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death, in all proportions
2007-02-27, 12:29 a.m.

Death, in All Proportions

We never cared much for the fish until Dad accidentally poured him down the kitchen sink, right into the catch-all in the drain where food collects until Mom flips a switch and purees the week's leftovers into something that can be swept into pipes and forgotten.

And in that moment, despite our lack of affection towards the little red fish, all of us, all 6 of us kids, none of us older than 14, loathed our father. The younger ones burst into hysterics, frozen, understanding for the first time the concrete meaning of death. And the older ones slung hate-glazed words at our father, who moved sheepishly into action, reassuring us that the fish could be saved.

We crowded around the sink, peering into the open drain. We will always wonder, did we really see or merely imagine its small, slick body twitching against the dark, sinister blade of the garbage disposal? Even now, each of us tells the story differently to our friends: in one version, the fish was motionless and tragic, decidedly dead, thanks to our father; in another, it was alive, but surrounded by vestiges of that evening's meal: wilting white-green shreds of lettuce, snakelike, tomato-crusted spaghetti intestines; in still another, it flopped back and forth in a frenzied death seizure, impossible to catch yet desperate to be saved.

In any case, Dad managed to lift it out of the sink trap with a flat serving spoon and return it to the bowl, but it wasn't ever the same after that. It sank right down to rest on the gravel and stayed there for hours. Its red fins were shredded and stringy, and its injured pectoral fin made it swim in a crooked way that reminded us nothing of a Disney-drawn clownfish.

But what we will never forget, what still haunts us in our dreams sometimes, was the way its condition swiftly deteriorated from Sick to Zombie. Its eyes turned ominously black and hollow; its color went from deep red to a jaundiced yellow. To us it was like it'd had black magic worked on it, like it should have been dead but incomprehensibly kept on swimming when we tapped the glass or sprinkled food into the water. It was like it had been dead already, and rotted partway, then swam back to us through the sewers like something from a bad horror movie. It frightened us in a way that the death of a human never would.

And when the thing died a day or two later, wanting to float but weighed down at the bottom by the matter in its head, we couldn't bear to look at it. We felt an odd combination of sorrow and relief, and we learned, without even realizing, the beautiful catharsis of seeing something or someone finally spared of their pain, and the way that death, in all proportions, stops the whole world.

Dedicated to Redmund the fish, R.I.P.

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