The Last Poolfish of Ash Meadows

Michael Devens Click to read more...

Michael Devens has an MA in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago and teaches in the Chicago area. His short fiction has also appeared in 580 Split.

In the early morning sunlight, the pockets of calm water across the Rock River shone like wet spots on a drying canvas. From a lawn chair in her backyard, Maya watched a heron toil up from the riverbank—its shadow blooming into blue, gray, and yellow on the muddy water—and settle on petiole legs in a nearby estuary. Two deliverymen had just left an enormous crate on her front porch. Maya knew it held a birthday present from her father.

Maya’s father—a renowned taxidermist—had mounted many extinct and endangered fish. Last year, he’d moved from Oregon, Illinois to the jungles of southern Laos with Lae, a twenty-four-year-old Lao art student who’d become one of his assistants. He sent Maya letters from Chiang Khong, a small Thai city near the Lao border. Though she’d just turned thirty, still worked at the Oregon Public Library, and envied her father and Lae’s view of the Mekong River and Sayphou Louang Mountains from their back porch, Maya tried to appreciate the Rock River and the local herons.

Maya’s father’s mounts of extinct and critically endangered fish were displayed in museums across the world. Years ago, on winter mornings when he wouldn’t leave his studio to come outside and make snow angels, Maya and her mother drove to Chicago and wandered the Field Museum. In one dark roomy hall, ten of his mounts filled a small glass case. “See these?” Maya’s mother would ask. “These are what Daddy paints when he’s upstairs.” Engraved in small gold plates beneath the fish were names as beautiful, evocative, and forlorn as his renderings: Raycraft Ranch Poolfish, Grass Valley Speckled Dace, Ginger Pearlfish, Opal Allotoca.

When Maya was ten, her mother moved to New Mexico with the manager of a 7-Eleven. Maya had sat in her bed and reread the letters her mother sent. She traced the words, her hand where her mother’s had been, and imagined what her mother had been thinking as she’d written each one. Occasionally she crumpled a letter and squeezed it between her palms until her hands trembled. The image of a frog, deer, or eagle she and her mother had spotted along the river sometimes appeared like a fossil in the wrinkled, crushed paper, and Maya untwisted and smoothed the letter until it felt like cloth.

After her mother left, Maya’s father spent two months mounting a six-foot-long bluefin tuna. He invited Maya into his studio and told her stories about catching bluefin on the Atlantic with his uncle. One morning he woke her. “Sweetheart,” he’d said, “it’s complete!” The bluefin’s back was a brilliant coral-blue. Its iridescent silver-purple sides seemed plated with clam shells. Two dorsal fins rose from its smooth, torpedo-shaped body. The first was a shimmering yellow; the second, a glossy neon red. Maya hugged her father, told him she’d never seen anything so beautiful, and dreamed they’d grow as close as she and her mother had been.

A rowboat carrying a young man and woman appeared beside the estuary, and Maya opened the National Geographic magazine in her lap. She felt funny just watching the river and knew she’d say or do something clumsy if she acknowledged the couple. As the rowboat neared her, and as the couple was probably waiting for her to look up and greet them, Maya caught herself rubbing the back of her neck—one of her nervous habits. Had she just revealed how anxious they made her? She pretended to be captivated by an article she’d read earlier about how Earth was so unique because life on most other planets—which didn’t stay in habitable zones or contain certain elements or have moons that deflected meteors—could never evolve into anything more complex than microbes.

Maya hoped the couple didn’t think she was rude. Almost involuntarily, she looked up to say hello just as the boat passed by and saw a teenage girl and boy leaning back in their seats and staring at the clouds. The girl held a neon green thermos. A tea bag envelope fluttered above the thermos like a tiny kite. The girl whispered something to the boy and he laughed. Maya looked down at the magazine. A photo of a cat-shaped crater in one of the moon’s ossified lava fields covered the opposite page. She used her thumbnail to carve a gash across the cat’s face. When she was a teenager she should have forced herself to talk to more people and become more confident. Then she and Brendan wouldn’t argue about whether or not she was doing enough to overcome her shyness, and she might not have to worry that Brendan stayed with her to remain close to her father and that he wished she was as exotic and self-assured as Lae.

