The man bought three goldfish and a small fish tank at the wet market during his weekly grocery run. He happened to walk past the stall that sold ornamental fish, and stopped to take a look at one of the brightly glowing tanks. The man lived alone in a rented flat, and he thought keeping some fish was better than having a dog or a cat. It was easier since they didn’t take up too much space or trouble; you only need to feed them twice a day, with those tiny brown pellets. He bought a few bottles of the pellets, and also invested in an air pump and a bag of hydrilla.
The man set up the fish tank on the kitchen table and poured the three goldfish into it. Bug eyes and glistening orange scales and swishing fan tails. They swam from the top of the tank to the bottom, then left to right, exploring their new surroundings. They opened and closed their mouths in unison, as if in a silent chorus. The man watched them swim for a while, and sprinkled some pellets on the surface of the water. The goldfish swam up and gobbled up the food mindlessly, making tinny smacking sounds.
The man’s sister came for dinner that day, along with her eight-year-old kid, a boy with quiet, sullen ways. They always had Sunday dinner twice a month, an arrangement that came about after the last of their parents—their mother—died five years ago, of breast cancer. His sister had her own place, in the same neighborhood, but the man seldom went over for meals. He knew his sister didn’t like anyone looking at the mess in her flat, and judging her for who she was not, the disorder and squalor a sign of her lack of housekeeping ability, or so he assumed. He never said anything when he went over to babysit his nephew on days she had to work overtime. She worked as an accounts assistant in a small accounting firm, a job she had had since her divorce four years ago. His brother-in-law was someone the man barely knew, and he doubted whether he would recognise him if he passed him on the street now. There were no photographs in his sister’s flat to remind him of his existence. Sometimes the man would stare at his nephew’s face and wonder briefly whether any of his brother-in-law’s features were evident in the boy’s. Naturally he didn’t bring up any of this to his sister, who had a quick temper and a moody temperament, reckless with her words when provoked. His nephew, so far, had not exhibited such traits yet, and the man was constantly worried for him.
The boy walked into the kitchen and immediately saw the fish tank. The man picked up the bottle of pellets and told the boy to feed the goldfish, but not too much. The boy shook out the pellets and stuck his face right up to the glass pane of the tank, peering between the trembling stalks of the hydrilla where two of the goldfish were hiding. He tapped on the glass pane once, twice, and then looked up at the man. They are still very shy, the man said and put half a finger into the water, stirring it for a moment. Only the brave one came up to the surface to nibble at the pellets, while the other two remained suspended in the water, glaring stonily back at the boy. The boy asked for their names, and the man was stumped, unable to come up with any. Do you want to name them? the man asked. Yes, the boy replied, not taking his eyes off the goldfish. The man waited for him to say something about the names, but the boy said nothing more. His sister, standing at the stove, scooping up bowls of spare pork rib soup the man had prepared, told the boy to wash his hands, that dinner was ready.
They left shortly after dinner. The man sat at the dining table, gazing at the goldfish in the tank. He wondered why his sister had not brought up the topic of the fish tank during their dinner conversation, which mostly revolved around a new boss at work whom his sister was having a hard time dealing with, and also a little about the boy’s early days in school—he had just started Primary Three two weeks ago. He’s having some trouble adapting, his sister said openly, not bothering to lower her voice. They both turned at the same time to look at the boy, who didn’t seem to be paying any attention to them, his focus fixated entirely on the fish tank. His sister had long suspected that the boy was autistic, ‘slightly slower than the rest’, though she had never brought him to a specialist to confirm this. What can you do even if you know, she had told the man once, you still have to face the truth, to deal with it. What truth? the man had wanted to ask then, but his sister had already brushed his concern aside, not willing to hear another word. To the man, his nephew still looked and behaved the same as he had when he was four or six years old. The only difference—what the man could see and feel safe to acknowledge—was the boy’s growing reticence, becoming more reserved and quieter as he grew older.
The man tried to recall his own childhood, to reimagine himself as an eight-year-old. The visions were unclear, loose, disjointed. He remembered old photographs, fragmented memories. He couldn’t imagine being a boy that young—how was it possible? To be that small and vulnerable, to depend on others for everything, to have a child’s mind, to harbor childish thoughts? And what thoughts did he have then, what had he imagined? A world of curiosities and unknowns, of secret treasures and bounties, perhaps, each a part waiting to be held, to be pried open, to behold. Had he been that kind of boy, the kind to seek out the answers, to ask the right questions? The man let out a chuckle, and whispered into the air: No, I’m not, I’m definitely not.
