How the Fish Survive

Evelyn Kill

The light that fills the room feels cold and blue, tinted by the shades across the window. This window faces south, so the light trickles in slowly and at first I can ignore it, but eventually I must open my eyes to this underwater light and take a deep breath in. 


I used to get up so early. Some days I would go outside and watch the sunrise, warming my hands with a mug of herbal tea. The world was quiet, but not still. I admired the people moving about the streets, getting an early start. We had something in common, they and I. We all knew the feeling of the first light of day rising over the mountains and hitting our faces. We carried that feeling with us throughout the day, like a token. But I haven’t seen them, those people of the sun, for months now. I peel back the sheets and stare at the ceiling fan, motionless and stagnant. The air is heavy and empty all at once. Perhaps, I think, it is the emptiness that has weight. I pull the sheets back up to my chin, shivering as they glide over my body. I cannot decide if I am warm or cold, in limbo. I consider shutting my eyes again, but I know that the morning light will find me and penetrate my eyelids the way it penetrates the shades, taking on a different tone as it shines through my skin. Red, urgent. And so I keep my eyes open, swimming in the blue. 


When I was a child I believed that in winter, as water froze, the fishes froze with it. I looked at the icy lakes and streams with curiosity, wondering how the fish survived. I mentioned this once to my mother, who smiled and told me that it is only the surface that freezes and not the fish. The ice forms a windowpane against the world, she told me. I could never decide which seemed worse, to be frozen or isolated. Now I feel that I am both, and it has been a long winter. I am unable to move. 


Continuing to stare, I try to appreciate the stillness, the silence, and the light. I know that I must get up and start the day. I will walk to the kitchen, I tell myself, and brew the coffee I switched out for my herbal teas. I will stand in my kitchen and … what then? Once the coffee is poured, what have I to do? I could change the sheets, or prepare dinner, or open the mail, but I don’t have the energy to do them all. These voyages, these escapades. I used to do those things and more in a single day, I suppose, though that seems so long ago. That was then, and this is now, and before I can get to those chores I must first get out of bed. 


I kick away the sheets, back where I began. Slowly I stretch out my legs and arms, as far as they can go, and then pull them back to my body. I am on my back. I try to lift myself up, starting with my shoulders, my vertebrae leaving my mattress one by one. I make it halfway up before sinking back down. Sinking into the bed as it cocoons me. Again I try, this time using my arms to support me. Slowly I bend at the waist, knees rising to meet my chest, reaching towards the ceiling. My muscles climb each other until only my feet and rear touch the mattress. I’ve nearly done it! I’m crouched! I’m sitting!


It’s uncomfortable. I lie back down. 


Is that enough? I wonder. Can I go back to sleep now? It takes so much, making the pieces of me come together. It wasn’t like that before the pandemic, before it left me treading water. I have changed, metamorphosed, but hasn’t everyone? Surely I cannot be the only one awake in bed, struggling to change my lifestyle, to even change my position. I unfocus, away from my body and back into the comfort of my mind. Fish swim through my thoughts, my movements. It’s strange, I think, that you never see the fish moving underneath the ice. Maybe they are frozen, just in a different way.


I lie there a bit longer, waiting for nothing. Time drifts aimlessly, perfectly willing to leave me behind. It should be peaceful, but I feel chained down rather than supported. Try again, I whisper, for real this time. I lift my head from my pillow and slide my elbows underneath my rising body. My arms become two perfect triangles, the strongest shape, holding me up. My legs, two more triangles, lifting and bent. I rise upwards. Knees, shoulders, equal. Hands, feet, level. Hips, bed. Feet, floor.  


I’m standing. A jumbled mess of body parts, but standing. 


I know that if I try to make the bed I’ll inevitably fall back into it, so I do not. Instead I make my way to the bathroom, noticing the cold touch of the tile against the pads of my feet. I ignore my appearance in the bathroom mirror, directing my attention elsewhere. I crane my neck under the faucet, spilling myself into the sink. I turn the handle, and the cold water hits me in the face. From somewhere in the garage my water heater rumbles to life. I keep my face under the water until it warms. Until it warms me. 


I bring my face up from the sink, shut off the water, and pat myself with a towel. Some of my hair has gotten wet, and it cups my face with its dark little curls, clinging to my tragus and forehead. Water trickles down my temple and outlines my jaw. The beads of liquid move slowly at first, growing in size until they form perfect drops that fall from my face. I trace my fingertip down from my hairline, following the curved path left by water. Flowing, serene.  


Turning towards the doorway, I focus on my feet. One after the other I make my way to the kitchen, my fingertips tingling slightly as I trail them across the walls. Once in the kitchen, I prepare the coffee slowly, methodically, and savor the sound of it pouring into my favorite mug. As I take a deep breath in, the steam curls upwards into my nostrils, comforting.


I’ll do something different today, I decide, taking my first sip. It’s warm, filling my mouth and sliding easily down my throat. I walk, the movement fluid, the fish swimming freely. A sense of togetherness. I walk through the backdoor and outside, into the sun, swimming upstream. 


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