by Hannah Solheim
You decided on adopting three fish. One black, one brown and one orange. You were born under the sign of water and maybe that is what led you to the impulsive decision of buying fish at 11PM on a Tuesday night. You went to Walmart to liberate three.
Jayson, your boyfriend, didn’t argue with you. He could rarely deny you. Your friend, Stephanie, agreed to come along. She considered you a good friend. You considered her tolerable, and there were few people you could tolerate, so that made her your friend.
The excitement you felt entered the automatic doors with you. It was the same excitement you felt as a child when your older brother would bring home an animal. He went through cycles of pets: a cockatiel, hamsters, rabbits, a scorpion, and even a herd of cattle. After many shoebox burials and the release of one hostile rabbit, he decided to set up a large aquarium. The commotion in the farmhouse had all seven of you crowded into the boys’ room, tapping happily at the glass and pressing your noses against its cool surface, leaving behind oily smudges.
The fish spent their half hour floating in bags that were partly submerged, to get them accustomed to their new home. During this time, one fish went missing, one red-tailed shark. Your mother would find him a week later, rotting away in one of her slippers that slid under the bed. His eyes were dried. You wished he had eyelids to slip down over his pupils. You all gathered around the toilet, saluted him and whistled “The Ride of the Valkyries” as he swirled down. He would never admit to it, but your youngest brother was behind the fish-napping.
The pet aisles smelled of meat and plastic. Bits of crushed dog food decorated this section of the store. An unhappy employee would later sweep it up. There was no one else standing by the tanks except for a young girl. You found it odd that someone would let their child wander around Walmart alone, especially late at night when strange people went out to buy unnecessary things, like fish.
You distanced yourself from the girl and walked to the tank furthest from her. You watched the crabs try to dodge the goldfish that darted around and bumped into the crabs and into each other.
It was hard for you to pity them. Your brother had two pet crabs in his aquarium. You remembered the time your youngest brother broke one of the aquarium statues. The statue was a skeleton holding a rum bottle and on the base of it, it had engraved, “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” You found him standing over it. The top of the bottle had broken off but it was fixable. Knowing he had been caught, his lip started to quiver. His expression changed to one of surprise when he found his scapegoats. “Man, is Eric sure going to be mad at those crabs!” he said. Your family still blames the crabs for mishaps around the house.
You thought that their one large claw would keep them anchored to the bottom among the bright blue and pink rocks. Despite your childish beliefs, they managed to climb up the plastic plants and over the small lip of the aquarium and venture through the second floor. Your brothers would always find them in your room. Your sisters and you would run, leap onto the beds and scream, hoping to be rescued from the rogue crabs. One night you went to shut your door and one was lying along the wall. It laid limp, dead. You picked it up. It was smaller than the palm of your hand. You wondered why you were ever afraid of it.
The girl’s purple jacket and pajama pants edged closer into your peripheral vision until she brushed her arm against your side as she pointed at the crabs. Her dusty blonde bangs caught on her eyelashes and twitched as she blinked.
“Yeah those, those are, are crabs. Yeah, and they cost $2.48. Look at their little claw. They can pinch people with them and-and-and that’s why they have them.” Her heavy Minnesotan accent parroted the words next to the pictures that identified the fish.
You imagined the girl’s name being Amber. She was annoying like an Amber you once knew in grade school.
Your friend Stephanie humored her. “Oh, really? I never knew that before.” She turned and gave you a smile behind Amber’s back.
Jayson started growing impatient. “Does anyone work here? I’m going to go ask for them to call someone over here.” While waiting, you wandered to the shelves of betta fish. They each had their own small plastic bowl with a lid that had few air holes. In the back there was one upside down floating along the bottom.
“I think this one is dead.”
The girl stopped pestering the crabs and ran over along side of you.
“What? Let me see.”
You hadn’t intended to gain her attention, but Stephanie’s. You regretted saying anything. The girl picked the bowl up and held it close to her face, examining the fish.
