The Goldfish Ritual


Every year, a ritual --

kids all in the backseat

windows down, no AC

just to enjoy the shock of cold air

that enters lungs like water.

The 5 PM sky though darkening is still clear

and I am about to implode with impatience.

We are going to the fair and I am nine-years old

and quarters are jingling importantly in my pocket.


Once at the fair ground, we start to run

before our parents have even unbuckled

themselves out of the car.

We run, holding hands,

filling up lungs with air cold as water

laughing breathlessly

as the colored lights come into view.

The smell of cotton candy candied apples elephant ears

assaults our noses.

Happiness like a puppy dogging our heels

every which way we turn.


After a turn on the Ferris wheel

(you got sick and Mom had to clean your shirt),

we make our way through the crowd.

Our sticky hands excusing-me as we pass

till finally we are at the goldfish stand

where itty bitty bowls of water await

the impact of our pitched quarters.

Four quarters equals two throws,

and you get the first since you're the littlest.


We'd never been lucky before --

all our quarters would hit air

and the fish would remain swimming in their bowls

never to be taken home,

but today is your day.

I hoist you up by your arms and you throw -

a perfect hit, not once but twice!

A ziplock bag is handed down and you accept it

solemnly, your eyes locked on the

belly-fat translucent fish swimming in a plastic bag.


Four quarters, two fish later

we make our way

to the parking lot

each of our hands full: one with leftover

pink-and-blue cotton candy, the other

with the goldfish bag.

At home, we dump the fish ceremoniously

into a bowl and watch them as they explore

their new territory.

Do fish blink, you ask, with the curiosity of five-year olds

Don't be an idiot, I say, of course they do.


To bed, to bed, you rubbing your eyes, sleepy-content

but mine are wide open,

impatient for the morning to come

so I could show the fish off to my friends next door.

When morning comes, I find you still asleep in bed.

Malicious thoughts like devils nipping at my heels.

He'll never know, I think, and

it'll just take a second anyway.


I tiptoe out with both fish swishing

in the mini typhoon that has formed during my thievery.

And I become the center of attention,

Or at least, my fish do,

as my friends ooh and ahh over the goldfish.

Can I hold one, a boy asks and I hesitate, but he has

already grasped your belly-fat fish in his grubby hand.

Go ahead, I say, and soon both fish are filling lungs

with air that gills mistranslate into water.


Back again and phew! You're still asleep.

plunk! Back into the bowl the fishies go,

only they are not swimming as before

and by sundown they are floating.

I cannot face your mournful eyes that watch the fish

unblinking, not comprehending.

Years later, traces of accusation would still swim there.


I long to go back to the night when you asked me

with the curiosity of five-year olds if indeed fish do blink,

so that I could hoist you

laughing, squealing into bed

so that you could go to sleep with happiness,

that old friend,

safe by your side.

The End

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