The back door of Maya’s house creaked open. Maya closed the magazine as Brendan stepped outside.

Brendan, like Lae, had spent six months working for Maya’s father when he was in art school. After her father moved to Laos, Brendan had taken over his taxidermy shop in Oregon and moved in with Maya. He longed to create a mount as beautiful and moving as her father’s masterpieces and had spent most of the last five months in the basement painting a coelacanth—a fish believed to have gone extinct 65 million years ago until one was discovered living off the coast of Madagascar in 1938. He wanted to enter the coelacanth in the next World Taxidermy Championship to impress her father and the biologists who’d shipped him so many rare specimens. But Maya was sure Brendan also hoped the mount would impress Lae.

Two weeks ago, Maya had discovered an oil painting in Brendan’s shop. It showed Lae standing barefoot on the bank of the Mekong River and smelling a flower on a blooming bush. The flower’s petals were lava-red and fogged with yellow, and their ruffled edges were curled back to reveal the flower’s soft, almost glowing sea-green throat. The flower’s three silver-pink sepals, just inches from Lae’s lips, seemed to blush. Lae wore a white, knee-length skirt and a red tank top. Flower petals littered the riverbank. Brendan must have used a photograph of Lae to paint the details of her face.

Brendan walked over to Maya and kissed her forehead. “Happy birthday,” he said. He wore sandals, faded jeans ripped at his knees, and a vermillion t-shirt with the words “Brendan Dowling’s Taxidermy” in calligraphic letters above a charcoal drawing of a walleye wearing a beret and holding a palette and paintbrush in its pectoral fins. His long brown hair was in a ponytail, and his gray eyes shone like frosted glass in the sunlight. He smelled, as usual, like acrylic paint. “Hey, that’s a St. Lawrence River skiff,” Brendan said.

“Your father’s boat!” Maya said. She wished the boat was closer so she could study its ribs, decks, floorboards, coamings, and oarlocks. Learning new details about Brendan’s life still exhilarated her. A month after they’d begun dating, when Brendan still seemed to find her quietness mysterious, she’d bought a Macanudo Diplomat cigar—the kind Brendan’s father, an endocrinologist in New York City, had smoked during his boating trips with Brendan down the Oswegatchie River through the evergreen forests of the Adirondack foothills. Then she’d pushed her father’s rowboat onto the Rock, rowed to a grove of spruce trees, lit the cigar, and set it on the empty seat. She closed her eyes, smelled the cigar smoke and the spruce needles and the river water and the rowboat’s cedar floorboards, and tried to inhabit one of Brendan’s most vivid childhood memories, to feel it shaping his love of rivers.

“Did you catch who was rowing it?” Brendan asked.

“A couple teenagers, I think.” Maya rolled the magazine into a tube. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

“Didn’t you look up and say hello to them?”

“You were watching me?” Maya’s face burned.

“I was washing some brushes and just happened to look out the window,” Brendan said. “It’s great you did something that makes you uncomfortable.” He blew on the face of his wristwatch and scrubbed it with his thumb. “At least turning thirty lights a fire under you. If not to start talking with boaters, then to paint a coelacanth. Hell, your father was drinking Romanée Conti with Salvador Dalí when he was my age. Speaking of your father, that crate must be from him, huh? Ready to open it?”

“Maybe not quite as ready as you seem to be,” Maya said.

“We probably shouldn’t wait too long,” Brendan said. “Anything could be in there.”

Maya pulled at the frayed edges of one of the vinyl strips webbing her lawn chair.  “Even something Lae might have looked at and maybe even touched, I suppose.” She used the sweat on her palm to smooth the unruly strings.

Brendan blew on his watch again and polished the glass with the hem of his shirt. “Maya, like I told you, you don’t even know when I made that painting. Or how impulsive I was feeling. But do I miss Lae? Yes.” He stared toward the Rock. Sudsy water churned beside the bank, and the cement statue of Chief Black Hawk towered atop a bluff several miles downriver. “The river hasn’t even looked the same since she and your father left.”

“I didn’t know she meant more to you than the river.”

“That’s hardly what I’m saying,” Brendan said.

Maya dropped the magazine on the grass and stood. “I guess now is as good a time as any to open it.”

They walked around the house to the front porch. A refrigerator and some words in Lao were stenciled in a corner of the crate’s lid. Brendan took a tack hammer from his back pocket. He knelt beside the crate, pried up the lid, and dragged it off.

Inside, surrounded by foam strips, was a small whale. The varnish coating its body glistened like wet mucus. Would it suddenly begin to thrash? Maya swatted some of the foam onto her porch. It wasn’t a whale but the biggest, fleshiest catfish she’d ever seen. Thousands of gold, silver, brown, and gray streaks covered the fish’s back. Metallic pink, yellow, and red smears sparkled like hummingbird feathers near the base of its erect, iridescent silver dorsal fin. The fish’s head sloped like the hood of a car toward its long, fleshy lips. A narrow flap of skin concealed a zipper running from its dorsal fin down its lower back.

“This would win the taxidermy championship hands-down,” Brendan said.

Maya removed some paper stuck between the fish’s beet-red gill rakers. “‘Dear Maya,’” she read aloud. “‘Happy thirtieth birthday. Several weeks ago, Lae found this five hundred pound, seven-foot-long pa beuk, or Mekong giant catfish, on the bank of the Mekong River. As you probably know, these catfish are critically endangered and rarely reach this size anymore. Some Lao believe Mekong catfish spawn in underwater caves of gold and consider them sacred. For several days Lae and I cooked and ate its delicious meat while I preserved and painted its skin. Nights I painted by torchlight on the balcony as douc langurs barked in the rosewood trees. The mount’s more unique features honor Boun Makha Bouxa, when some Lao dress up as fish and set captured birds and fish free to transmit gratitude to the earth’s energies. This is the first fish I’ve mounted in over a year, and I don’t plan to ever mount another fish again. Maya, I know what an imperfect father I’ve been. However, I would be honored if you would allow me to entrust this piece to you. With love, Dad.’”

Maya moved her fingertips over her father’s words, his needle-straight lines and loops the shapes of dragonfly wings. “Why did he go through so much trouble mounting this and sending it to me?” Certain words—“gold,” “torchlight,” “gratitude,” “imperfect,” “love”—were pressed deeper into the paper. “Maybe he really does feel guilty about ignoring me for his art,” she said. “And then giving it up like it was nothing to move to the jungle with a woman young enough to be his daughter.”

“I felt betrayed, too,” Brendan said. “But just because he moved off with Lae doesn’t mean he prefers her to you or me.”

“Maybe you’re right. How could you develop a true preference for someone in six months?” Maya refolded the paper and placed it back in the fish’s gills as her father had done so many thousands of miles away. Especially, she thought, someone like her? Once, when Lae was alone in the studio, Maya had asked her if she liked studying at the Art Institute. Lae had just nodded—as if Maya’s question was inane or Maya made her uncomfortable—and resumed painting a neon orange bass with electric blue eyes and a fluorescent fuchsia stripe along its side. Maya had hurried out of the studio. A few months later, Lae rescued an eagle chick that had fallen from its nest during a storm. When she invited Maya into the studio to see it, Maya had reclaimed some of her pride by telling her she was too busy to stop in.

“I’m going to find a flashlight so we can see inside it.” Brendan stood and walked toward the house.

Maya picked up a foam strip and snapped it in half. “Look at you vandalizing that poor bass,” she imagined telling Lae, “with all that gaudy paint! Performing those dances in that silk dress on the Lao New Year wasn’t enough to make you seem exotic? Really, isn’t it enough being such a savior? Look at you rescuing eagles—no, eagle chicks—and nobly granting unsophisticated dullards—mere librarians—the opportunity to see them! The opportunity of a lifetime! Ha! Ha! Ha! You really need to stop distracting my father from his important work. And something tells me you’re planning to give a photo of yourself to my—” Maya realized she was speaking out loud. Could Brendan have heard her? She glanced at the house. Luckily the front windows were shut. She took a deep breath. How many times each day did she nearly tremble with anger and imagine speaking like this to Lae? Was that normal?

Brendan returned with a flashlight and they unzipped the fish. Its dark, deep interior resembled a small cave. Maya’s father hadn’t removed the catfish’s skull. Its skin was lined with a hard, thick layer of hide paste. The fish’s throat contained tiny, mesh-covered air holes and eyeholes. Someone’s calves could fit through openings near its enormous tail fin; one’s arms, through holes concealed by its pelvic fins. The mount smelled of acrylic paint, varnish, fish epidermal mucus, clams, seaweed, and a rich, earthy odor that must’ve been the smell of the Mekong River. Was that what her father smelled when he stepped outside? Was Brendan smelling it too and imagining he was tasting the same air Lae breathed?

Brendan rubbed his chin and stared at the fish. Maya imagined him picturing Lae walking barefoot along the riverbank, kneeling beside the gigantic beached catfish, waving flies away from its body. “What are you thinking about?” she asked.

Brendan opened and closed the clasp on his watchband. “I probably shouldn’t bring this up today, but …”

“Why don’t you tell me after we bring it in?” Maya’s heart slammed against her chest. Was Brendan going to break up with her? They each lifted an end of the catfish, which weighed about a hundred pounds, eased it through the front door, and rested it on its thick pelvic fins on the dining room table. The catfish’s head and tail fin both stretched several feet beyond the table. Its dorsal fin nearly scratched the ceiling. The fish’s belly, swirled with grays and whites, resembled marble. Patches of its silver-purple sides shone like pearl.

“What is it?” Maya pulled a chair away from the table and sat down.

“As I’ve been painting the coelacanth, I keep wondering about something. This mount … reminded me of it too.” Brendan sat down beside Maya. “One morning, a couple months before your father moved to Laos, I got to his studio early. They were …” He picked a flake of foam off the catfish’s gill filaments and stared at it. “They were having sex against his desk. As I backed away, Lae stumbled and fell against the bluefin. But your father kept having sex with her. He didn’t even hesitate or seem to care at all that they might damage the bluefin.”

“That’s what it is?” Maya leaned back against her chair. “Why did you tell me that? The most time my dad and I spent together was around that fish.”

“I’d just never even seen your dad act at all casually around any of his masterpieces,” Brendan said. “There’s something almost spiritual about taking a corpse and transforming it into art. What had he realized that made him risk damaging the bluefin?” He stood. “Let me grab something from the basement to help me explain.”

Maya walked into the bathroom and stepped in front of the mirror. She wiped away a tear and stared at her dark green eyes and wavy brown hair and at the wrinkles forming around her eyes and mouth. Could she ever look or seem as exotic as Lae? Maya’s most unordinary feature was her name, which her father had chosen because he loved Mayan art. Her father certainly would’ve picked a different name if he could have known how much it would clash with her personality.

Maya stepped into the living room. Brendan had come back upstairs. He held an envelope.

Brendan sat on the edge of a couch cushion. “I want so badly to preserve one of the last members of a species,” he said. “To create one mount that’s as beautiful and powerful and important as any of your father’s. It took me five months just to paint that coelacanth’s head.” Brendan opened and closed the envelope’s flap. “Am I even talented enough to do that? Is it even worth it?” He removed a sheet of paper from the envelope. “Let me read you this letter your father sent me last week. I think it’s a clue—just like his note to you and the Mekong catfish—about why he risked damaging the bluefin and why he really moved to Laos.”

Maya rested her head against the bathroom doorframe. She ran her fingertip over a groove in the door.

Brendan took a deep breath. “‘As you paint that coelacanth,’” he read, “‘that celebrity fish, at the beginning of your mounting career, I want to confide in you my rather personal experiences with the much lesser known Ash Meadows poolfish. Three decades—’”

“It’s nice my dad feels comfortable telling you his intimate thoughts about that fish.” Maya blew some dust off her fingertip. “He never mentioned it to me.”

“Forget it.” Brendan tucked the letter into the envelope. “I’ll finish reading it later.” He opened a desk drawer, took out a small wrapped box, and handed it to Maya. “I might as well give you this now,” he said. “Happy birthday.”

