I have a brother who isn’t a boy at all, but a fish.
When I tell people this, most of them chuckle politely, their bustling minds already flicking past the youthful imaginings of the charming little boy. That is, until they’ve seen him with their own eyes. My brother with his transparent fins and gills cut into the side of his neck and of course- the sea of shimmering scales that secretly hold all the colours of the world.
I always thought he was beautiful. All that silver . . . he was a stranded star I was lucky enough to call brother. But it was decided- my brother or not, he was not to attend school with the other children.
“He’ll only cause a disturbance,” the headmaster informed us. “I mean look at him! The other children won’t be able to focus. Not to mention the bullying.”
“But- how will he learn?” my mother had sputtered. “He’s just a child!”
“I’m afraid not. Let’s not lie to ourselves here, madam. It’s plain to see- your son is a fish.”
“S’okay,” I’d told my brother when we’d left the heavy stiffness of the headmaster’s office. “School’s terrible anyway.”
And he’d looked at me sadly with his large, wet eyes- more puppy than fish at that moment- desperate to believe the assurances of his brother.
“Not to worry,” my mother had stated briskly. “I will teach you at home, my dear. That man can go to hell.”
My brother and I’d looked at each other, our eyes silently bugging at her language.
“What he doesn’t know-” she continued laying a hand on my brother’s scaled shoulder. “Is that my son is more than just a fish.”
True to her word, she educated him at home, and he lived in a world of white-washed walls and encyclopedias and stale air.
But after when I’d come home from school, we’d run down to the beach together- boy and fish crashing into the freezing ocean. He’d dive and splash and spend whole minutes weaving below the surface. That beach was the only place I’ve ever heard him laugh.
It’s been a long while since the beach though.
Now, my mother fills our rusted tub with cold water leaving my brother to soak in it for hours. At first, I used to climb in there with him, making my toy dinosaurs climb the slick of his scales but now he stretches out, his glistening skin stealing up all the water it possibly can.
I drop down onto the chipped bathroom tiles, resting my chin on the edge of the tub so I that our eyes meet properly.
“How’s the water?”
“Wet,” he says.
“I missed you today. School’s dull,” I sigh, trailing a lazy finger through the bathwater. “Teacher asked what we wanted to be when we grow up and I said a fish, of course. Just like my brother. She only laughed.”
“She has no imagination.”
“But being a fish isn’t so great all the time.”
“I know.” I pause, leaning over him to turn the tap open so more water spills into the tub.
“Thanks. Mum never fills it right to the top.”
“She just doesn’t like wasting.”
He sighs and the sound is too old, too worldly for his young black eyes. “I suppose.”
“This water. It’s just not the same. I want to go to the ocean.”
“I know.” I don’t mention the images that course through my head of that day- the pushing of his body through the waves, the swift flick of his fins as he swam far, far out than any boat. It was almost like he wasn’t coming back. When mother found out, she made us promise no more ocean. I think she knew how easily it could take my brother away, how willingly he would be swallowed up by its blue tongue. “But the ocean isn’t that amazing,” I rush to say. “There are sharks and it’s cold and the waves always rushing and pulling. Not much food either.”
“Still-” and he tilts his head back, so that the bathwater laps at his face. “The ocean will take care of me. And you also.”
“But I’m not a fish-”
“That doesn’t matter. You are my brother and that’s enough.” He twists in the water to look at me and the silver of his scales catches the light making the bathroom flash- a kaleidoscope of colour.
I smile and we trade small words back and forth, our voices drifting lazily through the tiled room for hours.
When the sun has dipped her head, starting her golden sink back beneath the horizon and the room grows dark, my brother’s eyes lift to the small window for a long time.
“Hey, you okay?”
“There’s a storm coming.”
I squint outside at the sky- a sea of lazy gold and pink not marred by a single storm cloud. That’s the thing about having a fish for a brother- more often than not, they’re wrong. “There’s no storm coming,” I start to explain but his gills flap impatiently.
“There is, I know it.”
“Well, what has that got to do with anything?”
He sighs. “Nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“Okay. Whatever. It’s late.” I reach down into the bathwater to pull the plug, but my brother thrashes suddenly, smashing at my arm.
“I’m sorry. Just- just leave it.”
“It’s been hours. Almost dinner.” I reach again.
“Stop! Don’t touch it!”
“Stop! Stop, I said!”
“Just leave me alone!”
“Fine,” I spit, yanking my hand from the water. “Fine, fine, fine! Stay here forever then. All you care about is this stupid bath and the ocean.” I cradle my hand against my stomach as if it were wounded, unable to pinpoint exactly why I‘m so upset over this.
There’s a moment of stillness- my brother floating quietly in the greyish water and my mouth flattened into a stubborn straight line. Then- “You wouldn’t understand. You’re just a boy.”
His tone spikes up a forest of irritation in me. I stagger to my feet, skidding a little on the drenched tiles. “And you’re a stinking fish.” I turn away, slamming the bathroom door shut.
He calls my name, fins smacking against the side of the bath, but I ignore him.
Brothers can be the worst. Especially fish ones.
