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“Fish of the Desert”

Story by Liam Slade / Posted May 30, 2020 (originally titled “The Fish in the Desert”)

When I was a kid, my grandmother lived with us. As far as I knew, she had always been on her own, but I never knew why. I knew I had a Nanna and Papa on my Dad’s side, but I only saw them once a year because they lived in Florida. So one day when I was very young I asked her where my other Grampa was.

“That’s a hard story to tell,” she only said.

Gram was a fun lady. She was smart, she liked to make jokes and tell me things about the world. When she was younger she was a teacher, and told me it was because she loved kids, even though she only had my mom for her own. She was very open and had never refused to answer a question from me before, so I was confused not to get a straight answer this time. When you’re five or six years old, you don’t really know what’s appropriate to talk about, and you don’t take hints well, so I kept asking. When I did, my mom would take me by the wrist and gently remind me not to do so. “That isn’t something Gram likes to talk about,” she would tell me in her serious voice. “We’ll tell you when you’re older.”

It was what my Mom always said when she wanted to put me off something. “You can have more cookies when you’re older. You can stay up later when you’re older. We’ll tell you this and that when you’re older.” I hated being told that, but I never had any response but to pout about it.

A year later at school, I heard from one of my friends that his grandfather had just died. He had something called cancer and died “in his sleep.” I was used to hearing about death in Disney movies, where it usually happened when someone fell off a cliff or got shot or trampled by wildebeests. This idea was scary – you could just die in your sleep? I went to sleep every night!

One night my Mom and Gram were getting ready to put me to bed and I protested – I had to stay awake because I didn’t want to die. Mom’s face was concerned and confused, and Gram, true to her usual self, was just amused. Mom asked where this was coming from and I explained about my friend’s Grandpa, eventually getting around to the word “cancer.”

Mom smiled warmly. “Well, don’t worry. Cancer is the reason your friend’s Grandpa died, and we’d know if you had it because we take you to the Doctor. We’ll always take care of you.”

That made me feel a little bit better, but now my curiosity was returning. So the next day at breakfast, I decided I was old enough to ask again – was my Grampa dead?

Mom shot me that look telling me to clam up again, but Gram just nodded. “Yes hun,” she said with a sigh, sipping her morning tea. “He died a long time ago, when your mom was just a little baby.”

Now I was old enough to read other peoples’ emotions better. I could see sadness in her eyes, and something else in my mom’s. I asked what I thought was a natural question to my mom. “Do you miss him?”

“Honey, I never knew him,” she said frankly, “I did miss having him. When I was around your age I couldn’t ignore that I didn’t have what other kids have. But I had something very special.” She touched her mom’s hand. “A mother who loved me enough for two.”

They smiled at each other, and then my mom’s tone changed. “Of course, she drives me nuts when she leaves the TV on all night or won’t take her pills on time, but I love her just the same.”

Gram smiled impishly. That was her way.

I continued my interview. “Was it cancer?”

She nodded. “It was.”

That was all I needed to know. Now I had answers.

The next year, I came home from school and found gram sitting in her favourite cozy chair in the corner of out living room, knitting. I was excited to tell her about something I learned in school that day.

“We were talking about that movie Finding Nemo, and how he’s a clown fish in it. Do you know about clown fish Gram?”

“Hm,” she said studiously, “Do they wear big floppy shoes on their fins?”

“No,” I laughed.

“Then no, I can’t say I do.”

“Well,” I said, “Clown fish can be both boys and girls. Every family has a male and female and if the female dies, the male becomes female and makes new babies. The movie is about a dad, but my teacher says it should actually be about a mom.”

“That’s interesting,” Gram said, nodding encouragingly. “I knew that could happen to people, but I had no idea about fish.”

Gram went back to her knitting, but I just stared at her. As I said, she loved to make jokes and tell stories – and sometimes she playfully lied to me if she thought it was amusing, so that’s what I thought was happening.

“What do you mean it can happen to people?” I felt a little nervous.  I had never heard anything like that.

“I just mean I know that in the whole history of the world, there’s at least one case where it happened to a person. Just like that, almost.”

