By Randy J. Craig
Early morning. Awake, but groggy, the floor cold on my bare feet. I noticed the death right away.
A fish lay motionless at the bottom of the aquarium. Its shiny, electric orange color turned a sick gray pallor. Bloated body. A rotting fin.
I discovered the corpse of my female swordtail, Xiphophorous hellerii, after I turned on the aquarium lamp. I stared for a minute, then crumbled flakes of fish food on top of the gently rippling water. Five fish dashed to the water’s surface for their meal. I brewed coffee.
Hard morning. Not like mornings with Celeste. Those were comfortable and easy. Sipping dark coffee and mint tea. Toasting bagels. Sharing a couch and a soft blanket. Then evening walks in the neighborhood. Intimate restaurants, enjoying chardonnay and buttery scallops. “You’re my world” were her words to me. They echoed then faded.
I grabbed a small net, scooped the dead fish suspended above the azure gravel. Flushed it down the toilet.
Coffee grew cold. The fish finished feeding.
Late morning. At work, unfocused. Thoughts ran rampant. Need groceries. Need to exercise. Need to call my dad. Need to talk to Celeste. You’re my world.
Echoes. Dead fish.
Lots of dead cardinal tetras.
Torpedo-like fish, an inch-long, neon-blue on top, flaming-red on the bottom. Had them when I was a kid. Dad walked me to the pet store two blocks from our house one July day, age seven. The air was humid. Burned-out fireworks littered the sidewalk. We entered the air-conditioned store. Parakeets chirped. Aquariums gently bubbled. “Go,” he said. “Pick out some fish.” I knew what I wanted. Cardinal tetras. “We have to buy a lot,” I told my father. “They live in schools, so we need lots.”
One morning, they were all dead. I did something wrong. I didn’t know what it was. Still don’t.
The swordtail I flushed was one of a pair I bought a year ago during winter’s deepest gray. Those fish—blazing orange male and female swordtails—were a calming presence for me during the cold months, a splash of brilliance in a time otherwise defined by barren trees and icy, gray sludge on frozen streets. I watched the fish swim in the ten-gallon aquarium, darting between plant leaves.
More fish were added. Black and silver mollies. The silver one tormented the other fish, including the offspring of my swordtails. All of their babies were eaten by the other fish, except one. It escaped by hiding in tiny nooks and cramped, dark spaces.
Swordtail fry are born asexual and become male or female upon maturity. I watched the surviving fry grow, thinking it was female. Then the fish developed the eponymous swordtail—the elongated lower lobe of its tailfin bearing a thin black stripe—which only males possess. That swordtail, born of the original, now-dead female, grew strong and fast.
I was unsure what killed his mother that morning. I cleaned the tank three days ago, siphoning away crud and replacing stale water with two gallons of clean water. Maybe it was shock from the fresh, pure water. Stress from the aggressive silver molly. Exhaustion from another pregnancy. She had given birth a week earlier. I spotted a tiny orange fry swimming among the hornwort.
Another lone survivor like his sibling.
“I need something,” I told Celeste about a year ago. What it was, I was not sure.
Then, on a gray, wintry day, we walked through Old Town, and a brilliant neon store sign caught my eye—the colorful outline of a macaw and “PETS” in blazing red. We walked in, looked around. I bought an aquarium, like the one I had as a child. We considered what fish to buy.
“I like those orange ones,” she said. I bought two of them, a male and a female swordtail.
Early afternoon, home from work. Celeste called. We maintained a friendship of distorted casualness after our relationship ended but had not spoken for weeks. Post-breakup, I called her each week to achieve some level of normalcy. The routine of small talk exhausted me.
We talked about work. She mentioned travel plans.
“I’m going to see Angela again in April,” she said. We both visited Angela, a mutual friend, this past summer. Spent a week in Massachusetts. Three months later, our relationship collapsed. Things end that way—from vacations together to forever apart in a few short weeks.
“Going back to Boston?” I said.
“Yes. A friend—his parents live there. He invited me.”
A friend. I heard those same words the night she broke up with me. Anonymity—just a friend—felt less like a sting. He had a name, though.
A confused, aching silence interrupted us.
“How are the fish?” she asked. I said they were fine.
“I’m glad,” she said. “That’s a nice memory—getting the fish with you.”
“It was, yes.”
The conversation ended without incident.
Late evening. At home, restless. I put on my coat. Walked. Cold winds chased me in every direction. I turned north; the chill followed. I headed south, then west—the wind swirled about my head, stung my eyes. I turned down an alley. Houses and garages on both sides of me offered some welcome protection. But I felt confined, and all I could see were garbage cans, filthy sidewalks, litter waiting to be swept up by someone. Shadows, carved by streetlights, stretched down the alleyway. When I wandered onto dark streets, I followed the soft glow of winter’s waning moon. After thirty minutes, I turned back, having found no benefit to walking in the frigid dark. What I needed was light and warmth. Spring will arrive soon, I thought. I’ll walk more then. Maybe get more fish.
It was time for their evening meal. When I sprinkled the food, the swordtail fry, the newest lone survivor, emerged from behind a plant and nibbled the food as it descended. The angry silver molly chased it back to the comfortable darkness at the bottom of the tank, away from terror and the light.