This was supposed to be the happiest day of their lives. For Ariel, that was certainly true. She looked down at the sleeping baby that lay on her chest and felt another surge of maternal love pulse through her. She put a hand on her child’s downy hair. Sweet Dorothy. It made her want to weep and scream and shout with how viscerally she loved this girl. How could she have made something so perfect? The sweat and stench of labour, the underlying pungent sterility of the hospital, it all seemed to fade away now that this beautiful child had arrived. With a soft hiccup, little Dorothy stirred and looked up into her mothers eyes, gurgling something in the infantile language of love. In that moment, Ariel could imagine no greater joy.
David, on the other hand, stood by the window, staring out into the parking lot. He bit at the fingernails of his left hand as he stared out in the direction in which he’d parked. Large, obnoxious oak trees obscured his view but still he stared, as if his gaze could penetrate the foliage, find the van and drive it home to see what he sought.
“David,” Ariel called from the hospital bed. Her husband made no move towards her, only shifting his anxious gnawing to his right hand.
“Davy!” She called again, louder this time. He turned, the fingernail of his right pinky finger perched between his guillotine of teeth.
“Don’t you want to come hold your daughter?”
“Right,” he said, tearing off the bit of nail before hustling over, wiping his hands off on his shirt.
David reached down and picked up his infant daughter, who let out a small grunt of protest but otherwise kept her cries on bated breath. Ariel watched as the child struggled to find a comfortable spot in her father’s arms, seemingly not certain whether she ought to cry out yet. David brought his daughter over to the window and held her close to the glass, the setting sun giving their faces a warmth otherwise absent from the bleak hospital room interior. Dorothy’s eyes clenched tight and she let out the fragile start of a cry that broke as soon as it arrived. She seemed increasingly unsure of the strange man and the light he’d brought her into. Blindly, she clenched her tiny fists and flailed against the brightness of the sun, her fat little wrist rapping twice against the glass of the window. Quickly, but gently, David took her hand in his, letting her wrap her fist around his pinky finger.
“Please don’t tap on the class, Dorothy.”
Patience, Ariel thought as she watched the two of them from her spot on the bed. She had to remember, this was their first time meeting. She and little Dorothy had been able to get well acquainted over the past nine months, but her father was basically a stranger to her. It was going to take some time for them to get to know each other. Hell, she had only started to get used to him over these past nine months. Sure, he was a bit of a loser, but she had to try and make things work. She’d promised her family that she’d try.
David broke the silence, staring out still into the parking lot.
“Do you think Patrice remembered to feed the fish?”
“Jesus, David. Really? With the fish again?” She was too tired to feel surprised or disappointed so she just skipped directly to anger. “Can you stop thinking about your fish for one damn day?”
David’s expression didn’t change. In his arms, Dorothy began to wriggle and fuss, her cries building in volume and reverberating off of the walls of the small room. Still David did not budge, staring straight off out the window as if in a trance. Like a sailor in the crow’s nest. Ariel was about to ask for Dorothy back to try to quiet her cries when David began to sway softly, as if by impulse. The cries stopped for a moment as Dorothy looked around, more startled than soothed by the movement. The reprieve was brief, as once Dorothy realized the slight swaying had changed nothing fundamental she started screaming again in earnest.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk about my fish like that, Ariel. You know how much they mean to me. I just want to make sure they’re well taken care of. They’re used to a routine.”
David looked down and seemed surprised to see his body rocking back and forth. Dorothy continued to scream and cry. Her voice reached a painful pitch and she tossed out her limbs in a violent and confused protest. David watched her struggle for an uncomfortable while before looking up and meeting Ariel’s gaze with bleary eyes.
“Why won’t she stop crying?”
