THE AFTERLIFE OF FISH
Whenever we caught fish when we were boys,
we traced them on paper, and our mother
painted them in watercolors, cut them out,
and tacked them to the pine board wall
of the cabin’s dining room, above labels
on which she wrote our names, the date,
the type of fish, their length and weight.
She couldn’t make the trip this summer
for the first time since she was a girl,
but these fish she painted still cover the wall:
brook trout, lake trout, rainbow trout, and bass
swimming through ripples of wood grain
in both directions, like two mixed-up schools
slipping through each other. The earliest two,
in the middle, were caught by our older brother
in 1967, a fourteen-inch brook trout
and a fifteen-and-a-half-inch rainbow
that have both lost almost all their color,
as the real fish did, swaddled in wet ferns,
and the way, despite our efforts to hold them,
memories of our brother have slowly faded
in the twenty years since he killed himself.
The surrounding fish have held on to their pigment
to varying degrees, and they seem to be
of many different species. Their expressions
vary too—worried, bewildered, surprised, bemused—
but most of them are smiling, as though pleased
to have been caught. Our mother made them happy
because that’s how she wanted us to be
(she used to tell us that when we were sad)
and, looking at these fish, I think we were.
It wasn’t an “O” of exaltation, as though
from an ode, but an “Oh!” of surprise
and disgust I uttered when I found you
at the bottom of the otherwise empty trash can,
hunched in a puddle of your own urine,
its acrid stench knocking me backwards.
And yet I’d spoken the first syllable
of your name—the vowel we omitted
where I grew up in southern Ohio,
calling you only “possum”—and so
had already begun, without thinking,
to address you as a fellow creature.
I leaned tentatively forward
to look down at you looking up at me,
your black, too-close-together eyes
timidly blinking out of synch, first one
then the other, your pink nose
tender at the end of your sharp, white face,
and your long, tapered prehensile tail
bending uselessly along the trash can’s wall
with nothing to grab onto. Oh, possum!
How had you gotten yourself into this
predicament, and how was I
going to get us both out of it,
since we were now in it together?
You must have been frightened
when I fit the lid into place, enclosing you
in darkness, then balanced the can
on the passenger seat of my Subaru
and strapped the shoulder belt around it.
During our ride together I held you steady,
then stopped the car along a rocky lane.
Walking around to your side, I opened the door
as if out of courtesy, then carried the trash can
to the edge of the road and—forgive me—
lofted you out of it into the woods.
You landed on oak leaves with a crackly thud,
and flipped upright to face me, standing firm
in your otherness, and staring me down
with those black eyes. You didn’t blink at all.
I was the one who turned away
and slunk back to my car, O possum.