I had to leave the house. It’s not that I didn’t want to be by my wife or watch "Finding
Nemo" with her—I did. I love both. But as I watched Marlin dash across the ocean to save his son while my eight-months-pregnant wife sat on the couch, I could feel a mix of something like
panic and anxiety swell up from my stomach. I told her I had to go for a quick walk, needed to stretch my legs and get some fresh air before the sun went down. I strapped on a pair of sandals and exited through the back door.
Nearmy house is a lake that I enjoy visiting whenever I get these tendencies. It’s not exactly a lake, because you can’t have any boats on it, but it’s too big to be considered a pond and deep enough to have a pleasurable swim. I used to enjoy smoking a cigarette or two while walking around the water’s edge or dipping my feet in, but after Elise got pregnant I quit that habit. My fingers desperately wanted to clutch onto something as I departed the asphalt street and entered the unkempt grasses that enveloped the shore. Something like a tall reed was sticking up from the bank. It had a hollowed out stem, so I broke it off at the top and nestled it between my fingers, which now were slightly trembling. Nothing delivers a better KO combination to a man than a firstborn on the way and quitting smokes.
I walked over to the edge and peered down into the water. It calmly rolled near the shore,
lapping against the edge. The water was crystal clear and I could see minnows poking at the
gravel on the bottom. Another swam up to where a piece of cotton was floating on the water,
swallowed it, and then immediately spat it back out. The parent fish were nowhere to be seen as their children played with rocks and choked on cotton. I continued to walk around the shore, taking imaginary drags on the reed. (Not necessarily on purpose, more of like a bad habit). My eyes gazed out at the waters, but weren’t focused on anything in particular. Just set out in the distance, bobbing up and down upon the waves, eventually drifting back to shore. What did catch my attention, eventually, was a fish near the edge of the water.
I had never seen this type of fish before, which shocked me. (I know fish, I’m a lakewater
environmentalist and marine biologist; it’s kind of my job). I mean, I must have volumes upon
volumes of fresh and saltwater marine life, and I have never seen anything like this fish before. It was long and round with orange and yellow stripes. (It actually reminded me of Marlin from the movie.)The fish calmly stayed in place, rotating its fins to keep the spot it had chosen. I could have sworn it was staring right at me. Its eyes were something of a bluish color with a spark of green, or maybe cerulean. (It was hard to tell because the water was rippling due to the breeze.) I leaned over to get a better look at the fish; it leaned back and followed me with its eyes.
The fish was observing me.My breathing hastened to a low hush and I slowly tried to move closer to get a better look. I gingerly moved my hand into my pocket, hoping to pull out my cell phone and take video of this. (It could be something worth writing about, or at the very least be a funny video to show Elise.) But I had left my phone back home. The fish kept its eyes on me, and that’s when I noticed its face.What was strange, however, was the longer as we looked at each other, the more its face seemed to change from something like perplexity to concern. As if it was worried about me.
The fish swam up and stuck its head out of the water.“Quick, dip your head in,” said the fish in a hurried voice.I froze.“Don’t worry, I won’t bite you,” the fish said, growing more frantic. “Just dip your head in, quickly.”
Not wanting to stress the fish further, I stuck the reed between my lips and dunked my
head into the water.The fish looked relieved and gave off something that looked like a sigh.
“Thank goodness,” the fish said as I blinked my eyes to adjust to the lake water. “You
could have suffocated up there.”“What do you mean?”“Well, there’s no water up there,” the fish said as it rotated its fins. “Right?”“Right,” I replied as I swatted a piece of loose seaweed away from my face.
“Then how are you not suffocating?”
“I don’t need to be in water to live,” I replied.
The fish was baffled.
“That makes no sense,” the fish said. “You ought to be suffocating.”“I breathe air and drink water,” I replied.
The fish only grew more incredulous at I was saying, so I decided to drop the subject and
move to another.
“How do you know there isn’t any water up there?” I asked. “I thought fish didn’t know
there was anything but water.”
“Some, maybe,” the fish replied. “But I’ve broken the surface numerous times, in hopes
that more water would be there.”
The fish moved around as if stretching itself.
“I’d love to be able to venture out there one day,” the fish said. “That’s why when I saw
you I got excited, thinking there was water, but when I looked more closely at your face I got
“Why were you worried?” I asked.
“Because I thought you were suffocating,” the fish said. “You had such a distressed look
on your face. And when you kept leaning I thought you were trying to save yourself by dunking
your head into the water. I was sitting here going, ‘Come on, Come on,’ ” the fish continued.
“Saying, ‘Hurry up, you dumb fish, get your head back in here.’ When I realized you were
frozen up there and not going to move, I finally decided to say something.”
“Oh, well, no need to worry,” I said. “I can breathe up there just fine.”
