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By Janna Liggan
When my father's brother came to visit, he filled our entire room. My grandmother's eyes would disappear in her thick brown wrinkles and often my mother would sing. My father would sit on his low stool by our window and carve as he listened. Sometimes his shapes would take meaning and turn into a cup or a bowl. But other times, especially after he’d been in to the village, the shavings would quickly disappear, slice after slice dripping from his fingers to the dirt floor, his hands left holding a figure with many arms or legs, heads and mouths–but always without eyes.
A long time before, my father's brother had brought me a goldfish from one of his travels. Every time he came to visit, he would bring a bigger bowl and every time after he left, my goldfish would grow. We would sit together on the floor by the door and I would hold the larger bowl as he slowly poured the water from the old into the new. My fish would flap and swish at the last moment before he leapt in, flashes of gold glinting in the sunlight as he claimed his new home in the churning water. I never named him. He was too beautiful for any word that I could think of.
I remember that visit as I remember his last. Crystal clear, like my goldfish’s water when it has just been changed. I can almost see through it, see through every bit of it to the room behind. The visits in between are all muddled and muddy but the day he brought my goldfish, he told us a story about a panther.
He sat on our one rug, woven long ago by my grandmother’s hands, I by his feet and my mother and grandmother behind me. My father, as usual, carved on the stool in the corner. I remember placing my pointer finger gently into my goldfish’s bowl and waiting while I listened. At first, my fish dove to the bottom, but as the story progressed, he slowly drifted upwards. I thought at one moment he drew near enough that I might quickly press forward and touch him, but in a flash he escaped me. I wanted to know what his scales felt like, rub them backwards and learn if they were sharp, press his throbbing gills closed and see if he could breathe.
My father interrupted to laugh at my curiosity, “Leave it alone then, girl. It’s just trying to swim. Stop jabbing at it.”
I began to protest, but I knew he was right. Every time after that, when I dropped my finger gently into the water, I just held it still. After awhile, he became almost comfortable with its presence and would swim circles around as I watched.
As my father’s brother spoke that day, I remember looking at his feet, long and broad, but somehow delicate, like my fish’s fins. His hands were the same, wiry and tan, with long digits that were thin and perfectly rounded at the tips. As his low voice recounted the deep hunger of that panther, I watched those delicate toes, watched them wriggle as the panther stalked its prey through a black jungle, and watched them calm after it had leapt and settled down to eat. I had never seen a jungle or a panther, but I knew what they were through his words. Long and slick, black like oil shining in the desert sun, muscles writhing like lines of fire-ants moving, almost dancing, in unison. And the jungle was everything the desert was not. Every inch of it was alive with creatures, long-tailed monkeys and bright spotted tree frogs, glistening dew drops on giant leaves and the constant hum of fat insects buzzing in the undergrowth and from the trunks of towering trees. The colors were like our sunsets, pinks and yellows, as well as the brightest greens and blues from the feathers of our most vibrant birds. But he said the colors were everywhere. Not like the animals here, pale under the baking sun, languid and dull in the heat, but more like our antelopes when a lioness surprises them in the tall grass: alive! Bursting with every movement, the life almost screaming from their eyes and their ever-listening ears.
My mother shrieked when my father’s brother’s voice rose as the panther killed, but I just shivered. I turned to look at her, a slight frown showing between my eyebrows, and she hushed. I sometimes thought she tried to ruin his stories. Seeking attention, my grandmother called it. Not that she should talk. And as usual, my father’s head bobbed up and down with the twitching of his working fingers.
I remember the day his brother brought my goldfish, my father carved me his idea of a panther. It was different than my own, perhaps because it was carved from such dull wood. But although the black was missing, he had somehow captured the power in the long body, terrible claws and thick-muscled hind legs. That day, when my father’s brother brought my goldfish, was also the only day I ever heard anyone speak ill of him.
He had only just left our hut when one of my father’s friends came to visit. My father’s “Hush man!” and my mother’s pretend shriek about spilling some wine did not stop my ears from hearing his words. The man had laughed at my goldfish and he had laughed at me. When I told him about the panther he had smirked, but when I bragged how my uncle had brought my goldfish from one of his travels, his eyes burst from his head and he guffawed like a hyena.
“His travels!” The man cried and held his hand to his forehead. “That man’s never been further than—”
That’s when she shrieked. Later that night, as we lay on our mats in the darkness, they told me that my father’s friend had always been envious of my father’s younger brother. I remember wondering, as the thin sliver of the moon peeked in through the window, if one of the traveling merchants would ever carry live fish for trade.
During his last visit, my father's brother bent his head to fit beneath the doorframe, like every other time. Then, we sat together on the floor and poured. And, like every other time, he told us stories that he had mixed for us in his mind. Once more, I drank every word from his deep voice and unlined face. But, unlike every other time, we were quieter when we laughed. Father's dark eyes warned when I clapped my hands or mother's giggles rose high, as they only did when her husband’s brother was here. Father had one eye out the window, and one eye on his carving, but his ears were everywhere. The youths had been uprising again, and today there was a heaviness and a silence throughout the village unlike before.
