By Jody Keisner
On my lap is a small plastic bag filled with water. Three neon tetra fish dart around inside, their six eyes glowing like cat’s eyes in the dark car. The fish can’t be well, not after the mistakes I’ve made. Yesterday I consulted an aquarist, trying to undo the harm I’d done, and she referred to the fish as “babies.” This word has done me in. Not my almost four-year-old daughter, Lily, saying the neon tetras’ blue iridescent stripes are like butterfly wings. Or her seeing in the half-moon betta’s fringed blue- and red-tipped tail a parade float. Not the time I saw her tapping on the fish tank, asking, “How do you swim? Is your tail like my arm?” Not these small moments of magic that happen when she observes her world in the most unadulterated way. But this word: babies.
Last night the first snow of the season fell in eastern Nebraska, and while the sleet has been cleared, outside the car it’s ten degrees. Will the fish freeze once we’re out of the car? Brake lights turn bright red in front of me, and when I ease up on the gas pedal and press the brake, the plastic bag slips from my lap and lands on the seat between my legs. What if I slam my legs shut? I used to worry about dropping Lily down the stairs when she was a baby. Now I worry about smashing fish with my thighs. I have baby fish in a plastic bag of water between my legs.
“What did you say, Mama?” Lily asks from the back seat. I can’t see her eyes in the rear-view mirror, but I feel her looking at me—the familiarity of cars after sundown.
“The fish are worrying me,” I say.
“Why?” she says.
Where to begin?
The fish were my idea. Weeks before, Lily had asked me for a dog while staring through our glass patio door at the dachshund chasing squirrels in our neighbor’s backyard. But my husband Jon’s allergy to dander precludes Lily from having a childhood like mine: we had seven cats, six dogs, three rabbits, two hamsters and a duck. Most of our animals slept on smelly blankets in our heated garage, but—oh! the delight!—they spent their days at my side, me and my menagerie running through our neighbor’s farmland in search of a squirrel, a sunset, a snail. I desperately wanted Lily to have a pet. Caring for a pet would help her learn, I believed, patience and kindness. I didn’t vocalize it, but I also wished for Lily to learn about loss, to understand and accept that dying was part of living, and maybe to learn so in a safe way, like when she studied the ant-riddled cicadas dying on sidewalks this past summer. I knew she would learn about loss in a not-so-safe way soon enough, as all children do.
Jon, Lily, and I went to the pet store one weekend afternoon anticipating the selection of our new betta—”Hardy fish,” said Lily’s preschool teacher, who kept one in a bowl in her classroom—but once there, we followed the lead of the young, ponytailed fish enthusiast who suggested we choose a few more. “They’re easy,” she assured us, and so we added three tetra fish to another plastic bag.
At home, I rinsed the three-gallon tank in the bathtub as instructed, then added (also rinsed) gravel, silk plants (plastic plants would shred the betta’s tail), a decorative bridge (something to hide under), a filter, light, de-chlorinated water and good bacteria. The betta and three tetras watched me from the two separate bags of water propped against the side of the tub. Lily watched me, too, a little, but mostly she played with the plastic orca whale she had found in the tub. “Bubble, bubble, bubble, pop,” she sang. Jon moved the tank from the bathroom to the top of Lily’s dresser. After adjusting the fish to the temperature of the water by lowering their bags into the tank and letting them bob for a while, we set them free. Jon and I knelt in front of the tank; Lily used her blue step stool. She named them: the half-moon betta was Freddy, and the three neon tetras, Hans, Anna, and Elsa (yes, from Frozen). The tetras swam together in schooling formation, first heading in one direction, and then turning in unison. Like underwater dancers. Like underwater dancers with butterfly wings. The betta hid behind a silk leaf, flaring its regal tails and fin. Lily blew the four of them a kiss before climbing under her covers. Good night new friends, I thought.
As sunlight snaked in through the slats of her blinds the next morning, Lily dropped a tropical fish flake through the small opening at the top of the tank. The betta was resting on a silk leaf, hardly visible; the three neon tetras were no longer swimming together, instead separated from each other by silk plants and the betta, but did that matter? The food was caught in the current created by the filter, eventually floating to the gravel at the bottom, untouched.
“Maybe they don’t like their food,” Lily said. “I don’t like eggs.”
“Maybe,” I said, though I didn’t know what else to feed them. Why weren’t the tetras schooling? And why did the betta’s fins look so droopy?
