Little Fish, Big Fish

The creek starts calling to me as soon as we cross the county line. Gravel crunching under my tires is the sound of water tumbling over rocks; sunlight becomes silver fish glinting off my windshield. My daughter Lacey turns her head toward the open passenger-side window, like she smells something unexpected and delicious.

By the time Lacey was born, I’d long since left this place in my rearview. In the years since, I’d managed to convince myself that the creek was just a creek, and that everything I thought I’d felt was nothing more than an adolescent delusion. I swore up and down I’d never come back, but my mother can no longer manage alone, and she stubbornly refuses to move out of her house.

“You know I can’t,” she said when I asked. “You of all people.”

“I don’t know any such thing,” I replied. We both knew I was lying. The creek churned and tumbled through my dreams even when I was years and miles away; each morning, I woke up shivering from the feel of icy water lapping around my ankles, and then around my waist when I bent to reach for the silver fish below.

* * *

I set Lacey up in my old room, with its yellow twin bed and the hollow core door I used to slam on the regular. I make do on the couch downstairs. It’s cramped, but I don’t mind. Part of me still needs to think of this move as temporary.

Lacey takes to this town right away, settling into her new high school as easily as a seed in damp ground. When she walks home in the afternoon, she wanders, and comes home flushed and dreamy, smelling of sunlight and fresh water. It’s like she was born here; like the town was just waiting for her to come home.

“I’m going to the library,” she tells me, zipping up her backpack.

“By yourself?”

She busies herself with the zipper; it’s stuck, and she tugs at it impatiently. “Why?”

“Just, be careful,” I say, trying to keep my voice even. “It’s quiet here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.”

“I’m just going to the library.” She gives up on the zipper and trots down the stairs. “I’ll be home for dinner.”

After Lacey leaves, my mother scuffs up behind me on slippered feet. For a moment we just listen to the buzz of the cicadas through the open window. “Why haven’t you told her about the creek?” she finally says.

Because telling her would make it real, I want to answer. Because I don’t want to give her ideas. Instead, I ask, “Why’d you make us come back here? Why did you never leave this place?”

My mother places a hand on my shoulder. It’s the same hand that hauled me out of the water, giving me finger-shaped bruises that lingered for days.

“We belong here. You, me. Lacey. And what you belong to…” Her eyes tighten. “Well. The creek doesn’t let you go without a struggle.”

* * *

I’m starting a load of towels when I hear Lacey thunder down the steps, slam the front door. When I come out of the laundry room my mother’s at the top of the stairs, gripping the railing, poised to descend.

“Lacey left,” she says.

Even though a chill skitters up my back, I climb upstairs and help my mother away from the landing. “She’s probably just meeting a friend.”

“You have to save her,” my mother says urgently. “Like I saved you. The daughters go; the mothers bring them back. You remember.”

I want to argue, but I can hear it, over the sound of the washing machine filling. A different kind of water flowing. I can feel the pull.

I run as fast as I can through the woods, but when I get there, only Lacey’s shoes remain on the bank. It’s like a fist punching me in the stomach. Even so, I plow right into the creek, just like my mother did when it was me in the water. The silver fish dart around my ankles, and I claw at them.

“Give her back! She’s mine!”

She chose, whisper the fish. She took what you could not.

“She’s too young!” I’m in the creek up to my hips, the icy water stealing my breath. “Give her back!”

Then Lacey emerges, just out of reach, her hair lank and dripping. I stumble toward her, before noticing that her fingers are already webbed.

“This is what I want,” she says. Her voice has taken on the churning cadence of the creek.

“You’re too young to know what you want!”

“When will I be old enough?” Gills gape at her neck, gasping in the open air. “When were you?”

I remember what it felt like, to yearn for something I couldn’t name. How I resisted when my mother’s strong arms pulled me from the water, made me remember what I was supposed to want and do and be. But the creek has never let me go, not really. Its cold fingers grip as tightly as my mother’s ever did, and the only time I ever really knew myself was when I let it claim me.

Lacey laughs like water pouring over rock. “The daughters go. The mothers stay behind,” she says, and slips beneath the surface.

I plunge my arms into the creek until they touch bottom, but Lacey is gone. The fish have disappeared, too, leaving me standing there alone. Even so, I stay in the creek until my legs are numb from the cold, waiting for them to come back. Knowing that they won’t; not for me. I’ll never stop hating myself for letting Lacey go. I’ll never stop hating my mother for pulling me out. I’ll never stop hating the creek, for giving Lacey what it couldn’t give me.

I’ll never stop hating this place, and I will never, ever leave it.


FFO: What other work of yours would fans of this story most enjoy? 

JH: I think they’d like “Mirrored,” which also appeared in FFO. It has similar conflicted mother-daughter feels, as well as a (super)natural force that grants wishes. They might also enjoy “The Day of the Sea,” which is out in the July/August 2023 issue of F&SF.

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