Esox Lucius, or Things That Swim
All the children thought – and I agree with them – that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago.
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
I don’t like fish. I didn’t grow up eating fish. We good Presbyterians didn’t eat fish on Fridays or any such nonsense, not really often at all. Fish sticks, sometimes, but as we all know, breaded fish sticks with their mysterious white insides are to fresh-cooked fish as kandy korn is to corn on the cob.
Catfish was okay. I remember catching catfish so easily that time we went to Prettyboy Reservoir. My brothers cast their lines out into the middle of the still water, but I dropped mine down not six inches from where we stood. The rock overhung the still morning vapor and I imagined something was in the cool shadows, waiting.
Something was. Four catfish, plump and delicious, and I hooked them one after another, the only fish we caught that day, unless you count the little flat sunfish, but no one counts those. They’re flung back in a wriggling, suncatching shimmer of scales, a tiny plop. My father skinned and filleted the catfish, fried them in the pan. No bones. No fear.
When I was seven, I got a fish bone stuck in my throat after dinner. I don’t remember what kind of fish it was. But I was terrified, because the bone would not move. Every time I panic-swallowed, it would shiver, but stay put. I thought I was going to die.
I was given half a loaf of bread to eat in hopes it would move the bone. It did, eventually, but the memory remained.
There’s a restaurant you might have heard of called Bonefish Grill. It’s hard for me to read that name without feeling nauseous.
In Russia, I’ve had clear, steaming ukha on Olkhon, omul stabbed on stakes ringed around a campfire like a brutal ceremony to appease the Fish God, tender sudak laced with pipings of batter, and the infamous, fish-under-a-fur-coat, that traditional salad of herring surprise. But always, always, with the trepidation of a man entering a minefield.
* * *
I first tasted pike in Perm, at Volodya’s dacha. Not in the city itself, but three hours away, still within the Sverdlovskaya oblast, the administrative district, but almost to the next one, deep in the Ural Mountains.
Getting there was interesting.
The river Sylva is in the way, like any good river likes to be. In Russian and in English it sounds similar to someone dropping the “r” from silver. But it doesn’t mean silver, though that would be a perfectly respectable name. In the native Turkic dialect it means melted-snow water, and it is appropriately cold, even in July when the air sweats at over ninety degrees. It flows west, from the foothills of the Central Ural mountains to Perm, where it joins with the Kama.
If you want to reach Volodya’s dacha, his summer cabin, you have to plan ahead, because the only way to get your car there is to cross the bridge at Suksun. Suksun is a town, not a river, though it means cold water. So if you follow Sylva-melted-snow-water west, you will come to Suksun-cold-water. If you miss the bridge at Suksun, your car will be on the wrong side of the river, and there are no other bridges for two hundred kilometers. Heaven help you if you have a lot of gear.
The village of Tis is south of Martyanovo, a detail to mention because Google will not find Tis for you. It will send you to Romania or some other such place, but not to where you need to be. And to be there, you must not say its name like an Irish man, t’is, but with an ee. Tees. Not teez. Tees. Tis.
We did not expect to be here. In Martyanovo there was a woman who meant to house us and feed us for two days, but she made a mistake. She upped her prices as the quality of her food declined, and Mikhail Petrovich, who founded and ran the travel company that drove us out to Tis, cut her loose. This was perhaps hasty, because he had two American gentlemen arriving on the morning train from Irkutsk, and no place to put them.
So he thought with the hardened practicality of a retired sub commander, even if he was a retired sub commander in a city one thousand miles from any ocean. He called his son, who also works for the company that bears both their names, and asked him if by any chance his daughter-in-law’s father could take guests that weekend at the dacha, in Tis?
They could. But Mikhail Petrovich did not know how to get to Tis, because he had never been to the dacha, and so relied on phone calls to Volodya which increased in frequency as the distance to Tis dwindled. To be fair, Tis is small. Tis is hard to find. The 2002 census allows it a generous 423 people, which is almost cartoonishly specific, as if the village authorities were going to update the population sign while we stayed in town. (They didn’t.)
Once in Tis, we must find the bridge to cross the Sylva. The two surly teenaged girls hauling groceries down the dirt were not much help. They responded with shrugs and vague nods, but it is enough. The path to the bridge is between two metal garages, but no signs tell you that. You have to know. And the only people here are the people who know.