“Air-breathing fish,” the fish said. “That’s something I never thought I’d see.”
I wanted to correct the fish, but trying to explain what I really was probably wasn’t going
to get me anywhere.
“Why were you so distressed?” asked the fish. It lowered its body towards the sandy
gravel as if laying down for a long chat.
“Well, my wife is going to have a baby soon,” I said. “It’s got me really worried. You
know, the whole fatherhood thing.”
The fish laughed.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” the fish said. “I’ve been a father more times than I can
count and I’ve been just fine.”
“Really,” I said with a sigh of relief. “That’s good to know.”
“How many will be in your litter?” the fish asked.
“One,” I said. “Only one?” the fish replied incredulously. “Those aren’t good odds, my friend.”
I was glad the fish considered me a friend. It pushed off with its fins and got closer to me,
as if it was going to put an arm—in this case a fin—around my shoulder and tell me a secret.
“How many have you had?” I asked.
“I don’t know, at least seven dozen,” the fish said. “Possibly more.”
“That’s a hell of a lot,” I said.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I knew fish had a lot of offspring, but it was the first
time a fish ever told me an actual number.
“You have to have a lot,” the fish said. “Better odds.”
“But I can’t imagine keeping track of one child,” I said. “How do you keep track of
seventy and counting?”
“You don’t,” the fish replied nonchalantly. “Sometimes you lose a litter or two, but that’s
I was dumbfounded at how easily the words flowed off the fish’s lips.
“Sometimes children get lost, or caught, or eaten,” the fish said. “But that’s why you
My mouth must have gaped open, for a rush of water flowed in and I choked. I pulled my
head out, gasped for a breath, and put the reed back in my mouth.
I dunked my head.
“What’s wrong?” the fish asked.
“How can you be so unemotional about your children getting slaughtered?”
“Kids are the worst combination of stupid,” the fish said matter-of-factly. “They are weak
“But isn’t that all the more reason to protect them?” I protested.
“I can’t put myself in danger because of them,” the fish replied. “I can always make more
of them, but I can’t make another me.”
For a second, the fish’s pragmatism almost won me over, but not allowing it to take root,
I quickly diverted the conversation.
“How have you survived so long?”
The fish circled around me, its orange scales glimmering while the yellow ones remained
muted. “I was smart.”
“Smart in what way?” I asked. “Are all fish smart like you?”
Judging from its face, if the fish could have done so, it would have snorted in derision.
“Obviously not,” it replied.
“How did you survive?” I asked.
“Some fish are born smart and born to survive,” the fish said. “As if it was in my genes,
you could say. There are a few of us like that, and that’s why we get the chance to hopefully pass on those genes.”
“Maybe your next batch of kids will inherit that gene,” I said jokingly.
“If they are so lucky as to be born,” replied the fish.
I laughed, but slowly withdrew it as I realized the fish was being serious.
The fish sat back down onto the sand, and uncovered a pebble.
“Not all kids get the good genes,” the fish said, moving the pebble around. “That’s why
you have to make plenty and not get too attached.”
“Well, that’s frowned upon from where I come from,” I replied. “You don’t get that kind
“You would be less on edge if you did,” the fish replied. “Life seems much harder from
where you’re from.”
I almost laughed, because I was thinking the same for the fish.
“You look much calmer,” the fish said. It pushed up from the sand again and swam
briskly around in a circle, as if waking itself up. Both of its colors looked duller, as if it was
actively taking the shine out of them.
“I really hate to be rude,” the fish said. “But it’s getting late, and I must be going. It’s
much safer in the depth than hanging around in shallow waters.”
“I probably should do the same,” I said.
“I enjoyed talking with you,” the fish said as it began to swim off into the weeds.
“Hopefully you won’t have to make so many children to get a good batch.”
The fish disappeared and I lingered for a moment, letting its parting words sink, before
When I returned home, the sun had already set, and the house was dark. Elise was in bed
asleep as I changed out of my clothes and slid my pajamas on. I quietly sat down on the mattress and unrolled the covers. Placing my hand on her stomach, I waited to feel a kick or any sign of life, but the baby was quiet. It neither knew the dangers of the outside world nor feared the strange creatures that came in the middle of the night to threaten its life. I stared out of the window and glanced at the moon. I wondered if the fish was doing the same, and as I did a thought passed my mind thatmade me laugh. Maybe one day our children, if they survive, will play together, and the fish and I will swap stories as we watch.
He from the water and I from the shore.
About the author:
Brandon T. Madden has recently been published in various undergraduate, graduate, and professional journals including The Red Cedar Review, The Offbeat, Outrageous Fortunes, S/tick, and the River and South Review. In 2011, he published his first novel, V.S.A.