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The International Writers Magazine

G David Schwartz

We cleared the cobwebs from the aquarium, which sat dormant for five years. Great names like Xiphophorous maculate and Helvstoma temmincki swam through my head. I ran my fingers rake-like through the gravel at the bottom of the tank. To be clear it was a fish bowl and just called tank out of habit.
“Perhaps Sara has buried some pennies in here.”
“I doubt it. She has not played in here very often.”

It was true. An empty aquarium does not have the attraction or facility or drainpipes. Three years old children are pulled toward water implements like plants are drawn to sunlight. Nevertheless, there were – and still are -- some very interesting objects at the bottom of the tank. I had dug them out as an archeologist might have done: the cap to a pen, an old shopping list, a cigarette butt, and some metal objects, which I could not identify.
Pterophyllum sacalove. Libratesreticulates.
“If you liked the aquarium so much, why didn’t we set the tank up sooner? Why did we ever even take it down?”
“The fish died.”
“We could have replaced them,” she spoke with the voice of a police officer or a park ranger.
“Who wanted to clean the tank?”
When Sara awoke from her nap, I took that as an opportunity to explain that we were going to set up the fish tank again. She appeared to be delighted.
With a monkey grin and an elephant smile, she asked, “Me too?
Mistake number one had just occurred. Never, never, agree to let a child help you to start operating – or doing anything – with a fish tank. My wife, so much wiser and forsightful than myself, immediately informed me that I was no win charge; the tank was now my project, just, Sara's and mine. She then abandoned the ship; so to speak, we were not really on a ship. There was, however, water in the basement.
“What are we doing? Daddy?”
She frequently asks that question. She, like most children, was not so much nosey than curious. I have never told anyone this but I like curiosity. At times I am affected with it myself.
Realizing that I had not yet answered her question. I immediately leaded into my answering face and said, “Well, we are going to smooth out the gravel, now I don’t mean smooth is right out of the tank. But just make it appear flat and bold. And then we will put the gravel at the bottom here,” I pointed, “and put in some rocks and shells.
You know, shells only seem to be hopes of mountain. I didn’t think of this by myself, but my children brought this to my attention. 
Meanwhile I began to here the repetition of that single word which can be a noun, an adverb, and a stone on the road to Disney Land. It sang out in a beautiful songlike sound, rose into a dust blown character finally lasting in the sound I would expect in an atomic blast.
I responded immediately while holding my head in my hands. “Yes” It was the most positive word I could gather in so little time as it takes to break the sound barrier.
“Yes, why are we putting stony and grimy things in the bottom of the bowl.”
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh,” I made a long winding series of two letters,”To make the fist tank look pretty.”
I had studied philosophy, and was acquainted with the whimsy and silliness of children. But this question seemed like it wanted to be answered. So I answered it. If you had been paying attention, you may have noticed the answer is both contained and held in, on, and with, a few paragraphs above. But if, or since, you either cannot, or did not notice I will repeat myself (well for the sake of honesty, I have a good computer, so I will clip and paste the above just below.
Well, we are going to smooth out the gravel, now I don’t mean smooth is right out of the tank. But just make it appear flat and bold. And then we will put the gravel at the bottom here,” I pointed, “and put in some rocks and shells.
She gave me a very unique look. Now, I have always thought she looked unique, in a very attractive way. But this unique look was one, which would be placed (in the dictionary) between friendly amusements and (following the circus theme) terrifying as a panther attack.
“To make the fish tank look pretty”
I have studied children now for twenty-three years and I know they really enjoy asking “why” questions. In fact, I know that when reading this she is thinking in her head (and where else do you think) “Why/”
With children, even up to the age twenty-three and fifty-two the shortest question in the universes is never answered to a child’s content, or in better terms, his or her contentment.
“So,” I did my fatherly thing, “So the fish have a pleasant home.  Now Sara.” I continued, tying to change the subject, “you must remember never to stick your hands in the…”
  “Can I plunge my hands,” she asked. I decided to just ignore her, knowing I was violating a rule of Doctor. I continued not changing the rhythm or sound of my voice, “never stick your hand in tank and never play with electric cords.”