And to leap from that age, through the years, and land where he was now, a man of forty-two? Where did time go? Again, the man mock-whispered to himself: It went where it should go. And his thought went straight to the image of time as a constant swirl of dirty water escaping through a plughole, gurgling hollowly as it went down, leaving behind bits of hair and skin and snot. Yes, snot, the man said aloud, chuckling, all your clumps of snot, clogging up everything, no wonder you can’t remember anything.
The man reached out to tap the glass pane once and, remembering what his nephew had done earlier, leant his face into it, pressing his nose and forehead against the coolness of the pane. His vision narrowed, restricting itself to only what was right in front of his sight, the bulbous shape of a goldfish staring at him, its mouth forming a perfect O. He peered into the eyes of the goldfish and noted its bright, indifferent glare, unblinking. Deliberately, the man widened his eyes, challenging the fish to a stare-off. You blink, you lose, the man thought. He held his eyes open as long as he could, and in the midst of his effort, the man found himself sinking into the darkness of the fish’s corneas, sucked into their depth. How far would he go? The man didn’t want to blink now, didn’t want to lose the connection to what he was seeing, though he couldn’t fathom what it was that had held him fascinated, entranced. In the end, it was the goldfish that made the first move, to break the spell, to swim away. The man peeled his face from the glass pane, and wiped off the oily smear from its surface.
On nights he couldn’t sleep, he would look at the goldfish in the tank and feel a sense of calm fluttering through him. The goldfish gliding through the water, in and out of the openings of the stone cathedral, like acolytes moving through a quiet, stately procession, and him presiding over them like an omnipresent being. Like a god, he leant in to whisper into the tank, and in his mind, he imagined a spirit hovering over the waters, like a mass of dark clouds, magisterial, menacing.
Whenever the man went over to babysit his nephew, the latter would ask him about the goldfish, whether they were still alive. Of course, they are, the man would say, why would they be dead? The boy would smile and then present something to the man to give it to the goldfish—a small Iguanodon dinosaur toy, a pocket-size Pikachu, a fifty-cent coin. Why these things, the man once asked, amused. I think they would like them, the boy replied. The man would take these little gifts back home and, after a thorough wash, put them into the tank, carefully arranging them to fit into the overall layout. When his nephew came over for dinner, he would rush into the kitchen and look at the goldfish, excited to see his little gifts in the tank, pointing them out one by one to the man.
Can you help me pick up the boy from school this Saturday if you’re free? the man’s sister asked over dinner one Sunday. His CCA ends at eleven, and I can’t make it on time, my stupid boss is making all of us come back for month-end closing. The man gave his nephew a quick glance, but the boy’s face registered a blank. What CCA? the man asked. Scouts, I signed him up for it, his sister replied, lowering her bowl of rice. That boy needs to make more friends, can’t stay like this all the time, always doing nothing. The man tried to sense any response from his nephew, but he remained quiet, stirring the bowl of rice and minced pork meat with his spoon. Sure, the man said, I can pick him up, no problem.
That night, after they left, the man had looked into the fish tank and noticed a small new toy hidden between the billowing strands of hydrilla: a Matchbox fire truck, its red-and-silver paintwork faded, worn out. It was part of a boxset of heavy-industrial vehicles the man had given his nephew for his fifth birthday. Somehow the boy had kept the fire truck over the years, and now here it was, in the tank, amongst the goldfish.
The man sometimes wondered whether his nephew had outgrown the toys he had been given. Since he entered primary school, the man had rarely seen the boy playing with his toys, though the latter’s bedroom was still filled with shelves and large plastic crates of toys from his childhood, numerous presents and gifts from his parents and also from the man—he’s still a child, isn’t he? How does one come out of childhood? Through small, incremental stages as the years mount, or through the force of experiences breaking a skin, molting into another? The man had been there, more or less, throughout his nephew’s childhood, and yet he sensed he might have missed out on the important, unseen, changes that had and were still shaping the boy’s life—was there already an inner life bustling inside the boy? When had it come about?—and whatever he was seeing now was something the boy had chosen to reveal, or perhaps failed to conceal, his whole other self submerged like a continent of iceberg, foreign and subterranean, only the tip exposed. Again, the man cast his mind into the past, trying to eke out whatever memory he had to tell himself about his own childhood, about the boy he was then, but nothing significant surfaced. Perhaps we are all strangers to our younger selves, the man thought, and who could say we haven’t already lived many selves, many pasts. The man put his finger into the water, and started to stir, making concentric waves that rippled out to the perimeter of the tank. The goldfish continued to swim, silent and watchful, their bodies glimmering with spots of celestial light.