I didn’t believe it, but I was worried about what would happen if it were true. I didn’t want to ever be a girl – I was just learning about how different that was from being a boy, and I didn’t like the sound of it at all!

Gram could sense that I was unnerved, so she put her knitting down and leaned in toward me.

“Let me tell you something, but it’s just between you and me. Can you keep a secret? Not even your mom knows this story, and I don’t want her to.”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure if I could keep a secret, but I really wanted to know.

“I’m going to tell you about your Grampa.”

Now, I was really interested.

A long, long time ago, she said, there was a war called World War II. A lot of men from all around the country went away to fight in it. Grampa was a soldier, a handsome young man. The two of them had met at a party not long before he was supposed to go away. He saw her from across the room, dressed in a beautiful gown, with the warmest smile, “And it made his heart stop. Just for a second.” They danced all night and shared a kiss, and before he left for the war, he gave her a picture to keep with her. They wrote letters, and fell more and more deeply in love.

When he came back, they were married, and excited to start a new life together. But the war had made a big difference to Grampa. He wanted to be alone. Not alone by himself, but alone with Gram. “It was because of all the noise and explosions and… violence. Violence. Pain. Fear.” He thought he would feel better if they moved far away from everyone, and Gram, who only wanted to be with Grampa, went along.

So they bought some land out in the desert, in Nevada, where they could afford it because it wasn’t very useful to anybody else. It was a ranch. They built a small little house and planted a garden and went to a town nearby to do their shopping, and he worked as a handyman. It wasn’t perfect though – every so often they would hear thunderous roaring in the distance that reminded Grampa of the bombs from the war.

“We didn’t have a word for it back then but they gave him what are called Panic Attacks. And Post-Traumatic Stress. He had seen things and lived through things he couldn’t even explain to his wife. He tried to hide it and not show his feelings, partly because he didn’t understand them. He was supposed to be brave and strong, and in that moment he wasn’t. He felt weak, and vulnerable, and he didn’t like it. And he couldn’t bury it – his wife knew there was something wrong with the man she married. She sensed it, because women understand these things on some level. But he didn’t. He didn’t understand why he was feeling scared when he was not really in danger. He didn’t understand why he was sad when he was supposed to be happy. Worst of all, sometimes it came out as angry – seething, fiery anger for reasons he couldn’t really explain. She was very forgiving, but hurt all the same.”

Before long, things started to change. When she was pregnant with my mom, Gram started to look sick. She stopped gaining weight, her eyes looked tired all the time. Some days it was a struggle to breathe. She was wasting away. Grampa felt it too. The strength he had as a soldier was fading. He couldn’t hardly work, and was not much support to his wife.

My eyes went wide. I couldn’t imagine my Gram going through this.

What had happened, she explained, was that they had built their house too close to a testing site where they were setting off atomic bombs. That was what those booming noises were. But they didn’t know that at the time. She only found out later. But the desert winds blew radiation from the testing site further than the military thought, onto their ranch, and it affected both of them, giving them cancer.

It was very hard giving birth, even without being so sick. There was no doctor around, so when the time came, Grampa had to roll up his sleeves and deliver the child himself. She pushed and pushed and pushed (“Pushed what?” I asked, but she said I’d know when I was older) and finally he was holding in his arms a pink little 8 lb baby girl. My mother.

“The look on his face when he first saw her…” she remembered, her eyes relaxing into a reflective smile.

But the joy was short-lived. He tried calling for help, but there was nobody nearby. Giving birth had taken everything out of his wife. Her heart stopped, and she died.

I bit my lip. Who died?

“So there he was, a man alone with his new baby girl. No mother to feed her, only a little bit of milk. And he was sick himself. And he was lonely. And part of him, inside, wanted to just lay down and let the sickness take him, to die and be with his wife. Life had already been so long and so hard.

“But then he looked into his newborn baby daughter’s eyes and he felt it – that same heartstopping feeling he got when he first saw his wife. He had been left with part of her, and he needed to protect it at all costs. He knew he had to do something, if he didn’t, he was going to die, and so was the baby. He would do anything to keep that from happening. It had to happen soon though – the baby was crying every night, and the milk was getting low.”

