On Principle

Because our town sat upriver on the Aiviekste, the fishing had always been very good, and only once in a while did anyone have to spend the night in the hospital from having eaten a tainted fish. In fact, the carp carried only the slight smell of mud, and the eel and brown trout were so fine they’d been written about in Estonian and British newspapers. After reading these accounts, a team of scientists from the University of Latvia descended on our town. In exchange for ten lati a week, one could have a scientist living full-time in their home. Mother, who cleaned the elementary school in the evenings and kept house for a doctor in the next town over, signed up for one straightaway, and not two days passed before Dr. Boris Kostyrov arrived on our doorstep, one hand gripping a suitcase full of tackle and the other hand adjusting the coiled loops of his rust-colored handlebar mustache.

Right away Rudy, my older brother, and I knew that there was something wrong with Dr. Kostyrov, and not just that he was Russian and wearing such a hyperbolic mustache. At dinner that first night when Mother ladled out her special barley soup, she insulted the soup, as is her habit. “Too bland, too bland,” she muttered. Instead of disagreeing, Dr. Kostyrov reached for the salt and liberally sprinkled his soup. To make matters worse, when Mother brought out the main dish, a special recipe called fish in a cloak because the fish—in this case an eel—was cooked inside a hooded garment, Dr. Kostyrov pushed back from the table and looked at his hands.

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