The man arrived at the school earlier than expected. He indicated the purpose of his visit at the security post just inside the school gates, and walked down the long, covered pathway into the open-air foyer of the admin block. He sat on the wooden bench outside the general office, and waited. After a short while, the man stood up to stretch himself, then wandered off to explore the environs of the school. At the back of a block of classrooms, he discovered an enclosed garden with a small pond, which was teeming with little darts of guppies, their tiny mouths making rapid blinks on the surface of the water. Deeper down, the man saw the vague shadows of bigger fish gliding by, though he could not identify the type. He held a hand over the water, darkening the surface, and the guppies quickly assembled under the shade, frothing themselves up into a frenzy. The man pinched a bit of sand from the ground and rubbed it slowly off his fingers, flecking the water with a dusting of fine powder. The guppies lapped it up, excitedly, blindly. The man smiled, despite himself, and pinched another nub of sand.
A distant memory floated into the man’s mind, and he remembered the aquarium in his classroom when he was in Primary Five. Someone, a parent of a classmate, had donated a large fish tank to the class, and equipped it with the full setup—accessories, aquatic plants, and an assortment of fish. Swordtails, tetras, mollies, minnows, and different types of goldfish, orange, red and black. It was the most amazing thing he had ever seen at the time, this huge dazzling aquarium packed with bright and shiny things, throwing flashes of colors everywhere you looked. He couldn’t help throwing glances at it during classes throughout the day, distracted by the movements of the fish. The form teacher started a roster of feeding and cleaning the aquarium, and everyone was assigned a task. At first, all his classmates were diligent about their responsibilities, but soon the novelty wore off, and in no time at all, the caretaking duties of the aquarium fell to just a few volunteers, who cleaned the tank grudgingly every week and fed the fish if and when they remembered. With neglect came indifference, and some boys in the class began to carry out pranks on the fish. One dropped a blue-ink pen into the water, hoping to color it a different shade, another gave part of his breakfast, kaya and peanut butter bread, to the fish, and a few dared one another to catch the fish with their bare hands. When they were successful in catching hold of one, they would lay it on a table and time how long it would take for its belly to stop moving. Once they detected the stillness, someone with his eyes on a wristwatch would shout out the timing—“Four minutes, seventeen seconds!”—and another boy would pick up the fish by its tail and fling it back into the aquarium. The fish very rarely survived these trials. The man, a timid boy by nature, did not participate in these pranks, nor did he speak up against them. He simply watched and kept silent; there was no way he could have stopped his classmates from such cruelties. And though he did not participate, he still felt a tremendous sense of guilt over the death of these fish.
The population of the fish gradually began to dwindle, and a stubborn layer of grime clung to the inside panes of the aquarium, on the exposed surfaces of the rocks and water pump. The man kept to his assigned task, which had become a daily chore after most of his classmates had given up or lost interest, but it was getting harder to keep everything in check, in clean, neat order. The aquarium soon became too big for him and two other boys to maintain; it didn’t help matters that the fish were dying swiftly, one after another. What had once been a thriving aquatic paradise had become a pitiable purgatory where the remaining fish waited to die. The man would stare at the lonesome swordtail, after cleaning out the water pump, and imagine its lifeless bloated body floating on the water in a few days’ time, how he would have to scoop it out with a net, put it on a piece of foolscap paper and flush it down the toilet bowl. There seemed to be no way he could stem these deaths, no matter how much he cleaned or fed the fish.
And one day, when he came across his classmates carrying out their usual prank of timing a goldfish’s dying breaths, the man finally made up his mind, to execute the plan he had been considering for a while. After the lessons ended for the day, the man waited, slowly arranging the textbooks in his school bag, until all his classmates had left the classroom, and walked up to the aquarium. Not wanting to give the fish a parting glance, lest he lose his courage, the man flicked the lid off the bottle of fish flakes and emptied the full contents into the water. Then he rushed to the blackboard in front of the classroom and returned with the box of white chalks. He snapped a piece of chalk into several fragments and threw them into the tank. Then quickly, now that his plan was in motion and there was no way back, the man dumped all the chalks in and ran out of the room, breathless with fear and delirium, his heart a trapped, raging critter, slamming against his tight chest.
