Fish Mother

This story was inspired by one of my favorite short stories: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. There’s something timely and universal about moving to the suburbs and the isolation and frustration that women have traditionally experienced with that move. And of course, there’s that association with fishiness and womanliness. I started thinking about these fish as an extension of being female, and how that pertains to marriage and motherhood. While this story is 99% fiction, there’s one small part that isn’t: the koi pond that came with the house I moved into. Sadly, I’ve had to contend with a few raccoon/koi murder scenes. Fish are hard work! However, I am grateful for them: grateful that they led me to write this story, grateful that I get to share it on Chestnut Review, and eternally grateful that I was chosen as the winner of the Stubborn Writers Contest.

I kill the biggest koi within two days of moving into the crooked house. I know it’s dead because it’s lying on its side like an offering, one globular eye stretched taut, gazing up. The remaining koi and orfe family sink to the bottom and stay there for three days. Like they’re in mourning.

The fish come with the house. A package deal, the pushy realtor tells us. I like the American house, its suburban location, my husband’s inheritance allowing us more square footage than we ever would have believed possible, even though it looks like it’s leaning slightly to the left.

Is it just me, or is it crooked? I ask.

It’s just you.

I really wish it didn’t have that koi pond. A pond is a lot of work, I say. Are you sure we’re up to it? 

We are, my husband assures me, kissing the bone above my eyebrow.

We’re ready. It’s time. These things come in the customary order: 1. Get married. 2. Buy a house. 3. Settle down. This is what we signed up for, isn’t it? Weren’t we both in on it, this spousal pact? Who can argue it, now?

I picture the fat, dead fish—J. Edgar—as I’m lying on the oh-bee bed, the paper-thin salmon gown split open at the front, a disposable sheet on my lap (for modesty), feet balancing in hospital stirrups.

Are you one hundred percent sure you want your IUD removed today? she asks. We can always pop in another.

Five-to-seven years of no periods, no babies, no responsibilities. Thank you, Mirena. Pop in another? It would be my third. Can we keep kicking the inevitable can down the road?

Is anyone ever one hundred percent, I joke, but she doesn’t smile. Probability isn’t funny. Yes, I confirm. Yes, I’m sure.

My poor J. Edgar, thick and fleshy: dead by over-indulgence, by my hand. I sprinkled one too many orange pyramid crackers and he hoovered them all, the greedy imp. I told my husband we didn’t know how to look after koi. That this was a terrible idea. That we should have sold them on Ebay. J. Edgar, his belly bobbing, unresponsive to the prods from the fishing net stick.

Pri? What are you doing? He’s dead. You overfed him.

Did I? is all I can manage. Did I?

Oh, J. I fish him out, slop him on to the deck, and wrestle him into a garbage bag for the next morning’s collection, tears hurtling down my cheeks. He didn’t deserve to die like this. Who am I kidding? I can’t even look after a basic house plant. I consistently overwater, saturating the soil until it turns a blue-black. The aloe vera plant is only supposed to be watered once a month, its prickly sage leaves more than capable of flourishing on the windowsill. But I can’t help myself. Water flows. I’m a homeowner now. There’s much to be done.

I’m sorry, Priyanka, says the oh-bee, in a serious sort of way. I’m afraid I can’t see the strings. It’s likely they’ve curled up inside you. Are you okay just waiting there for a minute? I need to get up into your uterus. Let me see if I can find a thinner instrument. Hold, please.

Am I okay? My legs are butterflied. Inside me: vanishing strings, like a magic trick. Ta-da! I hold, please. The coil has been inside me for so long that it’s become a part of me. It’s a longstanding comfort between my husband and me. No babies! No periods! What a joy to have this plasticky, t-shaped friend stuck up there, lodged in, keeping us both safe. What pure joy, to not have to rely on other, more awkward forms of contraception. Cheers to you, Mirena. You’ve been a champ.

She’s back. Here we go, she soothes. Just breathe.

The pain is electric and precise. Panic seizes. I lick my lips; my lipstick is cold and grainy under my tongue. I tap my fingers, playing a soundless piano on the top of my gown.

Breathe, breathe. There we go. 

Gotcha! she exclaims, like she’s won a soft plush toy from a carnival claw machine, and she’s showing it to me, its presence eerie and unreal. There, it’s out, banished from my body, the two strings dangling in afterthought. On one arm, watery blood clings. Before I can conjure up a suitable goodbye, it is gone.

That was a stubborn one, she tuts.

She shows me the length of the instrument, how it curves ever so slightly at one end, the contraption pinching. I regard it in disbelief. The things we women go through.

You’re all set. Just remember to keep taking your prenatals. Book a follow-up if you don’t have a period in two months. Good luck!

And I’m fumbling into my clothes, the cramps alien, my body bending and reacting to the invasion, and all I can think is: this is it, we’re doing this, it’s all over, it’s on.

It’s been three weeks since the oh-bee visit. Ibuprofen fixes the cramps. The prenatal vitamins leave a lingering taste of cod liver oil. I wander from room to room, out to the deck, to the yard, unpacking boxes, wall-mounting photo frames, feeding the fish. I invent names for the rest of them: I dub the red one Red Dead, the black and white one Cow Splotch, the silvery, almost see-through one Gray Beard. There are others. More. I can’t see them all. The water’s too thick, and they’re too fast: a flash of orange, a roar of red. I switch off the bubbler in an attempt to get them to rise to the surface, claiming oxygen. The fish freak, slapping and plopping, creating a lather. I switch it back on again. They sink, vibrating beneath the surface of the water, refusing to play ball.

