The Wishing Fish
The Wishing Fish
It was one of those days when what you really need is the cold mountain air coming off a lake of snow melt. A day when you need to be spindly and young, light and ready to jump. When you need to have the breath punched out of you when you hit the water. When your teeth need to chatter. When you need water droplets evaporating off your body while you sit on a rock and look down at the sand and gravel clinging to your toes. When what you really want is to be lazy and dreamy, lying side-by-side on a sun-warmed boulder under a hot August sky.
Night settles in at ten o’clock. Our backyard is alive with wind, rustling the coin-shaped leaves on the trees that edge our property, churning the day’s heavy air, cooling it, while the crickets and frogs trill somewhere out in the darkness. I zip Rachel and Marie halfway into their sleeping bags, green and patterned with big red lady bugs, before lying down between them on the air mattress. There’s a second of silence in which we all look up into the star-speckled sky.
Then: “I don’t see any, Mom.” Rachel squirms up against my side so she can put her head under my arm.
“We haven’t even been out here five minutes.”
Marie, on my other side, tugs at my nightshirt and says in that soft gravelly voice of hers, “I want to see one.”
“You will, honey.”
She’s only six, elbowing me in the stomach and knocking her heels against my shins. “Tell us a story,” she says.
“A story, huh?”
“Yeah!” Rachel nods, knocking the back of her head against my shoulder.
I stare up at the sky, through the lens of the atmosphere, deep into the black of outer space, where it is cold and quiet and lonely. They say it takes so long for starlight to travel to us that when we look up, we’re looking millions of years into the past, and most of the stars we see are already gone—and I can’t help but wonder if someone millions of years in the future is looking down on us now, here, beneath the spiny leaves of our oak tree.
“A long time ago,” I say, “when the whole earth was covered in water, whenever shooting stars went through the sky, they didn’t burn all the way up like they do now. The world was too cold for that, so they fell right into that never-ending ocean. And there was a fish who collected them.”
“A fish?” Rachel asks.
“Yes, a fish,” I answer. “He would peek out of the water so he could see where the shooting stars fell.”
Marie cranes her neck to look up at me. “Why did he do that?”
“It was so dark where he lived at the bottom of the ocean,” I answer, “and there’s nothing better or brighter for lighting dark places than a shooting star.”
“What about a flashlight?” Rachel asks.
“Fish don’t have flashlights.”
“So the fish would gather the stars in his front fins and carry them close to his chest, through the dark water to his cave, where he stashed them away, and down there at the bottom of the sea there was this great white light coming up through the roof of his home.”
“Pretty,” Marie says.
“It was,” I say. “But one day, the sun grew hotter and hotter, until part of the ocean dried up and the first island was formed. And that night, a star fell right onto the sandy beach, all twinkly and bright, but the fish couldn’t get to it.”
“Because he was a fish!” Rachel bounces and Marie and I bob up and down on the air mattress too.
“That’s right. He stayed there all night looking at the star, but he couldn’t reach it.”
“And then what happened?”
“The sun got hotter and hotter...”
I nod. “Like today. And the earth got drier and drier, and there were more and more stars speckling the landscape that the fish couldn’t get to, and he would sit there in the water, looking at the shore, and there were so many stars that the whole land was lit up like a city. And then, the earth got so hot that the stars started burning up before they touched the ground.”
“But what happened to the fish?” Marie asks. She sounds worried, as if the fish is really out there somewhere, waiting in the water, watching as the stars burn out.
“Oh, he’s around. Every so often, one of those old stars gets knocked into a stream and it goes tumbling all the way down the riverbed to the ocean, and the fish is there waiting to bring it back to his home at the bottom of the sea.”
“He didn’t find a way to get on land?” she asks.
Before I can answer, Rachel screams, “There’s one!” She’s suddenly elastic and springy and kicking me. And then:
“I saw it too!” Marie is squeaking. “Rachie, I saw it too!”
They’re laughing, and the stars are multiplying before my eyes, a thousand of them appearing and skipping about, bright points of light. I raise my hands and so do the girls. The stars shift under our fingers like sand.
The girls stuff their hands back into the sleeping bags and pull them up to their chins, giggling.
I keep one hand up, feeling Deneb pulse beneath my finger, a little throbbing heartbeat just there.
“Mommy, what are you pointing at?”
I let my hand fall to my side again, but the star’s little heart has been imprinted there already, and it drums softly against my skin. I feel like I’m holding something very precious on the tip of my finger, something that might be blown away at the next breath.
When I was eleven, my mom, who was a Den Mother in the local Cub Scout Pack, used to take me along when the boys went camping. Me, the only girl, with twelve boys, a Cubmaster, and a couple other parents. I followed trails through wet fields of grass, where the mud sucked onto my hiking boots and squelched as I tromped through it. I picked my way down rocky hills where my only guides were eerie three-stone cairns made of river-tumbled granite.
