рибка - Maya Herbert

The little girl is coming vaguely into existence, still unaware of herself and disconnected from this world, but for the first time when she takes a breath in, it fills her. Light floods in. She is sitting on the oriental rug in the living room and it tickles her thighs. She yells out, “I have bees in my pants!” and she is quickly hushed for speaking too loudly.  

Then it is dark and she’s sitting at the top of the stairs. She moves carefully so the wooden stairs don’t creak and give away her position. It takes effort for such a small girl to control herself so much. She crouches down so that she can listen to her parents talking below and she waits for the right moment.


and then a little louder

“momma, there’s a staple in my finger.”

They scold her and don’t seem to believe her until she shows them.

The mother and father seem to always be leaving to visit some stranger called, “little sister” in the hospital.

If the little girl knew what it is to be lonely she probably would feel very much that way. The outside world isn’t yet tangible or directly beneath her fingertips. Everything is just a little bit duller, a little bit softer. When the little girl is older she goes into dark places to find this quiet feeling again but for now she is still just a little girl.


Our little girl is not always so alone, in fact, she ends up rather fortunate.


The old woman’s name is Anna and she is 86. She always wears long floral skirts because one of her legs is longer than the other and she is embarrassed. Sometimes the little girl thinks she looks like one of those Russian nesting dolls in her mother’s cabinet because she always wears a headscarf too. She even has a plastic one for when it rains, which the girl thinks is very clever.

On Tuesdays they have the day to themselves. They walk to the school in town that gives them free lunches in the cafeteria. Everyone else is at least seventy years her senior but the girl doesn’t realize that she’s any different. She spins around and around on the blue plastic seat, takes a bite, and spins around again. She only notices them talking when it’s about her. The others ask the old woman if the girl is her grandchild. In a heavy Ukrainian accent she says, “No, we’re just friends,” and the little girl smiles with a mouth full of mashed potatoes in acknowledgment.

In the old woman’s apartment everything is floral and lacy and crocheted by her. The china cabinets are brimming with all sorts of things the little girl knows she shouldn’t touch. She likes to look in at the frosted glass perfume bottles and pink-cheeked-porcelain faces. She breathes heavy clouds onto the glass and watches them disappear and come back again. There is a pear-shaped bottle with a heart-shaped topper that fits perfectly into the palm of her hand and then in her pocket. She likes the feeling of its weight and its coolness. Perhaps it’s just nice to have a piece of someone all her own. Either way, she feels both right and wrong about it and this makes no sense to a little girl.

Despite this, she was taught to be polite, so when the old woman offers her carrot juice she says, “yes, please,” and drinks it all. The woman offers her another glass and again and again she politely accepts, thinking that she is supposed to. The old woman always seems so proud and tells her that she is a good girl and that she’s going to grow so big and strong. She likes to make her Anna happy but she goes home feeling like an orange balloon, ready to pop and flood a small village. The girl can’t eat another carrot for twenty years.

The girl only remembers these bits and pieces, her Self still struggling to exist on its own. Anna makes it feel safe enough to come out of hiding. Waves of good come and help her grow into herself, and like the tide, they are followed by periods that push her back. But still, she knows that she is growing because Anna said so.

One day the rain is coming down so heavy she thinks the sky is falling. It is early September and the breath of cool air  is invigorating. They’re putting on stiff raincoats and suffocating rain boots and carrying fishing rods to the beach. They carefully walk over slippery rocks to the tip of the jetty. Anna says that this is the best time to catch a fish. Every time a wind gust or wall of rain threatens to push the girl over and sweep her into the ocean she realizes that she has to fight. It makes her feel so full of life and quite new. Her sopping hair whips her face and salt water splashes into her open, smiling mouth. Finally they catch a fish that is almost the size of her.

Then the rain clears and it is sunny again and they are in her backyard. The old woman is sitting on the porch where she taught the girl how to plant seeds and where they prepared rhubarb to make jam in the summer. She is running a knife along the fish and its scales are falling off in clumps, shimmering when the light hits. The fish is fighting violently, smashing its entire weight against the stairs over and over. There is a bad feeling and so much blood that it makes the girl dizzy. She doesn’t like this anymore. This is the first time she feels powerless and betrayed.

Sometimes Anna tells her about when she was a little girl herself. She talks about being sent away to a farm because there was a big war going on. She talks about hiding potatoes and bread for the good soldiers to find. About being an orphan and then abandoned by her stepmother in the middle of the night. She talks about taking care of herself since the age of twelve. She says it all like it’s simply fact. The little girl does not know enough to be sad.

Anna tells her about being hit by lightning. How it’s so hot it leaves you feeling cold inside for a long time after. She tells the girl that even though it won’t happen to her, sometimes she’ll feel that way anyway.

One day the old woman is no longer there. No one tells the little girl anything. They must think she’s too small. The old woman existed so briefly in her mind but so enormously, that it’s difficult for the girl to see her in reality.

It seems impossible to come into existence without pain. Our first memories are often insignificant yet searing. But our second memories, and so many after that, are often thickly coated with rhubarb jam and sunshine and silly crocheted things. Some days I wake up and my mind is saturated heavy in red wine and I can hide in these dimly lit scenes where I am protected and loved and understood.

My Anna is working in the garden and I try my best to help but she is so superbly good at everything. She teaches me how to knit and make crepes and grow strong.

Maya Herbert is on the verge of receiving her BA in Psychology from Northeastern University, which heavily influences her creative writing and dislike of psychology.

illustration by Astrid Elisabeth