I’ve had so many animals: dogs, cats, white rats, a turtle, a goldfish, chickens, guinea pigs, a blind horse, insects, mice, a baby opossum, a mole, a chameleon, a garter snake, a rabbit, ticks, fleas and pantry moths. I have a cat named Fish; my mother was and my brother is Pisces, and I’m Aquarius; what else but fish plus water, and it’s all true.
Illustration by the author.
I am not a fish. I can’t swim. I don’t even float like a dead fish would. I never will.
I sink. Slowly. To the bottom. The word “glub” would fit in my obituary.
When I was six I tried to hold a fish right side up in his bucket. Because he kept going upside down and floating to the top. My father had caught it. Something was wrong. Maybe the hook had burst its air bladder like a balloon. I held it in my cupped hands to blow in its mouth. As if it were a balloon. I think now that I felt more curiosity than pity. Eventually I gave up.
When you are six, “eventually” is not very long. And there was green grass all around. All ‘round the round bucket. And a tree. And a limb, a branch, a twig. And the green grass grew all around all around. We lived on a farm, and a stream, no more than a rill I guess, was near the last back acre. I never saw a fish in it. Nothing but rocks and little twigs. The farmyard had a pump right outside the kitchen.
The third book having anything to do with water that my father read aloud to us was Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley (1865-66). (The first was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll; a Fish Footman lived in Wonderland.) Tom, Kingsley’s sooty little chimney sweep, is drowned, and when he wakes in the water he finds “himself swimming about in the stream, being about four inches, or—that I may be accurate—3.87902 inches long…with external gills.… In fact, the fairies had turned him into a water-baby.”
I was not frightened by the book, but loved to imagine all the things I’d never seen. I was used to hearing fairy tales and stories made up out of bits and pieces, something of value out of nothings. Daddy made up stories all the time, including one about a garden hose and water like a snake coming out of it; we were allowed to name one thing to be put in a story.
My grandmother sang “Clementine” to me quite frequently, as well as the ditty about the hole** in the ground and the tree and the limb and the branch and the twig and the nest and the “green grass grew all around.” Darling Clementine? Oh yes, and I became her:
“Light she was and like a fairy,
and her shoes were number nine,
herring boxes without topses
sandals were for Clementine,” who fell into
“the foaming brine…ruby lips above the water, blowing bubbles soft and fine.” I always pictured her shoes, usually in a shoebox like a boat, moving swiftly out of sight on the river. We had come from Memphis to Toledo, after all, and I must have seen the Mississippi.
Clementine drowned because she couldn’t swim. Is it just coincidence that I—a woman with very long skinny feet (you could say like an old bass, or a needlefish)—am also unable to swim or float?
A few years after the Toledo farm we moved closer to town. Ten Mile Creek was two blocks away in one direction, and four blocks away in another. I had a fishing pole and a tackle box and a red-and-white bobber and a spool of line and I knew how to get a can of worms by watering a lot the night before under the sycamore tree. And I had no friends but one. So I always went fishing by myself, sitting on a rockmud bank next to a tree, thinking I must look very much like Huckleberry Finn. I think I remember getting a fish one time, and I’m sure I remember taking the hook out and throwing the fish back in. I certainly would not have taken it home, nor would I have left it there gasping for air on the bank.
That one friend, Penny, lived a block from us. She wouldn’t have gone fishing if I’d paid her. Maybe because she had a goldfish.
Penny’s goldfish bowl had a frond of fake seaweed, and an orange-and-white glazed porcelain castle made in Occupied Japan. Until just now, I’ve never thought how interesting: Japanese china. When her solitary goldfish died, it floated upside down in the scummy water with the frond and the castle. Penny invited me over to watch the autopsy. She performed it on a placemat on the desk in her room. It was the only time I was ever in her room. She had a razor blade she took from her father’s razor, and carefully slit open the goldfish’s belly. She reached in and pulled out the air bladder. It didn’t pop. It was the size of a small pea, a fairy balloon still filled with air. I asked if I could carry it home to look at with my microscope. I held it carefully and walked about fifty feet up the street. A few more steps and—although I was still holding my thumb and finger 3/8” apart—the air bladder was gone. Blown away. You knew that would happen, didn’t you?
Penny and I read Archie comics in her front yard. I liked Archie, hated Veronica, and carefully read the ads for tiny creatures who wore bathing suits and had long wavery arms and legs and if you bought some you could watch them mate in your room and if you remembered to feed them. They were called Sea Monkeys***. They were “eager to please” and trainable too.
Many years later, I liked to imagine that sperm were like tadpoles. Who could know what would turn out to be a frog or a fish? They swim upstream, vying with each other. One wins. I was born. I didn’t inherit the ability to swim.
* “At the coming of the Cocqcigrues”—meaning “never.” The imaginary creatures Cocqcigrues were an invention of François Rabelais in his five connected mid-16th century novels The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel. Rabelais invented hundreds of new words and reveled in wordplay.
** I am besotted with holes. From Alice of course, and digging in dirt around our bar, looking for treasure.
*** The man who invented the name and the market for them (tiny brine shrimp meant as fishfood) also invented “Invisible Goldfish.” But I never saw one of those.
Linda Campbell Franklin—born in Memphis, 1941. Daddy sent telegrams: “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! a girl was born to us today!” I’m an Aquarian Jabberwocky who’s been under Lewis Carroll’s spell since then: from holes and rabbits to watches and magic—in Toledo, Boulder, NYC, Charlottesville & now, Baltimore. I’ve done cartoons, illustrations, poems, many books (graphic memoir, tween journals, antiques, library display, etc.), a filmstrip, a comic strip. @barkinglips and @rowenasunder on Instagram.