There is something miraculous about the longevity of carnival fish. Either the fish dies within a few hours of bringing it home and having just purchased food and a bowl, or it lasts forever and ever. It’s always a gamble; the pallid, slow swimmers can burst with life when you bring them home, and the really gold and shiny ones can drop dead the very next morning.
“Don’t feed the fish too much,” I warn my daughter, who has brought one home from a fair. It is named Avital, after her favorite counselor from camp, a far cry from the Goldies of my youth. “And you’ll have to change the water when it gets cloudy,” I add.
Avital joined our family with a cute habitat/box, and sits on a windowsill in the kitchen where she enjoys the company of the family, the sunlight streaming through the glass, and the mildew that happily creeps up on the plastic container walls. The children enjoy the fish back, watching her swim and doing other fish-y activities, like eat and go to the bathroom, and that’s about it. My almost 2-year-old also loves the fish, and often asks to watch it up close.
Sometimes it seems like the baby would like to feed it, or maybe even change its water. He tries to open the flap at the top of the container, the one my daughter uses to pour in the food, and gently tries to pet Avital. I usually am there to warn him not to do that, and probably shouldn’t be allowing him anywhere near the fish in general, but we make allowances for our fourth children in ways we never would with our first.
I recently let him watch the goldfish up close and personal. I had to run up the stairs without having him tag along (read: carry him) to throw a few wet towels in the laundry. There were several damp towels in the kitchen because he had just “washed” all of my dishes, spewing sink water all over the floor, while I tried to clean up breakfast. It is a never-ending cycle of stall tactics, and just when I think I have completed one chore, he creates yet another one.
And so, I leave my 2-year-old sitting at his Little Tykes table, the fish squarely placed in the center, his chin resting on the backs of his hands, so that he is eye level with it. “Hi Fishy,” I hear him say, as I bolt up the stairs, the wet towels drenching my arms through my sweater. I chuck them onto the floor of the laundry room, not even attempting to run the machine, and as I turn around to head back downstairs, my toddler has already ascended three-quarters of the way. “Mommy!” he says, and runs toward me. He never lets me out of his sight, and the fish-ploy stalled him for a few bonus seconds, enough for me to complete my task. I scoop him up and bring him into his room to change his diaper.
We spend some time in his room, reading books, sitting in his rocker, and playing with some of his blankets, and it was around a half hour later that we head back downstairs to start lunch. As we descend, my child balanced on my hip, I notice a large puddle of water spanning the edge of the kitchen. “Is the water cooler leaking?” I think, because that once happened due to a small crack in the side of the bottle, and it slowly bled out without anyone noticing. “Did I miss some spots from cleaning up after the dishwashing?” But the puddle is a few feet long, and as I get closer, I see it seems to originate from near the Little Tykes table.
When my feet land on the kitchen floor, I see the fish habitat lying on its side in the middle of the tiles, the puddle of (dirty!) water having spread from its contents. The plastic container is completely empty, except for maybe a scant millimeter’s height of water that couldn’t make it past the indented lip. Avital is lying flat in the near-empty container, still and silent. “Fishy spilled,” he explains, and I can see that, although I think it’s more like “someone spilled” the fishy.
I worry how I will explain to my daughter that her beloved fish passed away because of my negligence as a mother, that her baby brother was partially responsible for the untimely death of her pet. And then I think I could probably race to the pet store and replace Avital with another fish before she gets home, suddenly thrilled with Avital’s generic-fish appearance and probably very cheap ticket price. Gold, small, and scaly. She would never know the difference, and if she did, she probably wouldn’t mind because they would have the same one-sided, simple relationship.
I pick up the container, and as the small amount of water shifts around, so does Avital. She is flapping and floundering, still alive, trying to keep her small body wet, and I race to the non-leaking cooler, and fill up her tank with room-temperature water. She leaps back to life, happily swimming and breathing, racing around and around as if she had never been taken on a hazardous journey by a toddler, and dropped on the kitchen floor, drowning in air. And I breathe my own restorative sigh, thrilled that she is a fighter, a keeper, a really, really good carnival win, and that the tragedy of bad-motherhood has been avoided for the day.
Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected].
By Sarah Abenaim