The Whispering Fish

By: Olga de Obaldía
Illustrated by: Henry González  
Selection and Compilation: Carolina Fonseca


“It moved!”

“Impossible. It’s glass; it can’t move.”

“I swear it moved. And it’s not glass, it’s crystal. And it moved. Stare at it and you’ll see that it moves. Sit here with me and look at it.”

Eulalia sat down next to Martina and studied the diminutive purple fish with its reddish fins, single oval eye, and well-shaped mouth. Violet stripes adorn the membranes of its static fins and a translucent bubble anchors it in an infinite ocean contained in a 12-inch concave crystal platter whose surface appears to have been carved of azure, green, and aquamarine bubbles. The only sound in the room was the ticking of the pendulum clock, which never told the correct time.

“It’s the light, Martina!” exclaimed Eulalia, standing up and circling the table as she bent her snowy head to better see the impertinent beams of morning sun traverse the body of the fish.

“Look, look, the light makes all the bright colors of the ornament shift, as if they were pouring out of the dish. That’s it. You see? It’s not the fish moving, it’s the light shifting, my child.”

Frowning and poking the tip of her tongue out of one side of her mouth, Martina carefully tracked the infinitesimal particles of dust to the window and back to the center of the table where her gamboling fish lay. She suspected a trick. Was it really the light? But she had seen the fish circumnavigate its ocean: last night she had left the fish facing the kitchen and now it faced the back door. She had heard it breathe bubbles as she slept. She devised a plan.

“How about if we close the curtain to shut out the light? You’ll see that it moves.”

“No, my child, the curtain broke months ago and your father says there is no way to fix it. Come, stop this, let’s walk to school; you’re going to be late again. Your father fell asleep in the kitchen again; we’ll be quiet and not wake him.”

As they left the house, Martina glimpsed her father slumped over the kitchen table with an empty bottle in his hand.

“Eula, do you think about my mom?”

“Every day, child. She’s always here in my heart, just like she’s in yours. She was my first child, before you.”

“She used to say that the ocean platter was not glass, but burrano crystal. Why would a burro make crystal?”

“Ha, ha, ha! Such an imagination! Your mom said it was Murano crystal, not burrano, but I don’t know what that is or where it’s from. She really loved that piece and that clock in the living room, which has never told the correct time. They were the only things that reminded her of your grandfather; I don’t know why she loved them so much when her father threw her out for falling in love with your dad. Yikes! Let’s get to school, girl.”

That night, after Eulalia had fed her supper and put her to bed by the light of a kerosene lamp —the electricity had been cut off two months ago— Martina got up when the fish whispered to her in her dreams. She tiptoed into the living room with the lamp in her hand. She knew she was disobeying Eulalia.

Straining as hard as she could, she lifted the heavy crystal platter. She wanted to put it under the table where the sun would not hit it and then see if the fish had moved by the next day. She had almost managed, when the front door opened and her father thundered: “What are you doing, little one?” The heavy piece slipped out of Martina’s grasp. She ran toward the back, toward Eula’s room, stepping on shards of glass turned opaque in the absence of the magic of light. She heard her father fumbling and mumbling as he tripped over the kerosene lamp, breaking it. Tangled up with the lamp, he fell to the floor, soaking himself in kerosene.

She reached the comforting presence of Eulalia, who gathered the little girl in her arms and ran to the patio and around the house to a neighbor’s door. They knew this door was always open to them; it had offered them refuge several times over the last year. Safe in Eulalia’s lap, the little girl did not feel her cut feet, which dripped, pooling red as the neighbors began to emerge from their houses, shouting “Fire! Martín Pérez’ house is on fire!”

“Thank God, Eulalia!” her shaken neighbor burst out. “You’ve saved the girl, the only good thing Pérez ever accomplished.”

“She saved me!” exclaimed Eulalia, eyes shut and squeezing the child with all the force of her love.

“My fish saved us!” the girl whispered into Eulalia’s ear. “He told me, ‘Run, Martina’ in my sleep.”

Martina stroked Eulalia’s white braid with one hand, and with the other, she caressed the purple crystal fish that had jumped into the pocket of her nightgown. Her eyes reflected the glow of the flames as the harrowing cries of a man on fire drowned out the tick tock of grandfather’s never-on-time pendulum clock.