Originally published in Ginosko Literary Review.

Dead Fish

 

Nana died on a riverbed. Three hundred rounded stones I counted that supported her brittle bones. Stones to harness the health of the slate in skin, stones for the chakras of mental cosmos, stones for good wishes on clan friends. Nana's stones were star-bits, dinosaur eyes, fingernails from giants.

As I took in her room I wondered where all that power had gone. She had collected the minerals of the world and tucked them away in daily life. The mattress was embroidered with river rocks, there were gems in the lampshades, granite in the floor, shelves stacking up to the ceiling like a tapestry of the Earth. Turquoise beads hung in the window to break apart the light, and the topaz in the furniture scythed scintillation from raw sun.

"It's different, in a way," said my mother, her hand on my shoulder.

"No shit," I said. I didn't mean to disrespect Nana's deathbed, but my mother didn't hush me. We knew Nana swore more than a dying soldier, said it was because she was made of war minerals. We knew Nana was cussing her whole way up to pearl gates.

 

I watched happy tourists pass on the Esopus, riding big black tubes. Hooting, singing, screaming, they pushed each other into the freezing water. It was always frigid dip in the Catskills; a youthful me had forgotten that every year, and each summer I would leap into those currents and shriek. I would run back up to the house, up to Nana on the porch with a stone I had picked up. She would be on a swinging bench, stringing garnets into bracelets. Stopping what she was doing, she'd receive the gift from me, her only granddaughter, but I felt like I competed with the earth itself for her topaz eyes. The river stone would be grey, it would be round, it would be identical to every one I had brought her before. She said the same thing every time: "This is the best one yet." Even though I had heard it a hundred times before, I believed her and smiled like I did something right.

 

"I talked to your father this morning," my mother said from her perch by the unused fireplace. Nana had stuck pumice in it, she said it held the fire goddess in like volcanos did. If I ever tried to disturb it, lava would pour into the house and we'd have jump in the freezing river to save our lives. When I realized my mother had spoken to me, I waited before I nodded.

"He and I think you should go into town a bit. It'll help, it'll help to do things."

I nodded again and returned to my attention to my laptop. Sophia wasn't here this summer, neither was Fran. They had posted about their trips, their adventures in Jamaica and Spain. The internet was a sick tortoise out here and I could never hope to watch the video Sophia left me. I got one image, like a bad photo, of her face in front of a blue ocean, mouth agape mid-word. I bet the ocean was warm, and the sand was a hot slap to the toes, something that would get me to want to jump in the cold water like a kid again.

"I mean it," my mother said again, "Maybe you'll meet someone. It's different, without Francine and Sophia out here."

Luckily it was only a trip for them. Even if it didn't load, I would have liked one last story from Nana as a frozen image on the screen, maybe surrounded by pearls and light.

 

Whenever it rained, Nana liked to sit in the big chair. The big chair was a patchwork of black velvet that she had decorated with bloodstones to make a glistening savannah. She called it her traveling chair, and she meant that when the world was not good for an adventure, it was time to sit down and imagine them. It was her big thinking throne, and I would curl up on a cushion at her feet and listen to her stories. Nana would hold aloft the latest stone I had brought her and would tell me where it had been.

One day I asked her if there were a lot of fish in the river and she told me yes. I, the curious sort, then asked about the bodies.

"What bodies, shortstuff?" she asked.

"The fish, when they die. Where do they go? I don't see any."
She grinned and leaned back like the velvet would engulf her.
"Isn't it obvious? The stones, the riverbed. Those are the dead fish. All of them, all laid out from the start to the end of time."

I looked with a grimace at the rocks I had been fiddling with in my hands, but I wasn't a dumb child, not always. So I asked, 
"But we sometimes have fish at dinner. Those aren't rocks."

"Of course," she said, not missing a beat, "Those fish are the ones that would become part of us. The fish in the river that die become part of the river. When we go, we become part of the river too, we too will become dead fish, we too will become stones."

"That's why all these stones tell me such great stories," she continued, holding one to her ear, "They've been everywhere."

A pause, and she seemed intent on a voice I couldn't hear.

"And," she concluded, "they thank you for listening."

 

Her name was Corinthia.

