Mr. Nivelo, who is not Jewish, lifted a live carp out of a box of iced-down fish and was about to club it in the head with a rubber hammer.
But the fish began speaking in Hebrew, according to the two men. Mr. Nivelo does not understand Hebrew, but the shock of a fish speaking any language, he said, forced him against the wall and down to the slimy wooden packing crates that cover the floor.
He looked around to see if the voice had come from the slop sink, the other room or the shop’s cat. Then he ran into the front of the store screaming, “The fish is talking!” and pulled Mr. Rosen away from the phone.
“I screamed, ‘It’s the devil! The devil is here!’ ” he recalled. “But Zalmen said to me, ‘You crazy, you a meshugeneh.’ ”
But Mr. Rosen said that when he approached the fish he heard it uttering warnings and commands in Hebrew.
“It said ‘Tzaruch shemirah’ and ‘Hasof bah,’ ” he said, “which essentially means that everyone needs to account for themselves because the end is near.”
The fish commanded Mr. Rosen to pray and to study the Torah and identified itself as the soul of a local Hasidic man who died last year, childless. The man often bought carp at the shop for the Sabbath meals of poorer village residents.
Mr. Rosen panicked and tried to kill the fish with a machete-size knife. But the fish bucked so wildly that Mr. Rosen wound up cutting his own thumb and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The fish flopped off the counter and back into the carp box and was butchered by Mr. Nivelo and sold.
I know the end seems abrupt, but to me that gives it the ring of authenticity. The carp was not long among us, but it spoke its piece.
Addendum. Since this appears to be an amazingly popular story (I’ve already had a day’s worth of hits this Sunday morning, mostly people seeking talking-carp information), and since (I am proud to say) I am the sole Google hit for “Hasof bah,” I feel it incumbent upon me to add some linguistic explanation for those in quest of it. Unfortunately, my Hebrew is rusty, but ha-sof ba is extremely simple: ‘the end (sof) is coming.’ Shemirah is a noun meaning ‘guard(ing), watch(ing), observance’; unfortunately tzaruch is beyond me. Can someone with more knowledge of Hebrew help out? Avva? Naomi?
Followup. Avva says (in the comments) that “tzarich shmira” would mean ‘protection (guardianship, vigilance) is needed’ in colloquial Modern Hebrew. The official Languagehat interpretation of the carp’s oracular utterance, therefore, is “Vigilance is needed; the end is coming.” Thanks, Avva! Furthermore, Jonathan Edelstein at The Head Heeb (March 16, 2003 entry; I can’t make the permalink work) deals with the Hasidic aspect and makes the point that “the choice of a fish also seems strange given the association of fish with the Christian religion. In at least some countries, including many of the Central and Eastern European countries that formed the cradle of Hasidism, the Christian symbolism of fish is specifically associated with carp, which are traditionally served at Christmas dinner.”
Further addendum. In Gogol’s Zapiski sumasshedshego [Notes of a madman] occurs the following sentence: Говорят, в Англии выплыла рыба, которая сказала два слова на таком странном языке, что ученые уже три года стараются определить и еще до сих пор ничего не открыли. [They say that in England a fish emerged that said two words in such a strange language that the scientists have been trying for three years to determine it and so far haven’t discovered a thing.] The fish keep trying to warn us, but do we listen?
Yet another addendum (Mar. 2016). I just learned from the Wikipedia article on New Square (there was no Wikipedia when I wrote the entry) that “New Square is named after the Ukrainian town Skvyra, where the Skver Hasidim have their roots. The founders intended to name the settlement New Skvir, but a typist-generated error anglicized the name.” I am very glad to learn this.