Aquarium

by Elaine Chiew Read author interview September 21, 2015

My brother has made a new life for himself, here in a valley covered with snow three-quarters of the year. He has a tropical aquarium filled with yellow tangs and corals reminiscent of the one holiday we had, deep sea diving off Antigua. He’s got a new woman too. She’s Norwegian, a natural platinum blonde with haunches high as a horse and these very long legs. On the sofa, she wraps those legs around him, like protective oak casing, as they drink an expensive red.

We have a conversation about dogs. Ewan loved dogs. But in his new life, he loves fish.

I ask if I can feed the fish. His Norwegian girlfriend hands me the canister of fish food. She says, “Be careful.”

Ewan and I have another conversation about cows. We grew up with cows. Ewan used to rile up the cows to stop our father in his tracks, to protect me from what our father was doing. Here, the cows are for looking.

We buy milk from a convenience store trimmed in green; it blasts Freon-compounded air so cold it could form icicle bridges and stalactites. The milk is always cold. But my brother doesn’t feel the cold; he’s no longer cold as he shows me the glory of a milk moustache.

First light of dawn, before anyone else awakes, I smoke my cigarettes and feed the fish. I think about our father and my fingers holding the cigarette shake. Once, a farmhand had taken a band saw to a dead cow and dismembered it; Ewan and I had applauded and asked for his name.

It’s the Norwegian National Day today. It’s not raining, it’s not snowing, it’s sleeting in May. People huddle underneath black umbrellas around the district Skole, swaddled in thick woolen Norwegian costumes—New England pilgrims at a funeral. Waving flags, looking miserable but duty-bound.

His Norwegian blonde looks at me sharing Ewan’s umbrella with distrust. I’m only passing through. But she doesn’t understand my silent communication. I’m no good with fish. She doesn’t get that one either. I give her an insouciant wink. Her gaze ices over.

“You should come visit more often. Ewan talks about you so much,” she says. I snuffle and wipe my nose. There’s ice in my nostrils. She asks me why air stewardesses don’t turn right around and work the return flight to wherever they came from. “Sometimes they do,” I say. “Sometimes it’s good to rest too.”

Later, we eat salted popcorn and potato pancakes wrapped around hotdogs. We stand around and make meaningless chatter. Then, we sluice moisture off our faces and go back.

It’s the coldest National Day in fifty years, Ewan says and slaps his thighs heartily. He has not been here fifty years, he has not even been here five, but he talks like he has. Where are the strings that tether him? I look at my brother: helium balloons must fly off, and when they come back to earth, they usually land in a different place. And fish are just fish.

At his house, the tropical aquarium glows. Something in it causes Ewan to exclaim and smack his hand against the glass. His girlfriend swears in Norwegian. She looks at me. “Did you do something to this?”

It’s turned cold so quickly even fish in a protected environment cannot adjust. My heart squeezes. What do you know, love is many things, but it’s also a bloated tropical fish. In front of my eyes, a silver-streaked clownfish gently gasps on the sand, rolls and flips, rolls and flips, rising steadily to the surface.

About the Author:

Elaine Chiew is a fiction writer and visual arts researcher. She is a two-time winner of The Bridport Prize, amidst other prizes and shortlistings. Her debut short story collection, The Heartsick Diaspora, will be coming out with Myriad Editions (U.K.). She is also the compiler and editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015), and has had numerous stories in anthologies and journals. She also writes flash fiction (named Wigleaf Top 50 twice, along other honours). In October 2017, she was the Writer in Residence at Singapore's premier School of the Arts. She received an M.A. in Asian Art Histories from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2017. In addition to writing freelance on Asian visual arts for magazines like ArtReview Asia, she also blogs about contemporary Asian writers at AsianBooksBlog and the visual arts on her blog, Invisible Flâneuse.

About the Artist:

Claire Ibarra is a writer, poet, and photographer. Her photographs have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Roadside Fiction, Alimentum--The Literature of Food, Foliate Oak, Lime Hawk, and Blue Fifth Review. She was an artist in residence for Counterexample Poetics and art editor for Gulf Stream Magazine. Claire’s work was included in the “Finding the Light” Exhibition at the PhotoPlace Gallery.