“Nicholas is reminded of the broken relationships in his life one year after the death of his nephew, Brian, after making a visit to the wet market. He is haunted by the image of the fish, which also make a prominent feature in his childhood, which hints at things that are still unresolved below the surface.”
A fish is not an animal.
It’s a common misconception that Nicholasknew to be far from the truth, just as how most people he met thought that he was a wishy-washy, half-baked vegetarian for “failing” to exclude seafood from his diet.
He wasn’t wishy-washy and he sure as hell wasn’t half-baked.
Nicholas was a pescatarian for reasons that made sense to himself. He loved animals; believed that he shared a special bond with them. The universe had brought man and animal onto this world to co-exist and live in harmony. He couldn’t possibly consume the flesh of his non-human brethren. It was not morality that drove this determination. It was love. Compassion. Empathy.
Animals are no less than man; they could think and feel. They dreamed. Like him – like the 7.3 billion other people in the world – animals had a sense of self, of individuality. They may be driven by animalistic instincts but Nicholas felt that they were also very conscious beings.
But marine life is different, Nicholas thought, as he watched the fish monger place a medium-sized ikanmerah on the wooden chopping block. The fish was still breathing, its mouth opening and closing in an attempt to draw in oxygen into its slowly dying body.Fish lived purely on impulse and instinct.They were hardwired to behave in a certain way to maintain the survival of its species.
For an instant, it looked as if the fish’s one visible eye was staring right at him, which would be impossible given that the fish should be staring heaven high.The fish was lying on its side after all.
What a ridiculous thing to think.
The fish monger brought his cleaver down fast and used the blade to push away thesevered head. What was left was a hunk of white meat, ready for the kitchen. The fresh red substance that oozed onto the blood-stained chopping board was the only evidence of a life that had once lived and seen the world through its little lenses.
It was probably his mind playing tricks on him.
Nicholascould never understand why people would want to keep fish as pets. This was despite the fact that his father used to keep scores of fish around the house. He remembered the early days when his father developed an interest in keeping ornamental fish: The male guppies with their colourful fanned tails (the females were always rather plain – insignificant in a way – and Nicholas had wondered about this – why, even ikanbilis added to the brilliance of a simple nasilemak dish), the electric neon tetras, the different variety of globulous goldfish – the common ones to the lion heads and telescopic eyes, with hungry mouths that were always greedy for food.
There was the time when one of the lion head goldfish, the one with patches of fire splashed across its snow white body, had died of a burst belly.
Padanmuka, he had thought then. That’s what you get for being too greedy.
His father had by then moved on to the more exotic types of fish, like angelfish and discus They learnt the hard way that they shouldn’t be allowed to mix in the same aquarium. A contrast to its name, the angelfish were vicious creatures, attacking the discus and even its own kind over territory within their four glass walls.
Then the arowana craze came. Father immediately leaped onto the bandwagon, purchasing a small silver arowana that measured four inches long. He named it Taro – a Japanese name commonly given to first-born sons – and it grew to be an entire metre-long before it died.
It was an occasion that brought much relief to Nicholas. The aquarium water had always stunk (despite the filtration system that was installed) because bits and pieces of dead fish parts would clog the suction nozzle. Taro only ate live fish, and even that, partially – for it was a brutish thing – leaving half-eaten bodies to sink to the bottom of the aquarium, becoming fodder for the other smaller fish that shared its space.
This was twenty years ago. He hadn’t given a thought to the fish that his father had kept for the longest time. There wasn’t any other fish after Taro because by then, his father lost interest in fish altogether and had moved on to other things.
Where did that come from? The thought had come out of nowhere, and Nicholas was annoyed.It was the damn fish from this morning.
It had to be that, although Nicholas could not pinpoint what it was about the fish that had triggered those old memories. It couldn’t be because it looked like the fish was looking at him in the moment before the cleaver landed its deadly blow. But it felt that the fish had looked at him with contempt. As if such a thing could be possible.
In any case, it was time to make his dinner – Chinese-style steamed fish with the fresh siakap from the wet market. After laying out all the ingredients on the kitchen counter, he carefully sliced a ginger root into thin strips, finely minced several garlic cloves and chopped up a small coriander bunch. The siakap already had its gills, guts and scales removed.It was placed onto a sheet of aluminium foil, rubbed with a light sprinkling of salt and pepper, doused with some lashings of fish sauce and sesame oil, and then topped with ginger, garlic and coriander before theends of the aluminium foil were wrapped over the fish, creating an envelope. The siakap will go into the oven on high heat for ten minutes.
