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The Glass Wall Between Us


Pushcart Nominee


Marlo A. Ackerblade

     While I’m bent over in my downward-facing dog position, the tank lights spring to life. The goldfish swim to the surface, popping their fish lips to remind me that it’s time for breakfast.

     But really—the fish don’t care who sprinkles their flakey meal. For all they care, it could be the cat. Being fish in a glass sanctuary, they no longer remember that a cat is a natural and proficient enemy.

     First to rise, morning feedings are my chore. The fish drifting in the two tanks don’t belong to me. I’m just one-half of a house/pet-sitting duo engaged for their care. The cat has a name, Charlie; the fish—I’ll have to make something up.

     The instructions were clear. One lethal nemesis is overfeeding, and the other is using chemicals while cleaning the goldfish tank or the larger aquarium. Easy enough solution: I put my husband in charge of the technical aspects. I can deal with cat litter, cat paws, cat fur, and pussyfooting, and I don’t need dead bodies on my conscience.

     Being house/pet sitters is our job and our reputation, and lends itself to our self-imposed nomadic, minimalist lifestyle. This, however, is our first gig with fish. Dogs and cats are natural choices, and our resume is rife with testimonials that we are what we claim to be. We even have a tenacious parakeet client listed in our portfolio. Fish were just something to add to our growing list of skills.

     “Honeeey! Come down here.” I yell up the stairs.

     “What?” Honey knows that when I call him with such urgency in my tone, it’s something serious. I hear his tread on the steps coming down four flights.

     “Look at this one.” I point to one of the neon tetras drifting with a slight lean, hiding in the tank’s upper corner.

     “Yikes! Look at that eyeball.”

     Neon tetras are tiny slivers of electric-blue and neon-red streaked fish from tropical South American freshwater sources. They travel in shoals, and even in their captive environment, they’re difficult to count because nature propels them to be constantly moving—it seems. But after a concerted effort, we count nine sleek bodies in the tank among the Ember, Bentos, and Serpae tetras that drift with buoyancy up and down.

     I instantly google the symptoms. Fish tank forums are excellent resources. People are earnest about keeping fish and offer much-needed advice. I can feel my heart thunder; “it’s only a tiny fish,” I tell myself. The homeowners warned us that not all of the fish would survive in our care. They explained the reason behind the mistaken replacement goldfish trio.

     One site instantly gives me the information I’m looking for, and I read aloud.

     “It’s common. The little guy was either in a fight or scraped against something abrasive in the tank.” I don’t have to add that it wasn’t our fault. We both know it wasn’t. “Should clear in a week or so.”

     Honey watches the fish who hides in the upper corner of the tank, also the place where the glass magnifies its affliction tenfold. We hope for the best. We want to avoid the toilet funeral.

     “We’ll keep an eye on it.” Honey laughs at his pun. He says, “See ya, Frank.” An impromptu christening.

     I’ve always been intrigued by wildlife and domestic animals. That ingrained moment when I saw a dolphin in the harbor at La Paz, Mexico, I cried. Or when I had a up-close and very personal encounter with a moose, my dogs at my heel, and dusk settling all around us, that left me forever enamored with the regal beast roaming the Boreal Forest. Or that time while strolling on the beach, at Playa Los Cerrito on the Baja, when something so dreadful brought me to my knees. On that brilliantly sunny day, I heard my heart shatter. When we came across a carcass entangled in nylon cording of what must have been a juvenile humpback decaying on the shore, something in me shifted. The lesson—a breaking heart makes a distinct sound and leaves a permanent scar. That it was our fault the whale died inspired me to write a novel and reduce our plastic consumption. There are alternative ways.

     But the fish in the tank, before I stopped long enough to educate myself, were just for decoration. However, the inquisitive creatures swimming in the oxygenated water left another permanent mark.

     Frank’s well-being became an obsession. His chances for surviving seemed slim; our inspections did little to alleviate his critical affliction. But we learned this from Frank and his buddies—anything is possible. Although Frank separates himself from his shoal as he recuperates, he is a survivor. He also braves swimming in the tank for part of the day among his contemporaries. The jury is still out if he gets teased and called names. I hope fish are above that sort of bullying.

     But Frank also opened me up to other experiences. He taught me to be interested in where he came from and how he got inside the tank. The tetras in this tank are all from South America. Embers, Serpae, and Bentos are each species with their own distinct markings, and now I add the term personality and they are enthralling to watch. That is if you take the time to watch.

