Storyglossia Issue 35, September 2009.

Ghost Carp

by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich


Relax, New York has everything was what the clerk said this morning when he pulled me into the lizard section to talk. I watched a green one flick its tongue in and out, three horns protruding from its head like it had leapt right off a page in the book of Ukrainian folk tales my mother read to me when I was a child. A perfect dream of a creature come to life under glass right there in a Brooklyn pet shop. Yes, anything is possible in New York, I thought then.

The clerk said of course he remembered my father picking up the fish tank the day before. And he remembered me, too, standing with Papa a month ago to place our special order for the tank, the grandest one in the whole store. I'd been the dutiful daughter, faithfully translating the rush of pump names and size specifications that poured from my papa's lips like a river held dammed for six months or maybe a lifetime. It won't be easy, the clerk said this morning, the all-black ones are rare. Now that, he said, and his green eyes shone as brightly as the pebbles piled at the bottoms of the tanks, must have been a beautiful fish. Your father must be heartbroken. The look I gave him didn't need any translation. But yeah, he hurried on, I'll find you a new one. I told you, anything's possible in New York. He asked if I had money, and I nodded yes, thinking of the cello Papa had bought me, all smooth curves and a varnish clear as water. The cello I no longer needed. Meet me at ten tonight, he said then, and pressed an address into my palm.

But it's ten-fifteen now and even in the dark I know I'm alone in this bar. I've been running my hand over a long, thin scar in the stool next to mine for half an hour, feeling where the vinyl's split through to the foam beneath, so deep it looks like a chasm in the earth, the splits between continental plates we tried so hard to imagine as schoolchildren. It wasn't until after I'd left the pet shop this morning and was on the train back to Brighton Beach, trying to calculate how long I had before Papa realized Luba was gone, that it occurred to me that he might know her better than just the color of her scales, that even if the new fish was a perfect match he might feel in his bones that something was different. I pushed the thought away as soon as it came.

Now I sip from a tumbler and wait. I wait for the clerk to show. I wait for the vodka to warm me up from the inside, the long, clear burn through my middle like the homesickness I am trying not to feel. I'd always heard New York was warmer than Odessa, but it's been two months and I have never felt this cold.

No one knows I'm here. Papa was still at work and Mama and Alek were already asleep when I left. Even the kitten Alek brought home from a classmate was asleep, a scrawny gray thing he tried to name Luba, as though that word hasn't been claimed forever. The only dear, the dearest thing we brought with us from Odessa, is Luba, the perfect all-black ghost carp my father has had since he was a boy and which he carried in a plastic tub on his lap all through Romania, through Italy, through three months of travel and making Mama to be the one to smile at the border officials and pass envelopes of cash.

It was Mama, too, who whispered to me on the train rides, taking me against her shoulder and patting my head like I was still a little girl, telling me not to worry, we'd get a new cello. New York was full of instruments, there would be plenty of time to practice in the months before my audition. Even then I felt it in my chest when she said those words: a twinge, a darkening like the gray sky I didn't yet know would hang over my every day here. I watched Papa in those moments, wondering if he was thinking of the office he'd left behind, with the matching black fountain pens he was so proud of, each ink nub as curved and dark and elegant as Luba's tail. I wondered, too, if he was imagining the janitor's broom that awaited him, the gray uniform and the long hours in silence.

But he didn't seem to see us that whole journey, he wouldn't even meet Mama's eyes, he just kept his head pressed down to the plastic tub. Lubov moya, he whispered through the air holes he'd cut in its top, careful not to spill the water that lapped inside. My dear one, my love, when we get where we are going I will buy you the biggest tank in all of New York City. It will be made of mahogany and glass, and I will have carps carved into each side, your brothers but none as beautiful as you, Luba. The water will flow and for you it will always be spring. Then the unveiling of the tank last night, Papa's first smile in all these months, the slow bloom of vodka in all our throats, as forgotten and familiar as our laughter. Alek even tried to give some to the kitten. Mama surprised us all with a trinket for the tank, a little castle that opened its drawbridge in time with the water. It was tiny next to Luba, but it sparkled in the water all the same. Together we watched the carp swim around and around its new home until Papa had to leave for work.

So when Luba was floating belly-up this morning, felled by the new pump, and I hadn't even worked up the nerve yet to tell them that I no longer wanted to do the audition they'd spoken of since before we left Odessa, not now that there was all of New York before me, I knew what I had to do. I wrapped Luba in newspaper and carried her out to the dumpster before anyone else saw, saying a quick prayer before I let her slip over the side. I'd replace her before anyone even noticed the loss.

Now I sit in this bar, and wait. A rush of cold, the door opens. I hear footsteps and turn. A man with a ponytail holds a plastic bag. The clear break of light through water, a curve of beautiful black, an orange flick of tail.

Copyright©2009 Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her short-short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Minnetonka Review, Pindeldyboz, and Monkeybicycle. Her essay "In the Fade," adapted from her memoir-in-progress, won the 2009 Bellingham Review / Annie Dillard Prize in Creative Nonfiction. For more information and links to other work, please visit:

Interview with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich