By Miranda Eng
The deadline to submit for the Heintzleman Award is March 18th at 8am. Read the full story from the 2017 first place submission below.
Maris wakes to sloshing water and glass panels caging her head. A thin film of algae carpets the gravel at the bottom of the tank. Sparse plastic ferns sway at eye level. Nothing new. She shuts her eyes hard and purses her lips, breathing out a slow string of bubbles. Maybe it isn’t there after all.
Her relief shatters when she catches a faint shimmer at the edge of her vision. A flash of silver rips through the stillness, the fluttering of fins propelling tiny waves against Maris’ skin. It’s a fish. A minnow.
She blinks at it blankly, coldness curling around her throat. The wooden bottom of the little aquarium around her face sinks harder into her shoulders with the weight of the realization. But it’s not as if she can be surprised that a fish is here after what happened yesterday.
There was Alex, her somewhat-friend and biology tutor, a wisp of a boy so soft-spoken that his words were easily washed away in the current of conversation. Maybe that’s why Maris hadn’t been scared. They’d gone to his house, up to his room, and between drawing sketches of chromosomes and skimming through clinical descriptions of fertilized eggs, he’d asked whether Maris had ever had sex before. She said no. He asked if he could touch her. She said yes, because touching was okay; it was something she had done before; it was not awful or worthy of punishment.
And then he touched her. He felt just like he looked, ghostly and barely-there. Skin on skin was alien warmth, bringing the touch of limbs and flesh so like her own. Not good but not particularly bad, like a meal at the school cafeteria or watered-down coffee. That was it. Sex.
That in itself was nothing, at least to Maris. But the fish were something. They keep a tally of the number of people each person’s slept with, and just like that, sex becomes a public business.
Maris heaves herself up from the bed, rights the tank on her shoulders. By the nightlight’s glow, she redresses in rumpled clothing scavenged from the floor. She steps over the dark silhouette of Alex, who was sprawled on the ground and huddled under a blanket. Framed by the window, the moon hangs high in the darkness.
She turns the knob millimeter by millimeter and presses the door open. She slips away through the few streets that separate his house from hers.
In the morning, she climbs out of her own bed, where she lied awake for the hours since she snuck back. After staring at herself in the mirror, Maris removes her tank lid carefully as to not spill any water. Splayed on her vanity is an assortment of trinkets, some bought on impulse, others gifted to her. Bags of soft sand, conch shells with the sea held in their ear-shaped cavities, marbles fit for a child’s board game, plastic plants and miniature buildings. She places them in one by one, arranging a barnacled castle amidst tiny coral systems. The lone fish hides in the castle, so ghostly that it’s easily missed among all the distractions.
Her eyes flit to the little trash can by her desk. She would love to scoop out the minnow right then. But she knows better. Residential trash is examined carefully for remains of fish that were forcefully killed. Destroying fish isn’t strictly punishable by law, but the police always find ways to incriminate.
Downstairs, Maris halts at the sight of her father sitting at the table, back upright even though there’s a perfectly good chair to lean on behind him. He’s usually at work by the time she goes to school, but today, he seems preoccupied. He stares intently at the newspaper, hand limp around his coffee. A can of fish food lies in front of him, top unscrewed. Feeding time.
One fish floats, white belly up, at the top of his tank. The other fish swerve around it, frolicking along the grey gravel at the tank bottom that does nothing to detract from all the fins blossoming with color and fancy tails trailing like fire. There are many fish in his tank, and she can’t keep track of them all. The number is constantly increasing – there, Maris already spots a tetra amongst the corals that she doesn’t recall seeing before. Her mother never seems perturbed, however, despite only having a single fish in her bowl compared to her father’s dozens.
Whenever Maris asked her mother about her father’s entire reef of fish as a child, her mother replied, even-toned and hard, “That’s how it is. Some things are unbecoming for a lady but a source of pride for a man.”
“Unbecoming? What’s that mean?” Maris questioned.
Her mother had bent down to her eye level. “It means,” she gripped Maris’ hand too hard, until both their fingers went white, “Inappropriate. Impure. It means she’s a whore,” she intoned slowly, tasting every syllable.
Maris wanted to ask what a whore was, too, but she had the inkling that it was something she didn’t want to be.
Now, Maris focuses on the dead fish in her father’s tank. It’s a guppy. Pretty, with iridescent blue gills as glossy as an oil spill and a tail laid out like a paper fan. It lies immobile atop the water.
A face stares up from the newspaper page, blank-eyed and surrounded by fluttery hair that matches the guppy’s fins. Maris can see at least two fish in the woman’s tank that had swum into the frame of the photo. She died of heart failure, the obituary declares. Twenty-seven years old.
She looks at the floating fish and her father’s neutral expression and his half-raised hand, stroking his tank absentmindedly. She looks down at the paper again, and she knows. It’s her. Colette Douthart is dead. The blue guppy is dead.
She’s just never seen it before, she supposes, because her father liked pretty young things that were usually far from death.
She sits in her biology class, though the subject being taught has traveled far from biology, as usual. Ms. Rosemont paces before the blackboard, heels tapping a rhythm as sharp as gunshots on the linoleum floors. Maris does not know why biology, or Ms. Rosemont, makes her scared now. The things spurting from her teacher’s red-lipsticked mouth make her feel so filthy that she wants to scrub the dirt from her insides. It’s because Maris is now the target of that preaching.
“When you make a choice,” a sharp voice rings out, “You live with the consequences. The fish—or your lack of fish, girls—are marks of these choices. They are a basis for judgement of female character,” Ms. Rosemont says, tone perfectly even. Her eyes flit systematically across each face in the classroom. Just one fish swims in her tank, a flaming red betta with its tail draping like the tail of a comet or a heavy dress train. Her spouse’s, Maris assumes.
Innocence comes up often in this class, alongside sanctity. Purity. All Maris could see were empty tanks and tanks with fish.
“I see you’ve put some décor in your tank, Maris.” The teacher halts her pacing. The crows’ feet around her eyes dig deeper for a moment as she grimaces, like some ghost bird tightened its talons in her flesh. “I’ll remind you that only the guilty feel the need to hide.”
Maris keeps gazing down at her desk, where drawings of chromosomes decorate her notebook. “Why do the fish matter?” she asks quietly.
Ms. Rosemont gapes. “”Bad girls must bear the marks of what they have done.”
Meanwhile, boys bear the fish as trophies, like how men used to mount the stuffed skins and heads of beasts they killed onto their walls, glassy-eyed and all. Conqueror and conquered. Conquest.
It’s true; girls don’t dare to bear fish. When she was younger, Maris once saw a woman on the streets with a small swarm of fish haloing her brown hair. People parted as the woman walked by, either staring or averting their gazes. Maris thought it was out of respect, because she’d read about kings and queens who strutted about on red carpets.
There was no carpet though, and this woman did not strut. She had a bird-like walk as a result of thin legs and a slight shaking in her boots. She looked straight ahead, as if putting one foot firmly before the other on a tightrope. Her nails dug into the straps of her bag. Maris thought she was very normal, not too particularly pretty to invite this treatment, with a plain blouse buttoned up her neck and a skirt that fell below her knees.
“Quick,” her mother hissed, tongue rattling a warning against her teeth as she tugged Maris back into the crowd. The woman had no diseases that Maris could see, either, that would warrant this behavior. A few people spit at her as she passed, said things in a sneer that Maris didn’t quite understand.
“Mama, is she sick?” Maris had asked. The muscles in her mother’s jaw clamped tight.
“She might as well be, with all those fish that she has. Who knows where she’s been?”
Now, the teacher’s mouth twists an unsettling thing. She puts a hand to Maris’ tank, as if to caress her face. The damp smudges of her fingertips stain the glass. Ms. Rosemont grips and shakes, hard, stirring sand and tipping a lone minnow out of its castle, whirring like a metallic blur of bullet through the water.
The girls pull sharp cackles from their throats while the boys crow with laughter.
“Who scored on her?” They swivel their heads and cock them at each other like odd birds.
“Would you look at her water? It’s tainted.”
“What good is she now?” The girls screech, grinning and pointing their manicured talons, tearing into all the bits of flesh that they can see. “Her tank’s got a fish in it.”
Emptiness. Maris would like to be empty, as in uninhabited by fish, so that she feels more like a resident in her own skin rather than the apartment. She would also like her mind to be empty, as in vacant, so the number of people she fucks cannot register as something filthy. But it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters but the state of emptiness of her tank, not the pencil she lent to her tablemate or the smiles she put on for the downcast strangers or pocket change she dropped in the paper cups of people who sit along streets. Her chair squeals as it’s pushed backwards across the tiles. She slips on her backpack and walks toward the door.
She takes a different path than she usually does to go home, wandering until she finds the pet shop that she frequented as a child. The old woman who runs the place, Mrs. Pritchard, has always been welcoming to her.
The bell chimes as she pushes the front door open. The woman, the owner, pokes her head out from the office at the back of the store, giving her a grudging smile.
“Come in, dear,” old Pritchard invites. “Goodness, it’s been a while. What’re you looking for?”
Maris steadies herself. “Do you ever get fish here? Goldfish, guppies, tetras?”
Mrs. Pritchard sobers in an instant, smile tightening. “Why do you ask?”
“Is there a market for them? Anyone who’s looking to take some extra?” Maris presses.
Mrs. Pritchard’s lips thin. “Come into my office.”
Inside, a shiny desk sits, quite neatly made. Everything behind it is a mess – sacks of dry pellets and canned goods and bird seed lying haphazardly at the foot of a chair. A full glass of water stands atop the desk, next to an open planner.
As the old woman sits, she studies Maris. “You’re looking to get rid of a fish.”
A pause sucks up all air from the room. “Understand that I wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t needed for the removal of your fish,” the old woman says. “But who is that silver one linked to?” At Maris’ blank look, she amends herself.