     Honey teases me that he’s sick of having to wipe my fingerprints from the glass, and if this were a crime scene, I’d be in big trouble. There’s no way I could explain the tell-tale index fingerprint and the heart-shape I drew on the glass for the fish. The truth is, I have a crush on one of the fish in the tank. This fish is the well-fed spring of awakening within me.

     To anyone walking past the tank without really stopping to think, the star of the show really is the Featherfin Squeaker, or Synodontis Eupterus, catfish, who slinks along the bottom and whose intricate, spotted pattern and fan-shaped fins wave in the man-made aquatic breeze.

     We mistakenly named the larger catfish Grumpy. But we’ve since had a change of heart and renamed her more aptly. If Angel was born in the wild or in a fabricated human-built system that spawns tropical fish is impossible to know. Sadly, the tropical fish industry is mostly undocumented, hard to traffic and monitor, and often, unethical. To discover anything about this multi-million-dollar industry takes some fishing, some digging, which already makes it suspect. National Geographic sent investigative teams worldwide to understand this complex industry of which Angel and Frank are victims. Whether they were bred or captured, they traveled to this home in a baggie, a Styrofoam cooler packed inside a carton, and sold. The stressful journey and the indignation that I know they experienced on their own terms transformed them into gracious survivors.

     I owe all this newly gained knowledge to Frank. And I owe him my gratitude for introducing me to Angel.

     As Angel floats and coasts in the tank, she’s dreaming of a place that she instinctively remembers, yet she doesn’t know its name. It is a river in Africa, murky and sometimes turbulent, where she and her family swam when suddenly, it was over, and she’s now a prisoner despite not understanding what that really means. Her distant past lingers, and she clings to the habits formed by her genetics, pressing herself up against the fake rockery, pretending to be invisible. She doesn’t know that regardless of where she hides, I can see her feathery fins waving in the turbulence created by a pump. Nothing in her environment is real, except her companions. Even they, it can be argued, are artificial, yet alive.

     Before I was introduced to Angel, I admit I was ignorant of many facts regarding fish. Now I understand they are powerful teachers. All my life, I’ve been enchanted by the loving and brave loyalty of dogs, the companionship of demanding and affectionate cats, and other domesticated animals. I’ve lived within the animal kingdoms’ magical wonder, of the birds chirping in the trees and the majesty of exotic animals living in distant lands and only visible to me on the big screen. If there is a flaw in my theory, I project my fragile human emotions onto them.

     Animals intrigue me. I’m the sort of person who cries when I see a dog in distress. Any animal abused or neglected makes me tremble with indignation. I admit there is a painful sensation in my chest as if their pain has a permanent place in my heart.

     But Angel surprises me. She opened me to a new experience. She made me intrigued, smarter and more aware, and more sensitive to the uniqueness of the fish swimming to and fro in a tank, all depending on me for their survival.

     The price tag on her, according to Google, is roughly twenty dollars. Such a small price for a living creature that is inquisitive and brave. I say that because Angel is full of charm and character. While her genetic makeup makes her cling to her ancestral habits, like suspending herself upside down against the rock face in the tank, being somewhat territorial, and eating the crumbs that drift to the bottom of the tank, she is also interested in me. She sees me, maybe not as I’m hoping anyone will see me, but she recognizes me even after taking care of her for only a few weeks.

     If there is one thing that is absolutely mesmerizing about Angel, it’s that deep-seated shade of sapphire in her eyes that has that all-knowing glint. She is teaching me something about her species, information which is not plentiful on the web. And I’m grateful that she takes time from her busy schedule of hiding and swimming to come to me, to kiss the tip of my finger when we touch glass to glass. I know she sees me as I am—humbled.

     As I write this, six weeks have passed, and Frank is going strong. His eyeball is still protruding, but he’s copying and staying alive.

     The cat, on the other hand, well, she has something to say about my divided attention and loyalty. Besides, she’d never harm the fish – she’s much too sophisticated and eats from a dish that her domesticated slaves prepare when she demands something and says, “Meow.”

Monika R. Martyn is retired, married, happy, and a minimalist. She enjoys traveling and several of her short stories are available in print and online. Her debut novel, The Lucky Man—An Act of Malice, is scheduled for publication in the spring of 2021. Visit her at

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