The cancer at affected him differently from his wife, Gram explained. He wasted away, but not completely. He ached inside. His skin was starting to peel away in dry flakes. So he let it. He brushed every scrap of that outer layer of rough, war-tested skin away until it was soft, and supple, and smooth as a woman’s. He coughed and hacked and threw up until he thought he was completely empty inside. His features changed – his eyes, his nose. His muscles and tissue softened. Even his bones shifted slightly. He could feel changes inside himself. He felt softer, and… better. With the warm glow of life inside of him. He was healing, even becoming better than before.

“When that happened, he put the baby to his chest, and fed her milk from his own breast. He was to be her mother now. The mother she needed.”

I stared in awe at my Gram. This whole story was impossible to believe, but the way she said it was so serious, so heavy with honesty, that I had to. She wiped a slight tear from her eye in remembrance.

Strangely, she said, he felt rejuvenated, healthy again. All the pain and suffering he had felt melted away, replaced with hope and determination. He was more alive than ever, and ready to start anew. And when the time was right, he knew he had to leave that house. It had taken his baby’s first mother, and he needed to be somewhere safe. So they laid his wife to rest in a small grave behind the house, and gathered up all of their belongings and left. By now, he had changed so much he didn’t look anything like his old self. He had a thin waist, and bosoms to nurse with. His hands became delicate and thin, his hips wide. He even learned, in time, that he had been given all the parts to make a new baby, if he had wanted to – the part he used to have “dropped right off like an apple from a tree.” (I was only very young but even I cringed at that.)

He – she –moved back to a town with lots more people, in a normal, quiet neighborhood. She grew her hair long and learned to make herself beautiful – “well, pretty” Gram said with a chuckle – wearing makeup and dresses and nylons so that she didn’t look any different from any woman you would pass on the street. She took a new name and pretended she had never been anybody else. She was a stranger to the world of women, but was accepted, because she shared a unique pain and also a unique love that only women know.

But life was not easy. It was hard for a woman to provide for herself alone at the time. She met a man who wanted a wife, and she agreed to marry him. She found herself falling into the role of wife easily – she cared for the child with all her heart of course, and used that as motivation to learn to cook and clean and sew and be as good a mate as she could to her new husband, who worked hard at his job and rarely said anything when he came home at night. He only expected her to be quiet and agree with everything he said – a role this woman was not accustomed to, but learned for the sake of her little family.

But while this man served ably as a husband and a provider, he seemed to regard his new daughter as a nuisance, a placeholder until he could have children of his own, which he demanded to have before too long. But that was something she would not do for him. She could not put herself through the agony of childbirth after what she had seen. She could not forget the woman she had lost, the love she would never regain. This man was no replacement for that. And in time, he became cruel and angry, lashing out at her, and at her daughter – threatening to take the little girl away and leave the mother destitute if he didn’t have his way.

“He was trying to force me to have a baby whether I wanted one or not,” Gram said solemnly, in the same tone as she had explained the war and the trauma. Again, I was too young to know what they truly meant.

So one night, she picked her little daughter up in bed asleep, and ran, with just the clothes on their backs and the meagre amount of money in her purse. It was safer to have nothing than to live with this man, she decided. Gram got a job as a teacher, and they lived alone for years and years, and even when mom had grown up and gotten married and had me, she was always there for her.

Gram finished her story by reminding me that I was to never speak a word of it. I must have done a good job because it never came up again and I even forgot the whole story for years – I must have filed it away in my brain with all the other fables she told, and my imaginary friends.

Not long ago, she died. When cleaning out her room, we found a dozen or so photo albums and scrapbooks, of my young life, and my mom’s, all the way back to when Gram was starting as a teacher, but not much before.

But there were a few pictures even older than that that my mom could never explain. One was a young couple standing in front of a little frontier house in the desert – people she didn’t recognize, but she thought were a little familiar. “They must be distant relatives,” she said, “They kind of look like me. And that man sort of looks like Gram.” And the other was a wallet-sized photo of the woman in that picture, looking young and pretty and a lot like my mom – beautiful enough to stop a man’s heart, I imagine.

Copyright 2020 Liam Slade, All Rights Reserved

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