It was a collision of taste; she and I wanted the same brand of iced tea at Phoenicia's only market. It was her earrings that caught my attention first. Deep blue droplets, maybe sapphire.

"I like those," I muttered.

"Thanks."

My blood swam fast; I had somehow said more to her in a moment than to my mother in a week.

"They look like sapphires," I said. I knew sapphires, Nana had a few that told stories of women in bells dancing for the sun to rise.

"No idea," she said. "Antique shop, outside town. If they are sapphires they are ten dollar sapphires."

 

Corinthia and I sat in opposite armchairs and regarded each other. We leaned this way and that, we curled up and spread out. We conformed to the chairs, then pressed ourselves against their tired limits. The whining creaks made us each smile in turn.

"So you come out here every summer?" asked she asked. She began to fiddle with an agate bead from a dish beside her. I smelled only dust, the same snowfall that drifted in the afternoon light over Corinthia's head.

"Yes," I said, "but I've never been here before."

She sighed, "Isn't it magic?"

There was pride in Corinthia's eyes as she looked around at the inside of the cramped and teetering antique store. I, even though surrounded by trashed treasures, continued to regard her with curiosity; the perfect auburn hair, the thick hairband, the long plain dress. Her sapphire earrings caught my eye at first, but I was then entranced by her pallor, like blood wasn't flowing under her light brown cheeks. She was shorter than me, unlike Fran and Sophia, and her wrists struggled with a burden of bracelets.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"The city. New York City. I moved here two months ago. My dad likes the fresh air, you know?"

We waited as two customers walked through. The man, face mightily bearded, looked at us with confusion, like he knew we couldn't be part of the chairs on which we sat. We stared back, both too shy to make a peep.

When he passed Corinthia asked, "Why every summer?"

"I usually just come to see my Nana." Usually.

"Is something different this time?"

I did not want a new friend to coddle my spirit, so I didn't answer. Instead I reached out for an agate bead and told her a story about it, about how it was the spirit of a man who never wanted the sun to set so he moved to the north pole. It was a Nana story, and that came with guilt, but for a moment it was mine.

 

I didn't introduce Corinthia to the Esopus; they were already friends. She didn't have the history I did, or Nana, but when we sat with our toes pruning in the icy currents, she caressed the boulder we sat on like she knew it. Familiarity– how she whistled to the breeze, and let the water dribble down her arm– was what I saw in her.

"It's all fake, you know, what I had as a kid," said Corinthia. I had asked about home before, when she lived in the city. She grew up by a park, Prospect Park, and the lakes and rivers were all man-made. "I didn't know for the longest. No idea people could even do that. No idea."

When it was time to build parks, they moved everything. Dirt, stone, trees, all of it placed piece by piece into these living paintings. Corinthia said they were nothing like up here, so I wondered why they even tried. I asked her what her father did, that he could move up here.

"He got a contract," she said, "and the doctor said it would be better for me. My lungs are no spring chickens, they are basically water, both of them, like I'm an inside-out mermaid."
"So what kind of chickens are they?"

She tilted her head back and opened her mouth wide, and all I saw was marble and morganite. She gargled, spit, and cawed loud enough to startle a squirrel or something in the bush. Corinthia threw her arms outward, and the flecks of water on them arced in the air. "Merbirds!" she exclaimed, beginning to flap, without a sense of grace. I began to smile, and looked off at the far shore. I wondered why I never startled anything.

"You know, you don't laugh so much," she said. "You almost do, but then you think, think, think. Then you say nothing."
"I guess funny is a slow thing for me," I said. I didn't make eye contact with her, and she raised my face by the chin.

"I think slow is good, the river is slow. That's what Nana would have said, right? Slow, like erosion." Corinthia lifted me up to my feet and gathered up her shirt and shoes, but she fumbled; her sandal was in the water and halfway around the bend before we could think to grab it. It was then a fish, an Esopus immigrant.

 

Our first kiss was on the root of an oak tree, and we piled up stones to mark the spot. I made sure they were all granite, for longevity.

