JOY SYLVESTER-JOHNSON: Just Another Fish Tale

Joy Sylvester Johnson

My five year old granddaughter, Annalee, has a new pet—a fish.

Fish, as the sitcom sage Archie Bunker once reminded us, are the perfect pets because “you don’t have to walk them, they don’t eat very much and long before you get tired of them—they die.”

My grandfather had a goldfish.  About once a week he would fill the bathtub with water and place the fish, normally kept in a small glass bowl, into the tub. “Look at him go,” he would say. “Feels good doesn’t it fella?”

After an hour, tub time would end, and the fish would be placed back in his bowl. I don’t know if the fish enjoyed his weekly trip into a larger universe, but I think my grandpa thought we all needed a little more freedom than we had—even the fish.

When I was a little older than Annalee, I too had a pet fish. I am convinced that most goldfish die not because their children don’t care, but because they care too much—over feeding them.

I don’t know what made “Elvis” lie dormant on his side in the bottom of the bowl that day. Rather than flushing him (as suggested by Ralph Dillon who lived next door) my brother Wayne and I decided to give him a decent funeral.

I had gotten a Cinderella watch for my birthday which had quickly been destroyed when I decided to see if it was waterproof (it wasn’t), but I had kept the blue velvet lined box in which it came for just such an occasion as this.

It made the perfect coffin for Elvis.

We all processed to the backyard where my brother had dug out a place in the dirt under the shade tree. Speeches were made and I’m not sure, but we may have sung a hymn as well.  To this day I don’t know what made us do it, but we decided to open the casket one last time before we put it in the dirt.

When we did, Elvis rolled over.

“He’s alive!” I shrieked. My brother grabbed the watch box coffin and ran with it to the one person who might know what to do.

Our mother was busy in the kitchen, but she stopped what she was doing to instruct Wayne, to quickly put the limp fish back into water handing him a tea cup from the drainer on the kitchen counter.  We expected a revival, but Elvis’s lifeless body slowly sunk to the bottom.

We all looked to my mother, who we thought knew everything. She said we might try sprinkling a little salt into the water.  I got the shaker and added the salt, but the fish remained dormant. It was then that my brother, two years my junior, decided we should pray for the fish.

And so we did.

The fish moved its tail ever so slightly.  And within a minute or two he began swimming madly around inside the tea cup where we had prepared the salt bath.

Was it the salt?  Was it the prayer?  Was the fish really dead or just sleeping?  I don’t know the answers to these questions (and I have had more than six decades to think about it.) But this I do know: not every mystery is meant to be solved. It was, we all agreed—a miracle.

Another thing I know is that “life”—even the life of a goldfish named Elvis, is worthy of celebration. On that day, in the kitchen of our little Southeast row house on Tayloe Avenue there was great rejoicing indeed.

Joy Sylvester-Johnson