He saw a darting movement out the corner of his eye and turned to look. The goldfish, the burnt-copper and silver one, had swum out from his hollowed out rock cave and come darting into the centre of the tank. It had stopped, suspended, eyeing the man with one perfectly circular black-sticker eye. Then, with a flash of his long fan-tail, it disappeared behind the sunken ship. The man watched for a while from the sofa before taking his glass and moving over to the tank. It stood in the corner of the room to the right of the television on a heavy wicker basket with a dark wooden slat lid. It was a piece of hers, oddly out of place with the rest of the furniture. He eased himself down with his back against the wall so that the fish were at eye level. They swam lazily, oblivious to the man and to the world outside the glass walls.
She’d been so happy when he’d arrived home with the plastic bag and it’s two small, darting occupants.
‘Our first pets,’ she’d said and had stood with the bag held over her head watching them drift back and forth above her.
‘Such big bellies.’
He’d set up the tank; had spread two bags of gravel at its bottom and filled it with water. Then he had carefully placed the rock-cave and the little sunken ship down at the bottom of the tank, twisting them into the gravel. He shook the water off his hand when he was done.
All the while she stood, watching the strange fish, waiting for him to be finished. He stood back and she approached with the bag, placing it delicately in the water.
‘So they become accustomed to their new home.’
She’d turned then and hugged him, pressing her body against his before raising herself on her toes to kiss him on the mouth.
That had been months ago. The black fish, the one with the protruding round eyes — one shiny and inky black, the other milk-coloured — swam listlessly around to where his hand rested in front of the tank. The man drew his fingers up and along the glass to see if the fish would follow. It didn’t. He waited. The two fish were now swimming one above the other down the length of the tank.
Later, after the fish had grown accustomed to their tanks, after he had grown accustomed to their movements and had almost stopped seeing them, she had asked him what was happening.
‘Don’t you love me?’ she had asked. He had of course said yes, had known it to be true. It hurt him that she had to ask, but he didn’t know how to show her. Instead he had turned and looked at the fish. He remembered that the conversation had taken place just after she had fed them, after she had dropped the papery, rainbow coloured food down onto the surface of the water through a small opening at the top of the tank. She had sat on the couch next to him and had looked at him in that questioning, hurt sort of way. He had avoided her eye, watching as the fish swooped and flitted, trying to catch drifting flakes before they settled on the tan gravel below their distended bellies. Then she had gotten up and gone to prepare dinner. He had stayed on the couch and continued to watch the fish.
They’d still been there after they were married and had returned home from the honeymoon. She had put down her bags and had gone over to the tank, knelt before it to remove the expensive mechanical wheel which had fed the fish while they’d been down in Key West. She’d fed them again and had gone to take a shower. He’d sat and watched them as he unlaced his shoes, feeling the comfort of being home. Then he’d thought about the work that he needed to catch up on and the bills he needed to pay; he thought about how much the reception and honeymoon had cost. After a while he stopped thinking and watched the movement of the fish, the little burnt-copper and silver one, and the round, pop-eyed black one.
No matter what happened they swam, scudded, and shot through the water. Always hungry; always testing the water, the gravel, and the glass for food; and they were still always surprised when their food flakes appeared.
He had been watching them after work, marvelling at their contentedness, when she told him the news of it through a nervous smile — waiting for how he’d react. He had laughed and smiled and swung her around the room, before realising and putting her gently back on the ground as if she were something fragile, something made of porcelain. She’d smiled brightly then and, waving her blonde hair back and forth, had turned from him and had gone to feed the fish. He did his best not to show her his worry. Still, he was excited and it had hurt two weeks later when she told him the next thing, before she broke in tears.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ he’d asked and she had shaken her head and not said anything. He knew that she hadn’t thought he’d understand. So she had gone by herself to the doctor’s; had sat in the waiting room with those other women and had been alone in his office where he had spoken to her in soft tones.
Still the fish swam as if the world hadn’t crumbled and fallen, hadn’t been destroyed, hadn’t been rendered into a million fragmented pieces. And she, too, after that evening, had put her smile back on and had kept going to work each morning and making the food for them each evening.
When he lost his job he had much more time for the fish. He took over the few chores there were, feeding them and cleaning the tank and watching them as they swam and circled as they did every day. In turn they had watched him with their unblinking eyes. He wondered whether they recognised him, and decided that they probably didn’t. But they were there, keeping him company. They had watched as he sat and drank and he watched them for hours on end, swimming back and forth.
The man stood up and was away for a while. The fish swum to the surface of the water to see if any food would appear. None did. The man sat down with his gun, a Sig Sauer that he had used at the shooting range when he still left the house each day.
He sat watching the fish, occasionally looking down at the gun in his lap. He knew that if he did use it it would be her who would find the mess of him. So he waited with it in his lap and when he heard the key in the door turn he called out to her. She dropped her bag and ran to him, gathering the heft of him in her arms. He cried against the cheap fabric of her uniform, the first time that she had seen him cry, and shook as she rocked him. Then he let her push him back and take the gun from his lap. She pulled up the lid of the tank and, letting the heavy thing dangle between thumb and forefinger for a moment, dropped it into the water. The fish seemed startled as it plunged to the bottom of the tank. They swam together behind the rock-cave, emerging only after the it had settled down in the gravel, leaving a sediment haze hanging in the water. They eyed it and then — in timid, darting movements — swam closer to it, eventually reaching it and probing at it with their mouths. They sucked on the handle for a few moment and, when nothing happened, left the thing there to sit. They swam and darted, drifted and dashed, and waited for food to appear.
From then on they fed the fish together, watching as their little bodies darted greedily upwards, the black-metal pistol left forgotten on the gravel floor between the rock-cave and the sunken-ship.
S. D. Jones
S. D. Jones is a Swiss/Australian writer currently living in France. He has recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Cambridge University and is now working on his first novel.
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