The Parable of the Pupfish

By Kristine Zeigler

Julius had taken a leave of absence. He wasn’t sure how long it would take or even if the outcome would include his wife’s saving. A part of him knew he was going to return to work in due time as a widower. Another part thought the doctors might discover a miracle cure and they’d be lucky, extremely lucky.

He fantasized about the moment when an efficient nurse approached him to say that Irma was gone. He yearned for the relief and certainty of it. And that pulled him back to the waiting room. He shouldn’t be thinking of himself, only of Irma. Only of her schedule, the medicines, the appointments, the long wait. Of how she would have done the same for him were he in this situation. He would not think of the relief. He would turn his dark mind to duty. To what was right. But no matter how often he chastised himself, he couldn’t stop thinking that it wasn’t fair, his wife dying at fifty-five. He resented her being lost in the folds of her nonfunctioning cerebral cortex. Did he resent her? No. It wasn’t her fault that she inherited a brain disorder.

Inyo County Hospital was quiet. Guess no big emergencies happen on a Tuesday at 11 a.m., Julius thought. He dragged his foot back and forth across the linoleum and took in the speckles on the floor, attempting to discern a pattern. He tried to read the Life magazine, but it fell apart in his hands, and he didn’t have the energy to retrieve the pages that had floated beneath the chairs. That’s when Billy Haddard entered.

“Julius, come here, I want you.” A real Bell-to-Watson moment. Billy was short of breath and covered in sweat.

“For what?”

“I figured I’d find you here.”

“Billy, you okay?”

“Those assholes at Fish and Game won’t listen. I need you to help me.”

“Billy, I can’t leave. You know that. I’m busy.”

“Don’t look busy. Besides, Irma won’t know you’re gone, and we only have a couple of hours at most.” Julius couldn’t argue with Billy. Irma had long ago stopped recognizing him.

“What are you in a rush about?”

“Pupfish.”

“Okay, but let me tell the doctors.”

“No time, and anyways, I just saw them all at lunch. So they don’t need you. I need you.” Julius put his mesh cap on and then unfolded himself from the plastic lobby chair. Outside the hospital, Julius walked into a wall of heat. He wondered if his heart missed a beat or two.

“You sure you need me? I am pretty useless in this weather,” Julius said. “Useless in general,” he muttered to himself.

“Positive.” In Billy’s truck, the vinyl upholstery burned against Julius’s hands, and though he really should have put a towel down, he welcomed the sensation against his thighs. At least he could feel something, unlike Irma.

“I should be finishing the trout-management plan. But I snuck out to look at the pupfish. They’re just barely hanging on.”

“Water’s going to evaporate. What equipment do we have?” Julius asked.

“Three buckets, some aerators, and a few nets. I also brought those wire-mesh cages that you like.”

At the junction of Highway 6 and Highway 395, Billy took a right and floored it to Fish Slough, toward what could be best described as halfhearted puddles containing the last of the Owens Valley pupfish, a two-inch-long silver fish whose charisma—which is to say, its lack thereof—did not endear it to the average valley resident. It wasn’t a sport fish, it wasn’t edible, and it made no one any money. Not a cent.

Billy drove as close to the water holes as the cattails and wire grass would allow. Julius climbed out of the passenger side and grabbed a bucket and a net. He ambled stiffly over the sedges and around the cottonwood tree standing so starkly, alone against the desert sky. I’m getting too old for this, he thought. Or maybe sitting in chairs for months on end, waiting on news that never seemed to come, is wrecking me.

It was worse than he thought. How many dead? Two, three, five hundred? The water was stale, ripe. He dipped his bucket in, filling it with half-alive fish. When it was full, he ran back to the truck. Billy attached an aerator to the bucket and fresh oxygen circulated.

“I am getting eaten alive out here.”

“Bad year for mosquitoes,” Billy said, slapping his arm as if to punctuate the point. He addressed the flat, thin insect smeared across his hot skin. “You’d be dead if these waters had any pupfish left.”

“Give me the other ones,” Julius said, motioning for the other two buckets. He grabbed them and loped back to the pathetic collection of water. He filled them up again with fish, both dead and alive. A sharp pain coursed through his lower back. He set the fish down to catch his breath, and tried not to think about the absurdity of this mission. I am carrying fish that may go extinct in the next five minutes. I cannot trip. I cannot drop these buckets. Please God, get me back to the pickup. The buckets weighed thirty pounds each. His back strained and his face was red. When he completed his errand, Billy added the aerators.

“Hey, you okay? I could carry those,” Billy said.

“Feels good to be useful, even if I look like these fish, like I’m going to die,” Julius said. Billy patted him on the back, too young to appreciate the body of a 57-year-old man. Billy began a quick census.

“I estimate 850 here, Julius.”

“Let’s get them to a safer spot,” Julius said, jumping into the bed of the truck before Billy drove to the main channel of the slough. Julius watched the pupfish dart irregularly about the plastic buckets. They were amazingly hardy fish, living in shallow water in the desert at temperatures of ninety and above; in winter, they lived below a couple inches of ice at air temperatures below zero degrees. But now, swimming in confusion and stressed beyond their natural tolerance, the pupfish flipped sideways and belly up.

Julius hit his fist on the windowpane of the cab. “Faster! I’ve got fish croaking back here!” Billy’s old Chevy kicked up dust as he accelerated toward the spring source.

When they arrived, Julius barked orders. “Take this cage; put it in the water and I’ll bring the buckets,” Julius said. The water was less than four inches deep, but it was enough. Julius gently poured the fish into the cage. Julius and Billy stood and stared down at the small refuge.