The next morning, even before he stepped into the classroom, he could hear the loud commotion spilling out of it. His classmates standing in front of the aquarium, pointing and gesticulating and speculating, eyes wild with rabid excitement and horror. The man peeked between the columns of bodies standing in front of the tank and saw a sliver of milky water with a thick layer of floating debris on its surface. Looking closer, he saw the dead inflated bodies of the remaining fish; none of them had survived. Some of the boys in class had begun scooping up the dead fish with the nets and dumping them into a small blue pail. The man went to his seat and didn’t say a word to anyone. For the rest of the day, the man didn’t turn to look at the aquarium, nor did he do anything to arouse suspicion—though everyone was playing the ‘you’re the murderer’ game throughout the day, accusing one another of killing the fish, each trying to shift the blame onto another. When he came early into class the next day, he saw that the aquarium was dry and empty, the water pump and fake plants pushed to one side of the tank, and there was a deep sense of desolation about their odd arrangement that made the man hold his breath for a long moment, unable to let it out.
What are you doing?
The man looked up at where the voice was coming from, and saw his nephew standing at the fence enclosing the small garden, just behind him. He stood up and brushed his hand on the front of his Bermuda shorts.
Nothing, he said, I was just looking at the fish.
Are any of them dead?
The man smiled at the boy, and said, No, they’re all alive.
I saw you, his nephew said.
When you were waiting outside the admin office.
How come I didn’t see you?
His nephew stared at him and shrugged his shoulders. He was wearing a dark blue PE T-shirt and knee-length shorts.
How come you’re not wearing your Scouts uniform? I thought everyone wears one, the man asked.
I just joined and they don’t have my size. They said to wear this first.
The man left the garden to join the boy, and they began to walk toward the admin block.
So can you go now? the man said.
Are you hungry?
They headed to a wet market cum food centre near the school, and the man ordered a plate of steamed white chicken to share between them. As they ate, they chatted over light topics—the online games the boy’s classmates were into now, the recent visit to the Science Center—and the man found himself wandering off in his head while the boy was talking, his thoughts straying into the now-familiar rut of past conversations he had had with his sister, about the erratic behaviors of the boy at home and in school, how badly he was doing, not paying attention during classes, always playing by himself. But, the man thought, looking at his nephew talking animatedly about a mobile robot exhibit he had seen at the Science Center—“It can talk to you, really, and imitate your movements, but only if you move very slowly.”—the boy seemed to be altogether himself, nothing amiss, and sure, he had his moods, like any of us, and what’s wrong with being open, visible, with his own feelings? Is a child always accountable for his mood swings, for keeping his emotions in check? But then again, what was he not seeing, the man wondered, in this display of his nephew’s sometimes gregarious, affable side, one that percolated through the quiet surface of his nature from time to time? The man nodded with a mix of solemnity and candidness as he listened to his nephew, always making sure to ask follow-up questions to encourage him to talk more. Before they left the food center, the boy asked for a takeaway cup of sugarcane juice, which the man bought.
Back home—the man’s sister’s flat; she had given him a set of house keys, for emergencies—the boy dropped his school bag onto the floor and switched on the TV, which was showing a kids’ quiz program. The man sat and watched with his nephew for a while, lying back on the sofa, and slowly slipped into a slumber. When he woke up, some time later—what time was it? How long had he slept?—he looked around the living room, suddenly panicked. The boy was gone. He searched the entire flat—a terrible mess, really, how could anyone live in such a mess, shouldn’t his sister do something about it, throw some things away perhaps? the man wondered—but the boy had disappeared. The man picked up the keys and left the flat. At the void deck of the block of flats, the man was at a loss, uncertain where to go, every direction a plausible trail. Then, a flicker of movement at the corner of his vision, and he saw a figure at the playground beside the block, someone playing in the sand. A boy, his nephew. As he rushed up to him, the man reminded himself not to overreact, that the boy was safe, that he was okay.
But the moment he stood by the boy’s side, the man could feel his own composure disintegrating, like a cube of ice losing its shape, and before he could stop himself, he barked out, Don’t ever do this again, you hear? Just disappear like that, without telling me.
He reached down, grabbed his nephew’s arm, and pulled him to his feet. The boy stumbled for a bit, but quickly righted himself. He glared at the man, the expression on his face unruffled, his eyes decidedly vacant, inscrutable. The eyes of a fish, the man recalled, dark and impassive. The boy said nothing, simply stared at the man. From the chamber of his mind, the man heard the words, his sister’s, I never wanted him in the first place, he was the one who wanted a child, not me. I could have easily aborted him when there was still time, and now I’m stuck, and the boy’s a pain, utterly hopeless, just like his father, useless.
