The fishwife came to the village every Friday morning, during the summer. She brought the day’s catch. A scent of fish, onions, and damp earth followed her. It pushed aside the home cooking aromas, pouring out of open kitchen windows.
The fishwife wore light, wooden clogs, as if on a beach. She dragged them noisily along a carpet of sunlight, separating the thin shadows of the tall houses, on either side of the street. A procession of stray cats and a few curious children tailed her. The sun was so high they had no shadows; it made them look like ghosts.
The villagers knew when the fishwife was coming because her drawn-out lament preceded her: “Ëeeelaghaiiipeeeesciiia!” which, in the local dialect, means "Heeeeere´s Fiiiish!¨. She carried a wide basket full of fish on her head. It was a surreal sombrero, which kept her head and shoulders in the shade. Despite this, her face, neck, and forearms were deeply tanned, as if she spent her life in the sun. One hand supported the heavy wicker, while the other rested on her hip. She swayed when she walked.
The old men of the village looked forward to her swaying. They waited for her, sitting on either side of the streets, on cool, Carrara marble benches. They were mostly old mariners, and they dressed in black, white, and grey. Their clothes were heavy, and some smelled of mothballs, others of musty wine cellars. Most men had craggy, tanned faces from a lifetime at sea. They wore basques or straw hats. They laid their hands, and sometimes also their head, on their cane, which they held upright before them, when sitting down. They spent the mornings cracking jokes and teasing each other. Sometimes one of them brought a pink newspaper with him. This earned him the right to read aloud the Sports’ news to the others. When the fishwife walked past, he would stop, and they would all sit up and exchange knowing looks.
No one knew how old the fishwife was, and no one dared to ask her. Thinking about it now, she must have been middle-aged. There was something timeless about her; as if she came from the Past and was only visiting. She always wore a white headscarf, tied at the back like a pirate, and a light blue and grey, short-sleeved dress, buttoned up at the front. Its bright colours had washed out years before. I had seen similar dresses in an Italian black and white film I’d watched on TV. They were worn by peasant women, who were singing while working shin-deep in paddy fields.
Tied around her waist, she wore a stained, once-white apron, as if she had just come from the kitchen. She would wipe her hands on it, after serving customers; after wrapping the fish inside brown paper, and placing it in white plastic bags. She had large hands and thick fingers. Her fingernails were dirty with dark soil, as if she had just been planting something. Her hands were enormous. They were the hands of a man; the hands of a large peasant.
She rarely spoke, and then, only to make a sale. Her voice was low and steady; it came from her gut, not her head. She sounded like someone who had seen it all and heard it all. Nothing seemed to surprise her. She had the eyes and the expressions of a much older woman, but she had a child’s smile. When she smiled, one could not help but to smile back. The fishwife never smiled at men, but she smiled at a few women and all children.
Hers must have been a hard life, but one could see she was proud of it; all of it. When she sat down, she sat like a man, with her legs wide open, putting the basket on her lap. When she moved, she did so as if half-asleep, like someone used to pacing herself under the sun.
When customers approached her, the fisherwoman would take down the basket, and a dozen cats would lower their noses in wide-eyed silence, as if witnessing a Martian landing. The cats seemed to be attached to the fish by an invisible string, tied to an imaginary nose ring. Some of them tried to get closer. In these instances, the fishwife would turn and glare at them, and her pupils became tiny dots. Her Medusa stare would petrify them on the spot, sometimes with a paw in mid-air, as if they were playing Statues, the children’s game. No cat ever beat the fishwife at Statues.
It has been years since the fishwife has come to the village. A dark, serious, Sicilian has taken her place. He drives a refrigerated white Fiorino van and never smiles. Villagers know when the fishmonger has arrived because he shouts ¨Pesce! Pesce!¨ Fish! Fish! in the megaphone mounted on his van. He does not enter the village but opens the back of his vehicle in the parking lot, and waits impatiently for the elderly villagers to show up. They come out of nowhere and approach erratically like zombies. While he is selling them the day’s catch, a young, leggy, blonde in jeans sits in the passenger seat of the van. She looks East European and chews gum while playing games on her mobile phone. She listens to an ipod looking bored. Every now and again, she takes a nervous drag on a cigarette or blows chewing gum bubbles. There are no cats about; someone must be feeding them now.