The salesman dipped the net into the water and scooped our chosen goldfish from those darting around in the tank. It was a bright orange one with black and white freckles near its gills. The man released the little fish into a clear plastic bag already filled halfway with water and knotted the top of the bag before handing it to Momma. And there it was, our first-ever pet, balanced on Momma’s palm like it was nothing.
But it was everything.
“You want two? One for each girl,” the salesman asked. “They’re only fifty cents apiece.” He plunged the net back into the water as though Momma would most certainly agree to purchase two fish.
I swallowed hard. The Dr. Seuss rhyme popped into my head—One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Please, please, please let us get two fish, I prayed.
“Only one, thank you,” Momma said, her voice as pleasant as someone who’d agreed to buy the whole aquarium full. I exhaled and unclasped my hands, but I wasn’t disappointed. The idea that we were buying a pet at all was miracle enough. In my eleven-and-a-half years of experience, I’d learned that miracles were flimsy little things, only one puff of breath past a dandelion wish.
“Come along girls, we have somewhere to be.” Momma swept her hand through the air like she was gathering us up, like we were jacks that had scattered across the scuffed floor of Sterling’s. This was her way of keeping us focused and together because we’d been known to wander off to the toy aisle to gaze at the paper dolls.
It was one of those flawless October days when the air was snappy but not cold, and from a distance, the trees growing around the courthouse looked to be on fire. As we walked to the car, Momma held the bag in her hands like she was carrying a fallen bird nest to safety, the eggs still perched inside.
Did fish have thoughts? Memories? Feelings about leaving family behind in the store? If not, they were the lucky ones.
My sister and I climbed in the backseat of our brown Oldsmobile, and Momma handed our fish to me. By the time we turned off Main Street, I had named her Pippi. Pretty and kind animals like goldfish and redbirds and all the cabbage butterflies that flitted around in our front yard were girls. Drab, daunting creatures like brown snakes and the moth that ate holes in Momma’s good wool sweater were boys. It made sense to me, and my little sister went along with whatever I said.
“Goodness, we’re running late.” The motor of the Oldsmobile groaned as Momma merged onto the interstate. We had been on our way to the eye doctor in Blytheville when Momma detoured to buy a goldfish at Sterling’s. I couldn’t get over it. The idea that Momma would spend hard-earned money on a fish—it wasn’t a holiday or birthday or anything—should have been my first clue that the day would take an unusual turn. But I couldn’t see past the thrill of a store-bought pet.
Last spring, my sister and I found two tiny box turtles half-buried in mud in the ditch behind our house. We gave them a bath, painted our initials on their shells in shiny pink nail polish, and kept them in a bowl of water on our bedroom dresser. After a week, Momma made us release them. She said they stunk up the house like something was dying.
Momma could smell things we couldn’t.
My sister and I took turns holding Pippi all the way to Blytheville, trading off every time the song on the radio changed. When Witchy Woman came on, Momma turned up the music, and we all sang along to The Eagles. Singing together like that while cottonfields blurred past the car windows loosened the ever-present knot in my stomach. I pretended we were on a big adventure, leaving everything terrible behind.
“I think I’ll be Pippi Longstocking for Halloween,” I said when my next turn came to hold the fish. The bag felt substantial, like a bag of sugar, yet squishy like the plastic heart on display in Mr. Robinson’s science class.
“You’re gonna dress up like a fish?” my sister asked, her voice disbelieving.
“No, Pippi the girl. The one we watch on television sometimes.” Pippi Longstocking was smart and brave, she had a pet monkey and a horse, and she didn’t tolerate mean adults. “Momma, do you think you can make my pigtails stick straight out like Pippi Longstocking?”
“I imagine I can,” she said. And I believed her.
I held the water bag near my face, and Pippi looked at me with her round fish eyes. For a moment, the whole world was reflected inside that watery bubble, all the hope and happiness and good parts of life. And, I wondered why Momma chose that day of all days to buy a fish for us. I didn’t think it was related to the good grades on our report cards or the turtles she wouldn’t let us keep. Nor did I believe Momma was in a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious mood, one that made her look around the house and think what these girls need is a fish. No, I suspected Pippi was riding along with us to the eye doctor because Momma was wet-hen mad at Daddy. Last night, he’d come home late again, after the supper dishes were washed, and he smelled like cigarettes and Schlitz. In some grownup way I didn’t yet understand, Momma thought she owed us something.
Dr. Martin’s office was located inside a small red brick house on Center Street. It was the sort of house I imagined Hansel and Gretel might have stumbled upon in the forest. Momma parked in the back lot reserved for patients and slung her pocketbook over her shoulder.
“Hurry girls, I’m late.”
“Can I pleeeease stay in the car with Pippi?”
“It’s not safe to stay in the car.”
“But what about Pippi?”
“She’ll be fine. We won’t be long.”
