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Fish Story, creative nonfiction by Shawndra Miller

Fish Story

by Shawndra Miller

My dog runs ahead on the deserted golf course, galloping across a wooden bridge that spans Pleasant Run. Along the creek’s border, denuded trees scratch at the low sky. As always, this winter afternoon, my friend Alma and I fall deep into conversation about the implied lessons behind every little trial in our lives. I’m attempting to conquer chronic pain; she’s raising two teenagers on her own. The bridge's bounce carries us along.

Mid-bridge Alma seizes my arm. More observant than I, she draws my attention downward to the planks under our feet: "Is that a fish?" We gape down at a silvery body, narrower than my hand, long as a glove. A smear of red on the wooden slats. A stillness, then a sudden movement that we sense more than see—"Is he still breathing?" We bend closer, and the round white lips widen in a spasm of something like hope. Really, do fishes hope? Maybe it was fear that opened the lips and drew in the gasp.

I take a blue plastic bag meant for collecting my dog’s waste and put it over my fingers to grasp the fish near its tail. Ridge of body, hard skeleton under a bit of give: The thing proves as slippery as it looks. Out of my fingers it slides to knock against the red painted rail and flop in paroxysms on the slats at my feet. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, little fish!" I grab it again and lift it above the uppermost rail as quickly as I can, praying not to dash its brains out, dropping it over the edge. From somewhere near the treetops a blue jay shrieks its diphthonged epithet, “Thiee—eef! Thiee—eef!”

"He's in the water!" Alma crows, and darts to the other side of the bridge to follow its path. "He's swimming! He's just a little cockeyed...Come on buddy, you can do it." The fish now appears the color of tea, same as the water—a dubious stream that sometimes smells like sewage, owing to its use as an overflow for same. But I love this stream and I love this fish and I'm standing there cheering them both on, as the fish wobbles, rights itself, darts behind a rock. "Oh, this is his home—he knows where to go," says Alma.

Where he lay on the bridge slat we find three square smudges of red, and miniscule dots of confetti the color of a winter sky about to snow, glinting—the poor fish descaled right under our noses. We make up origin stories: a kingfisher grabbed and let go? A raccoon? Most likely a bird. Alma thought she saw a rip in the belly, source of the blood.

"You saved the fish!" Alma cheers and hugs me as we stand there clinging to the rail.

The one that got away. The Fish Story. "What kind of fish is it, do you think?" I ask.

"A lucky fish."

"You saw him," I say, still giddy.

"You saved him!" She slaps my arm.

To have a fish fly up into our faces almost, while nattering along on our Very Important Lives, is stunningly surreal: Are you a magic fish from a fairy tale, about to stand up fully dressed in tights and puffy breeches, with a jaunty cap on your head, like Robin Hood?

Such a fish would have resurfaced and disgorged a gold ring or a capsule containing a tiny scroll, or it would have shapeshifted into a princeling or an evil gnome. A dream-fish, a mythic-fish, a mystery-fish. Perhaps I do a disservice to this living swimmer (does it live still?)—making it into a symbol for my own purposes. Still my overactive mind can't help but take some meaning from the encounter. To make it into a Story.

O fish, swimmer of polluted shallow water, bridge-jumper-in-reverse: What do you give us in return for our service? What is the price we must pay for touching you, or the reward we might receive?

Tonight after several restless nights, the pain has settled in, like old times. I feel my body wanting to clench, and it seems my affliction has returned.

I turn to my side, stretch long, remember the fish, its torment, its release. These moments of discomfort lie alongside the moments where I pay attention, where I still shine—even in that space of "impairment." It is possible to shine—not endlessly, but just in one particular instance, right here.

Perhaps each moment can be its own pearl, to be buffed to a sheen or left tarnished and heavy, tainted by fears of future suffering, recriminations of past acts. Because that's what my pain encloses—a thought layered around the physical moment: Oh fuck, how will I manage, I bet I’ll feel this way forever, I did something wrong, how do I fix this? Those laments bring suffering to a moment just as perfect as any other, just as full of possibility and grace.

I breathe deeply and imagine my breath filling me with a radical compassion, not just for the plight of others, but for my own minute cells. Like fish in a polluted stream, they mirror and carry the plight of the world.

Lying here, my mind a rocky sea, I feel a calming of the waves. The Sunday school image of Jesus-in-the-rowboat swims up from somewhere, bringing with it a sense of restrained power. In childhood’s bathtub imaginings, I used to pretend I could work that particular miracle, placing my hand on churned-up water's surface to calm it. Now I see that I do this with myself, with other people sometimes.

And with fish?

That fish, taking what might be its last breath, finds itself back in the creek's fluidic embrace. Does it live or die, with its bloodied scales, oxygen-starved lungs? Does the outcome matter, as long as the fish felt kindness for a shimmering moment, there under the skin of the water?

In the watery cells of my body, in the saline medium that contains my spirit, kindness is all.

Be brave, says a whisper in my ear as I drift. Be you. Let you be you.

I slide under the surface, find my way home.

A two-time recipient of the Indiana Arts Commission’s Individual Artist Grant, Shawndra Miller has been published in Confrontation Magazine, Arts & Letters, Flying Island, and other journals, as well as the anthology Goddess: When She Rules, from Golden Dragonfly Press. Her essay “Bleeding the Butterfly” received the Unclassifiable award from Arts & Letters. She blogs about personal and community resilience at