Even though you are lost on the left bank, when you get to Tis there is a great thing awaiting you, for though your car cannot cross, you can. You cross on the Bridge of Doom.
I am sure no one in Tis calls it the Bridge of Doom. That’s a terrible name, really, because it implies crossing to an unspeakable torture on the other side. When, in reality, we crossed to good food, good company, and soul-healing relaxation.
But Bridge of Doom sounds better than Bridge of Relaxation.
As we push through the tall grass, we see it for the first time—a cable bridge that loops gently across the slow-moving Sylva, some twenty feet below. The bridge is probably fifty-yards long, vanishing into an island of a few trees that obscures its terminus, consisting of four cables—two at waist-height, two three feet lower, with three-foot wide boards attached to the lower pair.
We start across. It sways a lot, and while the river below, flush with lily pads, doesn’t seem too deep, the last thing I want is to go flipping over the cable with my bag. It is breathtaking, nonetheless, like the climax of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but with less shooting and fewer crocodiles. And, on the whole, more Russians.
We reach the island, and a second gift—the bridge continues. The island is not the other shore—the Sylva is not so pathetic!—and the greater width of the river opens up before us, rushing much faster on this side. Another span of cable takes us to the far shore, where we can see a jeep parked and a few wooden houses.
And in the middle, moving with the swaying cables, our host, Volodya.
* * *
I have a picture, me in the back of the jeep, ready for adventure, thumb in the air. Volodya is looking back over his shoulder with a big grin. Volodya is a charmer. He’s probably between forty and fifty, has a tanned face and short brown hair. He grins a lot, and it’s infectious. He speaks not a word of English, so I translate for my friend, though translation is something I hate. As an activity, it’s not fun. It breaks the flow of conversation. But my friend has little Russian, and it’s cruel to subject him to endless patter in a language he can’t understand. So I serve. But to translate, listen, speak, eat, and drink at once is too much. Any one of these activities should have its own allotment. They should never be crammed together in one session at table.
Because of course we are at table. It took about forty seconds to reach the wooden dacha, and after getting the jeep through the gate, we met everyone: Mikhail Petrovich’s son Misha, his wife Vika, their little son Bogdan, and Volodya’s wife Lyuba. She runs a bakery. I think this is an excellent omen. Already I am glad we are not meeting the middling cook of Martyanovo.
Volodya allows us to segue into calling him Vova. He and Lyuba call back and forth to each other as they assemble lunch. When they yell halfway across the yard, they dwell on each syllable: “LYOO-BAA! VO-VA!” It’s adorable. They smile every time.
The table is set in a flash, in the shade of the thick-logged back wall of the dacha. We sit there as food and drink appear magically. The growing garden stretches down the hill at a slight incline. In the distance, the hills. “The Hills of Life,” Vova says with a smile and an expansive wave. I don’t know what he means, but there’s no time for that. The food awaits. We are amongst true believers, people who understand the value of a well-set table.
The next two days blur, time punctuated and marked only by food, drink, conversation. We alternate walks on the Hills of Life with swims in the delightfully cold Sylva. We float, back against the dark rocks, drifting, eyes on the blue sky. The Sylva will take you downstream to Suksun, but slowly. You can drift and drift, then stand up reluctantly and trudge back upstream to do it again. Once a whole convoy of youth group rafters passed by, drifting to somewhere. A final dinner is announced, and Lyuba tells me we will have fish. I hesitate, swallow the imaginary fish-bone of my youth, and ask her what kind of fish.
Pike, she tells me. Shchuka. From the Sylva.
* * *
There is a Russian folktale—a skazka—about a pike, a magical pike which grants the hero wishes. All he has to say is, “By the pike’s command, by my own wish,” and things are done. Russians know this. Many Americans have never heard it. The story was an oral tale years, if not ages, before it was written down. A story that still fascinates, though perhaps less than to illiterate, poor, Russia peasants, who wanted nothing more than release from their endless toil. It is the sum of my knowledge of pike.
