathless in the blownwide vision of that boy, the trigger, the fish in the air silvered and perfect, alien within the tumble up soot and debris. And a man, there, 'Amalfi' you may name him by association with those liquors of long times gone and dreamed, holding the trigger of a prayerbook in the clerestory chamber, a balcony up above the purple smoke of the sky, looking down through a smile of mustache at the flying apart crowd.

Umberthunk. Ishtinny. Calapanlio.


Amalfi, the murderer, the seen.

"You speak reasonably sometimes, sometimes not. Why? What is the delusion?"

In a styrofoam cup swishing, turning slow circles with tail bent, unable to stretch, the strange whisper in icewater shone.

Mean something. You said it yourself.

Sleep, sleep came, a deeper down regular cicada of sleep. On waking, Cuneyt found the cup spilt on his chest, the changeling shift of his sick-ward smock still damp, hot-damp, stained with the puddle of fish water gold.

"Are you here?" he said.

Sengseng. Plankpoodle. Liminick.

"They are closer," said Cuneyt. "I hear words in them."

"Feeling better today?" said the shy roselipped laughter of her nursing at the curtains.

"Oh, yes," said Cuneyt. "I can hear."



It took some hobble, throttling back the step and suede jacket, the wingtips exchanged for softshoe, a bit more grace, a bit less youth, but still Cuneyt managed to cane to-and-fro among the sellers and buyers, the fruit stealers and the sly agape ladies.

He wouldn't revisit the purple sky site, that much he knew.

Wishgala. Fomingstrut. Wingka.

"It's closer all the time," said Cuneyt.

Too which, on occasions with special glimmer on the ground or skipping of children in the traces of a hare, perhaps the cabalfish might say something real, like: Yes.

"I'm having you removed, you know," said Cuneyt.

The fish swam steely deep through Cuneyt's pipes and aortas. He had spines to flare, gills to purify the flow, all the good and ticklish any man could want on the tracks of a mountain alone: a gift, a blessing, surely, but what did the neighbors think about those fish words that demanded answers, those fish words to which Cuneyt couldn't help but whisper a response? Wry wink, nod, a plane ticket to Switzerland, no one getting water from the communal courtyard when Cuneyt sat among the birds and frond shadows.

"I'm having you removed," said Cuneyt.

Yggrssl. Especially vapid. Woontuck.

"Exactly," said Cuneyt.

To which, after a moment, and at the same time the sheik's manservant opened the fire door, the cabalfish said, "Touché."

"Oh, clever," said Cuneyt.

"What?" the manservant who must have, judging by the streaked color of his eyebrows, been accustomed to such back-alley nutcases, such possessions in search of the curing Imam, the sayyid.

"My fish," said Cuneyt. "Acting up again."


"That makes sense."

We're getting close to the end, of us.

"Stop whispering."

"It's fifty dinar," said the manservant, "fifty to me for the entrance, four hundred for the sheik and the exorcism."



The sheik fed his cat the cabalfish, toyed with aplenty, and took the money with a puff of shared hubble-bubble. Easy. An easy quiet. A new man of business ready for Phoenix, plane rides, Amalfi.

Mean something.

No fish anymore Mr. Aghar. No fish but you in the quiet, in the night-journey of falling from the explosion, the ripped time, the quiet. What will you say to the woman with the pieces of her daughter gathered up like sticks?

"I've got a word, yes: Amalfi."

"A beautiful place," said the sheik, "or so I've heard. Have you been?"

"I have. And I'm going. Thank you. God be with you and yours."



The market quiet as wintertime forests in the quick last of the night, that hour before donkeycart farmers and the sweeps dust away revelry, fig-pits, dog gnarled knuckles of sheep. Quiet even two hours later, lazing by the fountain beneath the mosque of Ali Beshibar in the gilt shadows, waiting among crowds without the commentary of fish, the serendipity, somehow old and everlasting, of his words, rumblelink, levitrix, tremblebusy.

Cuneyt wasn't so bad at it.

Corsico. Dipsyswitch. Thonkyval.

The man with the smiling mustache. The man with the prayerbook. Amalfi. Mean something.

Cuneyt waited as the dropsy sun seared its zenith, screaming into sheets hung on the baked clay walls, satellite dishes tuned to the tepid glimmers in orbit frying on their sun sides, mink in the middle and ice in the darkness, all radio and vision, all skateboard, punker chic, the phrases of West and East from flymouth propaganda-casters, the children of news, the titter of harems gone fat on "I Love Lucy" and "American Idol."

This wasn't war. It was personal. It was etymology.

It was the sound of jacks skipping in the souk while the mother shopped, two stalls down from danger, for cilantro and beets.

It was rrrrreliti, with a flamboyant roll. It was trynin. It was olivant.

Cuneyt waited through evening, the muezzin call, the stabling of the sand mites and arachnids scurrying into cuneiform crevices. He watched for the beard, the mustache, the smile, the prayerbook. He prepared words. He thought, 'Where are you fish, in what cat gullet do you swim, circle, spell cat words so they mean something in their yowl?'

The starries sprinkled, blinking, backing out of the nether one by one through the falsetto rush of an evening breeze, a lilt in the ficus, a somber shimmy that made all Cuneyt's trunk and brick, his Torbuk and Samara, stronger, vital, virginal again and urging him to dance, but quiet, possessed with the something word he wanted to find. The perfect syllable, the neverbefore, to speak outward toward that very moment of mean something.

The prayerbook man arrived.

Cuneyt stood.

At the gate of the agape blue domed sanctuary slipping off shoes, just before holy, Cuneyt stretched a hand, touched the shoulder, shorter than him but thicker. The stiletto sound of the knife unsheathed, slid up the rib, twisted, and the sigh, the revenge, the hot drool of the man's blood down toward stigmata, all that converged into this:

"Amalfi," Cuneyt said (which was strange enough to the man), "Amalfi, I tell you 'dyelon'."


Yes. It's a made-up word, whispered to me once.

The stars howled against the wind, began to blink and sputter, and somewhere in the cat gullet the cabalfish cried out an ululation: yes, yes, my work is done here.


Copyright©2007 Benjamin Buchholz