Karen Rivers

fish story.

Karen Rivers

The fish wants something from me.

When I come into view, he throws his whole fishy self against the glass of his tank, which is actually a clearance vase from Winners.  I move my face close to his.   I must look like a monster in the distortion of the glass, all hideous teeth and huge eyes.  His fins flail in frantic circles.  His bulging eyes meet mine.  

What?  I say.  Tell me.  

He darts against the glass, banging his head.

I feed him and he ignores the food raining down on him and keeps staring, following my movements.  If he could light a fire in there, he'd throw up a smoke signal that I still wouldn't be able to read.

Hey, he is saying.  HEY LADY.  

Tell me, I say.  What is it?

He taps his fishy face against the glass then, frustrated, swims down to the wrecked army jeep that he calls home. 

I don't know what he wants.  

I'm trying, I tell him.  I'm trying over here.

The fish makes me feel guilty.

Look, I explain to the fish.  You were born to this life.  It's not like if I hadn't bought you, you would be swimming free somewhere in a Vietnamese rice paddy.  You were born in a pet sweatshop.  You're just lucky you weren't taken home by someone who makes you guys fight for entertainment.  

His fins spin.  He watches me.

To the death, I say.  I think they let you fight to the death.

I feel worse and also, I wonder if I made that part up.  Do people actually do that or did I just read it in a book once?

Sorry, I tell the fish.  Anyway, I don't even know.

He rises up, then suddenly lurches, like he's going to breach right out of the water, landing in my outstretched hand.  Then, exhausted from the effort, he stops.    

I wonder if he dreams about stems of rice or other fish.  I wonder what he knows about shadows and light.

Nothing.

Or something.

Some scientists tagged a great white shark in the Atlantic to track migration patterns. The tagged shark swam in a shark-shaped pattern across the ocean.  

Maybe my kid's betta has a message, too.  I watch him swim.  I look for a pattern.

Sorry, I tell him again.  I have to go fold the laundry.

He sinks back into the broken door of his darkened jeep, his unread message breaking up into bubbles on the surface of his bowl.

As I type, I can hear the scuttle scuttle scuttle of the rat that is trapped between my exterior wall and the interior plaster.  "Scuttle" implies that it's something quiet, like I'm straining to hear him, when really -- due to the lack of insulation in the house -- I can't NOT hear him.  I put in my headphones and turn Audible up as loud as I can.  Harold Fry continues to walk north towards Queenie.  I pretend that I can't hear the rat now, over the dulcet tones of Bridget Jones' father, assuring me that Queenie will, indeed, stay alive for as long as Harold keeps walking.

I have a feeling that she won't.

The rat, however, seems to be immortal.

I am writing a novel about sharks that isn't about sharks, but actually about people, like all novels really are.  My novel originally also had an amusement park, but I'm taking that part out, word by word, starting with the title.  I am carrying my protaganist and his sharks in a big, unruly bag on my back, and slowly slogging through the dense fog of the revision.  The boy and his sharks are heavy and awkward, but I don't mind.  It's a good book. 

I only hope the sharks don't get hungry and chew off one of my arms before I get to the last page. 

On the news, I hear that there are wolves moving further and further south towards the city where I live.  I don't blame them.  The climate is best here on the south tip of the island, particularly if you don't mind the rain.  I'm not really worried.  I'm pretty sure that my dog would protect me from a wolf, and/or that a wolf would stay away from the dog.

But we spend a lot of time walking in the woods, so I teach my kids how to make a tourniquet from the dog's leash, just in case.  

"I hope it doesn't bite your head," The Birdy says to The Bun. "I'd have to wrap the leash around your neck." 

"It could bite your heart," he says, gravely.  "Then I'd have to tie it around your ..." he stops.  Then he shrugs.  "I don't know," he says.  "You'd probably die."

"Muuuuuuuum," she whines.

"Listen," I say.  "You only use the tourniquet if it's an arm or a leg."

"What if it swallows your leg?" says The Bun.

"Your leg is too big to be swallowed," I say.  "Anyway, wolves don't bite people very often.  You're more likely to be killed by a vending machine tipping over on your head." 

"You can't put a tourniquet on that," The Birdy says, darkly.

"Quite right," I say, wondering what sort of bad dreams exactly they will each have tonight.

I spend more time than I should wondering if my dog feels ripped off, if she comminucates with passing dogs about their daily walk schedules, their regular play times.  If she thinks, "Why didn't I get adopted by that other family?"

(All my pets feel ripped off.  Don't even ask about the birds.)

The dog wants to go for a walk. She follows me around with hope in her eyes.  Now?  NOW?   NOOOOOWWWW???  She licks my feet, as if to remind me what they are for:  walking.   Walk, her eyes say.  Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk.

I have to mow the lawn, I tell her.  I'm sorry.  It's just that if the lawn is mowed, this looks less like a house that may or may not be inhabited by rats.  You're probably right about the other family.  Will you still protect me from the wolves?   

She looks at me pathetically and sighs, then takes up her station on The Birdy's lower bunk, her head resting on an old Winnie The Pooh.  The resident rat begins the arduous work of making several emergency exits through the roof, sawing through the ancient siding with his beaver-like teeth and occasionally running a few laps around the inside of The Birdy's bedroom ceiling to remind us of his presence, as though we could forget.  The dog stoically ignores the scuttling and stares at me, stone-faced, giving up her dream of paths and forests. 

In this way, I know she's saying, Well, if you took me for more frequent walks MAYBE I'd help with your rat situation, but as it stands, I'm on a break.  Good luck with the wolves.

Fine, I sigh, let's go for a walk.

I reach for the leash and Harold Fry.  

It's important to keep the pets happy.  You never know when you might need them to save you.

When was the last time you were in your crawlspace?  the exterminator asks.

Thursday, I say.  Why?  Are there wolves down there?  

I laugh, as though I've said something funny. 

Well, he says.  No.  But seems like it's taken on a bit of water.

Oh, I say, stopping laughing.  Oh no.  

Yes, he says.  You may want to take a look.

Once he is gone, I go down and look.

The crawlspace is puddled with shadowy lakes.  A golf ball floats by.  On my hands and knees, I think about money and how much this is all going to cost.  I consider crying but I don't want to add to the volume of water already accumulated on the cement floor.   I nudge a few things out of the way and find a mouse, severed by a mouse trap, under an inch of water.

I think of the fish on the kitchen island, swimming around his discounted vase, in and out of his tipped over jeep.  Maybe, I think, I should release him down here.  In the lake district that is the crawlspace, he can swim amongst my Christmas ornaments, mouse corpses, ruined book copies and sodden boxes of old toys.  

He can patrol the house for rodents, stealthily biting the legs from unwanted intruders as they swim along above him in the flotsam and jetsam of my stored life, a silent ninja in the dark depths.

I mean, you just never know with fish. You can't ever know what one might do to save you from the wolves, the lady who keeps him in a vase on the kitchen counter, his view only occasionally obscured by the tilting pile of laundry that stacks up against the glass walls of his tiny, terrible home.