A Small Death

“I have some sad news. Salice died last night.”

Salice was our fish, a guppy Jill won at the fun fair at a local elementary school last November. She couldn’t decide at the time whether to name her prize “Sally” or “Alice,” so the name “Salice” was born. And Salice had been sitting on the kitchen counter for the past nine months, wiggling with anticipation at meal time, dancing patterns in the water to get our attention every morning.

Foster and I weren’t sure how Jill would react to the news, and we weren’t sure what we would say to comfort and explain the small death. It’s a funny thing, being agnostic. It means to not know, which also feels like the summary of how it feels to be a parent — that overpowering sense of never being really sure if you’re doing the right thing. But in this sense, it meant not knowing whether there is a heaven or life after death or a god or a goddess or a hundred deities or the answer to a hundred other questions that religion typically dictates. Yes, I’m fully aware that this is an awful lot of introspection about a pet fish, but there she was, dead, and there we were, not knowing what to do about it.

I had decided to scoop out her little body from the tank before Jill had woken up, and I wrapped it in one of ti leaves that I keep prepped and cleaned in the freezer for cooking. I sometimes use them for steaming fish. It seemed appropriate.

“I want to see her!”

It wasn’t the reaction I had expected. I untied the ti leaf, and Jill looked with an idle curiosity.

“How did you know she was dead?”

“She wasn’t moving,” I replied. “She was lying on the stones at the bottom of her tank.” The answer seemed to satisfy her. But it also felt strange, how detached we’ve managed to stay for so long from these questions, so intrinsic to life:  How do you know death? What does it look like? Our meat all comes pre-packaged from the store. The family friends who have passed away during the past four years did so behind closed doors, and I did not bring Jill to the funerals. This is modern life — the messy work of death is hidden, wrapped, whispered, and distant, until it visits your own doorstep, and you’re wholly unprepared.

Carefully re-wrapping and picking up the ti-leaf bundle, we headed outside as family into the rain, running quickly across the yard to the sparse shelter provided by the tree in the backyard. There, amongst the stones, grew two ti plants, and we crouched over a bare patch of dirt near them. Jill wanted to dig, and we let her, in the mud and heavy air, until we noticed that a swarm of mosquitos had also taken shelter and were searching hungrily for our veins. I slapped one that was on my knee, and looked at the lace of the delicate body, flattened in a small drop of my own blood. Life and death. Blood and dirt.

Foster finished the digging, and we let Jill put Salice into the ground, cover it with dirt. We hurried her, slapping and scratching, eager to return to the comforts of our house: ceiling fans overhead, screens on the windows, a stovetop for making breakfast, and a dozen eggs packaged and refrigerated and shipped across the ocean to end up in our stomachs, the chickens that laid them carefully hidden, wrapped, whispered, and distant.

We turned to walk inside, but Jill did not want to follow. She ran instead to her swing, and sat slouched and leaning against the chain. We called to her from the doorway but she remained.  I went back out to pick her up, thankful that she is still small enough to fit into my embrace and wrap her arms around my neck.

“I can’t stop staring at the ti plants,” she whispered in my ear, looking over my shoulder as we walked away. “Where we buried her.”

We went inside and I brought her into the kitchen, and tried to place her gently down onto her chair in the kitchen, but she held tightly onto me.

“I’m sad that Salice died, mommy.”

“It’s normal to feel sad when a pet dies. But we will always remember her in our hearts.”

I felt Jill’s arms tighten more around my neck, her face burrowing into the hollow space between us. I held her until her muscles softened, then she let go. Standing on her chair, Jill looked at the now-empty tank, the unplugged air filter leaving silence on the counter. 

Jill’s face brightened at the sight, and she asked, “But we can get a new fish, right? I will call her Sally, because I really like the name Sally.”

And so we moved on to breakfast and plans for the future, with no more mention of her first pet who now lies wrapped safely under the soil.

We visited Bishop Museum that afternoon with her friend, Max, and his mom. We talked of his plans to visit Disney World and we looked at dinosaurs and stared the stars. Then, at the invasive species exhibit, in a 30 gallon aquarium, swam Salice’s relatives, dozens of guppies. I wondered if she would notice, if I should say something, or if I should hurry her along to the next set of drawers and words. I chose to do nothing. Her friend, Max, came over and sat on a stool next to her, idly opening drawers under the table that held the aquarium. 

“Max, did you know my fish died last night?”

“Oh,” Max responded, in a universal need to show that you have heard but have no idea how what to say. 

“Tell her you’re sorry about her fish,” his mother prompted. 

“I’m sorry about your fish, Jillian.”

“It’s okay,” she replied, “because I will always have her in my heart.”

 We drove home, and Foster had already cleaned out the tank and stored it in the closet. And Jill started asking about next time, getting a baby sister instead.

(In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, she’s our one and only, and we are going to keep it that way.)

(We will probably get another fish though.)