“Sex,” Mrs. Pritchard declares, too loud and too lacking in reverence. “Who was it with?”
Maris flinches on instinct as if it were a swear. By now, the vulgarities of banging and screwing and fucking were euphemisms for the blunt little word of “sex” itself.
“Alex,” Maris gets out, “Alexander Cantwell.” The name was a weight on her tongue, a stone in her stomach, and now it’s in the air rather than taking up all the spaces in her body, between her legs. There’s not much shame in saying it, she realizes. She wouldn’t be ashamed at all if it weren’t for the fish. It wasn’t ugly, with all its silvery-slick scales. Not many things are ugly on their own—not bushy eyebrows or gap-toothed smiles or stretch marks—but the way people talk about them with curls to their lips makes them ugly.
Mrs. Pritchard’s eyes stare past Maris. Flat. Goldfish-like. Maris blocks the thought.
“Alright,” is all the old woman says before retreating back to her office in slow, creaky steps.
Maris calls out, “Wait!” because Mrs. Pritchard hasn’t done anything yet, hasn’t taken her fish, or offered a miracle cure. “Won’t you help me?”
The woman halts, momentum stilling at an alarmingly fast rate. “Oh, dear. I nearly forgot, didn’t I?” Almost as if someone had taken their hand off a pause button, she resumes motion, slipping into her office only to reappear again very quickly. “Here. Place this tonic in your tank. It should work in no time. Give it ten hours.”
Maris looks at it questioningly. The liquid inside the small bottle appears to have the consistency and coloration of plain water. “This kills the fish without leaving chemical traces?” she asks uncertainly.
Humming a sharp, tumbling little tune to herself, Mrs. Pritchard departs even more quickly than before. Perhaps she didn’t hear. Maris lingers a little, wondering if she’s missed a secret hint. The glimpse of the office that she catches in the split second that the door is ajar looks entirely the same – messy piles of pet food and the neat desk with an empty glass resting atop it.
When Maris arrives home, she calls out to her parents that she’s not hungry and slides into her room, heart working at hummingbird speed. She pours the tonic quickly into her tank—it feels just like water, tastes just like water, but she supposes Mrs. Pritchard had given it to her for a reason.
She studies herself in the mirror one last time before bed. The silver minnow peeks out of its tiny castle before shrinking into the dark. Maris inhales deeply. The weight of the tank has never felt so heavy. But soon, she’ll be rid of the minnow.
Mournful orchestral music squeals into Maris’ ears until she slaps a hand over the phone on her nightstand and fumbles with the buttons.
“What?” she drawls, voice laced with sleep. The caller ID reads “Alex.” She glares at the glow of the name. “Do you know what time it is?”
“I—“ Alex pulls in a rattling breath. His sentences are punctuated with pauses and soft rustling. “Sorry, I know it’s late.”
Maris slumps back into the pillows. “Whatever you’re going to say, don’t make it about what happened in your room.”
“Listen to me, Maris—“
“No. No. You have no idea how much shit I had to take today just because I have one stupid fish in my tank. You have no idea how much I want to not care about sex or sleeping around or any of that, but,” she sucks in a breath, “Ms. Rosemont. My biology class. They’re the ones who make it matter and I can’t do anything about it.” She swallows and scrubs a hand impatiently over her eyes.
“Maris,” Alex’s crackly voice rings out again. It’s not just crackly from bad reception, however – it’s like he’s fighting to keep his voice down.
“What,” she snaps. She glances to check the time at the top of her screen. “It’s one in the morning. Say whatever you have to say at school tomorrow. If you’re even willing to talk to me in public anymore.” Her thumb hovers over the button to end the call.
The heaving breaths continue on the other end of the line, holding her still. “I heard this metallic clinking,” Alex says, voice pitched lower, tight. He huffs, breathing heavy, as if muffled into a fist.
“It’s just your parents unlocking the door,” Maris says, heaving a sigh. “I need to sleep.”
“But it’s been going on for a bit.”
“It’s dark. They must be trying all their keys to see which one fits.”
Alex pauses, considering, listening. “It might be Dad coming home, then,” he concedes. “He’s been busy at work lately.” He sounds more confident now, voice slightly louder and unfurling as if he himself is straightening his posture. “He must be inside now.”
A shrill little squeal churns through the silence. His bedroom door, Maris supposes. A soft thud of movement. Footsteps towards the hall to check on his father. A sharp intake of breath, like the beginning of a sentence. It cuts off.
Maris stays on the phone, waiting for the rest of what Alex was going to say. “I’m going to hang up,” she calls wearily after a minute.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a spark of silver in her dark tank, moving upwards.
Heavy breathing resumes on the other end, labored and thick and so uncomfortably close-sounding that Maris can nearly feel warm breath on her back. She shifts the phone further away on her sheets. That’s when she hears it.
“It’s been taken care of, Maris.”
The call clicks off.
The silver minnow drifts, belly-up, at the top of her tank.
*Like what you read? Eng is freshman at Harvard College where she is majoring in English. Read more of her work on The Harvard Crimson.