He was right about the storm though. For three days, the sky is pulled apart by bruised clouds and water crashes from the sky in sheets of silver. I imagine the other fish wading nervously beneath the tides and even the great blue whales eyeing the crying sky curiously as our small world is washed in shades of grey.
I spend most of the hours staring out our lounge window, wondering about my brother and the storm he predicted. He spends all the days locked in the bathroom, floating endlessly in his tepid water. A pang of sympathy pricks through me at the sight of the closed bathroom door and I decide, eyes tired from staring out at all the grey and chest aching for the familiar silver flash of his scales, that I’m not angry with him anymore. That when he finally comes out, it’ll be like we never said any of those words to each other and he’ll forgive me. We’re brothers, I remind myself. He has to.
On the fourth morning, the sky seems to have tired itself out, like a toddler sick from its own tantrum, and I burst from the house, breathing and breathing in the damp, clean air.
I’m only out for a second before I crash back into the house, running for the bathroom.
“Brother! The Storm’s finished! Come, let’s go play!”
He doesn’t answer.
“Oh, come on. You have to be sick of that bath by now.”
“Brother?” I press my head to the wood panelled door, but I can’t hear anything. Not even the gentle swish of bathwater.
“Brother! Brother, open up!”
When there is still no answer, I run to the kitchen for the key, grab it then sprint back, forcing its metal teeth into the keyhole.
The door opens and-
He is not there.
The bath sits, lonely and gagging against the water that fills it. There is a mess of water on the tiles and the tiny window has been shoved open so that the lingering smell of rain washes in.
I see the open window and the water leading up to it and a terrible sickening feeling washes over me because now I know why he was talking about the storm. I know him too well. I can see it- the scene in his mind: my fish brother walking beneath the crying sky, alone in the wet world until he reaches the beach. I see him wade into the water, lift his legs up and float on his back. I see his mouth widen, see him drink in the rain and the salt, quiet as the storm and the waves finally carry him home.
I’m out of the house in a second, my heart rising up in my mouth, legs carrying me to the whisper of the ocean.
A gentle sprinkle peppers the beach sand and a couple of crabs scurry into the shallows but other than that, the world is empty. Maybe the storm has swallowed everyone else right up. Like a whale, I think as I stumble towards the ocean, a giant storming whale that ate up everything.
The water in the ocean is completely still. Unnaturally clear too. Almost like it’s not there at all. I can see all around me and the emptiness of the water is a fist to the heart. I smash my hand into it just to see the glass surface break. My thoughts spill out of me- slippery and hard to properly shape.
Maybe the rock pools? I’m up, slipping and swearing across the algae-ridden rocks yelling out my brother’s name.
Where is he? Where is he?
I check every rock pool I can see, twice over but they’re all still- a hundred mirrors glint: empty and cold.
I stagger to where the water brushes tiredly against the sides of the rocks and shove my whole head beneath the cold water.
“Brother!” I scream through the blue depths of the water but underwater my voice is strangled, lost beneath the whisper of the ocean.
I lift my head, water trickles past my collar and down my neck sending goose bumps licking along my skin. I sit there for a moment shivering, bare toes curled over the edge of the rocks, hoping to see a flash of silver somewhere in the waves.
Brother, he’ll say, bursting from the water. He’ll laugh and I’ll be mad at him for hiding from me, but I’ll get over it because brothers forgive, and I’ll stroke his scales and he’ll talk to me about the storm and-
I see him.
He’s wedged between two shelves of rock as if he really were hiding.
But he’s not. Scales leeched of their silver shade, choking on endless dryness.
My brother is dead.
Something bursts from my mouth, some strangled animal sound from a place deep inside me.
I drag myself up to where he lays. I pull him up and hold him against my chest so that the smell of fish and boy meet- scale and skin.
“Kai?” I whisper, his name trembling out of me. “Kai?”
He doesn’t move. His body is in tatters. The Storm he was waiting for, the Storm he thought would take him home has ruined him, bashed him against rocks, stolen his breath- left him to bleed out here, to be bleached by a foreign sun.
I duck my head, press my lips against each of his closed eyes. “You were too good for our world,” I whisper.
The rain seems to agree, it falls down in misty drops as if apologising for its previous violence.
I don’t move for a while, wondering what to do. One thing’s certain- he shouldn’t be left here, not for the gulls to rip out his eyes, not for the angry sun to dry out every drop of water from his grey body.
No, my brother was a fish.
With that thought, I lift him up into my arms and struggle over to the edge of the rocks. I drop to my knees and, with my arms aching from his weight, I lean down holding him under the calm water. The ocean lifts him into its arms immediately, gently taking his weight from me. It lets his soul drink and drink. It lets the salt find his eyes and it soaks his thirsty heart. And then, very softly, it eases him from my grip.
I let him go. The ocean will take care of me. And it will. It does.
It knows him- maybe more than I ever did. It pulls him under into its blue mouth with a touch as gentle as a mother.
“He’ll be okay, then?” I ask it.
It licks at my wrists with its frothing lips. Yes, it says.
I watch my brother sink. I’m glad I do. There is a second where the sun slices through the water, desperate to touch his body one more time and he shimmers beautifully – a living silver against the quiet blue.