On awakening one overcast morning a week or so after last Halloween (2016, a grim time), I shuffled into the kitchen to pour a cup of pre-made coffee and found things not as I’d left them. A piscine smell had vaporized out of thin air; not a fresh-from-the-ocean scent but a noxious hold-your-nose-odor. A vivid scene from a favorite film came to mind, The Tin Drum, when eels slither/squirm out from eyes, ears, mouth and neck of a dead, rotting horse’s head pulled from the sea by a fisherman, causing Oskar’s (the boy with the drum who refuses to grow up) mother (Agnes) to uncontrollably vomit. Nausea teased me but I brushed it away and cast my eye around the room for a source. I realized that my dish-drainer had upended on the windowsill rather than face-up beside the sink where it belonged. Unmatched cut glass salt and pepper shakers were in it, turned onto their sides, spilling flavors. A small dead red herring about four inches long, purple around the gills, humble, inedible, neither Polish nor Jewish, lay there too. Also in the drainer a half loaf of rye bread, a few slices of onion, a head of garlic suffering from white rot. The onion and garlic were half-swaddled in a crumpled Azalea blue print hankie. Stuck to the off-white glossy wall, a yellow post-it. In red sharpie, all caps, was written:
Whoever or whatever had written it, must not know I’ve a PhD in secret-keeping. The secret of the red herring’s visitation was safe.
Pinching the sad smelly red herring with ice tongs, I dropped it into an empty plastic bag. Onion bits, garlic, post-it followed. Though I debated the fate of the rye bread (as it was seeded), my lesser self convinced my better self to toss it too. Fishing a rubber band from my drawer, I sealed the sack, slipped on my robe and hastily carried the stinker out to the garbage shoot in my hallway. Down it slid. Back in the kitchen I opened the window, sprayed the room with Chanel No 5. With the same tongs, I pinched then dropped the bright blue hankie into the laundry bag. After all that, I poured coffee, added ice to settle my stomach, and went back to bed to check my email in-box and re-start the troubling autumn day. Waiting was an unopened email marked:
The man in the wilderness asked me,
How many strawberries grew in the sea;
I answered him, as I thought good,
As many as red herrings grew in the wood.**
Dear Madam, Your job is to distract, mislead, misdirect, divert, use slight-of-hand … whatever it takes. News of this incident is not to leave your apartment under any circumstances.
I have a PhD in secret-keeping. Perhaps not under torture, but certainly under almost any other circumstance. Rest assured, there’s nothing to fear.
At the time I meant it but life inched on. New scenes from The Tin Drum returned to haunt me and I wasn’t prepared. Like Oskar’s mother’s aversion to (first) eel (then) all fish after the horse’s head FYEO episode, I too lost my taste for fish. In the film, after being nagged to do so, Agnes reluctantly eats fish again. Shortly afterwards, in a surprise turn-around, she becomes incapable of resisting fish – herring, eel too – and can’t stop craving it, the smellier the better. She voraciously stuffs her mouth with all she can get her hands on. Her husband, her lover and her doctor try to intervene but without success. She’s insatiable and dies from a fish overdose. Though that’s not exactly my story, there are likenesses. I too became repulsed by herring, especially the red variety -not slowly but all at once. Around the beginning of the new year, I began finding red herrings (some alive, some dead) dropped here, dropped there – in my path, on the subway, under my seat at the movies. First one, then two, then more, then many. By spring (now) it is as if I am viewing the world through a fish-filled scrim. Red herrings, all. And always accompanying this nausea-evoking mirage is a sea-side-frothing sound – morning, noon and nighttime too. Unhappily not a sympathetic lulling lap but rather an oily woos like thick soup that’s been reheated once too often that flails as it boils over.
[***’Red Herring’ drawing by Cicero Kerk]