Maya took the box, held it for a moment, and then slowly unwrapped and opened it. Inside lay an intricate carving of two herons rising into flight. “It’s beautiful,” Maya said. The carving gleamed in the sunlight. “How long did this take you?”

“To get that sheen I used maple wood and polished it with walnut oil.”

Maybe the two herons symbolized her and Brendan. Maya set the carving on a shelf above the couch. Was she misinterpreting the painting Brendan had made? “I’m sorry I’m being so difficult today,” Maya said. She kissed Brendan’s lips and leaned against his chest. “I’m not turning thirty very gracefully.”

“Who does?” Brendan squeezed Maya’s shoulders. “I’m going to finish painting the coelacanth’s left pectoral fin.” He walked toward the basement door. “Later you’re going to hear the rest of that letter.”

Maya walked around the mount. The Mekong catfish’s back was almost as wide and flat as the dining room table. She ducked under the fish’s tail fin. There was more room for the mount in their bedroom. The fish’s eyes, sunk several inches into its fleshy cheeks, were flecked with hundreds of shades of blue and seemed to stare back at her. This giant fish beside their bed might keep her awake or give her nightmares. Brendan might find it awkward to have sex with her near it. Maya stopped walking. Perhaps Brendan would like to make love next to the mount. Maybe it would excite him, and help him feel closer to understanding her father, if they risked damaging the mount by making love against it. Or even right on top of it, since its back was so flat. Would Brendan find her more exotic if he saw her leaning or lying against the fish? Could lying across such a beautiful, priceless piece of art change how she viewed herself?

Maya squeezed between the fish’s head and the wall. Pastel blue and pink blotches covered the skin around its lips. She should have laughed off this idea already. Could she even make love near the fish? She pulled her father’s note from the fish’s gills and opened her china cabinet. On the bottom shelf, against the wooden trunk containing all the letters her father had sent her, leaned a framed strip of the lemon-yellow kite he’d tied to his line when he fished for bluefin. He’d given it to Maya one afternoon after he’d painted the bluefin’s chest and described how the kite danced and swooped across the sky when he got a bite or fought a big fish. Maya tossed the note on the trunk and shut the cabinet door. Why hadn’t her father stopped when Lae fell against the bluefin? Why had he given up mounting so abruptly?

Maya spent the next few hours reading by the river and picking scallions and chili peppers from her garden. She brought the vegetables into the kitchen as Brendan came upstairs. Maya cut up chicken, crushed garlic, diced the scallions, and sliced the seeds and ribs from the peppers. Brendan turned on the second suite of Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, stirred chicken broth into a bowl of masa harina, and blended the garlic, scallions, and peppers. As they lined corn husks with masa harina and folded them over clusters of chicken and chili sauce to form tamales, they talked about everyday things: rock tumblers, cicada shells, the taste of liquid amoxicillin, Bob Dylan’s sunglasses. It was the longest Maya had talked to Brendan—and the first meal they’d cooked together—since he’d begun painting the coelacanth. The pleasantness of it was undercut by Maya’s awareness that if it wasn’t her birthday Brendan would still be in the basement painting.

Brendan lit two candles near the edges of the table. The flames swayed just inches from the catfish.

“Want to put the mount somewhere else?” Maya asked.

Brendan set their plates on the table. “Doesn’t it make the perfect centerpiece?”

“You’re right,” Maya said. “We’ll feel like we’re dining in a museum.”

Brendan poured them each a glass of Riesling. They sat down beside each other.

Maya took a sip of wine and traced a red flowerpot on her napkin. She pictured the red tank top Lae wore in Brendan’s painting. Had Brendan seen her in that tank top on a certain day? As he’d painted the tops of Lae’s breasts, had he imagined how they’d feel pressed against his chest? In front of her, the catfish—which she could lie across just as Lae had leaned against the bluefin—shimmered like a giant opal. Its soft yellow tail fin glowed in the candlelight like a crescent moon. “Maybe we’re like that fish,” Maya said. “We’ve been going out for almost a year and a half. But hasn’t our relationship become hollow and endangered? Is it even still alive? Or have we just become good at making it appear that way?” Her heartbeat quickened. “Remember when we’d hike to the statue of Black Hawk to eat lunch and look out over the river? Or those times we made love in the woods? When we talked about moving closer to Chicago so I could work at a university library and we could eat at interesting restaurants? Now you’re always at your shop or in the basement.” Maya felt dizzy. Had she really just said all that?