“Will it work?” Billy asked. Julius shrugged his shoulders.

“Sometimes I wonder why we even try,” he said.

“Don’t know. Programmed to?” Billy said.

“That’s probably right,” Julius said, and then sent him to Joseph’s for sandwiches. As the Chevy pulled away, Julius walked toward a willow tree to take a piss. When he returned, he looked down to see that the cage no longer benefited from enough water. More fish belly up. Now that he was alone, he would have to work even faster, so he grabbed a net and began to transfer fish back into the buckets and then turned the aerators on. He jogged up the channel, looking for a better spot of water with more oxygen flow. When he found one, he ran back to the buckets, picked one up at a time, and returned, moving carefully around rodent holes and uneven terrain, his body imbalanced by the heavy load. He repeated the sequence three times. At the end of the transfer, at least a couple hundred more fish were dead.

He had so little time. “Just the cage now; have to get it in place,” he said out loud, feeling the sharpened path of his sweat careening down his chest and forehead. Then one of the aerator batteries died. A quick calculation—would more fish live or die if he ran for the cage? He decided to combine the three buckets into two. There would be less oxygen, but some was better than none.

He ran back to the first water hole and grabbed the cage. His throat was dried out from the heat, and he suddenly remembered his canteen in the Chevy.

Damn, why did I let Billy go? I need him, Julius thought. Hold on there little guys! He ran again to the new water hole with the cage. Kneeling, he emptied the two buckets into the cage, picking out the bodies of the dead fish and saying words Irma would have hated hearing, words that started with S and F. When he was done, he rose and stepped to a nearby cottonwood’s shade. He doubled over, wheezed in what breath he could.

If only he could tell Irma about this day. She would chuckle and tell Julius how no one but him could love a fish so small. And he’d reply that they were poor little bastards who used to own the Owens River. These fish, he’d say, once had so much room to grow, mature, and reproduce. Hell, the females might seek out their special fella as much as two hundred times a day! He’d pat her thigh and wink. Then he’d tell her how the pupfish began losing their water to the city. To make matters even more catastrophic, the city introduced bass and trout that were hundreds of times bigger, and stronger, than the pupfish. Those little fish didn’t run or cower, Irma. They were stubborn, territorial buggers. They were too dumb, at two inches long, to see the odds they faced—the game fish were fourteen inches of killing and cunning. Of course the pupfish lost. Irma would have cackled again. That’s my Julius, saving what no one else could give a shit about.

The boss would not be pleased about this. Two months ago, he had told Julius to get his priorities straight.

“Julius, I don’t have time to send you to Fish Slough to watch over some little fish. Your trout-management-program plan is your number-one job, and I have yet to see a first draft,” he had said.

“I understand that, but if we don’t do something soon, we’re going to lose them permanently.” The boss grunted. He turned his back to Julius to file some paperwork in a putty-colored cabinet.

“I just wonder, Julius, what the fuss is about. What good are those fish anyway? They don’t bring anglers from Los Angeles. They don’t make the hotels, the grocers, the pack outfits any money. They don’t do a lot, if you ask me.” Julius noticed the boss’s blue button-down shirt stained by the rings of sweat around his armpits. The conversation, it seemed, was over. Julius had returned to his desk to type up his management plan.

Now, in the late-afternoon heat in the middle of a desert wetland, Julius knew what he would say next time. He straightened his spine, stood to look at the horizon, and heard the Chevrolet barreling toward him. A gentle gust of wind blew across the slough, moving the grass in unison and cooling his skin. He walked back to the cage and looked down to the pupfish. All were alive. The pupfish were calmer and, despite their entrapment, swam gracefully within the cage. Billy parked and hopped down.

“You moved them again?”

“Had to; not enough circulation in the first spot.”

“Shoot, I would have helped you. But I guess there wasn’t enough time.”

“It’s all right. Impossible to know these things when they’re happening.”

“I guess. Well, Joseph’s had your favorite cranberry-turkey sandwich. I brought some beers to celebrate too.”

Julius pulled the tab on the can of Coors and raised it high. He looked at Billy, who was devouring his roast beef sandwich. Young, energetic, and good in a pinch, Julius thought, biting into the most delicious sandwich in the valley and glancing down at the cage that contained the last of a kind. The cranberry was juicy and sweet in his dry mouth. He shut his eyes and in his mind rehearsed his line. You ask what good the pupfish are to us. Well, I ask, what good are you to them?

When Julius returned to the office, he’d tell the boss what was what, that the Owens River pupfish could have been lost forever. But for now, there they were, swimming in the brown water, safe in their part of the universe.

“Shit.”

“What?” Billy asked.

“Oh, nothing. Didn’t mean to say that. Nothing at all.” Julius wouldn’t tell the boss anything. But he would tell Irma. She would understand. It would matter to her, at least to the part of her that hid in layers of damaged mind, deep below the veil over her former life. He imagined her sitting up, looking into his eyes, reaching for his hands and bringing them to her lips, shaking her head, and having a good laugh at his expense. It would feel good. Really good.

 

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Kristine Zeigler is a conservation fundraising executive passionate about protecting nature. Ms. Zeigler’s publication credits include The Bark, The Peregrine, and Harvard’s Charles River Review. She holds a B.A. in art from Lafayette College and was recently awarded a residency in the HJ Andrews Forest as part of an Oregon State University-USDA program exploring humanity’s role in nature. Ms. Zeigler lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Joe and adopted shelter dog.


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