How Fish Sleep
by Jane Wong

Fish Scales, cut glass by Franci Claudon

cut glass by Franci Claudon

When people came to the funeral, they came by foot. They came with plates of sweet pork and pound cake and sorrowful faces. The women in suits stood closest to the grave, dabbing their eyes with packaged tissues and thinking of what to cook for dinner. Behind the oaks, their children were fast asleep in fat parkas, their bellies heavy with meat and leaves. It wasn’t raining that day, but each mourner brought his own umbrella. Like mushrooms, they dotted the hill.

The mourners weren’t family. They were the talkers, the ones who told stories of the Leung house over poker games and laundry. “The husband was cruel. That’s why,” the women said. “Her mother-in-law was overbearing. Must be,” the men said. Sometimes families would argue over dinner, waving soup spoons to stress their version: she was crazy in the head, she had a lover and felt ashamed, she was lonely and hated the weather. They even talked about her when the television was on, rising out of their worn sofa seats. If it was a good program, they’d wait until the commercial. Whenever children would ask what their parents were talking about, they would bop them over the head and give them extra ginseng soup. Soon, the children became quiet.

At work, over the roar of the factory machinery, the father heard all of the stories told. Day after day, they told the story about the forbidden lover, who seduced the mother behind the prickle bushes. One of the co-workers always wrapped his arms around the group, winking as if the forbidden lover was standing right before them, holding the secrets to her modest curves. When the bell rang for lunch, the co-workers averted their eyes, convening in the gravel lot behind the factory with their brimming lunch
pails. Alone, the father put on his cap and walked back to the house alongside the railroad tracks. Sometimes he took off his gloves and sat down on the tracks, picking out rocks and cheap beer caps. Sitting, he strained to hear the whistles and shouts of the school boys calling for the pretty girls across the field. He could imagine them unclasping their ties, swinging their jackets over their thin shoulders. When the train came, his body shook with its heated hum. Underneath a cloud of dirt and movement,
he stumbled aside and watched as the train moved its way closer, its engine roaring steam. Soon, the train passed and he was left with silence. The boys had gone home. He wiped his eyes with his greased gloves and went on.

When the father came home from work, he entered the room under the attic trap with tall boots and a garbage pail. It was late. The grass tracked in was wet with morning and the grandmother had left. Carefully, he felt around his mother’s jars and bowls. As he touched the oranges, the fruit flies roused, moving their wings about his face. He felt the slow weight and the white rot of the oranges as he placed them into the garbage pail. It was then that he eased the ladder down, the old latch rusted and willing. In the attic, squirrels were dropping one by one, their tails oily and matted to the wooden slabs. The father stayed there in the attic, cleaning death with the garbage pail. Squatting on the damp planks, he picked up each small body and trembled as he felt their thin bones, useless as the insides lost form. It was here, at this hour, that he wondered why things died.

The grandmother heard the stories too, even though she stayed inside the Leung house. The voices seemed to worm their way into the molding, into the shutters and wallpaper cracks. They flew into the mushroom soup she ladled into bowls, into the pages of the old newspapers and mail coupons stuffed under the hungry couch. It was only when she prayed in the room under the attic trap that she began to speak. Sometimes, when her knees ached too much, she shuffled the girl’s plastic play stool into the room, the seat curved and cracked like a palm. Speaking softly, she rolled her weathered hands over the oranges and plums that lay by the shrine, ripening them until she fell asleep. The pictures, curling from the heat of the incense, seemed so distant when she spoke to them. Her parents’ framed, gray faces stared back at her blankly, wondering why she thought they knew everything.

The girl must have known the stories so the neighborhood children ran away from her, for fear of being bopped on the head. She was often found alone in the backyard garden, singing school songs (“Sunny after Rain”) and turning rocks over to find her father’s cigarette butts. The stumps looked like teeth to her, so she placed them into her dress pockets and saved them for tooth fairies. From counting class, the girl learned she was five. She used to give her mother five items – five flower buds, five candy wrappers, five potato bugs. The mother used to count with the girl (one two three four five) and place them into her pockets and tell the girl she wanted to take a walk alone. When the girl cried, she made her promise to find more fives for her when she came back. Surely, when she’d come back, the girl would have a pile of fives waiting for her in the garden. Once, when the mother came back, she was weeping. The tree beside them sighed down its leaves. “Don’t cry, I have fives,” the girl said, crawling into her mother’s willowy lap as the sun fell and the fireflies blinked. “You always do,” the mother whispered, smoothing her child’s hair. As the girl fell asleep in her lap and the sky plumed with color, the mother lifted her head back and placed the fives into the wet of her mouth.