But I wasn’t alone. I was accompanied by the most beautiful boy I had ever known. He had light eyes—I can’t remember if they were blue or gray or green, but they were light—and curly hair, and he wore his Class B uniform tucked into the waistband of his shorts. He was strong, and so was I, and we led the rest of the group to the campsite at Lake Margaret, nestled in the glacier-carved California mountains.
We never got lost. He was perfect, we both were, with tough limbs and resistance to pain. Because he was just like me, except smarter and faster and better at climbing things.
What did you wish for, Rachie?”
“I can’t tell you. Otherwise it won’t come true.”
“What did you wish for, Mommy?”
I tuck my chin so I can smell the faint scent of no-tears shampoo in Marie’s hair. “It’s a secret,” I say, though really I’ve wished for nothing. I’d forgotten to make a wish at all.
“I wished for a pony!” Marie declares.
“Now you’ve done it! You’re never getting a pony now.”
“Neither of you are getting a pony,” I interject.
“Aw, shoot.” Rachel says it in a way that she won’t in a few years, when she learns words like shit and goddammit, and says them viciously and without thought. I want to tell her to remember being like this—young and light and feathery under a night breeze—because it’s tiny and important and once she gets to a certain age, she won’t have it anymore.
That afternoon, even before the last of the group had gotten to the campsite, he and I dove into the cold, bowl-shaped lake and backstroked to the granite boulders jutting out of the water. Silently, we crouched there in the sun, with the wind bellowing down the mountain. I remember the freckles on his back, remember thinking how it looked like he’d been spattered with tiny flecks of paint. I remember his hairless arms, how they were slender, the arms of a boy and not a man. I remember that when his hair was wet, he had a head of gleaming, sculpted curls, and the longer we sat on that rock, the lighter and more tousled his hair became.
We convinced the other kids to jump in the water and left them on the boulders, shivering, while we swam to shore and toweled ourselves dry. We ate salty chunks of salami and mozzarella sticks for lunch, sharing a bag of trail mix for dessert. We bravely scaled the mountain that overlooked the lake, crawling up among the rocks, scraping our knuckles and knees on the granite, and when we clambered to the top, we sat there breathless, watching the other kids scrambling after us. Then, after descending from the peak, we built the fire. We gathered big stones and rolled them into a ring. I hauled cedar logs that left dark spots of sap on the insides of my arms while he collected kindling. He looked at me shyly from under the brim of his hat, smiled, and struck a match.
Six, seven, eight!” Rachel shouts, pointing.
I look up to the pen streaks of lingering stars slashing through Hercules.
“I’m never gonna have to eat tomatoes again!” she laughs.
“Now you’ve done it,” I say.
“I wish I was a mermaid,” Marie says quietly.
“It’s a good thing you said it.” Rachel props herself up on her elbow and leans over on my chest. “Otherwise you’d have to live in the ocean, and you wouldn’t be able to stay with us at home.”
“Oh good!” Marie snuggles down into her sleeping bag.
“Hey, Mom.” Rachel plops back into the crook of my arm. “Where’s Dad?”
I glance toward the house, through the sliding glass door at the blue light from the TV. “He’s just tired,” I say. Pause. “And he has so many wishes already.”
“What do you mean?” she asks. She’s old enough not to take my word for it anymore.
“Well, he’s got your wishes, and Marie’s, and mine. He’s got all of us to take care of now. So if he makes any more wishes of his own, he’ll be an old, old man by the time they’ve all come true.”
“Daddy’s not old,” Marie says.
We were sitting around the campfire and the heat was on our faces and the soles of our boots. We sang songs I’ve almost forgotten now, except for the wisps of melodies that I sometimes find myself singing while washing dishes or checking melons for ripeness, until I notice, and then the songs slip out of my grasp before I can remember them.
The Cubmaster, wiping his hands on his pants and coming from the kitchen area, brandished a plastic jug and a water filter. “Someone needs to go pump water,” he said, looking meaningfully at the scouts.
There was a clamor of “Not it!” and “Nose goes!” before the boy stood, and his legs in the firelight were orange and smooth. I stood too—I wasn’t going to make him do it alone—and he looked at me across the column of smoke rising from the campfire we’d built together.
We walked down to the water, our boots sliding on the slippery, gravel-strewn stone, and he dropped one end of the filter into the lake. It made a plopping sound like a fish jumping, and for a moment I looked up, thinking one had.
