Ready-Made Fish

by Ema Katrovas

When I was seven, mama would buy me a Ready-Made Fish every weekend. All the other kids would get them, too. My older sister called “Ready-Made Fish” a misnomer. What’s a misnomer? I asked. Your fish. How? Because it’s not ready-made. If it were ready-made, they would hand it to you already made, get it? I got it, but I knew better. Ready-Made Fish were ready to be made. So I would get a fish every weekend and I almost always named it Charlie. I got the blue and green kind. If they didn’t have blue and green, I got the orange and yellow kind. If I had to, the purple and red. To make the fish, you’d mix the two powders in the Ready-Made kit in a bowl with some warm water and stir it with a foldable spoon that came with it. Soon, there would be a slimy lump in the water. At first it wouldn’t move, but then it would try and get away when you poked it. In a couple minutes, it would be a fish. You could see the swirlies of blue and green, or orange and yellow, or purple and red on its side. Every fish was a little different. I’d take pictures of the ones that came out well.

The package said never to take the Ready-Made fish outside. So all the kids on the block would put their fish in plastic bags with water, hide them in their backpacks, and take them to the parking lot with all the potholes by the school, where the rain pooled deep. We let our Ready-Made Fish out into the potholes. The fish would float around looking bored, their swirlies showing through the muck, looking pretty. We would wait by the puddles until evening, when the fish would dissolve back into powder. We would make bets on whose fish would dissolve last, but usually we didn’t stay long enough to see. Before we’d leave, we’d squash the last fish into the mud so no one would find out we’d been letting them out.

We tried to get the fish to play bumper-fish but they would never run into each other unless we made them. And they were fragile. They were slow and easy to lift out of the water but once you did, it was hard not to smear them in your hands. Soon, we’d do it on purpose. We’d take the fish out of the water and let them burst in our fists, and smudge the asphalt with green, blue, orange, yellow, red, and purple. After a while, the fish wouldn’t even last us through the afternoon. We’d leave slimy tracks of faded colors on the asphalt before we ran home. We’d have to ask for new fish the next day, and half of us would come back to the puddle for the next meeting fish-less. Then we would argue over what to do with the few we had. They looked pathetic when there were only two or three drifting around in the puddle.

It could have been Katie M., or Daric J., or the Bell twins who said it first. I thought of it on my own before anyone said it. Maybe everyone thought of it on their own before it was said. But that’s not important. What’s important is that once it was said aloud, it had to be done and it was going to be done on a Friday.

When the final bell rang that week, those of us who were game ran straight to the potholes in the parking lot. We gathered around the biggest puddle. There were about seven of us. We didn’t have to speak. We pulled from our pockets Ready-Made Fish powder. Most of us had just one packet, but Daric J. and Katie M. each had two and the Bell twins had five between them. Katie M. stepped up first. She shook one of her packets to make the powder go down, then ripped it open and poured the first packet into the puddle. It made a purple-blue swirly in the middle of the muddy water. Then Daric J. stepped up and did the same, while Katie M. poured out another packet. Then we all got into it: Shake, shake, rip, pour. The water swirled with so many colors that we stepped back to see. We threw the plastic spoons that came with the powders on the ground and the Bell twins ran for sticks in the nearby bushes so we could stir the water.

Soon, the puddle looked shallow, like it was full of mud, and the swirlies curled together into beige. None of us dared put our sticks near the puddle. We watched, very quiet. When the puddle didn’t do anything for a while, Katie M. took a stick from Daric J. and poked it. Some of us stepped back, and some came closer and someone told Katie M. to do it again. Katie M. poked the mud again and the surface squirmed like something that wanted to get away. Then Deric J. snatched the stick from Katie M. and jabbed it into the water like it was a spear. Something moved up in the water and the surface of the puddle opened on one side. It was a mouth, a big, wide, fish mouth. It stayed open for a moment, like it was thinking, and we could see its needle teeth. Then it sank away as though it had never been there.

We knew what we had to do. We each jammed a stick into the edge of the puddle. At first it looked as if there was nothing there but then we found edges that shivered when we poked them and one, two, three we pried our sticks down to lift it.

The surface of the mud cracked and a round slab of fish emerged, twitching. It balanced on our upturned sticks, and settled at a tilt, staring straight ahead with eyes that looked like circles in circles. It took all of us to hold it up, it was so heavy. The front looked like nothing but a wide mouth with crooked fish eyes on top and its backside was flat, like it had been screwed on sideways. The tail fanned out wide and lopsided and dropped down like a doily. Its scales stuck out instead of lying flat, which made its skin look like the close-up of a tongue in our science textbook. It was beige, except for a blotch of green on its back. It squirmed to get away, then froze, then squirmed again as if it wasn’t sure if it wanted to get away. There was something even stranger about it, but I couldn’t quite tell what.

Let’s name it, someone said. I said we should call it Charlie but before anyone could answer Daric J. jerked his stick from under the fish and tried to pry its mouth open. One of the Bell twins plucked a leaf from a bush and put it on its eye. Someone took a stick, coiled the limp doily-tale on it and tugged. That’s when it happened. The fish opened its mouth and made a sharp huff like it was trying to get something out of its nose, though it didn’t have one. We all let go of the sticks and the fish flopped into the puddle again and stayed there crooked, poking out of the mud like a shipwreck. And then it made a meek eh sound like a sleepy moan, that ended in a gargle. There was a moment when it felt like nothing would ever happen again. Then one of the Bell twins screamed and everyone ran away in all directions. I dropped my stick, too, and ran. I looked back and saw the fish protruding from the mud, its needle teeth closing together and opening again slowly.

That evening I asked my sister if fish could make noise. She said no. I asked why. She said because they don’t breathe through their mouths. Oh, I said. She gave me a long look, like she knew I was up to something. But I wasn’t up to anything and thought maybe I wouldn’t be up to anything ever again.

Those of us who saw the fish made sure not to end up on the same swing set during recess or next to each other in line for the slide. We wondered if the fish were too big to dissolve at night the way the little ones used to. Someone said Daric J. had gone to the empty parking lot to take a look at the puddle, but we never got word what he saw, and I think it was a lie that he ever went. Mama asked me why I didn’t go outside after school anymore. When I turned away from the window, I imagined the fish scooting itself with see-through fins down the road in front of our house, saying eh, eh, eh again and again until it sounded as if it were cackling.

No one played in the pot-hole parking lot. Even those who never saw the fish avoided it. The older kids thought the parking lot brought bad luck. The younger kids said the janitor ground up anyone he saw there after sunset for next day’s lunch. At the end of that school year, mama said they would be re-asphalting it. About time, she said.

A few days before the end of school I met Katie M. on the swings. When we saw each other we both looked, without meaning to, towards the parking lot across the lawn where construction workers were already milling around, slow under their yellow hard hats. We watched for a moment as if it were inevitable that now, right now, we’d see the little men in yellow hats startle and shovel limp, muddy fish bits and needle bones out of the hole in the asphalt. And if we didn’t see them startle, we would look again and again until we did, and if they never did we’d never stop looking. We watched until someone yelled at Katie M. because she had stopped swinging, and Katie M. let me take my turn on the swing.

Ema Katrovas is a citizen of the Czech Republic and the United States and has translated poet Pavel Šrut (Paper Shoes, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2008) and short stories by Bohumil Hrabal (Calque, 2009 and Hayden Ferry Review, 2010). She is the coordinator of the Prague Summer Program for Writers.