Fish don’t understand the concept of small talk.
You’d think they’d be better at it, especially the ones who spend most of their days in bowls or tanks or whatever zoological imprisonment looks best in a teenager’s bedroom. That whole “goldfish have a five second memory span” myth really screwed them over when it came to living arrangements. You’d think they’d be more bitter. Or bored.
You haven’t met Stanley.
Stanley and I have a symbiotic relationship. He keeps me company; I slowly decrease the amount of algae on his walls. Snacking my way through the day doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for intellectual pursuits, so that’s where Stanley comes in. He keeps me from going out of my shell with boredom.
Snails don’t need sleep the way other animals do; we make do with intermittent naps between three or four sun shifts. I spend enough of my time alone in the dark and slowly working my way around Stanley’s walls that I’ve grown to depend on his brand of philosophizing for entertainment. I think he thinks he’s teaching me. Sometimes he quizzes me to see if I’ve remembered his latest set of facts. Sometimes I dutifully rattle them off to get him off my shell. Sometimes I get them wrong on purpose, just to mess with him, to watch the adorable irritated twitch of his fins as he indignantly swim-waddles from the other end of the tank. Sometimes I remind him that the more time I spend talking, the less time he spends reading.
Without me, there are no books. No papers. No school projects and posters carelessly tossed behind the tank for further inspection and study. One time, in protest, I left the entire back wall smudged and just opaque enough to blur all the letters, save for a three-inch section on a report about vegetarianism. Stanley spent the week following me around and saying, “The meat from a single cow can be ground into two THOUSAND hamburger patties!”
I finally asked him how many side orders of sashimi he could personally fill with a butcher knife and a death wish. He huffed over to the piece of coral in the corner and sulked until I felt bad enough to clear off the part about plant-based barbecue alternatives. I inched my way towards him, quietly wishing I had some other gentle way to say “I’m sorry.”
What I wouldn’t give for a fin or a tail or hell, a way to look back into his sweet goobery eyes.
But last night, while Stanley was absorbed in a scrap of posterboard proclaiming something about how sound waves travel through water, a sheaf of papers slid behind the tank. I’d just done that section yesterday, and while I can’t make out the words the way Stanley does, I knew that these were somehow different. The pieces of text were shorter, and oddly bitten-off at the ends.
“Hey,” I said, taking a moment to dislodge my radula from a particularly tasty section of green beard algae. “Come tell me what this one says. The writing’s funny.”
Stanley took a moment to finish musing before muttering something about amplification and swimming up next to me. The text was sideways, which always requires a little aquatic acrobatics, but Stanley managed it well enough, fluttering his fins and tail to keep himself upside down and sideways.
“Don't go far off,” he began with a little strain in his mellifluous baritone,
not even for a day, because --
because -- I don't know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.”
When he finished, Stanley let his body rest itself rightside up again. I stuck fast to my spot on the glass, wishing he would read it again, and again and again. Don’t go far off. I hadn’t ever thought there would be words to describe how I felt about him - but there they were, with nothing but the scuzzy green glass between us. There was a long moment before Stanley turned to me and said in his most teacherly tone, "All right. Did you understand that?"
“Sort of,” I managed. “I’m not sure about the last part - I don’t think trains sleep, do you?” You coward, I scolded myself silently.
“They could. Some trains have faces, remember? The little blue one that sat by the far wall for years had one. Maybe the ones with faces sleep.”
“Maybe.” Just tell him already!
“What about the rest of it?”
“You tell me, Stanley. You’re the scholar.” Please, tell me.
“I’m not sure. Don’t go far off - where would I go?”
I moved a fraction of an inch toward him, but I don’t think he noticed. “I think it means I like being with you.”
“Being with me?” Stanley turned an eye towards me. I shrank into my shell as far as I could without letting go of the wall. “C’mon, Ira. You know something I don’t?”
“It means - it means I like this life with you in it. I think. Maybe.” My voice warbled as the sound bounced off the inside of my shell.
“Oh.” Stanley said. “Maybe - maybe I should read it again. Or a few more times.”
I peeked my head out from under the lip of my shell. “I think that would help. For understanding. You know. I’ll just, uh. I’ll be right over here.”
Stanley huffed a few bubbles and turned himself back upside down. Within hours, I knew he'd have it memorized. He’d fill the tank with that song of togetherness, letting the words keep us tethered across the water for weeks to come, and I would relish every moment.
Poem quote from Pablo Neruda's Don't Go Far Off, Not Even For a Day.
About the Creator
By day, I'm a cog in the nonprofit machine, and poet. By night, I'm a creature of the internet. My soul is a grumpy cat who'd rather be sleeping.
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Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Excellent work and congratulations on your Top Story
What a sweet and imaginative story. I don't know how Stanley and Ira will handle the math homework papers.
This is just so sweet. I love it.
Very imaginative and very touching.
Very cute and sweet, well done!
Enjoyed this one! Was very sweet. Hearted. Congratulations on top story!
What a cute story!! Congrats on the top story
Well Done great story
Congratulations on Top Story!
Big shout out to Ira. Timid but resilient. What a unique and charming way to show love, by cleaning the walls of an aquarium to allow literary delights! 'My voice warbled as the sound bounced off the inside of my shell.' - who doesn't relate to this? Thanks for the reference to Neruda, on my way to read this poem.
Aww, I loved the connection and this little glimpse into their lives. What a lovely story. I enjoyed the read :) Wonderful work!