“Do you like your new home?” Lily asked the fish. I looked at the fish tank before I realized that she meant her room. Could they see her walls, the pink and green borders? The birds Jon had drawn, then painted by hand? Her toys, a tangled nest of furry limbs and glass eyes? Did they “like” all this pink or was their range of color limited, like a dog’s? Lily was asking questions I hadn’t thought of, already a more attentive fish owner than me.
I wondered what else I hadn’t thought of. I never kept fish as pets, but growing up, I had cared for plenty of animals. While my family gave them food and shelter (and the occasional bath with the garden hose), we mostly let them roam free. My parents didn’t worry about their safety and neither did I. Perhaps as a result, most of them died unexpectedly and in ways that seemed more suited to the Wild West then the 1980s. A dog shot by a half-blind farmer. A cat infected by a parasite found in cow pies. A hamster flattened under a wheel. In some ways, my parents’ philosophy of caring for animals extended to their philosophy of child rearing. My younger sister and I tumbled out of our house most mornings and did what we pleased. We were allowed to cross streets by ourselves and play unchaperoned at parks. We didn’t wear seat belts or fret over strangers. I eventually learned about stranger-danger and the necessity of seat belts, but still, as a new mother, it was a shock for me to learn that the world held so many dangers. I felt ill-prepared for them all, and so I fretted. But now I was prepared, wasn’t I? I could keep these fish alive, right?
After I dropped Lily off at preschool, I found an online forum for tropical fish lovers. How far can a betta see? I typed. A member replied immediately: They have superb eyesight but can only see a couple of feet in front of them, if that far. They would see Lily practicing basic ballet moves for them, then, inches from the fish tank but would not see her yanking books from her closet shelves. Curious, I asked about our tank set-up. Three gallons is too small for ANY living thing! Their organs don‘t grow properly—called stunting—and they die, one reply read. Bettas are the most mistreated domesticated fish, read another reply. Neon tetras must be kept with at least five others to feel safe and secure, wrote another. Were our fish insecure? Did they sense danger? Feel stress? A three-gallon tank is good only as a temporary fish hospital but your little guy won‘t be happy in it for long. A fish hospital? What could possibly happen in our tank that I would need a fish hospital? Was it really that bad in our tank? And perhaps more importantly, what did a happy fish look like? My questions were beginning to feel familiar (and slightly alarming), though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.
I took Lily into another pet store a few days later. She trailed behind me and then stopped at a terrarium, where a bearded dragon appeared to be waving. It stood on a rock, moving one spiky leg—or was it an arm?—in the air in a circular motion. While Lily spoke to the lizard, standing close to the glass, I waited for the resident aquarist. “I’m PETA radical about fish,” she said by way of introduction, adjusting the hemp bracelets on her wrist. I confessed my errors—our tank was too small, we had too few tetras, the fish were hardly eating—and her eyes grew wide. We would need a larger tank right away, she said, at least a five-gallon tank for the betta and a ten-gallon tank for the tetras if they were to have room to swim in groups. Three neon tetras weren’t enough for the fish to feel secure. Six would be better. None of them would survive a nitrous cycle. (What was that?) Tropical fish needed no less than 75-degree water to remain healthy. (The thermostat in our house was only set to 67 degrees.)
“The tetras will grow a little over one inch. The ones you have are just babies,” the aquarist added.
The word startled me. “Babies?”
“The technical name is fry,” she said.
“Fish fry reminds me of Friday nights at the Eagles Club during Lent. All those fried catfish,” I joked. “I’m a lapsed Catholic.”
“I’m a vegetarian.”
I studied the fish in the aquariums around me: the black- and yellow-striped body of the veil angelfish, the eager waving tail of the red wag platy and the chubby tummies of the balloon belly mollies. When I placed my fingertip on the aquarium of the telescope eye goldfish, they gathered around it, yellow- and orange-colored fins and heads waving back and forth. I stared at the large, perfectly round eyes, stubby pectoral fins and puckered, pouty mouths and saw, suddenly, the features of young children. Instead of goldfish, it was as if Lily’s preschool classmates were clamoring around me, sticky fingers and hands touching my legs. Baby fish. Baby people. What was the water temperature in the tank? What were we supposed to set the thermostat at when Lily was a baby? How could I tell if the fish were happy? How could I tell if the baby was happy?