Ten minutes later, Nicholas opened the oven door with a floral-patterned oven mitt and subtle fragrant aroma wafted out of the oven.
Yummy yummy in my tummy!
The cheeky ditty often mouthed by his four-year-old nephew Brian at mealtimes came out of nowhere and rang crystal clear in his ears.
He was all alone at home. Brian was…
In his mind, Brian would always be four. Even as the years passed, he would never be five or six or more.
Because Brian was no more.
It was in the news last year. A day-care centre van driver was charged with negligence for leaving a boy locked in his vehicle for three hours. The boy had fallen asleep in the back of the van and the driver had failed to notice that the boy did not leave with the rest of the children. The mistake was discovered later, but by then it was already too late. The attending doctor had determined heatstroke as the cause of Brian’s death.
The death of her only son had devastated his elder sister and she fell into a depressive state. She would not eat, could not sleep and saw Brian everywhere where she shouldn’t be.
“Brian is gone,” Nicholas had told her gently one day, six months to the day after they laid Brian to rest. “And you need to pick up the pieces. Gain normalcy. Live.”
Nicholas didn’t like how the loss was affecting his sister, whom had always been so bossy to him when they were growing up because she was older by five years.
He imagined that it was hard for her. Regina was a divorcee first and then a single mother after, having given birth to Brian after her ex-husband had left her for his mistress, whom he had a child with. Regina’s pregnancy had come as a surprise to everyone.
Nicholas thought it cruel, the tricks the universe played on people. The miracle pregnancy could not convince Regina’s ex-husband to return for a reconciliation. But Regina was content to stick with the hand the universe had dealt her with. The child she had waited for so long was finally coming. She would never betray him and him, her.
The universe liked to play tricks on people.
“But Brian is there! Can’t you see him? See, he’s playing with the Avengers action figure set we got him for his birthday! Remember how excited he was when he unwrapped his gift?” murmured Regina, her eyes fixed onto a spot over the rainbow-tiled foam play mat.
Nicholas knew that there was nothing there but the ghosts of memories past.
“Brian isn’t there, Gina. He’s long gone. You know this.”
Regina turned to face him and her expression was unreadable, almost as if she was no longer human inside.
Her shoulders sagged, weighed down by the burden of a loss that was too heavy to carry alone.
A deep inhalation of breath followed by a slow expulsion of air through a slightly open mouth. The lungs emptied, deflated. Like the soul that resided within the living husk of a body.
Glazed eyes misted over. Tears that threatened to fall but could not. A calm sort of sadness that comes when one is resigned to their fate.
But there was nothing Nicholas could do for his sister.
She repeated the words over and over:
Nicholas unwrapped the aluminium foil, revealing asiakap cooked to tender perfection, its eyes hard and opaque white.
Nicholas had faint memories of his mother. She was a housewife, like many of his friends’ mothers, and he supposed, it was a normal thing for a woman back in those days. He remembered the scent of her; lavender fabric softener and freshly-baked pound cake.
Nicholas was ten. Mother sat him down at the dining table for a ‘serious talk’ one day. Itworried Nicholas and made him fidgety. He had gotten a bad score on the mathematics mid-year paper a few days ago, the offending set of stapled examination sheets buried somewhere inside his heavy schoolbag. He was sure Mother was going to ask about his results.
He contemplated confessing his score – perhaps it would make her less angry – but Mother had already decided that she would strike first.
He heard the word ‘divorce’. Everything after that was unintelligible.
It was one of the worst things he could have imagined happening to his parents. He sat in muted shock as Mother prattled on, her mouth moving to shape the words, filling the gap left by a one-sided conversation.
Mother complained about Father all the time, which came from all the picking up that she had to do around the house.“Why can’t he pick up his own socks like a reasonable adult?” she would grumble under her breath as she watched her husband head straight to the fridge for a can of beer.
When Father took up his fishkeeping hobby, it fell onto Mother to be the one responsible for feeding the fish, cleaning the tanks and water filters, and discarding dead fish bodies. All Father did was to come home with new fish for the aquarium, which eventually became two and three then several.