“I think it’s gills are still moving.” She looked it over again and poked madly with her pudgy fingers at the plastic where the fish’s head was touching it. She swilled the water around, trying to wake the fish from its slumber.
“Nope, nope it’s dead alright.”
Filmy, white lines rose from the rotting corpse. The girl searched for more victims but to her dismay, the rest were survivors. For such feisty fish, they were beautiful. The reds caught your eyes, and reminded you of Rainbow.
Your mother once surprised your sister and you with betta fish on the first day of school. It was a ploy to get you to find your courage as you walked into your second grade classroom. You were a quiet girl. Later on, your parents admitted to having you tested for some sort of disease, to find out what was wrong with you. The results were that you were shy. You wanted to name your betta Rocket, but your sister stole the name. You named your fish, which was all red, Rainbow. That afternoon you came home to an empty tank. Your mother’s response was, “Rainbow went on vacation.” You believed her. Your sister’s fish darted around his bowl, flaunting his life and his name. You imagined a laugh escaping every time he opened and closed his mouth.
Another tank homed large koi and shubunkin fish. You admired their calico colors. Amber trailed you.
“Holy buckets, look at that one,” she laughed. “It looks like he has a mustache. Look at his mouth.”
She then imitated the koi’s mouth by opening her mouth as wide as her jaw would allow. Her eyes grew large as she began to open and close her mouth, creating a smacking noise.
“He could eat all of the babies if he wanted but, he doesn’t.”
You wanted to apologize to them for bringing her over to their tank.
Your mother had decided on building her own koi pond. It was your father’s job to dig it out with the backhoe and it was your job to select the fish that were suitable to live in it.
You went to the pet store downtown that was upstairs from the office supply store. You picked out an all-white koi with one large orange spot on top of his head. He was the length of your hand. Your youngest brother wasn’t looking at the koi or shubunkin but at the black moors, three tanks to the left. “How about one of these fish?” After a few minutes of him pleading, your mother said yes. He named that fish Eddy and he still lurks at the bottom of the pond, camouflaged into the shadows of its depth. Your koi fish only survived for a few months.
One morning your sisters and you walked along the rocks that surrounded the pond. The morning sunlight would reflect the orange and white bodies that drifted beneath. That morning the rocks were reflecting flecks of orange and white, a trail of koi scales that led to the flowerbed behind the waterfall. Between some hostas you found the head that was adorned with one large orange spot. There were paw prints leading away back to the woods. Your father confirmed that they belonged to a raccoon and promised to stay up that night to catch it. You left the koi’s head there, hidden under a large leaf. That night you lay in bed and heard the shot echo. Your eyes burned.
The fall after you lost your fish you helped your mother empty and clean out the pond. You used ice cream buckets to carry the fish down into the basement where your mother set up the fishes’ new winter home, a cattle trough. After most of the water was pumped out, buckets were used to scoop up the sludge and leaves that had settled on the bottom. Among the muck you saw small movements. You stirred around with the bucket and unearthed baby koi. They were struggling to breathe. You hurried to fill the bucket with water from the well and scooped them up with your hands. That day you tracked mud into the house but your mother understood that you were part of the rescue crew.
The smell of dog food was starting to overpower you. You went and searched by the shampoo for an employee. You found one stocking shelves. You watched her eyelids that had creases in their blue eye shadow. They looked like the lines of rivers on maps. “Sure, I’ll get someone to help you.”
You can’t remember if you said thank you or not but you remember the routes of white among the maps of blue.
You returned to a conversation between Stephanie and Amber.
“Those are pretty cool.” Stephanie laughed half-heartedly.
“Yeah, I know, right? They’re ghost shrimp. They’re called that because you can see right through them.”
To avoid her you walked past them to tank of neon tetras. They dashed through their small living quarters without stopping to take breaks. You watched a pink one ram itself into the glass.