Dorothy’s wails rang through the house, as they had continuously done since David and Ariel had brought her home from the hospital. Ariel insisted that it was normal for a baby to cry, David found the sound of it incredibly distressing. And David could tell that despite her strong outward appearance, it was starting to wear thin on Ariel as well. It was just constant. The hectic, can’t-catch-your-breath screaming had become the regular sound of their home, and yet at the same time uniquely irregular. Her cries would jump unpredictably in fits and starts, like a radio where someone was playing with both the tuning and volume dials, never allowing you to become accustomed to the noise. David would have preferred constant static. Instead, this was nails on every chalkboard. It was daggers in his ears.
Worst of all, to David at least, was how he was powerless to stop them. When she cried, it was never clear why she was crying. Was she too warm? Too cold? Tired or overslept? Did she have an upset stomach or was she ravishingly hungry? Sometimes, in a search for an end to the unending cry, David would offer a bottle and for a moment the crying would stop. Dorothy would suck greedily at the nipple and David would think I’ve done it! I’ve found what she needed. But, inevitably the moment she’d had her fill, she would go back to screaming with a renewed energy and vigour. Whatever she wanted, he didn’t have.
And so David found himself sequestering himself as best he could. It was a small house, one that felt smaller still since Ariel, and now Dorothy, had moved in. There was no avoiding the sound of her cries, truly. Yet still he sought escape in the place he’d always done. With his fish.
Much of the living room was taken up by massive tanks running down the perimeter of each wall, with two more large tanks sitting in the centre of the room. The room glowed an aquatic blue, and underneath the incessant crying you could hear the steady hum of the pumps circulating water to all the different tanks. The lights were dimmed because David knew most of the fish preferred low light, otherwise they had individual lights in each of their tanks. He knew the tanks as well as he knew his own home. He could tell if the pH of a tank was off from smell alone.
"How does a fish know if there's something wrong with the pH of its tank?" Ariel had asked when she'd first been given a tour of the place.
"They don't," David had replied. "That's what I'm here for."
David walked through the room now, pacing around the circular path in the room with a meditative air. The carpet was worn down along the path he frequently tread, but David didn’t mind. This room was for the fish. He peeked into each tank, watching as the fish responded in predictable ways. Some shied away from the glass, scurrying off to hide under a favoured rock or plant. Others swam up close to the glass to investigate, checking if it would be an unexpected late night snack. As he knew the fish, the fish knew him.
He circled around. He checked on his gobies scrubbing along the bottom of their cages with flat, wide faces that looked to be in constant surprise. He checked his bettas, stalwart sentinels in individual bowls arranged on a three-tier cabinet, their fins waving like flags in the wind as they tracked his movement. Despite him still being able to hear Dorothy’s cries from the other room, as he progressed around the room he could feel his heart beginning to calm.
It hadn’t been easy to open his house up to Ariel, but he hadn’t had much choice. He’d never been good with people, let alone women, so what had happened with Ariel was… unprecedented. And so increasingly he stole time away to reset. To visit his fish.
He’d got his first fish when he was just a boy. A department store goldfish, brought home in the same thin plastic bags they used for cucumbers and tomatoes. His parents had bought it for him on a whim, after the neighbour boy had been bragging about getting a puppy. Once home, they’d set the fish in a big glass bowl with a few stones scattered at the bottom. David had sat on the floor for hours watching the fish swim about, his parents’ distant arguments distorted by the curves in the glass. He’d fallen asleep on the floor, his head resting round against the fish bowl’s cold glass, and woke to find the goldfish floating belly up.
His father took him back to the store, angry that he’d been suckered on a lemon fish. The man at the store - a kid himself only, David now realized - had asked what kind of water they’d put him in. What size tank? How much food? Dad hadn’t cared much for the answer, just got madder and madder at the kid until he gave him a new fish. The moment they’d got home, David had hopped on his bike and raced to the library and took out all the books on fish he could find. And so he learned what it takes to befriend a fish.
Because that’s the way David saw it. Friends. He hadn’t done much for human contact in his life. Never could quite figure it out. Everything he did seemed to go wrong. Have the wrong effect, twisting and refracting like light through water. Even most other pets seemed to smell some fault in him. But fish? Fish didn’t. Fish were reliable. They followed rules. And if you followed those rules too, well then you could begin to understand one another.
