I came home last week to find my father threading the eye of a dead baby fish. The fish was about the size of my hand and orange.
Come here and necklace me, my father said.
I went and knotted that thread to his neck as my mother would have before she got sick. That dead fish dangled close to his heart.
This fish is a symbol of your mother, my father said as he walked to the stove.
But symbols are for abstract things. She’s still with us, I said.
Hardly, my father said, and he raised his hand mid-air as if trying to remember how to make food. He touched that fish then uncapped a cylinder and sprinkled seeds of mustard into oil. He moved his butt as he sprinkled. I watched that fish swing back and forth and drip its guts down our dinner.
But we’re vegetarian, I said, trying to change my tactics.
My father frowned and pulled that fish from his head.
Desperate times call for desperate measures? I said as he necklaced me.
He nodded a lot.
So I showered and slept with that fish around my neck and the next day went to school with it tucked under my sweater. It looked like I had a third breast but it did not look like I was wearing a fish.
It smells fishy? my teacher said, scrunching her nose as I walked in.
I began to work out tough math problems at my desk.
Does someone have a yeast infection? a girl said.
Maybe someone forgot to pull out her dirty tampon? a second girl said.
I tapped my pencil to my desk. I felt the cold of that fish on my chest. It felt like the rest of me was burning; I tapped.
Two nights later, I was still wearing my fish. My father and I were huddled in our black coats. We liked to match the color of the day and Sunday night dinners were black.
Where’s the can-opener? I asked.
Canada, my father said, putting his fork sly to his mouth.
I brought my fist to the table. I was tired of these flattened peas he called gravy. My father didn’t know how to cook but I ate his food because making it was so hard for him and because there was nothing else to eat.
You know I hate peas, I said.
I can’t remember everything, he said with a pea already on his mouth. What did you learn in math today?
Mom plus Dad equals Wow, he said at the table.
I felt that fish sliming against me. I was changing shirts three times a day to keep afloat. I made a show of picking my shirt off my chest.
The loss of a wife is obviously sadder than the loss of a mother, my father said at this.
I feel just as sad, I said.
Wrong. A father can give motherly love. A daughter cannot give me the love of a wife. Just try to imagine life without a wife. See? See?
I watched my plate shudder across the table as my father banged to prove his point. I tried to imagine life without a wife. I imagined a vast emptiness in bed with me every night.
I need to do my math, I said, pushing my chair from the table.
But you are what I am living for, my father said.
So I kicked at my chair and sat, until he said I may be excused. I went to the room then, where my mother was lying and had been lying since she hit her head. My mother was a swimmer and last year she hit her head on the diving board of the pool in our backyard. Due to brain injuries, she couldn’t speak or move much. Since then it had been me and my father, eating dinner like a family.
In the back room, I brushed the length of my mother’s hair. I read to my mother from the classifieds. I marched and sang joy to the world. All the boys and girls! I took my mother’s hand and put that brush to it and made like she was brushing my hair. She used to say I could have hair like Crystal Gayle, my hero—Crystal Gayle, the country singer whose black hair swept the floor or grazed her ankles if she wore heels. Grow, grow, I said as she brushed out my short tufts. I brushed until my father called bedtime from the other side of the door.
Okay, I called back and patted my mother’s hair goodnight.
Today me and white Mike are in the light box. Mike has psoriasis up and down his body. The sun is his only cure. My mother used to say only a white man would think to invent a fake sun. She used to say no Indian boy was going to marry such a dark, dark girl as me. Mike’s my white man with red spots all over and he wants me; I’d like to tell her that. Just now Mike looks straight ahead. The light flicks on and off in his face. He says if he turns even one inch, only half his face will be tan. I’d be a Picasso painting! he says. The right of my face is getting dark from watching him.
I’m with child, I say at him today.
Mike closes his eyes with pain.
Who’s the father? he asks finally.
He frowns at me then frowns left to compensate for the extra light on the right of his face.
Don’t you remember that doggie Sunday? I press.
Mike lets out a deep breath and gets up to switch off the light.
You’re a handful, he says.
A handful of joy? I say at the floor.
He watches me. He kneels and puts his ear to my stomach like maybe I do have a baby. He pokes at my fish.
Let’s go sailing, he says and takes my hand.
We fill his tub with hot water and hop in. We steer, we rock through storms. It’s our Good Ship Hope. Today I hope for no psoriasis! Today I hope for a healthy mother!