The folktale is strange. In it, Emelya the Fool, Emelya-durachok, finds the pike and gains its power. He uses it to drive a sled through town, and he ends up running over people like the worst pre-industrial drunk driver. He escapes, but the next time he comes through town—again causing disaster—the people seize him and beat him, but he commands a stick to beat them all in turn, and he escapes. Emelya is a fool. Emelya is a menace. Emelya may—though here the tale is sketchy—be a mass murderer for driving over dozens of townspeople. But he is the hero, and therefore he can do no wrong. At the end he’s married the king’s daughter and lives in a palace that he commanded to be built.
By the pike’s command, he says, by my own wish. The former is the critical element, for the pike is the catalyst for magical happenings. It matters little what a fool wishes, but pair that wish with a magical object and you have the stuff of tales.
Pike is food, good food—as a game fish prized by anglers. Even among the ancient Slavs, pike teeth were totems of good luck, not just in fishing, but also for defending homes against evil magic and sickness.
But the negatives are there as well. Shchuka umerla, da zuby ostalis’, goes a folk saying, the pike dies, but its teeth remain. You offer that up when the instigator of an argument has passed away. Or consider the superstition that if a pike’s tail splashes before a fisherman, he will die within two years. The mottled yellow colors on its body are said to represent sickness and the underworld.
Not very comforting. Appropriate for the fish that poet Ted Hughes calls “killers from the egg.”
* * *
Vova has stoked the banya—the wet-sauna—all afternoon for us, and it is piping hot with a barrel of fresh water there to wash with. His dacha has no plumbing. There is a sink with a water cask above it that you use to wash in the entranceway, but that’s it. To be clean, either swim or steam. These are good options to be forced to, especially in summer.
We steam like royalty in the semi-dark of the wooden hut, not willing to go out into air again. When we do, the mosquitoes attack us because they know we are not local, they treat our blood like fine wine and guzzle it. It seems a sin to apply stinking American repellent to skin that has been so freshly purified, but the bugs are relentless.
A couple from the nearby dacha arrives, a fisherman named Aleksei and his wife, Irina. They are tickled to meet Americans out here in the Urals. Aleksei brought four pike, fresh-caught from the Sylva, for dinner.
The fish roasts in the fire, by Vova’s command, and smoke drifts up over the Hills of Life. Salads appear, vegetables, cold beer and vodka. The fisherman’s wife, Irina—as probably the most appropriate person after the fisherman himself—makes a comment that cleverly incorporates the phrase by the pike’s command. And we smile with the knowing smiles of people who are on the same page. I fleetingly wonder if my folklore students would remember it after a semester of indoctrination.
The vodka is cold and tangy in its alcoholic wake. You always chase—rye bread and garlic spread. Pickles. An eggy salad. The food is abundant, as it always is in Russia. A land of plenty, especially for a guest. Vova tells me that in the time of Peter the Great, there was a pond in the village here. It’s his lead up to an intimate history of Tis. I don’t see how it’s relevant, but I think the vodka is working on both of us. Vova tells me again about the pond. I say he told me already. Lyuba agrees. We get to giggling. The rest of the night, it’s a punchline. Whenever conversation lags—which isn’t often—one of us will say, “In the time of Peter the Great, there was a pond….” Even the fisherman finds it funny. None of it really translates for my friend, alas.
And now it is time for fish.
I’ve never had pike. I’ve never even seen a pike. It makes me think of barracuda-toothed creatures dashing through the water, perhaps taking a chunk out of a fisherman’s leg. But this is good. It is better than good. It is transcendent. And with roast potatoes and cucumbers and tomato salad and more vodka, we carry onwards as Lyuba lights candles in little sconces. That, plus the fire, is plenty to see by.
They give us the bed inside. It’s comfortable, if too-warm in the Russian style for summer. I lay down, a fly buzzes around me. My friend comes back from the outhouse, snickering. I ask him what it was.
He can’t stop grinning. “I think the man of the house just took a header into the bushes.”
It’s all right. Vova will be fine. On our last day, Lyuba tells me in a conspiratorial whisper “Yes, sometimes he drinks a little too much. But he’s a good man.”
I have to agree. And if a Vova can’t tumble into his own bushes at his own dacha, what’s the point of the world? Who am I to criticize?
Tomorrow morning we will stuff ourselves with pancakes, and when digestion has at last been attempted, swim in the slow–moving but delightfully cold Sylva, drifting downstream one last time. And then will pack and leave. Leave the Hills of Life. Cross the Sylva as if crossing out of paradise. By the pike’s command, perhaps, but against our own wish.