“The Catfish and the Top” by Sheila Meltzer

“Plastic Reef” by Elizabeth Leader, Mixed media on Fabriano paper

The catfish lay on her side, long slender whiskers drooping, head spinning like a polystyrene float snagged by a whirlpool. “I really caught something bad this time,” she moaned.

Her partner, hovering beside her, was beside herself. “I’ve had just about my fill of this bottom feeding,” she near-about growled. “You’ve been kept down here long enough, Dorita. Look up there at those manicured koi flaunting their glowing pink scales in the sunlight. That’s where we belong, that’s where I want to see my chickadee.”

“Might be the cast-off worms I had for my third breakfast.” Dora coughed delicately. “There’s something scratchy caught in my throat, feels like nylon fishing line. If you’d be so kind as to fix me a cup of hot sludge, I’ll be back to my old self in the flick of a minnow’s tail, you’ll see.” Forgetting that she didn’t have eyelids, the catfish bravely tried batting her lashes at the big brawny red-tail.

She remembered how her parents’ eyes widened when she told them of the engagement, how they clamped their fins close against their bodies and backed away, scandalized. “Sí, sí, red-tails are catfish too, but only distant relations. We cory cats are peaceful homebodies, scavenging close to our roots. Who knows where this kind wander, getting into who knows what business, eating who knows who to get so monstrously big.” Just the same, the fair femme found the dark, speckled upper body, the dramatic red fins and the cocky attitude irresistible.

Sucking on a bloated cigar butt she’d plucked from under a piece of driftwood, Bruna continued the opulent dream tucked behind her crystal eyes. “You’d be a fool to waste your life in obscurity, snout up to eyes in mud. I have connections in high places.  We’ll blow this pop stand, get you on a cleansing algae diet, and present you, my delectable confection, to the upper crust.”

Dora, hacking up the last of the nylon refuse, reflected on the good old days when you could feast on whatever dropped by, and grow contentedly fat to a healthy old age of five, surrounded by doting small fry. Pollution’s been so bad lately, even the breeders are doing nothing but brooding. The bottom, she regretted, was not what it used to be. Bruna spoke the truth; she was too beautiful a specimen to spend her life down in the dumps when a bright future twinkled above. So it was, that with a farewell sweep of her tear-soaked barbel to the estuary floor, she followed her lover where none of her clan had ever ventured before: up to the top.

Blinded by the sun, Dora’s first impression as they surfaced was of the foreign-tongued greetings that reached her ears. “Mm hmmm, I’ve never seen white look quite so good.” That crack earned one peacock bass a swipe from the blackfish at his side. “Marina baby,” cooed one trout to another, “let’s ask Dr. Gilles about some kinky whisker implants!” Even a pair of male ibises, sharing a banana on the shore, paused to urnk salaciously in her direction. The catfish blushed deeply, a spectacular vision on a pure albino. Would these be her high connections?

Soon the riffraff returned to their customary primping and pimping, leaving the new arrivals to make their accommodations. Bruna led her jewel to a vast viridian field, some kind of invasive plant that was skimming huge areas of river surface. “Just like I promised, there’s plenty more where this came from” and with a shower of puckers, a must-dart-off-to-see-about-something-important, and a no-need-to-trouble-yourself, she was off.

Off to the oyster shack, accepting accolades and favors, from piranhas and other predatory types, in return for promised introductions to their own pale, submissive and desperate bottom-dwellers.

“Is it true they’ll eat anything?”

“Do they keep that virginal blush even in the hot season?”

“Will they willingly go wherever you lead them?”

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Meanwhile Dora applied herself to the petrol-flavored plankton. She bumped against some of those glowing goldfish scales, in reality Brahma beer bottle caps.  She helped extract a handsome young milk frog from the grasp of a plastic six-pack yoke. Why hadn’t she thought before about the source of the debris that was invading her home mud? On the other fin, no root structures, no sunken trawlers to take shelter under.

Exhausted under the unrelenting glare of the sun, her skin began to blacken, her vision to dim, the truth to become clear.

It’s easy to be fooled by what’s on top—not all that glitters is gold, fish.



Sheila Meltzer holds a PhD in linguistics from the CUNY Graduate Center. She lives in Berkeley, hunts software bugs for a living, and dances, for joy. In weekly writing workshops she’s begun coaxing out a life’s worth of buried treasure. Her loot has appeared or is forthcoming in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The Citron Review.


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