It is a fat, burning summer, loaded with electric storms, which means that the fish should, in theory, be super active, spurred on by the frequent rain showers, their lips popping at the bubbles, investigating the rain, kissing up. But they aren’t prepared to show themselves to me, not after what I did to J. Edgar. I’m determined to win back their trust.

Hey little fishies, I sing, as I sprinkle the foul-smelling graze. Where are you? I’m doing everything in my power to entice them. No dice. The smell of fish food clings to my fingers.

Give me a chance, I want to scream. I can be a good mother to you!

I google “how long do koi live” and discover it’s fucking ages, even longer than the total amount of time I’ve been married, although I am encouraged to learn that they take a seasonal hiatus, hibernating at the bottom against the winter freeze, buried under slow flurries that settle on diamond-hard ice, kept alive only by an electric heated ring. But that’s at least four months away. For now, as elusive as they are, they are active. And they hate me.

I order a pond testing kit from Amazon Prime that arrives the next day. I dip test tubes into the murky water, measuring the alkaline on a scale of forest-green to lilac to lemon. The results are bad. Really, really bad. 

Hey, love, I call. We’re going to have to change the pond water. Or more of them are going to die.

What’s the problem? I thought you overfed the white one?

It’s the water, this time. Not the fish food. Can you give me a hand?


He empties himself in a fast shrug, and I realize that I’m talking to the back of the house, and not my husband.

It’s been two months, and no period. I take a test. It’s negative. I book an appointment for blood work.

My husband has never been one to overanalyze. Just give it time, he says. You’re putting too much pressure on it. Relax, honey.

I sit on the deck for hours, a gripping page-turner on my lap. I don’t read. Instead, I watch their every fishy move. Not counting J. Edgar, R.I.P., there are fourteen koi and five golden orfe. They slide and swish and bubble, little flashes of brilliance, their fins as thin as feathers. Bloodless. Aimless. They infuriate me. They answer to no one. They swim without fear. God, I envy them. The book I’m attempting to read—a New York Times Bestseller—is a Pride and Prejudice retelling. I’m not even halfway in, and I’m so mad at the characters. Mad at all that time wasted. My heart heaves with the loss.

The crooked house is too big for just two people. Its grandness—at first dreamy and alluring—is now overbearing. It’s a four-bedroom colonial, off-center and massive, with a heated driveway, Hansel and Gretel-style shutters with heart stencils, and landscaped gardens. And, oh, how perfect: a fucking koi pond. A koi pond. The space is obscene. How can just two people live here? My husband tells me that this is the American dream, that we should be grateful for our specific circumstance. We are blessed.

You’re selfish, I whisper to his back, in bed, and I don’t mean about the big, empty house. I mean that he’s selfish to expect me to look after all those fish. What did he think would happen? He let me kill J. Edgar. Okay, so he didn’t put the extra fish food in my hand, but he knows that I have a propensity to overfeed things. Why didn’t he stop me? I pull down my SLEEPING BITCHY eye shades, the ones I got for White Elephant gift exchange last year, and turn my back. I rarely make it all the way through the night; the shades slip up against my hairline like a sweat band. I blink into the quietness of the bedroom, the alarm clock flashing five, always five. Five, five, five. Five to this. Five after that. Nearly. Not quite the hour.

My body is a war zone: dodging, firing, sheltering. I’m grossed out by what’s coming, this change. Disgusted. Shouldn’t he be more scared? Doesn’t he realize we’re altering things beyond repair? No. He is calm, as always. Bastard. He cradles me in his arms, as always. He holds me close. As fucking always.

I wake to the wet embers of another summer storm. The gutters are brimming with it. I look out the bedroom window, and spy something on the garage roof below—a rat?—no, bigger than a rat. Whiter than a rat’s fuzz. Shinier. It’s amphibian.

It is Gray Beard.

I scream at the decapitated koi, a crimson ring where its face used to be. 

What? What’s happened? Are you okay? My husband rushes in, a fuzzy bath towel wrapped around his perfect waist.

I smother my mouth and point.

The fuck?

I run away from him, bounding downstairs, my throat ablaze. The ends of my slippers grow wetter on the deck, the bottoms of my pajamas soaking. He follows.

Shit. I’m sorry, baby. It was probably an owl or a hawk, he says from behind me, in his perfect, soothing voice. Or maybe even a racoon; those little shits can climb. That’s the only way it got up there. Don’t worry, honey. We’ll get a net to cover the surface, to stop it happening again. He pauses, then adds: At least it didn’t leave any marks on the deck.

I count ten. There are ten fish left. From nineteen (not including J. Edgar, rest his soul). Nine dead. It’s a massacre. A bloody massacre. Cramps seize my womb. From the angle I’m standing, my husband is too close to the water’s edge, his stance taut and edgy. The exterior of the house is more than just crooked, I realize; it’s insane, totally lopsided, as if it isn’t touching the earth, the very foundations it was built upon.

Get away from there! I sob. Get back.

My babies are dead. I collapse to my knees. I’m in mourning.

Red Dead slips across the water’s surface, his scales a dark, meaty crimson in the early sunshine, and from miles and miles inside me, I feel something glide and stir.

Natalie Harris-Spencer is an English writer, digital editor, and blogger living in America. Her work has appeared in Subnivean, Stonecoast Review, Hobart, The Dark City, The Satirist, and others. She is the winner of the Chestnut Review Stubborn Writers Contest, the Hummingbird Flash Fiction Prize, and she was selected by Oyster River Pages as one of their Emerging Fiction Voices. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Stonecoast, and she is the Editor-in-Chief of Aspiring Author. She is currently working on her debut novel. Natalie enjoys surprise in fiction. And tea. Twitter: @NRHarrisSpencer, IG: @natalie.harris.spencer.



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