The fish reminded you of your roommate’s pink tetra, Tweak, who was a murderer. Your roommates each had their own fish in the tank and suggested that you do the same. You took your time searching and decided
on a fantail goldfish. A smaller one swam eagerly to the front and right in front of your eyes. You looked each other over. You’re not sure what he noticed about you but you saw that he had a black patch that surrounded his right eye. You pointed him out to the employee, a stout lady whose khaki pants hovered over her sneakers and exposed her Christmas socks, even though it was August. She looked annoyed with your particularity but you continued to follow the fish with your fingertip. She had to stand on the top step of the ladder to reach down and blindly swing the green net. After a few attempts and after catching the wrong fish, she finally bagged up the one with the small black patch, El Tigre.
You would come home from class and say hello to him. One night you were drunk and decided to put your entire arm into the tank. You watched as El Tigre swam up to your hand and swam around it. You were convinced that that was his way of giving you a kiss. As weeks went by you noticed his fins were shrinking and it became difficult for him to swim. You caught Tweak chasing him and biting at his fins.
Eventually, El Tigre’s fins were nibbled down to nothing. He bobbed around the surface trying to keep his gills under water. You then knew it was time for his proper burial. You cupped him into your hands and walked him up the stairs to the privacy of the upstairs bathroom. You whispered sentimental sentences into your hand. Then kneeling down beside the toilet, your knees started to hurt. You noticed the ring that lined the bowl and felt ashamed to send him down this way. You looked at his right eye and the black patch around it. His gills slowly flopped open. You wished you could have given him a better burial.
You heard a scuffling behind you.
“I have one of those pink ones at home.”
“That’s nice.” You didn’t care but Amber continued.
“Yeah and it swims really fast like this.” She took her finger and started to move it around in a zig-zag motion as fast as her chubby hands could go. Her wiggling hand came closer to your face.
“That fast, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said and stupidly nodded her head, her bangs flopping against her forehead.
You stepped over to the next aquarium and stood on your toes to get a better view of the fantail goldfish.
“Look, the goldfish are only .38 cents. Only .38 cents!” She greased up the tank of common goldfish below with her fingerprints.
“Yes, I see that.” You continued to look through the mass of fantails.
Amber pushed her way between you and the tank to get a better view.
“I have three of these. I had four but one died. It died right away. This like…” She closed her eyes, tilted her head, and stuck out her tongue.
“Yeah, my dad said he would buy me a new one but he hasn’t.”
A heavy woman pushed a squeaky cart behind you, trapping you next to Amber. You politely asked her to move but she was on her cell phone and didn’t hear you.
“What was that kind of shampoo you used?” She talked louder than necessary.
“Miss could you please—“
“Uh huh, yeah and did you buy that at Walmart?”
“Miss, plea—” you said a bit louder.
“Jessica. Come with me now,” she whispered to Amber so the person on the phone wouldn’t hear. “We have to go get groceries.”
“Mom, can you buy me a goldfish? Look, look they’re only .38 cents.”
Again whispering she said, “No.”
“But mom, dad said he would because one of mine died.”
“Sorry, could you hold on a minute.” She held the phone into her shoulder to muffle the sound. You were sure her loud voice carried and that the person on the other side found her voice loud, too.
“That’s business between you and your dad, not me.”
You remained pinned in place.
“But they’re only .38 cents!”
She mouthed, “No.”
“Please, mom? Please?” The vowels were strung out long.
Her mother responded with pursed lips.
Amber/Jessica’s shoulders dropped forward in defeat. “Fine.”
Her mother pushed the cart away. Her daughter followed her, freeing you. You watched as the butterflies on her purple pajamas got lost in the wrinkles as she dragged her feet behind her mother.
Jayson had picked out his black moor and held the bag up like a prize fish that he had caught himself. Stephanie had her own bag, and inside a plecostomus sucked at the plastic barrier.
“Have you decided which fish you wanted?” he asked.
One orange fantail was swimming against the glass. Bouncing back, it returned, following your face and begged for attention.
Hannah Solheim is an English major at Bemidji State University.