We soap each other up to keep each other warm. Mike soaps my hair up to a white poof. Clouds! he yells and blows puffs of foam from the top. He soaps up my throat and moves his hands downward.
But I just showered I’m clean, I squeak.
But I’m having fun, he says.
So I let him have fun. He soaps hard until he’s made my fish fall off. For a minute we both watch it float tender and finger-sized and alone. Then I lean in to put my mouth over Mike’s. I blow CPR until his face is blue.
I’m not drowning, he gasps.
Burp burp burp, I say and try again.
We struggle until he shoves me so hard I’m sinking underwater and watching him wavy and silent above me. When I surface he’s back in the box. I dry off alone and go sit next to him and pose grim for the flash. It’s me and Mike in light and darkness. I watch my chest darken. There’s a light-skinned blob to remind me of where my baby fish was. I feel the echo of my heart beating. It sounds like another beat is inside me. But that’s only me and me and me-me.
Where is our fish, my father demands at dinner that night.
It drowned, I inform him.
It’s a fish, he says.
Well your wife’s not dead so we don’t need a reminder, she’s in the back room. She’s just sick.
My father switches on the TV and does not talk to me the rest of the night.
Forgive me, I say, and my father shakes his head no.
So the next day I heave an eel from a Chinatown store all the way home. The fish spans the length of my arms stretched out. The bus driver won’t pick me up so I walk. I’m soaked by the time I smack it slimy to the table.
Meet your new wife, I say to my father.
My father looks down at me. He walks circles. He walks to the back room. He leans against the cloud-papered wall and sits and buries his face in my mother’s lap. She pats his head.
The next day I find my father in the deep end of our pool. He’s painting sea waves of blue across the bottom. The garden hose is pointed down the corner, and a steady stream trickles out. My father used to watch my mother glide underwater back and forth. He used to ask her to teach him to swim, but she always said no. I’m the fish, she’d say, smiling. When she hit her head, my father watched her body snap back and forth, underwater. He cried out, and our neighbor ran over and dragged out my mother, while my father kneeled as close as possible to the pool without falling in. My father drained the pool the next day, and it has been empty since.
What do you want? my father asks up at me.
I shall go where you go, I yell down in my best Bible voice.
My father looks up at me with all his hope. Blue paint drips from his hands.
Okay, he says.
When he moves to the shallow end I move with him. In the corner a swallow gathers loam from a pool of water. It spits then gathers as I stick with my father.
I read somewhere that a puddle is defined as too small to be crossed by a boat or raft or submarine. A sea is indefinable. I came upon two kids and a mother in a puddle once. The puddle was in the middle of a hot, busy intersection in Bombay. It reflected the fast-moving clouds of the day and the end of the monsoon. The mother was taking that puddle in her hands and raining it down on her kids. If I’d had less shame I would have taken a photo and worn that image around my neck the rest of my life. I would have shown it to my mother. See here. See.
Three days later our pool is a sea of bright blue. It’s filled to the top and my father’s kneeling, emptying bags of goldfish in. The fish plop through the surface then flip right side to swim laps. We cheer them on. My father runs inside to edge my mother’s bed to the window. At night the fish cut shimmery yellow and gold silhouettes and we three watch.
The next day the fish are mostly dead and afloat. Three of fifty have survived. They’re hardly moving.
I forgot about chlorine, my father says as if he could cry.
I look everywhere but at my father until my eyes land on the inflatable kiddy pool. It’s a shriveled reminder of summer. I drag it out. I use the hose to fill it to the top then cup in the surviving fish. They remain limp. Come on, I whisper so my father can’t hear. One begins to move. The other two begin to shake like they’re remembering their gills. In minutes, they’re circling fast laps of joy.
I leap in. My father watches uncertainly. It’s shallow enough for him so I grab his hand and with his too-long legs he tries to leap in too. He falls but is quickly back to his feet. We splash all around each other. We slap the water. We kick at those fish somersaulting at our knees. My father practices his back float. Before he’s fully afloat his toes are searching for the ground but he almost has it. He hops up and splashes more. We remember to wave to my mother who’s watching from the window. Her face perks up in the corner. We forget the fish then, and run in, to eat with her.
Kalpana Narayanan is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in fiction writing and Boston Review's Aura Estrada Short Story Prize.