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Angelfish – Feb. 11

Angelfish

by Kelly Scott

The child watched as her mother scooped the fish from her father’s aquarium, dunking the beer mug into the water and dumping several neon tetra into a pickle bucket by her side. Each swooping movement brought the fish into an electrified frenzy, bits of tail and fin moving across the tank like a storm. The child closed her eyes as one propelled itself from the mug, flopping around on the floor with heavy jerks. She was disturbed by how the air seemed to crush the fish into the wood floor. The child thought she might feel the same way if she were plopped on the top of a mountain, the sky forcing itself onto her, crushing her into the rock until she could no longer breathe.

She opened her eyes to her mother’s tightening voice. “It’s okay sweetie, I have him right here.”  Her mother dangled the fish in front of the child’s face before dropping it into the bucket. “We’re not killing them darling, just teaching Daddy a lesson.”

“You can’t just take them out like that,” said the child. “ They have specific environmental needs.”  She repeated what her father had told her a hundred times. No, she could not pluck one from the tank and keep it in a bowl on her nightstand, not even just for a night. They all exist together, he had told her. Take one out and it affects how the others will act. He had held her hands in his own, shiny pink palms facing up. Do you know how many fish-killing germs are on these hands?

“I have specific environmental needs too,” her mother had said, setting the mug down so she could reach for the glass of wine on the table.

The child said no more, just watched as her mother’s puckered face forced back tears.

“I can’t,” her mother kept saying. “I can’t have you watch this.”

The angelfish, the child’s favorite, skulked about the aquarium, its regal stripes showing bright through the murky water. This fish, her father had told her, was no angel. King of the tank, he would say proudly as they watched the fish with mutual fondness, smartest fish you’ll ever come across. Any aquarist will tell that.

“Go to your room and play,” her mother said, going at one of the catfish with the mug before finally reaching in and closing around its slippery body with her bare hand.

It landed into the bucket with a thud. The aquarium water had become cloudy, so cloudy that the child could no longer see through the glass.

From her room, the child could hear her mother arguing on the phone. “You have to come home,” she said over and over. “You have to talk to me.”

The unusual pitch of her mother’s voice upset the child so much that she plugged her ears with her index fingers, hearing only the throbbing sound of the ocean inside her head. After a moment she removed the fingers, her mother’s shallow sobbing coming from the living room.

She heard a crash. The child peeked around the corner and saw her mother standing over the aquarium, now a million tiny pieces of splintered glass, piled on the wood floor like a hill of blue crystal. “Stay back, honey, it was an accident,” her mother called to her.

The mother hop-footed her way around the expanse of glass, moving towards the foyer.

“Shit,” she yelled as a piece of glass sliced her heel. She slipped her feet into her husband’s sneakers, leaving a slivery trail of blood across the floor. She grabbed the bucket of fish and placed it in the yard by the backdoor.

“See honey, the fish are fine, I’m putting them outside where it’s warmer. Eighty-six degrees, right? That’s what your father keeps it at?”

The child said nothing. Her mother hobbled over in the sneakers, cringing every time she put weight on her cut foot. She grabbed the child by her hand and led her towards her bedroom. “Come on baby, let’s go lie down and wait for Daddy to come home. He’ll help me clean up the mess.”

They climbed into bed and the mother wrapped the child in her arms, laying her hot face against the little girl’s neck. The child could feel her mother’s wild heartbeat on the top of her spine, like little men drumming on bone. The wetness from her mother’s crying stuck to the child’s skin, making it burn and itch. The child was still until she could hear the sound of her mother’s sleep, the breath slowing and easing, a soft snore escaping from her nose.

Rain hit against the window, beginning slowly and then pouring down all at once. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The child wriggled from her mother’s heavy grasp and slipped on her own sneakers so that she could walk to the back door.

The rain had filled the pickle bucket so fast that its contents had spilled over the summer grass. A smattering of silver guppies slipped through green blades, two swollen catfish slithered across the ground. Light peeking from the graying sky reflected off the rainbowfish’s irredescent scales. The child spotted the angelfish a ways off, and knew he must have fought hard against the weight of the air, writhing and jerking its body a good three feet from the bucket. She walked into the rain and stood over it, watching as its movements slowed down, much like the rhythm of her mother’s falling sleep. She wanted desperately to save the angelfish, to save all of her father’s fish, but she stopped herself from moving. She felt that this must be a part of the lesson her mother was trying to teach him.

“I’m sorry, “ the child said to the fish before returning inside the house. She stripped her wet clothes and dried off with a towel. She dressed in her nightgown, even though she knew it was still hours from her bedtime.

The child slipped back into the cocoon of her mother’s body. Even in sleep, her mother’s heavy arms instinctively pulled the child against her chest, hugging her with a tightness that was both frightening and reassuring to the child. She plugged her fingers back into her ears, retreating to the ocean inside her head. She closed her eyes and imagined the angelfish swimming there, in the darkness behind her eyelids, where it had all the room in the world to swim, where nobody’s hands could harm it.

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