Around dinner time, the mushrooms started to leave in packs, taking their empty plates and sleepy children with them. On the other side of the hill, the father and grandmother added spirit money into the fire, waiting until one curled and spit before putting in another. Fast asleep beside the flickering fire was the girl, her small lips pressed against the warm earth. The family stayed until there was nothing left to burn.

The three descended the hill and walked back to the house, past the neighbor’s dog fence, through the front door and into the lit kitchen. The grandmother took off her shoes, pulled up her wool socks and moved into her fraying slippers, which were waiting by the oven for her arrival. Above their heads, the squirrels skittered over the planks and pink filler. The girl stubbornly clapped her hands to her ears.

“Are you hungry?” the grandmother asked, putting water on the stove.

“No,” the father said, awkwardly lighting a cigarette. The pack fell on the floor and the paper fumbled in his mouth. He paused. “Are you?”

The grandmother shook her head. On the floor, the girl sighed and fidgeted, squashing ants with her hands and feet. The girl stared at the injured ants in her black dress with big eyes and freckles down her neck. Stunned, they stepped back. The girl looked up.

“Can you take me to the pond?”

The question should have been abrupt, but it wasn’t. A moment ago, the father had already begun to tremble as he trembled when he held the squirrels.

“Will you take me?” the girl asked again.

He couldn’t understand why the girl asked and why he couldn’t say no. Holding hands, father and daughter went through the kitchen door, past the neighbor’s dog fence, and down the street to the pond where the mother, hair splayed like a silk cobweb, had drowned.

When they reached the pond, the father felt the pull of the water, which lapped at the rocks. His hand grew sweaty and the girl’s hand slipped out of his. He couldn’t move from the grass. Something kept him there, his tall boots stuck in the worm mud. The slowness of his heart was frightening in the growing night and he pressed his thin frame against an elm tree. As the sky dimmed, the girl walked past him, her hair trailing in the cold (the father grew more fearful; the freckles on her neck were too familiar), and
onto the oily rocks at the pond’s edge. There, she sat and played with the water bugs. She dipped her hand in and watched it move under the gleaming ripples.

“How do fish sleep?” the girl asked, her small voice casting its course across the water.

“They swim deep down in the water, the whole family, mother first, where the fish castle is. They wait until the clouds fall and then they have blankets. They close their eyes and move their fins slowly,” the mother replied, brushing her toes against the water.

“Mommy, what do they dream of?”

Her mother sighed and felt the weight of the rocks in her hands. “Of things that fish do. We don’t know.”

“I can dream like a fish, can’t I? Then I’ll know?” The girl looked at her hopefully.

“If you are a fish,” the mother promised, her hands, now scales, glimmering in the water’s reflection.

Taking her hands out of the water, the girl dipped her toes into the muddy bank. Slowly, she waded in until the water reached her waist. The black dress filled with air and puffed around her, weightless as she stood in the water, digging her toes into the pond weeds. The girl closed her eyes and tried to think like a fish would. She imagined her arms would spurt into fins and her mouth would open and close without talking. Looking back, she saw her father pressed against an elm, his hands over his face. The girl wanted to tell him not to cry. As the moon shone and the fireflies lit the air around the water, the girl waited for the clouds to fall as her father trembled. In the house down the street, the squirrels flooded every room, their tails and feet squirming to cover each crack of the flowered wallpaper. Underneath the attic trap, the grandmother laid her head down to the ground and listened as the animals covered her, whispering in their animal voices.

Jane Wong is a young writer from central New Jersey whose work has appeared in journals such as Chronogram, Bard Papers, and the Asians in America Project. She is also the poetry editor of Verse Noire, a literary
magazine based out of Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Franci Claudon is a glass artist who lives in San Carlos. View her work at Wavecrest Designs.

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