My grandmother was ladling soup into five of my father's hand-carved bowls when shouting came from the sands beyond the street. Sound carries lightly over the desert and swiftly with the sun, especially when the heat is high and the haze is low. Even as this was true, and the day was clear, it was easy to tell that the sounds were coming from just beyond the low dune in front of our hut. My grandmother didn't drop the ladle, didn’t even start, but slowly continued to pour as if she had heard nothing. The steam rose about her face like curls of smoke as she carried the tray around the room and handed each of us our bowl.
I realized later that she must have heard such shouting before and had learned to ignore it. It seemed my father and his brother had not. I do not know about my mother. The two men jumped towards the window as the yelling drew even closer, sounding almost as if it came from within our own four walls, forcing one of the bowls to tip over and bits of soup to splash to the floor. The hot liquid splattered and then congealed, quickly pulling itself together like a snake in the heat, dragging the dirt with its coil.
To me, it sounded like anything could be happening, the yelling could be a party. There had been a wedding in the village like that once. I had been too young to attend, but I remember peeking from our window as the men spilled into the streets deep into the next morning. Like now, voices low and high were raised, barking at and over each other. And like my mother, I remained on the floor and slowly pulled the bowl to my lips. It was too hot and it burned my tongue and mouth all the way down my throat. I had forgotten to blow on it, but as I watched my father and his brother watching at the window, I continued sipping without blowing, bowl to my lips, soup burning.
"It's worse. Something's going to happen."
My father nodded his agreement.
"How long have they been going on like this?"
"Weeks! But you know young men,” my mother had jumped to answer before my father could. “They rile themselves up over nothing. They’ll calm." She didn't sound as if she believed her own words, which was unusual. And all the while my grandmother remained silent, which was even more so.
I looked at my fish and wondered if he was already growing inside his new bowl.
There was a sharp scream from outside and my father's brother turned to leap towards the door. My father and mother grabbed his arms and his chest and my grandmother finally stood and walked to the window. I do not know what they had seen. I do not know what she saw; I was staring intensely at my fish. His eyes were black in the gold and they were slightly puffed out and on either side of his head so that I knew he must be able to see the world from more angles than I ever could. He had stopped swimming and just seemed to float, weightless, as if hanging in the center of the water. His fins were thin and reminded me of the beards on the sea dragons that my father's brother had told me about. They trailed gently in the water around him and a few bubbles jumped from his mouth to break at the surface.
My grandmother was suddenly pleading with my parents to let my father's brother go outside, but my parents were firm. She cried at their stiff faces, "You can’t stop him! Somebody's got to, got to stop them!"
My father lowered his voice and replied, "Not us. He doesn't even know what they're fighting about. We have no business...They'll rip each other to bits if he's in it or not."
"But that boy! He's younger. He's smaller."
My father's brother looked me straight in the eyes and gave me his small smile. He looked at my goldfish and said, "Make sure he gets bigger bowls."
Then, as easily if they were wooden parts that my father had carved, he pushed my parents’ hands off and ran outside. My father shook his head and returned to his stool by the window. He sat there, head bowed, his usually busy hands folded. I crept beside my mother and grandmother at the doorway, to watch.
My father's brother had always been tall, but when he stepped in between the shouting youths, the tip of the tallest boy’s head only came up to his shoulders. I couldn't make out what he was shouting but his lips were moving as he slowly pushed his way through to the center of the fifteen or so youths. Next to him, they looked so young, but I knew that most of them were years older than I was. And suddenly, like that half bit of time between clutching a hair and plucking it from its root, my father’s brother’s dark curls disappeared as he bent to reach whatever lay at the frenzy’s center. Some arms had sticks and rocks, but mostly I saw legs kicking and mouths spitting.
My grandmother’s breath drew in as the kicks grew more frantic and my father's brother's head reappeared for a moment. Some of his curls were darker and wet, plastered low to his forehead where slick red screamed across his tanned face. I still remember that one eye was clasped shut and his jaw hung open like my fish’s when it goes to eat. My mother turned to look at my father and suddenly realized that I was at her side, watching. She grabbed my hair, my shoulders, spun me around, shoved my face into her stomach. Like the last exhale taken by a lion’s fresh kill, I let my eyes close, breath through shrinking ribs, I let my head sink into the softness beneath the black cloth, air slipping through parted teeth.
It was then, with the quiet pop of a fish’s breath bubble, that a white negative of my father’s brother’s gaping, winking face rose up in the black. I snapped my lids open and slid my head to peek through the crook of my mother’s arm to see the room behind. My grandmother's thin wrists were flailing, raising and falling to strike my father's bent head as she pleaded with him. Pleaded with him to help his only brother. My mother's body was shaking against me and her throat made gurgled drowning sounds as she continued to watch the outside.
Finally, my father lifted his head and his quick fingers caught my grandmother's wrists. His dark eyes caught hers and he pointed to my mother and me. My grandmother collapsed in the dirt at his feet, moaning. By now, the sounds from the street had quieted.
And though I never saw my father’s brother again, every time I move my goldfish to a larger bowl, I wonder if he could have grown to be even taller if he had lived someplace else.
Janna Liggan recently returned from Wales where she received her M.A. in Creative Writing. She has been published in Plastik magazine and is the editor and a contributing writer for Lamplit Underground. She loves all things bizarre and beautiful.