The man released the boy’s arm from his grip, and sighed purposefully. Just don’t do it again. The boy gave a vague, imperceptible nod, and squatted down again, drawing in the sand with a stick. Circles inside circles, narrowing into a dead center.
Let’s go somewhere, the man said, finally.
The boy stopped and looked up. Where?
The park, the man said, You want an ice-cream?
They walked to the park, and while crossing the road, the man held his nephew’s hand. The boy flinched for a moment, but didn’t resist. The man got a vanilla cone at the McDonald’s for the boy, and a chocolate fudge sundae for himself. They strolled past a large playground nearby, and then down a gravel path that sloped to a slight incline, and stopped at a covered shelter beside a large sluggish pond overgrown with lotuses and duckweeds.
The man and his nephew sat on a stone bench and looked out at the pond, eating their ice-creams. The heat of the afternoon had intensified, and the man could feel its sticky fingers crawling up his arms and back, leaving behind a sheen of sweat. The air was dense, heavy with the sultriness and stench of stagnant water.
What is she doing? The boy spoke up. The man turned to regard him, unsure whether he had heard him right. Then he turned to look at where his nephew was nodding. Sitting at the edge of the pond was a young woman in a loose blue T-shirt and baggy shorts. She was heavily pregnant, and the contour of her stomach had stretched the fabric of her shirt to its limit. The woman had dipped her right hand into the pond, moving it around languidly in the water. Then, extending her legs—the man noticed the black sandals placed neatly on the ground beside the woman—she lowered them into the brackish water, which came up to her bent knees. The woman’s attention never wavered, as if there were something in the water that was holding her captive.
Is she going to die? his nephew asked, softer than before. The man didn’t reply.
From somewhere beside her, hidden from view—from her pocket perhaps—the woman took out something—the man couldn’t quite see what it was. The shape of the thing she held was small, unrecognizable. And then it hit him: a pair of baby shoes. She walked these tiny shoes across the surface of the water for a while, and then let go of one of them. The shoe seemed to float for a brief second on the water, then dipped below it, disappearing from sight. The woman released the other shoe as well, and watched it as it submitted to the pull of the watery depth.
She’s going to die, isn’t she?
The man glanced at his nephew, unsure again what to make of his words. The boy’s ice-cream was gone, and he was rubbing his dirty hand across the front of his T-shirt.
No, she’s not, she is just…
The boy waited for the reply, but the man had run out of words.
The woman got up, slipping her legs out of the water, and began to walk off, barefooted. In her wake, she had forgotten her sandals. The man and his nephew watched the woman as she sauntered up to the top of the slope and vanished.
What’s going to happen to them? his nephew said. And for a moment, the man thought he was referring to the abandoned sandals, but after a second of hesitation, he wondered whether the boy meant the pair of baby shoes, or maybe the woman and her unborn baby. The man wasn’t sure whether it could be any of these things, or something else entirely.
He got up from the bench, and his nephew followed suit. Ready to go? he asked. The boy nodded. They left the park side by side, and along the way each was deep in thought—bound up in their own world—though there was nothing they could possibly tell or share with the other.
The next day, after running a few rounds in the park, the man came to the pond. He walked to the edge of it—the sandals were no longer there—and stood where the woman had sat. For some time, he stared into the water, just as the woman had, and thought about the creatures that lived in the pond, the fish that glided through the murky water, and their eyes that held a sort of light and density, clear and opaque at the same time, revealing and obscuring, holding onto the secret, unseen, workings of a world he would never know.
Once the moment had passed, the man thought about heading over to the wet market for his breakfast, maybe even popping by the ornamental fish stall to buy more goldfish, or perhaps some other kinds, a clown loach, or an angelfish. There was room for more, the man felt, just a few more.
Just as he was about to leave, he saw the baby shoes bopping at the far muddy edge of the pond, and went to retrieve them. Blush color with Velcro straps, appliques of elephants on the canvas. He turned to look at the sole of one of the shoes. A price tag. Five-ninety. The man left the ruined shoes in the water, just as they were, where they were intended.
O Thiam Chin is the author of The Dogs (Penguin Random House SEA, 2020) and six collections of short fiction. His debut novel, Now That It’s Over (Epigram Books, 2016), won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015 and the Best Fiction Title at the 2017 Singapore Book Awards.