I should have given in to the fish.
See, several years ago, Clara, the motherly little girl that lives in the room next door to mine, started talking about wanting fish. She wanted something alive that she could nurture and take care of. So, she researched fish tanks, watched instructional videos about different types of fish, calculated the costs of the tank and the food and the decorations and compared it to her snowcone stand earnings. And I admit, it got away from me very quickly. It was all happening so fast. I was a bit overwhelming with all of the “what-ifs” and the “but have you considereds”. She was sharing a room with her brother and sister at the time, and we didn’t have a space to put a tank, and the last thing I wanted was to have another living creature in our home that we had to keep in the back of our mind when we made decisions. What if we wanted to go on vacation? Sure, it’s a small burden, but the thought of yet another thing tying me down made my brain quiver in my skull like jelly.
But I eventually came around to the idea. I approached her one day and said that I had thought it over long enough. She could have some fish.
She looked up at me lazily and made a humming sound. “Oh, thanks. But… well, I don’t really want a fish anymore.”
I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
“No…” she continued, looking back at the laptop that she was holding in front of her. She turned it around to face me. “Now I want a hamster.” On the screen was a grainy Youtube video where someone was attempting to film a box filled with probably 15 baby hamsters. “Fish don’t do anything. You can’t really play with them at all. A hamster you can actually train to do tricks.”
“What?” I was befuddled. “You think you can teach that box of chicken nuggets how to do tricks? Are you serious? Hamsters are just mice that never bothered to find jobs!”
The cycle began again. She researched hamsters. I wrung my hands trying to imagine falling asleep to the creaking sound of a hamster wheel in the other room. I had dreams about tearing the house apart searching for a little peach-colored hairball after it bit my son’s hand and escaped from their bedroom. This was too much for me. I needed time to think.
But, sure enough, the moment I decided it was okay to approach the idea of having a hamster, my daughter was already bored with the idea. “I don’t actually want a hamster anymore. I think what I want is a Gerbil”
“But that’s just a bigger hamster!”
But a few weeks later this idea had transformed yet again, feet and ears lengthening, teeth growing into long flatheaded spears. “I want a rabbit.”
“You want a rabbit?!” I had barely made it through the front door and was struggling to find somewhere to put down my work bag. “Where would we even keep it? We would have to build some kind of kennel for it in the yard!”
She stumbled backward in shock. “My rabbit is NOT going outside. I can’t believe you would even suggest that! It will live in my bedroom.”
My stomach started to tumble like a washing machine and I was forced to sit down on the floor. “That’s ridiculous. Our entire house would smell like rabbits. Please child, be reasonable.”
She seemed to be barely able to contain her anger. “My rabbit will NOT smell bad. Rabbits are one of the cleanest animals on Earth. They clean themselves regularly.” she nodded at her own encyclopedic knowledge of rabbits.
“Even the cleanest animals on the planet have to poop and pee. I do not want anything pooping or peeing in your bedroom. Except for maybe Gideon.” I winked at the boy that had just walked into the room. But he scowled back and forth between his sister and me and quickly walked away. Apparently, this was a discussion he had already happened into before, and he wasn’t eager to join it again.
We ended things here. The little girl spent the next several months dreaming about rabbits. I would open my computer in the evenings and find browser windows open to videos about the care and treatment of rabbits. I would overhear conversations between my daughters at night discussing the names they would give their rabbits (there were now multiple rabbits), and what games they would play with them.
I ignored all of this while I fumbled through fatherhood like a man in an unfamiliar room at night. Eyes closed, hands extended out at shin level, tiny hands pushing me from behind as I cracked my head on unseen obstacles.
Then, this past week, I came down the stairs one morning and found Clara already dressed, sitting on the couch in the living room working with a pad and pencil.
I sat down opposite her and watched. She was entranced in her work and barely noticed I was there before I spoke.
“Good morning, sunshine. What are you working on?”
She smiled, but didn’t look up. And there was something in that smile that made the hair on my arm stand on end in alarm. I had seen her make that smile before.
“Oh no. Clara, what are you doing?”
She turned the pad of paper around to show me. “I’m designing a chicken coop.”
“A Chicken coop! Clara, we practically live in a chicken coop already! Why?”
She simply started pointing to her diagram. A top-down plan view, a side view and a strange sketch that seemed to be what the coop would look like when seen from the house. It was more than just a chicken coop. This was a chicken fortress. A mansion. Chicken Heaven.
“Clara, our neighborhood doesn’t even allow us to have chickens!”
She just waved a dismissive hand. “I talked to mom about that already. I’ll just go talk to the neighbors and make sure it’s okay.”
“Oh, so there is a plan to make sure the neighbors are okay with it, but not your father?”
She went back to staring at her diagram and then began sketching what appeared to be guard turrets around the perimeter. “These chickens are going to love me,” she said quietly to herself.
So, I should have given in to the fish. Now I am stuck sliding down a slope into the ravine of madness. I wake up in the night screaming, having just seen ghastly images of my yard transformed into a zoo. We have large boxes delivered to our front door containing African Rhinos. In the bathtub downstairs, where I used to take my showers, is a crocodile that everyone claims is quite friendly. Snakes are coiled in my sock drawer and mice have made a home in my shoes, so I wander the house barefoot. My daughter however is a cartoon princess, singing in the yard to herself, scattering feed to the various animals, coaxing them into the belly of the massive ark she is building behind our house. She checks the sky and smiles softly, but she refuses to tell me why, because my “faith is too weak to join in her vision.”