When I told my mother I had met someone, she made her assumptions, and I ignored them. I walked down the dirt road with each toe kicking up the pebbles, I almost forgot that I never liked to be all barefoot where the ground was sharp. I met her on the turn of the road where it met the bridge, and we stumbled over brambles, her hand pulling mine, until we reached the tree-line as it wrestled with shoreline boulders. It was down past the tubing waters, where people never went. No trout for the tourists, no depth for swimming. Just the hundreds of stones, all the dead fish, and us, two warm, too alive.

Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. As she told me about her mishap in second grade involving a pencil and a microwave, I thought about what her stories were carved from. Was she from a tough family, one that was all heat and collapse, threatening to explode? Did she see life as twenty and more pressures, bending to dodge every part? Was what made Corinthia was a series of events, each alone, each not mixing, just settling and being? I thought about it so much that I didn't take the time to stop listening and start looking. While we kissed, her black sandal fell off and floated away and she laughed, saying she would have tough feet like me. I didn't remember what happened with the pencil in second grade. The sandal and the granite, that is all I remember.

 

Nana never went to the hospital, but something about the one in Margeretville was familiar. The smells, the thoughtful frowns, the children staring up at doctors in lab coats with confused admiration. Everyone was wrinkled or hairless, making it easy to find Corinthia.

"You must be Corinthia," said my mother, shaking her hand. "I have heard so much about you." She hadn't.

"Thank you for the visit," said Corinthia. I handed her a river rock I had picked up and said the river wished her to get better. "You made a joke!" she exclaimed as best she could through the mask. It was July, and I counted the days until August would come and I would leave, or perhaps, when she would leave me. I didn't know which I'd rather have, which story I'd rather live. A rock and a hard place, Nana would have said, like the river between banks. Hilarious because it's where all good things are, all life. Corinthia started coughing, and my mother and I were patient for it to pass.

 

The summer was coming to a close, and I had not seen Corinthia in such a time that I forgot that she ever kissed me. The surprise I felt when there was a call for me. My mother had the house half littered with boxes containing Nana's old things, and she had only just come back in form hammering in the 'For Sale' sign. She called me over, saying it was for me. It was Corinthia, it was news, it was good news, I thought. I sprinted, tripping over the rolled up carpet of quartz and wool, stubbing a toe on her traveling chair, when I got to the phone. She said she would be right over, down by the water. I didn't bother hanging up, running down to the river. I stopped short of jumping in, the freezing feeling lapping at my toes.

"You knew I was a bit more water than I liked to say," said Corinthia's voice. I looked up, and she stood on a bent tree trunk, dress all blue, her hair spread like tributaries. I began to wade in to reach her, and she waved to stop me, holding up a river stone, smooth, the best one yet. "Stories, remember? Stories. Me and you." I kept splashing in, not feeling my blood chill. I shrieked, and Corinthia did not flinch.

Throwing her arms up, her dress ruffled into feathers, her legs turning to scales. She fell back, and became the ripples of a hundred trout, scattering and flowing away, down the river. I tried to catch every single one, and it was all gone so soon, all of her. I couldn't remember what kind of earrings she had.

My mother had to drag me out of the Esopus, her corduroys and T-shirt soaked through as I grabbed at the water, trying to get anything back. Sapphire, I remembered. Ten dollar sapphires.

 

Nana's house was bought by a couple with a baby, but they didn't want the stones. This meant they were going back out, out to the river, for the most part. My mother said I could keep a few, and I didn't want any. They all seemed so quiet.

Before we left, my mother pointed down the road, where Corinthia and I would always walk to the bridge at the bend in the road. "Would you like to walk it again?" I didn't say anything, because it was so different. I walked the whole way to our granite pile, since toppled. I took out all of Nana's stones and put them down, and picked up a single piece of the granite pile. The start of my collection.

Just beyond where we had sat, near the sandy stretch where the tubers would roll onto shore was a shape, a shape like her that I had to squint at to be sure. I ran, tip-toeing on the wet stones, until I got to close enough.

It was a sapling, with river trash hung about it like decorations. A rag, a black sandal, bits of string. It was a monument to the Esopus, or a gravestone. I looked at it, and thought, maybe, by tilting my head just a bit, it was like Corinthia, standing on one foot kicking back and laughing off all the weight in the world until all that was left was the purity of her, a sapling, not even grown. The longer I stared, the more I felt the feeling too, and I laughed until the next round of tourists floated past.