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Jewfish (Part 1) by Naomi Alderman

He has a museum of items appertaining to the Jew. A Jew’s harp, of course: four in fact, one dating from the 18th century, its tongue still miraculously intact. Three dried specimens of the Jew’s Ear fungus. He would like to have a living one, has tried on more than one occasion to keep one alive, but they grow only on certain trees and his apartment is small, with no garden. On his windowsill, however, high above Manhattan, careful tending has allowed a large pot of Jew’s Mallow to thrive; its furled yellow flowers return year after year. He does not know why it is better to have a living specimen than a dead one, only that it is so.


Other items have been easier to obtain and store. A lump of black, sticky Jew’s pitch in the lined drawer of the bureau by the window. In the next drawer down, a glass jar of Jew’s frankincense. Atop the bureau, a large and beautiful Jew’s Stone sea urchin spine. He loves to hold it in his hands, to admire the smooth underside, the place where it turns from rough beige to a tender and delicious pink. He finds he is tempted to lick it, like ice cream.


Sometimes, perhaps once every two or three months, he places all these items together, in such a way that he can take them in with one sweep of his eye. In order not to disturb the mallow, the arrangement is generally made by dragging a coffee table to the window and placing all the other objects carefully on it. The four harps, three fungus specimens, the asphalt and benzoine, the sea urchin. When the collection has been set out in its order, he brings a chair from the kitchen and sits, observing his possessions. The observation brings him pleasure. It generally continues for several hours. He notes the differences and similarities between these objects, grouping and regrouping them in his mind. At these surveying times, he likes to comment – to himself, only to himself – that there is another item in the collection. A living item. A Jew. Himself.


He desires, therefore, a Jewfish. He has illustrations and photographs of these monstrous fish but, although educational, they do not count. He would like a live one but cannot see how such a thing could be accomplished. A stuffed Jewfish, though. He makes enquiries with several taxidermists and angling stores. They tell him his request is virtually impossible; Jewfish are very difficult to mount. Would he perhaps be interested in a plastic replica? He insists. It must, at least, have lived once. They note down his details, promising to telephone if there is news.


In the meantime, at home, he pores over representations of the Jewfish, learning its habits and signifiers. The Jewfish is friendly. Fascinated by divers, it will often swim alongside a boat. The Jewfish is endangered; in the waters of America it is no longer permitted to kill the Jewfish. It continues to exist only due to the mercy of others. Nonetheless, the Jewfish is dangerous. Legends abound. Jewfish of 10 or 12 feet long are regularly spotted; it is supposed that larger fish certainly exist. A story circulates of a missing diver whose underwater camera is discovered. When developed, it reveals one last image: the face of an enormous Jewfish, head on. He is unsurprised by these facts. He is pleased to cut them from magazines and paste them into a book, to make them his own.


To be continued….


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