That word again! That word I use to use so often and now detest. I thought to say “Because:” and leave it like that. But the was both my child, that is one of my most favorite persons in the whole wide universe (she would ask my how I knew that about the whole wide universe) and two, if I was telling the truth. I just ignored the second. I am not a pathological liar, nor am I a pathetic liar. (Sara, who never lets conversation just drop, would surely ask what kind of liar I was…)
The question was asked and I, because I am a father (notice I did not say a good father.) decided to respond. I did spend once but now it was another time.
I screwed my head on (that’s just an expression, not a foolish remark or a science fiction play) and said, “Because I do not want you to get electrocuted.”
“I get hurt?”
I was so proud she was asking a question which was both not “why?” and was intelligent, that I answered with sincerity and pride, using my very best “fairly good fathers’ voice.”   
“Yes,” I said with the most terrifying voice I could muster. “You can get hurt very badly. “
Well you knew that question was coming didn’t you?

I explained the basics of electricity, threw in some comments concerning nuclear fission (Or is it fusion?), a few notes comparing Immanuel Kant and Franz Rosenzweig. Then I informed my daughter that was now ready to put water into the tank.

As a quick short witticism she held her nose. It was as if she was afraid of water but I knew that was not true. She was an early swimmer, and her favorite drink, after margarita was water.
Mistake number two. Never fill your aquarium with water. It may be difficult but parents should develop the appreciation for an empty fish tank. Just think how pleasant a very large bowl of water is. Just think how pleasant it is that the water is in the bowl and not being drained on your head. You can even drink water, but must admit I do not like the taste.
Generally, this realization (semantic word meaning, “realis a tion,” leaving it up to philosophers to say what a “tion” is.)
Sara would not agree that an inch of water was sufficient under the ten-gallon tank. We agreed to fill the tank to the brim under the condition that she not help pour the water, and she just not be thinking about helping. 
“Okay, I fill the pitcher.”
Mistake number three: never relent
Water nearly covered the kitchen floor. But she would faithfully hand me half empty container. Needless to say, this made the process take twice as long. 
When the tank was full, Sara asked me what all the connections drooped over the side were and what their function consisted of.
”What this?”
“This is an aquarium. Fish live in it.”
Sara, a beautify and intelligent girl asked, “What is the difference between this and a fish tank?”

When we had but a single very small fish we did have a bowl and, since it was emptied of fruits and vegetables. A tiny fish lived in there quite happy and sound. But with a dozen or so fishes we required something larger.
In any event, this was long ago…
“Daddy,” there was a cry which not only suggested terror, but threw it out in tons of sorrow. “You put water in the ‘quar ‘um’ “
“Yes I already have.”
She moaned in agony, “We cannot put fish in there! They will get all wet.”
I slapped my hands to my head. One landed on each side.   This proved two things. First, heads are useful for smacking and, second, it hurt to hit your own head. But anyway, I had enough sense to reply, “Fish live in water.”
“No, but you are not a fish, you are a little shrimp. “
“Daddy, we buy fish, don’t we?”
“Yes, we will buy some fish.”
Here her eyes glistened with mystic enchantment. Her voices both in incitements, and fell with a suitable loud bang. “Today?” she glimmered inside a large gleam.
“No,” I explained as I suddenly went to the bottom of her ”Like the least little bit” list.
Seeing her eyes puff in what I can only describe as disaster, I explained.