“Why bother? It’s Father’s fish – let him deal with them,” Regina would say in her snooty way, unwilling to help Mother with the fish because they were “stinky”.
Mother grumbled a fair bit when Father brought Taro home, a silver sliver measuring four inches long. Taro was another chore to add on to her exhaustive list of chores. But Mother came to be fond of the arowana as time passed and Taro grew in size, filling up the space in his aquarium so quickly that they had to get a bigger one for the fish. She moved the armchair next to the aquarium, the one for afternoons spent reading books, and would describe to the fish what she had read after the final page was turned.
Something happened when Taro died.
Mother was out doing the morning marketing. It was a Saturday. Father was at home. Nicholas couldn’t remember in great detail what happened but he recalled feeling surprised when he saw Father replacing the water in Taro’s aquarium without being nagged to by anyone.
Finally. His father was doing something that constituted as work around the house for once.
Nicholas was in his room when he heard Mother screaming at the discovery of a dead arowana in the aquarium.
Father had replaced the aquarium water with tap water.
The chlorine killed the fish.It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
Perhaps because most of his adolescent years was spent without a mother and with a father that was inaccessible on most days, Nicholas made a vow to be a good uncle to his nephew when Brian was born.
Nicholas dreamt that he was walking on the seabed. He felt the warm sand squish between his toes with every step. The breeze from the large schools of fish swimming past caused goosebumps to appear on his skin.
He heard a voice calling out to him.How can it be?And turnedto the direction of the voice so familiar to him.
It was Brian, riding on the back of a magnificent blue fin tuna. Nicholas was sure it was a blue fin tuna – he remembered seeing a documentary chronicling the dramatic depletion of the species in recent years.
This was a dream. Nicholas was convinced of that but it had taken on a surreal quality and a turn he had not expected.
The boy was wearing the clothes he last wore when he was still alive.The feel of soft cotton, the warmth of the small body crashing into his arms felt real.
“Brian,” he began and then hesitated. What should he say? You look well?
“Uncle Nick, I missed you! Did you miss me, Uncle Nick?”
Nicholas felt a painful lump form in his throat. He wrapped his arms tightly around his nephew, not wanting to let go.
“Of course, Brian! Uncle Nick misses you – Mommy too. We miss you every day.”
Brian wriggled out of his arms and looked straight into his face, his expression earnest. In death his innocence was preserved, unmarred by the ugliness of life.
“But Uncle Nick, I’m here with you now! We can play and do cool things like before. Oh! But we have to bring Joel –” Brian gestured to the blue fin tuna “– because Joel doesn’t like to be left alone.”
Nicholas stifled a laugh at the idea of a fish that didn’t want to be left alone. He looked at Joel and the blue fin tuna looked back at him with its unblinking, fishy eyes. There were so many things he wanted to ask…
“Does… does Brian play with Mommy too?” asked Nicholas. He couldn’t recall the last time he had spoken to Regina. Brian’s face fell.
“No, Uncle Nick. I can’t reach Mommy. I tried to! But it’s so hard! Joel says it’s because she cannot hear me. She’s too sad to hear anyone, Uncle Nik. How can I make Mommy happy again?”
“I don’t know Brian, but there must be a way somehow.” Nicholas put Brian onto his lap and looked into his nephew’s eyes. “Sometimes, people forget to be happy when they’re too sad. It’s not that they can’t be happy again – they just need to be reminded how.”
“Will you remind Mommy, Uncle Nik?”
Nicholas nodded his head.
As if on cue, their surroundings flickered, like static snow on a faulty television screen.
“It’s time to go, Uncle Nick. Don’t forget to teach Mommy how to be happy again, ok?”
And as the seabed dissolved all around him, Brian smiled at Nicholas one last time and mouthed the words he would never hear again.
I love you.
Ikanbilis = anchovies
Ikanmerah = red snapper
Nasilemak = a Malaysian dish consisting of rice cooked in coconut milk and a side of fried anchovies and sambal, a spicy condiment made of chilli paste and onions
Padanmuka = serves (it) right
Siakap = sea bass
Author’s Bio: Masami Mustaza is a Malaysian working in public relations. A fledgling writer who only started writing (bad) short stories in 2016, she wishes that she could find the inspiration (and motivation) to write more. She has a few short stories published by Malaysian indie publisher BukuFixi.