I placed Pippi’s water bag on the floorboard in the back seat. Momma cracked the front windows to let in the fresh fall air, then locked the doors. We hurried inside, Momma glancing twice at her wristwatch.
While the nurse adjusted Momma’s new glasses, the receptionist let my sister and me try on frames and look at our faces in the lighted mirror. Each pair of glasses made me feel like a slightly different person. For a while, I forgot about Momma and Daddy’s latest nasty argument and how he yelled, “Dammit to hell,” and slammed the bathroom door so hard the whole house trembled. I forgot about our trip to Sterling’s and Pippi waiting in the car and my worry over whether Daddy would allow us to keep a goldfish.
Soon, we left the doctor’s office. As we walked to the car, the afternoon sunshine cast tall shadows across the cracked sidewalk, and I knew the days were getting shorter. I glanced at Momma wearing her new tortoise-shell eyeglasses. I wondered where our turtles now lived and if pink polish still marked their shells. I felt bad we had tainted them that way.
“Momma, do you think I could get glasses?” I asked. She looked spiffy, and I wanted to look spiffy too.
“Honey, there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight. Soon enough, you’ll probably need glasses, and then you won’t want them.” Momma chuckled as she unlocked the door of the backseat.
What happened next still baffles the three of us all these years later.
Pippi’s water bag was just as we had left it on the floorboard, undisturbed, the knot still tied securely at the top. But inside, Pippi was gone!
“Where is she?” my sister whispered, astonishment reflected in her bottle-green eyes.
Momma lifted the bag and held it toward the sky.
The bag wasn’t leaking.
Pippi possessed magical powers. That was the only logical explanation.
“She’s like Houdini. Or, a genie goldfish,” I said with a reverence reserved for disappearing things and unexplainable mysteries. We stared at each other, and for a few seconds, no one said anything.
There was nothing to be done.
Momma took the back roads home. With no traffic to speak of, she rolled down the windows, slowed the car, and pointed out things we should know: when I was a girl, we had a picnic at that park; and there used to be a drive-in movie theatre in that field; and your dad and I saw Love Story there. Momma released a pent-up sigh. Her shoulders softened, and she shook her head slowly as though she couldn’t believe her own thoughts. Then she said, Don’t get married until you’re thirty. Even then, give it a good long think before you walk down the church aisle.
As the field passed, I waved my hand out the window and tried to imagine a drive-in there. But the field looked like every other in our corner of Arkansas, the cotton already picked, left behind clumps clinging to dry stalks.
“Momma, what do you think happened to Pippi?” I asked.
Momma glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Honestly, I have no idea. It’s the oddest thing.”
“Are we gonna get another fish?” my sister asked.
“We can get one next week,” Momma said.
I wasn’t all that sure we should.
Nothing more was said about Pippi’s disappearance for the remainder of our trip home; we sat with the strangeness of what had happened. I held her bag of water and thought about things we get to keep and things never meant to be ours. What if the world really was inside the wet bubble, safe and silent? What if we were the fish-eyed ones gasping for air with cracked hearts and wounded places?
Back home, I placed Pippi’s water bag on the kitchen counter and stared at it again as though our goldfish might be hiding in plain sight. Momma began loosening the knot the man at Sterling’s had tied. A lump burned the back of my throat, and my sister’s eyes filled with tears.
“Nooo!” I yelled. “You can’t pour the water down the kitchen sink. What if Pippi possesses the power of invisibility and she’s really still swimming around in there and she plans to reappear later tonight or tomorrow?”
After the day we’d had and the wonder we had witnessed, Momma emptied the water into the bowl that once held our turtles. Then, I placed the bowl on the dresser in my bedroom. Deep down, I knew Pippi was swimming somewhere better.
At five o’clock, Momma filled her largest pot with water and placed it on the burner. I tore iceberg lettuce into pieces for a salad while my sister set the table. Daddy came home just before supper was ready but said he wouldn’t be staying to eat, as though he was a visitor passing through. He took a black garbage bag from underneath the sink, disappeared to the back of the house, and returned with the bag, so full his jeans and work shirts were spilling from the top. No one said a word when he opened the icebox and began moving cans of beer into the Styrofoam cooler, arranging them in neat rows in the bottom.
“I’ll get the rest of my stuff later,” he said.
Momma nodded without looking at him. She dumped dry spaghetti into the furiously boiling water. After the screen door slapped shut, I raced to the kitchen window and watched Daddy’s truck back down the gravel driveway and turn onto the highway. I watched until he disappeared into the golden horizon, the sunset as brilliant as our fish had been.
Talya Tate Boerner is the author of two award-winning books—The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee and Gene, Everywhere. Her short stories have been published in multiple journals and anthologies including Arkansas Review, Writer’s Digest, and Reminiscence Magazine. She raises butterflies on her back porch and believes a serving of collard greens will improve most any meal. Talya lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her third book, Bernice Runs Away, is forthcoming in 2022.