David rounded the last corner and saw in the squat rectangular tank against the wall that his dwarf pufferfish, Mort, was swimming wide, listless circles at the surface of the water. What’s wrong? David moved closer to the tank, quickly running through a mental inventory of what could be affecting Mort. He’d fed all the fish at precisely 4:00. The water looked clear, smelled fine. He checked the thermometer at the back of the tank. 26°C, just as it should be. He could feel his panic rising when he noticed the stillness of the surface of the water. His eyes shot to the back of the tank and saw that the aeration tank had shut off. He stood, following its cord to find that the power bar it was plugged into had been shut off. Ariel must have tripped on it or something. David flipped the bar back on and immediately bubbles began percolating up through the tank again. He stayed and watched over Mort, who seemed to recover from the period of low oxygenation and began swimming in happy little bursts.
“David!” Ariel’s voice pierced his quiet thoughts.
“David, what are you doing? Get in here, I need your help.” She cried, her voice nearly as exasperated as Dorothy’s, whose cries had taken on a ragged, pained quality.
“Coming,” David called, looking last again at Mort, feeling like he was the one who couldn’t breathe.
Ariel parked in the driveway but didn’t exit the car. She wanted a chance to savour this. This silence. She hadn’t even used the radio the entire trip, preferring to listen to the sweet sounds of nothing. Truthfully, she hadn’t needed the cranberry juice as badly as she’d let on. She just needed a reason to leave the house. David had done all the groceries, leaving her alone with the screaming and the fish, so she hadn’t had reason to leave the house since they’d brought Dorothy home. She’d needed a reprieve.
She took a deep breath, tucked her grocery bag over her shoulder, and got out of the car. She walked slowly to the front door, hoping to prolong as much of this as she could. Finally she reached the front door and had no choice but to enter.
As she entered she was struck, not by the screaming but by its absence. Without realizing, she’d tensed herself so strongly in preparation of the noise that when it didn’t come she almost toppled forward into the front hall. Tentatively, she took a step inside.
“Davy?” She called out in a sort of stage whisper, not wanting to disrupt whatever spell might be hanging tenuously overhead. “David?”
“Back here,” he called from the living room. With his fish, of course.
“Where’s Dorothy?” Ariel asked as she kicked off her shoes and walked towards the sound of David’s voice. “How did you get her to stop crying?”
As she rounded the corner she saw David standing at the side of the room, his fingernail pressed firmly between his teeth. He gave a quick glance at Ariel before returning his gaze to the tank on the wall adjacent to her.
“What is it?” She said, walking into the room to stand beside him.
She turned, following his stare. There, in the large tank flush against the wall, was Dorothy. Her little pruney fingers squeezed a tight grip on the lip of the aquarium, her knuckles turning white. Her head was rolled back, her face just above the surface of the water. She made a small gurgling noise which seemed amplified as the water bubbled around her. The cloth of her diaper flowed as if in slow motion under the water. A small fish made curious probes towards her belly.
Ariel ran forward and plunged both hands into the water, soaking her sleeves and sloshing water onto the floor as she grabbed the baby under the armpits and hoisted her out of the water. Behind her, David was making nervous protests.
“I was watching her. I think she was enjoying it.”
“Like fuck she was. Jesus, you’re sick David. That’s it, I’m leaving.”
She turned hastily, dripping still onto the floor, wanting only to get her baby out, into the car, and away to somewhere safe. As she turned, the juice bottle swung in its bag around her shoulder, colliding with the edge of the aquarium and smashing the front pane of glass. Dorothy began to scream. Ariel hurried down the hallway and out to her car as David fell forward with hands outstretched, trying to catch the water as it streamed out of the tank and poured through his spread fingers. He scrambled on the carpet and found Mort flopping under the goby tank. He filled the grocery bag with water and placed Mort inside and set him on the counter before returning to the living room where he tried to prepare a replacement tank fit for a dwarf pufferfish. It took him twenty two minutes to finish the replacement tank and return to the kitchen, but by then it was too late.