“Just wait until I finish the coelacanth,” Brendan said quickly. “As soon as I’m getting work from museums, I’ll sell the shop.” He dragged his wine glass closer to his plate. “I can’t believe they ate its meat.”

“Has that been bothering you?” Maya put her fork down. Brendan must have seen the article in the March issue of National Geographic about how some Lao believed Mekong catfish meat strengthened their sexual abilities. Maya lifted her glass too quickly and spilled wine on her jeans. She stood. “I’ll be right back.”

Maya went into the bedroom, opened the closet door, and pushed aside the khakis and knee-length beige skirts she wore to the library. She hesitated and then grabbed a skirt someone had wrapped in a Home Depot bag and placed in the library’s book drop last month. Maya changed into the skirt—which hit her mid-thigh and was streaked with fluorescent orange and pink—and stepped in front of the mirror.

Was she as striking as Lae? Maya imagined leaving Brendan, working at the University of Chicago library, dressing more enticingly, and telling her coworkers about the researchers and doctoral students who took her out to dinner and who longed to make love to her on the Mekong catfish. After all, year after year it had swum down the Mekong River from Vietnam to the flooded forests around Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, beneath fishermen in pirogues and past gleaming pagodas and old French colonial villas with bougainvilleas spilling down their walls, to spawn, perhaps in an underwater golden cave, beneath Khone Falls in southern Laos. And if Mekong catfish ever became extinct, the mount might be all that kept them from vanishing completely. After Brendan had forgotten about Lae and tortured himself by imagining all the dates Maya had gone on, Maya would invite him into her condo. She imagined leaning back against the fish, and staring out her window at the moonlit spires atop an old cathedral, as Brendan stepped toward her from the doorway.

Maya turned once more in front of the mirror and walked back into the dining room.

“Wow,” Brendan said. “You look amazing.” He put his arm around her waist.

“I came across this last month and forgot all about it.” Maya moved away from Brendan. “Help me carry the mount into the living room,” she said. “I want to wipe off the table and sit by the river.”

They set the Mekong catfish on the living room carpet, carried lawn chairs to the river, and fished and drank wine until it grew dark.

Brendan took the envelope containing Maya’s father’s letter from his pocket. “Ready to hear the rest?” he asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Maya said.

Brendan unfolded the letter and cleared his throat. “‘Three decades ago,’” he read, “‘the very last Ash Meadows poolfish, a creature no longer than my index finger, was shipped to me by an ichthyologist who lived alone in the Mojave Desert in an ancient Chemehuevi Indian turquoise mine. He burned the spines off cactus fruit, cooked iguana meat over mesquite wood, and studied the native poolfish and pupfish in the small, sun-shrunk springs which had seeped through faults in the valleys of Ash Meadows. When the only poolfish he found in one spring was floating on its side in the shade of a creosote bush, he decided to census the fish in each spring. But to his horror, he found only pupfish along with mollies, mosquitofish, and other invasive species which had outcompeted the poolfish. Just like that, it was gone.

“‘When I was your age, I adorned the last Ash Meadows poolfish’s tiny silver and blue scales with the black mottling they would have developed during this fish’s short spawning season. The orange circlets around its eyes I captured with shavings from a bright vermillion desert rock. Finally, with diluted fluorescent oranges and yellows, I depicted the simmering beauty of its fins, like translucent flames.

