A Single Fish| December 2, 2020
My son could not enjoy the beautiful, bright yellow fish with the willowy fins
"You can’t just kill him.”
“I have to, he’s a rodef,” my son said in resignation.
“A fish can’t be a rodef,” I explained. “He’s beautiful. Separate him from the other fish and you can still enjoy him.”
But my son could not enjoy the beautiful, bright yellow fish with the willowy fins.
Within days of introducing it to his aquarium, the other fish started to die: the black and silver stripped Zebras, the Neon Tetras…. It didn’t take long to realize the new fish was attacking the others. He removed the offensive fish to a gefilte fish jar (perhaps as a warning) and with a word of caution, donated him to a friend.
But the damage had already been done. Morning after morning, my son found another beloved fish floating on top of the water, having succumbed to its injuries. In a few short weeks, all the fish, with their rainbow of gold, pinks, greens, and blues were gone. Dejected, my son decided he’d give up his hobby and sell the fish tank.
At the same time our fish were slowly dying off, I was invited to an interview. I’d been desperately searching for a job for months. This job was perfect for me: close to home, convenient hours, good salary, and squarely in my area of expertise. To my delight, I got a follow-up call telling me they’d like to hire me ⸺ tossing in the compliment that the other applicants hadn’t even come close.
Was this really happening? Were we going to be able to slowly climb out of the debt we’d accrued during my unemployment? I could barely believe my good fortune as I watched myself progress from one stage to the next in the acceptance process.
And then, suddenly, it came crashing down.
I was crushed. I tried to push away all the thoughts of “almost” and “if only” that would never be. I tried to tell myself nothing had changed. Before this fiasco, I was looking for a good job and now I was still looking for a good job — there was no reason for me to fall apart.
But I did.
I stared at that fish tank and I may as well have been looking inside myself. Empty fish tank. Empty me.
And then I saw movement. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was something tiny — the size of a match head — moving among the pebbles on the bottom of the tank. Looking closely, I was shocked to realize it was a teeny-tiny fish.
A female fish had given birth not long before, but at the time, we’d had a fish tank full of beautiful, full-grown fish, so it hadn’t been worthy of being placed in the special attachment that protects the babies from getting eaten by bigger fish. Somehow, this one tiny fish had managed to survive by hiding among the rocks and grass all this time.
It was so small it could disappear behind a pebble, so small you could miss it if you’d blink. Yet that slip of a fish was enough to renew my son’s interest in his aquarium. The very next day he went to the pet store and bought two female guppies, bellies bulging with babies. He borrowed the special box that holds the mother fish inside, while tiny slits at the bottom allow the babies to slip through to safety.
Soon our fish tank was full of teeny-tiny fish. Every day they grew just a drop bigger and their colors became more obvious.
I feel silly for saying it, and even sillier for feeling it, but looking at those tiny fish makes me feel better. I’d watched as the other fish died one by one. I don’t care much about fish, but I care about my son.
I saw his heart sink as he noticed the white spots, swollen gills, or nibbled fins that were the telltale signs he was about to lose another fish. I watched the disappointment etched into his face as day after day he disposed of another fish with his little green net.
I also saw how a fish so miniscule we almost didn’t even see it changed everything.
As I lick my wounds from my perfect job that wasn’t, as I try to flick away all the dreams that will never materialize, as I worry what will be and when — I also know that at any moment I may discover something hiding among the pebbles. Something slight and simple can be enough for renewal, enough to create a space teeming with life.
And if not for the emptiness, if not for the absolute stillness of the abandoned tank — would I have noticed that one tiny fish?
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 720)
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