Explanations are the gleam in the eye of the sun. Hurriedly I jumped into and out of an explanation: “First we have to let the fish tank filter for twenty-four (say that ten times real fast), and then we will get some fish.”
“Two fish, I want two fist, two fish, two fish. Two, two, I want two fish.
“Two brown fish,” I teased knowing her favorite color was orange with red stripes.
“Yeah, We put one in now and save the other to put in later.”
I smiled a both fatherly and amused smile. “Put one-way?”
“Yea, for later.”
“But where? In the refrigerator?”
She shrugged her shoulders, placed an amused smile, which overtook her lips, and said between the smiles, “Yeah, in the refrigerator.”
I wanted to get clear about what she wanted. A slow shock rambled across my face. I took a sip of my coffee, I thought about going to bed, then I thought about what I would do tomorrow, and finally I rubbed my eyes and looked lovingly at the little girl in front of me.
Words slowly rose to and through me lips. “No. No, NO, Sara! Any fish we buy will have to go directly into the tank.
Why?” she questioned.
“Because,” I answered.
“WHY” she asked with a voice demanding seriousness.
“Because, that is where fish live.”
“In a tank?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m as sure as rain,” I said and immediately began, as I had never up to that point, began to wonder what that meant. Was rain always right? What would happen if rain was ever worm? Would that just case the saying to be changed or ignored or would it cause the fall of the Roman Empire. (I sure hope Roman Catholics do not get mad at me for saying that.).
“… and it that true?” I heard her end a question.
“Yes!” I said, as if in a positive mood.
“Because,” I suddenly achieved a good thought, “Gasteropelecus levis.”

This answer seemed to satisfy her. But it was time again to remind her not to climb on the tank, or put her hair in the water. As I spoke, the plastic Echinodorus panuculatus floated to the top of the tank. Naturally, Sara would not leave the room in order that I might submerge the plant and bury the delicate base   under some gravel. My wet, dripping hand was barely extracted and in search of a towel than Sara was climbing the consul and reaching for a loosened wedge of water milfoil.

I warned her never to reach inside the tank, and threatened to empty the water if anything was going on, and put away the filters, hearer, air pump, scuba divers, sea shells, thermostat and plastic plant life, if she ever did so, or attempted to do so again. She swathed away, apparently remunerating the rule. 
Mistake number four: never turn your back on your children.
That evening Sara claimed she was too tired to be concerned about and certainly with, her dolls. Her last question before going up the stairs summed up all the innocence, tenderness, and esurience of childhood.
“Tomorrow we buy fist?”
Her face looked so innocent and polite I knew I would not refuse, and before I could form words to make a reply, my mouth put out words that sounded like, “Yes, Sara, tomorrow we will go to the store to buy fish.”
“To the fish store?”
My mouth formed the words which spelled out, “No the bakery,” but when my lips pushed out words the words sounded very much like, “Yes.”
Before I could put an end to the conversation, she pointed words at me and I heard, “We buy two fish?”
“Yes, we will buy two fish.”
“Two brown fish?”
“Yes, Sara, if you want brown fish we will but two brown fish.”
“Yes, Sara, I already said tomorrow, and have I ever lied to you?”
I saw her lips thinking and I was afraid she would call me a liar. But she didn’t.

Her head went somnolently into my wife’s shoulder. She was asleep. As she carried her up the steps, because her bed was at the top of the steps, her ears were spread apart a little bit. As I watched some visitors came floating from her ears. There was hyphessobryco flammeas, and Mollinenesialatipinna paddling through her dreams.

I went o check to see the water temperature was within the safe zone for fish life. There I found florid yet buoyant Lucy—oh I should tell you that Lucy was Sara’s favorite doll before you think it was a neither child nor quite reading. So there I have saved you to continue on to the end. As I was saying, Lucy, fulfilling the flotsam drifts of my daughter’s imagination.
She, the doll, took a week to dry.

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Schwartz is the author of A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue. Currently a volunteer at Drake Hospital in Cincinnati, Schwartz continues to write. His new book, Midrash and Working Out Of The Book is now in stores or can be ordered.
© David Schwartz Feb 2007

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