Mama hears the black mollies. Their voices disturb her. She covers her ears with her hands and paces the kitchen floor. “Shut up! Shut up!” she screams. Her eyes bulge in her face.
I color in my book and try not to stare. Sometimes it is best to ignore Mama. If I try to convince her that fish can’t speak, she’ll think I’m siding with them. If I say I hear the fish, too, she’ll want me to quiet them.
Mama pauses at the kitchen sink. She sips coffee, then crashes the cup into the saucer. Coffee splashes Mama’s pale hands. She howls.
I drop my crayon. It rolls under the table. I pretend it is a blue wand to change my mother into someone smiling and well. Someone who doesn’t hear fish speak.
“I’ve had all of this I can stand!” Mama sobs. She wipes her hands on her apron, leaving coffee stains.
Mama disappears into the laundry room and returns with a bottle of Clorox. She untwists the bottle cap.
“Mama, no!” My heart is a fist inside my chest.
She lifts the aquarium lid and pours bleach into the water. The mollies spin and flutter like birds.
Somehow, I’m off my chair and kneeling beside her, tugging at her legs. “Mama, stop! Please!” Bleach and coffee smells burn my nose.
When the bottle is empty, she tosses it aside. She grabs her cigarettes from the shelf and walks outside.
I pull myself up and look into the aquarium. One by one, the slender black fish float to the surface.
When Daddy comes home and sees the fish floating in the tank like winter leaves, he doesn’t ask what happened. Daddy knows. He sees the broken cup and smells bleach in the air.
His only job now is to make it better. He holds Mama’s hands and leads her to the sink where he makes her swallow pills before tucking her into bed.
“I don’t want to dream about mollies,” she cries. As he closes the door, Daddy promises to leave on a light to frighten the fish away.
When he returns to the kitchen, Daddy sits on a chair and pulls me onto his lap. He strokes my hair, still damp with tears. He presses his lips close to my ear. “Mama doesn’t mean to do these things, Susan. She isn’t well, you know.”
These are the words I hear my father say over and over. Mama isn’t well becomes the lullaby Daddy sings whenever my mother does something strange or hurtful. He sings it when she swallows too many pills, or digs the pencil into her wrist until she bleeds. He sings it when she disappears in the winter storm and returns with frostbite on her toes; when she burns my birthday cake and comes downstairs without any clothes. He sings it tonight as we scoop dead fish from the tank to bury in the backyard, each one in a shallow hole.