He was kneeling, with the lake making lap lap lap sounds against the shore and his arms making the pumping motion to send water into the jug. Maybe, then, I might have seen the man he would become—it was there in the curve of his neck and the quick way he breathed. He would be running marathons, and his legs would glisten in the sunlight as heat waves rose from the asphalt behind him. He’d be pedaling a single-speed bicycle over a cobblestone street in Nîmes, braking in front of a café serving espresso in transparent glasses, whispering into a young woman’s windblown hair, Il n’est rien de réel que le rêve et l’amour. He’d be covered in trail dust, with the Rockies waking all around him—mountain peaks blushing as the sun caressed them, a cacophony of birds twittering, flitting from one branch to another, the rush and tumble of water in a creek bed miles away—riding a gray mare, looking ghostlike in an early Montana morning. He’d have a pair of strong boys—freckly and brown with sun—leaping from the prow of a motorboat in the middle of a glassy lake, sending sparkling showers of water into the summer air as they dove, and later, he’d be ordering whiskey neat at a well-polished bar and tucking his wife under his arm, while their sons slept in bunk beds back home, watched by his sister or some neighbor who would slip out with a smile when they came home, when they undressed and slid between the sheets, her palm on his chest, his cheek to the top of her head, resting that way, all night.
What I couldn’t see is that he would leave me in a year, maybe less, his family uprooted again, to some place like Vermont or North Carolina, and he would never come back.
The fingernail of the moon was on the brink of setting, and when it sank below the horizon, it left the sky peppery with stars. I’ve never seen more stars than that. I’ve never seen them so bright or so close, like I could dip one of those silver camping spoons into the sky and scoop up a spoonful. Millions of them multiplying, shedding, until their dust was on our shoulders, just us on the shore with the fire behind us, crouched beside little Lake Margaret in the middle of the Sierra Nevada.
I want to wrap up that night, tie a ribbon around it, and present it to my daughters at their next birthdays. I want to make flawless creases along the silhouettes of the mountains so that when Rachel and Marie open it, they will see that it could not have been more perfect than it was.
The question mark of Scorpius emerges in the south. Marie is snoring softly. I slip out from under the sleeping bags. I open the sliding glass door with a rushing sound and sneak into the den. Rob is asleep in the Lay-Z-Boy, his mouth slightly ajar and the bridge of his nose edged in blue light. There are shadows in the ripples of his clothing. I disengage his fingers from the remote control and shut off the TV. It winks out.
I stroke the line of his jaw with my middle and ring fingers. He has long lashes and they sweep upward as he opens his eyes. The girls have those lashes, those eyes. He smiles, and I crawl into his lap and the recliner sways under my added weight. Rob holds me at the ribcage with both of his hands and sighs into my hair.
I put my mouth on his. Thrust my chin forward, push. I want to kiss roughly and quickly so my teeth scrape on his. So it hurts. So it’s deep. Like we’re swallowing each others’ tongues. His fingers climb up my back.
When we part, our lips are moist and our hands are tight on each other.
If the girls were still awake I would tell them that the fish went down into his cave, where all those stars shone so brightly in the blue water, and he looked at them, and he closed his eyes and wished so hard he could reverse time, and the earth would cool, and the oceans would cover the planet again, and the stars would not burn out anymore, and he could follow their shining trails into the water and touch them with his fins again.
Instead, the fish learned to walk on land, and if ever a star did not turn to ashes on its way to earth, he collected its dark but gleaming form and cradled it gently in his fins.
When I go back outside and crawl into my own sleeping bag, Rachel opens her eyes and says, “Where’d you go?”
“I had to say good night to Dad.”
“Oh.” She squinches down until only her eyes and the top of her head show, so when she speaks up again her voice is muffled. “Mom?”
“Tell me the story again.”
“You know. The story.”
I sigh. “A long time ago, when I met your father, I knew right away that one day I was going to marry him.”
“How did you know?”
“I knew because talking to him was like talking to me, but in opposite world, where down is up and up is down and all the water is in the sky so the fish swim around our heads and the clouds move beneath our feet. Because he wasn’t exactly like me, but he balanced me out. And it’s like we were two halves of an ocean that had finally found each other.”
“Is there somebody in opposite world for everybody to marry?” she asks.
“Of course there is,” I say. “You’ll meet your opposite somebody, someday.”
“I hope so,” she says. Then, “Good night, Mom.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I don’t know how long I remain awake, but my eyes dry out from staring at the sky, and for every star I see, I make the same wish: that somewhere in a different world with a different outcome, where another version of myself exists, and maybe another version of him, it comes true. It all comes true, somehow.
I should have put my hand over his hand. I should have felt his knuckles in my palm. I should have leaned over, like I wanted but didn’t know it yet, and planted a kiss on his perfect lips. He should have kissed me back. He should have tasted like apple cider. Our mouths should have been wet and soft against each other, unmoving, held still, with just enough pressure to let us know that we were still there, still alive, still kissing by that lake with the water at our ankles, while the stars scattered through the open sky.
And when we went to sleep in our tents, the Perseids should have flown over us and dashed themselves onto the granite shore where we’d been sitting. A fish should have climbed out of the water on his tail fin, looked at the cold ring of stones where the campfire had been, collected the stars, and slipped back into the lake without a sound.