“‘For twenty five years the last Ash Meadows poolfish remained in a dark, forgotten corner of the underground wing of the Nevada Museum of Natural History. Then, five years ago, vandals broke in and stole it along with some other vulnerable artifacts. It resurfaced a year and a half ago at a garage sale in Tonopah, Nevada. Its scales had been painted with maroon nail polish and Wite-Out, its gill covers trimmed with a nail clipper, its eyes drilled out, its fins burnt black. I could have restored the fish. But did humanity deserve a second chance to appreciate it? One night, regardless of whether or not I had a right to use my power to decide, I squeezed the last poolfish of Ash Meadows into the neck of an empty bottle of Glenfiddich Vintage Reserve 1977, walked to the end of a long aluminum fishing dock, and threw it into the middle of the Rock River. Two weeks earlier, you might be surprised to learn, I’d met you and Lae.’”

Maya stared at the bottle of Chehalem Dry Riesling beside her lawn chair. “You’re right,” she said. “That letter does help explain some things, doesn’t it?” She lifted her glass. In the waning sunlight, the reflection of the wine flickered and sparkled on her skirt. “What would that ichthyologist have thought?”

Brendan picked at the envelope’s seams with his fingernail. “That ichthyologist might have had bigger problems,” he said.

“Maybe he was brilliant and had a hard time socializing with people,” Maya said. “It could be lonelier to live around a bunch of people you can’t be yourself around than in a cave in the desert.”

Brendan put his hand on Maya’s knee. Heron fledglings squawked and screeched in their nests crowning some dead birch trees along the estuary. The breeze was pregnant with the springy smells of purple loosestrife and blazing star blooming along the river. The lights around the base of Chief Black Hawk flickered on. The luminous cement figure stared from the bluff across the dark river.

“Maybe one reason Lorado Taft made that statue so massive,” Brendan said, “was so nobody could ever shove it into a bottle of Glenfiddich and throw it in the river.”

They took their wine glasses into the living room and sat on the couch. The candles still burned on the dining room table. Wax had dripped and dried into white stalactites along their sides. The swaying, flexing flames shone on the catfish’s varnished skin like two fiery gold fish swimming in place.

“It’s hauntingly alive, isn’t it?” Brendan said. “Like if we slid it into the river it would swim off.”

“I can see why some Lao view these fish as sacred,” Maya said, “and even why my father saw this fish as a monument to life. Can you imagine how many eggs it laid or fertilized during its life?”

A gleaming glob of wax rolled down one of the candlesticks. Its reflection inched across the catfish’s back and glinted on its zipper.

Maya took a long sip of wine. She set down her glass, slid off the couch, and knelt beside the fish. “Is that a second zipper?” she asked.

Brendan knelt beside her. “Where?”

Maya leaned closer to the fish. “Oh no—it’s not.” She stretched out her legs, leaned back, and let her hair fall across the catfish’s gills. Shadows and candlelight exchanged places across the ceiling and walls. “Can you believe this fish was alive a few weeks ago?” Maya asked. “Swimming in the Mekong River through Laos? Eating clams? Maybe even making love to other catfish in underwater caves of gold? And here it is, in this room, right in front of us.”

Brendan kissed Maya. As he moved his hand over her thigh she leaned back against the mount. Brendan helped her ease herself across the catfish’s back. The hide paste under its skin supported her weight. Brendan lifted Maya’s shirt over her shoulders. The catfish’s skin felt cool against her back. Maya almost laughed as she pictured Lae kneeling beside the fish and yelling for her father.

As Brendan undressed, Maya wedged her shirt between her hip and the catfish’s dorsal fin. Brendan kept one foot on the ground and propped his other on the fish’s pelvic fin. Somewhere beneath Maya a fin cracked and hide paste shattered. Maya dug her fingers into the fish’s gills and clasped a gill arch as Brendan whispered her name and moved over her.

The catfish gave up the smells of clams and seaweeds and foamy waterfalls, of bougainvilleas and jacarandas whose petals had landed in the river, of water spiced with the pinecones and sap of Chinese swamp cypresses. It released the murmurs of fishermen in the cabins of boats at night, the thump of distant music and the whispers of waves reflecting the neon lights of Vientiane, the groans of soaring hairy-leafed apitong trees bending in the breeze, and the clap of its body against the body of another catfish deep inside an underwater cave. Maya smelled and listened to the catfish, and she wrapped her arms around Brendan’s neck as he moved his hands over her and as the candlelight danced back and forth across the catfish’s pearly, shining skin and her own naked body.

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