I remembered, standing there in front of the aquarium, the helplessness I used to feel when Lily was an infant, both of us crying during those twilight hours that Jon, trying to lighten the mood, called “the witching hours.” While Jon was at work, I would come undone with fear and love, occasionally sitting in the bathroom to sob through my anxiety, morbidly imagining what would happen if I slept through Lily’s nighttime cries or drew her bathwater too hot. I suddenly felt like a new mother again, afraid that someone—or something—would be harmed because of my wrong choices, all the things a mother doesn’t intuit about caregiving but must learn. The fish were the first living things we had brought into our home, under our care, since the winter day almost four years earlier we had brought Lily home. The feeling of new-mother anxiety rushed back at me; I inhaled sharply. I couldn’t bear to let anything die in her room: plant, fish, or other. Especially the other.
I remembered, standing there in front of the aquarium, the helplessness I used to feel when Lily was an infant, both of us crying during those twilight hours that Jon, trying to lighten the mood, called “the witching hours.”
I wasn’t prepared to set-up a ten-gallon tank before taking some measurements, so we left the store with only a tank thermometer. At home, conditions in the fish tank looked worse. The tetras hid behind the silk foliage; the betta rested on a silk leaf, inactive. None had eaten any of the food we’d offered, and I was beginning to see that the small tank I had plopped the tetras into was the equivalent of asking an adult to swim laps in a kiddie pool. The new thermometer in the tank read 70 degrees, several degrees too cold for tropical fish. One forum user said our fish would be miserable in this temperature, like how it felt when, on a dare, I had cannonballed into a lake in April. I studied the inhospitable tank. I didn’t want to return the tetras to the pet store; I had begun to secretly refer to them as The Pips and the betta as Gladys Knight. I couldn’t separate the band. But what if Lily found one or two floating at the top of the tank? What, exactly, would that teach her about thriving in her mother’s care? The closest pet store was already closed for the evening, so I slept on it and went to work the next day.
“We’re taking the tetras back to the pet store,” I announced that night. If the tetras couldn’t thrive in our tank, then I wanted them to thrive elsewhere.
Jon thought I was overthinking—the tetras were $1.50 a piece and just fish!—but I wasn’t overthinking, just over-feeling. Lily shrugged, apparently unfazed by the thought that Hans, Anna and Elsa wouldn’t be swimming in her room anymore.
And that’s how I ended up in this strange situation, the kind of situation that seems more and more likely once you become a mother. I have baby fish in a plastic bag between my legs. Becoming a mother opens you up to the world, all of it, good, bad, and long-snouted, in tender and sometimes astonishing ways. You feel not just the large injustices of poverty, child abuse, disease, war and hunger, but also the small injustices that fill a normal day, like a male cardinal flapping his crimson wings from a fence and frantically chirping while the neighborhood cat pins his orange-crested mate to the ground, and you arrive just a few hurried footsteps too late to stop it.
We make it inside the pet store without any tetra deaths and I find an employee, a young man, to help us.
“What happens to the fish that you don’t sell, the ones who are no longer babies?” I ask him. I visualize the tetras being dangled before the open mouth of the bearded dragon.
“I adopt some of them. We advertise the rest on fish forums.”
We watch him return The Pips to a tank filled with fry, and then Lily and I select another tank, this one a five-gallon. We buy a heater, too, and some dried blood worms, a treat for Freddy, the smallest carnivore in our home.
At home, I finally see what a happy fish looks like. In his new tank, Freddy swims slowly from side to side. He spreads his fins. He watches us watching him. Reading stories to Lily that evening, I sneak peeks at him, alive-o! I did it. Me. I have kept him alive. I kept Lily alive, too, through her first winter, when I was afraid that I might not be able to, when I understood that loving her so wholly exposed me to the possibility of losing her, and losing myself, too. Lily the infant was like Freddy the fish: two delicate bodies surviving in ecosystems balanced by another—by a mother.
Author‘s Note: Since writing this essay, we have added a mystery snail to our tank. Lily watches as it eats algae off the glass with its tiny O-shaped mouth. Both it and the fish provide plenty of learning opportunities for our family, especially—and surprisingly—for me. Becoming a mother has awakened in me a contemplation of many living things (except spiders).
Jody Keisner’s most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Brevity, Hunger Mountain, River Teeth‘s Beautiful Things, and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. This is her second contribution to Brain, Child.