Michelle Ross ~ Fish Story

Mrs. Lark is dying. I think it’s the chil­dren. They’re like an algal bloom pol­lut­ing her water. What I know is that when I lived with her all those years in her yel­low-walled apart­ment, Mrs. Lark seemed healthy. Then in August, she scooped me into a plas­tic bag and brought me here. She said to me, “I’ll bet you didn’t know I used to teach. That was long before your time. It’s been fif­teen years since I’ve been in the class­room!”

Before the chil­dren arrived, Mrs. Lark hummed as she paint­ed alpha­bet let­ters the size of the children’s skulls, each let­ter flanked by ani­mals from axolotls with their pompous pur­ple plumes to a zebu, the hump on the zebu’s back like a giant leach drain­ing flu­id from its spine.

Now she cries in the after­noons after the chil­dren assem­ble them­selves into the shape of a sea snake and slith­er out the door. She cries some morn­ings, too, before the chil­dren arrive. Like their com­ing and going is what’s mak­ing her sick.

Or may­be it’s her fruit­less strug­gle to shield the chil­dren from the bru­tal facts of life that gets to her. She tries to focus them on incon­se­quen­tial things. The alpha­bet, for instance. The first time she cried was the day the chil­dren com­plained about the alpha­bet posters she’d paint­ed and pinned to the walls back in August. The chil­dren said, “H is for hon­ey­bee?! Are you not aware that hon­ey­bees are near­ly extinct? What cen­tu­ry do you live in?” The posters came down.

I won’t lie; I was pleased to see the axolotls go.

But poor Mrs. Lark: slime oozed from her nos­trils for an alarm­ing length of time.

Children have the fideli­ty of her­mit crabs. Trust me; I know. When the chil­dren first arrived, Mona, the one who glides (almost aquat­ic, that child), point­ed at me and yelled, “Fish!” The chil­dren smashed their faces up again­st the glass of my tank like a brood of algae eaters. Not one min­ute lat­er, the chil­dren had scat­tered like reef dwellers when a shark approach­es. Their only inter­est in me since has been when Mrs. Lark asks, “Who wants to feed Chunk?” and every arm shoots up at once. Synchronize, syn­chro­nize.

Personally, I enjoy the lack of atten­tion. When the chil­dren linger some­times, after they shake the flakes into my tank, I eat too fast. I get indi­ges­tion. (If I don’t eat imme­di­ate­ly, Mrs. Lark decides I’ve been overfed. She scoops the flakes out with a net.)

Mrs. Lark cried too the day the chil­dren asked why the cat in the begin­ning-read­ers books is always described as fat. They said, “Why does the author not empha­size some oth­er attrib­ute, say the cat’s shiny fur or wily char­ac­ter?” She said, “I guess because those words don’t rhyme.” The chil­dren said, “Is rhyming so essen­tial that it trumps civil­i­ty?” Mrs. Lark blushed. She said, “Of course, not.”

A shame­ful over­sight on her part, for sure. However, the irony of the chil­dren elect­ing to re-chris­ten me Chunk, and some of them call­ing me The Inimitable Chunka-Lunky Butthead Supreme when Mrs. Lark isn’t with­in hear­ing, is not lost on me, I’ll tell you.

Then there was the day that the chil­dren asked about the framed water­col­or hang­ing next to the class­room door. “What does it say?” they asked. “Don’t set­tle for the sec­ond high­est peak,” Mrs. Lark read. The pic­ture showed a man scal­ing a moun­tain, a rain­bow over­head. The chil­dren said, “What if we want to climb the sec­ond high­est peak?” Mrs. Lark said, “Oh, it’s not meant so lit­er­al­ly.” The chil­dren said, “Is it not instruct­ing us that the sec­ond high­est peak is not wor­thy of our ambi­tions?” Mrs. Lark said, “Well.” The chil­dren said, “What kind of mes­sage does this send to Mona? She can’t climb any peaks at all.” Mrs. Lark looked as though she’d been stunned by an elec­tric eel.

Mrs. Lark has not scaled any peaks, I’m quite sure. She knows as well as I do, I believe, that life is about sur­vival; then you die. This mis­sion of hers to try to con­vince the chil­dren oth­er­wise is noble, I sup­pose, but fool­hardy. She may hide her cry­ing from them, but she can’t hide how she’s thinned the­se last sev­er­al months. She can’t hide how she’s wilt­ed, like the plant in my tank.

Today, after the chil­dren return from recess, Mrs. Lark holds up a ladle and says that the chil­dren will scoop water from one bowl into anoth­er and count the scoops. “Why?” the chil­dren ask. “I’m teach­ing you about non­stan­dard units of mea­sure­ment,” Mrs. Lark says. Her skin is pale, her dress wrin­kled.

The chil­dren say, “If you were to write a book about the wis­dom you have acquired over the course of your life, would there be a chap­ter on non­stan­dard units of mea­sure­ment?”

Mrs. Lark coughs. “No, there would be no such chap­ter, but you are chil­dren. You have your whole lives to seek oth­er lessons.”

Like what?” they ask.

Mrs. Lark stares at the floor. She’s close now. Three days in a row, the chil­dren have shak­en out more flakes than I can eat, and Mrs. Lark hasn’t noticed. The water is so cloudy that the chil­dren are like floaters at the edges of my vision.

Mrs. Lark says, “How about you dec­o­rate the class­room walls with your art?”

The chil­dren run to the art sta­tion. They draw ani­mals and author­i­ty fig­ures, every­thing poop­ing or eat­ing poop or shaped like poop. The chil­dren seem sat­is­fied.

But sit­ting at her desk, Mrs. Lark looks limper than ever. Like when my fins stum­ble, and for a moment, I sink: My mus­cles feel so pal­try. Death is tak­ing nips out of us, devour­ing us slow­ly, bite by bite. If the plant in my tank is any indi­ca­tion, soon we will be noth­ing but mush. Mrs. Lark won’t be writ­ing any books, but pay atten­tion, chil­dren, and you will learn all you need to know.

~

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, win­ner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award (Moon City Press 2017). Her writ­ing has appeared in The Common, Cream City Review, Hobart, Paper Darts, and oth­er venues. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a sci­ence writer and serves as fic­tion edi­tor for Atticus Review. More of her writ­ing can be found at her site.